Fukuyama Crosses the Great Divide

If you've been reading all the hoopla about Francis Fukuyama's newbie, America at the Crossroads – Democracy, Power and the Neoconservative Legacy, I probably won't have too much new to tell you. Fukuyama is a rather eloquent and enthralling writer for a political scientist, at least for the first half of this book. In that segment, he traces the genealogy of the neoconservative movement from its ideological beginnings at CCNY in the 1930s to its current proponents. This segment reads a bit like David Halberstam in places, and is equally as informative as Halberstam's best. As I say, not bad for a political scientist.
The second part, however, seems to suffer from the hubris of a theoretician spurned by the big dogs in the Bush Administration. I'm not certain that Fukuyama's political flip-flop is really because the Bushies have lost the faith, as he claims. I suspect that's part of it, but it could very well be that the author's aura gleaned from his previous book, doesn't shine as brightly inside the White House. His attempts to rethink political institutions as the trigger device for freedom, democracy, prosperity, etc., seems half-hearted and more than a little fuzzy in both ideas and writing. Of course, a theoretician can't hit a bullseye eveytime (as he did in The End of History and the Last Man). Today's world is more than a little complex, and any mere mortal could be excused for not being able to make sense of it.
Which is precisely the point and the essential problem with this book's ideas. Fukuyama, in a time of overly-complex political reality, seems to want to make it even more complex by adding layers of institutions to the existing ones. It's enough to make a dedicated proponent of Realpolitik wish for the good old days of rational, linear thinking. Of course, the problem could be that the current administration is the dangerous, shoot-from-the-hip bunch a lot of us fear they are, and Fukuyama is desperate to put distance between them and him.
There's no shortage of writing out there delineating details of the Bush Administration's shortcomings, and Fukuyama's book is one more nail in that coffin. I suspect that slamming the Bushies is, whatever his motivations, the underlying reason for this book's existence. Next time, though, Francis, why don't you give us a better idea of what to make of an increasingly balkanized, impoverished world presided over by possibly the world's final superpower.

The Good of Writing

Two things:
First, author Christina Schwartz writes a byline for The Atlantic in which she cites excerpts from new fiction and critiques them. This month she's on about Joyce Carol Oates' new story collection, High Lonesome: Stories 1966-2006. In her selection, Schwartz uses a story's first paragraph, in which Oates has created a shady character without calling him such. It's an example of introducing a character on the fly, i.e., she describes his habits, his quirky vanity, in detail and without being overtly negative, as he is about to pick up some undetermined person (clearly a child) at a private academy, leaving the reader with a sense of something ominous on the next page.
This is a snippet of writing at its best; the knack of making good writing better by economy – keeping the character in development as the action pushes forward. A writer must always push the reader along, compel him to keep turning pages, never allowing her to become bored, even as introductions are being made.
Second:
It may seem a silly thing, but there's an essay in the latest issue of The Writer's Chronicle magazine about the ins and outs of comma use. The comma is the most powerful punctuation mark in western language, and author Noah Lukeman spells out those uses' pros and cons.
Whether you're an evolving writer or a reader who appreciates writing technique, these two articles will make your literary experience richer. Check 'em out.
Next time, a book review of interest to all who follow politics and the Iraq War.

Lab Time

Since I've spent so much time of late grousing about the difficulties involved in publishing, whether through contests or litmag submittals, I guess its lab time. You know, display the empirical data to support your thesis.
But to your great relief, I'm sure, an announcement: the grouchy stuff ends here, at least for the time being. So…to begin.
A few years ago, I wrote a couple of short stories in what I assumed were second person point of view. Called them you-you-you stories. One in particular went out to magazines and was summarily rejected. I submitted the story to a critiquer/editor, who couldn't make any sense of it, asking me all sorts of odd questions I thought were clear in the story. Okay, I thought. I've overreached. Second person isn't my cup of tea.
A year or so later I was accepted as a writer in residence at Peace College in Raleigh, NC, and had the privilege of working there with one of North Carolina's most renowned, Doris Betts. Doris, a creative writing teacher and facilitator of the highest order, is a very caring person to work with, but she pulls no punches. She advised that the story was not of the second person persuasion – it was a somewhat convoluted version of first person. Also, she advised, I had tried to write too much into a short story. Too many characters, too many twists, doing none of them justice. Why didn't I, she suggested, expand it to a novel?
I sat on the idea for another year, until I'd finished a major project she'd also seen, then procrastinated for another six months while I tried my hand at a novella told from four different points of view. (See? I really am a masochist.) Then I began expanding the short story, one I called Collateral Damage, into a 40,000+ word novella. That took another eight months, the story changing significantly – the damned muse on my shoulder harped at every keystroke. After completion I asked a writer friend, Nancy Purcell, to read it, since we had talked about it several times over lunch. Her response? She paid it the highest compliment one writer can give another – she read it in one sitting. Thought it was some of my best work, and encouraged me to send it out ASAP. In the meantime, I had re-written the short story, to accommodate the changes made in the novella, and to straighten out some of Doris' peeves. I had queries out to agents and editors for the two manuscripts mentioned earlier, so decided to procrastinate on shopping Collateral Damage the novella.
This week I found a contest that intrigued me (okay, okay – I know – it may seem that I didn't take my own advice regarding contests. It's not that at all, actually – I occasionally enter contests, but I have no expectations whatsoever), and I entered Collateral Damage the novella. Still, you always wonder how the story will resonate with whomever reads it at Contest Central, and I'm no exception.
Today I received what may turn out to be a pyrrhic victory or the writerly kind regarding the Collateral project: I received a rejection letter from the Palo Alto Review for Collateral Damage the short story. PAR is one of the first tier litmags, and they don't publish much fiction, especially from a third or fourth tier writer, but they ALWAYS provide editorial comments, something almost no one else bothers to do. I'm going to quote their comments, not from ego or frustration, but to demonstrate yet again how difficult it is to get into print, even for capable, persevering writers. The quote:
"This is an excellent story, especially because we were caught up immediately and didn't know where we were going until we got there. You set up the conflict, create tension, and then build the suspense all the way to the end of the story. We wish you good luck in placing this fine story. We are disappointed that we cannot take it ourselves."
Sometimes you just have to take an occasional small victory over the major one your ego had planned on.

Daring to Tell the Truth

It's become a trite adage that we live in a time of instant celebrity, but it's true. Writers, musicians, politicians, actors – they seem to pop up from nowhere, then are gone. Time was, said celebrities paid their dues and reached critical mass artistically over decades, and upon their "discovery," we the public simply faced the task of catching up to them.
Two such bright stars of the literary world bear mention at the moment:
Jack Kerouac would have been eighty-four this month. This accidental voice of the beat generation burst into public consciousness with his On The Road in 1955, following that road story with The Dharma Bums and other paeans to living dangerously, but well. He lived fast, died young, and left a good-looking corpse. Still, his books endure. He inspired me to haunt coffeehouses in the 1962 of my youth; I even grew a de rigeur goatee while my father was overseas in the Air Force. The chin fuzz disappeared, of course, upon his return. Later readings of Road inspired my second novel, a somewhat more sedate road book. But Kerouac dared me – and so many others – to see life through a different set of spectacles; many of us did, and we'll ever be the same again.
Too, 1962 was a significant year because of the emergence of another white-hot literary figure: Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This Russian writer who spent eight years in a gulag for daring to criticize a government offical, published One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch that year. Solzhenitsyn wrote the story in prison on scraps of paper, memorized each piece, then destroyed the paper, lest they be discovered and his gulag years prolonged. Today, Denisovitch is enjoying something of a revival and has just been re-published. I didn't read the book then – I was at the U.S. Naval Academy. Those rigors – along with the Cuban missile crisis – took my undivided attention. Some ten year later, I finally got around to reading Denisovitch, and I became a devoted Solzhenitsyn reader. He may have overcompensated emotionally for his gulag time, but his voice remains enormous. He's a constant reminder of the one thing I harp on to aspiring writers – to dare to tell the truth – even if it means years without recognition. Solzhenitsyn did that in spades, thus attaining a voice in Soviet life larger than any politician, larger than any Russian writer, in fact, since Tolstoy. "If one is forever cautious," Solzhenitsyn asked us, "can one remain a human being?"
In an age in which we grapple for meaning and substance, we would do well as readers and writers to examine these two brave, talented lives, coming to us as they did from totally different perspectives. They wrote for much larger reasons than fame and fortune, and we are the better for it.

Interpreter of Maladies

I suppose after my cantankerous posts regarding the fiction biz, I should, by way of completing the thought, explain why modern fiction isn’t as popular, say, as nonfiction. Further, I've decided to stick my neck in the noose and do this using Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning short story collection.
I’ve just read Interpreter of Maladies. Actually, being a writer, I find it hard to “read” fiction. My curse is that I study it. Oh, I enjoy it, but I very rarely lose myself in fiction, which is regrettable. But I’m delaying the wallow I’ve thrown myself into.
As I delved into Interpreter, the first thing that occurred to me is that Lahiri is a very capable writer. She knows how to introduce her story. Her writing style is as consistent as you’ll find anywhere – very practiced, with virtually no stylistic ups and downs. But here’s where I begin to diverge from “gee whiz” reviewer to critic, darn it. Even though I read a lot of what is regarded as literary fiction – and I enjoy the layering of fiction, the nuances of character, the wordplay of a good writer – I found myself bored.
And just so you know I don’t really have an axe to grind by critiquing a Pulitzer, I’m certain the things I’m about to naysay about Lahiri’s stories were – for the most part – consciously written this way. Which is to say, she’s no doubt a pragmatic practitioner of the fictional arts.
But what makes this fiction boring? Several things. First, with only a couple of exceptions, the writing is heavy on narrative. Nothing wrong with that in and of itself. Narrative is essential to fiction; it's the primary voice of the writer, through his/her narrator, and this is where Lahiri shines. But too often in this collection I see her over-use this technical tool. Doing so has the effect of putting the author center stage, not the narrator or characters. It’s a common trait these days, and it’s turned into a rather egoistic device, which keeps the author ever-present in the readers’ mind. All part of the concept that whatever product you think you’re selling, you’re actually selling yourself. Again, I sense this isn’t Lahiri’s mien – I’m simply saying this is what’s being taught in MFA classes, and Lahiri is smart enough to know editors expect to see this style from the “better” writers.
But to press on: probably due to the emphasis on narrative, “A Temporary Matter's” dialogue is as flaccid as fresh spaghetti. Where it should be accenting the characters' actions and temperaments and adding close-up energy to scenes, it seems a plodding, obligatory device signifying nothing.
Also, TV’s banal, written-on-deadline-for-megabucks style of drama is taking its toll on fiction, and I’m convinced Lahiri realizes this and has shaped her writing accordingly. In the title story, poor Mr. Kapasi, takes on no real personality in his silent lust for Mrs. Das. And the reader can only surmise why Mrs. Das is a serial adultress. It’s simply a tease of a story that noodles the reader’s libido with hints of forbidden sex a la afternoon soaps. And in another, "Mrs. Sen’s,” you have to read to the last page to figure out why the child, Eliot, is even in the story, so feeble is his presence. I could go on here, but I’m already about to capsize into rant. Ironically, the only story that rises to the heights of true literary fiction is “Sexy.” Read it and the title story, and you’ll see the difference.
So. Having said all this, and assuming for the sake of argument that these observations aren’t too jaundiced, one must ask why this one won a Pulitzer. First, it’s decent writing, and a couple of its stories might eventually be compared with the better writers of recent decades. Too, Lahiri is lucky to have such a cross-cultural heritage. People (and this includes me) will read these stories for the same reason they read Ha Jin or Orhan Pamuk (although Pamuk’s fiction skills are stratospheric by comparison), and that’s because in this multicultural world, we have a fascination with other cultures and the ways people in those cultures think – especially the way they see Americans.
You’d think this would be more the realm of non-fiction, and it is, and that’s really the kicker: non-fiction outsells fiction every day of the week and twice on Sunday. Sadly, the non-fiction phenomenon, and the impact of insipid, non-nuanced television drama, has carried over into fiction to the point that literary fiction is now a cheap imitation of commercial entertainment, whether that entertainment is real or fictional.
I only hope fame allows Ms. Lahiri the freedom to break from the mediocrity of modern fiction's environment and begin writing something that will plumb the depths of all humanity, not just pander to our voyeuristic interest in other cultures. If she can, she will take a prominent – and appreciated place – among the world's literary immortals.