Percy – The Moviegoer

moviegoer-151Is The Search Still Relevant?

Percy, Walker (1960). The Moviegoer; New York: Knopf

This American existentialist story is set after the Korean war, in the 1950’s. As with many post-war novels (The Sheltering Sky, The Stranger, etc.) it asks what meaning can a person find in ordinary life after the horrors of war. War negates meaning, especially for those who fight it. Today, as soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan to a depressed, jobless economy, the question is as sharp as ever.

Binx Bolling, Korean war veteran, belongs to a wealthy, aristocratic New Orleans family, but he tries to keep his distance. He lives alone in a suburb, works as a stockbroker, goes to movies, and avoids the social whirlwind of Carnival week. To fend off loneliness he has affairs with his secretaries, but his main concern is his “Search,” for the meaning of things. The first phase of his search, he reports, was “vertical,” in which he turned to science to discover the essence of the universe (and therefore, presumably, what everything means). That search was unsuccessful, as described in my favorite passage from the novel:

“The greatest success of this enterprise, which I call my vertical search, came one night when I sat in a hotel room in Birmingham and read a book called The Chemistry of Life. When I finished it, it seemed to me that the main goals of my search were reached or were in principle reachable, whereupon I went out and saw a movie called It Happened One Night which was itself very good. A memorable night. The only difficulty was that though the universe had been disposed of, I myself was left over. There I lay in my hotel room with my search over yet still obliged to draw one breath and then the next.”

So Binx began his “horizontal search,” trying to make sense of just his own experience, whatever happened when he walked outside his door. Does Binx find meaning, or does he just give up and settle for the living death of ordinary everydayness like everyone else? The ending is ambiguous.

Essentially nothing happens in his life or in the story. Binx has lunches and dinners, sells some property, takes a train ride, goes to a sales convention, acting like most people, who he calls the “non-suicidal dead,”  walking like zombies through life. The difference is that on the inside, Binx is searching for meaning. He notices things, for example, that “…all the friendly and likeable people seem dead to me; only the haters seem alive.”

There is southern charm in the novel, especially in social relations, which are well-revealed in encounters between Binx and his aristocratic aunt who finds sufficient meaning in simply being richer than most people (which she naturally interprets as being of superior quality). Binx isn’t convinced. He tries to care for his bipolar cousin, Kate, who  struggles to find meaning within her psychiatric condition, an interesting juxtaposition to Binx’s search. Are they both crazy? Is it crazy to search for meaning in a world that has none?

I paused at a dismissive review of the novel online. The reviewer said “The characters are boring, narcissistic, and dull,” and therefore he hated the book. It’s a valid description of the characters, but of course that is the point of the novel. Most people numb themselves with food, drugs, and mass media, hoping to  never see ripples in the pond of everyday existence. When loss, sickness, and death come around, most people cry, grit their teeth, and chalk it up to “God’s mysterious ways.”  It is thus possible to live with canned meaning and never undertake the personal search that Binx and Kate do. Nearly everyone I know accepts pre-fab cultural or religious meaning.  Is there any blame in that?

Saterstrom – The Pink Institution

The_Pink_InstitutionImpressions of Horror

Saterstrom, Selah (2004). The Pink Institution. St. Paul, MN: Coffee House Press.

This experimental novel features four generations of Mississippi females from 1940 to the early 2000’s. They are shown in a set of impressions, poems, quotations and old photographs that imply  stories of ignorance, filth, decay, brutality, alcohol, sickness and death. The girls are born into poverty, live in rot, are uneducated, abused, and confused, but somehow survive  (most of them) into adult lives of poverty, alcohol, ignorance and abuse. Few rise above the subhuman level of a community that makes Yoknapatawpha county look aristocratic.

Much of the description focuses on body products and body functions, from sexuality (all kinds: marital, extramarital, childhood, rape, prostitution, masturbation, homosexual) to vomit, spit, piss, blood and poop. The mood is so unrelentingly bleak that  a reader must wonder what the point is.  Are we supposed to be shocked?  It is not possible to shock a modern reader: everything’s already been said. Is it a sociological display about the unbreakable transgenerational cycle of poverty and ignorance?  Well, that’s kind of old hat too.

On the plus side, the material is presented in an interesting way, with non-traditional typography, suggesting, for example, that the large spaces between words represent even more horrific experiences that cannot be articulated. Included are poems, pictures, and quotations, all of which contribute to the impressionistic mood. The genre, if it can be called that, of such storytelling is the category of prose poetry, I would say. The book itself is very handsomely constructed.

Overall, as an exemplar of prose poetry cum novel, the work is successful. As a traditional story, it isn’t. But as with much poetry, it is memorable.

Thinking About A Road Trip

Iowa Road Trip

Like millions of other Americans, I’ll be on the highways in July. I’m taking a novel manuscript to a writing workshop in Iowa City. A sensible person would fly. Even though driving is far more dangerous than flying, not to speak of slower and mind-numbing, I’ll drive from Tucson, right through the Heartland, almost to Chicago, over 1500 miles away. I’ll cross into Illinois to do location research in Rock Island, where an important scene in the novel is set. Most writers would do the location research first, but not me. I write for story and character. Setting can come later.

How can I make lemonade out of this journey? I’ll be crossing through a lot of nothing. From Tucson to Las Cruces is severely nothing. I need to check for forest fires before I commit to that route. Most of New Mexico is nothing, although I like the art museum in Albuquerque. The Texas panhandle is the definition of nothing. I’ll stay one night in Amarillo. Then I’ll cross Kansas diagonally northeast to Kansas City, MO. Endless cornfields count as nothing. I’ll go north to Story City, IA, where my main character lives in an old farmhouse. I hope it looks like what I’ve imagined. Then East to Iowa City and the workshop.

It will be a lot of nothing punctuated by a few cities. Albuquerque, Wichita, Kansas City, Des Moines. Maybe I should do a Buddhist meditation on Nothingness? I’ll see a lot of small-town, middle America, a lot of Best Westerns and Quality Inns, a lot of 18-wheel highway trucks. Time will move slowly. I should see some good thunderstorms, perhaps  the odd tornado, although it’s a little late in the year for that.

I don’t have the inclination to do a travelogue. I’m quite sure everything’s already been done. There’s a ton of books on the old Route 66, and another ton on ghost towns, and another ton on mid-century architecture. Does anybody read travelogues? Nabokov did the ultimate small-town, greasy diner, dingy-motel blog in Lolita. Maybe I should do a fictional account, POV bounty hunter or  paranoid escapee.

I won’t be spending much time in each place, not enough to interview people, take pictures and study the history. I’m going to make the trip east in 7 days, and I do plan to take pictures, but I’ll be stopping mainly for food, gas, and lodging, not to roam and wander, not to visit antique shops, bars, psychics, or city councils. The return trip west is a slightly different route but will be a similar experience.

Nevertheless, it’s an opportunity to write something. But what? When I travel through small-town America, I enjoy the sense of time travel. People live in places unchanged from 25 to 50 years ago. The architecture especially, and the insides of diners. So time travel is an angle.

There is an attractive corniness in the cheap motels. The faux enthusiasm about the “manager’s special,” and the wacky decor, the idiot signage and the way all indicators of locale are scrubbed away to a bland medium located in neither past nor present. There’s something surreal about those islands of life outside of history, culture, and geography. Surreal is an angle.

Another aspect of the surreal is local festivals. I love those, whether it’s a “tortilla festival,” a vintage car show, or a local parade celebrating “donkey days,” or some such. I don’t understand those events, but there is something mysterious about them and the people that go to them. Every town has them and chances are I’ll bump into some. It’s an angle, even though I don’t know what to call it.

I won’t have time to meet “interesting characters” along the way, although I’ll meet plenty of people at the conference, and that constitutes its own story. Writing conferences are a strange breed of event, as bizarre, I’m sure, as any trade show is to an outsider. So there’s the weirdness of the writing festival itself. That’s an angle.

What about me? I’m the one making the trip (with my wife and co-driver). I’m ostensibly an aspiring writer on a quest. Is it a Joseph Campbellian thing? That feels strained. It feels, in prospect, like a what-the-hell-am-I-doing road trip, not like an archetypal journey. Nobody wants to read about me and “my summer vacation,” It’s just a damn road trip. I’m not on a holy quest or seeking a life-changing grail. It’s not the last thing on my bucket list; not a sentimental family reconciliation; not a desperate grasp at meaning. I’m driving to a meeting, that’s all.

Maybe the only thing I can do is try to stay open to my experience and see if anything happens.

The Goldilocks of Narrative Voice

Strout on Writer

Elizabeth Strout is on the cover of the August, 2013 The Writer magazine. She has a new book, Burgess Boys, which I haven’t yet read. I enjoyed Amy & Isabelle, and I rank Olive Kitteredge as one of the greatest-ever collections of short stories, even though it’s marketed as a novel. I think it barely qualifies as a novel, since the unrelated stories have many of the same characters and the small-town setting is a constant.

What makes Strout distinctive is her command of the narrative voice. She writes mostly in third-person and the narrator is a participant observer, someone who was there when it happened, and tells how it was. It’s a very natural voice, what your buddy would use describing what happened on a fishing trip. He was there, as a participant and as an observer and he tells the story straightforwardly.

Here’s an example of Strout’s narrative voice, from the opening lines Olive Kitteredge:

“For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summertime roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy.

Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though  the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and the in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.”

The magic is the phrase, “Retired now, …”  That’s the unnamed, quasi-invisible narrator telling you she knew Henry when he used to drive every morning to the pharmacy, and (shifting momentarily to present tense), she still knows him now that he’s retired. So we feel confident this narrator will tell us truly how it is with Henry, because she’s been involved for so many years. She pulls us deep into the world of the story in the first two sentences. It is writing magic.

When your buddy tells you what happened on a fishing trip, he’s standing right in front of you. You already have a relationship with him. You know how you feel about his reliability, intelligence, observational skills, insight. But you don’t know anything about the narrator of a literary story.

The literary narrator must establish her credentials, and Strout does it gently, subtly, without focusing attention on the narrator, without bumping you out of the story, which is about Henry, not the narrator.

A different approach would be for the narrator to start with a mini-resume to explicitly introduce himself to the reader. Yann Martel did that in Life of Pi, but I thought it was cloying overkill. Any first-person narrator can become boring or obnoxious even Phillip Marlowe, Chandler’s great detective. Tom Robbins had a very strong third-person narrator in Skinny Legs and All, but it was too strong. I quickly tired of the narrator’s self-aggrandizing cleverness.

Elizabeth Strout is the Goldilocks of narrative voice. Her narrator is not invisible as the narrator usually is in genre fiction, but not in-your-face Tom Robbins’ narrator. Strout’s narrator is “just right.”  There’s a lot more to Strout than narrative voice. Even the two sentences quoted above show that. But her voice is perfect and I would like to emulate it but I haven’t discovered how.

Frey – How to Write a Damn Good Novel

HT Write a Damn good novelHow-to for Beginners

Frey, James N. (1987). How to Write a Damn Good Novel. New York: St. Martin’s Press.I’m cautious about any how-to book that bills itself as “no-nonsense,” implying that comparable books are full of nonsense. In fact this book includes quite a bit of nonsense, some from  the author’s strained sense of humor, and some due to the fact that it was written in 1987 (“Keep a thesaurus by your typewriter”).  Nevertheless, it covers the basics of storytelling, and its breezy style makes it an easy read, appropriate for beginners.

Frey’s advice is derived from Aristotle’s Poetics, the main source for most writing instruction, so you can’t go far wrong following his advice. Frey emphasizes building well-motivated characters, who encounter and deal with conflict, leading to a climax. If you didn’t know that’s how it’s done, then this is the book for you.

His discussion of a story’s premise (the “moral” or point of the story) was helpful, but I often disagreed with his examples. “…Lolita proves that ‘great love leads to death.’”  Really?  That’s not how I read it. In fact, that seems a million miles off base to me.  Several examples like that made me question the reliability of the book.

There isn’t much discussion of the nuts and bolts of writing, such as choosing the point of view (which Frey annoyingly calls the “viewpoint”). The chapter on writing good dialog made a useful distinction between direct and indirect dialog, but the examples of indirect were smart-alec tough-guy talk from a cheesy detective novel, not helpful. Something from James Agee or David Mamet would have served better. The section on rewriting and editing was weak.

Overall then, if you are a raw beginner, this book will get you on your feet and pointed in the right direction. Otherwise, even though the book is an international bestseller, I’d say look elsewhere.

Duras – The Lover


Haunting Characters In Search of a Story

Duras, Marguerite (1985). The Lover. New York: Random.

In Saigon, before the Vietnam war, an impoverished, naive, adolescent French girl acquires an older Chinese lover. Her family is struggling with  subsistence, and he appears wealthy so she feels it is her best path. The girl’s single mother is unable to support the three siblings, including the older brother, who is a drug addict and gambler who relentlessly steals from the family. Yet perversely, the mother idolizes and indulges her firstborn, oblivious to the family’s inexorable spiral.

The girl is only 15, and her lover, son of a millionaire, is 27. He becomes sexually obsessed with her, even knowing that the mixed-race relationship is impossibly forbidden (not to mention that she is underage). She confesses she doesn’t love him and is only curious about him, his money, and her own sexuality, but he is blinded by passion and adores her. He provides food and money to the family, but they hold him in racial contempt and the girl in moral contempt, while accepting his largesse without thanks.

After several years, the girl returns to France and the relationship ends. After it does, she has second thoughts: was that love, after all?  How would she know?  Duras has said the story has an autobiographical basis.

The dramatic story line is weak and even the inner story is not compelling because the narration is objectively descriptive, even when deep inside the girl’s head. The book was made into an unsuccessful soft-porn movie, and I can see why the filmmakers could not find an emotional center for the tale. The  contrast between the man’s boiling passion and the girl’s detached numbness is perhaps what they sought.

Narration is mostly first-person, the girl’s POV, but often she lapses into third person, indicating her self-alienation. Tense also shifts fluidly, between present and past.  The writing is exceptionally good, and is the main reason for reading this book. It easily reaches the level of prose poetry.

“Now I see that when I was very young, eighteen, fifteen, I already had a face that foretold the one I acquired through drink in middle age. Drink accomplished what God did not. It also served to kill me; to kill. I acquired that drinker’s face before I drank. Drink only confirmed it.”

“He’s trembling. At first he looks at her as though he expects her to speak, but she doesn’t. So he doesn’t do anything either, doesn’t undress her, says he loves her madly, says it very softly. Then is silent. She doesn’t answer. She could say she doesn’t love him. She says nothing.”

Development of Intersubjectivity

Adams, W. A. (2011). The Development of Intersubjectivity. Presented at Psychology & the Other Conference, 2011, October 1-3, Cambridge, MA.


How is it possible that we are aware of each other’s experience? Each of us is a subjectivity, a fact that cannot be directly perceived or scientifically supported. We just know it because of intersubjectivity, the capacity to apprehend another person’s meaning, intentions and emotions.

Intersubjectivity is not merely a guess about the other’s state of mind, or a deduction from behavior and circumstance. Rather, it’s the human ability to participate in the subjective state of another person.

Philosophers who accept such a definition, such as Husserl, Levinas, Sartre, and Buber, describe the phenomenon, but provide little or no accounting of how it arises. They simply take intersubjectivity as a phenomenological given. Some psychologists, such as Freud, Piaget, and Kohlberg, acknowledge developmental processes for intersubjectivity, but are biased to a nativist view. This paper suggests that intersubjectivity requires intense, lifelong socialization, and where that process fails, the adult is psychologically deficient.

Awareness of the role of socialization in intersubjectivity illuminates the wide range of intersubjective sensitivity in adults and children.

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Hadley – The London Train


A Slog Through Marital Muck

Hadley, Tessa (2011). The London Train. New York: Harper Collins.

Nothing happens in this family drama about strained marriages and estranged children, unless you think those kind of events count as “something happening.” Seems like all this material has been covered a million times before. Only strong characters could make us care.

This novel is a concatenation of two novellas so there are two main characters. In the first half of the book, the main character is Paul, in a strained second marriage in Cardiff. His daughter by his first wife disappears and he finds her in London, using the eponymous train. She is squatting in an apartment with an older man and his sister, and she is pregnant. In multiple visits, Paul  hangs out with them, sleeping on the floor, trying to convince his daughter to return home, but gradually he comes to appreciate her freedom (and the attractiveness of her boyfriend’s sister).

The second novella features Cora, an unrelated character, a London woman temporarily living in Cardiff, working part time in a library there while she renovates a country house inherited from her parents. She is separated from her husband. You’ll never guess who she meets on the London train and develops a passionate affair with.

The characters did not redeem the mundane story for me, mainly because of poor narration. The omniscient-close narrator is too intrusive and domineering, telling us how things are rather than letting the characters show themselves.

“Paul felt he must tell Pia about her grandmother, but couldn’t bring himself to do it in front of a stranger” … “[The television] distracted Paul, but the others didn’t take any notice. He felt the absurdity of his playing the part of the offended protective father, given his own history with Pia; and it almost seemed as if Marek understood this, reassuring him to help him out, amused at him.”

Those are some interesting relationship dynamics, and they might have been brought out in a scene, but instead they are just told to us, not shown by the characters. There is little dialog in the book, and when it occurs, the conversations are brief and  trivial, not revealing.

It’s the same for Cora’s novella: the narrator tells us, “She was in fact quite wrong about what Robert thought, but she seemed to hear these opinions uttered in his reasonable, reluctant, rather growling voice, which never ran on unnecessarily, but chopped and cut to minimize wasted words, always holding something back.”

That’s a nice description of a dialog the author didn’t write.

Despite some well-observed moments, the writing fails to bring the characters alive, the storyline lacks page-turning motivation, and the narration is oppressive, so the result is merely a thick slog.

Kelly – Yuck!


Disgusting Morals

Adams, W. A. (2012). True or False: Incest is Disgusting, Therefore Immoral. [Review of the book, Yuck! The Nature of Disgust and its Moral Significance]. PsycCRITIQUES – Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, January 18, 2012 (57) Release 3, Article 3.

People often call certain acts “unnatural,” and they mean to say immoral. The logic is that if a practice goes against nature, it is not only disgusting, but wrong. Does that make sense? Or is disgust, like any emotion, irrelevant to rational judgment? Shouldn’t what’s right and wrong be determined by rational consideration of values and traditions, not by a knee-jerk emotional reaction to what’s disgusting?

The common-sense formula seems to be, “Activity X is disgusting, therefore it is immoral.”  For clarification, substitute the following practices for X: cigarette smoking, sodomy, human sacrifice, same-sex marriage, taxing the poor, worshiping false gods. Is the common-sense formula valid?  No. It’s an error in reasoning called the naturalistic fallacy.  That fallacy argues that whatever happens in nature is good, and whatever goes against nature is bad. But who says so? There is no justification for that belief.

Philosopher Daniel Kelly offers a plausible account of what disgust is and an original proposal of its relationship to morality. The involuntary disgust reaction and its recognizable facial expression evolved, he says, for our prehistoric ancestors to identify and signal poisonous food and disease-causing situations.When you see someone react to something like the fellow pictured on the cover of the book, you are supposed to understand that what he’s reacting to is probably poisonous or disease-causing.  (Although the picture leaves out an important element of the disgust reaction, the tongue sticking out of the mouth, so technically, the guy could be angry rather than disgusted. It’s an odd error for the publisher to make).

Today though, the disgust reaction has been recruited into service of social, moral, religious, and other judgments, so a person might have a visceral disgust reaction to a member of an ethnic out-group, even though that other person is neither poisonous nor parasitic. Actual disgust, once a warning against poison and disease, has become metaphorical social disgust. 

But unlike biological poisoning, social values are arbitrary, based on a group’s transient beliefs, so disgust about certain social practices should have no influence on moral judgment. There’s no connection between biology and morality.  Surprisingly though, author  Kelly backs away from that conclusion, suggesting that even today, a disgust reaction to a social practice is a warning to others that it is dangerous and wrong. Why does he leave his conclusion hanging ambivalently like that?  My guess is that he sniffed the disgusting odor of the naturalistic fallacy, but wanted to keep his conclusion anyway.


Borges – Ficciones

FiccionesLiterary Mind Games

Borges, Jorge Luis (1962). Ficciones.  New York: Grove.This collection of seventeen stories in English is a good introduction to the involuted mind of Borges. The stories revel in paradox and self-reference; they dwell on infinities and recursions, mirrors and labyrinths, numbers and letters, and above all they are subtle in erudition and humor.
These aren’t traditional stories, but more like “tales,” in the style of Poe, where a narrator describes events from memory. A mise en scene is rare, as is dialog. A typical story might involve, for example, a scholarly discourse on a non-existent book, the point of which is to provide subtle satire of scholarly discourse.One of the best-known of the stories is “The Library of Babel,” which imagines constructing, from the 26 letters of the alphabet, sequences of various lengths in every possible order, thus creating every possible word. That’s a large, though not infinite, number of words. Many combinations make no sense, such as “MCV,” but plenty of others have meaning in some language.All these words are then arranged in every possible combination, to create all possible sentences, which are then arranged in sequences to form every possible book that has been, will be, orcould ever be, written. The resultant library is so large that nobody has ever found its edges, but logically, it is known to contain all written human knowledge.

Borges was a librarian for many years, and must have wondered, as I have, “How many books can there be?” A linguistically-trained person will find errors in the fantasy, but the exercise is for delight and humor. Borges’ playfulness with language recalls Nabokov, and his detailed faux-scholarship recalls Nicholson Baker in Mezzanine, and David Foster Wallace.

The stories are similar in form, style, mood, and tone, and they all involve mind-games, so they do become tedious, although what book of stories by a single author doesn’t? There are no well-developed characters and there is no serious human drama, so the stories appeal to cerebral fantasists, not dramatists or sentimentalists. As a literary original however, Borges is not to be missed.