Friday, July 30, 2010

Lydia Davis, "Varieties of Disturbance: Stories"

The first time I came across Lydia Davis' work was in the Nerve "Naughty Bits" collection. It was a piece called "This Condition," and it's just about the sexiest thing you'll ever read, though my tastes on the matter have been known to be atypical. Since then I read her collections Almost No Memory and Break it Down and now this most recent collection.

Davis is typical and atypical of certain things about contemporary fiction, at least the kinds I'm most fond of. Some of the pieces are one line long, some are typical flash fiction length. She starts with situation, mood, tone. Many aspire to the condition of poetry. They're often hysterical. All the blurbs say there's no plot, but I don't think that's right. Take a piece like "Enlightened." It starts "I don't know if I can remains friends with her." The narrator talks about why: "I believe I am more enlightened now, and certainly more enlightened than she is, although I know it's not very enlightened to say that." I guess there isn't a plot because we don't know the events or conversations that have led to this revelation, but really, does it matter? You could say there isn't plot in the typical epiphanic sense, or you could say there's an epiphany every other line. They're lived in rather than unfolding across time - what it feels like inside a mind.

While I was in Seattle, my friend who is a fan of popular fiction was saying that she likes the commercial because the strengths are in character, plotting. Her husband likes short stories, she said, but she finds them frustrating because you don't get enough time with the characters. She's frustrated, wants more. Her husband and I said that's exactly what we want: to want more. I like to feel like I'm dipping into another world; I don't want or can't buy into that I actually live there. I think about that O'Hara line about not enjoying a blade of grass unless it's near a record store or another sign that people do not regret life - I can't enjoy an event or description unless a mind or some other sign of where this life comes from is near. Otherwise the world is more interesting.

Besides, you can't tell me a piece like "Head, Heart" lacks for one single thing:

Heart weeps.
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again.
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Dispatches from the Provinces: Middlemarch Chapters 11-21

I am currently sitting in the Isadora Duncan suite of a lovely B&B near the Haight Ashbury section of San Francisco. So, reading the Victorians in a Victorian! Quite lovely. Up until this morning, however, I was at my parent's suburban home, where I read this second set of chapters where you start to pull back from Dorothea's story and get a sense of the social landscape of Middlemarch. Now, being from the suburbs of a Midwestern city may not be the perfect socio-cultural analogy to the Midlands, but it got me thinking about the Provinces, following from Eliot's subtitle "A Study of Provincial Life." Of course the hero's move from the Provinces to the city is an ur-subject of the bildungsroman and the 19th century novel - here we have characters with those ambitions who don't move or who move and come back: Lygate had love in Paris but will have marriage perhaps in Middlemarch, Causaubon looks foolish to the younger would-be intellectual because he lacks German, and Dorothea honeymoon in Rome.

I love the description of Lygate and how he comes to his profession: until he discovers medicine everything comes easy and knowledge is something you just display. Medicine isn't about position for him but his position in Middlemarch cannot help but be part of the issue: hence his plan "to do good small work for Middlemarch, and great work for the world." And his admirer Rosamond - of course her provincial ambition is filtered through him. I love the description of her infatuation: "a stranger was absolutely necessary to Rosamond's social romance," which had always turned on a lover and bridegroom who was not a Middlemarcher." For young people, so often the idea of romance is that idea of being someone else, of being someplace else. But the unevenness between the girl who pours all of that into the young doctor, and the doctor who finds her fetching but is more taken with his book on Fever, leaves us with our narrator pitying them both.

And Dorothea! You start off wondering how she will slowly become disenchanted with her marriage, and instead we have her breaking down into sobs on her honeymoon- the realization comes all at once, as the husband sucks the life out of Rome. Every provincial has that moment of realizing that, if you're looking through the wrong eyes, all the art and culture that was supposed to take you somewhere else can't take you anywhere, but it's robbed you of the fantasy of escape.

Monday, July 12, 2010

"Her ideal nature demanded an epic life": 8 thoughts on the first ten chapters of Middlemarch

1) Once upon a time, when I was in high school, I had a certain teacher. In graduate school, the program I taught in had these peer mentoring groups, and the leader asked us to think about who our mentors were. I mentioned this certain teacher and there was an awkward moment: you weren't supposed to mention a high school teacher as a mentor. But she was. In any case, the year I graduated, she bought a book for each person in our class that, she said, thought of in some way as a match for us. She got me Middlemarch, which was her favorite novel. I remember her saying something about plowing through it when she was pregnant and housebound, and maybe that was the way you needed to appreciate it. Now, I've gotten through quite a few Big Books in my day, but for whatever reason this one has been on the shelf - has moved many shelves - until now. When I took it down, I was shocked to find that my copy (now broken at the spine) has an inscription from her that mentions my reading it "when the spirit moves me," so I hope she'll understand.

2) The prelude with Saint Theresa as setting the scene for Dorothea: "Her passionate ideal nature demanded an epic life . . . Her flame quickly burned up that light light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-depair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order." The idea of religion as an outlet for the otherwise unrecognized needs of girls and women is especially fascinating for me. In Mary Gordon's Circling My Mother, she talks about her mother's passionate relationship with various priests. In those days, she says, priests were the only ones who took a women's inner life seriously. Rationalists types (including myself) who don't like the hard line atheist line often talk about religion as a source of community, which is absolutely true, but sometimes we forget how much it's a source of/outlet for emotion. If you're young and passionate, God, good, evil, and all that feels the way life feels, that things matter, that everything is at stake.

3) "You have your own opinion about everything, Miss Brooke, and it is always a good opinion." Having opinions about things as a way of trying to exist in the world, a way to be known, understood . . .

4) Dorothea's desire to be taken seriously: so much of 19th century literature that takes on The Woman Question fights on this terrain: the question is women's mental acuity, moral nature. It's a question of fitness, about claiming a place in people's estimation, not in the world per say. I'm thinking of Margaret Fuller's extensive focus on what a woman properly educated would be capable of - that translating German is at the top of the list isn't just about class, it's about symbols of recognition. Or of the end of Persuasion: the heroine is rewarded in love because she speaks and proves women's greater capacity for love. It's odd to read this stuff in an era where defenders of sexism so often are the ones to tout women's alleged moral superiority.

5) Mr. Brooke: mansplainer?

6) Of course, 19th century novels with heroines most often end with marriage (comedy) or death (tragedy). That we start Middlemarch with Dororthea's engagement to Casaubon announces a different kind of story. I also love how chapter 10 ends with this understated account of the marriage: "Miss Brooke, however, was not again seen by either these gentlemen under her maiden name. Not long after the diner-party she had become Mrs. Casaubon, and was on her way to Rome." Maybe that's why my copy has a quote from Virginia Woolf calling it "one of the few English novels written for grown up people."

7) Dorothea's attraction to Casaubon and the question of perspective. If writers, filmmakers bothered more to look at relationships between older men and younger women though the eyes of the younger woman, we might often see what we see here: the longing to be taken seriously, for knowledge, and for some kind of place in the world, even though Casaubon is no world-breaker. But it seems that just as we get a taste of this, the perspective starts moving around. Even as our gentle narrator says, judge not harshly the middle-aged man's spinely legs, we see in their descriptions - his blood runs semicolons, something of truth. Not to mention: his big project is The Key to all Mythologies. He's perhaps a higher quality mansplainer, like Mr. Ramsey in Woolf's To the Lighthouse, who will get to R when everyone else is stuck on Q.

8) On Casaubon leaving middle-aged bachelorhood, and a representative passage of what's gotten me hooked: "Poor Mr. Casaubon had imagined that his long studious bachelorhood had stored up for him a compound interest of enjoyment, and that large drafts on his affection would not fail to be honoured, for we all of us, grave our light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them. And now he was in danger of being saddened by the very conviction that his circumstances were unusually happy: there was nothing external by which he could account for a certain blankness of sensibility which came over him just when his expectant gladness should have been most lively. . . "

Monday, July 5, 2010

"As Seen by Toads": Week 2, #1: The New Yorker, 20 under 40 issue

So, apparently, according to a recent article in The Nation, Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary gave this definition of realism: "The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads." Now, as it so happens, when I started playing around with fiction a few years back, it seemed to me that what I was interested in trying to do was, for a lack of a better term, psychological realism. I went to workshops where some people wrote about wise talking flounders (they were usually the guys) and the others (me and usually many of the women) wrote about a variety of topics that were nonetheless about homo sapiens in a world basically resembling ours, interacting with each other in ways that recall the way non-fictional people sometime interact with one another. Seeing as how the talking flounder camp liked to see themselves as heirs to every modernist, postmodernist, and magical realist they could name (and boy could they name them!) and tended to look at the actual world folks as backwards: too nineteenth century, too domestic, too female. Perhaps I was being sensitive. I developed this little rap about the 30s and realists being the real radicals and all that.

After playing with writing for a while, though, and reading fiction through that experience, I started to look at it differently. I started to think that there's no such thing as realism. A great teacher told me what I was trying to do was "describe how the happening happens," which might be another way of saying psychological realism, but it doesn't feel like realism when you try to do it. I don't mean that in that "artistic creativity doesn't fit those tiny critical boxes" kind of way. I just mean that I've started to think about the way all good fiction heightens, punches up, alters things. Contemporary fiction we often think of as realist often does this by condensing and distilling time, scene, character: hence the iconic role of extra spaces between paragraphs. Of course, you learn in school that modernism was where you get authors playing with time, like the great "Time Passes" from To The Lighthouse. But every work of fiction deals with the central question: how to tell a story that may take place over five years in ten pages, or ten minutes in 30 pages. The backwards time structure of Underworld didn't do that much for me, but I chocked up when a character's old age is described with something like 'time had passed quickly, like the time in a novel.' The great realist writers always have those moments where you feel the strangeness of experience recalled and condensed, the strangeness of life.

So. My favorite story in the "20 under 40" issue (which had 8 of the 20) was the most 'experimental' or whatever, Jonathan Safran Foer's "Here We Aren't So Quickly" It describes a lifelong relationship and marriage through a series of selected details. It's not told from the point of view of old age recalling youth; instead it's a voice removed from the whole of life, looking down at the string and trying to figure out why one point should mean more than another:
And here we aren't, so quickly: I'm not twenty-six and you're not sixty. I'm not forty-five or eighty-three, not being hoisted onto the shoulders of anybody wading into any sea. . . Everything else happened - why not the things that could have?
Two of the stories, by Joshua Ferris and Gary Shteyngart, try to take their punch up from reality through humor and satire, and really really didn't work for me. Basically, their satire revolved around the fact that some people in Hollywood are assholes, except aspiring screenwriters who are nice but a little lazy (Ferris) and that the future will be bleak because no one will read books or really try to communicate except our nebbishy hero. Then there were the stories by Philipp Meyer and Rivka Galchen, which really didn't seem to have any punch up at all: that is, they described things that happened to people. And as far as I could tell that was all they did, and it wasn't enough, though of course I could be missing something. I feel this a lot with memoirs: it's not that writing about yourself is self-induglent, just that when self-indulgent people do write about themselves they think what happened is interesting enough.

"Why not just say what happened?" Joan Didion asks in "On Keeping a Notebook." She's restless with herself, mistrusts her accounts of things, she bears down and squeezes the rock.
ETA: Hmm, the June 28th story is really good too: a writer uses a terrifying story she hears at a dinner party in her book and dreads running into the person who told it to her. That's about it, but she gets at the strangeness of it, and by coming at it by this angle, with this remove, the original terrifying story holds us in a way it can't when, as in the Meyer story, it's just something that happens. The story is by Nicole Krauss. So, advantage Park Slope power couple.

By the way, in the same issue, the consistently wonderful Ariel Levy gives "kinder face of the right" Mike Huckabee just enough rope to hang himself. His big draw seems to be that no one could picture him in a sex scandal. Because folkies ex-ministers never have them! The secret of his marital success: "I think we both went into it understanding it was for life. . . I've always said, 'If you believe divorce is an option, you'll take it." In the next paragraph, the happy couple goes to a Pat Boone concert where one of the songs contained this similarly moving homage to the sacred marital bond: "What is a wife?. . . A patient soul that picks up my dirty socks and underwear and handkerchiefs and washes them and puts them back in the drawer so she can do the whole thing again, next week"

Earlier, Levy challenges him to make an argument against gay marriage that isn't based on religion or his personal sense of 'ickiness.' He flounders, but he should have just asked Boone. If men marry men, or women women, how do you know who's supposed to wash the underwear?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Week 1, #2: "I was full of references. He was full of light and shadow.": Patti Smith, "Just Kids"

I was outside Greenlight Bookstore in Ft. Greene the other night and noticed a book that had collected the stories of prominent New Yorkers talking about the moment they first arrived in New York. Now, there's at least one obvious problem with this, excluding, as so many stories about the city do, the people who grow up here. There's also the whole lost golden era thing. Ah yes, we think, back then people could come with no money, find a cheap place, work at a bookstore. . . and that kind of nostalgia for what you never lived through (the only kind of nostalgia I'm ever vulnerable to) is kind of boring, and probably wrong in a whole bunch of ways.

But then you read Patti Smith's memoir, and she comes to New York after working in a factory in Jersey and giving up a baby for adoption at twenty and right away by coincidence she meets Robert Mapplethorpe, then he comes into the, yes, bookstore, where she's working and buys her favorite necklace, then she runs into him in the park when she needs to get away from a creepy writer she went out with because she was hungry, and they fall in love, and they're still artistic soulmates after he discovers he's gay, and she makes extra money buying up first editions and reselling them, and they actually live at the Chelsea Hotel, where Janis Joplin hangs around without an entourage or anyone bothering her, and eventually she meets Janis Joplin and writes a song for her, and she writes poetry, and when she starts reciting poetry it's at St. Marks, and when she decides to start writing songs and then performing them it's at CBGBs, and she's about the only person on earth who can compare herself to Baudelaire and Rimbaud and get away with it. And did you know she tried to track down Rimbaud's lost writings, went to his hotel? She's just that kind of person, the person that these things happen to, and so yeah, it's a romantic and nostalgic book. What of it?

Of course, nostalgia is always about loss too, and along with Patti and Robert creating and meeting all the right people, the other thing that happens in Just Kids is that people die. Jim Morrison dies and Patti writes "Break it Up" about him Jimi Hendrix dies and she writes "Land" about him and Janis Joplin dies and never gets to sing the song Patti wrote for her. Years later, after Patti has moved to Detroit with Fred Sonic Smith, Robert calls Patti distraught that Andy Warhol has died, and then Robert's partner Sam dies and then Robert dies, and Patti writes "Paths that Cross."

The nostalgia and the elegy and the romanticism all work so well in part because this is such a fundamentally sweet book. The portrait of Mapplethorpe as a young vulnerable and protective artist finding his way is especially moving if you think about the way he became the anti-NEA poster boy in the eighties. His photographs, which you get a taste of throughout the book through reproductions that follow the story, are breathtakingly beautiful. He saw his S&M stuff as something he had access to and therefore a duty to record. His image as someone looking to shock makes all the more heartbreaking his and poignant his reaction when Patti tells him she's leaving New York: "My mother still thinks we're married." Sady Doyle has a typically awesome piece that notes how much she defends his work, and how reticent she is in describing her own artistic and sexual daring. She's right, and her observations about how women who write without that reticence get slammed are of course spot on. I don't know if Smith is holding back, so much, as telling a different kind of story than the one her music tells. I remember reading a profile of Almadovar where someone expressed surprise that he was being very critical of a colleague who had an affair. "Your characters are so sexually out there!" someone said, and he said "That's art. This is real life." So many people are moralizing in their work or public presentation and then "fail to live up to it," if they're even trying. Patti and Robert pour their wildness into their work, and with each other they were tender and protective and kept their vow to take care of one another. It's hard to know what counts as bohemian, or countercultural, but this combination is certainly something we could use more of.