Alone In A Bitter World

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Savage Country, by Robert Olmstead

Olmstead’s title here says all that’s relevant here, but indulge me in a few details. Michael Coughlin has lost his family and wandered off the white man’s reservation into existential territory. He meets Elizabeth, his brother’s widowed wife, whom the brother has left destitute. There’s a strain of Americana in which it’s sought to make joy from sorrow, wealth from poverty, and Michael and Elizabeth head into the untapped American prairie hopeful of gaining such new life from buffalo hunting. Olmstead offers but a single sentence of awareness concerning the part the couple play in all but sending the American buffalo into extinction, the Native American plains culture along with it. 

Thus there’s little story here. As the pages turn, Olmstead follows suit with the likes of Charles Frazier and his Cold Mountain in allowing the couple and their retinue to experience the prairie expanse, the buffalo butchering, Indian brutality, racism, murder, extreme weather, and the most brutal of robberies. At book’s end, Michael and Elizabeth gain a workable attachment to one another, but lose all else. 

The project of Savage Country is to portray the plains, hence Earth, as indifferent to all life. So indifferent in fact as to not just indulge but encourage life as joyless loss. Of soul. Of material wealth. Of humanity’s connections to one another. 

This book has been lauded in reviews and that’s understandable as long as one wishes to read cynically, without hope of being inspired to anything hopeful, or to refrain from  pointing toward answers to hard questions put to them. Sadly that apparently comprises a significant portion of the American readership. 

My rating: 14 of 20 stars

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The Informality of Maine

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The State We’re In – Maine Stories, by Ann Beattie – – Some Analysis

This book is the last of a trilogy of short fiction collections meant to launch me into my own set of stories – upgraded, of course. It’s probably the most interesting, and the most banal, but I’ll get to that in a minute. 

There are many challenges to the short story; the primary one being the challenge of a limited number go words, usually no more than 5000 to 6000 words. So what tricks must short fiction writers have up their sleeves, what twists of technique may they avail themselves of to do the most within a limited number of words? 

I’m not going to list all that apply to Beattie, but I will gloss over some before getting to the tender literary meat. A writer can, of course, use a mixture of scenic dialogue and narrative to tell the tale and pull characters from the shadows. Beattie does this facilely. One can use writer’s actions and talk to both depict a culture and the uniqueness of place. Properly done, dialogue can tell the tale and give insight into the story’s characters. Beattie uses all these to reveal Maine as a place where its denizens are expected to act and think with rustic decorum. This creates a certain banality in dialogue, which Beattie handles deftly. Her characters’ actions and emotions relate an overarching state of mind that’s downright boring. Now to the tender meat.

So how are we to determine that depicting this banality is her intent and not just lazy writing? I offer a couple of citations to this point. On page 188 of the hardback version, in her story, “The Repurposed Barn,” a character, Raleigh refers to a Flannery O’Connor essay as “slightly witty, but she goes on and on about some peacock walking around in her front yard.” This is precisely the sort of nattering Beattie sets on her pages here. Writers have grown prone to information dumps in stories and novels, pandering to reader demand for and interest in trivial details they could get from non-fiction were they not reading something fictive. To the point, on page 191, after the usual plethora of extraneous but mildly interesting information about Maine:

  “The Queen Anne’s lace is blooming,” Bettina said…”They often have a little black insect in the center,” Bettina said. “”Did you know that?”

    “Did I know I was fucked? Jocelyn wondered, reforming the question. She lied about having noticed the flowers; she nodded yes, but Bettina rushed on, wanting to overwhelm everyone with how much information she had.”

To cement the technique, at least with this reader, she does the same thing with punctuation. On page 205 she writes,

“…Not what they feared…not what they said silent prayers hoping to ward off…but anything they wanted.” Jocelyn wasn’t sure about the three edits for punctuation, whatever they were called, but she’d tried a colon first and that didn’t look right.

All this is self awareness on the part of the storyteller (Beattie), one of the most sublime  tricks of postmodern writing when well done, reinforced in that Beattie presents all of it in her last story of this collection. Self awareness is certainly admirable, and devising such tricks can augment the writer’s chops if done skillfully. And one can appreciate the author’s talent and insight here, even if these stories don’t really make for an enjoyable read. 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

 

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Seeing Maine From The Inside In

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The State We’re In – Maine Stories, by Ann Beattie

Ann Beattie is known primarily for her short story collections. She’s won numerous awards, and her reputation in this short specialty of fiction is nearly unparalleled. What makes her work so? Let’s allow this collection to be an example. 

As I read her stories here, I was mystified, given Beattie’s reputation, at the lack of substance in her characters’ dialogue. Was Beattie living past her prime, coasting on reputation? No, as it turns out. The dialogue was written purposefully to demonstrate the overcautious interactions of Maine’s people, even within families, that creates the banality implied here.

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Of particular interest are a couple of stories, the volume’s bookends, “What Magical Realism Would Be,” and “The Repurposed Barn.” In these and the in-between stories, Beattie seems to take delight in representing the banality of Maine’s people as a counterpoint to the often-rough-edged contemporary existence in the Eastern Seaboard megalopolises. Perhaps, she seems to be saying in the stories, the hard-bitten urban life would be a crash-and-burn affair without the gentler innocence of Maine’s rural ethos.

Tomorrow, I get to pick nits with one of these stories in particular.

 

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

Maine, short story collections, dialogue, narrative, information dumps, postmodern, punctuation

Elevating

La Paz. One of the third world’s dynamic cities. Three million people high in the Andes – some 12,000 feet above sea level. Cabs race like dodge’em cars, not on New York streets, but on ragged asphalt, testimony to its impoverished past.

Now, modern architecture rises to compete with the mountains. Tower cranes turn their gawky necks to and fro as if marionettes orchestrating new life here.

Yesterday, a cab ride zigzagged through the old town like a caffeinated waterbug. Then suddenly a stop. To the left banner-bearing students protesting withdrawal of governmental funds from the nation’s colleges huddled, working up courage. To the right police in riot gear, an armored car to their rear sporting a water cannon. Fortunately the cab’s occupants escaped to a five-course meal.

Today has dawned somber and cloudy at 45 degrees, for winter is on us here. Another day of paradox promises, elevating life in Bolivia.

Creating the Map to Literature’s Future

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Things change. And one thing that’s changed for me in the past couple of years is that I’m not reading as voraciously. The thirty-plus books I used to read has dwindled to a short dozen. That could be because of several factors, but all of them come back to my love for literary fiction and my difficulty in finding anything out there that makes for a pleasurable, invigorating read. I’m sure you already know this, if you follow my posts here.

I get little in the way of commentary about my book reviews, but I suspect readers want the gist of a book so they’ll know whether or not to invest time in it. With that in mind, I’ve been increasingly unfair in reviews – not unfair to the writers, but to the readers. So here’s my solution:

For every book I review I’ll publish two parts: the first will be what everyone – more or less – wants: the gist of the book. In other words, the story. Where there is little or no story to report, I’ll, well, do what I can to give you an idea of the book’s progression.

The second part will be a bit more technical. How I see character development. The book’s theme or overall ethos, its philosophic bent. And certainly how the book succeeds without a story, perhaps, or how well the existing story is presented and paced.

This means more mental work for me, both in the reading and the reporting. But that’s as it should be. The postmodern era simply means we’re leaving modernism and we’re going somewhere, literarily speaking, but we don’t quite know where yet. Maybe my efforts as armchair critic and yours as reader will create a map of literature’s future.

Oh, and by the way – I’ll be taking a couple of weeks off here, but when I return, you’ll see book reviews again.

 

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It’s not just me. I’m not being unnecessarily curmudgeon-y, if you please. I’ve long been bemoaning the abandonment of story – even the implied story – in literary fiction, but there are larger voices than mine saying it now. A recent article in Britain’s New Statesman, wonders at the dwindling of literary fiction among readers. Writers making a living at writing are down from 40% to 11% in 2013, admittedly a shrinking time noted as we glance to our rear view mirrors.

Is it the retailers’ somewhat greedy 40-50% take of the list price; is that the problem?

Is it the rising costs of hardbacks, the treasures we used to stack against our study and office walls?

Is it a drift to non-fiction?

Proponents won all these, I believe, would be convicted by a jury of their peers, but there’s growing consensus that the true villain lies elsewhere.

Says author Tim Lott, writing for the Guardian, “Literary writers must write better books…My impression of literary fiction is that it has lost the plot. Literally.”

No, says Nicola Baker, a recent Goldsmiths Prize winner, “Experimental novelists and artists provide the ideas that form a cultural plankton for bigger organisms to feast upon…our ideas gradually filter through to the mainstream.”

A well crafted novel, strong on story, can do that too. Ms. Baker’s comment smacks of elitism, an elitism preoccupied with writing for other writers and an assumption that the average avid reader can only comprehend artistic ideas in watered down form. This is the same ethos that almost did in jazz a few decades ago.

It’s well and good to experiment, but Aristotle wasn’t wrong when he said that literature/novel/ story must both inform and entertain.

 

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Taming Literacy in This Age

Is the novel dead?

Why do the remaining book readers today prefer nonfiction to fiction?

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When I had been working as an engineer for some 6-7 years, the Chief Structural Engineer called me in and said, “Bob, I need you to write a letter for me.” What he meant was a scolding letter to a local legislator and one of his constituency. I did that and eventually made my bones in the organization by writing for highly-placed engineers.

It’s never been a secret that technical types are weak on the written word. My question in the early years of my career wasn’t “Why is that so?” Rather, it was, “How is it that I paid attention in grammar and literature classes when other future engineers and scientists didn’t?”

I don’t think I know the complete answer to that. Just a proclivity that eventually led me to be a writer, I suppose.

But what’s afoot here is something called post-literacy. Just as the invention of the printing press made possible literacy, i.e., the ability to read with comprehension and the parallel ability to articulate one’s thoughts by writing in a given language. Thought and social functioning became funneled largely through books, newspapers, and letters.

We now realize that something was lost in moving from the pre-literate age, when society functioned, inspired by oral story-telling, dance, music, poetic history, and the oral handing down of skills such as weaving, blacksmithing, and farming. The printed word and the skills of reading and writing did much to build the modern society, but that society lost much of its passion to the written word’s abstract expressiveness.

Those engineers that I wrote for realized something I didn’t: that the technical professions functioned ably with numerical language, relegating the written word to a support role handled by those who persisted in a fascination with expressing thought and imagination through writing.

So to cut to the chase, is the novel dead? Maybe. Cinema has largely supplanted it, and the novel has even copied cinema in some respects.

Why history and other nonfiction? Imagination is now expressing itself through technological gadgets and social media; those who prefer a longer view lean to more linear examinations of the world we live in.

But all’s never completely lost. We’re now in an age in which intuition  is slowly gaining a foothold over reason, and the devices of pre-modernism are returning: theater, music, poetry, and –yes –perhaps the novel will now grow new legs.

 

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