Wednesday, January 30, 2019

not to feel a shiver

Last night I started reading Toni Morrison's 1970 novel The Bluest Eye. It is pretty good. I can see how it's influenced a whole wave of writers, and also how it is a child of books from a previous generation. What interests me at this moment is that Morrison's novel was written in the same year, more or less, as the Wallace Stegner novel I just finished. The Bluest Eye and Angle of Repose are wildly different in terms of literary style. Stegner is very much of the Tolstoy school, or maybe more James Michener, alas. Morrison is a modernist, using stream of consciousness and shifting points of view, her metaphors cropping up aggressively from the text, pulling and twisting at the narrative, with a broken version of a "Dick and Jane" story as an epigraph to each chapter. Also, some sections have a ragged right hand margin. Some sections are all in italics. Mighty Reader would tell me that a designer would hate this book. It reads very well, though. I have no idea why I haven't read this already.

School has started, and Frieda and I get new brown stockings and cod-liver oil. Grown-ups talk in tired, edgy voices about Zick's Coal Company and take us along in the evening to the railroad tracks where we fill burlap sacks with the tiny pieces of coal lying about. Later we walk home, glancing back to see the great carloads of slag being dumped, red hot and smoking, into the ravine that skirts the steel mill. The dying fire lights the sky with a dull orange glow. Frieda and I lag behind, staring at the patch of color surrounded by black. It is impossible not to feel a shiver when our feet leave the gravel path and sink into the dead grass in the field.

Our house is old, cold, and green. At night a kerosene lamp lights one large room. The others are braced in darkness, peopled by roaches and mice. Adults do not talk to us -- they give us directions. They issue orders without providing information. When we trip and fall down they glance at us; if we cut or bruise ourselves, they ask us are we crazy. When we catch colds, they shake their heads in disgust at our lack of consideration. How, they ask us, do you expect anybody to get anything done if you all are sick? We cannot answer them. Our illness is treated with contempt, foul Black Draught, and castor oil that blunts our minds.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

slipping on the loose earth

As I write this, I am about 460 pages into Wallace Stegner's 1971 novel Angle of Repose. I have maybe 90 pages to go. This book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and I can see why: it's a decidedly American novel, written about a period of transition, during a period of transition (though really, to misquote Frank Kermode, what modern period is not "transitional"?), and on the surface it's about historical transition. Absolutely "great American novel" stuff. It's a big novel, spanning a hundred years, most of the North American continent, and four generations of a family. Historical figures populate the background (Henry James is upstairs in one scene, though he pleads a headache and can't come join the conversation), and the sweep of history is matched by the sweep of the landscape, and Stegner's lovingly-detailed descriptions of mountain, prairie, and seaside. This book has so much going for it, and it's giving me some problems. I write about Stegner's novel now, before finishing the final 90 pages, because I'm sure that when I've reached the end of the book I will be well and truly done with Angle of Repose, and won't have the inclination to write about it.

There are a lot of good things to say about the novel, certainly. It's a well-formed story, it has a narrator who doesn't see that he and his wife are foil characters of his grandparents (whose biography the narrator is writing), it has mostly gorgeous prose, and it is chockablock full of period detail. It is, however, so very slow. The narrator, on page 450 or so, complains that he has only gotten his grandmother up to the age of 42, and he knows he will run out of time before he gets her to her 90s. The reader, I can assure you, feels a similar pressure of time. Why doesn't Stegner, I ask myself, get the hell on with it? The narrator is clearly moving toward a moment where he sees that in writing the biography of his grandparents, he is writing a sort of allegory for or fictionalized version of his own marriage, which has recently ended in divorce. Stegner navigates his way toward this moment at a snail's pace, dragging the novel down in a quite broad midsection that, like most American creatures, could stand to lose a good deal of weight. Yes, yes, I say, we get it. We understand the themes you're working, so can we have less repetition and more thematic development?

I'm not opposed to long novels. Last year I read War and Peace and a bunch of other long books. The year before last I finished In Search of Lost Time, which I'd begun the summer prior. Long books and I are on quite friendly terms. And yet. Stegner is spending most of his pages delaying the moment he's been setting up. I am not patient with that sort of thing. I should not read so structurally, so architecturally, so much like a fellow craftsman. But I do.

I'm being hard on Wallace Stegner, I know. There are some really great things about this book, not the least being the way that Stegner lovingly describes the wild western landscapes only to set the stage for pioneers who wish to cut and dig and break those landscapes, to make war upon nature with machines and animals, and to civilize it. Oliver Ward, the narrator's grandfather, spends a good deal of his time surveying immense territories, deciding which can be "made useful," and which cannot. It's easy to miss how these two elements of the book comment on each other. I also admit that I love the novel's title. Angle of repose refers to the steepest angle, or slope, at which loose material is stable, and will not slide. In the world of the novel, the narrator thinks of mining debris, of waste materials, when he thinks of the term. The novel moves, in its primary through-line, toward the narrator's grandparents finding their own angle of repose, that state in which they can stay put, and rest. By the time they reach that state, they are mostly debris, castoff, no longer of real value to the wider world. Their commercial riches have been milled out of them by life. A beautiful metaphor. Just very slow to reach, Mr Stegner.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

in haste

"Afternoon, ordinary time"

Some days when heaven is
A cloudless azure slate
The waxing moon is
Chalked there boldly

A portrait of itself
Drawn in pure white
By the hand of
A celestial artist

I think of my bones
Which one day might
(glowing calcium carbonate)
Sleep in the sun

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Dixi et animan levavi!

Last night we attended a fund-raising event for Seattle's Seagull Project, a theater group devoted to the plays of Anton Chekhov. The short story "A Play" was given a dramatic reading by Julie Briskman, and after a round of vodka for the house, David Quicksall (one of my favorite local actors) performed the one-man vaudeville "On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco" to a roomful of laughter. Every fund-raiser should be this good. I try to hide my disappointment that we did not win anything in the raffles, though probably the pickles wouldn't have survived the trip home.

We love the Seagull Project. Their "Three Sisters" in 2015 was one of the best performances of any play I've seen. "The Cherry Orchard" production of 2017 was very fine, and we're looking forward to opening night of "Uncle Vanya" on February 1st. We may stay for the after party with the cast.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

two murders, ice cream socials and

I have officially begun to draft a new novel, or rather I've picked up writing where I left off a year and a half ago, midway through the first chapter of a new novel. This will slow down my reading, probably. My plan for now is to keep this particular book (or this first draft, anyway) fairly short, maybe 70,000 words or so. It feels like a short book, at least today it does. I feel very good about this one: immigrants, madmen, two murders, ice cream socials and Shakespeare references. The usual stuff, if you're me. I think I have enough material gathered that I can get a draft out of the way by summer. In the meanwhile, I will be sending out a hundred query letters to literary agents in case someone wants to rep Antosha in Prague, my beautiful story collection.

Monday, January 7, 2019

or Hawthorne, for that matter

Lists! Who can resist them? This afternoon I stumbled upon a couple of old lists I've previously seen, the American Scholar lists of the "100 Best American Novels" from way back in 2014. There are two "100 Best" lists, because the original list by David Handlin was called into question by literary critic Sandra M. Gilbert, who provided her own list. They are both interesting lists, and I find that I have read more of the novels on Handlin's list, but more of the authors on Gilbert's list. I do not claim to know if that means anything in particular, but I share this because 1) I am in the midst of a "read a lot of American novels" project, and 2) we are all fascinated with ourselves.

Books from these lists that I have read:

Jack London, The Call of the Wild
Gertrude Stein, Three Lives
Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome  
Anzia Yezierska, Bread Givers
Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts
J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Frank Herbert, Dune
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Erica Jong, Fear of Flying
Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or The Whale
Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Herman Melville, The Confidence-Man
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage
Kate Chopin, The Awakening
Henry James, The Ambassadors
Willa Cather, My √Āntonia
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner, Light in August
William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust
Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter
Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
Joseph Heller, Catch-22
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire

Authors that I have read, but not their specific books from either of the two lists:

William Dean Howells
Sinclair Lewis
Thornton Wilder
John Steinbeck
Raymond Chandler
Saul Bellow
James Baldwin
Philip Roth
Norman Mailer
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Sarah Orne Jewett
Charlotte Perkins Gilman
E. E. Cummings
William Carlos Williams
Dashiell Hammett
Truman Capote
Katherine Anne Porter
Bernard Malamud
Samuel R. Delany
Joyce Carol Oates

Neither list is of course representative of the whole spectrum of American fiction, whatever one could possibly mean by "representative of the whole spectrum etc" of anything nontrivial. There have been a lot of books written by Americans (by whatever definition). Some of the books from these lists are books that I am not interested in reading, but I really must finally do something about Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. I've read essays by both of them, but none of their novels despite their being clearly important and influential writers. I am not willing to read more Roth or Mailer or Bellow. Or Hawthorne, for that matter.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

one final word from 2018

Boating Class, New Year's Eve

I can just make out the sails
A dozen white fins under low morning sun
Chasing one another in wide crawling orbits
No other thing visible
Save the beaten silver sheet of frigid water

My memory stammers, unable to recall
The name for the sails with which
These tiny borrowed vessels are rigged
There are words for everything
Even if we cannot discover them

The far shore has been lost all morning
Behind sheets of gray green mist
No more to be seen than
Boats and their struggling crews
Suggestions of shadows beneath
Glowing angles of hanging canvas

Within the bay the wind itself
Wound with white knots of breath
Laced vapors thickening the air
As I stand on the wet bank
Fists like ice in my pockets

Then the word comes to me
Fog, a cloud that kisses the ground
To help us forget
The stones to which we're bound


Hopefully in 2019 I will begin to write better poetry. I've started trying to let the poems show me what they want to be, rather than trying to make them into something in particular. Results mixed.