Friday, February 29, 2008

Can You Do a .357 With a Bayonet?

I don’t go to the movies much. Even when it’s something I desperately want to see. Can’t justify the cost. Only P.T. Anderson and the Coen Brothers have lured me to the theater this year—There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men, respectively. Both fantastic films, the latter being the clear victor, as the Academy rightly noted last week. I loved There Will Be Blood, no question. I especially like that PT pulled off what I thought impossible: making oil prospecting interesting. But there were a few slow moments, and the end—well, another risky ending on PTs part that doesn’t quite come off as brilliantly as the frog rain in Magnolia. The end of There Will Be Blood felt too much like a punchline to something I didn’t think was a joke. “I’m finished.” Ha, ha, Plainview. You’re a riot.

Rent a lot of movies. Finally got to see The Darjeeling Limited this week. Been eager for that one for a while, being as I’m a huge fan of Wes Anderson, no relation to PT. His breakthrough movie Rushmore hit me at just the right moment in life—early in grad school, nostalgic for a high school life I didn’t actually lead. Max Fisher spoke to me, and I thought Anderson’s deadpan humor, mostly derived from camera movement and elaborate mise-en-scene was brilliant. Some people don’t get it at all, and I can hardly explain why. Anderson is one of the few, if only, directors who can make a camera movement funny. Sure, he borrows nearly all his techniques from French New Wave, but the French New Wave guys are dead or they’ve moved on to other ideas, so Anderson’s all we’ve got.

And, to the point—I loved The Darjeeling Limited. Perfect actors for the parts, and I loved the interplay between the “feature film” and the short film at the beginning. Bill Murray’s fantastic cameo during the intro credits. The flashback to the father’s funeral in the middle. The “imaginary train” scene—obvious in its metaphor, but still a brilliant idea. There’s just a treasure trove of pans, zooms and framings in this movie. Sure, the characters aren’t quite as deep or complex as in Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, and you don’t get the truly moving sense of tragi-comedy you get in those other two films. I don’t think Anderson will ever make another Royal Tenenbaums. It’s tough for a guy who’s still so young and has already made his masterpiece. You’ve got to give him some slack. Luckily, I didn’t come to The Darjeeling Limited with too many expectations—mainly because of some lukewarm reviews I’d read and Anderson’s massive misstep, The Life Aquatic. Totally emotionless movie. Perhaps if he’d made Darjeeling right after Tenenbaums, I’d be disappointed. But he’s redeemed himself for Aquatic.

I still love Rushmore the best because it was my first Anderson film and because, well, Max Fischer is like my dream-self, which is pretty sad, I know. I know Tenenbaums is a superior movie, sure—much better character development and some real heart. My friend Danielle and I argue about this. She likes Tenenbaums better. I think probably because Margot Tenenbaum speaks to her the way Max speaks to me. In that sad/funny way I mentioned.

If you’ve never experienced Anderson at work, here’s a little primer. It’s a brilliant American Express commercial he made a couple years back, a veritable short film about making films. He’s drawing heavily from an equally brilliant 1973 Francois Truffaut film called (in English) Day For Night (La Nuit américaine). The background music is the same, just in case you don’t get the reference. And why would you unless you were a freakishly obsessed European cinemaphile? Anyway, Anderson uses the camera for comic purposes here. Look how static the first shot is until the right moment, when it quickly pans (and returns) to give us the (dark) joke. It’s like Anderson is using Hitchcock’s “talking camera,” but for laughs instead of suspense. There’s some real artistry, real subtlety in Anderson’s humor, I think, which is why it’s better than the all-too-easy laugh out loud stuff. Are those my birds? I need those.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Come on, Chemicals

Of Montreal
"Hemidalsgate like a Promethean Curse"
from Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?

Another recent favorite, and my vote for best video since, well--for a very, very long time. I love a band that can write a great pop song with a sense of humor that stretches the genre, yet with lyrics that actually resonate, especially for a writer with concerns about melancholy and the natural chemical processes that affect it. "Chemicals, don't strangle my pen..."

I'm in a crisis
I need help
Come on mood shift, shift back to good again
Come on mood shift, shift back to good again
Come on, be a friend

Nina Twin is trying to help, and I
Really hope that she succeeds
Though I picked the thorny path myself
I'm afraid, afraid of where it leads

Chemicals, don't strangle my pen
Chemicals, don't make me sick again
I'm always so dubious of your intent
Like I can't afford to replace what you've spent

Nina Twin is trying to help, and I
Really hope she gets me straight
Because my own inner cosmology
Has become too dense to navigate

I'm in a crisis
I need help
Come on mood shift, shift back to good again
Come on mood shift, shift back to good again
Come on, be a friend

Chemicals, don't flatten my mind
Chemicals, don't mess me up this time
Know you bait me way more than you should
And it's just like you to hurt me when I'm feeling good

Come on chemicals

Aspects of the Blog

E.M Forster’s wrote Howard’s End and A Passage to India. He’s (post)Edwardian, which means early 20th Century. He gets lumped in with the Modernists sometimes because he was writing round the same time as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, but he’s much more traditionalist (i.e. Victorian). Not much in the way of wacky formal experiments for Forster. He respected wacky formal experiments, even if he didn’t indulge himself.

I’m not being obscure when I chat about Forster. Really. He’s significant. He’s somebody. He wrote this book called Aspects of the Novel. Actually, that’s not true. He delivered a series of lectures about literature called Aspects of the Novel at Cambridge in 1927 and they were collected into this book. He lectured once a week about a different aspect of “the novel,” and what he says has become common currency in creative writing programs.

We learn from Forster that “story” is an unfortunate necessity in fiction writing, an aspect that appeals to mere curiosity. We learn that fiction is really about human beings, and Forster expends a good deal of talk musing on authentic character and the difference between flat and round characters (probably his most notable contribution to the canon of creative writing craft writing, though his ideas have been challenged from time to time, most recently by James Wood in this Guardian article).

We learn that even though novels are about human beings and the truths about human nature and human value that fictional characters exhibit, novels also have a bunch of other stuff that competes with this “pure” depiction of humanity. You can’t just go showing humanity. You’ve got to tell a story, fashion a plot, use language, and exhibit pattern and rhythm. All of these things, in a sense, get in the way of showing character, but they’re what make fiction fiction. Character and form, constant competition. The trick for the writer is to find the balance.

Forster also tells us that every aspect of the novel makes different demands on the reader. We readers know these demands and enjoy them, like good little masochists, so we don’t mind. Story—that is, wanting to know what happens next—makes no real demands; it just appeals to our curiosity. Even a caveman can do story.

The demands come in when character is introduced. Once a writer gives us a character, we readers are expected to engage with that character according to our own human feelings (i.e., empathy) and our sense of human value (i.e., our ethical system). If we have no empathy or ethics, we’re not going to give a shit about fictional characters.

Plot is not story, exactly. Plot is the deliberate fashioning of story in order to emphasize causality. One event causes another, though not necessarily in chronological order. Even in a novel as inane as The DaVinci Code, plot is carefully constructed. In fact, you might argue that some of the most ingenious plotting occurs in novels that are often dismissed for being genre garbage. Why this highbrow scoffing at plot? Because plot is more prone to formula than other aspects—or at least more recognizably so. Because plot comes from the head, not from the heart, like authentic character does. Or so they say.

Anyway, with plot, cues and clues lead us to further revelation and realizations. What happened before the story begins is gradually revealed as the story itself progresses. In that basic sense, two “stories” form a plot (this, by the way, is the basic structure of most mysteries). You have the story that unfolds chronologically from the discovery of the body to the punishment of the murderer. But you also have the other story, often broken out of its chronology and sprinkled throughout the chronological story, of what happened before the body is found—the story behind the murderer’s motivation, the exposition.

Forster says plotting makes demands on the reader’s intelligence and memory, and this makes perfect sense to me. The more plot a book has, the more it demands of our ability to unravel conspiracies and make connections (intelligence) and our ability to remember names, clues and motivations (memory). You can’t be stupid and read James Ellroy. It’s not his complex ideas that hurt. After all, Ellroy’s idea is essentially: everybody’s guilty and we always have been. Instead, it’s the complex structure of his plots: hundreds of characters, dozens of motivations and interlocking crimes and conspiracies.

I read Forster’s Aspects the first time back when I was an undergrad. What I’ve said so far is basically what I came away with, what I figure most folks come away with. Lots of good nuggets of advice, though Forster doesn’t really package them as bits of advice to writers so much as cool stuff to notice about how great books work. Aspects: a time well spent for everybody involved.

But the thing is: Forster adds two “aspects” into the middle of the book that throw his whole treatise into confusion. These aspects are “fantasy” and “prophecy.” He devotes a chapter to each. These chapters are so daunting and difficult, you get an overwhelming urge to dismiss them altogether—concentrate instead on the chapters that made sense. This is exactly what I did when I was an undergrad. I was baffled; I moved on. But now, years later, I feel ready to tackle those two chapters. Not because I want the trivial satisfaction of having understood them (though that’s fun), but because I think Forster might get closer in these two chapters than anywhere else to the real reason good fiction is so powerful and memorable for the reader. The great secret is here, man.

Every craft book you read discusses story, character, plot, pattern and rhythm—just like Forster does. But no book I’ve ever read discusses “fantasy” and “prophecy,” at least not the way Forster does, and not with the same terminology. Lots of craft books and essays cite Forster’s seminal ideas on the more basic aspects of the novel, though I’ve never seen one that mentions these two pesky aspects, “fantasy” and “prophecy”. He devotes two chapters, a whole third of the book, to them. So what’s the big deal?

Well, for one, what he says is not “nugget-like.” You can't take it away and make a rule out of it like: “plot should emphasize causality,” or: “important characters should be round and not flat.” You can’t say: “one should attempt to write fantastically or prophetically” and hope that anyone has a clue what you mean. There’s no prescription here. There’s only Forster noticing that some of the greatest writers in history were doing a little something extra beyond just creating truthful/meaningful characters and fashioning ingenious plots and writing well. He suggests, though he doesn’t ever come out and say it, that we apprentice writers might want to consider this other stuff if we too want our novels to be remembered by posterity (which is not nearly the same as the desire to make it to the bestseller list, mind you).

So what is “fantasy” and what is “prophecy”? Ask two people and you’ll get two different answers. Forster himself is not totally sure, in part because he thinks all great writers are completely unique in their vague exhibition of fantasy and prophecy. Melville does it one way, Joyce another, Emily Bronte yet another. He can’t really define either one, but he knows them when he sees them, much like that congressman and his definition of pornography.

Of the prophet-writer in general (and D.H. Lawrence specifically), Forster admits: “what is valuable about him cannot be put into words.” No amount of logical analysis will help us understand either, because when we read the prophet or fantasist writer we must “lay aside the single vision which we bring to most literature and life . . . and take up a different set of [analytical] tools.” In fact, these new tools aren’t even analytical because logical analysis won’t help us understand fantasy or prophecy.

Fantasy and prophecy sure as hell can’t be taught, at least not in a craft lecture. They can be taught by making apprentice writers read Moby Dick and The Brothers Karamazov and Wuthering Heights and Ulysses and hoping said apprentices imbibe some of the spirit that lingers there (but also make their own versions—no fake, disappointing copycatting).

The problem of defining fantasy and prophecy is also exacerbated by the fact that Forster doesn’t define either word the way we normally would. A “fantasist” writer is not necessarily one who writes fantasy/sci fi/ supernatural horror literature, like J.K. Rowling or Tolkien or Ursula LeGuin or Clive Barker or Anne Rice. Forster’s definition of “fantasy” includes all this stuff, but extends beyond it, into literature that would be considered realistic or “literary,” that would never be placed on a genre rack in the bookstore. His cryptic definition of fantasy: “it implies the supernatural but need not express it.”

Similarly, the prophetic writer is not one who writes about what he believes will happen in the future. Prophecy, for Forster, doesn’t have anything to do with prediction. It doesn’t have anything to do with making any kind of statement at all— forwarding a logical world view. Therefore, prophecy is also not about establishing moral or ethical groundwork. The first sentence of Forster’s prophecy chapter goes, “With prophecy in the narrow sense of foretelling the future we have no concern, and we have not much concern with its appeal for righteousness.” This negative definition cancels out the Jesus image we might get in regards to the prophet: the moral bastion, the sage. That ain’t what he means.

Okay, so we know what fantasy and prophecy are not, but does this help us understand what they are? Nope. Every apprentice writer who reads these two chapters in Aspects will get—if he gets anything at all—a different understanding. Mine is no better than yours, even if I’ve been considering mine for a while. And—at the risk of overstaying my welcome—I’ll wait till tomorrow to take the egomaniacal step of telling you what I think Forster means by “fantasy” and “prophecy.” Or, at least, I’ll tell you what I want him to mean. Isn’t that exciting?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Some Ecstasy from the Agony

This morning, Terry D'Auray over at "The Agony Column Book Review and Commentary" has posted a wonderful review of my novel Pyres. To quote E of the Eels: "It was more than I thought I deserved." My biggest challenge in writing Pyres was trying to "mind-meld" with female characters who bear no resemblance to me, so I'm humbled any time anyone praises the effort.

Anyway, the D'Auray review heralds the second time I've been compared to John Connelly, whom I have admittedly not yet read, even though his novel Every Dead Thing begins with an epitaph from John Donne's poem, "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day, Being The Shortest Day," being the poem from which Connelly took his titular phrase. For reasons clear to those who've read Pyres, I would've used that same epitaph to begin my book, had not Mr. Connelly beat me to the punch. Do I hold a grudge? Of course not!

I must also admit I've not heard of this wonderful website, "The Agony Column..." until today, and this is my own internet ignorance. I'm out of every loop. What I've discovered is not only an amazing repository of reviews, but also an archive of audio interviews and podcasts that are going to keep me glued to my RealPlayer for days.

I also want to thank Amazon Top 1000 reviewer Gary Griffiths for his review of Pyres. Gary lives in Cali. I seem to be getting an inordinate amout of love from California, a state far removed from my (not to mention my characters') stomping ground. The folks at the M is for Mystery bookstore in San Marcos, CA have been amazing advocates of the book, as has Tzar of Noir Eddie Muller in his San Fran Chron review. Here's hoping the love makes its way down to Hollywood.

Meanwhile, the folks at Barnes and Noble have been far too good to me. This link will probably expire soon, but just take a gander if you're reading this and it's still Feb 2008. Scroll down, of course.

Okay, enough love. You can't ego-google and expect everything to come up roses. This guy thinks my book is suffocating, and I agree. I thought thrillers were supposed to be suffocating. I'll try better next time.

And worse: my supposed friend Craig Renfroe has publically accused me of stealing propagan... I mean property from the Paddington, London branch of the Church of Scientology. I am innocent. Kelly and Sarah are the culprits, as he well knows. I merely suggested it. I even felt guily (and curious) enough to go get a free audit, which, for the record, did not make me feel better, but now permits the Scientologists to "have a file on me," as it were. Anyway, this kind of unwarranted accusation and aspersion-casting will never bring you to a state of theta clear, as you also well know, Craig. May Xenu and the Galactic Confederacy show you no mercy.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Final Fantasy: This is the Dream of Win and Regine

I am currently compelled by this song and video by Final Fantasy (the rather silly band-name for the one-man operation of Owen Pallett, a virtuoso violisnist who's worked with Arcade Fire [this song is, in fact, about two members of Arcade Fire having a night out in Montreal]). I've listened to some of his other stuff and not been so deeply impressed, but this song, I don' t know. It haunts me, as does the video.

Don't Fall in Love With Your Tapeworm

Weekly short story workshop at college interrupted by a fire drill. Two hundred English-major mopes expelled from the hallowed hall, now slouching around the quad waiting for the all-clear. We’re huddled in a circle of writers: Peter, me, Karen, Melissa, Sarah. It’s like fifty, cold for Atlanta. Used to be I could do thirty, no chill. Not anymore. Two years in the ATL and my blood is thin.

Sarah bemoans her own short story, soon to be workshopped. Pete goes, “Am I the only one here who loves his own work?”

Dead silence. Uuuummmm. Somebody nods.

I go, “That’s like asking, am I the only one here who masturbates?”

Pete’s cool. He takes it in stride. He chuckles. He used to live in Las Vegas, but he doesn’t look like anybody you’d think of as somebody who used to live in Las Vegas. Is he the only one here who loves his own work?

My immediate impulse: yes, Pete, you are. Ain’t nothing I despise more than my own writing at its worst. It makes me livid, fit for suicide watch. When your chemistry is set to spark only when you strike upon the lyrical, you’re going to be dumps most of the time. Sorrow abides more so than the dude abides, if you ask me. I can’t take a compliment for shit because I think: you don’t know how good it could’ve been, man, you don’t know the dream I had, the one even the sharpest revision chisel couldn’t chip out of the block. I love what could’ve been.

If I loved my writing, why do I dread it? If I loved it, why would I want it fixed even long after it’s published? If I loved, why would I accept rejection slips like valentines and dread that acceptances are clerical errors at the lit mag office? “Oh, crap, sorry man, we had the wrong guy.” If, why then have I thrown away ten times more than I’ve ever dared disseminate? Why do I wake every morning in fear that I’ve lost forever whatever limp shred of talent I had?

But who am I kidding? There’s got to be some love in this or else I’m a freak for dragging on so long with two dead limbs. Is it just false modesty for me or anybody but Peter to say my work makes me sick with disappointment and terror? Yeah. So what do I love, if not the writing?

I want to quote somebody else, don’t remember who: “I hate writing but I love having written.” But that ain’t true either. When the writing’s going good, ain’t no better drug in the world. And there’s nothing worse than having written shit. One of my undergrad creative writing profs, Judith Kitchen, once gave a speech about the thirteen agonies and the one ecstasy of writing. The agonies include: gestation, drafting, revision, submission, rejection, publication, galleys, reviews. The one ecstasy is the moment. That fleeting few minutes when your rationale bleeds away and there’s nothing but pure language between your subconscious and your fingertips on the keyboard. I believe that’s true. It can happen in revision, too, but it’s still true.

So why all this agony for a fleeting ecstasy? And can you really love something that offers so little reward, so much pain? What kind of idiot would keep hacking at it, except an obsessive? ‘Fraid I got nothing but questions today, folks. That and a few tentative answers.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to say I love my writing a) because I grew up New England Proddy. Our arms don’t bend right for self-reflexive back-patting, except when we boast about how humble we are. And b) because when the writing goes right it doesn’t seem mine. Me, who I am, my conscious mind, my analytical process—all that mucks up good writing. Nothing comes of it but that which must be tossed or reworked, sometimes to death.

When the writing goes right it roils up like steam from a manhole, a sudden burst of warmth from below that you couldn’t have expected. Where it comes from isn’t me. It’s the collective unconscious. I love the hunt and the hope and the sense of having caught it for an instant, but I don’t love the wait and the empty hands I get nine times out of ten.

I’m a mystery writer of sorts, though I’ll admit resistance to and contention with the whole enterprise. Mysteries are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Mysteries mean plots, but I don’t love my plots. I don’t love anybody’s plots. Those are candy, dumb distractions. Glue on the flytraps. Sure, I fancy myself clever when I fashion the age-old twist, the Aristotelian reversal or revelation, but the self-congratulation doesn’t last more than a minute before the doubt sets in: “you schmuck; that’s so contrived.” Got a couple of those in Pyres just to give the story structure and drive. The killer’s motivations, the surprise betrayal, etc. etc. Kids’ gloves.

It’s not the plots—it’s the mysteries of character that bubble up from them, the blips of truth I find when I seek deep inside their heads in those moments of pure stark life I get when I plop them down on the road in the path of the oncoming semi truck. It’s those moments they come alive, apart from and above all my silly sleight-of-hand plotting. I make up the stories, and if I’m damn lucky my characters will tell me who they are. It’s them—not me, not my writing—I love.

E.M. Forster, a Brit, (even worse than a NE Proddy) recommends the following regretful attitude: “Yes—oh, dear, yes—the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish that it was not so, that it could be something different—melody, a perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form.” (emphasis mine, but the quote is his, from Aspects of the Novel).

For Forster, any idiot can throw together a story, a narrative to keep the reader guessing. For God’s sake, cavemen could fucking do it. Anybody who’s proud of the plot he’s fashioned might want to consider what source he stole it from. The cutest metaphor Forster can devise for story is a tapeworm: “For the more we look at the story. . . the more we disentangle it from the finer growths that it supports, the less shall we find to admire. It runs like a backbone—or may I say a tapeworm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary. . . . It is the lowest and simplest of literary organisms.”

Granted, Forster makes some distinction between story and plot, but he’s still got his point. It’s the “melody. . . perception of truth . . . the finer growths” that matter. Those I love: those stream of language that work better than any plan I could’ve made, those resonances of imagery or character that I could not have anticipated, those truths I didn’t know were true until a character told me so.

I’m not saying I don’t control my characters. I admit, I’m one of those goddamn plodding plotters. But when I can I let my characters think and emote for themselves, and sometimes I love what they show me. It’s not something I create, it’s just something I notice only after it appears. Where it comes from? Not a clue, but it ain’t me, and I don’t love what I alone can do.