Tag Archives: Novel

Recycled Reads: The Human Stain

human_stain

I’m pleased to kick off 2013 with the second in a series of recycled reads from my Goodwill in Los Feliz. The book is The Human Stain by Philip Roth, which forms the third in a loose trilogy following American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, and has been much lauded since its publication in 2000.

Critiquing Philip Roth is daunting, as the novel is damn good, but there is much to dissect from the perspective of a writer. Let me start by saying that I was bummed after reading The Human Stain because  I felt like it had the potential to be one of the best books ever penned by an American author if it weren’t for a few vexing narrative decisions.

First things first. Who’s story is this anyway? Nathan Zuckerman is presented as the narrator  in a key juncture in the life of the book’s protagonist Coleman Silk, a classics professor at a small New England college. We begin the novel shortly after Coleman’s wife has died, and he has been forced to retire after referring to absent students he’d never met as ‘spooks.’ Unknown to Silk, the students are African-American, and he becomes embroiled in a scandal that ruins his academic career.

Unfortunately, Zuckerman is only present at the beginning and end, with a bit of him mixed throughout the novel with the close third person perspectives of multiple characters: Faunia Farley, a janitor with a tortured past, her abusive ex-husband and Vietnam vet Les Farley, and Delphine Roux, a lonely young classics professor and careerist who plays an active role in Silk’s fall from grace.

The stories of these four characters are compelling, and Zuckerman’s half-role as narrator impedes our ability to truly commit to the dramatic world they inhabit. If the intention was to have Zuckerman uncover the shocking mystery that Silk was in fact part African American and completely turned his back on his past to better assimilate into American life, then why did Roth so richly delve into stories of other characters that the narrator would have no way of knowing?

The problem with Roth’s partial commitment to the “I” voice of  Zuckerman is that he can’t maximize using the narrator as a detective to unearth the mysteries surrounding the life and death of Silk. And because we never fully commit to the world of the other characters, we have many lost opportunities for dramatic tension. For example, we start with the drama of the scandal and retirement completed; we know far in advance the Silk will die; and the description of the supposed murder of Silk by the jealous Les Farley is described in a single sentence.

The novel’s half-commitment to unspooling a mystery and  to the active portrayal of the tragic love triangle makes me feel like we are presented with two half-novels spliced together. Don’t get me wrong, only the genius of an author like Roth could have overcome these types of challenges with a truly memorable novel.

On another note, Philip Roth made quite a stir this year with an open letter to Wikipedia in the New Yorker refuting the origin of The Human Stain, as well as the sad news reported in the French magazine Les inrockuptibles  that he is retiring from novel writing. This is a loss for us all, as his later work, such as The Human Stain, challenges us to ask questions of ourselves and America.

– Martin Ott

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Easy Does It – Chad Harbach and Tracy K. Smith

Recently, I decided to read a novel (The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach) and a book of poetry (Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith)  at the same time. I read a chapter, then a group of poems, and continued this pattern over the course of several weeks. I discovered similarities – things I mostly liked and occasionally disliked – about both works. I also found a few lessons.

Lesson #1 – Don’t Shy Away from Well-Traveled Terrain

As writers, we are often told to explore new subject matter and forms. However, there are some subjects that are universal for a reason and strike chords. The topics of baseball in The Art of Fielding and outer space in Life on Mars speak to the geek in me. At different times in my life, I was obsessed about both topics, and I’m not the only one. Both writers find a way to treat these well-traveled topics in a fresh way, while still managing to keep an ease and simplicity in the work itself.

Lesson #2 –  Simplicity Does Not Mean Shallow

OK, I’ll admit it. As a fiction writer and poet, I got a bit jealous by how easy The Art of Fielding and Life on Mars were to read. The “effortless” prose and poetry felt very much like watching an athlete like Kobe Bryant gliding to the rim.

Neither writer adorned their works with words that called attention to themselves. Chad used the very familiar setting of college life to paint vibrant scenes without a lot of additional prose that took away from the sharp dialogue. Tracy often used simple metaphors (e.g. The Universe Is a House Party) to build her poems around.

While each author occasionally annoyed me – The POV charecterizations in The Art of Fielding were sometimes too shallow and there were a couple of clunkers (very bad poems) near the end of Life on Mars – I found myself excited and engaged with both works.

Lesson #3 – Ignore the Reviews and Make Up Your Own Mind

There were plenty of reviews available online and friends who wanted to share their opinions about each book. It’s always this way with books that have “buzz” and I needed to work hard to avoid finding out too much about them in advance. Of course, if you are reading this blog, it’s OK – no spoilers here!

– Martin Ott

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Sex as a Way to Get to Know Your Characters

When a friend forwarded a link  from Lit Reactor on Writing About Sex, I read it eagerly. It contained a few good tips on ways not to embarrass yourself while in the act of writing about the act.

However, the same night, I found myself putting the finishing touches on a sex scene in a novel, and I thought about it more deeply. Why did I have this scene in the book?

Unless the plot hinges on it – which it sometimes does in the case of infidelity or sexual obsession – I realized that a sex scene provides insight into your characters, and what they are like in a primal and, sometimes, vulnerable moment.

Sex is an intimate way for you and your readers to get to know your characters.

Martin Ott

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Writeliving Interview – Madison Smartt Bell

It’s a pleasure to present our next Writeliving interview—Madison Smartt Bell. The first book of Madison’s I read was Soldier’s Joy after I left the Army, and I resonated with the subject matter of returning home and the true nature of brotherhood. Enjoy!

– Martin Ott

Who has been a major influence on your writing?

Just about everything I read, from the Narnia Books through Mark Twain through Flannery O’Connor and Robert Penn Warren in my middle teens, and the other great Southern writers of the period (Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, Ellen Douglas, and in the next generation Madison Jones, Cormac McCarthy and Harry Crews).  Next the Russians, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky especially, whom I read in college for the first time.  My interest in Chekov came later (still can’t figure out how he did it… and suspect most people can’t).  I read a certain amount of Francophone literature and recently have really been rejoicing in Stendhal and Flaubert, along with Haitian writers like Marie Vieux Chauvet, Lyonel Trouillot, Gary Victor, Yanick Lahens, Evelyne Trouillot and Edwidge Danticat (though Edwidge does write in English).  Latter-day influences outside of these categories include Mary Gaitskill, William T. Vollmann, and Denis Johnson and Robert Stone.

For hands-on effect, George Garrett, whom I knew first as a teacher and for a long time after as a friend.  Garrett was adept with many different styles and genres of both poetry and fiction.  He taught me many things by instruction and by his example—importantly, not to fear trying anything, and to keep an open mind toward your own work and also work by your students.

Andrew Lytle I had the good luck to know from childhood on.  He paid attention to my published work toward the end of his life and was a remarkably penetrating and original reader of it.  I listened to what he said with great care.

Can you give us insight into your creative process?

Like most people, though not all of them know it, I tend to compose in a state of light trance.  There are different ways of getting there.  Self-hypnosis, consciously undertaken, is one.  Many writers’ rituals, I believe, amount to self-hypnosis unconsciously undertaken.  In First World culture we usually think of inspiration as coming from within, but in many other cultures it comes from without, a possibility which is built right into the word “inspiration” if you look it closely. At an extreme one may reach a state resembling spirit possession (my travels in Haiti taught me that), or if your belief system prefers, a radically altered psychological state.

Andrew Lytle said, you put yourself apart from yourself, and enter the imaginary world.  After that it’s easy enough—you just describe what you find there.

I have written a good deal about these matters, e.g. in my textbook Narrative Design (http://faculty.goucher.edu/mbell/nardesign.html) and also been written about in this context:

(http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2011/04/madison-smartt-bell-color-of-night.html).

Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?

Well, I was never a big fan of Norman Mailer’s work, with the exception of The Executioner’s Song.  I met him once, late in his life, and was surprised, and touched, really, by the kindly interest he took in me.  There’s one thing he said (long ago, I read it in my twenties), which I’ve always valued.  I paraphrase:  The difference between a novice and an experienced writer is the ability to work on a bad day.

When I first read that line, I really couldn’t work on a bad day.  Now I can.  And given the state of publishing and one thing and another, a middle-aged writer’s got a decent supply of bad days coming.

What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?

Practically everything.  I don’t trade in my own secrets.

About the Author:

Madison Smartt Bell has published more books than he has fingers and also plays a number of fretted instruments, poorly.  He teaches creative writing at Goucher College.

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Recycled Reads – Revolutionary Road

I live less than a block from my neighborhood Goodwill in Los Feliz, the same one I’ve donated used books to for years. Recently, for the first time, I decided to browse the selection of books there, and found a treasure trove of authors and titles that had been jettisoned from book shelves. Many of the offerings had been popular in past decades,  and I became interested in whether some of these books withstood the test of time.

For my first Recycled Read, I’d like to review Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I had high expectations from the blurbs by Kurt Vonnegut and Tennessee Williams on the back cover. Revolutionary Road was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1962, and Richard Yates has been attributed to be an influence on writers such as Raymond Carver and Andres Dubus.

So how did Revolutionary Road hold up nearly 50 years after first being published? For me, it was a mixed bag. It was a novel that did not seem to know itself. The doomed relationship of a dysfunctional couple that relocates to the suburbs is undercut by the author’s insistence to veer away from its most powerful scenes. Yates alternated between the close third-person perspective of his main protagonists Frank and April Wheeler to a confusing mix of minor characters. The title Revolutionary Road also seems to suggest it is a novel of place, but it barely scratches the surface of the dynamics within its Connecticut suburban neighborhood.

The novel is at its best in the tense, active and sometimes volatile scenes starring Frank and April. At their core, they are two people who do not seem to know themselves or each other, lonelier in each other’s company than they would be otherwise as they try to fit themselves into some idyllic world that does not exist. WW2 hovers  in Frank’s oft-repeated war stories, but his defining characteristic is fear in himself, his family and his vision of how to be a man. April’s only joy is in acting for the local neighborhood theater company, but she slowly comes to realize that she has been acting every day for years, and poorly at that. Both Frank and April are burdened by the illusion that they are special, different from their neighbors as they plan an exodus to Europe so that Frank can find himself.

The author intrudes, however, with an additional layer of commentary, alternating between sometimes very short scenes with minor characters, an opening salvo in third person plural, and an ending with a minor character turning off his hearing aid to close the curtains. There is also a heavy-handed catalyst in the form of a man who has been deemed crazy, and asks the questions the couple is afraid to ask each other.

The plot veers between the domestic and business worlds of wife and husband with marital affairs, poor decisions, and a remarkable lack of focus on the couple’s two kids. Without a dramatic engine propelling us forward, we are unprepared for April’s unwanted pregnancy and the decisions that drive the novel to its tragic conclusion, told in many voices.

Perhaps it is the author’s intent to keep the main characters at arm’s distance and there may well be others who feel differently about this book, and its place in the literary cannon (on more than one best 100 book list). Regardless of how the story was told, Yates was one of the first to focus the novel on the everyday plight of suburban families, and this subject matter has since spurred many great stories and books.

Feel free to agree, disagree, or to add to the conversation.

Martin Ott

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The Nostalgia Echo – Mickey Hess

The Nostalgia Echo by Mickey Hess, the first novel from C&R Press, is a book with many layers. It follows the storyline of a professional narrator named Gene in search of his birth mother, armed only with a Polaroid photograph of her at a book signing for Doctor Everett Barnes, a nostalgia expert who is at the center of the novel and its subplots.

The Nostalgia Echo is reminiscent of Paul Auster’s City of Glass in that the quest is not the actual quest, but rather the exploration of what is real and what is not from the perspective of an unreliable narrator: “I like to pretend I’m an objective reporter of whatever story I’m telling, but when I get bored and cranky I tend to make things up.”

This propensity for the narrator Gene to make up major and minor characters recasts the true quest of this novel. Its subject is American culture, and our often-misplaced nostalgia for the good ol’ days.

As Doctor Barnes explains, “As children in the Fifties, we dreamed about flying cars. Then in the 1980s I saw a motion picture about a flying car that would take you back to the Fifties. So we’ve seen the future and it doesn’t look good.”

The Nostalgia Echo also contains science fiction elements – like we see in many of Vonnegut’s books – that are so close to our own reality that we barely think twice about them. For example, a drug company twists Doctor Barnes’ assertion that nostalgia is a malady and tries to make a profit by marketing its cure in pill form.

You’ll also be graced with cameos from Americana that intrude into the lives of characters struggling to make sense out of their surreal lives: the Dukes of Hazzard boys, Albert Einstein, J.D. Salinger, and Zorro vs. Godzilla.

The Nostalgia Echo also has another effect, an “echo” that stays with you after reading it. Be prepared for this inventive novel to evoke your own nostalgia, and the truth of everything from childhood memories to modern American history. As nostalgia expert Doctor Barnes explains: “Stories don’t exist in real life. In real life, things just happen, and when you try to make a story out of them, the truth moves further and further away from you.”

Martin Ott

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The Plot – Jeffrey Eugenedis and Women’s Fiction

I am a fan of Jeffrey Eugenedis. Aside from the Michigan connection, I enjoyed the scope and craftsmanship of this first two books The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

When The Marriage Plot came out, I bought it in hard cover, read it immediately and went to see the author read and answer questions at my local bookstore Skylight Books.

There are many things to appreciate about the novel. At the reading, Jeffrey spoke about how a central premise drove his work, and that he wanted to write a novel about marriage in the style of writers such as Jane Austen.

The novel is well written, the characters are believable and the details of their life are vivid. Jeffrey convincingly writes from a female point of view, and I appreciate everything about the novel except the overall affect it had on me: I was let down. This intimate coming of age story, the author’s specialty, left me annoyed as I did not resonate with the main character Madeleine Hanna. I think much of this is personal preference and perhaps intended by the author as this young woman was relatively pampered, lost in a fog of academia, and not particularly self-aware. Madeleine’s troubles were minor compared to those of my own college friends, and the novel itself felt minor because of my personal experiences.

However, a thought provoking essay “On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women” in yesterday’s The New York Times Sunday Book Review by Meg Wolitzer got me to thinking about my reaction to the novel all over again. In her essay, Meg explores the classification of women’s fiction and if Jeffrey’s novel would have gotten the same reception if written by a woman. Meg explores everything from the packaging of the book to the cultural bias surrounding female novelists.

This morning I reviewed my own bookshelf, and found that I owned more books by male authors, a larger trend in fiction than in poetry. Do I have a bias? Did my teachers? Do publishers? And what exactly is women’s fiction – why is it a category at all? Perhaps this is the plot we should be thinking about.

Martin Ott

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T.C. Boyle at Skylight Books

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to support my local bookstore, Skylight Books, a short walk from where I live in Los Feliz. Earlier this week, I went down to get a copy of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a book I haven’t been able to get out of my head after hearing the author read a portion of it at the AWP Conference in Chicago.

While at the bookstore, I decided to get T.C. Boyle’s 13th novel now in softcover, When the Killing’s Done, as I had already planned to go to his reading on March 8. The book itself is vintage T.C Boyle, a writer who purposefully puts his characters in conflict with themselves, each other and their natural surroundings. It was reminiscent of other books of his that I’ve enjoyed such as Drop City and The Tortilla Curtain, and his themes as a writer are drawn from his interests in history, evolution and ecology, the complex scenarios that play their way out as people, plants and animals are introduced to new environments and each other.

These themes are multilayered throughout When the Killing’s Done and seep into passages such as this one: “And her condo—over-priced and under-soundproofed—occupies the war zone between the freeway out front and the railroad tracks out back, a condition she’s been able to tolerate for its access to the beach and the cool night air, and the option, which she almost always takes, even when it rains of sleeping with the window open and a blanket wrapped tightly around her through all of the seasons of the year.”

This sentence contains with it all that is great—and sometimes vexing—about T.C. Boyle. His long sentences are layered, as is the plot of this narrative that takes place over generations, with shipwrecks, tragedies, and questions about human nature and the natural order. In order to create this tapestry that weaves through time, and with long sections of backstory, T.C. Boyle relinquishes the immediacy of the main narrative thread between a scientist Alma Boyd Takesue looking to protect endangered species on California’s Channel Islands and Dave LaJoy, an activist opposed to the killing of any animals whatsoever. Because of T.C. Boyle’s insight and dark humor into the true nature of his characters, the immediacy of the suspense building from scene to scene is replaced by the feeling, like in a Greek tragedy, of impending and inescapable doom.

T.C Boyle didn’t read any passages from his novel. Instead, he read a short story, Los Gigantes, that is available on Skylight Book’s podcast, and was featured in last month’s The New Yorker. The brilliance of this story, set in an unnamed country, contains the same themes of evolution as the novel in a way that makes me certain that this author is one of our own natural treasures: as adept in short stories as novels, taking on themes relevant to our times, a writer unabashedly writing about important things.

Martin Ott

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World War Z – A Review

 A literary zombie novel? Is this really possible? Ever since my friend Andy convinced me to read Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter I have tried to keep an open mind to crossover genre fiction. Coming back to Los Angeles from the AWP Writer’s Conference in Chicago, I stopped at one of O’Hare’s Barbara’s Bookstores and discovered that I liked the store’s taste in books. It also didn’t hurt that the kid at the counter was halfway through Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which he was reading between ringing up customers. I had read more than half of the 20 or so recommended books displayed, and decided to give World War Z, An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks at try.

OK, so maybe literature and zombies may have more than just a casual connection if the movie quote “Are you really trying to seduce me with literature during a Zombie apocalypse?” is any indication. I ended up devouring the whole novel much like a zombie biting into human flesh during my flight back home. Now as a writer, I can never just “enjoy” a book…I had to ask myself why I liked it so much.

After all, even for its solid first person writing throughout, the book had a couple of major flaws. An unnamed narrator is introduced at the beginning of the book, looking to compile the narratives of dozens of different eyewitnesses during the Zombie Wars, and the voices all sound the same as they outline scenes of what took place during a decade-long engagement. This consistent voice made the person narratives seem impersonal. Also, the choice of narrative structure – starting at the end and flashing back to the beginning – took away any real suspense that the zombies were actually going to make humankind extinct.

How then can I recommend a book that is a bit too impersonal and without suspense? It is because there is magic in the short vignettes that describe – in great imagination and detail – the skirmishes with zombies. These narratives cover almost every continent and take place in woods and city, on islands and underwater, below the earth and in outer space. The writer has an acute political understanding and an eye for dark humor, perhaps honed working for Saturday Night Live. He outlines the follies of armies and governments in dealing with a crisis of this magnitude in a way that has you engrossed, engaged and believing that this zombie war actually happened. One of my favorite vignettes is a compound of movie stars that broadcast their location in an encampment that is taken down not by zombies, but by their beloved viewers storming their safe haven because they would not stay out of the limelight.

Throughout the morose tragedy, we recognize the true nature of humanity, and come away feeling that we have learned a little bit about ourselves in the process. This is what literature does. Even with zombies.

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