Sunday, July 31, 2011

A story by Justin Torres

I saw Torres's name in today's paper; a graduate of a local high school, he has his first book coming out, and he has a story in this past week's New Yorker. Given that I habitually avoid New Yorker fiction, with exception made for George Saunders, I had skipped his story.

"Reverting to a Wild State" is quite good, though I couldn't tell you what the title means. It's the story of a relationship that has ended, told in reverse chronological order. Having tried a reverse-order story myself a few years back, I know what a challenge it is, and I think Torres got right the way the story has to feel at both ends like you're at a key moment of discovery. He pulls this off largely by having the narrator back away from the story's conclusion, as if the past is too much to confront given where, now, he knows his story has headed. There's a bit about a golden feather found on a train platform that made the story, at the outset, seem like a fabulist's tale, but that tone was dropped and I don't think the feather—whatever it was doing there—paid off.

As usual, the New Yorker has run a story by someone with a book coming out; regardless of the quality, this always makes a story look, to me, like the tie-in action figure included in a Happy Meal. According to my local paper, the Houghton Mifflin publicity engine is firing on all cylinders: Torres has another story coming out in Harper's next month (congratulations) and will find himself mentioned in a host of high-profile magazines.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

New submission

"You Have No Idea What I've Forgot" has been submitted to the Normal Mailer Awards, run by the National Council of Teachers of English. It's open to high school teachers.

They'll announce the awards in September.

I'm pleased with my work on that story.

Next up: Finally getting back to "Unearthed," the next "Old Man" tale. I have to get it in good shape before school starts up again.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Some work to do

An error that must be fixed (identified by a reader) in "You Have No Idea What I've Forgot" and some other areas to address for my own satisfaction when I take on another revision this evening. (I have to wait till the day's heat passes.)

How to Write a Sentence (and How to Read One), by Stanley Fish
I'm finding good ideas for my teaching, ways to simply launch students into sentence writing without having to think first about the terminology I'm teaching. However, the book so far (I'm halfway through) seems inconsistent, as Fish counsels that we avoid technical language while using technical language to describe what he's up to. There's also some sloppiness (his four-word-long "three word sentence" notably). Colleagues and I are reading this for the summer.

Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
I'd read the early chapter that Ellison published separately as "Battle Royale." The scene is altered slightly for the novel, but it's a poor fit. Yes, the subsequent scenes also have their surreal moments, as the poor narrator enters one Kafka-esque, dreamlike trap after another, but they don't match the battle royale scene in their wildness and weirdness. The book is pretty goofy, willing to spend enormous amounts of time—√† la Don Quixote—fixated on somebody who isn't the protagonist, so there's a looseness to the narrative that I didn't expect. Enjoyable and strange so far.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Some recognition; some work

"Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" (available at your immediate right) earned fourth place in the Asimov's Readers' Awards for novelettes. It also joins a host of other stories given honorable mention in Gardner Dozois' 28th annual "best of" collection.

Finished a quite good draft of "You Have No Idea What I've Forgot." A reader is giving it the once-over, and I'm sure I'll be beating it into shape a little more before submitting it to a contest in a week.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Faulkner! Faulkner!

There are two kinds of Faulkner novel: accessible and not-so-accessible. Absalom, Absalom! seemed in the second category, slipping over into inaccessible or maybe just not-worth-the-effort. I set it down at one point, feeling rebuffed by the novel. But a brief step into a contemporary novel left me feeling as if I were experiencing a fictive world that lived only on the surface, and so I returned to Faulkner, though the text was challenging, because at least you're immersed in an actual experience that's working its way through your system like a virus, and that swims in your brain like a dream from which you can't quite awaken.

Is Faulkner joking? At two points, the characters Shreve and Quentin remark on how similar their stream-of-consciousness—styled talk sounds to the discourse of Quentin's father. Of course it sounds similar: No matter who is narrating, they slip into this Jungian overmind–sounding prose style built of clause piled on clause and page-long parenthetical digressions and grandiose meanderings. Everyone sounds that way once they get going. Surely Faulkner is making fun of the style . . . ?

The story plays out like a Greek tragedy, but in American terms. Not only is the Sutpen family cursed, they're cursed because of the South's great sin of slavery. Thomas Sutpen comes from rough beginnings, but the sight of a white man lying in a hammock on a plantation, and his treatment at the door of the big house by an old slave, gives him a sense of mission, a vision for his own life. He doesn't factor in the moral aspects: that such a life is built on injustices large and small. This blindness to the profound failings of Southern culture, a culture that must inevitably destroy itself, leads Sutpen, and all like him, on a quest for something they never should have wanted in the first place, and, like the rest of the South, Sutpen is tripped up by issues of race.

The novel suffers enormously due to Faulkner's complete inability to get inside the head of a black character, or to even see the black characters in anything more than symbolic terms. They are not people, but lessons or obstacles. Charles Bon, partly black, is something of an exception, but we never quite sympathize with Charles, whose role is more to create problems for others, and his death is not felt by any character nor, it would seem, by Faulkner. The book is notable for how often Faulkner employs "the n-word"; I can't recall any other book using it so persistently (when often he could say something else) or with such a sense of otherness inherent in the term. Sutpen's slaves are "wild" (they would have likely eaten the escaped architect of Sutpen's dream house if Sutpen hadn't stopped them); the black man who stops young Thomas Sutpen at the plantation's front door is, repeatedly, "a monkey." Black characters are sometimes nameless, always figures meant to disturb the white characters. It's a problem.

The book's structure is almost a visual trick. You can read much of a chapter and find very little happening, like a train you see in the distance that remains so far off, its size changes little even as it approaches. Then, abruptly, the train is on top of you. Faulkner suddenly accelerates the narrative, allowing half-stated ideas and vague images to finally take shape and find their proper words as a chapter winds up. It's a startling effect, and it happens at both the micro and macro level of the novel.

I read it over the course of several days and read nothing else most of the time. Even so, I completely lost track of a character that had been previously introduced, and so the ending left me confused until I looked up a summary of the novel online. I didn't think I'd been inattentive, but the character had been dropped, and the novel doesn't aim to reassure you of narrative integrity throughout, so it's up to the reader to hang on to some of the threads Faulkner sets aside.

Next up: Ellison's Invisible Man.

Also, I'm working to finish a revision of "You Have No Idea What I've Forgot" for a contest.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Unvanquished

So tempted, I was, to set down Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! about 60 pages in. Repetitive, elliptical, circular (yeah, that's two shapes), and evidently never-to-veer from a structure in which ridiculously voluble people who don't talk like humans give us pieces of a backstory we're to slowly construct. It didn't feel worth the effort.

Then I picked up Carolyn Cooke's Daughters of the Revolution, which I'd seen praised. Yet the prose felt flat in the early going. The opening chapter, which probably started life as a short story, had a few shining moments, but several awfully cliché and awkward moments, and several elements that didn't feel credible. I don't know whether I'll continue reading it, but I now felt drawn back to the Faulkner because, look, it's an utterly immersive experience, a kind of vivid dreaming in which you know you're in a dream but you want to follow it through to the end. So now I'm on page 110 of Absalom, Absalom! It's crazy, it's wearying, but you know you're having an experience you're going to be glad you lived through.

Meanwhile, having finished an apparently unsuccessful draft of "I Tell You, They Have Not Died, But Live" and set it aside for a few days, I'm back to rewriting "You Have No Idea What I've Forgotten." The key, while reading Faulkner, is to avoid picking up any of his habits. Both of these have to be finished by the end of the month to be entered in contests. That gives me August to rewrite "Unearthed," which I think will be grand.

Highly recommended movie: Happy-Go-Lucky, one of Mike Leigh's cast-and-crew-constructed films. You leave it having felt you were in the company of actual people, not actors, which is a credit to everyone's talent as well as Leigh's way of building the movie out of improvisation followed by rehearsal. It's beautifully shot, too, and in a gorgeous, eye-popping palette that makes the real world (mostly) beautiful.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Line by line (Pt. 2)

That was exhausting. And all for 2000 or so words. Who are these "novelist" people of whom I've heard tell?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Line by line (Pt. 1)

Still moving some pieces around in my new fictional something-or-other, "I Tell You, They Have Not Died, But Live," but I've also got a full line-by-line stalk-through to do. Getting there. Just just sure where "there" is or what the weather is like.

Finished The Man of Bronze. It's a good thing I read it after fully plotting out and quasi-drafting "Unearthed," because I have several elements that touch on the original novel, and if I'd read the novel first, I wouldn't have put them in. Instead of direct references, we've got synchronicity.

Read some bound issues of the late Dwayne McDuffie's Justice League of America (The Injustice League). What makes the story stand out is the small stuff: clever exchanges between the characters that give you insight into motivation; sharp dialogue that reflects intelligence on the part of (some of) the villains and heroes alike. McDuffie was one of the few black writers in comicdom. You can tell when he's around. During his run on the Fantastic Four, the Black Panther took control of the team for awhile. Here, Green Lantern John Stewart, who is black, takes charge while Hal Jordan is away; Black Lightning plays a major role; other black characters show up; and, most tellingly, more than one discussions touches, comfortably, on issues of race. Still waiting for McDuffie's Static Shock to come for me from the library.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Trying Twitter

I know, I know . . .

But I have some ideas in mind for it. My user name is wmpreston.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Aristotle, for starters

That Aristotle. I'm reading his Poetics. Quite entertaining. His genius lies, even when he's clearly pulling something out of his ear and making an unsupported opinion sound like a fact, in categorizing everything, which at least has the effect of making you look at something in terms of its parts rather than its entirety. It's too bad his only points of reference are prior to the fourth century BCE; this tends to limit you when every time you want to give an example, you say, "Let's consider the Odyssey . . . " I'm exaggerating, but you get the idea.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower
With such a cool name, you'd better not be just a public relations invention! He's not. I've only read the first story in this collection, "The Brown Coast," but it's a winner. Great writing, witty observations, and one of those situations that does what Aristotle says tragedy should do, evoke pity (for the character) and fear (that this could happen to you). A guy who's been thrown out by his wife is given by his uncle a make-work task of fixing up a run-down house that's been in his family but that no one has taken care of for years. What he thinks will be his salvation, the presence of the ocean, is undone by the sheer ugliness and foulness of the coast, but still he finds moments—and strange creatures, human and otherwise—full of grace . . . and awfulness.

Still reading Lester Dent's The Man of Bronze, the initial Doc Savage story. I'd thought Dent's personal history as a traveler and kind-of adventurer would intimidate me into feeling utterly inadequate in my descriptions of what befalls "The Old Man," my homage character. However, please note my surprise. Dent does pepper things with the occasional detail that gives you the vague sense he knows what he's talking about, but much more often, the narrative flails about so spastically, it's evident that verisimilitude is the last thing on his mind. (Near as I can tell, in the last scene everybody on Doc's plane was shooting at someone on the beach—while they were still inside the plane. [Dent doesn't seem to have noticed.] Only later did they climb out and, obviously foreseeing the next scene, in which a plane would dive at them, set up a machine-gun on one wing.) Anyway, I now feel like any realism I've brought to these stories, including in the action scenes, stands up far better than I'd first thought.

I'm now working on three stories somewhat simultaneously. (I'm increasingly inattentive.) Two of them I hope to enter in contests. I think they all sound quite different, but I could be wrong. Much to my surprise, two have ended up as first-person pieces (though they didn't start that way). It's good to have deadlines (end of July).