Chandler – Farewell, My Lovely

Farewell My LovelyLike a Tarantula on an Angel Food Cake

Chandler, Raymond (1940/1992). Farewell, My Lovely. New York: Vintage/Random.

“Chandleresque” is a writing style that cannot be matched, though many have tried, even me. Tough guy PI, Philip Marlowe, is the definition of hard-boiled. He fears nothing, can take a beating, bumps and stumbles his way through cases, and somehow manages to solve them. What makes him entertaining are his outrageous similes and comparisons bordering on poetry.

“A man…was looking up at the dusty windows with a sort of ecstatic fixity of expression, like a hunky immigrant catching his first sight of the Statue of Liberty. He was a big man but not more than six feet five inches tall and not wider than a beer truck.”

“A large, thick-necked Negro was leaning against the end of the bar with pink garters on his shirt sleeves and pink and white suspenders crossing his broad back. He had bouncer written all over him.”

“[She] was a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”

“At the top of [the driveway] stood an eyrie, an eagle’s nest, an angular building of stucco and glass brick, raw and modernistic and yet not ugly and altogether a swell place for a psychic consultant to hang out his shingle. Nobody would be able to hear any screams.”

The descriptions are visual, usually humorous, and often poetic. Marlowe’s worldview is the main attraction in this novel, although his smart-alecky comments do wear thin after a while. He has virtually no interior, and the reader only mildly cares about him and his adventures, which seem arbitrary, so there simply is no great character arc and nothing really about Marlowe illuminates the human condition. It’s a “fun” novel, a stylistic tour de force. It counts as literature only because it defined the hard-boiled genre.

The plot goes this way and that, with more characters than you can keep track of.  A dead body always has a matchbook in the pocket with the name of a bar and you know Marlowe will go to that bar and beat somebody up, or get beat up, or meet a sizzling dame who knows something. In fact the plot is so convoluted, you can’t really follow it, though it seems to all come together in the end. Chandler wrote the novel by cementing together a set of his short stories, and that could explain the random feeling of the story line’s writhing.

But the plot is not the point. The fun is the atmosphere of 1940’s Los Angeles and its dark, seamy underside, and the lowlife characters, and above all the voice of Philip Marlowe, who among PI’s, stands out like a tarantula on a slice of angel food cake.

Zunshine – Cognitive Cultural Studies

ZunshineAdams, W. A. (2011). Cognitive Psychology Meets Literary Criticism [Review of the book, Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies]. PsycCRITIQUES – Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, January 5, 2011, Vol. 56, Release 1, Article 8.

Cultural studies is an established academic discipline practiced mainly in departments of English. It  analyzes some aspect of a culture through a particular lens of assumptions, usually to focus on the political nature of cultural processes, revealing implicit power relationships. According to Editor Zunshine, the new strategy presented by this book is intended to encompass, not replace, other approaches to cultural criticism, such as gender studies, feminism, Marxism, postcolonialism, poststructuralism, performance theory, psychoanalysis, ethnic studies, rhetoric, ecocriticism, and body theory, to name just a few extant approaches. “Encompass, not replace,” is a fascinating construction, reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s approach to Soviet disarmament: “Trust, but verify.”

The thrust of this book is that a grounding in cognitive science is the best, most inclusive point of view for practicing cultural criticism.  Since all cultural processes are, after all, products of the human mind, then, the claim is, there is no better strategy than to adopt principles of cognitive science for doing cultural analysis. For example, if one is aware of recent scientific findings on intersubjectivity, one might better identify subtle relationships in Jane Austen’s work. 

One driver of this project is to find an objective, non-arbitrary basis from which to conduct cultural criticism. But according to these authors’ own principles, science is just another thread of cultural conversation, like art or politics. Why would science have privileged access to truth? It wouldn’t. The premise of the book therefore stands on a flawed foundation.

George – Write Away

write-awayA How-To on Writing

George, Elizabeth. (2004) Write Away. New York: Harper Collins

If you haven’t read any writing-how-to books, this one is a good place to start. It’s easy to read, encouraging in tone, covers most of the basics, and has plenty of examples. George is a well-known writer of mysteries and thrillers, and a teacher of writing. She describes her personal understanding of writing fundamentals and her own writing process. The result is a solid overview for a beginning writer.

On the down side, the information content is low and conversely, redundancy and irrelevance are high. That’s what makes the book easy to read, but a more experienced writer would be better off with a genre-specific how-to book, or a more rigorous treatment, such as “Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft,” by Burroway and Stuckey-French.

George offers a “seven step story line” guide, based on common sense and apparently derived, as much modern writing method is, from Aristotle’s Poetics. There’s nothing wrong with that approach. Most of it seems like common knowledge, but maybe it isn’t if you’re just starting out.

George’s example quotations go on way, way too long, often for two or three pages, when a couple of well-selected paragraphs would have done the trick. Most of these examples are extremely boring, almost unreadable, especially those taken from her own works. These excessive excerpts seem like filler to me. It’s a shame, because one can think of numerous brief excerpts that could have been used to make very sharp points, from authors such as Strout, Faulkner, Nabokov, Bowles, Ishiguro, Coetzee, Silko, Morrison. George prefers mass-market authors like Kingsolver, P.D. James, and Martin Cruz Smith. She does throw in the perfunctory Shakespeare and Hemingway, and those excerpts actually stand out by contrast to the others.

When George gets down to specifics, which is not often, I found her explanations lacking. For example, concerning the difficult problem of creating a character’s voice, she says merely that the voice arises “naturally” from the character’s biography that you have previously written. At a very high level of abstraction, that’s true. A garbage man is not going to talk like an Oxford don. But an interesting voice does NOT arise “naturally” from a specific biography. It must be explicitly created by the author and George offers no clue about how one does that.

The last third of the book covers George’s writing process, how she actually goes about writing a novel from start to finish.  Most of that material is idiosyncratic and of little interest to anyone else. For example, she is keen on researching locations for her novels. She flies off to Europe to make extensive tours of old castles, wineries, and government institutions. Nice work if you can get it. But she doesn’t discuss why she does all that. Readers appreciate accuracy, but for a how-to book published in 2004, this one seems curiously uninformed about the virtues of the internet.

George’s best advice comes in her final words. “You WILL be published if you possess…talent, passion, and discipline. You will PROBABLY be published if you possess… talent and discipline or passion and discipline. You will LIKELY be published if you possess [only] discipline.”  In other words, writing discipline is necessary and sufficient, the other two qualities only helpful.

Szasz – The Myth of Mental Illness

MMI CoverAdams, W. A. (2011). Words Matter: The Legacy of Thomas Szasz
[Review of the book, The Myth of Mental Illness: Foundations of a Personal Theory of Conduct, 50th Anniversary Edition]. PsycCRITIQUES – Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, March 9, 2011 (56), Release 10, Article 8.

Spring fever is not really a fever, homesickness is not really sickness, and mental illness is not really illness.  That’s the argument of Thomas Szasz, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the State University of New York in Syracuse.  He has been repeating and elaborating that message since publication of his iconoclastic book, The Myth of Mental Illness (Szasz, 1961).Szasz does not deny that some people have serious psychological problems.  But there are so many difficulties with the term, the concept, and the psychiatric approach to “mental illness” that he wants no part of it.

The new preface in this 50th anniversary edition is a succinct yet lively summary of Szasz’s position, and could serve as a standalone introduction to his ideas, attitudes, and bombastic style. He asserts, “The claim that ‘mental illnesses are diagnosable disorders of the brain’ is not based on scientific research; it is a lie, an error, or a naive revival of the somatic premise of the long-discredited humoral theory of disease” (p. xii).  Szaszian rhetoric does not countenance qualification, accommodation, or counterargument:  those who disagree are naïve, mistaken, or  liars.

A pugnacious style can be entertaining, but Szasz makes numerous rhetorical errors that seriously detract from important points he wants to make, errors such as circular arguments and unbalanced presentation of evidence. He rejects all behavioral evidence of illness, for example. If there is no demonstrated physical pathology, there is no illness, period.  That oversimplification leads to implausible claims, such as, since there is no clear biological determinant of schizophrenia, it is merely an unusual belief system, not a mental illness (p. 279).

Nevertheless, if a reader can get past Szasz’s hyperbolic and polemical style to his core ideas, it becomes apparent that his legacy includes at least four important contributions.

1. Szasz first warned of the dehumanization and negative consequences of labeling mere “problems of living” as “mental illness.” Today, creeping medicalization and pathologizing of everyday life are recognized.

2.  Szasz spoke out against psychiatry’s use of coercive force against people in personal distress.  Today there are much stricter legal safeguards around involuntary psychiatric commitment, and better-defined criteria for the legal “insanity” defense.

3.  Szasz was one of the first psychiatrists to challenge the diagnosis of homosexuality as a mental illness.  His unrelenting attacks on the assumptions of psychiatric diagnoses have led to greater awareness of the distinction between scientific categories and social prejudice.

4.  Szasz has been a champion for individual rights in psychiatry.  People should be free to choose or decline psychiatric care at any time, he argued.  Psychiatry and psychology are now more aware of individuals’ rights than they were fifty years ago, thanks in part to Szasz’s writings.

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.”