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Facing the music in the audiobooth

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Over the past week, I've been recording an audiobook of my second novel, The Swing of Beijing.  Although I'd last read the book only two years ago, I remembered little of the details, and reading the book aloud has been an interesting experience.

My literary mentor, DM Thomas, wrote about the stresses and discoveries of re-reading all his novels, and his experience was much in my mind as I sat in the audio booth, reacquainting myself with The Swing of Beijing.

DM Thomas had been anxious that, upon rereading his works, he might find that his novels were "dead."  I wasn't worried about that, so much as discovering that the novel was crap.  Roberto Bolaño summed up my concern in one of the many breathtaking passages in his stupendous novel 2666

Ivanov's fear was of a literary nature.  That is, it was the fear that afflicts most citizens who, one fine (or dark) day, choose to make the practice of writing, and especially the practice of fiction writing, an integral part of their lives.  Fear of being no good.  Fear that one's efforts and striving will come to nothing.  Fear of the step that leaves no trace.  Fear of the forces of chance and nature that wipe away shallow prints.  Fear of dining alone and unnoticed.  Fear of going unrecognized.  Fear of failure and making a spectacle of oneself.  But above all, fear of being no good.  Fear of forever dwelling in the hell of bad writers. 
(p. 722.)  I am not immune to reading my own work and thinking, wait a minute, I know why this hasn't been published yet!  It's because it's no good.

Certainly, such thoughts and their variants crossed my mind when I was in the audio booth. 

But on the whole, I think those thoughts were too harsh.  Yes, some scenes were too complicated; writing them, I learned how to write scenes like them better in later novels. 

And, yes, some of the characters posed challenges for the reader - that is, me - in empathizing.  I still haven't fixed that issue to my satisfaction, but I could see my growth as a writer depicting difficult characters in empathetic ways, even from chapter to chapter in this book.

The turning point came in the second half of the novel, with a long monologue by a character named Gao Yi, a Chinese smuggler.  In truth, I'd forgotten the monologue in its particulars, and reading it I was captivated by its freshness, surprise and humanity.  Those characteristics are, of course, relative and - given the way I'd been feeling about the foregoing pages - I won't make any judgments about the absolute quality of the monologue; but I was confident that it wasn't "no good."

And after that monologue, I began to feel similarly about the writing that followed.  The Swing of Beijing is not a masterpiece by any stretch.  Maybe not even worth publishing beyond the audiobook version - maybe not of interest except as a record of my growth as a writer (and possibly only of interest in that respect to me).  But it's not "no good."

Then again, to quote DM Thomas assessing his own novels, "Who could ever trust an author's own view of his work?"

Tarik_Jarras.jpgAt the end of the reading, my sound engineer, Tarik Jarras, said that he wanted to know more about the characters, and that maybe I should write a sequel.  Bless him.      


(Image of Maya Alexandri taken by Tarik Jarras; image of Tarik Jarras taken by Maya Alexandri)

Hitchens: great beyond debate

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Christopher Hitchens has made a career of being a provocateur.  His whole life, he's always seemed to have someone to bait:  campus policemen, religious believers, Mother Teresa supporters, Republicans, Democrats.  He's risen to the challenges of trouncing his lessers with aplomb: whatever your thoughts about the positions he takes, you'd have to concede that they're beautifully articulated.

Now Hitchens, who admits to "loving the imagery of struggle," may be facing his greatest opponent: cancer.  Deprived of his historically "stout constitution," Hitchens must cope as well with another setback: he has no lesser to taunt.  His prodigious intelligence, bullying instincts, debating techniques and rhetorical prowess are useless in this fight.  He can't humiliate his cancer on Fox News; he can't reason away the existence of his tumors as he did the myth of God.

And, yet, this lack of a confrontational dynamic may prove a gift of sorts.  Ejected from his adversarial stance, Hitchens is producing what may be the most eloquent and important writing of his life.  In four articles in Vanity Fair (part of a series that seems poised to continue until it doesn't), Hitchens has written about his cancer with an honesty, clarity and lack of sentimentality quite unusual for mass media.

Hitchens gently, bluntly deflates the linguistic tricks we use to deny the helplessness of cancer patients.  For example, about the predilection for referring to cancer patients as "battling" their disease, Hitchens observes:

when . . . kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don't read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you.  You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.
Similarly, Hitchens dissects his complex reaction to the verbal support he receives from well-wishers.  In his October article, he reflected:

An enormous number of secular and atheist friends have told me encouraging and flattering things like: "If anyone can beat this, you can"; "Cancer has no chance against someone like you"; "We know you can vanquish this."  On bad days, and even on better ones, such exhortations can have a vaguely depressing effect.  If I check out, I'll be letting all these comrades down.
Along the same lines, Hitchens in his December article recounted:

Telling someone else, with deliberate realism, that once I'd had a few more scans and treatments I might be told by the doctors that things from now on could be mainly a matter of "management," I . . . had the wind knocked out of me when she said, "Yes, I suppose a time comes when you have to consider letting go."  How true, and how crisp a summary of what I had just said myself.  But again there was the unreasonable urge to have a kind of monopoly on, or a sort of veto over, what was actually sayable.  Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic.
In his writing about having esophagal cancer, as ever, Hitchens is cogent, brutal, confident and vital.  His perseverance in these qualities, despite his condition, manifests powerful personal integrity that is impossible not to admire . . . 

. . . and for which I am grateful.  In his November article, Hitchens reported that he felt "cheated as well as disappointed" because he "didn't . . . qualify" for a trial treatment that would have allowed him to do "something for humanity" in accordance with Horace Mann's precept that, "Until you have done something for humanity, . . . you should be ashamed to die."  Hitchens is too hard on himself.  He doesn't need to be a lab rat to meet Mann's standard.  Hitchens' contribution to humanity is extant, ongoing and deeply appreciated. 

(Image of Christopher Hitchens from Vanity Fair)

The unbearable heaviness of "Borges words"

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In a previous blog post, I focused on the explanation given by Jorge Luis Borges, in his introduction to The Garden of Forking Paths, about why he hadn't written a novel:

It is a laborious madness, and an impoverishing one . . . the madness of composing vast books. . . . The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them
My prior post was occupied with the second half of Borges' remark: that imagining vast novels and commenting on them is better than writing them.  But, with extended reflection, I think the first part of Borges' statement may be more revealing: his conviction that novel writing is laborious and impoverishing madness.

Certainly, I agree with him.  Writing novels has consumed the better part of five years of my life; the work wholly exhausts me; I don't think anyone who knows me intimately would argue too strenuously that I'm sane; and I'm teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, having succeeded in never having earned a dime from my fiction writing.

Still, my guess is that Borges was referring to some other "laborious," "impoverishing" and "mad[dening]" aspects of novel writing.  I take my cue from this passage in his story, "The Writing of God":

[T]here is no proposition that does not imply the entire universe; to say "the jaguar" is to say all the jaguars that engendered it, the deer and turtles it has devoured, the grass that fed the deer, the earth that was mother to the grass, the sky that gave light to the earth.
Here Borges offers an extraordinary conception of a word, one that departs from our common currency.  Each "Borges word" has almost unimaginable weight and resonance.  The more "Borges words" one strings together, the more propositions one advances, the heavier and more unwieldy the work becomes, the more the universes conjured by each word clang against one another, creating cacophony and undecipherable complexity.

To write a vast tome from such components is truly laborious; hauling each "Borges word" into place must be on par with positioning the stone blocks that comprise a pyramid.  And the task is also impoverishing - to the language.  The vibrancy of each word is overshadowed, damaged and cramped by the presence of so many other words, by the weight of so many other universes.  Borges was not exaggerating to say that composing a novel with "Borges words" would be maddening.

And, although Borges didn't mention this corollary, to read a novel composed of "Borges words" might be a similar laborious and impoverishing madness.  Reading a Borges short story is so demanding that I read each of his stories twice . . . before I go back and "reread" them again.  The weight and resonance of an entire Borges novel might very well reduce me to my atomic constituents.

Luckily - however much Borges described his choice as that of an "inept" and "lazy" man - Borges knew both his power and his métier.  He spared me atomic disintegration and gifted me untold hours of pleasure in his stories, a balance that I can only describe as a prudential and laudatory use of "Borges words."

(Image of Jorge Luis Borges from The New York Times)

Giving chance a chance

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Richard_Powers.jpgIn his most recent novel, Generosity, Richard Powers expresses frustration at the role of the novelist:

I'm caught like Buridan's ass, starving to death between allegory and realism, fact and fable, creative and nonfiction. I see now exactly who these people are and where they came from. But I can't quite make out what I'm to do with them.
Michael Dirda, writing in The New York Review of Books, quotes this passage, and then continues:

He [Powers] confesses that he would really like to write the kind of story that "from one word to the next, breaks free. The kind that invents itself out of meaningless detail and thin air. The kind in which there's no choice like chance."
Dirda doesn't think much of Powers's aspiration - he calls it "more portentous than clear" - but I felt an immediate intuitive connection with Powers.  Having just finished a novel, I am currently traveling around the world in a relaxed and unplanned way.  Where am I going?  Wherever my friends or family are - or wherever my curiosity takes me.  When am I going?  Whenever it's convenient for my friends or family to see me.  How long will I be traveling?  I don't know.  What will I do afterwards?  I don't know.  

Why am I undertaking such a journey?  To this question, I have a solid answer: because I felt like it.  I had a strong, un-ignorable sense that this trip was the right way to fill my time at this stage in my life.  

Up until now, I've passed my days in a highly self-directed manner.  I decided what to do, and then I did it.  I wasn't easily distractable (I'm not one of those people who goes online to look up the spelling of a word and ends up frittering away two hours on trivial explorations).

For reasons that I can't explain, but which exerted powerful visceral force on me, I felt convinced that now I must change my approach.  I must surrender self-direction and float, like a jellyfish, wherever the ocean currents take me.  I must allow my life, from one day to the next, to break free; to invent itself out of meaningless detail and thin air.  Rather than deciding what to do and then doing it, I must accept that there's no choice like chance.

Powers' dilemma as a novelist is no different from anyone's challenge in crafting his or her life.  Humans make sense of their lives in stories, and each of us is, in a sense, penning a lived novel with our life choices.  Each of us is caught between allegory and realism, as we struggle to choose between actions that are symbolically meaningful and those that are practical.  Each of us ping-pongs between fact and fable, as we select the bases for our decisions.  Each of us struggles to keep creativity and non-fiction in balance in our lives.

I have just written a novel that was more planned than anything I've previously written.  I didn't allow myself the luxury of not "quite mak[ing] out what . . . to do" with my characters.  Practical in the extreme, the novel was strategically constructed to sell.  It's a fable that studiously ignores inconvenient facts; a creative act that required all the strength of a daily grind.  

Maya_Alexandri_swinging_from_a_tree.jpgLike Powers, I felt some frustration with this process.  But the character at loose ends by the end was me.  And the story that I wanted to allow to break free was mine.  For the sake of satisfaction in my life, and for the benefit of my writing, I needed to (re)invent myself out of everything in the world that I never allowed to distract me.  

Unscheduled time, chance, joblessness, disconnection from the rat race - these are the flotsam and jetsam of the modern world.  I am discovering what stories they yield . . . while I swing from a tree.

(Image of Richard Powers from Minnesota Public Radio website)

Too real for pleasure, too impressive to deny

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Roberto_Bolaño.jpgRoberto Bolaño's 2666 is impressive beyond praise that can be offered in modern English.  Like Milan Kundera, Bolaño's achievement is utterly unique and un-replicable.

At 893 pages in the English edition (apparently over 1,000 in the original Spanish), Bolaño's feat in 2666 is perhaps beyond summarization.  But despite its heft and ambition, I think Bolaño's accomplishment is straightforward: he's modern literature's consummate realist.

Calling Bolaño a "realist" may strike those familiar with his work as odd.  Bolaño, after all, began his writing life as a poet and, as Franscisco Goldman asserts in his New York Review of Books piece, Bolaño seems to have considered himself fundamentally a poet despite his turn to fiction writing.  Indeed, reading 2666 (even in translation) evoked the active visceral engagement that usually only occurs with poetry: the book riled up my guts for irrational and inarticulable reasons, the way a poem might make me want to cry without knowing why.

Because of Bolaño's power to tap into the subliminal and the unconscious, he might readily be termed a stylist, in the model of Anne Enright, whose The Gathering operates similarly, or W.G. Sebold, whose The Emigrants has been reputed to have like power (though I found it merely boring when I read it six years ago).  And, unquestionably, Bolaño's writing classes him among the leading stylists of literature.

But Bolaño distinguishes himself from the poet-stylist set in a significant way.  Most poets and stylists transport the reader from reality: when their writing works, it grips the reader's viscera and pulls him or her into a realm that departs from the quotidian.  The point of such writing is not to depict life realistically, but to evoke (and provoke) feelings, sensations and engagement.

Whereas Bolaño uses poetic-stylist techniques to depict reality.  Indeed, the reality that emerges from 2666 is more "real" than any other attempt at literary realism I have encountered.  As Benjamin Kunkel, writing in The London Review of Books, says of a Bolaño short story called "Enrique Martín":

You don't feel that Enrique Martín is a robust character inhabiting a well-made story; you feel - whether or not any real-life original ever existed - something perhaps more powerful and certainly, in fiction, more unusual: namely, that he is simply a person, and that instead of having a story he had a life.
Reading 2666, I didn't feel that I was inhabiting the world of a story: I felt that I caught in the sweep of 20th century history.  Common themes and characters abounded, yes, but plot was only what I imposed on the events, and indeterminacy was the only honest conclusion.   

Composed of five sub-novellas, 2666 can be read in any order.  I read it in the order in which the novellas were assembled in the English-language edition, but I'm going to read the book again in a different order.  The conviction intrinsic in 2666's construction is the same truth that informs the modern construction of consciousness: however one looks at the facts, doubt must temper clarity because story-lines are imposed, not organic.

To use literature as Bolaño does is a departure from the norm.  His approach cannot be described as "escapist."  My guess is that most people's realities are more escapist than Bolaño's literature.  Nor does Bolaño's technique generate pleasure reading.  The sub-novella, "The Part About the Crimes," in 2666 is almost unbearable to read - just as life is sometimes unbearable to endure.  By depicting reality so . . . realistically, Bolaño has in some sense made the ultimate argument against realism: it's too intense.

And yet, enjoyable or no, Bolaño's triumph is impossible not to admire or praise (however inadequate the English language is for the task).  In taking reality and wrestling it between the covers of a book, where it stays and performs at the command of the conjurer and the whim of the reader, Bolaño has assumed the mantle of a god.  A Greek god, perhaps - flawed and ambiguous and happy to muck around with humans - but the progenitor of one a hell of a branch of literature.

(Image of Roberto Bolaño from The New York Times book review)

Warriors women

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Maya_Hanley.jpgOver the last couple of days I've been corresponding with Maya Hanley, the daughter of Gerald Hanley, who wrote Warriors, about which I've blogged at this post and this post

Maya Hanley is currently at work on a memoir - spectacularly titled Silence and the Black Wolf.  In the course of researching her memoir, she came across my blog posts.  She has thoughtfully written some responses to the posts, and about corresponding with one of her father's readers (me), on her blog, The Sound of the Night, here.

Maya's father, Gerald, wrote Warriors many years before it found a publisher, and now the original book in which it appeared, Warriors and Strangers, is shamefully out of print.  In her correspondence with me, Maya Hanley expressed a desire to see her father's books return to print - a sentiment with which I could not agree more fully. 

But conversations about books are also a means of honoring the author, his or her text, the book's story and its ideas; dialogue is nothing short of keeping alive a book - or a person - liable to slip from our grasp.  In writing about Warriors, I was invigorated to participate in that process; in dialogue with Maya Hanley, that "keeping alive" function seems (to me) to have deepened considerably - one of the most moving rewards I've yet experienced from blogging.

Best of luck to Maya Hanley with her memoir.  May the conversation about her work - and her father's - continue, and may many voices join! 

(Image of Maya Hanley from Twitter)
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This page is an archive of recent entries in the The power of writing category.

The perils of insularity is the previous category.

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