Ian’s New Gambit


Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

One thing I enjoy about what we call this particular version of postmodern literature is the tinkering with structure, and McEwan is a master of that talent. Too, he, like most gifted writers, is a student of human tics, psychology, the subtleties that make us unique, and he’s clearly mastered gifting his characters with such uniquenesses. But to the story:

A young woman, Serena Frome, is hired by Britain’s MI5 to award a young writer, Tom Haley, with a money grant in order to, hopefully, groom him, as he rises in literary prominence, to take a politically acceptable posture in his writing. But Serena immediately falls for Tom, and as their relationship grows to mutual love, she wrestles with the ethical dilemma of whether to inform her lover of her clandestine part in his good fortune. Tom does rise – immediately – to prominence in Brit literature, but that puts additional strains on  Serena as her role in his life is laid bare.

If this sounds like a rather pedestrian storyline, don’t let it dissuade you from reading Sweet Tooth. Why? Because the book is as accurate a portrait of British life in the early ‘sixties as one could conjure. It’s filled with secrecy, ideological overreach, the beginnings of the sexual revolution, and the yet-chauvinistic attitude of men toward women. And let’s not forget booze, dope, and rock ‘n’ roll. It’s also a meditation on writing, the writer’s life, the necessary subtleties of novels and short stories that make them worth reading, and on publishing then and now. In the end, though, the seemingly pedestrian storyline isn’t really McEwan’s at all. We’ll let you read the book to resolve the puzzle of that statement.

There is one aspect at the beginning that this reader fails to appreciate: an overlong paraphrasing of another novel Serena has read. But McEwan’s literary and storytelling gifts are many, and they completely overwhelm such a minor quibble.

My rating: 18 of 20 stars



The Last Plaint on Family

image via grumper.org


Okay, I admit I made the preceding posts on family a bit too dramatic. I did it first to try and generate emotion, and then to point the way to art from those perhaps toxic emotions.

As the post title suggests, my family life wasn't the best in the world. We all seem to have overdeveloped expectations of family during childhood, and then when we're older, we compensate by being overly critical of those who bear similar seed. But, even later, if we're not too headstrong, we forgive and settle in at some appropriate emotional distance from one another. 

As for myself, it was tough; I was raised in a Southern family: bigoted, undemonstrative, often cruel in passive ways, though I'm betting none among them would admit to any of this. It took me years to break the family bonds and be the person I really am, and it wasn't easy. 

The one thing that was both my familial salvation and its albatross was humor. As I wrote earlier, nothing in family is clean-cut; there's a virtually un-sortable mixture of good and bad. When I finally realized that family was bobbing too near the surface of my writing, I took a deep breath and wrote a family history. From that came a series of memoir/essays on members of my family. 

Tough. Really tough. I had to calm the anger many times, set myself even further away from the memories. But that's where the humor came in. I chose to dwell on my famiy's foibles, not as flaws, but as defining individual characteristics, and the most forgiving way of doing that is throough humor. In that way, I could give these people, who still seem so close to me, yet so far from whom I am, an ample measure of human dignity.

I hope at the end of the day, you'll see family that way in your writing, too.


Visit Bob's web site here.

If You Escape

image via metroparent.com


Tarbaby families, that's what I call it, that's the thing we despise most in life, if we take the time to think about it. They won't let you go, won't let you be who you are, and even when you're older and maybe a little more removed, you still can't let it go. I know one Southern Baptist man who married a Catholic woman and couldn't face converting to her religion until both his parents died.

You can probably ignore the gold rings your kids put through lip and lobe, a stud in the tongue, maybe even have a laugh at their expense, say it's a phase, fashion, it'll pass. And ever wonder at the long vines of tats growing on their arms and legs? It's semaphore, telling you they're imprisoned, read the ink, mom, dad. I gotta go. Escape. Somehow. Let me go.

So let 'em.

Now, if you're one of the allegedly lucky ones who think you've untangled the Gordian knot of family, you have something to write about. With writing you can force it – every bit of it – to make sense, even if it really doesn't.

Just don't make it worse by crying on your keyboard.


Visit Bob's web site here

Mirroring Characters

Anna Karenina – Section Five, by Leo Tolstoy

I mentioned Tolstoy’s contrasting his characters in the last post, and I want to treat that in more detail. But first, a bit about the storyline in this section:

The section opens anticipating Kitty and Lévin’s wedding. He’s antsy, of course, with pre-wedding jitters, and while this has become something of a cliché of American pop fiction, if not of American life in general, Tolstoy was perhaps the first to make so much of it. Lévin is worried that he’s not worthy of Kitty – we have to suppose because of her beauty and her parents’ earlier rejection of Lévin as a spouse in lieu of Vrónsky. The wedding comes off without a hitch, however, and we find the female attendees caught up in a bit of wedding gossip.

image via bookcents.blogspot.com

Meanwhile, Vrónsky and Anna are happy to be together at last, and making their travels something of a honeymoon. They are now free to explore Russia together, and Vrónsky, who fancies himself an artist, visits Mikhailov, a prominent artist, who all but dashes Vrónsky’s artistic dreams.

But both couples are quickly caught up in some rather grounding, real-life details. Lévin’s brother, Nikolai, is dying, and Anna is suddenly missing her son, Seryózha.

Tolstoy has, I think, captured the two couples in this way in order to show that both happiness and tragedy lurk in any relationship, the conventional or the outlawed. In this respect, he presages twentieth century literature by giving equal weight to types of relationships, and the two couples. Both their happiness and their lurking responsibilities, while similar in the general sense, are unlike in specifics.

This is a way much modern fiction depicts relationships in order to draw out their deeper contrasting natures, and Tolstoy seems to be the first to make such overt use of the technique.


My rating: 19 of 20 stars




What This Writer Is About

For some months now, I've been trying to solicit interest from agents and editors in a historically accurate World War II novel I've written. The novel – at least a third of it – was my master of lib arts project and had many eyes on it during its gestation. Since that time I've gleaned and polished, and that done, I queried a New York agent, who immediately asked for the complete manuscript. Since then, I've e-mailed her politely three times and placed one phone call regarding her intentions.

Recently, I had another nibble at the manuscript by another agent – this one not of the New York persuasion – and was fortunate enough to send him the complete manuscript. He turned it down. Judging by his very nice and somewhat helpful rejection e-mail, he'd expected it to be a non-stop action novel; consequently, he found himself bored by page 100.

Both instances point up an issue rarely talked about regarding writer-agent relationships: communication.


Should the first agent call me today, after months of silence, and offer representation, should I sign with her? Probably not – unless she has compelling reasons for her months of silence. Why? Those months of silence and her apparent indifference to my follow-ups probably sets a tone for her relationship with writers. Were I to sign, I might have more months of silence, not knowing whether she's marketing the book heavily – or not at all. In the end, I would probably feel that the half-year or year contract for representation might have been wasted time – time when I might have found an agent to represent me properly.

The second agent? My query and follow-up emails as we moved toward my submittal of the complete manuscript clearly spelled out that mine was a blend of character and action. His eventual response pointed up that he'd either ignored my depiction – or that he just plain wasn't "listening." Would his representation have been a positive one? Again, probably not. The man apparently has a habit of ignoring many aspects of writer-agent communication, and in the end this would have damaged – if not ended – our relationship.

This isn't a rationale for accepting rejection – instead it's a realization that both agents, for reasons directly connected to communication, weren't right for me: a writer who first wants his agent to understand what I'm about as a writer, and second, a writer who is willing to do whatever it takes to work with an agent – and hopefully an editor and publisher – as a literary team. 


Love and Mice

There's something of an accepted technique to short nonfiction writing, i.e., the author uses a minute and very specific life experience to demonstrate a much deeper and broader facet of life. In the winter 2011 issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine, Susan Cheever examines relationships between humans and animals – feral and tame – beginning with mice darting around in the dark space of her home. As she does so, she introduces the element of love.


In a nutshell, Cheever's thesis is that we are able to love domesticated animals; the wild ones, however, seem to engender fear in us. 

But even this is a set-up for Cheever's final statement, and I'll quote it here – one of the most insightful comments I've ever seen from a woman about man-woman relationships:

There's a wildness to most kinds of love, to that moment of recognition when you know that a relative stranger is going to be important in the story of your life. Over time, though, that wildness dissipates. Is that when true love begins, or is that when it ends? Looking back at my connections to men, both serious and ephemeral, I wonder if a lot of the energy I spent was an attempt to tame them, to domesticate them and to keep them from frightening me by darting around in the dark."

A Question of Relationships

The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson


I once read an essay, in The Atlantic, I believe, in which the author posited that no one-on-one relationship is complete without the presence of a third, one which adds a different perspective to the dual relationship. While I don’t think the author of The Finkler Question overtly concerns himself with this phenomenon, it’s there all the same.


Julian Treslove is a born loser in this 2010 Man Book Prize winner, and his two closest friends, Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik, aren’t afraid to tell him so, even as they shore him up against his own emotional baggage. Still, Treslove is the odd man out. Sam and Libor are Jewish, Treslove a Gentile. Sam and Libor have been married (their wives have both recently died) and Treslove has never married.


The author leads his characters through a series of encounters in which they reminisce about their earlier lives – Sam and Julian have been students of Libor’s – and about the losses they’ve suffered. Sam’s and Libor’s lives, however, have had many ups as well as the downs they are currently sharing. Treslove can empathize with their losses, but in his mind he’s never had the better moments. That is, until he meets Hephzibah, Libor’s niece, and moves in with her.

But life has never seemed real to Treslove, and his relationship with Hephzibah becomes one more learning experience – he wants to become Jewish. But even the patient and enduring Hephzibah can’t help Julian come to grips with his life.

Meanwhile, Libor bemoans the loss of his own wife to such a degree that he can no longer find reason to live. And Sam? He's a womanizer who never realized his wife’s effect on his life until she dies.


This only touches the surface of these three men’s lives and the dynamics the author imposes on their mutual relationship. Jacobson sketches them against a backdrop of Jewish-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East – and the shock waves the conflict causes for Jews in Britain. But the tripartite friendship, as well as the Middle East conflict, are metaphors Jacobson uses to examine relationships, personal, ethnic, and national. This, then, seems to be the larger Finkler Question up for examination here: how do we get along with one another?

Does the author provide answers? No – but then that’s not the purpose of such stories. Jacobson’s project is to ask the question in the context of these situations, these characters – and this he does quite well.


My rating 4-1/2 of 5 stars.