"Treading water is harder than it looks"

Fight Song, by Joshua Mohr

Mighty Reader bought a copy of this novel in 2013 at Elliott Bay Book Company, where Mohr was doing a reading. We were half an hour late to the event, not realizing that we were making a small spectacle of ourselves as we barged in and settled down in the second row. We missed the actual reading portion of the reading, but we were in time for the Q&A and the book sale/signing. Joshua Mohr is articulate and talks intelligently about the craft of writing, and he has definite ideas about what he wants out of the work. He also has some pretty spectacular tattoos, and his affect is one of a regular guy rather than an academic or an auteur.

Fight Song is a novel about regular guys, or rather regular guys seen through the harsh lens of slapstick comedy, a sort of suburban American Lucky Jim with the perversity and absurdity turned up to eleven. Bob and Jane Coffen live in an anonymous suburban village among anonymous suburban neighbors and chain stores wedged between franchise restaurants. Bob is a video game developer. Jane is apparently a stay-at-home mom to their two children, who spend their time gazing into computer screens, gaming or social networking. All of them are drifting away from each other. Jane especially feels the waste of her life, and as a way to assert herself as a real presence in the world, she is in training to break the world record for treading water. Another way Jane has asserted herself is by kicking Bob out of the house. Bob's response is to drift along, dazedly wondering what is wrong and how to fix it, eventually stumbling accidentally into a picaresque quest to win Jane's affections back. The rough outline of the story is pretty familiar territory, but we do not read for plot, we read for what the author builds around the plot. Mohr does some interesting things with what could easily have been a by-the-numbers romantic comedy.

The most interesting formal conceit is the way Mohr builds a world out of metaphors. Do you remember how Miss Havisham in Great Expectations has turned herself a living image of the disappointed bride? Mohr does something similar in his novel, turning the figurative into the literal.

Take for example Jane's quest to break the world record for treading water. She is already treading water in her life, going absolutely nowhere while people watch from nearby, and she tries to find a way to turn this life into something worth the effort, not quite seeing the absurdity of it and how it's just another way of isolating herself. There in the pool she is alone, her Speedo-clad coach (another absurd comic character) standing on the edge of the pool telling her to empty her mind, to let go of everything in her life because reality is a distraction that will weigh her down, exhaust and drown her. Only if you block out your life can you stay afloat; a sad lesson.

There is also the neighbor, Schumann, a psychotic ex-football hero whose mid-life crisis is manifesting itself as a manic calling to create mayhem all around him, to treat all of life as an enemy team who must be crushed in random acts of criminal competition. Schumann puts on his old Purdue football uniform about halfway through the novel, a knight clad in the armor of his youth, and he wears it wherever he goes. Schumann does not, I point out, seem to have a job. Schumann's subplot involves kidnapping an angry wizard. Really.

Bob's sense that time has stopped at work--that he no longer really contributes ideas or even matters much to the business whose early success was built on his creativity--is embodied in a ten-year recognition award: a plock, part plaque and part clock, with Bob's name engraved incorrectly and the clock merely for show, the hands fixed at midnight.

In the opening pages of the novel, Bob is biking home from work, his hated plock in a messenger bag across his chest. Schumann, driving an SUV, challenges Bob to a race, promising not to exceed 7mph. Bob uncharacteristically accepts the challenge and is surprised when Schumann runs him off the road (into an oleander hedge, oleander being a highly poisonous plant).

Mohr's suburban world is mostly empty, sketched in and not particularly important; what he does give us is vigorously imagined but so unbelievable that it's exhausting at times. Fight Song is a modern Don Quixote, in which every character believes in his own glorious destiny, with enemies all around to be vanquished. It is all over-the-top, breathless and frenetic. I am tempted to say that Mohr is determined to outweird himself in each chapter, to ratchet up the farce until we are nearly in Rabelais' territory. Is this a satire on rom-coms? I can't be sure. It has the vague shape of the redemptive comedy, but the tone is more like Bukowski than it is like Capra. That's not a complaint.

Fight Song, though filled with melancholy and longing, is a hopeful novel. Mohr is clearly sympathetic to his protagonist Bob, no matter how hard and ridiculous the life he's given his creation. After Jane kicks him out of the house, Bob is launched on a traditional hero's quest, looking for a personal fight song, a way to rally his spirits and become something or someone, to self-actualize as the motivational speakers used to say, or to win at the game. Games and competition, in fact, are the central metaphor of Fight Song, a metaphor that Mohr is wise enough to let the reader discover on his own. Self-actualization and victory are initially presented as prizes we should covet, but slowly the ideas of competition and personal glory for their own sake are revealed to be shallow, antisocial, selfish and ultimately meaningless. Personal victory comes at the price of community, family and love. At least that's what I think Mohr is saying.

What the writer wants

Do you know why I believe in the novel? It's a democratic shout. Anybody can write a great novel, one great novel, almost any amateur off the street. I believe this, George. Some nameless drudge, some desperado with barely a nurtured dream can sit down and find his voice and luck out and do it. Something so angelic it makes your jaw hang open. The spray of talent, the spray of ideas. One thing unlike another, one voice unlike the next. Ambiguities, contradictions, whispers, hints.

--Don DeLillo

A writer wants to be read. More than that, a writer wants the work he likes to write to be read. No, not just read, but his gift and singular vision should be actively sought after by a legion of readers. A writer clings to his gift and singular vision; he doesn't want to adapt his writing to the reader. This can be a problem for the writer. It is never a problem for the reader, because there is generally no shortage of good books by other writers. A reader can abandon a writer in mid-sentence. I have done this myself. A writer has no such luxury. And yet, a writer wants to believe Ezra Pound's "no art grows by looking into the eyes of the public." A respectable writer doesn't want to write to the market. What's a writer to do?

Especially an American writer. There is this thing called "contemporary American literature" that is studied at universities, and not just in America. I just saw a course description from the University of Edinburgh: "what it means to be American in the context of theories of the contemporary such as identity politics and postmodernity." Okay, sure, I can see that. But American literature must be more than the politics and culture into which the novels are released, yes? And America is not a uniform land, you may have noticed. Neither identity politics nor postmodernism are uniformly distributed across these fifty states, and surely a) identity politics enters the American media primarily as marketing rather than a subject with which to thoughtfully engage, and b) most American novels are anything but postmodern. Most American novelists are neither Ta-Nehisi Coates nor Paul Auster. But I have noticed, I think, that the serious modern American novelist is often having an identity crisis. If there is a Bloomian "anxiety of influence," then certainly a lot of modern American novelists have sweaty palms. What does it mean to be an "American" writer?

Me, I have no idea. I must confess that for the last decade or more I've kept myself pretty much in ignorance of contemporary American fiction. Yet I am supposedly a contemporary American novelist. I can tell because I was born in South Carolina and have lived my entire life in America, and I also have a published novel. My reading, however, has been almost entirely European. As has, I believe, the reading of most American novelists, though possibly contemporary writers are reading mostly other living writers and it's just old hermit crabs like me who remain in the dark. This is a personal failing on my part, as I believe it's incumbent upon me to read my fellows, especially as I want to be read during my lifetime.

I admit that I have an aversion to modern American novels, because I've been disappointed by a number of recent high-profile authors, and too many of my contemporaries seem to be caught up in the trap of trying to establish themselves as "American" writers. Maybe that's not necessarily a new phenomenon. Since the days of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Americans have been told that we must cast off the shadow of Old Europe and stand in the full light of the vigorous New World sun, which shines with the powerful light of independence and personal actualization. Or something like that. We are told, we American artists, that we have a calling, which is to "make it new." We are called to set our art apart from that of Europe, to prove that our books are made of stuff equal to the stodgy old volumes choking those poorly-visited libraries across the Atlantic. Possibly, you know, we're even superior to Dead Old Europe. In some writers this search for an authentic American voice has become a frantic crisis of personality. Reading these crisis narratives annoys the hell out of me.

Isn't the bigger problem with talking about "American" fiction that there is nothing new and interesting about it as fiction which has to do with America? I will discount subject matter, because anyone can write about anywhere these days. And they do. Simply by being an American, I am not therefore fascinated with America and its culture and politics. And simply by being about contemporary America, a novel does not become interesting, or more imporantly a good novel. Somewhere I read that American fiction is "art developing in parallel with the evolution of a colonial nation through an independence movement into a free democracy." Okay, maybe, but does anyone makes that claim about French literature since the Republic was declared? How many people will readily add American fiction to the category of "post-colonial fiction?" I am tempted strongly to deny that there is anything essentially "American" in American literature unless the author is self-consciously attempting to create a distinctly "American" fiction. I am strongly tempted to label that sort of self-consciously "American" writing as false, as being written in bad faith.

The more I read and write, the more I am convinced that everything has been done already. Modernist and Postmodernist narrative play was not invented in the late 20th century; it's as old as Lawrence Sterne, and maybe older. I might point a curious reader to chapter XII of The Iliad, where Homer steps out of the dramatic flow to remind us that we are listening to him tell us an old story, then he leaps ahead in time to describe the forces of nature washing away the Greek battlements long after Troy has fallen, just before he circles around and rejoins the battle, already in progress. Aren't whatever formal attributes one might claim for American fiction already the formal attributes of a previous fiction, art being a continuum of revolutions that lead nowhere in particular? There is no progress, only difference, et cetera?

What is new in a novel, or any work of art, but the character of the author? And America is, as they say, the melting pot, the land of immigrants, a divided nation of tribes, and all of that. Is there then a distinctly American voice? Just like everywhere else, there are a lot of voices, most of them not so distinct. I am pretty suspicious of the idea of contemporary American fiction except as a loose category denoting mostly language of composition and country of first publication. Language of composition might itself be questionable criteria, as I believe there are American novels being published by American publishers in all manner of tongues other than English. Where was I? Oh, yes, contemporary American fiction as a thing, as a meaningful term, is a problem for me. There are a lot of Americas, after all. Which statement itself is a cliche, I know, a common Americanism ("Look at us, the multiculture! We love and hate it!").

All that having been said, I am much interested in contemporary American fiction, whatever it is. I am, after all, a contemporary American fiction writer. I put a lot of belief into the idea that good contemporary fiction matters, no matter what its native land, because all good fiction matters. Novelists are not necessarily the abstract and brief chronicles of the time, but neither are they nothing. I am going to test my theories (or lack of them) about contemporary American fiction by reading a lot of it, which is something I've never really done.


This was the kind of light within which I could recast myself; I could lose my way in this light; I already sensed in the light the shadows of an existence I had yet to know and embrace. I sat at the table, turning the pages, my mind barely aware that I was reading, and my whole life was changing

--Orhan Pamuk
Of course as a writer I want the same thing any good reader wants: enchantment, bedazzlement, the annihilation of self within the powerful vision of the writer. But I'm always looking past the writer's glittering vision to seek out the machinery, the scaffolding and struts and miles of cabling that hold the whole together, often despite itself. Missing the forest for the trees is part of the job description, unfortunately, for novelists are called to grow our own forests and have, therefore, to shape and paint and position each individual tree. The luxury of enchantment with my own work belongs by and large to someone else, though I do long for it.

I have found two basic ways to approach the craft. The first is to work with the materials, to assemble and reassemble events/themes/characters/settings, to push and pull with what I have invented/discovered and to see what more I can add to it, looking for shapes to emerge and then reinforcing those shapes, hoping for surprising combinations of materials, looking and looking and looking for the novel within the gathered elements and the process. The other way is to ignore the usual components of a novel and first imagine a form, a network of symbols or themes or a long narrative shape of a particular type, and then work and work and work to fill that form up with the appropriate details in the appropriate order, carving and sanding away anything that detracts from the intended form until I hold in my hands a novel that matches as precisely as possible what I have imagined, with nothing to either draw the reader's attention away from my formal aims or to obscure the theme I'm attempting to illustrate. This latter method is the way of Flaubert, and Nabokov (though Nabokov's aims can be obscure to me, making reading his novels equivalent to solving a puzzle or passing a difficult exam while the proctor teases and hectors me). There also hybrid methods, including where one works with one's materials in a flux to see what will fall out, hoping to find a familiar shape among the surprises but having more-or-less of a form or a story in mind as one improvises away within the flux.

None of these methods is particularly easy, though I can imagine novice or naive writers using a template, a fill-in-the-blanks model of a novel where the author is called upon to supply only new surface details (setting, character names and appearances) while retelling a familiar story. There is actually software that lets a novelist choose from a list of "story types" and then--following a twelve-or-twenty step process--flesh out the plot points or fill in the empty character description boxes until, voilĂ , a finished novel fills the screen. Most novels fall into this written-to-a-template category (with or without the software), and most readers of novels hope for this sort of book because they are full of familiar flavors and easy on the digestion, though generally lacking in nutrients. Sweet or savory as they may be, even those novels that are immensely popular in their day pass from our awareness quickly enough. Few of these sorts of books last.

What does seem to last is the novel that is not written to the category of most novels. I am thinking just now of Middlemarch, which is a book without a clear-cut and predictable story structure and without a clear authorial opinion of its protagonist. Or one can think of Shakespeare's refusal (in his best works) to pass a moral judgment upon his Lears and his Hamlets, his Prosperos and his Juliets. We see how the plot turns out for these characters, but are the punishments and rewards deserved, meted out by the author as he would if he could give justice to these people in real life? Does he act as a proxy for the audience? Or are the plot machinations instead part of the grand symbolic design, ambiguous because Shakespeare did not presume to know God's opinion, or possibly even his own? I recently read somewhere that "tragedy" belongs exclusively to the ancient Greeks, because only they believed that divine forces were inexorably at play in the lives of tragic heroes, and we moderns (and even early moderns like Shakespeare) believe in causality but not fate, and for real tragedy, tragic fate is required. Hubris and mistakes are not fate, and that is what Shakespeare's tragedies are filled with. But Shakespeare's plays last, ambiguous as they are, spawning multiple interpretations with every passing generation of theater-goers and novelists. Shakespeare's plays last because they resist both interpretation and easy categorization; they are inexhaustible works of art, a well that never runs dry.

It is the same with novels. What does Don Quixote mean? or Moby-Dick? or Middlemarch? or Light in August? All of these books (and all of the best books) defy the reader and reward multiple readings because they are not what you expect. A good book is never what you thought it would be, even a good book you've read once (or twice or thrice) before.

My theory for why this is can only be based on my own experience as a novelist. I have only had one novel published (my poor little Astrologer), but I have written ten of them, and despite my sparse publication history I am going to go ahead and admit that I think pretty highly of, say, the last five novels I've written. I believe, on good days, that I know what I'm doing. And one thing I'm doing is following my instincts when I write. I do not necessarily mean any sort of writerly/artistic instincts, though I believe that with familiarity of craft comes an instinctual (or, I guess, habitual but swift) grasp of the writer's tools and one knows without thinking about it how to structure a scene or write dialogue or sketch a setting. No, what I mean by following my instincts is that I follow my instincts as a human being, writing down what seems right, what seems to fit, without analyzing how what I'm writing fits into some larger ideas of theme or morality I might think I'm pursuing. If I imagine a detail or a character or a symbol and I feel that it should go in the book even if I don't know why it should go into the book, in it goes. This means that there are always elements of my novels that I--the author of the novels--do not understand, have not interpreted, and often cannot interpret. So my conjecture is that the best novelists (well, maybe not all of them) create work that is in some ways impenetrable to even them, work that contains surprises even for them, work that even they do not fully understand. This instinctive, irrational element is a vital part of what gives the work its staying power. The eighteenth-century German literary critics dismissed Shakespeare because his plays lacked, in their eyes, a necessary unity. Tolstoy shared this opinion a century later, sputtering and baffled that people would watch this preposterous stuff. All of these critics missed the point: the disunity of the works, the failure of Shakespeare to fit into the mold of a considered aesthetic movement with definite aims and well-balanced methods, works to strengthen the hold the plays take on the imagination of the viewer. We do not understand life, it is preposterous, irrational, unpredictable and beautiful all at once, and Shakespeare (as do the best poets and novelists) gives us all of this, instead of giving us merely what we think we want.

I do not number myself among "the best poets and novelists," but I do think I'm onto something with this idea, and I believe my own best work strives in this direction despite all the advice I've received from the world of publishing.

November is German literature month

Yes, November is German literature month. What do I plan to read? I am already reading a book that qualifies: Volume I of Alexander Thayer's Life of Beethoven (first published in German in 1866). I will either still be reading that at the end of November, or I'll have moved on to Volume II. Thayer's book remains the standard biography of Ludwig van Beethoven, and has been updated by various editors over the last century and a half. Quite a fine book.

I also plan to read Erich Kastner's novel-for-kids Emil und die Detektive, of which I've owned a copy for about a year now, a copy that sits right above my desk, visible as I type this post. It's supposed to be entertaining, and I believe I can read it without much resort to my Langenscheidt. Depending on how that reading goes, I will take a run at In Einem Anderen Land, which is the German version of A Farewell To Arms, my favorite Hemingway novel. I will have my pocket Langenscheidt with me for that one, probably. I may also read some more German poetry if I stumble upon any.

I do not anticipate blogging about the Thayer biography, but I might post about the Kastner or the Hemingway. If I do, I will likely attempt to post in German, which guarantees a zero readership for those posts. I wonder what the Russian blogbots will do with that. I get a lot of hits from Russia, mostly for the same old post about watching Agatha Christie mysteries on Netflix. Go figure. What that says about modern Russia, I don't know.