Wednesday, July 20, 2011
Saturday, July 16, 2011
There are so many kinds of novels out there that it sometimes becomes overwhelming, especially if you are a writer yourself. There are books and authors that are considered “must reads” and others that you just stumble upon by accident, or through recommendations, or however else. It also depends on what type of reader you are and why you are reading in the first place. Entertainment? Furthering your understanding of the world? To see how a particular writer works? Perhaps all of the above? For me it’s the latter. I read for all kinds of reasons and I am not one to shy away from what is known as “difficult books” so long as that book is not difficult for the sake of being difficult - and by “difficult” I mean dense, experimental, far from the traditional notions of what a novel is supposed to be. Having grown up in the post-modern era - where pretty much anything goes - it’s sometimes hard to see the forest through the trees. Theory abounds, micro-reading, intertextual theories, deconstruction and the rest of it. But sometimes you just want to read a good story: simple, uncomplicated, devoid of all the post-modern conventions.
The following two novels certainly do not fall into that category but this is not to say they weren’t great books. They were. Difficult books. Interesting books, and best of all not clever for the sake of being clever. One came by recommendation, the other on a mission to “rediscover” a particular author who I haven’t read all that much of, to be honest.
“A Smuggler’s Bible” by Joseph McElroy.
A wonderful book but one you have to read closely. It’s not an easy read but once you get the structure it begins to flow easily. McElroy is considered one of the more important novelists in the last 40 years or so. I had never heard of him until he was recommended to me. This was the novel that was recommended, considered his most accessible novel. A smuggler’s bible was usually a hollowed out book of some sort, used to conceal contraband. In this particular novel the “smugglers bible” is more metaphorical. It concerns the life of the protagonist, David Brooke, and it follows his life from a boy in Brooklyn Heights, New York through his years at Columbia University, to the present time, which is himself carrying eight different manuscripts to a mysterious old man in London. Each of these manuscripts are a version of David’s life as he tries to “project” himself into the lives of others. Each of the manuscripts are “written” by a different character that David meets throughout his life and therefore has differing points of view. Throughout the novel though, there is another “narrator” who interjects, tries to “guide” David through the process. It becomes apparent that this narrator is McElroy himself, becoming part of the action, telling us what he’s trying to tell his invented character. But the structure of the novel is somewhat conventional enough that you don’t get confused by it all. That narrator’s interjections come between each of the eight manuscripts that David is in the process of revising and changing as he travels by boat to meet the man in London. It’s a wonderfully written book and it gives a good portrait of New York City in the late 1950s, early 1960s. The character development is great and it’s that kind of book that makes you think about it long after you finish reading it. It may seem a little “dated” now but it’s well worth the read. Just don’t expect a quick and easy read. It takes some effort. Fans of Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo, and the rest of the post-modern writers would probably enjoy this book.
Rating: * * * * 1/2
“The Sound and The Fury” by William Faulkner
I freely admit that I haven’t read any of Faulkner’s novels - only his short stories - but I’ve been meaning to read him for the longest. Recently I decided I wanted to get acquainted with his novels. This is a very difficult book. It’s difficult because of its structure - non-linear, experimental, you have to be on your toes to follow what is essentially a very simple story about the tragic coming apart of an aristocratic southern family in Mississippi. The structure of this novel is so bizarre that its easy to get lost of you’re not really paying attention. Time lines interweave, character points of view change without warning, (sometimes italicized, sometimes not), sometimes within the same paragraph or even sentence. It is a ballsy experiment for a book that was written in the late 1920s. That was kind of shocking to me. From what I read of Faulkner, his work was always more conventional, albeit very well written. This was something else and I had to wonder while reading it what the reaction must have been at the time. There are novels written today that do not dare approach themselves in this way. Yet, despite it all, and if you don’t lose it along the way, what you get is a damn good story, one that you cannot easily synopsize due to the stream of consciousness writing, non-linear way its presented. But essentially - and what I think makes this novel so good - is the fact that the story itself is very simple. Faulkner also has a tendency to write very long sentences. Very long, sometimes going on for pages, without any punctuation. You almost have to insert them yourself in order to follow along without it becoming a mess at times. But it’s well worth the effort. Half way through I didn’t think I would make it but I persevered and I’m glad I did. If you haven’t read him at all, I wouldn’t start with this one due to its highly experimental nature. But do read it. It’s a wonderful book.
Rating: * * * * *
Thursday, July 7, 2011
You may have seen them. The writers, sitting in coffee shops and cafés - Starbucks, a Barnes & Noble or Borders, or just some neighborhood coffee shop, clacking away at their laptops, trying to get down the word in an attempt to thwart the isolation of being holed up in their apartments as they write their projects, whatever they may be. I can understand this of course, but I tend not to do this. Not really for any particular reason other than the fact that I get easily distracted people watching. The cliché of the writer, sitting in the coffee shop or café, chiseling away at their novel, short story, screenplay or whatever else, seems ubiquitous these days, does it not? I don’t begrudge anyone who does this, of course. We all find our comfort zone, the place where we can feel creative and let it all go. Some need to be out of the house, among other people, others need to be locked away, isolated, alone. I tend to be the latter type. Sometimes I tend to go a little stir crazy and I need to get out of this apartment of mine but at the same time, especially if I’m on a roll, don’t want to stop. So the thought of taking the ol’ laptop with me to a coffee shop or a café somewhere isn’t far from my mind. The main reason why I probably don’t do this that often is that 1) I get distracted easily and 2) I’m a smoker - and there isn’t a single place in New York City where you can have a cup of coffee and a smoke, including those with outdoor spaces (there are few exceptions, though). So, just for the sake of comfort, really, I tend to write at home, alone, at my desk, where I can do what I want.
There was a time where I did write in public. Back in the earlier part of the decade, I used to frequent this café in TriBeCa, a small coffee shop where at the time you could still smoke a cigarette if you wanted to (the antismoking laws didn’t yet cover everywhere), where you could listen to some good music - mostly Jazz but some contemporary stuff too - and generally be left alone to do what you wanted to do. I was there nearly every morning around 10am, with a pad of paper and I would longhand what I could. Later on in the evening, I would go home and type up everything I did for the day. I wrote about a third of “November Rust” there.
Not that these mornings were without distractions, of course. There used to be this one guy who was there every morning with me. A young, Persian-American immigration lawyer who used to sit a few tables behind me and read his newspaper. Nearly every day, he’d come over to me and plop down and ask me what I was doing. I would tell him, he would just nod his head, pretending to give a shit, then eventually make his way back to his table, read his paper, chat on his cell phone, making appointments, and whatever else. Every day this would happen. Without fail.
The thing that always struck me as odd about it was that he really didn’t seem to be all that interested in what I was doing. I was more a source of amusement for him, as if he had never seen anyone doing this before in his life. He would ask the same question, day in and day out: “What are you doing there?” and I would, day in and day out, tell him and he’d just nod as he always did, make some small talk, then go about his business. I began to wonder perhaps that he forgot, every day, that he had asked me the very same thing the morning before. Either that, or he was just being the typical New York City douche bag, unable to mind his own business and insist on inserting himself into people’s space for his own amusement. I really didn’t care what or why he was doing it but I have to admit I wanted to be left alone - that is, unless he decided to dispense with the small talk and have a normal conversation with me. It reminded me of those stupid kids I knew in high school, who just had to ask what band was on my T-shirt, just so they could shake their heads and feel superior by making fun of it.
That was the last time I ever did any writing in public. It seemed that whenever I would do it, someone would always want to know what I was doing. Not to make conversation, though. Just to butt in, to satisfy some curiosity. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they never really wanted to talk - just to know what you were up to. I found it distracting, annoying and eventually, I just went back to my usual routine of writing at home.
For those who write, it’s hard to explain to people how serious you are about what you are doing. Not that I didn’t have the time, or wouldn’t make the time for anyone who genuinely wanted to talk. It’s not like I sat there with these barriers up or anything like that but for me, there was always this constant stream of the inquisitive, as if what I was doing was so unique, that in any coffee shop around New York there weren’t hundreds and hundreds of writers, would-be writers, playwrights, screenwriters, etc doing the very same thing. I failed to see why it seemed so unique whenever I did it.
Another reason why I usually don’t write in public anymore is because the city is just too damn crowded these days and to find a quiet spot where you can concentrate - or even find a place to sit down - is becoming increasingly rare. I like the idea of being able to work outside of the house. It does open you up to possibly meeting someone who may share your interests and perhaps even meet others who share your passion for what you are doing. Lord knows there will be many around you - even your closest friends - who don’t truly understand what you are trying to accomplish. As a friend of mine once said, to write is to live a fairly lonely existence. It would be great to meet others who share your passion but much of the time it isn’t as easy as one would think. What about writing workshops? Perhaps. Never really had the desire for that either but I won’t say I wouldn’t do that one day. For the most part, I find that getting the word down in the comfort of your own space where you can concentrate, do what you wish, without any real distractions, is the way to go, at least for me. The feeling of isolation does become much at times. Not that I never go out - far from it - but when I’m out, I’m out and nothing gets done, although I am constantly thinking about what the next scene is going to be, or some idea of where the story can go. Sometimes just being out and about, you’ll see something that may trigger an idea, or a character, etc.
Case in point: The Perisan-American Immigration lawyer who used to bug me every morning. He eventually made his way into “November Rust” - a short scene, one that probably didn’t need to be there, but I wanted to “immortalize” him in some way. Somehow, I managed to figure out a way to stick him into the narrative. So I suppose it wasn’t all bad.
He has no clue and most likely never will either.
I love it when things like that happen.