Stegner’s Curmudgeon

spectator-birdIn Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird, Joe Allston, ex-New York literary agent, has retired to a quiet suburban life in Palo Alto in the 1970’s. One day he gets an innocuous postcard from an acquaintance Denmark he and his wife met on a European trip twenty years earlier. That postcard prompts him to retrieve his travel journal from the attic and in the rest of the novel, he reads it, most of it aloud to his wife, Ruth. They reminisce about the trip and the people they met, and about their long-standing marriage. The End.

The story line is boring as dirt and doubly unbelievable. The travel diary is written in detailed, writerly, third-person prose, not the least bit convincing. Diary-writing has its own special syntax and content, which Joe’s does not. So the diary is just a framing device to tell a long, elaborate backstory, foregrounded by a smaller, lighter story about Joe and Ruth in the present tense. Clever, but who wants to see a stage set’s scaffolding?

The second unbelievable aspect is the diary’s story, which involves the couple bumping into a Danish aristocrat manqué, renting a room from her, then visiting her old castle in the country, where they learn all sorts of dark secrets about her and her family, culminating in the revelation that Joe might actually be related to her!  What are the probabilities? It’s not only an uninteresting story, it’s not the least believable.

The best part of the book is the expertly crafted writing. Every scene is written to perfection, with a purpose and a beginning, middle, and end. Every paragraph likewise. Every sentence. Anyone with experience writing cannot help but admire the craftsmanship, and that’s what it amounts to – not lyricism, not deep insight, not innovation, not provocation. The book is simply very well-written, lack of a plausible or compelling story notwithstanding. The characters are likewise cutouts and puppets. Joe is a mouthpiece for the author’s rants about life, old age, society and marriage and Ruth is his foil.

Nearly every chapter opens with extensive description of the weather and the scenery, and most close with the same. The weather!  I thought at times that if I had to read one more paragraph about pewter clouds I was going to spit. It’s no wonder that young writers today are told never to do that. It’s damn boring. I’ve read good weather descriptions, such as in the last pages of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, but Stegner’s weather is bland and unimaginative, like his scenery – literally the foliage and the quality of the dirt on the ground. That kind of writing-for-the-sake-of-writing would not pass the gatekeepers today. I’ve read good description of scenery that subtley serves as objective correlative, as in the opening scene of  Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge.  Stegner had no excuse and it was a slog to get through a lot of purple prose.

A couple of thematic ideas maintain some interest through the novel. The main one involves kinship, genealogy, eugenics, and Nazis. The heart of the aristocratic revelations in Denmark is that the family is riddled with incest, has been for decades, and still is. The patriarch was interested in breeding humans like cattle for “desirable” traits and conducted his own experiments within the family, the methods and outcomes of which are not detailed.  We are simply supposed to be shocked at the idea of incest.  It’s a cheap shot at sensationalism, not a principled inquiry. Maybe that was shocking in 1970. I wasn’t shocked.

One of the secondary, off-screen characters was supposed to have been a Nazi sympathizer, so you have the whiff of Nazi racial theories, but again, not as a developed idea and not linked to the incest theme, just a cheesy titillation. And finally, Stegner raises the weird idea that people love each other because of the relatedness of their genes. What’s wrong with incest, the narrator asks, if the people really do love each other, as long as they don’t reproduce too much. Is the best love really self-love?  It’s an interesting idea, but like the others, not developed and not tied into the main story development, just thrown out there for sensationalism.

Another theme is about ageism. Joe, who is 69, rants about being excluded from society because he is old, and raves on about how the old values were better, and belittles the lifestyles of reckless, amoral youth, all the while wondering if somehow life has passed him by, because he never “did” anything. It’s not exactly an original theme, but there are a few moments of poignant sentimentality.

A final theme is about marriage – what makes a good one, how one should behave in a marriage and how one often does not, and its redeeming virtues.  As a long-time married guy myself, I could recognize Joe’s thoughts and anxieties, but did not find them interesting.

Joe was just not an interesting character. For all his erudite allusions and educated sarcasm, he was a narrow –minded, burned-out curmudgeon who apparently had lived his life entirely externally, valuing physical and social achievements, a mere “spectator bird” in the garden of life. Despite his introspective voice, he apparently never developed any genuine interiority, any authentic sense of self. He has no interests, passions, or guiding vision. So if you live an empty life, focused on the outside, you end up hollow in the end. How could it be otherwise?

Joe was presented as an empty shell who seemed to realize at the end that he was an empty shell. That’s a theme worthy of a novel, but in this one, it is just a sub-theme, suggested but not deeply explored.  Updike did it better in his Rabbit series.

A few years ago I tried to read Angle of Repose, supposedly Stegner’s masterpiece and couldn’t get past fifty pages, it was so boring. I tried Spectator Bird because it was short and supposedly good, having won the National Book Award in 1977.  I found a few mild attractions, but this is definitely the end of my Stegner exploration.

Stegner, Wallace (1976). The Spectator Bird. New York: Quality Paperback/Doubleday/Bantam/Random. 200 pp.

LA Trickle-Down Gossip

los_angeles_city_viewI’m exhausted after selling my mother-in-law’s two-bedroom house in Los Angeles. She’s downsizing to an assisted-living place and I’ve become aware again of muscles I only vaguely remember from my youth, after packaging nearly everything and cleaning the place. It’s amazing how much stuff can be stored in a garage.

devito-1However, as a benefit, it being L.A., one always bumps against the entertainment industry bubbles of life from which we mortals are ordinarily excluded. You just can’t avoid it. For example, among the recent trips I’ve made to the city over the last few years, I accidentally met Danny DeVito and Mickey Rooney.

Rooney was in a restaurant in a fancy hotel (I was staying on a coupon), and this was just before he died and he had blimped into a sphere, unrecognizable except for his voice, which sounded exactly as it did in 1940. I said hello, big fan, and all that nonsense, and he was angry and mean. “Oh yeah? What’s the last movie you saw me in?” he challenged. “Young Tom Edison?” I ventured (not being a Judy Garland fan). “Bah!” he said dismissively. Of course he had a right to be angry and mean. He had lost his fortune many times over, most lately to swindlers who took advantage of him. Still, he was Mickey Rooney and I wasn’t.

I encountered Danny DeVito at a different hotel, where he was doing a movie shoot. I don’t know what movie it was but he was dressed up as some kind of yachtsman, with the blue blazer and sea-captain’s hat with scrambled eggs on the visor. He approached a white limo that pulled up to the front of the hotel, and was supposed to greet a tall, slender woman in a shiny red dress who emerged.  I don’t know how it was supposed to go because the director kept yelling “Cut!” and everybody went back to the start and the two actors never did talk. I don’t know what was wrong with the scene. Looked good to me.

Meanwhile, I was trying to get into my hotel, but my wife and I were nudged away by a crew member who directed us to a side door because “it’s a wide shot and you don’t want to be in it.”  Well, who says we didn’t want to be in it? Besides, I was the paying customer at the hotel, not him. Side door, indeed! (Maybe we were the reason the director yelled cut?)

But Hollywood trumps civilian life in Los Angeles, so it was the side door for us. (And I should note, it rained that night and it turns out this fancy hotel had rats in its walls scratching furiously until dawn.  Nothing in L.A. is what it looks like).

affleckOn my last trip, I was supervising/helping the moving guys get my mother-in-law’s stuff to a storage locker. During a break, one of the grayed moving guys, in his fifties, I’d guess – ex-con, deeply creased face, fully tattooed, heavily sweating, revealed that he’d moved Ben Affleck once and reported that he was a good actor, but – and here he lowered his voice in confidentiality – his tattoos were lame and had too much color.  Wow, who knew that was a criterion for social judgment? Still, it was titillating to be within so few degrees of separation of the immortals.

Another mover however, topped that story, saying he had moved author Sidney Sheldon’s widow several times – practically had an ongoing contract with her for moving. They had five houses around the area extending up to Palm Springs, all of the spreads huge, and every time she downsized he had to move stuff into storage for her. She had rented twelve of the largest lockers in this very storage place into which I was moving my mother-in-law’s stuff. Imagine that! Sidney Sheldon’s widow’s stuff! It could be behind any one of these corrugated doors, I marveled.

“I must have moved fifty million dollars’ worth of art,” the gray-bearded mover told me (Hopefully it was moved to some other location than the tawdry steel locker complex we were currently working in). “She had impressionists, Picassos, you name it,”) he said. Nice to know. And nice to know that if you’re among the glitterati in Los Angeles, even your moving guys will tell stories. Despite his grunting however, I don’t think graybeard will recall anything noteworthy about my mother-in-law’s enormous 1960’s-era, glass-fronted china cabinet.

These are the coins of conversational trade in Los Angeles, and that’s my pocketful.

Escapist Nonfiction

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Though I’ve sworn off writing nonfiction, having left that life behind, sometimes the siren song is irresistible, so when I saw a call for papers on the topic of phenomenology and religion, I was tempted. I knocked out a 300-word abstract and sent it in.

The good news is that the abstract and the paper it implies were accepted. The bad news is that now I have to write the paper, which I’ll read at a conference in Berkeley in December, and which will appear as a chapter in a printed book later.

Why did I do it?  I’ve been keen on the subject of phenomenology for years. I used to think it was a rigorous method of introspection that could be used for exploration of the mind. As a cognitive psychologist, that has always been my overriding motivation – what is the mind and how can we study it?

edmund_husserl_1I read philosophical work by Edmund Husserl, the inventor of phenomenology, all translated into English from German, most of it impenetrable. The more I studied, the more I realized phenomenology was a useful method but fundamentally flawed by unexamined assumptions, including essentialism, elementalism, epistemological dualism, scientism, and commitment to sense-data. These limitations prevent it from being a fully successful methodology for examining the mind. It was, and still is, useful in analysis of relatively well-defined problems.

Religion, that’s another thing I’ve been interested in for many years – not so much formal religion defined by churches, but spiritual experience, ranging from Maslow’s “peak-experiences” to William James’s pragmatic psychology of religious experience. I call myself a non-theist rather than an atheist because I don’t know what atheists are trying to deny. But I do believe human beings have a richer experience than standard psychological categories admit, and much of that can be called spiritual or religious experience.

So along comes a conference on phenomenology and religious experience.  Who could pass that up?  Well, probably most people could. But not me. I succumbed.

patriarchThe conference leaders and attendees are intimidating academics and philosophical clergy, most from the Bay Area but some from Bulgaria, of all places, affiliates of Eastern Orthodox Christianity and a conference co-sponsor in Sofia.  These people seriously know what they’re talking about, whereas I just have some ideas I developed myself. So I’ll probably get ripped apart at the conference, but I don’t mind. It’s an experience.

My paper will point out one flaw in traditional Husserlian phenomenology, its unexamined commitment to epistemological dualism, the intrinsic separation of knower from known. In phenomenology, you keep the object of contemplation at arm’s length, so to speak, and examine it, much as you would study an object perceptually.

Religious experience however, to the extent it can be defined, often involves a sense of non-dualism, the feeling that you are “one with the cosmos,” or not separate from the object of contemplation. So if religious experience is epistemologically nondual, but phenomenology entails dualism, well, they’re incompatible.

But wait!  All is not lost. I will offer a fix for this mismatch. I will propose extending the traditional phenomenological method with meditative techniques designed to achieve a nondual state of consciousness.  What could be better than that?

The main problem is, I’m not sure I can do that in a way understandable for attendees to a conference committed to both phenomenology and religion. But that’s the creative challenge.  I’m also waaay out of touch with current academic literature, so citations and references are going to be hard to come by.  But hey, they accepted the paper, so that means they accepted the paper.

Tough as this writing assignment is, it’s still easier than writing fiction, and maybe that’s why I’m doing it.  It’s a kind of escapism for me. I’m so bad.

Hard-Boiled Entertainment

Murakami Hard BoiledThis is my second Murakami experience and it was a good one. I read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and found it relentlessly inventive but not much else. Hard-Boiled, however, has plenty of chewy meat beneath the author’s famous razzle-dazzle style.

The style alone is worth the read however. Consider, for example, a weird variant on chess in which “Ape takes High Priest, you realize? Go ahead, I say. I move a Parapet to cover the Apes’ retreat.” (p. 84). Murakami’s creativity has layers of ironic humor. Ape takes high priest, indeed! How about a vast library filled with, not books, but animal skulls. To read them, you put your hands on each side of a skull and concentrate. Ideas and images fill your head. That tops any library J.L. Borges ever described. Even at the sentence level, descriptions rarely turn out as you might have expected. “[I was] alone again, asleep like a tuna.” (p. 126). I did not see that “tuna” coming. The author’s writing style is consistently interesting and entertaining.

Structurally, the story involves two unnamed, first-person narrators, who we suspect are the same person. They tell different stories in alternating chapters, one in past tense and one in present tense, and both stories are good. Each involves the narrator trying to solve a mystery and simultaneously establish a relationship with a girl. In one story, the mystery is how the hero can get out of a strange, walled-in utopian town (called End of The World), from which no one has ever escaped, and to do that before his mind becomes erased, turning him into an unreflective but contented drone (along the lines of The Truman Show, The Prisoner, and even Odysseus on Circe’s island). It’s a contrived and well-worn story but Murakami makes it interesting with unexpected details.

In the second story the narrator is an information technologist in a futuristic Tokyo who discovers that a secret code has been implanted in his brain/mind which makes him an exceptional programmer but in only a day or two the implant will malfunction, killing him. Can he beat the system with the help of a mad professor? In this story, Murakami indulges his fondness for Chandleresque “hard-boiled” description, the other half of the complex title.  After waking up, the narrator looks in the mirror and sees “My puss was puffy like cheap cheesecake.” (p. 128-9).

Chandler famously advised mystery writers that when the pace of a story was sagging, just have a man with a gun appear at the door and move on from there. Dutifully, Murakami writes, “I finished my potato salad, I finished my beer, and just as I was about to burp, the steel door blew wide open and banged flat down. Enter one mountain of a man, wearing a loud aloha shirt…” (p. 131).

Overarching these silly but well-written stories is a set of serious ideas about the nature of consciousness. In one story, the protagonist is separated from his shadow. The shadow is put to work as a laborer and is not pleased, but warns the hero that if he hopes to retain his mental independence he’d better make a map of the walled town. It’s not quite a Jungian shadow, but it’s definitely an allegorical aspect of consciousness. In the parallel story, the hero is inhibited in contacting the mad professor by the lethal inklings lurking along his subterranean path. Inklings of intuition, perhaps? Layer upon layer of suggestions such as these describe a fraught relationship between the logical conscious mind (e.g., of a programmer) and whatever lurks beneath.

The narrator also indulges playfully with popular culture, including songs, movies, cars, and food. The Tokyo hero is an aesthete and his comments and preferences are often sophisticated and will delight the sophisticated reader. Also, for anyone familiar with downtown Tokyo and the subway system, it’s a pleasure to travel around with the narrator, from the underground city of Shinjuku Station to the hip Aoyama district.

While the story lines in this novel are not its main attraction and the characters only sketchy, the humor, layers of subtlety and the sheer force of Murakami’s writing make this novel unlike anything else out there and a unique enjoyment.

Murakami, Haruki (1991). Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. New York: Random/Penguin/Vintage. (400 pp.).

Woolf in the Lighthouse!

Lighthouse-2To the Lighthouse is a novelistic exploration of individual consciousness and of relationships in the interwar period in Britain. Woolf uses a stream of consciousness technique to tell us what characters are thinking and feeling. The narrator promiscuously jumps from one head to another, so much so that a reader can lose track of whose POV is being expressed. It’s easy to see why such head-hopping is verboten for writers today.

Another odd format is run-on paragraphs. Today we start a paragraph whenever a new character is speaking or thinking, and certainly whenever the POV changes. Woolf runs it all together, including direct quotations, which are rare and marked only with apostrophes, not quotation marks. All this makes TTL a more difficult reading experience than it needs to be, but that could be just my edition, which is from the 1980’s.

In any case, Woolf’s stream of consciousness technique is more convincing and compelling than Joyce’s. Joyce rambled on in unending but articulate and precise sentences, which is not how people think, but Woolf’s characters think in small, impressionistic, disjointed nonsequiturs, along with a few coherent discourses. So I could relate to her characters as I never could to Joyce’s.

The sentences are lovely, often long and writhing like a vine up a post but probably that would count as too much description in today’s literature. Few people have the patience or the short term memory to parse half-page sentences. And lovely as they are, more than a few of them would qualify, by today’s standards, as “purple prose,” unnecessarily over the top.

“The spring without a leaf to toss, bare and bright like a virgin fierce in her chastity, scornful in her purity, was laid out on the fields wide-eyed and watchful and entirely careless of what was done or thought by the beholders.” (p. 123)

Thematically, the depths are deep and for me, that’s the main attraction. In the opening section of three, constituting about half the book, Mrs. Ramsay, a beautiful and wealthy woman in her fifties is at a country house in a Scottish Isle with her eight children, husband, and a half-dozen others, friends and servants. They variously talk and walk, remember and hope and regret, and have a lavish dinner party for which they all “dress,” and they wonder if the weather will clear enough for them to take a boat out to the lighthouse.

During the opening section, Mrs Ramsay holds the POV most of the time and wonders how it is possible that she feels simultaneously so close to everyone and alienated from them, especially her husband. She feels she knows nothing about him and he, nothing about her, even after thirty years of marriage and eight children. And yet she knows exactly what he is thinking; and she assumes he knows what she is thinking, but she is still pained by that feeling of alienation that she can hardly express, even to herself. This is a compelling paradox, one that any thoughtful person has confronted. No matter how close you get to someone, you always feel alone. Even when you’re not alone, you’re alone. Woolf conveys this idea in a gut-punching way that is nothing short of magical.

“How then, she had asked herself, did one know one thing or another thing about people, sealed as they were? Only like a bee, drawn by some sweetness or sharpness in the air intangible to touch and taste, one haunted the dome-shaped hive, ranged the wastes of the air of over the countries of the world alone, and then haunted the hives with their murmurs and their stirrings; the hives which were people. “ (p. 51)

Woolf’s favorite word in this novel is “suddenly,” which is odd because nothing much really happens in this story. There isn’t even much dialog. It’s almost entirely the disjointed thoughts and feelings of several characters. ‘Suddenly’ conveys that characters’ minds are not under their control. Mrs Ramsay is thinking about her child, when ‘suddenly’ she understands she is utterly alone, or suddenly she is struck with a brilliant plan, or suddenly she is overcome with fatigue, and so on. It’s as if she were a cork bobbing on the sea of her own feelings and ideas. Maybe that’s how Woolf’s brain worked and maybe that’s how she experienced inner life. She was, after all, a disturbed soul who eventually committed suicide. It’s interesting to see how she paints a picture of interiority so uncontrolled and self-interrupting. Maybe it’s just a literary technique to keep the pace going rather than an autobiographical tic. But several passages describe feelings of depression so vividly that a reader who knows something about Woolf’s biography is devastated with sympathy.

A strong oedipal theme is played out, directly tracking Freud’s then-recently published book on childhood sexuality, and we know Woolf read Freud assiduously.  While it might have been a daring and innovative idea at the time, it hasn’t aged well and now this theme seems to stand out as a strangely foreign insert into in the novel, although her separate, allegorical sex scene is one of the most graphic in all of literature.

“The strain became acute. For in one moment if there was no breeze, and his father would slap the covers of his book together and say: ‘What’s happening now? What are we dawdling about here for, eh?’ as, once  before he had brought his blade down among them on the terrace and she had gone stiff all over and if there had been an axe handy, a knife, or anything with a sharp point he would have seized it and struck his father through the heart.” (p. 172).

Another deep theme is a meditation on the nature of time. How does time seem to be full of feelings and experiences and yet the next day, even the next minute, it’s as if those experiences never happened? In the second section of the book, some years have passed, the war is either on or over, nearly everybody’s dead, and the house is deserted and derelict. The narrator describes the rotting wood, moss-covered floors, peeling wallpaper, and an old cleaning woman who remembers the good old days.  How could those loud, colorful dinner parties full of laughter and conversation have ever happened here, and where are they now?  Woolf considers that paradox numerous times and seems to decide that while memories of events are frozen snapshots, experience as lived is a process through time, and those two are incompatible.

“If the feather had fallen, if it had tipped the scale downwards, the whole house would have plunged to the depths to lie upon the sands of oblivion, …Mrs. McNab, Mrs Bast stayed the corruption and the rot; rescued from the pool of Time that was fast closing over them now a basin, now a cupboard; fetched up from oblivion all the Wavery novels and a tea-set one morning… It might well be, said Mrs McNab, wantoning on with her memories; they had friends in eastern countries; gentlemen staying there, ladies in evening dress; she had seen them once through the dining-room door all sitting at dinner. Twenty she dared say in all the jewllery and she asked to stay help wash up, might be till after midnight. “(p. 130)

One of my favorite themes in the novel is Woolf’s description of the writing process, presented by analogy to the process of painting. The secondary main character, a young woman named Lily, who obviously represents Woolf herself, attempts to actualize her imagination in paint, much as Woolf was trying to do with words in writing this novel. The result is a marvelous commentary on the process of writing.

“What was the problem, then? …Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything. Get that and start afresh; get that and start afresh; she said desperately, pitching herself firmly again before her easel. It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on. “ (p. 178).

Finally, perhaps the deepest theme involves the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ We all have asked it, as do Lily and Mrs Ramsay repeatedly. Various answers are tried and found wanting. The central meaning is love, relationships, or maybe it is fulfilling social roles, like marriage, or maybe it is children. Maybe it is academic or literary fame? Maybe it is something men know and women don’t. My guess is that the question is finally answered by Lily the artist at the end of the novel. The meaning of life is process of expression of oneself into the world as best one can.

“There it was – her picture. Yes, with all its green and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something. It would be hung in the attics, she thought; it would be destroyed. But what did that matter? She asked herself taking up her brush again… I have had my vision.” (p 191-2).

These deep themes, embedded in some enchanted writing, is what makes this novel, and all of Woolf’s novels, so compelling that I don’t even care if plot has been abandoned.

Woolf, Virginia (1927/1983). To the Lighthouse.  London: Panther. (192 pp.)

Getting to Know My Characters

Fencing2My new novel is developing slowly. I have 7,000 words since I started writing on August 1. That’s 500 words a day,  a couple of pages, respectable, but I haven’t been feeling momentum.

I think they’re “good” words, in the sense that I’ll be able to keep most of them. Usually I end up scrapping the first two thousand words I write because the story doesn’t get going until after that but it takes me that long to find the path forward. In this project, I have been laying up some early backstory but since there is no earthquake or alien invasion coming up, I’m not feeling compelled to start the story on the cusp of some great catastrophe, which is what one should do. This project is “literary,” and literary is supposed to be boring, dammit.

I hope it’s not really boring. My character is facing conflicts, but they’re of the domestic variety, not end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it. I confess I’m having a hard time “getting into” my main character, partly because he’s only seventeen years old and that age was  another incarnation for me, one I can barely remember, and also because he’s living around 1900, which is a very alien world from our modern one. I assume readers will face the same difficulties, so I’m struggling to bring the character to life.

I think he’ll be more lively when I get him off the farm and into the university. He’s an intellectual kid who is not successful in farm life, but he should find his pace in academia, as so many of us did. Anyway, the main point of this story is to illuminate some ideas about perception and consciousness that interest me, and I can’t do that while he’s milking cows.

Why don’t I just start him out at the university then? Because I want him to come in ill-prepared, an outsider who follows his own pathways, doesn’t drink the kool-aid (as we used to say), and is more interested in finding out what’s true than how to get ahead. That will be the conflict that blows him out of the university, eventually.

Also explaining my sluggishness, I’m halfway through Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and it’s intimidating. She can pick out the subtlest thread of consciousness and make it glow as if it were the filament in an incandescent bulb. I close the book and I think, ‘Why do I even try to write?’

I tell myself that writing is harder today than it was in the 1920’s (notwithstanding the special challenges for women writers). I don’t think any of her novels would be published today, with the possible exception of Orlando. Today’s readers won’t tolerate pages and pages of internal rumination. They demand that “things happen,” big things, objective things in the world, clearly described. From what happens, we are to infer the characters’ interiority. And today’s readers demand consistent, persistent, narrative point of view, not head-hopping like a hungry hummingbird through a field of flowers. That’s what I tell myself, because the alternative is, ‘Why bother? I can never write like this.’

So I’ll get my character to New York starting tomorrow and set him right away to some intellectual fencing and maybe he’ll blossom and flourish. Or get stabbed.

Shakespeare in the Imagination

Will in the WorldCan you infer anything about a writer’s biography from what he or she has written?  As a writer of fiction, I have to say, yes you can make valid inferences at a high level of abstraction, but no, you can’t infer much about specific experience. I write literary fiction, mysteries, and science fiction even though I’ve never shot anyone, met a space alien or lived in the nineteenth century.  Non-writers of fiction may underestimate the power of imagination. Writers of fiction make stuff up and then convince you it could be true. That’s the job.

On the other hand, all fiction is to some extent autobiographical. The characters and the motives that interest me are expressions of my life and times. I am not wracked with doubt over whether Catholicism or Protestantism is the true religion. I don’t worry much about witches casting spells on me or anyone else. I write and think in the language I inherited and I assume a certain physical and social reality that is hard to escape. So I necessarily do express myself in my work.

Greenblatt, one of the foremost Shakespeare scholars in the world, imagines that he can infer a lot of detailed information about Shakespeare’s life, mind and attitudes from his plays and sonnets, and I find that that thesis unconvincing and undemonstrated by the book.

The historical record on the life of William Shakespeare is remarkably sparse and the few fragments of information that survive have been dissected in excruciating detail since the first biographies of the bard began to be written in the 1600’s. Historians have scoured every particle of Shakespeare’s life and times and everyone who lived anywhere near him. There is nothing new to add to the historical record. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing new to say.

Greenblatt’s contribution is to take his vast knowledge of Shakespeare scholarship (15 pages of detailed and annotated bibliographical notes), and his thorough knowledge of the body of Shakespeare’s work (he has written and edited many books on the subject), and combine those into an exercise of the imagination. The book is not a story of how it was, but a fantasy on how it might have been. The reader is invited to imagine Shakespeare’s life and, as the subtitle says, “How Shakespeare became Shakespeare.” (It should have been, “How Shakespeare might have become Shakespeare.”)  I think it is a worthy project that Greenblatt is uniquely qualified to undertake, and read in the right spirit, the book can be fascinating.

Plenty of history and biography in the text is interesting if tangential, especially for the non-specialist. I was interested to learn about the filth and crudity of life in London at that time, the economics and beliefs, the religious tensions, the clothing and food, and how theater was conducted and enjoyed. For example, it used to be that after a performance, the actors would take their hats in hand to the audience, asking for pennies. A huge innovation was to charge a penny at the door. Many theater-goers objected. “Why should I pay when the play could turn out to be no good? It’s unreasonable!”

Greenblatt’s story is roughly chronological, starting with Shakespeare’s early life in a rural village and his shotgun marriage to Ann Hathaway. In the 1580’s young Will, perhaps seventeen, a barely educated country bumpkin, suddenly abandons Ann and the twins, rides to London and very quickly becomes the greatest poet and playwright of all time. The main challenge to Greenblatt is to answer the question, how was that possible? His answer is that Shakespeare had an immensely strong imagination.

For me, that answer commits a logical fallacy called “assuming the consequent”: Shakespeare was, in fact, the greatest playwright of his time, therefore he must have possessed an extraordinary imagination despite his humble background and meagre education.  The problem is, there is no independent information to suggest that Shakespeare had extraordinary talent. We can only conclude that he “must have had.” Greenblatt constructs a fanciful history for Shakespeare in which his father took him to plays from which he learned “how to do it.” Even if true, would that have been sufficient? I am skeptical.

Greenblatt notes that nowhere in all of Shakespeare’s plays do we see a happy marriage. In every case where marriage is depicted it is one of strain, tension, and often bloody murder. That must indicate, Greenblatt speculates, that Shakespeare’s marriage to Ann was miserable.  That’s a thin thread to pull on, in my opinion. More likely is the possibility that Will soon discovered he was gay and bolted. Greenblatt allows later, in discussing the sonnets, that Will might have been gay, but doesn’t draw any far-reaching implications (male homosexuality between an older patron and a boy was widely practiced and tolerated, as it had been since classical times).

Some of Greenblatt’s fanciful speculations are more convincing than others. For example, he makes a fairly good case that the anti-Semitic themes found in The Merchant of Venice reflect attitudes prevalent in Elizabethan society, even while acknowledging that there were virtually no Jews in London at the time, following an earlier expulsion.

The best chapter is perhaps on Hamlet, in which the author speculates that Shakespeare’s “radical” (as he calls it) turn to interiority, as in Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be…” was motivated by both Shakespeare’s father’s imminent or recent death and by the death of Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet, a decade earlier. To me, it’s a plausible speculation.

This is a purely fanciful book, not a proper biography or history, so you have to come to it with appropriate expectations. As a work of creative non-fiction, I found it mildly interesting. I would have enjoyed mention of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford and powerful member of Elizabeth’s court. Some revisionists suggest that de Vere was the author, in whole or in part, of Shakespeare’s work and that Shakespeare was merely the well-compensated front-man. I don’t buy the grand conspiracy and cover-up story that Shakespeare = de Vere, but it seems likely to me that there is more to William Shakespeare’s biography than Greenblatt’s invocation of an “immensely strong imagination.”

Surprisingly, Will in the World won a Pulitzer Prize and was a National Book Award Finalist.  It includes 16 pages of illustrations (black-and-white in the paperback edition).

Greenblatt, Stephen (2004). Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: Simon and Schuster. 430 pp.

Writing Historical Fiction

Horse_and_buggy_1910Setting a novel in a historical period is much more difficult than I had anticipated because of the endless research. I was writing a scene that mentioned a pipe-cleaner when I stopped short: Wait! Did they have pipe cleaners in 1900 in America? Yes.  Would my character be writing a letter with a quill pen? No. Steel-tip nibs in hard rubber holders were commonplace. Fountain pens existed but were expensive and unreliable. What did people wear? Shirts and blouses made at home from mail-order fabric (Sears). Overalls and no underwear in the summer for men. Brassieres for the ladies? No. The brassiere was invented in the late 1800s but rural women in America didn’t see what problem it solved. All clothes were fastened with buttons. The zipper hadn’t been invented. Elastic was rare.

And so on endlessly. I could hardly write a sentence without having to stop and jump into Google. I was discussing this problem with a writer friend and she nodded sympathetically. “Yes, and the trouble is, you start out with a simple question and two hours later you’re an expert on dirigibles.” That cracked me up, and now when I am diverted into Google I call it “going into dirigible mode.”

The research can be interesting, but also frustrating. I discovered my character could not be in his senior year of high school. There was no such thing. Students graduated from eighth grade and the one-room schoolhouse, often with great family ceremony, and hopefully with the “three R’s” acquired (especially spelling, so they’d know that ‘arithmetic’ does not start with an ‘R’). Eighth grade was the end of the line. They’d go on to work and life from there.

High school, which was any instruction beyond eighth grade, existed only in the cities, was located downtown and it was a boarding school, since it was impractical to commute from the farm. No farm could afford to tie up a horse and buggy all day for a commuter. And the school was not free. Room and board was high, fifty cents to a dollar a day, at a time when a farmer was happy to clear $500 in a year. And what family had the luxury of letting an able-bodied young man (and it was men only) stay away at school instead of working the farm? The main point of having children back then was for free farm labor.

So I had to invent a wacky tale to explain how my character found himself in high school. There went half a day.

It was the same for just about everything my character did and said. Did that reading lamp use whale oil? Or did they use candles? No, kerosene was widely used by 1900. Despite its expense, kerosene gave ten times the light of candles. Whale oil was even more expensive. Were there telephones? In town, often. Rare in the country until after WWI. How long does it take to get from farm to town? A matched team of horses pulled a buggy two or three miles an hour over a good road, and those were rare in spring and fall because of mud.

I originally had my family running a dairy because I wanted them to later move to the city and open a retail shop for butter and cheese.  But while in dirigible mode I learned that didn’t make much sense. Every farm had four or five cows for dairy products, along with chickens and hogs. A dairy would have no customers. Shops in town took eggs as legal tender in exchange for goods, along with money, and many would also take cheese and butter. Nobody needed a diary. Scratch the diary.

The most difficult information to extract from the historical record is what things cost and how much people earned. A university professor in 1900 would make between $1000 and $1500 a year, depending on experience. A Kodak camera cost a dollar but the postage to mail the film back to Rochester, N.Y. for developing was fifty cents each way. A visit to the doctor’s office cost fifty cents to a dollar, but he had no medicine other than opium, cocaine, and alcohol. Needless to say, no antibiotics either. Syphilis was a death sentence.

A shave in a barber shop was ten to twenty-five cents and since there were no safety razors, you definitely wanted to go to a barber. A silent movie was thirty-five cents, a high-priced luxury. You could get a train from Grand Forks, North Dakota to Boston for $20 but it was an overnight “sleeper.” A new house might cost $750 but I couldn’t find out what mortgage interest rates were.

Sometimes the amount of work required to pin down a detail like that is far more than I’m willing to exert. Cost of a horse or other livestock? No idea. It was easier to avoid any scene that involved a transaction like that. I wanted my character to attend the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 but I couldn’t find out what the admission fee was.

I’m not a historian and my goal is not to write history. I’m trying to write a novel about particular people with the historical setting as ambience. Even so, it’s a lot more work than I imagined. Nevertheless, the experience will inform my next sci-fi novel, because writing a future should be as careful in every detail as writing the past.

Southern Gothic Thriller

Night of the HunterThis mid-century, noirish psychological thriller has something in common with The Maltese Falcon. Both stories feature a classic “MacGuffin,” an arbitrary object of desire that all parties seek, pursuit of which drives the action of the story. The tale also has a Lolita-like element in that the bad guy cynically marries a widowed woman just to get close to her kids who seem to know where the MacGuffin is.

In this case, the MacGuffin is ten thousand bucks, an astronomical sum in the Depression-era, rural south (possibly West Virginia). The guy who stole it, for reasons unknown, has been executed but the money never was recovered. He apparently didn’t tell his widow what he did with it, but the children may know. The boy, John, is nine and the girl is four. The story is told mostly from John’s point of view although plenty of promiscuous head-hopping mixes it up a bit (and often mixes up the reader as well).

An evil, pseudo-preacher comes to town in search of the money. Actually he was a cellmate of the thief before his execution and that’s how he learned of the cash cache. He’s a reasonably interesting character, a cold-blooded mustache-twirler with a less-than-convincing, reactionary superego reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor (e.g., Wise Blood). He goes to strip shows in order to “inform himself” about the moral depravity of “whoredom.”

The false preacher charms the widow and presses the children to reveal where the money is hidden. The boy, John, smells a rat and tries to protect his little sister. As the preacher’s threats escalate, the children flee into an implausible cross-country chase. Finally there is a white-vs-black-hat showdown with predictable results.

I found the plotting formulaic and the characters two-dimensional, and was never gripped by the story, which did not seem believable except for the old Southern Gothic trick of making the characters so stupid and gullible that anything should be believed, which is why I don’t enjoy southern gothic.

The main problem is the boy, John, who shares his thoughts, intuitions, judgments, and speculations with the reader throughout. More than precocious, this undereducated, rural nine-year-old has the mental capacity of a university professor, whether told in his own words or by the ubiquitous and intrusive 3P-close narrator.  (“John got to his feet, knowing suddenly how lost it all was: what a world had failed him, how deep a night when the last lamp of all went flickering down in the darkness.” p. 134). I just never bought that character.

Major structural problems in the story are two. One, the setup is that the boy knows where the money is, due to a mano-a-mano talk with dad before he got caught. The secret is John’s sacred honor, sworn to his father. The reader is not told where the money is. That makes the boy a noble character and informs the reader that his cat-and-mouse with the preacher is strategic. But then the location of the money is revealed to the reader before the midpoint and all the steam is let out of that engine. That strikes me as a writing error.

The second structural problem is that suddenly, also around the midpoint, we are told that the girl, Pearl, also knows where the money is. That undercuts the status and motivation of the boy, because the girl is too young to understand the significance of the money or the meaning of a secret, or indeed, what’s at stake in the story. She doesn’t even know that her father is dead. John suddenly has little control over the big, dark secret that is supposed to be driving the whole plot. So after that point, there is no point.

This book is enormously popular with readers and was nominated for a National Book Award. That may be because of the successful movie of the same name that came out in 1955, which I haven’t seen. So I recognize that my lukewarm-to-negative take on this book is a minority opinion. I see the novel as a refuge of sentimentalism, which most people enjoy but which I dislike.

Grubb’s writing is sometimes interesting, although the lack of quotation marks and paragraph breaks, and the incessant, undocumented POV head-hopping all make it a more difficult read than it needed to be. Sometimes the prose tips over into purple territory (“And in that new, pale proscenium of light John saw again the dancers, the black horse prancing and the brave little soldier and the clown with his toothpick legs.” p. 196).

But there are also some fine descriptions to be appreciated (“The trip to New Economy with the week’s butter and eggs was the great event toward which each of the seven other days moved.” p. 158).

The last twenty pages of the novel give up all pretense of dramatic story-telling and the heavy-handed narrator simply recites the ending in a tedious torrent of exposition that robs the finale of any force.

Grubb, Davis (1953). The Night of the Hunter. Blackmask.com (200 pp).

Why Hillary Has Trust Issues

Hillary Acceptance 2016I watched Hillary Clinton closely as she gave her acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention on Thursday night. I was hoping for something spectacular. I hoped in vain.

It was spectacular enough for a major party to have a woman nominated for president. It’s about time. As I watched her wave and grin ear-to-ear, I imagined how thoroughly beat down she’s going to look in eight years, and how the networks will play clips of this historic acceptance speech and we’ll all marvel, “Look at how young and vigorous she was!”

I was hoping for The New Hillary, the one who shows more of who she is and overcomes the cold, stand-offish feeling many voters get from her.  What I saw was a huge disappointment to me and left me just as alienated from her as ever. Apparently, the crowds and the pundits thought it was a great speech however, and I’m accustomed to being the odd one out. So…

To be clear, she is my candidate, for two reasons. First, I believe the Progressive approach to government is best. Progressives rejected the tooth-and-claw Darwinism of American capitalism in 1912 and asserted that government needs to be a player in everyday life. That approach justifies interventionism, such as food and drug safety laws, financial regulation, and much else. Granted, they do a very bad job of it sometimes, but philosophically, I think it’s the right approach for government (compared to modern Republicans). So I’d vote Democrat as a matter of principle almost regardless of who the candidate was.

Secondly, the alternative to Hillary is difficult to contemplate. The world hasn’t seen a candidate like Trump since the Third Reich. It happened before, and it could happen again, so there’s a very compelling case to vote for Hillary.

But back to the Hillary acceptance speech. What I heard was a great steaming pile of humblebrag, along with well-deserved but unnecessary snarky comments about Trump, along with endless platitudes, clichés, and a long checklist of vague and general talking points and promises. I didn’t learn anything, but I saw and heard some things.

Hillary confessed that when it comes to public service, she is strong on service, not so good at the public part. I think that’s because despite all the shouting, hectoring, and scolding, she’s unsure of herself, as a person.  Her mind is as large as her family, as was well-documented in numerous remarks by her husband, her daughter, and herself, and she knows that is not big enough for the job. So she wears a psychological exoskeleton of rehearsed policies and slogans to cover up the fact that she really does not think quickly or creatively. Nobody must know the awful secret that she’s just an ordinary person.

There was a moment where I thought she was going to do something creative. “People watching at home might say,” she posed, “this all sounds very good, but how are you going to do it?” She paused, and I held my breath.

What I was prepared to hear was, “I’m not. You’re going to help me do it. You’re going to vote, and when you do, you need to vote ‘Democrat’ all the way down the ticket. Senator, Representative, Governor, School Superintendent.  Democrat, Democrat, Democrat. That’s the strategy. That’s how we accomplish all these goals I have listed. I ask you to do that.”

But she didn’t say anything like that. Instead she offered predictable anodyne nonsense like, “I will work hard to bring people together to do the right thing for America.”  Right. That’s usually successful.

I think Hillary’s carefully constructed psychological exoskeleton is what people see and what we instinctively find off-putting and cold in her public persona, and why many feel she is inauthentic. A persona is supposed to be inauthentic, not in the sense of dishonest – there’s no question she believes what she says – but inauthentic in assiduously not revealing the person behind the curtain, because she fears that person is inadequate to the task. She is never, ever going to let us see behind the curtain.

I can’t blame her too much. She is who she is, and she is tireless and sincere. She just does not have the personal courage to reveal herself as a dedicated, but ordinary and not particularly brilliant person.  Too bad for the voters. Too bad for her.

I love Obama’s intellectual brilliance. But I also know from experience, that “smart” and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee. Winning elections is not about smart. Hillary has gotten this far by being who she is and the election is hers to lose at this point. So I’m quite sure that her overriding strategy is to not commit (any more) unforced errors.  Nothing new, nothing creative, no “New Hillary.” Stay the course.

That’s probably right.