Saturday, August 20, 2011

"The Aleph" and other bits

At least twice in the past month, I've seen references to Borges' "The Aleph," which I have in my giant Borges fiction paperback. "The Aleph" of the title is not—at least for the purposes of the story—the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, spoken by God (in Kabbalistic theology) into the void to birth the universe, though certain Borges has that in mind. This Aleph is a point in space which, when viewed, reveals all other points in space and time. In Borges' story, this allows a mediocre poet to write an epic poem which spans the globe. A version of Borges himself narrates the story, explaining how his devotion to the poet's late cousin leads him to deeper involvement with the family and to his somewhat traumatic introduction to the Aleph—though he later won't admit to the poet that he's seen this wonder. Though the narrator says little about the dead Beatriz, the name suggests that she serves the same purpose as Dante's Beatrice: a figure that leads the narrator toward some ultimate knowledge. Rather than encountering God, Borges discovers an impersonal substitute, a point of omnipresence if not omnipotence or omniscience. Borges also remarks, as a frame to the story, that he is forgetting Beatriz. What can we know? How can we hold onto it? How much must we know in order to write about something? And even if we could re-view every moment, would that supplant memory and imagination?

Memory is also the subject of the essay ("On liars") I'm reading from Montaigne's Essays (ed./trans., J.M. Cohen). Montaigne begins by announcing that his memory is so poor, he should gain fame due to the profound weakness of this quality in himself. He also suggests that people should be forgiving toward him: he doesn't mean to be so unreliable—it's his memory that the problem, not his intentions, and what can he do about an innately bad memory?

Memory seems to be a theme that runs through my "Old Man" stories as well. It's come up in "Unearthed," and I suspect will be a unifying theme for all of the tales once I'm finished with the series. I wrote more yesterday; my characters are finally underground, which is some kind of achievement. Little do they know what they're heading toward . . .

I'm about halfway through Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination and am tempted to stop. Grandiose title and cover aside, the story, at this point, seems unserious, and the characterization is below the level of a comic book. At the Asimov's forum, I posted my concerns; it was suggested that I have patience and proceed. The book's not painful to read, but I do have the sense of having my time wasted.

For school, I'm continuing to make notes in Beowulf and John Gardner's Grendel, both of which I'll teach early on in my AP classes.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

"Unearthed" and reading

Plugging away at my usual plodding pace on "Unearthed." I have a few weeks to get this thing done and offered to Asimov's before the school year starts. I have, at last, a great deal of confidence in the voice of the narrator, which is giving the story a tone it hadn't previously possessed. My narrator, nicknamed Qwerty, is a young Mohawk woman; she has a directness and frankness in her narration, but she doesn't always say what she's thinking, which I like. I'm a little concerned about the length of this story, though most likely it will only be as long as the previous "Old Man" tale, "Clockworks." I may have to alter the pacing of the key plot points after this draft is done.

Moneyball, by Michael Lewis
I finished this highly enjoyable book a few days ago. The book is somewhat imbalanced structurally, with sometimes entire chapters devoted to individual ballplayers, but each section is enjoyable nevertheless. And it's always nice to hear someone rip into former FOX baseball commentator Joe Morgan. The book felt like it carried lessons for teachers, and I asked some of my fellow teachers whether the book's premises are applicable. At the very least, it made me think—in its ruminations on why some ballplayers succeed and some never make it to (or in) the majors—about how incoming students might be better evaluated for their chances at success, and how we might better those chances.

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, by Janet Malcolm
Malcolm's journey into the dark heart of Plath scholarship is really an investigation of the ethics, artistry and compromises built into any biographical endeavor. Malcolm (over)states the case that nonfiction always comes from a place of narrative uncertainty, since there must be many versions of the "truth," whereas fiction possesses greater narrative certainty, since the writer knows what's what; given the longstanding existence of the unreliable narrator—often intentionally—it's odd that Malcolm would describe the contrast in such terms. But I take her point about nonfiction, that what it describes is just as much a product of authorial voice even though we don't like to view it that way. A terrific book, it has sent me back to Plath's later poems as well as to Hughes's Birthday Letters (which I own), the posthumous collection of previously unpublished poems directed (mostly) to his late wife.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Final report on Invisible Man. Plus: Several books at once!

Ellison's Invisible Man is of that breed of novel that, driven by uncontained impulses, so surges and rages that, at its end, both narrative and reader continue to roil and be unsettled. To me, it brought to mind Moby Dick and Brothers Karamazov—though the Dostoevsky novel it almost certainly aims to recollect is Notes from Underground. Likely someone has assayed and essayed this topic already, but is the narrator who insists, at the outset, that he has no name and sets forth his travails in combating a white world meant to nod to Melville's Ishmael, who names himself from the first and then regales us with the story of a man, not himself, who combats a white whale? There's somebody's Ph.D. thesis . . .

The epilogue, written very much in Notes from Underground mode, disappointed me. It was the one part of the book where I felt Ellison flailing about in search of a rhetorical moment that, to my ears, didn't quite arrive. Otherwise, what a wildly inventive, and just plain wild, book, oddly paced (dwelling for a long time on events in close sequence, then jumping ahead, like a film moving between set pieces), inconsistent in tone, and providing a character whose speechifying voice bore no resemblance to his narrative voice (nor even, in some cases, his ideas, as the narrator's speeches always seemed to get away from him). Wonderfully enjoyable.

A Bradbury story
I reread, after a gap of probably 30 years, Ray Bradbury's "Jack-in-the-Box," from the October Country collection. The story came to mind because I'll be teaching Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle which, though possessed of an utterly different plot, also relies on a tight, insular point of view that locks the reader into a naïve perspective on events. (A little boy has been raised to believe that his father, also sometimes called God, who built a huge, elaborate house, has contained the world in this house and that, as his mother tells him, nothing lies beyond the surrounding trees but the terrible beasts who murdered God.) I didn't recall that Bradbury lets you in on the secret so early, but the story is still a bold little devil, great fun, and solidly written.

Reading now
I'm having a good time reading Beowulf (the Heaney translation), which I'll be teaching this year. Heaney's introduction has helped me think about poems to read (Heaney himself; Hopkins) to demonstrate how something of the Old English sound and poetic structure endured.

I'm also reading Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, the story of how using statistics to ask the right questions reshaped the drafting process for the Oakland A's. Lewis's writing is funny, sharp, and visual, giving us both images of and insights into the characters he presents. He also lets us read some of Bill James's writing. James, who instigated, even if he didn't found, the modern science of analyzing baseball statistics to discover truths (rather than support illusions), is an astoundingly good writer, so good that most writers would be wary of letting James eat up space in their own books, but Lewis humbly steps aside frequently so we hear James's oracular words.

I didn't intend to be reading three things at once, but Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman, about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, clutched at my collar from the first page. I read about Malcolm in . . . well, in something last week. Hm. Maybe an online article? Something about the problem of biography. This is what I get for not taking notes. In any case, I love the writing and I'm fascinated by the subject (both the human beings and the ethical issues involved in writing biography). Malcolm, too, is generous enough (and confident enough in her own strengths as a writer) to stand aside and let other smart writers speak in her book, notably Anne Stevenson, author of the controversial Plath biography Bitter Fame.

I did some writing yesterday. During a long drive today, I think I finally heard the narrator's voice. Once that's pinned down, the story will take off. (Wow, that line's a metaphorical mess.)