Monday, February 28, 2011

Samuel Beckett and Me

I said that I'd write about the influence reading Samuel Beckett's Molloy and Malone Dies is having on my writing, and like Tristram Shandy I will be sure to give my readers that which I have promised them. Unfortunately, I find that I am completely unable to really say what Beckett's been doing to my prose. Or at least I can't talk about it in any general terms. So I give you a paragraph from Cocke & Bull, my work-in-progress. All the text in red is stuff I can safely say was added under the influence of old Sam:

"They will hang me tomorrow," the prisoner said. He sat on a low cot in the darkness of his cell, his eyes closed and his hands in fists. For a month he’d languished in jail, doing nothing, waiting while the magistrate came up from Annapolis to pass judgment upon him. The trial had taken only half an hour once the magistrate arrived, three days ago. It seemed hardly worth the effort. The prisoner had not bathed since before his arrest and he tried to remain still, as if by not moving he could keep the smell of his dirty clothes and skin away from the priest who’d come to hear his confession. The priest sat on a three-legged stool just outside the cell, one long hand resting on the rough iron bars that caged in the prisoner, fencing him off from the innocents of the world.

So what do I think I can say about that? Possibly the "doing nothing" has to do with the sense of the futility of action in Beckett's work. The "hardy worth the effort" and preceding sentence are of course a joke, again about futility of action. The last part, with cages, fences and innocents is partly a Beckettian claustrophobia about enclosed spaces (is it any accident that most of Molloy and Malone Dies takes place out of doors?) and it also sets up a central irony about guilt and innocence that runs through the whole narrative.

Where does that get me? Jokes and discouragement, I guess. I also note a recent tendency to mention dirt and soiled objects more often, and I will claim that as a fingerprint of Beckett.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Threepenny Opera

Tonight Mighty Reader and I are going to see Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht's justly-famous bit of musical theatre, The Threepenny Opera, as performed by the Seattle Shakespeare Company. SSC's web page about it is here, and there's a good general page about the opera here. You might know it from its opening number "Mack the Knife." If you don't know that song, you've been living under a rock and you might do something to seek the sunlight, child.

I've never seen The Threepenny Opera performed so that'll be a nice treat for me. In fact, the only Weill/Brecht I've ever seen performed was a sort of postmodern* version of Der Tsar Lass' Ihnen Fotografieren, in German, way back in the 1980s. That was fun, with the assassin's pistol in the camera and all, and the music made my head spin and may in fact be what ruined me for being in rock bands. Hard to say and I digress. Anyway, that's what we'll be doing tonight and I have dressed in a black-on-black ensemble because that seems appropriate. A derby and a diamond stickpin would finish the look, but alas I've neither.

* whatever that means these days

Thursday, February 24, 2011

All About Me: Cocke & Bull Update

Last night I typed up the rewritten diary excerpts into the MS of Cocke & Bull (I dislike the construction of this sentence already but I'll forge bravely onward), fussed about with some of the transitional passages and printed out the changed pages. Now, I think, that part of the revisions is done. Done-and-done. Done with, as some folk say ungrammatically. I might be one of those folks, but I deny it. Where?

Okay, so Father John Dowd's diary entries have been rewritten and a thousand or so additional words have found their way into the narrative. Now it's onward with the Complete Read, wherein I start at page 1 and work my way through to page Last and mark things up as I go, as the winds of near-brilliance guide me. Hopefully I won't see anything that's impossibly stupid that will require weeks of labor to repair. It feels pretty solid as-is. So what's the point of going through the whole thing again? Well, my purpose is two-fold:

First, there's the question of balance and unity. Having changed the meaning and substance of the ten diary entries, I need to make sure they still feel right (a technical term) within the story. If not, I need to fuss some more.

Second, this is just one more opportunity for me to make the whole thing better. I'd like to step away from this rewrite knowing (or maybe having an inkling) that the novel has improved by an order of magnitude. That would be cool beans, as my Ohio friends say.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Samuel Beckett: Waiting For Everybody

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading Samuel Beckett. First “Molloy” and now I’m almost finished with “Malone Dies” and then it’s on to “The Unnamable.” My previous experience with Beckett was in the mid-80s when I read “Waiting For Godot” one fine summer afternoon, sitting on the porch of the big house I shared with a bunch of college students in Boulder, Colorado. Somewhere, I think, I actually have a photo of me reading the play, with a cigarette hanging out of my mouth and a cocktail balanced on the arm of the chair. It would’ve been bourbon and Coke. If memory serves, I was wearing argyle socks. But this is by the way. Excuse the ramblings of an old man. That’s a joke, son, if you’ve read the books in question. If not…well, I’ll just move along, shall I?

I’ve been reading Sam Beckett lately, and I must say that he’s a master of the mortally and mordantly comic. “What tedium.” “No, I can’t.” “Enough about me.” Oh, what larks, Sammy. Again, I digress. I blame Beckett, as the novels are writ in a digressive style and the dramatic arc, such as there is, is based upon challenges to systems of belief and identity and have nothing to do whatsoever with ideas of “plot.” Though the “Moran” section of “Molloy” tells a sort of detective story, the meaning of the action is unclear in terms of external conflict. No, these novels are not about the resolution of actions taken, they are explorations of the futility of action, of ownership, of love, of religion, of everything. Sounds bleak, doesn’t it? But it’s not, it’s hysterically funny. Beckett has decided that when you come to see that nothing means anything but you still have to move forward through life (because, after all, you are alive and being alive is the only thing you are clearly meant to do, you keep going; toward what? Well, toward nothing but that’s the point), your situation is inherently comic. Life is an absurdity, and we are absurd actors within that absurdity. So laugh.

And the books are funny, truly they are. A lot of it has to do with the voices of the narrators, each of whom knows that his memory is inexact and that he is falsifying events here and there in order to give the reader a navigable narrative and sometimes just to hide the truth, but also knowing the absurdity of his situation. The narrator of “Malone Dies” congratulates himself for figuring something out and then immediately mocks himself for his smugness at finally having seen the obvious. This sounds cruel, and in a way it is, but also it’s not. These books are not only comic masterpieces, they are also deeply moving explorations of the human condition, the existential problem. Beckett, I think, shares my view that humanity is sad and pathetic and deserving of our sympathy. Life is hard and unrewarding but we have to live it anyway. We’re all fools, and foolish, and we should laugh at life. Beckett also, I think, knows that the worst thing about this meaningless life is the ease with which we find ourselves alone, the commonness of loneliness. To be alone, unknown and unloved is to be in a prison or a madhouse. At least that’s how I see Beckett’s novels. They overflow with love and kindness toward our fucked up and misguided species, and I am glad to be reading them.

When I began this brief essay, I thought I was going to talk about the influence Beckett’s writing is having on my own fiction, but I don’t have any of that worked out just yet. No doubt it will become more clear once I start work on Nowhere But North. In the meanwhile, I bore you with my reactions as a reader. My apologies for providing nothing of use. What tedium.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Neither Empathy Nor Sympathy: Revisions



I have reached the point with revisions that there is now so much changed/new material alongside so much old material that does not match it that the story is what I think of as "broken." The new material is superior to what it replaces and I have a plan for how to rewrite the old material that doesn't properly match it, but even so this is the point during revisions that I traditionally panic, when I've got a narrative that no longer hangs together properly. It's not quite either fish nor fowl just at the moment; the patient is on the table and I seem to have a bunch of spare parts and I'm short a spleen and possibly one kidney as well. Write your own metaphor.

This is my unhappy place and I'm suffering all the usual worries. What if I can't fix it? What if the experiments I'm trying don't actually work? Can't I just cut all the new material and see if the novel still works without it? Wouldn't that be easier and a lot faster? Why in God's name have I been reading Beckett while revising? Who thought that was a good idea? Now that the novel has an added layer or two of complexity and ambiguity, is it actually a better novel, or is it just more complex and ambiguous? Is further muddying the waters as a way of refusing to moralize in my fiction a good choice or is it a form of cowardice? Is the rewritten/new material so much better than the 70,000 or so words of writing I've left alone that I need to rewrite the entire fucking novel from start to finish now? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But this too shall pass, and all I need to do is keep working. The book's better now than it's ever been and will only improve with these rewrites and that's all that matters.

Mostly I wrote this post so I'd have an excuse to put up the photo of the MS spread out on the desk in the Designated Writing Room. Mighty Reader is in the living room, messing about with photos of the red-tailed hawk we saw this afternoon while following the trails through a wetland. A red-tailed hawk will tell you that no bird is so fine as a red-tailed hawk. It was some fun. There were also a great many goldfinches, red wing blackbirds, ducks, cormorants, wrens of various sorts, sparrows in a plethora of styles, hummingbirds, gulls, Canada geese and more robins than I care to count. A robin will tell you that no bird is so fine as a robin. Don't let me forget to mention the western scrub jay, too, as well as hundreds of European starlings. A European starling will tell you that no bird is so fine as a European starling, but he will be lying to you. In the late afternoon, just as we were leaving the wetland, we saw about 18 great blue herons taking to the air a hundred yards to our east, the birds' immense wings shining hot like brass and hammered steel in the golden sunlight. A great blue heron will tell you that no bird is so fine as a great blue heron, and he will be telling you true.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Spark of Life

So I've been rewriting Father Dowd's diary entries for Cocke & Bull and while I have come up with The Idea that will make them all work properly within the context of the book, there is still more labor ahead of me.

This afternoon I tried to rewrite the first of the entries. I know what the short scene is about and it became clear what the actual meaning of the entry is supposed to be, but the 500 or so words I wrote all seemed to lie flat on the page, pretty enough but dead. The spark of life was missing from them. The anima of John Dowd isn't there. It was, in other words, a bit dull.

Now, I don't want these eight short journal excerpts to be more interesting or exciting than the story of which they are but a small part, but at the same time I don't want the reader's eyes to glaze over whenever these bits come up in the narrative. So the prose has to pop somehow. I have what I think is a pretty good idea about how to give Father Dowd (who--aside from one scene--appears only via these diary entries) the spark of life. My idea [oy, spoiler alert] is to have Dowd confess in these bits to things that will surprise and discomfit and scandalize the reader. I don't have them all worked out; I just have the general idea but they'll reveal the human side of the good Father and hopefully will be funny in a Samuel Beckett manner. We'll see.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

West of Here with Jonathan Evison

Tonight Mighty Reader and I went to the fabulous Elliott Bay Bookstore on Capital Hill to hear Jonathan Evison read from and discuss his new novel West of Here. It was a great time; Jon is charming, funny, articulate and he loves to talk. The excerpts from the book made the whole room--I'm sure of it--want to already have read the novel just so we could talk more about it with the author. If Jon's book tour comes to your town, be sure to go, and don't forget to ask him about Bigfoot and the Bigfoot tour he went on. You won't be disappointed.

If Jon's tour isn't coming to your town, that's no excuse not to run down to your plucky local indie bookstore and snatch up a copy of West of Here.

I met Mr. Evison a bit over a year ago at a reading he did with Mary Miller (author of Big World which you should also read). Jon read from his debut All About Lulu (and again, another book I don't know why you haven't read yet) and after that we talked about agents and writing and he bought pitchers of Guinness for the room. It was swell and tonight as he was making his way through the crowd to get to the book-signing table, he grabbed my hand and said, "Scott, how've you been?" I'm sure he's met at least 3,000 people since that night at the College Inn Pub. I am visibly impressed. I don't think the man ever forgets anyone. Jon's a genuine Real Nice Guy and an award-winning author so, like I say, go buy his damned book already. It has maps!

Also, the new Elliott Bay location is totally groovy. We bought six books while we were there. You know what I love? Bookstores.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Stories Within the Story

Yes, another post about revising my novel Cocke & Bull! I know you were all dying for news, so here's news. I've begun the Third Round of revisions, and task the first is to rewrite the diary entries of Father John Dowd. You see, the protagonist of C&B has in his possession a journal that was written by the good Father, and there appear in the text of the novel about eight or nine excerpts from this journal. I knew when I wrote the first draft that these would be important later, and that Father Dowd's story would serve as a foil for the protagonist's tale, but I didn't really know how until I was most of the way through the first draft. Which means that most of the diary entries in the MS are placeholders I will have to rewrite with fresh, new, meaningful material. In order to do that, I'll have to actually figure out what Fr. Dowd's personal story arc is, then figure out the order in which that story appears in the novel, and then figure out what each individual diary entry has to do with the section of the novel in which it appears. Likely some of the non-diary prose will have to be rewritten to better work with the new diary entries, too. So, some work for Bailey. This is work that I've been putting off, frankly, because it's going to require serious and concentrated thought. I've been enjoying my hiatus from deep thinking while between revisions, but now it's back into the fray for me.

I've always liked books that contain excerpts from other fictional books. For a while, I was going to lard up the pages of Killing Hamlet with chunks of writing from the mythical Nunc Scio Mysterium, but I decided against that. I may, however, slip some letters into my next novel. I've not yet ruled it out.

Friday, February 11, 2011

"The Merchant of Venice"

SOLANIO. Let me say amen betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer,
for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew.

Enter SHYLOCK

How now, Shylock? What news among the merchants?

SHYLOCK. You knew, none so well, none so well as you, of my
daughter's flight.

SALERIO. That's certain; I, for my part, knew the tailor that made
the wings she flew withal.

SOLANIO. And Shylock, for his own part, knew the bird was flidge;
and then it is the complexion of them all to leave the dam.

SHYLOCK. She is damn'd for it.

SALERIO. That's certain, if the devil may be her judge.

SHYLOCK. My own flesh and blood to rebel!

SOLANIO. Out upon it, old carrion! Rebels it at these years?

SHYLOCK. I say my daughter is my flesh and my blood.

SALERIO. There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than
between jet and ivory; more between your bloods than there is
between red wine and Rhenish. But tell us, do you hear whether
Antonio have had any loss at sea or no?

SHYLOCK. There I have another bad match: a bankrupt, a prodigal,
who dare scarce show his head on the Rialto; a beggar, that was
us'd to come so smug upon the mart. Let him look to his bond. He
was wont to call me usurer; let him look to his bond. He was wont
to lend money for a Christian courtesy; let him look to his bond.

SALERIO. Why, I am sure, if he forfeit, thou wilt not take his
flesh. What's that good for?

SHYLOCK. To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will
feed my revenge. He hath disgrac'd me and hind'red me half a
million; laugh'd at my losses, mock'd at my gains, scorned my
nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
enemies. And what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?
Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections,
passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons,
subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed
and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If
you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we
not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you
in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?
Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance
be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me
I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the
instruction.

Alas, poor Shylock. Anyway, my point--if I have one--is that Shylock is initially presented to the audience as a typical Elizabethan stage character: the evil Jewish loanshark, declaring first that he hates Antonio because the man is a Christian. But Shakespeare moves immediately away from that as Shylock lists the insults and injuries he has received at the hands of Antonio and other citizens of Venice on account of his being a Jew. By the middle of the play Shylock has become the only fully-developed character and his planned revenge against Antonio seems entirely justified, at least on Elizabethan terms. What's remarkable--to me at least--is how Shakespeare takes the hoary old stereotypes of his time and uses them to create a character who should be the villain but is instead the tragic protagonist of the play. Yes, we have Portia's marriage plot (her father must've been a real piece of work to offer up Portia as prize in a fancy dress game of three-card monte) and she alone is good and pure in the world of the play, but her high-mindedness strikes this modern reader as a bit naïve and interfering. I'd let Shylock cut out Antonio's heart, frankly. He was asking for it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Good Pay On A Sinking Ship: Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon

Maggie Koderer has abandoned her part-time job writing magazine articles about food to follow her boyfriend, horseman Tommy Hansel, into the world of bottom-end horse racing. Tommy has a scheme to race good horses at bad tracks, make some good fast money and then move on. The cheap hoods, losers and down-at-heel horses at Indian Mound Downs, the bottom-end race track where Lord of Misrule is set, don't exactly cooperate with Tommy's plans. That's not the most brilliant way of giving you the premise of the novel, but it'll do.

I really like this book. I'd planned on reading it because it won the National Book Award fiction prize this year, but when I learned that it was about horse racing, for God's sake, I hesitated. What do I care about horse racing? But I bought it anyway and I'm glad I did. Jaimy Gordon has assembled a fascinating cast of characters to tell a Beckettian/Steinbeckian story of less-than-best-laid plans gone awry. Gordon delivers her tale via four alternating narrative voices which all ring true enough, and I even liked the second-person voice of one character talking to himself in his deepening madness.

The plot is more-or-less the usual fare and the conflicts increase as the book progresses through four races, each more important than the last. The characters' lives become intertwined in startling and progressively violent ways. A person who reads for plot, that is, won't be bored because there's good sturdy developing action.

But there's a lot more here for readers who want more: Gordon's prose is careful, rhythmic and constantly forward-moving. Her characterizations of the horses are amazing and I found myself captivated by these individual (if wholly alien) beings. I don't know from horses, but Gordon let me see the animals and I could tell them all apart. That's some trick.

I read Lord of Misrule in a day and a half, which for me is movement at nearly the speed of light. Unputdownable, I think, is the term. And I realize that this is a wholly inadequate sort of review, but I don't really do reviews.

Here's the thing: this is a really good book, worthy of the award. The prose is alive and new, the characters (with, alas, the exception of the antagonist and his crew, who are a bit from Central Casting) are fresh and believable and surprising, and when I was reading I was delighted and felt like I was doing something important with my time. That's really all I ask from a book: my time was not wasted and my world has expanded a little bit.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Samuel Beckett: It Might Just Be Love

I am reading Samuel Beckett's trilogy of novels (Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable) right now. When I think of Beckett, I generally think of Waiting for Godot and the clever sort of Shakespearean dialogue and the senseless thrashing about of the protagonists. I don't tend to associate Beckett with beautiful prose, but that's changing. Consider this excerpt from Malone Dies:

The birds. Numerous and varied in the dense foliage they lived without fear all the year round, or in fear only of their congeners, and those which in summer or winter flew off to other climes came back the following winter or the following summer, roughly speaking. The air was filled with their voices, especially at dawn and dusk, and those which set off in flocks in the morning, such as the crows and starlings, for distant pastures, came back the same evening all joyous to the sanctuary, where their sentinels awaited them. The gulls were many in stormy weather which paused here on their flight inland. They wheeled long in the cruel air, screeching with anger, then settled in the grass or on the house-tops, mistrustful of the trees.

That's just amazing writing, kids, and no mistaking.

"to other climes came back"
"came back the same evening all joyous to the sanctuary"
"wheeled long in the cruel air"
"mistrustful of the trees"

It's like Beckett is taking a pry bar to his sentences and opening them up somehow to let even more amazing beauty shine through between the already-beautiful phrases. I think about my soon-to-be-begun next book and I look at Beckett's work in these three novels and I think that maybe I have found something I can lean on to get me through the work. A sort of Virgil to guide me across the Inferno, if you will. What I've maybe been looking for in terms of voice, I say. Maybe. I was thinking Henry James at first, but perhaps what was missing in my imaginary first draft was the sound of Irish prose poetry. I should re-read my Joyce and Heaney as well.

You may laugh, but all of this gets me excited to start writing the next novel.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

On The Eve

No, not Turgenev's On The Eve, you. My own personal eve: on or near the first of March I am going to start writing another novel, Nowhere But North. I'm all a-quiver with anticipatory dread. Not that I should be, really. This will be the fifth novel I've written and a few weeks ago I bragged that if you gave me a premise--no matter what it was--I could write a novel from it (not necessarily a good novel, mind you, but the mechanics of long-form fiction are no longer a mystery to me). Perhaps one shouldn't shake one's fists at the Fates like that, for I am, honestly, afraid.

Oh, it'll all work out; it always does. The high wire act I've set before myself (the narrative will have a sort of coiling, regressive structure with interruptions; don't even ask) is only a dare to get my blood up because I can't resist a challenge and the degree of difficulty scares me but it's also going to be fun no matter how much I'll bitch about it to the unfortunate-in-advance Mighty Reader. It Will Be Fun, I tell you, and if it works, it'll be the kewlist. Do the young people still say kewl?

The delay until March is due to my having scheduled one more rewriterly run-through of the tragic novel Cocke & Bull before I send it off to patient readers including my fabulous agent. That's going to take up the remains of February and the work is, frankly, a welcome distraction from the worry over starting Nowhere But North.

Anyway, I am preparing myself psychically for beginning this new book by reading Samuel Beckett's Malloy trilogy and repeating the Burroughs mantra "Nothing is real; everything is permitted." Then, I think, once my mental loins are properly girded I'll douse myself in gin and Hemingway and Woolf and I'll seek out pen and paper. Just you wait.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Fates Will Find Their Way: A Sort of Review

I don't really know how to write a proper book review, and I admit that up front. But I can, hopefully, give you a sense of why Hannah Pittard's debut novel The Fates Will Find Their Way is something you should read.

The Fates Will Find Their Way is, on the surface, the story of Nora Lindell, a 16 year-old girl who goes missing on Halloween night from her upper middle class neighborhood. Nobody knows what happened to her and a group of teenaged boys who all knew Nora begin to speculate about where she may have gone and what may have been her fate. This speculation outlasts high school and college and continues into adulthood and the group of boys remain obsessed with Nora even as they marry and have children of their own. Everything is a reflection of Nora Lindell's absence.

Meanwhile, Pittard gives us a series of possible fates for the missing girl. Maybe she was abducted. Maybe she ran away. Maybe she ended up in Arizona, working at a restaurant. Maybe she went to Mumbai. Nora's sister Sissy may know, but she's not telling the curious boys/men anything.

The book is full of longing and a sense that something is missing. The boys move reluctantly into adulthood with the idea that if they could find out what happened to Nora, the emptiness of their own lives would be filled in somehow. And Nora, or one possible Nora anyway, also feels some essential lack and tries to fill that void in a variety of ways.

But I don't want to reduce the novel down to the effect of a missing girl on a group of high school boys, because there's more to The Fates Will Find Their Way than just that. The dynamic of the group of boys (the story is told in a false third-person plural and you never learn which one of the "we" is actually the narrator) is very well done and while Pittard's fictional teenage males never quite ring true for me, it's compelling and convincingly shows the complexity of group relationships and shifting alliances and lines of trust. Maybe if I'd lived in the same city the whole time I was growing up this would feel more real to me; I can't say. The writing is beautiful and Pittard cares about her characters, even the badly-behaved ones.

The novel isn't about fate so much as it seems to be about searching for real life. There are tragedies in the book but certainly all life is tragic in the end, because for all the points of the compass we each eventually go in the same direction, to the grave. So perhaps Pittard is part of the post-Nietzschean philosophy, musing about what to do when the most important fact about life is the omnipresence of death. Perhaps not. I don't think this book can be reduced to a single, simple statement of theme. No good book can be, because good narratives operate simultaneously on multiple levels (sometimes giving conflicting information to the reader) and Pittard's book is no exception.

The Fates Will Find Their Way comes out this month, February 2011. I should have some sort of pithy final thoughts about the book but I can't come up with anything that isn't a spoiler. I liked this book. I read it in two or three days, which is pretty quick for me. Like I say, I don't really know how to write a book review, but I really liked Pittard's novel and so I say unto you: run out and buy it when it hits the shelves.