Friday, November 19, 2021

La cathédrale engloutie

It's taken me nearly three months, but I have finally written a synopsis for my novel Mona in the Desert, a novel I finished a few years ago and am still occasionally submitting to publishers on the off chance they might want to put it out into the world. I've written synopses for two other novels and I hated not only the process, but also the results. I am however pleased with what I've written for Mona, and I really enjoyed the work this time. Instead of a summary, I've written a retelling of the novel, letting myself have as much fun in the telling as I could, which turned out to be plenty. So even if the publisher decides to give my novel a miss, I have learned how to pull a synopsis out of a whole novel and have a good time in the process, and that is a valuable acquisition for an amateur novelist's toolkit. I assure you, as Dante would say. No, not that Dante.

Whenever I submit a novel to a publisher or a literary agent, I always spend some time looking over the text of the novel. Because I manage to turn out a finished novel every couple of years, and because my only published novel was finished in 2011, I have got a pile of novels to shill. My opinion of these novels shifts around as the years pass. Sometimes I feel as though these books are Want and Ignorance, clinging to me beneath my robe, the the world and I would be better off without them. Jon Evison literally buried his first six unpublished novels in a hole he dug in his back yard, ceremonially killing them off. I keep dragging mine around. That can hardly be healthy, I guess. And yet. I always feel that I haven't done enough for them, like I'm Schindler and the world of publishing is the SS. Which comparison is hardly apt, I assure you, as Nietzsche said. Yes, that Nietzsche. 

But what was I saying? Oh, yes, I like to look over the novels again, some of which I haven't laid eyes on in years, before packing them a lunch and sending them out into the world to take their chances. Usually I find myself thinking, Well, you're a pretty good book. I'm so glad I wrote you. Look both ways before you cross the street. Once in a while I read a paragraph and think, Eh, that's a bit clumsy, stand still while I comb your hair and fix your shirt collar. What I thought when I was reading Mona again was that it's a pretty good book, and also odder than I remember, in terms of structure. I remember that I was trying something new with this one, having in mind the image of the narrative shaped like a cloud of autumn leaves blown off a tree, swirling around the reader's head, full of motion, one color swiftly replaced by another. A plainer way of saying this is that the narrative loops around on itself, the chronology out of order, events interrupting one another as a way of showing contrast and similarity, etc. It's one way to create dramatic irony as well as a way to introduce patterns (which are basically repetitions with or without variation, see Schoenberg, Fundamentals of Musical Composition for details). It is not a technique I invented, by any means. I saw it in Rushdie, in Faulkner, in Joyce, in Woolf, and who knows who else. Sterne, obviously. Mona in the Desert is certainly a descendant, at least spiritually, of Tristram Shandy. A narrator allegedly talks about himself while discussing his family instead, or vice versa. And vice versa. But without all the bawdiness.

The oddness of my narrative caused me, I think, to read Agustin Fernandez Mallo's Nocilla Trilogy in a way I might not have ordinarily. It's an experimental novel, by which I mean it's not a straightforward "realist" narrative in the vein of Tolstoy or Flaubert. It's also not highly original in that Mallo hasn't invented any of his many technical innovations; the books are more like a catalog of modernism and postmodernism (if, yes, you ignore the fact that postmodernism begins with Cervantes, or maybe Apuleius, and like the poor has always been with us, usually in the shadows of the best sellers or whatever). The first book in Mallo's trilogy is made up of interleaved fragments of multiple stories that are connected by coincidence, location, or theme. The second book is more of the same, but with the stories more closely connected, and with more emphasis on literary criticism and metafiction. The final book goes in a different set of directions, the first third being one long unbroken paragraph that leans heavily on Joycean stream of consciousness and Steinesque repetition, telling a single story (that loops around on itself in time as the narrator digresses and then catches himself digressing, and thanks to a recent post on Emma's blog I am able to say that yes, this reminds me of Bernhard's writing in Concrete). This story continues into the second section of the book, but is now in chronological order, but broken up into numbered sections, interrupted at one point by captioned photographs a la Sebald. Then comes a short graphic novel, after a collection of what appear to be "found" fragments written when a writer named Agustin Fernandez Mallo meets someone with the same name and they both lose their identities in radically different manners. That section is pretty entertaining in a Charles Kinbote sort of way. The trilogy is, as far as I understand, supposed to be a demonstration of what Mallo thinks is possible (or even necessary?) in contemporary fiction. A working out of some ideas he has about post-poetry, whatever that is. A textbook, almost.

The books are worth reading, certainly, and I liked each one more than the previous. As he moves from book to book, Mallo seems to gain control or understanding or both over his themes and his materials. This trilogy is a work about art and memory and the transitory nature of love, which is to say that it's a normal sort of novel in its way, a version of Remembrance of Things Past if you like, and it also put into my head the idea that it really doesn't matter if a writer innovates. The claim that one needs to find or create new forms in order to express new ideas is simply not true. Mallo has written one novel while employing a dozen writerly devices, and as far as I can tell, the content of each section could be swapped with the contents of any other section, or rather the literary devices could all be swapped around randomly, and Mallo would've been able to tell his tale just as effectively. Innovation is not necessary. It's fun for the writer and the reader, but my long-held suspicion that novels--fiction in general, or maybe art itself--is built primarily out of ideas rather than technique, seems to have been once again confirmed. I'm using a lot of undefined terms here, I know. Anyway, the ideas that Mallo illustrates with his experiments, or his catalog of forms, are good ideas that I am in sympathy with, which is what makes me say it's a good novel. He also handles his materials and tools well most of the time, so the novel succeeds on that front as well, but the tools and materials are really beside the point. A workmanlike writer can create a great novel if he has good ideas. A fantastic technician cannot create a great novel, no matter his skill, if he lacks good ideas. Good ideas about the world, about humanity, I mean. Do I believe any of this?

Yes, I think I do. Not that, to get back finally to my original subject, I think that Mona in the Desert is a great novel, or that I think I am innovative or necessarily even expert with my materials and tools. Maybe all I wanted to say, something I really only wanted to say to myself so you'll have to forgive me the use of this post in my saying it, is that my novel is strangely-constructed, but the novel is not strange in that it's about art and experience and relationships, the common mud out of which all civilization is constructed, so maybe it's a pretty good book after all. I worry about sending it out into the world all alone, that's all.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

To write is to attempt to know what we would write if we were to write.

Agustin Fernandez Mallo's Nocilla Dream, first book in his Nocilla trilogy, is apparently one of the most influential novels of the 21st century, if you're a Spanish writer. Until 2006, when Nocilla Dream was published in Barcelona, Spanish literature was conservative, old-fashioned, stodgy. At least that was the opinion of a lot of living Spanish novelists, and Fernandez Mallo's book, originally put out by a tiny independent press and now published by a bigger publisher and translated into many languages, sort of blew the doors off of Spanish fiction. 

Fernandez Mallo is a physicist and a prizewinning poet, working in a style/technique/whathaveyou he calls "post poetry," which might be the same thing as postmodernism, whatever that is. Nocilla Dream is not a poem. It is 113 short items (ranging from as brief as one paragraph to as long as five or six pages) that accumulate into a coherent narrative, sort of the way the contents of one's house might gather together into the story of the house's occupants. Some of the items are excerpts from non-fiction essays on a number of subjects, some are fictional excerpts from "non-fiction" works, but most are glimpses of the various narrative threads that wind around each other.

It's all pretty good, and somehow interesting and propulsive right from the first page, even if one has no idea what's going on. I just keep reading, from one item to the next, and maybe part of that forward drive is simply from wondering what I'll see next and how it'll either connect with what's already happened or point to further developments. Which is, now that I've written that all down, just how any "normal" story works. And I was just about to say that really, most of what Fernandez Mallo is doing in Nocilla Dream is not new outside of Spain. The book refers often to Borges, which I take as an acknowledgment that Fernandez Mallo is borrowing from modern Latin American fiction. Although in Iberia, Cortázar and Pessoa had already been working some of this territory, too (and Perez Galdos got a little wacky in 1882 with the metafictional framing device of Our Friend Manso). I won't pretend to any expertise on Spanish/Portuguese/Latin-or-South American literature. But I think Nocilla Dream has given modernism/post-modernism/post-post-modernism a real push into the mainstream in Spain. At least that's what the online essays I've read tell me. And I am not claiming any value in Originality, either. Everything new has already been done. "There's plenty of good music still to be written in C major," as Schoenberg once told his composition students.

Anyway, what's in the book, right? Lots of stuff. One set of narratives is based on a stretch of U.S. Route 50. Route 50 actually leads from California all the way across the continent to Maryland, but Nocilla Dream looks at the 409 miles of highway that crosses the middle of Nevada. Actually, the novel is concerned with a stretch of about 260 miles of Route 50, running through the desert between two small towns (Carson City and Ely), with nothing to see except a lone cottonwood tree, whose branches are adorned with hundreds of pairs of shoes, thrown into the tree by passing motorists. The tree is a sort of nexus for the novel, which also somehow includes characters in Denmark, Mexico, Salt Lake City, Poland, Chicago, and other locations. It's a short book of brief chapters, but it holds within itself the entire world. And the entire world, in this version, is lonely and empty. 

So, we're in agreement with the idea that Heine is an Austrian journalist, a correspondent for the Kurier in Vienna, and that he's lived in Peking for the last six years, married to Lee-Kung, a Chinese woman. Their block of flats looks made of concrete, but no. It's only a conglomerate of sand and iron shavings extracted from low-grade Turkish mines, later pressed and solidified with the use of a glue called SO(3). Inside this structure, the marriage collapsed long ago.

Lee-Kung is having an online relationship with an American rock climber named Billy, who we meet as he drives along Route 50 on a climbing expedition, his son (Billy the Kid) strapped happily into the bed of a pickup truck. Heine is sent to prison for pedophilia after being caught by a TV film crew while having sex with a teenage prostitute. The stories all sort of spiral outward and hook into each other. The narrator is matter-of-fact and possibly a little amused by it all, which is a thing these days in non-"realist" fiction. It's a comic and ironical eye.

A neutron monitor was first built in South Dakota, and then five years ago another was built on the outskirts of Beijing, both in the depths of mines so as to avoid contaminations by other sun-based particles. The monitor is a very large water pool, the size of a six-story building, in which the slightest impurity, animal, vegetable, or mineral, would render the project null and void, and as it has turned out it picks up one or two neutrinos a year. At a glance, it's blue, bluer than the waters off any beach. For a while now, inside this bunker of extremely pure water, Chii-Teen, the lead physicist, thinks he's been seeing clusters of algae, though they then disappear. But today he's already seen the tail of a mermaid.

This post's title is one of the novel's epigrams, from Marguerite Duras' essay collection Writing.

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope

Doing our civic duty again.


We stopped at Paper Boat Booksellers to do some Halloweenish shopping. These books all looked suitable to the season, or suitable enough anyway.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

the dislocation is always present

The uncertain position we all maintain in life asking when will violence strike, when will devastation occur, leaves us looking like the hapless swimmers at the beginning of each Jaws movie. Innocent, tender, and delicious. Our legs tread water, buoyed by all that is right and good and deserved in this world, a house, healthy children, clean food to eat, love. While that animatronic shark, a beast without mercy, catches the scent of blood and locks in on his target.

"Sam?" I call softly so the bad guy won't know we're separated. There's no answer from downstairs. What is taking him so long to come back?

I hold the night the way I would a child who finally fell asleep. Like I'm frightened it will move. I am frightened it will move. I am always scared my life will suffer some dramatic, sudden change. I try to hear deeper, to not shift at all, to not breathe, but no matter how still I stay there's no report from downstairs. What if Sam is already dead, killed by the intruder? Maybe choked by a small rope around the neck? What if the bad guy, in stocking feet, is creeping upstairs right now, getting closer to my babies, to me?

Part of me knows he is. Part of me knows he is always and always will be.

I offer that passage as not only an example, but also a sort of summary, of what one finds in Samantha Hunt's story collection The Dark Dark, which I picked up on Seattle Independent Bookstore Day about two years ago and have ignored until last weekend.

The writing throughout is plain and uninflected, which seems to heighten the emotional content of the stories because the prose doesn't build, it chooses to merely present. The juxtaposition of plot weirdness and matter-of-fact language makes the weird seem weirder, so that's a good technique for a writer to know, a handy way to make sudden small shifts in the story's reality fabric jump off the page. An errant adjective can carry a lot of weight here.

Pulling off onto the soft shoulder, he felt a certain resistance from the undercarriage. The vehicle and the animal had been joined in a terrible unison. He sat without moving. Perhaps it wasn't a dog. Perhaps it was some other creature, a beast unnamed and unknown, part woman, part deer. The thought gave him pause. He sat. Not long but long enough to know the thing was truly dead. There'd be no watching it limp away into the dark night, no gnashing of teeth. He would not have to back the car up and over the creature. He would not have to kill it a second time.

Hunt writes about states of being, which is common enough in fiction, isn't it? She often uses the metaphor of leaving and/or returning home, or more generally: a place one has fled, and the place to which one flees. From the vantage of one of these locations the protagonist remembers why she has taken flight. In a few cases the dislocation is temporal rather than geographical; sometimes it's not the dislocation of the story's main character, but the dislocation is always present. Dislocation, in fact, is a major structural tool for Hunt, especially the dislocation of characters from their sense of reality. I've seen this collection labeled "liminal fantasy," which I think means something like Kafkaesque or toying with supernatural events, the kind of modern American literary version of magical realism, I suppose. Liminal fantasy has been going on since the dawn of storytelling, I'd say, but that's not a complaint and it's a fine thing for Hunt to be doing.

Earlier, Susanne's husband had detected a certain ticking in her. He'd packed their children into the car for a night of pizza and a double feature at the second-run movie theater, leaving her alone to explode, to splatter the house with a combination of things she'd ingested as a teenager--films and punk rock records that confirmed what she'd guessed back then: one dies alone.

The book explores these ideas of dislocation (dislocation which is sometimes only the painful distance of reality from desire) in many directions. If I have any complaint about the collection, it's that while Hunt is striking out in multiple directions, she is making similar explorations each time, and even if the digging is widespread and the discoveries startling, it's not necessarily always a deep exploration. I might prefer if she stuck with one or two excavations and really got far below the surface. Perhaps she does that in her novels, which I haven't read yet. 

The Dark Dark is a disturbing book, with the feeling that violence is right around the corner, behind the turn of the next page. I can't quite say I enjoyed it, but I certainly felt something and I read the whole thing in just a few hours, reading three or four stories at a time.

The quiet of afternoon nature films pervades the hallways. At the end of a long row of lockers the thirteen father together undisturbed. With the sun just so, buffed circles of wax are visible on the vinyl flooring. The girls speak softly, huddled in a whirlpool. The light is full of dust particles.[...] One mentions the tenderness of her breasts as she lifts off the ground. Words slip from lips; the current gently eddies. The girl in the air is joined by two others, floating, balloons. They glow, lanterns above, more and more girls still, until the last one, full of grace, so round, leavers her tiptoes and lifts off the linoleum. In the air, the girls dip and reel. One turns giddy somersaults. Weightless, swimming. "Woo," she might say. "That feels good." Big as stars. Beautiful as a poisoned sunset and just as far out of reach.

One other thing that occurred to me last night is that Hunt's protagonists all interact with other characters, and those other characters come equipped with lives of their own; to have an opinion of the protagonist is not their main purpose in the stories. This is in contrast to Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, where characters exist merely in order for the protagonist to tell the reader how those characters feel about him, and exactly why they are mistaken in their opinions. Hunt's stories are full of people; Davies' novel is full of characters, but only one person. Hopefully I'm done talking about Davies now.

Monday, October 25, 2021

"The Devil knows corners of us all of which Christ Himself is ignorant."

Denyse had the normal dislike of a woman for the friends her husband has made before he married her, but I felt she was more than usually severe in my case. She possessed intelligence, conventional good looks, and unusual quality as an intriguer and politician, but she was a woman whose life and interests were entirely external. It was not that she was indifferent to the things of the spirit; she sensed their existence and declared herself their enemy. She had made it clear that she consented to a church wedding only because it was expected of a man in Boy’s position; she condemned the church rite because it put women at a disadvantage. All her moral and ethical energy, which was abundant, was directed towards social reform. Easier divorce, equal pay for equal work as between men and women, no discrimination between the sexes in employment—these were her causes, and in promoting them she was no comic-strip feminist termagant, but reasonable, logical, and untiring.
Boy often assured me that underneath this public personality of hers there was a shy, lovable kid, pitifully anxious for affection and the tenderness of sex, but Denyse did not choose to show this aspect of herself to me. She had a fair measure of intuition, and she sensed that I regarded women as something other than fellow-citizens who had been given an economic raw deal because of a few unimportant biological differences. She may even have guessed that I held women in high esteem for qualities she had chosen to discourage in herself. But certainly she did not want me around the Staunton house, and if I dropped in, as had been my habit for thirty years, she picked a delicate quarrel with me, usually about religion. Like many people who are ignorant of religious matters, she attributed absurd beliefs to those who were concerned with them. She had found out about my interest in saints; after all, my books were not easy to overlook if one was in the travel business. The whole notion of saints was repugnant to her, and in her eyes I was on a level with people who believed in teacup reading or Social Credit. So, although I was asked to dinner now and then, when the other guests were people who had to be worked off for some tiresome reason, I was no longer an intimate of the household.

What to do with Robertson Davies' Fifth Business? I assume that Davies told himself that the passage above was even-handed, neutral even, and didn't see the slant of bias running through it. Davies wrote a strange book of contradictions: his protagonist, a Protestant "hagiologist" who writes books about saints, claims sainthood for both a woman from his hometown and for himself, all the while resentfully misusing his still-living sainted woman in a series of thoughtless actions and then taking up willingly with the devil incarnate at the end of the novel. What Davies, or his narrator, doesn't know about saintliness is a lot. There is also a murder mystery in the last pages of the novel. So what have we got? A murder-through-hypnosis, a worshipper of saints who finds the only living saint in town to be an unknowable burden and source of constant guilt, a claim to sainthood on the part of the worshipper who uses this badge of sanctity to excuse his own selfishness, and a whole lot of small-mindedness into the bargain. A good writer could have a pretty fine time with all of this. Alas, Davies' treatment is stale, flat, and unprofitable. There's no irony, no self-awareness of the contradtictions; there's merely a haughty sort of Emersonian sense of rightness in all the narrator thinks or does. It is possible that I'm treating Davies too literally, that it's my interpretation that's stale and flat and his novel is quite clever but too subtle for me. I would be happy to see that demonstrated.