It occurred as I opened this book, and realizing Ha Jin was now writing about America, that his work would lose some of its sheen. To this reader, it has. It’s easy to excuse facile, even clumsy prose when reading about a country that seems as exotic as China apparently is to Americans. When on familiar earth, however, such limited writing skill breeds contempt.
This is not to completely dismiss Ha Jin as a writer: he has a goodly portion of the writer’s separation from culture, regardless of country, and he has an insight into human nature that allows him to think panoramically—in the human sense. Sadly, few modern writers, in the age of individualistic interiorizing, can pull off a work of such broad scope. All too often in A Free Life, Ha Jin gives the reader neither personal insight nor cultural scope. Perhaps that’s because trying to reconcile Chinese culture to that of the U.S. is too much like trying to drive a square peg in a round hole.
The Story’s central character, Nan Wu, and his wife, Pingping, migrate to the U.S. so Nan can gain a PhD in Political Science. Soon, the Tiananmen Massacre occurs. Nan realizes he can’t return, in fact must rescue son Taotao from modern China. He and Pingping succeed and establish a slowly fructifying life running a restaurant in Atlanta, of all places. The inevitable but weakly inscribed complication is that Nan doesn’t love Pingping; he has married her in the Chinese version of on-the-rebound, still captivated by the Chinese woman who rejected him, Beina. As time goes by Taotao becomes Americanized, an immigrant cliché-source of dismay for Nan and Pingping. Thus—another such cliché—Nan lives in a netherworld neither Chinese nor American. Too, he remains dissatisfied with a mundane life of making a living—a clichéd form of Scott Fitzgerald’s urge to “second acts” in America—he dreams of becoming a writer, and begins writing poetry. Fate deals Nan a good hand (not with his poetry, however), and he returns to China to find it remarkably different—Beina married and living in the U.S.
Ha Jin lets his dialogue do most of the work here, his narrative superficial and innocently-drawn as I imagine the author thinks appropriate to American readers. This is one more book in which the story line goes nowhere and in which the character issues remain unresolved, virtually urging the reader to skim as the pages turn.
Toward the end of A Free Life, the author seems to prolong things by desiring to offer tacit advice to wannabe writers. His advice:
“The higher-ups want us to write about dead people and ancient events because this is a way to make us less subversive and more inconsequential.”
Another, citing Faulkner: “…the basest of all things is to be afraid…leaving no room for anything but old verities and truths of the heart…”
It seems that despite his naysaying of the modern Chinese way of life, much of the Communist doctrine he learned there has become his tar baby. He seems to yet understand neither the American promise nor the pitfalls of Communist China.
For my money, he should return to allowing us peeks into the flaws of his homeland.
Badlands is the 2006 winner of the Miami University Press Novella Contest, and it’s easy to see why it won. Cynthia Reeves has created a novella with an almost poetic sensibility, one that—as is the literary vogue these days—melds characters, bends time, and creates an inevitable contrast between one’s inner self and how one expresses that self to others. She has also invented a device in which a mainstream, white American writer can explore (without being attacked as politically incorrect) another culture, in this case that of the Minneconjou Sioux.
A bit about this novella: Caroline—Caro—is an archaeologist with a consuming interest in the Sioux culture of the Dakota Badlands, but has had to give up that pursuit because of a cancer that will soon kill her. She’s being taken care of at home by husband Daniel (another vogue these days, an inversion of roles within families) who has failed to fulfill his dreams as an architect, making him available to take care of her during those awful, last days. The book explores feelings between the pair, first their external expressions of love and tenderness as Caro fades in and out of lucidity from pain and cancer. It also explores the inner thoughts and imaginings that both make of the couple a single entity while creating a gulf between them that no love can ever bridge. Such is the stuff of the human condition, and Reeves does a bang-up job of exploring such intricacies within a modern marriage.
The author goes to great detail in describing the awful, painful experience of cancer’s last days, despite medical technology’s progress in treating such a debilitating disease. She draws heavily on allusion in linking Caro’s archaeological interests in unearthing bits of the Wounded Knee massacre with her own physical decay. The implication here seems to be a comparison of her war with cancer and subsequent decay with the similar historical fate of the Minneconjou. Too, archaeology is a profession that endeavors to restore life to such faded cultures through study and understanding. And Reeves seems intent on extending the same promise to Caro, that she will not be forgotten, that she will live on through Daniel’s love for her, and through their children.
Reeves has, in this short book, created a prototypical construction of the evolving literary novel. Her technique in exploring feelings, the blending of personalities outside of linear time, in Badlands is flawless, her prose as good as the best writers today. She’s the product of an MFA program at Warren Wilson College (one of the best MLA programs around). She’s been taught the techniques referred to, and has used her more-than-capable skills to create a novella any creative writing program would be proud of.
But what’s missing is something that seems intrinsic to such an education these days, thus not something one might use to fault the author—a storyline.
There’s a hint of conflict (beyond physical decay and death) in that Caro has had some sort of dalliance early on with her archaeological mentor, Dietrich, a man much older than Caro. Still she has made her choice—Daniel. As she succumbs to the inevitability of her situation, she decides to confess this dalliance to Daniel, her rationale being that she is too close to death, Daniel too much in love with her for this long-over affair (if that is what it was) to matter. And, in fact, Daniel does shrug it off. Late in Badlands, she introduces Caro’s three children to the reader, their role in the book a passive, metaphorical one of their extending her life beyond cancer.
Much could have been made of these situations and characters in creating tension—thus a story—tension that must be resolved before the reader finishes the book. Sadly, this tension is so sublimated to technique that no resolution or character transformation is possible. Consequently, the book drags and seems overlong, even in this shortened form.
The editorial comment I must make here is that, whatever the novel’s current form, human conditions will inevitably be seen through the author’s prism, or multiple prisms of multiple characters. However, this treatment must allow the reader to “lose myself” in the portrayals, plot, and peripheral allusions. The current vogue for the literary novel, however, is too self-conscious for this to occur, and this is the primary weakness of academic tinkering with the novel form. Technique is essential, as is its evolution, but when the novel loses its transparency for the reader—and the sense of story—it is no longer literature.
Cynthia Reeves has learned her technique well, and her talent is awe-inspiring. This reader hopes she will soon rediscover story. If she can, her literary horizons will be unlimited.
Sitting at my computer this morning, as always, trying to hone my skills and pound out a piece of historical fiction, and guess what happens? I get a call from a lady from the North Carolina Writers Network: "Did you write a piece called Grandpa Tom's Cane for the Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Contest?" "Um, yes, I believe I did." "Well, you won first prize." The conversation became a blur after that, but something was mentioned about three hundred dollars in prize money as well.
As I began to notify friends, I discovered my old pal Dave Frauenfelder took third prize. Neither of us knew the other had entered. Both of us wrote father-son pieces, his on a drive across country centered about Lamy, New Mexico, that area being one of my favorite places on the planet. Mine incorporated my Grandpa and dad, and tried to tie in the meta-story with a connection to the Aeneid. I'm sure someone out there can convince Dave to post his story on his blog, and, well, I might too, with a little encouragement.
If there's anything better than winning a writing contest, it's having a pal on the podium with you. Some bubbly, Dave?
Tree Of Smoke, by Denis Johnson
I suppose when I opened this 2007 National Book Award winning tome of 614 pages I was expecting a panorama on the order of War and Peace. After all, it does take time to piece together the ragged fragments of a national trauma such as Vietnam. And it has taken decades to clear away enough of its emotional smoke to even harbor such aspirations. Certainly Tolstoy had the opportunity to view his formative war from the standpoint of elapsed time, albeit not some four decades.
But somewhere within the first hundred pages, I found myself searching for threads of such a panorama, a new perspective on that war, the visceral feel for its inherent conflicts as a way to draw the worldwide struggle between capitalism and communism into the focus of Vietnam. In this search, as time and page wore on, I found myself skimming, skimming, skimming.
Perhaps skimming is the only way to read Tree Of Smoke. It drags its host of characters through a plot that ultimately goes nowhere. I waded through interminable passages of dialogue, listening to GIs brag, snarl, and curse their way to drunkenness, heard F.X. Sands and his coterie of followers, including his nephew, Skip, blather their way to paranoia and disenchantment.
Of course, this is the way of war. Wars usually lead nowhere, in the end, except to the next conflict. There is much waiting, talking, drinking, listening, all leading to a relatively few moments of the most intense endeavor devised by man: combat. Surely, those who were in Vietnam spent awkward hours trying to coax something deeper than sensory gratification from the war’s native hangers-on, the double agents the Sands family sought to woo and then destroy. And maybe portraying the war as this sort of ennui is something of a literary moment, if done well.
But Johnson doesn’t do this. First, given his story and characters, the book is too long—by a multiple of three. Allowing such a host of characters makes even more necessary the central perspective, most often through the eyes of a central character, sometimes a pair, or even three, characters. Tree has no such focus, nothing from which the spectrum of Vietnam—from 1963 through the 1983 epilogue—can be established on the personal level. As a result, his characters play second fiddle to a war scenario having no inherent central focus in itself. And this is not the literary moment the National Book Award judges deem it to be.
Johnson tries, too late, I think, to fashion the necessary summing up in his overlong epilogue, contrasting a Viet vet who straddled the CIA and U.S. Army and now gone loony, with the rather mundane life of an army nurse—turned middle class wife. But in the parlance of industry, one can’t put quality control devices into place at the end of the assembly line—they must be built into it from start to finish. And so it is with writing.
If Johnson’s intent was to portray Vietnam as national business-as-usual, an ideological adventure foundering on its own illusions, then healing sufficiently for the whole exercise to begin again, he should have devised a more relevant vehicle than Tree Of Smoke.
To end the litmag series’ first edition, I thought I’d better amplify on some of the issues raised, and some I haven’t.
1 – Pay attention to whether a litmag favors first person or third person stories. However, the tendency now is to favor other things, such as thematic consistency, or stories and essays regarding encounters with people from without your culture (domestic or exotic).
2 – Another take on item one above would be whether the stories published are subjective or objective, i.e., whether they lay out “facts,” (objective) or whether they “see” things through the attitude of a particular character (subjective). This can be subtle, but once you begin to examine the texts, you’ll get the hang.
3 – Is the prose plainspoken or poetic? Plainspokes would be the style I’m writing in now, i.e. “normal” conversational style, and poetic would use more imagery or symbolic allusions, as would poetry?
4 – What is the main element of the story? Setting? Theme (covered above)? Character? Plot/action (will likely use a significant amount of dialogue)? Humor?
5 – One blessed soul has compiled a list on the Net of many litmags, and her impression of their emphases. http://users.california.com/~sasapeyton/litmags.html
There may be other considerations and resources, but these will help you hone your choices, writers. For the non-writers among us, paying attention to these elements will help you become more aware of how they’re used, which will enhance your reading. And they may help you in book selections at you favorite mom and pop or big box retail outlet.
I hope this has been informative. Any comments, let me know. As I receive more litmags, I’ll circle back for another go at it.
Before taking on the last litmag of this first-of series, I should at least offer a disclaimer regarding litmags on the Net. Because of the costs alluded to last week, print litmags are slowly turning to the Net. There are costs to be sure, but hardly the cost in paper, printing, distribution, and postage that makes the print versions such a financial burden.
At one time, Net offerings—still called web-zines by many—were the litmag equivalent of vanity press. That is, they would take anything, in any condition, and PRESTO! You were a published writer. But no more.
Nowadays, the Net litmags are increasingly seen as the equivalent of those in print. Some are also a bit more stringent regarding quality. They edit your manuscripts and require certain changes prior to placing them on their website.
One of the advantages here is that quite often, publishing on the Net comes quickly, within weeks—versus months or years—in some print mags. And your chances of breaking in as a newbie are better here, principally because the “big names” prefer to stick with print.
But to this week’s offering: Epiphany – A Literary Journal. Winter-Spring 2007-2008 Epiphany is affiliated with no obvious academic institution—a rarity among their kind. The editors publish twice a year, once in print, and once digitally.
The issue is a fat one—over three hundred pages—featuring poems, paintings, and an essay by Derek Walcott, the 1992 Nobel winner in Literature. Epiphany has been published since 2003, attracting the highest caliber writers of the litmags mentioned in these posts. The artwork of Walcott is reproduced well, on glossy paper, the other pages use thick paper, which holds print well. Perhaps because of Epiphany’s divide between print and digital formats, or because they’ve published for only four years, the print and fonts leave something to be desired. Titles, and other data are in an extremely small font, either 8 or 9, and their leading is extremely heavy, making the prose pages seem like double-spaced manuscript sheets. Poetry, however, uses smaller leading, hence is more attractive.
Six fiction pieces appear in this issue, including one translation. Clearly, the postmodern ethos is at work here as well, attempting to capture multicultural characters in muted authorial voice. Dialogue is deemphasized, narrative carrying most of the literary burden. To my mind, the structural quality of these pieces varies, and I trust the reader to seek their own “to-beat” voices.
The issue carries one piece on literary theory, one memoir, one short piece involving the author’s view of death, the other pair of pieces involving encounters with persons or cultures outside the American sphere. The prose style is solid, although conventional, and—to my mind—better reading than the fiction. My challenge here is to beat Anna Steegman’s memoir.
Thirteen poets appear here, including some 38 of their works. The editors, in choosing this lot, seem to favor terse, economic wording, the poems providing symbolic imagery. Again, No favorites jump out, so pick your own.
Next week, a summing up on litmags, and some additional prompts and advice for those seeking markets for their writing.