Friday, December 30, 2011

Books abandoned; stories read

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Huburt Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, fell apart for me. I'm somewhat curious about where the book's thesis was headed, but the shambling structure, both narratively and philosophically, made me suspect their methods for getting there. After a lengthy analysis of why David Foster Wallace made them feel hopeless (I'm woefully shortchanging their ideas here, but in the end, it's not that important), they spend much time among Greek heroes, considering how they responded to the universe. The problem with this is that they're constructing a way to use literature to help us find meaning, but they're equating the narrative strategies of playwrights and poets with how actual Greek people responded to the sacred in their lives, and that's not an historically valid equation. The book seems to give a lot of credit to Jesus' insights into what it means to be human, but they somehow manage to not really talk about him. Great swaths of philosophical thinking a given short shrift, and then they declare that Decartes is the next great insight-provider (after Jesus). I had a hard time finding a coherent argument holding the whole thing together, and the structure of the book seemed ill–thought out. I dropped it at about the halfway point.

I'm disappointed to have stopped reading Dan Simmons's Hyperion three days in. The book started out well, and almost immediately it communicated its intention to use The Canterbury Tales as a structural method for the "pilgrimage" of the novel's seven travelers. However, the length of the first tale made me realize that the tale-telling would be the bulk of the novel, unless the other tales were radically shorter. I quite enjoyed "the priest's tale," with its gothic, grim science fiction. The next story, however, let me down rather quickly, the moment it announced we were going to be exposed to a standard suspense genre sex scene. Absolutely dreadful writing took hold, and I lost all confidence in the author's project. (I very much enjoyed Simmons's "Muse of Fire," a novella from the Dozois and Strahan–edited The New Space Opera—that is, with the exception of the ending, an awkward and unconvincing reminder of the conclusion of Star Trek: The Movie, a conclusion some wag deemed "a $40-million f**k.") Undone by the writer's misstep, I looked ahead to see whether, indeed, I wasn't going to get much of a novel out of this novel (a fact confirmed by a friend who'd read it some time ago), then elected to read the concluding 20 pages or so. Overloaded with sentiment, the book merely sets you up for the next book. No, thank you.

I also read several short stories from 1983's The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces, edited by Robert Silverberg and Martin Greenberg. (I keep seeing "Arkham" for "Arbor.")

Clifford D. Simak's "Desertion" seems like an episode of The Outer Limits, which focused at least once on turning a human into an alien. Every bit of science in the story is goofy, and there's not much to the characters, but the story is a sincere little parable that, at the end, becomes beautiful and manages to carry more weight than you'd suspect it could. The editor's note at the start that Simak wrote the story in response to first reports about Nazi death camps sets you up in a way the story doesn't deserve; it's better to know this afterwards and allow the story its own argument without tying it to some particular human atrocity.

"Warm," by Robert Sheckley, is what I'd expect from this writer I was introduced to 32 years ago by a high school friend. Either humorously grim or grimly humorous, the story doesn't go where one might expect, but gets there through a method I wasn't expecting, something more thoughtful and philosophical. I know how Bradbury would have done this story (and I'd like to see that); he'd have ended in the same place but taken a radically different route. The structure springs from the notion that one is "warm" when locating something hidden or coming closer to understanding an idea. A voice from who-knows-where tells our protagonist he's getting "warmer" to where the voice is trapped. The protagonist's attitude toward the voice is what's comic, since he treats it as real yet doesn't seem all that bothered by it, as if this sort of thing happens all the time.

Lastly I read "A Bad Day for Sales," by Fritz Leiber, another parable, this one having as its target our commercialized world. A socially awkward robot/vending machine is going through his shtick with a city crowd when disaster strikes. Leiber does a great job with the scene, switching from a vaguely threatening looniness to a nightmare scenario smoothly. That various people start picking themselves up at the end seems unlikely given the description Leiber provided, but it's a neat effect and keeps the story from stopping dead.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Love the writer, hate the editor

Mishna Wolff's I'm Down is, for much of its length, the funniest book I've ever read. Her outsider younger self—a white child being forced by her white father (a man evidently more comfortable about black folks than white folks) to fit into her black community—is a source of much self-deprecating humor and increasingly profane responses to the messed-up world(s) around her. Once she finally learns how to have cred in the black world, she's sent to a largely white school for gifted kids and once more finds herself having to navigate strange waters. Part of what makes the book work is Wolff's refusal to explore issues surrounding race; rather, she shows us how particular people of varying races live their lives, allowing us to draw our own conclusions about culture and class. The center of the book, as with many memoirs, is less the author than the parent, in this case the father. As the book moves through time, we see Wolff become more distant from her father, only to have a redemptive reconnection with him in one longer, more serious chapter at the end.

The book has problems, but I'm going to blame them all on the editor who, absurdly, Wolff singles out for thanks in the acknowledgements. Wolff has great material to draw on, and she has a gift for comedy. The challenge for the editor becomes how to turn the book into a coherent whole. For much of the book, when we're dealing with Wolff's earliest years, the material manages to do this itself. But as time passes, the book feels more fragmented; there's no strong sense of how much time she's spent somewhere or how something from a previous chapter affected the current one. The book's tone shifts, too, as Wolff's issues change, until we reach the conclusive scene with her father. My problem with the father's redemption, however, is less the shift in tone than the shift in the way we're expected to see this man. The scene, in which he joins his daughter's for a swim across a lake, seems to involve a different character than we've come to know. This is the guy who never works? Who never finishes any project? Who is tugged about emotionally because he seems to have no real certainty about himself? I'm not saying the scene didn't happen, but there's no sense from the author about how to connect this man with the character we've come to know. 

There's also an unresolved undercurrent of the writer not telling people what she needs to tell them. Repeatedly, she lies about her own motives and actions in order to defuse situations. It's an interesting motif, but she never explores what it means. And that's true for a host of things. So while I appreciate the youthful-observer perspective on issues of class and race, there's some oddly unexamined material that leaves the work feeling incomplete and thin. This sense isn't helped by the prose; the youthful voice at the beginning is the same voice at the end, and it never rises much above stylistically serviceable. 

I blame the editor. Again, Wolff has great source material and a good sense of how to set a scene and build a funny narrative. But the editor needed to take this book to the next place. The editor also needed to actually read the book. Increasingly as the pages go by, errors (typically homophones) pop up, along with missing words or sentences that don't parse. It's the homophones that are most jarring, for me; they announce that the writer tends to make these kinds of errors, which means that the editor, if she is doing her job, is going to watch for this kind of thing. What is the editor being paid to do?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

So Far Gone

So Far Gone, by Paul Cody, ended well. The author pulled it off, executing (oh dear, no pun intended) a beautiful ending, I thought. The protagonist of the tale, Jack Connor, will be the first person in decades to be put to death in Massachusetts, having murdered his parents and grandmother. We don't see a court case—this isn't that kind of book. Instead, we get Jack's interactions with the priest who visits him, repeated flashbacks to his early childhood (though out of chronological sequence) and later years living his parents, and the accounts of "witnesses" who contribute outsiders' perspectives on Jack and what he's done.

There's an enormous amount of repetition in the prose, and I think several chapters could have been tightened considerably with no loss. Halfway through, I didn't have any sense of the book's momentum, but then events begin to link more tightly and the noose of the narrative tightens. It's a marvelous book that doesn't settle for the standard steps one might expect to see in such a story. Cody generates sympathy for Jack by having us live through his hellish childhood. At first, I think the grandmother is overplayed, demonic, but later we get a better sense of the wildness of her moods, and eventually we sympathize with everyone in this horribly wounded family, and Cody does a nice job building that sympathy in careful stages. It's a terribly sad book, but there are redemptive and humane cracks of light showing around the sealed cellar door at its heart.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


About one-third of the way through the intense revision/completion of "Unearthed," a tale that has crept up to 18K words. There will be some additions, but some trimming is ahead, too, so I don't expect the total to be too far from 18K. Finally having time to work on the thing, I'm moving through line-by-line and not leaving anything for my future self to have to figure out, which means I have to solve any problems now. (I've put off quite a few decisions, I'm finding; thanks, past self!)

I am, meanwhile, reading Paul Cody's So Far Gone (which will make or break itself in its final quarter; I'm reading Cody because he was the editor who selected a story of mine for the next issue of Stone Canoe), All Things Shining by Dreyfus and Kelly (which may be moving a bit too swiftly through the history of Western thought to be completely credible), and Mishna Wolff's incredibly funny I'm Down (the true story of a poor (literally) little white girl who lacks are cred with her black neighbors, but whose father, white though he is, moves with ease in the black community).

In other quasi-news, a Los Angeles–based producer is working with me to get my story "Clockworks" attached to some people in the business of making movies; there's no money in our agreement, at this stage, but if he manages to find a buyer, I'll let you know.

Saturday, December 3, 2011


Working on "Unearthed."

Reading Errol Morris's marvelous Believing is Seeing.

Later . . .