This Time, It’s All In The Technique

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I’ve had the experience of watching a movie in a local theater, the person in the row in front of me busy whispering aloud, explaining what transpires on the screen to his or her companion. Yes, such prattle may add to your own understanding of this cinematic event, but it’s damned annoying. And so we’ll talk soon here of the narrator of Amor Towles’ latest, A Gentleman in Moscow.

To be fair at the outset, Towles takes a lot of risks in this novel, in subject matter, in its telling, and in the story’s structure. And as with most risks, some of his work and some don’t. His protagonist, Count (now Comrade) Alexander Rostov, is now a waiter in Moscow’s Metropol Hotel, an edifice to which he’s been confined by a Bolshevik tribunal for seeming not to have his politics right. The story thus reduces Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s Russia and its grand scape to a mere hotel, a device not unlike the trope of shipboard drama, from Moby Dick to Master and Commander.

Rostov, despite his demotion to waiter, seems affable in managing to live the life of one of Russia’s former uppercrust with few hints of typical Russian angst, within and without him. Until, that is, the child, Sofia, he’s been given responsibility to raise, grows to be a beautiful late teen and a talented pianist. Rostov’s concern here is Russia’s past and the way its previous artistic culture seems to be stunted by communism. He thus seeks to spring Sofia loose from such sociopolitical chains and seeks to place himself back in the good old days of a Russian aristocracy served by scores of quiescent serfs.

And to the writing: Towles’ strength here lies in his narrative passages, many of which display a literary elegance that’s to be admired. It’s at the periphery of these passages, however, where Towles segues into scene, that my earlier paragraph comes into play. He seems to feel uneasy about his dialogue (more on that in a moment) and seems compelled to have his narrator play the moviehouse busybody, explaining things that are likely obvious to the reader. Beyond annoying, it serves to diminish the effects of scenic activity and talk, and this is unsettling to say the least. His dialogue displays little in the way of advancing story or deepening his characters. Such storyline talk seems to this reader to be rather inane, uninformed, and not the witty bits of writing it was probably meant to be. Factor in his bratty narrator, and you get a plodding story with superficial characters.

In the end, I’m sad to say, it seems to this reader that Towles is more interested in creating an artsy piece of writing than in developing his story idea into something grand, something that could push this era’s haggard literary efforts into more memorable territory.

 

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

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Stories With An Arkansas Sensibility

 

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Collected Stories, by Raymond Carver

Continuing my focus on the short story:

Without realizing their liaison, I met Carver’s wife in Atlanta in the eighties. As with most writing wannabes (I was only beginning to understand this art in my makeup), I sought her out at a book launch of hers and probably said too many silly and unwashed things to her. I do remember, though, telling her I had my own passion for poetry, but that I was already dabbling in fiction. Like most writers in such circumstances, she was a class act. She listened and nodded and said some now forgotten encouraging thing. But I do remember, at the mention of fiction’s seed in my soul, she gave me a wary look. Later, as I grew familiar with Carver, I understood where that wariness had its impetus. I digress, and I’ve barely started.

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To my mind, these stories sit astride the likes of Hemingway and Steinbeck, but without Papa’s elevated style and Steinbeck’s literary mysticism. Carver’s stories seem more calibrated to the short form’s length and his style is more homespun and located in the style of Cormac McCarthy. There’s an element of humor here too, a taste of wild abandon that surely comes from his rural Arkansas background.

These are stories that I learn from. Not so much in an instructional way; rather in remembering my own rural Southern past and chasing it into fiction.

My rating: 19 of 20 stars

 

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The Prisons of Home

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A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline

The world of fiction is an organic, living one. That is to say, in regard to Kline’s fine book, there is a growing number of ways to write a biography. (Having written and soon to have published a similar biographic novel about one Hans Ulrich Rudel, I can attest to biographical life within just such a world). The author has chosen an interesting real-life character, Anna Christina Olson, who suffered from Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disease, a highly misunderstood neurological condition. But the book is also in equal parts about the generation of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting of Olson, Christina’s World, and about life in early twentieth-century Maine.

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Told from Christina’s point of view, present tense, Kline explores what is known of Christina’s interior life, her family life, and the book explores an early-on romance between Christina and Walton, who later abandons her, leaving her as emotionally damaged as she was increasingly physically incapacitated. Too, Andy Wyeth weaves his own role into Christina’s life, and with him there, Kline’s novel directs itself inexorably toward the famed painting.

The deeper reach of this novel explores the ways in which home can become a prison, in this instance for Christina and her brother Al. Ironically, however, Christina’s stubborn avoidance of assistance and sympathy places her in the town of Cushing’s limelight. Kline’s recognition of this, coupled to dialogue passages that are among the most realistic this reader has experienced, makes this a book lending itself to the deepest understanding of the human condition.

My rating: 20 of 20 stars

 

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What Makes The Master Writer?

 

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Thumbing through the latest New Yorker issue (March 28, 2016) turned up a pleasant surprise: a short story, “My Purple Scented Novel,” by Ian McEwan, probably today’s most highly regarded English novelist. Predictably for me, the story proved as satisfying as cold watermelon on a hot North Carolina summer day.

Then I began to wonder: What attracts me (and scores of other readers) to McEwan’s work? His stories  and novels hinge to perhaps an excessive degree on narrative and his voice, while distinct, is not an elegant one. When dialogue does appear, it’s no great shakes, either. And his storylines seem all too familiar from one to another, almost formulaic on the surface. And almost all of his work over the last decade has to do with social issues of one sort or another.

In other words, the sort of writing some 25 year-old MFA instructor-editor would reject with the usual, “This work doesn’t meet our needs at this time, but we thank you for submitting” sort of trash.

Every writer, I think, who can be seen as a master has his/her own approach to story, characterization, style, voice, etc. With McEwan I believe it’s his characterizations. He’s able to place characters into social settings with such apparent ease. In his case, his offhand narrative style prevents polemics, his characters simply acting out bits of life in the author’s chosen social context. Too, he’s a master of the story twist that underscores these given social contexts. In this particular story a mundane friendship between two writers hinges on plagiarization as the two – one successful, the other struggling – find their successes reversed.

Every writer needs to know his/her skill with the many aspects of literary writing, but in the end, as always, it comes down to the gifts of storyline and characterization.

 

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Smooth Writing, Smooth Read

Pronto, by Elmore Leonard

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I hadn’t read an Elmore Leonard book in ages, definitely not since I began writing full time, and I’m planning to write a sequel to one of my mystery novels next year, so I decided to read something by him again, to size up his chops. He wrote Pronto toward the end of his career, and I can note evidence of  dependency on formula, a certain casualness that comes with repeatedly writing in a genre.

Leonard’s genre is crime fiction – the tough guy, sexy babe, shoot-em-before-they-shoot-you sort of story. He’s read by the same crowd that reads Raymond Chandler, Carl Hiaasen, Walter Mosley, and James Lee Burke (yes, there are female writers in this genre, but not many).

So as a writer/reader, how did this story set with me? I was more taken as a writer with the book – how he did what he did  – than with the story. But then that’s part of how Leonard shows mastery of his genre. Let me explain.

The story begins with a Miami bookie, Harry Arno, preparing to “retire,” i.e., to skip out on his money man, Jimmy Capotorto, from whom Harry has been skimming for years. But complications arise when Harry is hunted down by an Everglades hit man. Harry shoots the guy and is arrested for murder. But before the local cops and Feds can get their wits about them, Harry goes on the lam, ends up in Italy. A federal marshal, Raylan Givens, goes hunting for Harry and his gal, Joyce, as do a true Mafioso, the Zip, and a young muscle man, Nicky, who wants desperately to be a made man.

Here, under Leonard’s smooth story telling, Harry fades to the background and Givens comes to the fore. He saves Harry, steals his girl, saves Harry again, shoots the Zip, and the stage is set for subsequent Rayland Givens books, which end up as the FX TV series, Justified.

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Leonard’s characters are no more than six inches deep, largely defined by sex and circumstance. His dialogue is clipped, tense, and slightly tongue in cheek, as if he’s not really taking his characters seriously. He also works references to Ezra Pound and his poetry, Pound’s flirtation with fascism, his life in Italy, into short but effective narrative segments. It’s clear that Leonard is in this for the money, yet he doesn’t cheat the discriminating reader; his rather shallow storyline is perfectly executed, dragging his characters along with deceptively erudite writing. Leonard has drawn criticism for pandering to the baser human instincts, but that’s only the surface of his writing skills. His tone here seems instead to tell us that violence and depravity are a part of the human experience, but “Please, don’t give it more social worth than it deserves.”

 

My rating 17 of 20 stars

 

Visit my website here, and my FB Fan Page here for more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you. I’ll soon be adding podcasts of selected book reviews to my website, as well as an opportunity to buy mp3 files of my reading of Sam’s Place – Stories, so look for those.

 

Pushing Poets and Then Some

The Writer’s Chronicle, November 2013

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It’s not a clean sweep, but as far as interviews and articles go this month, The Writer’s Chronicle is focused on poets and poetry. I’m a little disappointed but not shocked, certainly. This is an academically based publication; and where do today’s poets run for cover? Academe. I’m no longer a poet, haven’t been for years, and I don’t feel qualified to critique such articles or their writerly content. What I do do, however, is to scratch around in such pieces for anything an aspiring fiction writer (long and short) might find useful. 

I didn’t find much here – not that what’s written isn’t useful – I just don’t find much that fits my own presumed needs. An interview with Jane Hirshfield by Amy Pence, however, holds that writers (poets, in this case) are tasked with divining the music of their deeper thoughts, placed somewhere beneath the surface chatter. This is good for all writers to understand, because your own speaker’s rhythm is an essential part of your voice.

But one article by Larry Feign on dialogue in historical fiction was a must for me, a veritable keeper. The thrust here: How does a writer come up with dialogue appropriate to a particular historical era? His answer: fake it. This isn’t as brash as it seems, because he merely cautions against using the overly stilted dialogue, say, of Elizabethan England for a modern take on the era. Instead, do such things as injecting a tad of appropriate formality, resisting contractions, throwing in an archaic word here and there. In other words, intimate the feel of that era’s speech. 

But if you’re a poet or an avid reader of poetry, buy the issue. you’ll learn something. 

 

 

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CNF Dishes A Few Writerly Tips

Creative Nonfiction, Summer 2013, Issue 49

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This issue of Lee Gutkind’s fine nonfiction mag is thematically about “Survival and Unlikely Events,” but the most impressive bits here are some tips for nonfiction writers. But don’t surf on just yet, fiction-er; these can apply in general to you as well. 

Tim Bascomb’s piece, “Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide,” expands on the normal conflict/rising action/resolution/denouement dictum by showing the writer how to wander and circle about the subject at hand a bit in order to give background and to heighten meaning. It’s a piece I’ll cut out and save.

Also, in “Required Reading,” Beth Kephart gives some good pointers on “white-spacing memoirs,” i.e., what to strategically leave out of a memoir in order to dress a theme and entice readers. 

And Suzanne Hegland gives some very practical points on creating good, taut, dialogue in her piece, “The Spoken Word, Distilled.”

And I think the editors selected the CNF pieces in this issue to illustrate just these fine points. Good for them – this is a topical primer all prose writers can learn from.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.