15 March 2011

From Jenni Quilter‘s essay in the exhibition catalogue for “Tibor de Nagy Gallery Painters and Poets,” which closed earlier this month:

“[The publisher] didn’t just find some painter and some poet who would work together.  She asked two men who really knew each other’s work and life backwards, which means to include all the absurdity and civilization a lively mind sees in friendship and art.”

Larry Rivers on “Stones,” a collaboration (12 lithographs) between Rivers and Frank O’Hara

I’m intrigued by these examples of collaboration; there is a feeling of a different time, when artists mingled more freely, perhaps more deeply, and collaborations sprung from these intimacies.

“…the accumulation of time spent with a friend – the discussions about art, parties, movies visited, theater productions, visits to the opera, beaches swum at, vacations gone on, heartbreaks listened to, ecstasies encouraged, bitchiness and generosity, slow fades and sudden infatuations – these experiences might be the shared ground from which an imagined world could be created.”

JOAN MITCHELL
Drawing to James Schuyler‘s poem “Sunday”

I’ve been thinking lately about the comeback of the stable nuclear family to the lives of artists.  The artists and writers I know are all very committed to their families – to material and emotional stability.  I am no exception.  This can only be a good thing.  Except, I wonder, maybe, for art, the creation of which is always on some level at odds with life.  Stability requires schedules, boundaries, a certain measure of containment.

“Friendships are amorphous creatures, prone to sprouting new limbs and self-amputating others, easily misidentified and disconcerting in the sudden strength and satiations of appetite.  Their development is messy, and it’s this fluidity that allows projects to be easily proposed.”

LARRY RIVERS
Pyrography: Poem and Portrait of John Ashbery II

The back-to-family zeitgeist  has perhaps improved upon the messiness of artistic lives from a previous generation.  For example, I’ve been reading Javier Marias‘s Written Lives, which (according to the back cover) chronicles “the fairly disastrous” stories of twenty great world authors – Faulkner, Joyce, Turgenev, Malcolm Lowry, Rimbaud, Oscar Wilde, etc alia.  Disastrous, indeed. And yet, I wonder if in gaining health and stability, we aren’t losing some fluidity.

LARRY RIVERS and KENNETH KOCH
In Bed

In the end, we do and make and live as we can, as best we can.  Rivers, O’Hara, Ashbery, Mitchell, Grace Hartigan, Koch, Schuyler, Fairfield Porter, Jane Freilicher – these artists collaborated because they could, because the energy and chemistry was there, because they wanted to work, because why not, what did they have to lose.  You just can’t force that kind of thing.

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11 July 2010

I’m not planning on or interested in jumping on the Nicole Krauss-bashing bandwagon with regards to her recent jacket blurb kerfuffle.  I’m not even sure kerfuffle is the right word.  I do think that Laura Miller‘s piece in Salon, “Beware of Blurbs,” in the wake of all that, is worth a read: she doth speak the truth, I think (although, if I may, let me just say that I have no personal relationship with either of the wonderful authors who wrote blurbs for Long for This World).

What I would like to draw your attention to, a year after Michael Jackson‘s death, are a few recent homages (of sorts) to him that warmed my heart: one at Conversational Reading — a kind of side joke aimed, I suppose, at Nicole Krauss, but giving MJ his due nonetheless; another at The Millions, as part of Jon Sands‘s terrific commencement address to the Bronx Academy of Letters; and finally Nancy Griffin‘s excellent article in the current issue of Vanity Fair, “The Thriller Diaries.”

What can I say.  I was 10 years old when Thriller was released.  My sisters were 12 and 13.  MJ was our Beatles, our James Brown, our Elvis.  To some degree, our JFK.  From Griffin’s article:

To me, Thriller seems like the last time that everyone on the planet got excited at the same time by the same thing: no matter where you went in the world, they were playing those songs, and you could dance to them. Since then, the fragmentation of pop culture has destroyed our sense of collective exhilaration, and I miss that.

Me, too.  RIP, MJ.

7 May 2010

Notice the hyphen in this blog title — not a slash, nor a conjunction, but a hyphen.  Allow me to explain…

1.
An interesting and timely convergence: I’ve just finished reading Daphne du Maurier‘s Rebecca — thanks to fellow Millions contributor Emily Wilkinson for the recommendation — along with a review of Long for This World in the Philadelphia City Paper — which is bundled with a review of  fellow Millions contributor Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel The Singer’s Gun.  That’s quite a vortex of convergences, actually — with the Emily vectors criss-crossing and bracing the whole thing like a Norman Foster structure. But that’s not the convergence I’m speaking of, primarily. Read on…

2.
Rebecca was gripping; I really couldn’t get enough, fast enough.  Some of you may also know the novel from its 1940 film version, directed by Alfred Hitchcock under David O. Selznick, and starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine.  As I read, I was aware of two things: that I was reading genre fiction, and that the novel is stunningly well-crafted.

When I use the term genre fiction, I am mostly referring to certain conventions of plot and structure: in the case of Rebecca, we have a complex and intricate blend of a few different genre plots — a murder mystery, a romance between a wealthy older man and a young woman, a courtroom drama, a (possibly) homoerotic thriller/horror, and a coming-of-age story.  Each of these threads is fueled by impeccably wrought suspense, which is channeled through an “unreliable” narrator, i.e. memories from the past relayed through an unknowing (live-time) consciousness.  From the moment the novel opens, Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again — the reader’s mind is filled with questions — about the subdued, world-weary narrator, about the “he” that is her companion, about how the past, like a vicious sea tempest, has swallowed these two characters (and others), tumbled them about, and spit them out on shore.

Rebecca is lauded as du Maurier’s masterpiece and has had an enormous readership over the years; but at the time of publication (1938), the novel was received with mixed reviews. It’s been criticized as melodramatic formula fiction with one-dimensional characters.  According to Wikipedia, The Times wrote that “the material is of the humblest…nothing in this is beyond the novelette…”, and du Maurier was contrasted with more intellectual female writers such as George Elliott and Iris Murdoch.

Me, I am obviously a Rebecca fan (and, by the way, I am also crazy for Elliott and Murdoch); plot, I often tell my writing students, is nothing to worry over.  Borrow a plot, steal a plot, there are — as EM Forster wrote — only Two Plots anyway: somebody goes on a journey, or somebody new comes to town.  Within your plot, write well: tend to your sentences; become masters of inventive, crisp, language; know your characters and your settings intimately, make them concrete, dimensional, specific, real.

The only problem, to my mind, with a familiar plot is if the characters act inexplicably, unconvincingly, or too predictably (which is a different kind of unconvincing, I think) within it.  And it’s the characters in Rebecca — each of them mysterious, prismatic, moving targets, and beautifully differentiated — along with mesmerizing descriptions of Manderley (a grand English estate) and its milieu, which propel the novel’s unsettling emotional movement, scene by scene.  It’s a dark novel — its hero and heroine both flawed and on some level doomed — with no easy or happy ending; the Hollywood Production Code of the 1940s in fact mandated that Hitchcock/Selznick change major elements of the story to meet prescribed standards for “cultural acceptability.”

3.
Back to The City Paper, and Emily #2.  Here is the gist of the review, by Justin Bauer:

Chung is good at assembling […] conventions: Long for This World includes a wedding and a funeral or two, a few generations of a family gathering in a single house, and simmering cross-cultural conflict between the modern demands of youth and the dictates of tradition.

These elements aren’t mere empty gestures. Like a useful cliché, most exist because they get at something universal; this is the case not only with soapy family dramas, but also romances and science fiction and cop thrillers. For some novels, it’s enough to animate these relationships and shared experiences with the specifics of a situation or a culture. But Chung’s story  […] uses these commonalities to develop a circle of delicately drawn characters out of a series of resonant snapshots.

Chung builds her narrative out of those isolated, telling moments. They’re not obviously stitched together, and she moves freely between different characters’ histories and perspectives. But it’s Jane whose particular vision provides a key to the whole. Her debate between love and lust, responsibility and self-gratification, defines her relationships to family and lovers and work. Even as Chung refracts this debate across other scenes and characters, she maintains her photographic style, careful in its reserve, with no unnecessary disclosure.

And here is a bit from the review of The Singer’s Gun:

“Emily St. John Mandel’s strange, spare novel also features a single central character working to define himself despite the legacy of family, and, like Chung, Mandel co-opts the structures of a specific genre to highlight this.

The Singer’s Gun wears the trappings of a thriller, with an FBI investigation, a femme fatale and a double cross or two. But Mandel avoids tension, intentionally […] she concerns herself much more with careful description and boredom and waiting than with tension. The criminal stuff is important as a canvas, but by removing the velocity of the thriller form, that canvas lets Anton carefully unpack the deeper issues of morality and obligation that his author’s really interested in.”

Fascinating, no?  Readers who remember my bust-up over at The Millions when I wrote about genre fiction (carelessly, inaccurately — it was my first blog post for a significant audience ever; quite the learning experience) might be particularly amused by these convergences.

I confess I would not have expected Long for This World to be described as “conventional” or “like a useful cliche,” though now, given what I both think and preach about plot, it makes perfect sense.  When readers have told me that they “couldn’t put it down” or have described it as a “page-turner,” I’ve been surprised.  Pleasantly, though — since my greater worry was that the book might be inaccessible in its fragmented-narrative form.

4.
I feel, in the end, in good company.  I keep a running list of books that I feel are both genre-influenced page-turners and emotionally complex; familiar in terms of universal story lines / uses of conventional literary tropes, and also rich in language and characterization.  Rebecca joins this list, as does The Singer’s Gun (which is on my to-read pile); others include Edith Wharton‘s The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, Sarah Waters‘s Fingersmith, Balzac‘s Pere GoriotCormac McCarthy‘s The Road, Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina, and Elizabeth Bowen‘s The House in Paris.  Read these, is what I most wanted to express in that original post at The Millions; be entertained, absorbed, and also challenged, transformed, enriched; it needn’t be either/or.

2 April 2010

A thoughtful review up at Fiction Writers Review, by Celeste Ng.

Because of [the] collage-like structure, the novel offers the same pleasures—and challenges—of a photography exhibit. Reading, we leapfrog across space and time, from a kitchen in a small South Korean town to a village in Darfur to a gallery in Paris, and we must put together the pieces. What’s the significance of this moment? Why is this snapshot placed beside that one? How do these all fit together?…

Chung presents each scene with confidence and trusts us to make the necessary connections, to see what the characters are saying by allowing themselves to be seen. And in fact, one of the joys in reading this debut is connecting the pieces, then stepping back for the big view: the intricate and nuanced family story that emerges… a portrait of the way the Hans are both fractured and then relinked in unexpected ways. Its quietness belies the deep emotions within.

Read the complete review here.

14 March 2010

I knew I was a lucky duck to have my author photograph taken by Robin Holland, but I’ve just been struck by just how lucky.

Check out Robin’s new Web site.  Her portraits of well-known authors, artists, musicians, cultural thinkers, filmmakers, actors — over a period of some (I think) two decades — are just stunning.  I’d mention a few “highlights” here, but honestly, every single photograph is amazing.  Peruse the portfolio, and wonder why that other fella with no last name is doing all the portrait photography at the New Yorker.

14 December 2009

In light of the recent announcement that Kirkus Reviews will close down, some wonder whether the pre-pub review is even useful or relevant anymore. Here’s a post at publishingperspectives.com.

According to the writer, Kirkus was known as “the mean one,” relative to Booklist, Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly.  I suppose those of us awaiting pre-pub reviews might breathe a sigh of relief (though no disrespect meant for those losing their jobs over at Kirkus).  Someone asked me recently what I would honestly “want” to see in a review, specifically.  Hmm… I think perhaps it’s like porn, i.e. you know it when you see it.

28 October 2009

shorthistorywomen_sm I’ve been sitting on, and soaking in, a bit of good news.  Kate Walbert, National Book Award finalist for Our Kind, and author most recently of A Short History of Women, has written a blurb for the dust jacket of Long for This World.

The blurb has on one hand become something of a mundane thing; blurbs go around in literary circles like so many back-scratches.  But the reverence and respect I have for Ms. Walbert’s work as a novelist — smart, original, deeply imagined — and also for the seriousness and focus with which she approaches the writing life, make this bit of fairy dust that she’s generously sprinkled my way (she is a busy teacher and novelist who knows me not at all) feel real.  Like good words for the long journey.

Here’s the blurb:

“An intricately structured and powerfully resonant portrait of lives lived at the crossroads of culture, and a family torn between the old world and the new, Long for This World marks a powerful debut from a young writer of great talent and promise.”

Click here for Kate Walbert on persevering as a writer (short video).

And click here for a terrific roundtable conversation with Charlie Rose, featuring all five of the (female) NBA finalists in 2004, including Walbert.