Monday, December 28, 2009

Be Careful what You ask for

Questions Writers Ask
by Karen Speerstra
Robert D. Reed Publishers; 2010

Undeniably, the epigram is limited by its very pithiness, as it always attempts to marry profundity to brevity, broad statement to precision, and irony to earnestness. In Karen Speerstra’s ample collection of quotes on writing Questions Writer’s Ask, the epigram (not to mention the writers and critics who coined them) is on full display in all its glorious wit, wisdom, pomp and pettiness. Organized around 20 questions that writers often ask and laid out like a loose and occasionally repetitious conversation, a wide variety of writers, past and present, provide the answers.

It’s the kind of guilty pleasure teachers, writers, and those who write about writing (bloggers!) will delight in, especially when reaching for a quote and you can’t quite put your finger on who said it, or exactly how it goes. It’s hard not to be won over with witty gems like this one from Nabokov in the introduction: “Turning one’s novel into a movie script is rather like making a series of sketches for a painting that has long ago been finished and framed.” One of those pleasures are the moments of recognition when we see our own experience reflected in a quote and feel at once that we belong to the club, as I did at J.P Donleavy’s remark from the chapter “Why do Writer’s Write, anyway?”: “The purpose of writing is to make your mother and father drop dead with shame.” Or this in the same chapter from Nelson Algren: “You don’t write a novel out of sheer pity any more than you blow a safe out of a vague longing to be rich. A certain ruthlessness and a sense of alienation from society is as essential to creative writing as it is to armed robbery.”

Of course, the epigram can easily fall pray to oversimplification as in this one from Tolstoy: “There is nothing in the world that should not be expressed in such a way that an affectionate seven year old boy can see and understand it.” I mean, do you know any seven year old that could tackle War and Peace? And why an affectionate boy? Do we only talk down to boys who are surly and aloof? It’s a bit too simplistic to work as statement, and too specific to work as metaphor. The epigram can also fall victim to stylistic or metaphoric excess, as it does here with Gertrude Stein: “To write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write is to write.” How do we know that to write is to write without at least one more to write is to write? And in this overblown bit from Isaac Asimov: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I would die.”

All of this points out the seductive power and the folly of the epigram, even the quotation lifted out of context, and of our ambivalence towards that very pithiness we mistrust and the skill in it that keeps us quoting and wishing we’d thought of it. In the best hands these epigrams have a power to convey some experiential truth that undeniably reminds us of our priorities as writers. This from James Joyce: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!…On and on and on and on!” Speerstra records the poignancy of what happens when we get caught between those warring priorities in this quote from Melville: “Dollars damn me; and the malicious Devil is forever grinning in upon me, holding the door ajar…What I feel most moved to write, that is banned—it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches.”

The lingering question is how best to read a completely epigrammatic text? It can be rather like plowing through the Psalms of the Bible, some verses are striking, while others don’t especially move us. There is a certain amount of reinforcing repetition and it doesn’t matter in which order you read the chapters. Yet, if you take a single chapter and read it through you will discern Speerstra’s subversive humor. In fact she makes sure to capture writers not only at their wisest and wittiest, but also at their surliest. At one point, in the deliciously wicked chapter, “How do you handle criticism?”, Mark Twain, with increasing savagery, keeps horning into the conversation of quotes like a man obsessed with the “merits” of Jane Austen. Even as you laugh, quotes like this one from Borges—“A writer should have another lifetime to see if he’s appreciated”—bring home the sting of harsh criticism and indifference that is an unavoidable part of the writer’s life. In this chapter alone, you can certainly find quotes that make you question both the writer’s wisdom and the wisdom of being a writer. What I like most about Questions Writers Ask is the way some of our guides and their quotes act a little like unreliable narrators in fiction. Does being pithy and funny make what you say true? When there are contradictions between writers, who do you trust and who do you dismiss? A nobel prize winning novelist fueled by alcohol, or a children’s author we’ve never heard of? Speerstra isn’t interested in arbitrating. It is up to the reader. The kinds of writers and answers you are drawn to may say something about the kind of writer you want to be, or perhaps only about the skill of the epigramists themselves, perhaps least about their reliability as instructors in the writer’s life. It reminds me of the old adage: Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Silence Unlimited

The Wasp Eater
By William Lychack
Houghton Mifflin 2004

By John Caruso

Stories of families in crisis have dominated our cultural landscape for the past three generations—from the Mount Rushmore of dysfunction, the Tyrone’s in O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, to the endearingly toxic Three Mile Island of The Simpsons, and just about everything in between, including the tragicomic barrel over Niagara Falls of the Incandenza’s in Infinite Jest (I can imagine Wallace diagramming the trajectory, rotation and force of the barrel--the family’s impact--expressed as an equation and announced to tourists who ooh and ah behind the safety rails in post-empathic wonder). In America, we obsess about what is wrong with our families, probably more than any other place in the world, because no matter how jaded our attitudes, we remain as bound to the mythology of the family as we are to god, and we’ve simply had little else beside domestic troubles to engage our world class angst since the end of WWII.

As the silence surrounding infidelity, divorce, addiction and mental illness has lifted, dysfunction (self-justifying self-help term of the 1980’s) has become the baseline of family life, such that it now represents function. Dramas about the family in the 1950’s, when Long Day’s Journey into Night was first performed, were just breaking down the myth of the ideal family and moving from a state of denial to an acceptance of a flawed reality, so that the dramas unfolded with the air of a tragedy, as in Death of a Salesman, and the cracks in the perfect picture opened up on some shocking revelation: the affair, the grand delusion, the betrayal, the drug fiend mother—the fall. Today, family dramas are, to use the vernacular, down with the fall, and what we often see as the curtain opens is the family mixing it up, almost complacent now in its irony and eyes wide open to all the icky differences that pull it apart. Sexual politics, artistic sensibilities and partisan ideologies jostle for elbowroom at the breakfast table. In fact, these traditional fractures and eccentricities are not only considered an endearment, but also a precondition of an honest reassembled family working towards elusive unconditional love, or maybe just a truce.

In William Lychack’s 2004 debut novel, The Wasp Eater, there are no eccentrics, geniuses, genetic freaks or political malcontents to charm us with their unconventionality. Nobody is hip, wise or funny either. It feels like the work of an earlier era in its earnestness, unabashed emotion and its ability to register loss at the absence of even a faithless and sometimes menacing husband and father.

It tells the story of 10-year-old Daniel Cussler’s doomed attempt to reunite his parents after his father is caught cheating with a waitress. At the heart of Daniel’s nightmare are his parents, Anna and Bob, who fail to communicate to their son what has happened, leaving him bewildered and torn.

Though set in one of those long dead Connecticut mill towns in the year 1979, Lychack’s insertions about current events, such as who made up the heart of the Red Sox lineup, feel tacked on and continually jar with the sense that this story happened decades earlier. There is not enough of the world outside the Cussler’s home to create an ambience of either the seventies or of Connecticut in this brief novel. More telling, there are moments that feel like a post-war time warp, such as when Bob asks Anna’s niece Joelyn if she wants a ride and she replies, “That’d be swell”, or the description of Daniel’s first kiss:

"She kissed him quickly on the side of his mouth and hurried away to the porch, turning for one last glance back at him. She waved and disappeared inside the house, and Daniel just stood on the sidewalk and stared at the windows and smiled…"

The only things lacking from this sentimental scene are a sweet string orchestra and irony. Lychack’s sincerity is palpable, and the absence of ironic distance in the novel is more often admirable and refreshing than it is cloying. In a passage depicting the first night after Bob has been thrown out, he uses a few strong recurrent details to lend atmosphere and pierce the strangeness of that ominous night:

"He followed the sound of her that night as she paced the floorboards over him. Back and forth, the scuff of slippers almost endless over his ceiling. Her pacing became, eventually, a kind of patrol, and only the phone stopped her. It rang in the living room and she appeared in his doorway, her shadow bent large and long across the wall…

'We’re not home tonight,' she told him.

The phone kept ringing behind her—ten, fifteen, and then twenty rings made it eternal. The bells hummed in his ears when they did end, at last. And from the hallway she told him to sleep, though he knew he’d never be able to fall asleep now. He lay in bed cold and afraid and still as a stone, his breathing shallow as he listened to her move upstairs. Her voice sank down through the ceiling as she talked or sang to herself. Rain began to blow against the windows like sand, and he must have fallen in and out of sleep, because he’d sit up in bed in the dark and believe the front door had just flown open and that his father’s car waited idling in the drive."

Much later in the story, Lychack again uses vivid physical detail to summon the object of Daniel’s conflicted feelings and the inevitable loss that underlies them:

"He stood breathless over the man, studied him under the light, the dirty pocks and pores, the dents and darkness around his eyes, that yeasty smell of his sleep. And without a thought, he began to wish that each breath would be—right then and there—his father’s last. He stood over the man and kept wanting him dead and gone and far behind them. It was like a prayer, yet it was also the greatest fear that he had, the fear like a wish for his father to simply become a thing that was finished in their lives, like a picture or trophy, a trinket they could set, harmless, on the mantel…"

These palpable details make the best scenes bristle with life and emotion. What is both striking and strange for a story that unfolds with minimal intrusion from its characters interior lives is that it depends even less on dialogue. This is Lychack’s intention, and it is the profound silence of the characters—the return of the uncommunicative family in denial—that ultimately gives this novel its retro kick. It begins like a post-modern family drama with the fall coming right up front--Bob’s expulsion from the family domicile and the revelation of his affair--but then the rest of the drama eddies in denial and stultifying silence. None of the Cussler’s can say what is eating them. They simply swallow their fears and angst, like the desiccated wasp in the attic Daniel eats one day.

Lychack calls the Cusslers ‘silence’ twice in an explanatory trope late in the novel, although, having endured their silence for over 100 pages we are on to the idea that they don’t communicate well. As a narrative strategy, it works to great effect in creating Daniel’s sense of bewilderment as a child left in the dark by his estranged parents, and Lychack is deft at conveying non-verbal emotions—such as Daniel showing how torn he is by alternately closing and locking the window to keep his father out one night, and then not telling his mother about his daytime excursions with him.

The other powerful communication comes by way of Anna Cussler’s rage. It dominates the early part of the novel. She paces the house all night, refuses to answer the phone, changes the locks, and tosses all of Bob’s belongings out for everyone to see (his clothes hang in the trees like Bob in effigy).

While all of this comes across as wonderfully vivid and strange in the opening chapters, we soon get stuck in the claustrophobic silence, like an unbalanced washer between cycles. Scenes with minimal or no dialog, and no fresh disclosures (exacerbated by Lychack’s vague chronology) begin to feel undifferentiated, as if we’ve read them before. The night before the moving sale feels much like the night Bob is locked out, and the recycling night scenes with Bob trying to co-opt Daniel at his window suggest not only the stalemate of the characters, but also of the author’s imagination. The plot finally gets a kick-start about halfway through, with Daniel’s desperate flight to reclaim a valued ring, but the air tight silence persists.

Not only are the Cussler’s as stubbornly tight-lipped as people sworn to secrecy, but they also manage to go through a family break-up without much reflection on romantic illusions, why relationships fail, the difficulty of forgiving betrayal and the nature of loss—the kind of periodic insights that would help punctuate the silent rings of Lychack’s domestic hell.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has asserted that the Cussler’s don’t have “the language or temperament to analyze what went wrong,” and it is true that Lychack is exclusively concerned with showing us what is, not why it is or how it got that way. Yet, I wonder if this is a reflection of the Cussler’s limitations or Lychack’s. In a flashback that takes us back about six years, after Anna’s sister dies and her niece, Joelyn, temporarily moves in, there is a hint from Anna that Joelyn “was somehow the thin end of the wedge between herself and Bob.” That is the closest we get to an examination of where the trouble may have begun.

Scene after scene is devoted to setting up opportunities for communication that are repeatedly missed, much to the point, but sometimes Lychack goes a bit too far in anchoring his central metaphor by arranging silences for us where vital conversations have taken place.

In one passage, Daniel observes: “She began to ramble on about work and weather and chores, as if the chatter would help. And Daniel never knew how to help her to say whatever it was she couldn’t seem to say directly.” On the next page Daniel tries to relate his mother’s condition to his father: “…Daniel tried to tell the man how she seemed shattery, how she was like a statue and confided all those haunted feelings…” Exactly, what haunted feelings has Anna confided to Daniel? The ones she can’t express directly and covers with chatter about work? Another page later we have this confession: “Daniel started to tell the man about the bills on the table and the dreams she said she had, the nightmares that made her sleep with the lights on.” If Anna is telling Daniel her nightmares, oral communication is going on not just the silent kind. By relating these to the reader only in summary, Lychack is able to maintain an apparent silence, the metaphor he is building, but only at the expense of the whole truth, an authentic novelistic texture and relational depth between his characters. A paragraph later, we have a summarized revision of Bob’s night visits to Daniel’s window. “…Daniel found himself again and again handing his fears through the open screen to his father. He handed each one over the sill like an apple—one at a time…” Oddly, in the dramatized scenes, Lychack shows us silence, at most small talk between Bob and Daniel, while in his summarized accounts of those scenes as an aggregate of experience, he describes soul baring conversations we are never party to, as if somehow the content of fears, nightmares and haunted feelings are not worth delving into, or he is proposing their existence without having imagined them.

The result is an avoidance of almost every opportunity for intense communication. He does this not only under cover of summary, but also by keeping Daniel out of earshot while vital conversation is going on. In one scene, Bob and Daniel visit Jim the Swapper, a hard drinking junk man who functions as yet another accomplice in the conspiracy of silence. During the visit “The boy sensed something in the silence, in his father’s impatient glance at Jim, and he pushed away from the table and asked if he could use the bathroom.” When he came back “…the two men were leaning close and talking low. Jim looked gravely at Daniel and moved back from the table.” Lychack goes for the child-in-the-dark effect time and again, even though here it is Daniel who absents himself and lacks the curiosity to eavesdrop. You can’t help feeling that Lychack is just manufacturing tension and mystery while he marks time with plot filler, because neither Jim, nor his hushed talk with Bob, has any bearing on the story. This happens again later in the novel when Daniel returns from the bathroom to overhear Bob and Joelyn. “Whatever it was they were saying, it was serious and private and urgent in some way…” Not urgent enough to disclose. For all the times in the novel Lychack has misused the omniscient perspective in frequent, awkward shifts, he can’t bring himself to let us in on the conversation while Daniel is in the bathroom. Even when Anna and Bob confront each other—after Bob breaks down the door one night, again during the moving sale and once more over the phone—Anna’s unforgiving rage dissipates like a cloud at the prospect of taking the form of words.

For what Lychack is after, none of these are fatal flaws. The gaps in experienced relationships, the failure to handle multiple perspectives in a coherent way, and a tendency to work at cross-purposes (undermining his metaphor by overworking it) all appear to be the growing pains of a writer struggling with the form and substance of the novel and not conceiving it yet as more than just one of his short stories writ large.

What Lychack gets right may be more important and a sign of his promise. He gives us ordinary, vulnerable people, rather than lionized eccentrics or insulated hipsters; he chooses direct language over word games; and he succeeds in confronting and eliciting genuine emotion rather than evading it with cynicism. If Lychack returns our attention to a less tricked-out and trendy kind of messed up family, it is to bring back something as humble and alarming as a dead wasp from the attic of our monumental family homes--the fundamental fear of loss that looms in silence.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

My novel Lightbearer launches from Bold Strokes Books on Monday, December 14. The story begins in Boston on the night Lucifer learns of a celibate religious group, the Wise Virgins, and of signs that the prophesied Apocalypse is imminent. Lucifer, seemingly retired from the business of seduction and devilry, reluctantly returns to the fray to currupt the Wise Virgins and avert destruction.

It's odd that you can trot out taboo material without probing too deeply--usually something satirical or just for shock value--and you can pitch it. But if you explore a taboo in a way that leaves people shaken or challenges a sacred myth, well then you may hear "Thank you for your interesting query but it isn't right for our list." Because that's really the taboo, not so much an action but the injury to some long held belief it represents. As satire the taboo becomes a punch-line, as sensation it becomes a curiosity--going there is the end point. It never gets to the heart of the matter. True taboo-breaking goes right to the spot that makes us squirm, sets up camp and starts digging there.

It has been a long path to publication. My editor, Jennifer Knight, is of the opinion that because of the controversial nature of the novel it was unlikely that a major publisher in the US would pick it up (maybe in Britain). Many thanks to kindred spirits like Jennifer and gutsy indy publishers like Len Barot at Bold Strokes Books.

To read my interview in the Bold Strokes Newsletter click on the link:

Welcome to Bad Eminence: the blog where the Devil always gets his due

I write the kind of novels I like to read. As it happens there simply aren't that many people writing fully realized fiction these days. So with this blog, I hope to write the kind of pieces writers aren't often taking the time to write--especially on-line--that includes longer, depthier essays, blogs and reviews. My reviews may not cover the latest novels, but they will take on a depth and perspective that is so often missing from the thumbs up/thumbs down culture. My essays on culture and politics will be diverse and quite eclectic, as are my interests.

I hope you take the time to read and comment if you like something, or if you disagree. I will always respond to interesting and well-reasoned arguments.