6.29.2005

"At least a pork chop would feed you."

Our own lovely lady of prose, Cristina Henriquez, is now appearing in this week's New Yorker, with her story, Ashes. Congratulations!

6.28.2005

Cloud Atlas: better late than never

Finished it today. Humbled and thrilled by Mitchell's precocious virtuosity. He has cleared a new section in the forest, it seems to me. We all owe him a beer. The matryoshka structure, the planning, the meticulous interthreading that he manages to convincingly deploy -- most impressive and thoroughly enjoyable. Kind of like Nabokov meets Anthony Burgess meets Jonathan Lethem meets etc. etc... I think the Frobisher bits were the most polished, the Ewing bits maybe my sentimental favorite, Sonmi the most exciting. But no part of it left me too dissatisfied. I will have to read it again in a few years to begin actually delineating every bit of the puzzle -- I have questions still (the tattoo? is it okay to go from ostensible reality to ostensible fiction and back and forth like that? actual cause of the Fall and its relation to concrete events in the book? How the Hawaii mission survived and why were they white? These may be or become obvious.). His overall theme of the strong overcoming the weak was resounding and powerful, more than enough engine to power the thing all the way. Thank you, Tom Hobbes, for that. As far as cons, I was left just a bit cold by the tone, maybe by the clinical precision in language that he employs throughout. The Luisa Ray bits came closest to annoying me as bad fiction, but they never made it there. Can you have heart and head both equally triumphant? He comes awfully close, but the head wins out here, I think. I felt closest to Frobisher and Ewing, like they were the most human. And Sonmi -- she also found her way into my emotions. The restraint she maintained while butting heads with the most enormous and deadly infuriating lies of power. I'm not sure it'd be possible to pull off a trick like this while also creating characters you fully fall in love with. But heck, maybe it is. If someone can come this close to marrying dazzling intellectual pleasures with heart-wrenchers and tummy-ticklers... Anyway, I found this delicious -- so thanks very much to all for the recommendation.

Shelby Foote, we hardly knew ye

Shelby Foote has died. I have yet to wade into his 3,000-page book on the Civil War, or any of his six novels, but his impish appearances and humorous/poignant anecdotes in the Ken Burns documentary brought that era to life for me and convinced me that writing about it was a good idea (see my novel, coming out in 2029). "Any understanding of America has to be grounded in -- and I mean really grounded in -- an understanding of the Civil War. It defined us. It defines us still."

Debating "The Notebook": when a movie totally sucks -- or does it?

First, let me apologize for the length of this possibly pointless post, and for the slapdash, rough-draft quality of the prose in it. There is currently such a dearth of material on EG, though, that I figure throwing content up here can only help you waste more of your time -- it's only fair, because I clearly am wasting my own.

Now, to the point: I am currently embroiled in a debate with freshly scrubbed youngsters on a message board at IMDB.com about the movie The Notebook. The film is getting very high marks on that site after more than 10,000 votes, and the external reviews -- even The Onion's -- are actually mostly positive (except Rolling Stone's). Ebert gave it thumbs up! "Yeah, up his ASS!" I screamed at our DVD player as the full implications of what we had done in renting this... this... well, I think the ... film ... is a .. gosh, is a ... well, see for yourself. We join our story in progress...

--

My wife and I watched "The Notebook" last night. Within ten minutes we were furious at how slow, cliche, and predictable it was. And then it just got worse and worse. It was so very very bad that we were actually drawn to watch in perverse, embarrassed horror as each scene plodded through stale, obvious dialog, and the actors tried to salvage what was obviously a terrible muddle by overacting. I can't begin to convey just how awful this movie is, in every sense. Leave aside the horrendously dull, cliche-ridden script, the terrible acting, the hamfisted directing, the swelling tear-jerker music, and the incredibly obvious plot -- Even the freaking costumes were terrible. The fake facial hair looked like it was done by 3rd-graders.

If movies are meant to fascinate, then this one did all right. I consider this the worst film I have seen in at least five years, but rarely if ever have I (and my wife) been compelled to stay all the way through such abysmal crap out of some sort of hilarious anger at how were were wasting our own time. I mean we were jumping on the couches and screaming in warped glee as each predictable plot point was tediously checked off the director's checklist. All the way to the very last shot (of the backstory) of her coming back and them hugging in a swirl of stock sentimental string music -- OF COURSE SHE COMES BACK.

And when (in the front story) they actually for God's sake died together, we could not stop howling with laughter and hitting each other with pillows -- not because we are heartless, oh no, we LOVE good movies -- but because for one, there was no hint that he was ill, so it was completely out of the blue, and two, there is no more cliche tear-jerker ending in the book. My God. Then I come here expecting to be vindicated and I find a bunch of glassy-eyed pod people who were actually taken in by this plodding, pathetic drivel. What in the world is up? I usually am with IMDB folks on their 7.8s, but man alive, folks, step away from the Kool-Aid.
---
OMG! WTF IS UR PROBLEM?! IF YOU HAVE NOTHING NICE TO SAY DONT SAY ANYTHING AT ALL!! NAME ANY MOVIE, ANY MOVIE AT ALL THAT ISNT PREDICTABLE! im sorry, but that wasnt nice. some people actually like this movie, okay?...so if you dont like it, why are you even here?!...

and i also see that you have no other posts on IMDB. well, how cruel and stupid is it of u to hate this movie so much, that all u do is make an acount for IMDB just to trash this movie! okay, thats just stupid!
---
I don't have a problem -- besides the $3.98 it stole from me. The MOVIE has a problem. I am merely trying to warn people. If I can ward away even 100 people, say, from spending their hard-earned cash on simplistic tripe like "The Notebook" -- from wasting precious little parts of their lives -- well, then I will feel I have done my job. That's why I'm here. I'm providing a free service for humanity.

btw, I don't recall reading in the board guidelines that only slavishly positive remarks were allowed. If I don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all? What is this, second grade? Difference of opinion is the spice of life.

And actually, yes, I created this account to express myself about this film -- that's how much it infuriated my aesthetic sensibilities. I thought that's what discussion forums were for. Correct me if I'm wrong. As for your helpful information that some people actually like this movie, that is abundantly clear from reading the other posts, and it was that very depressing fact that spurred me to action. As I said, it's my mission to save these poor deluded souls from the terrible error they have made in their artistic understanding and appreciation. That's my quest, and it is a noble one.
---
wow, you are pretty pathetic. don't waste your time typing up your review of how much you hated this movie. no one wants to hear your details anyway.

the greatest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.
---
EARTHGOAT, you and your wife must be pretty old, so i can understand why you wouldn't like it...

remember this movie is for people 35 and younger...

just like we don't like your OLDIES movies... so i can understand why you don't like the NEW movies...
---
im sorry, but WE like the movie. and you can take your ugly attitude somewhere else! tell me, whats one of the movies you like??...huh??...
---
well in the case of you and your wife, its just that you two are going through one of those mid age life crisis deals...

and i guess you aren't into love stories either... i don't see how can you say its worse than any other love story... i mean they generally have the same plot line...

i'd rather have movies that make sense, instead of movies like Mulholland Drive, Vanilla Sky, etc, where you have no idea what is going on, what the plot is, what is imagined or real...
---
Actually, we're not going through one of those mid-life crisis deals. Again, the idea seems to be to shift the focus to something not the movie, to something you don't know anything about. My wife and I have been living our love story for eight years now, since way before this film was a bad idea on some producer's desk, and it hardly needs to be be mentioned that our love story has been ten times more exciting, magical, and meaningful than the empty and silly two-dimensional romance shown in "The Notebook," where the characters either tearfully or robotically spout obvious lines that reveal approximately a third-grader's idea of love. Actual love is rich and unpredictable and utterly mysterious -- you wouldn't believe our story if I told you.

Instead of spending your life and money fixing up some house because you promised some girl that blew you off that you would, for example, you might spend your time GROWING SOME BALLS and GETTING HER BACK so that you don't let her wind up with SOME OTHER GUY while you WASTED your life on some pointless SYMBOL instead of keeping your focus on HER. If you're a girl, instead of trusting your CRUEL AND HEARTLESS MOTHER to give you letters, GO TO THE MAILBOX ONCE IN A WHILE. Or gosh, WRITE HIM YOURSELF. CALL HIM. And try to remember to not GET ENGAGED TO A STIFF, DOLL-LIKE MAN. Or maybe tell your horrendous mother to GO SCREW HERSELF. But no, these two "love" each other so much, they meekly say "okay" to the slightest obstacles and let life drift by them until they nearly blow the whole thing. And why again should they be together? The movie doesn't bother to show us. God help us if folks think this is love.

If by "make sense" you mean "is obvious and simple and predigested for me so I don't have to think or be challenged about anything, only spoonfed a predictable malaise of recycled cliche garbage," then I think I understand things better now. Comparing this film to films like "Mulholland Drive" and "Vanilla Sky," though, is like comparing a paper airplane to the space shuttle. It sounds like you'd better stick with the paper airplane. In fact, even taken solely for the love stories those films contain, both are approximatley 17,459 times more interesting than the brainless drift the two characters in "The Notebook" force us to suffer through.

It seems I am not going to get even a half-hearted attempt to defend "The Notebook," which is hardly surprising, and that satisfies me that I was right all along, that there is no defense for it. Thanks to you all for the clarification and vidication. I'm sorry if you've been hurt by my remarks. Some pain is good, remember -- surgery hurts, for example, but it can save your life.
---
ok, you just take movies too seriously and overanalyze it...

its the same for every movie, you can say, why didn't this character do this or that, and then they never would have had to go through the trouble...

but then there would be no point in making a movie about that, if there were NO obstacles, and if it were easy...
---
are you even aware that this movie was based off of a book? you blame the director for the "predictable plot." the director didn't write the story. nicholas sparks did.
there was no "fake facial hair" either...it's pretty obvious that ryan gosling is old enough to grow a beard. they filmed the bearded shots before they filmed the clean-shaven shots.
are you serious when you said there was no hint that the old noah was ill? they talked about his heart attacks before he ACTUALLY HAD A HEART ATTACK towards the end of the movie.
if you hated the movie so much, why did you continue to watch it? i will never understand the logic of people who do that.

by the way, i love this movie. the two young actors were amazing together. they were not boring, or mindless, or cliched. they acted with passion and heart. they make you want to be in love. this was a good, romantic story. i know that people like to get on these boards to just get a rise out of people, which you have obviously done, but if you HONESTLY think this was a horrible film then do yourself a favor and don't ever watch it again.
---
you do know the book and movie have some differences though...

so we don't know if they are complaining about parts where it was also in the book, or about parts just in the movie alone...

otherwise i agree with the rest of what you said...
---
Ha ha! It's funny that you actually did find one detail where I was wrong. I had forgotten about Noah's heart attack. The perils of not truly caring about the characters or plot. Well done. The first and only dent in my armor. Makes virtually no difference to my main thrust though.

There most certainly was fake facial hair all over the place and very awful fake facial hair at that. Look at any character with a beard or mustache. You can practically see the glue. Of course Ryan can grow a beard (who can't?), but he didn't for this movie. It's the wrong color, etc. If I'm wrong, I will apologize, but I've seen a lotta facial hair in my time.

Yes, I am aware the movie was based on a book. The transition from one to the other usually does not work well, because directors make the mistake of just transferring the plot from one to the other, instead of building a movie organically from the ground up. They are two totally separate things -- you cannot lean on a book because the film will just lie there, flat and dead, as "The Notebook" does. Usually the more the director parts ways from the book, the better. Check out the war segment of "The Notebook." How utterly false, brief, jarringly pretty, and ultimately trivial a treatment of WWII! It's like they picked up the service uniforms at a party store and used Tennessee fireworks for howitzers and artillery. I haven't read the book, because I have heard it described as "sappy and boring" by a friend of mine (see reviews of the book for concurrence), but I have to think the book at least gave the war some weight. Movies just can't compete with books in terms of handling long stories. Not enough room.

Why did I keep watching if I hated it? Well, like I said in my first post, I had never done that before. I had stayed on in certain cases for five, ten minutes, jaw dropped, indignant anger in my eyes, but always I gave up and switched the thing off in annoyance. This time ... it was so bad I just had to see how bad it would get. In a perverse way, I was not disappointed. And if you asked me "Did you enjoy The Notebook"? I would have to say yes! I had a great time watching it, though not for the reasons the director intended.

About the directing: Sure the script was crap and the acting wooden and bloodless, but a great director can get over even those obstacles. Look at many episodes of Twin Peaks -- deliberately bad script and acting, and yet there is a compassion and energy there that is infectious and fascinating, drawing in the viewer. A very, very subtle art, directing. You could give the script of "The Notebook" to David Lynch and he could make an intelligent movie of it. Why is that? Because in the end movies are about directing.

Music is also important. Music can make or break a film's mood. The music in "The Notebook" was the absolute worst of the worst, never failing to take advantage of the audience and manipulate the basest, most primary-color blunt and basic emotions. Again, it's like a third-grader did the music. Music in David Lynch, to stretch a really unfair comparison, is extremely subtle, supportive, suggestive, the perfect light touch, or when it's a heavy touch it complements the visual action and fits thematically and structurally.

As for never watching this horrendous embarrassment to filmmaking again... I dunno. My wife and I are seriously considering watching it again, during which we will painstakingly track just what it is that is so offensive and infuriating about its terribleness. I am really interested -- I'm not just trying to get a rise out of people. I am trying to pin down and describe precisely what it is that I object to so viscerally about this film. Clearly plenty of other people like it. Why? The film must be defined, stripped, searched, its pockets emptied -- a full physical. It's important to me (and to my career) to be clear and precise and totally honest about aesthetic jusgments. This movie seems to exist outside the equations of my personal artistic philosophy, like a black hole in space or a new species of worm discovered in a deep-sea volcanic vent.

---
ok. if you watch the movie again then you need to watch it on dvd that way you can watch the extras at the end in which the director and ryan gosling clearly states that he grew a beard and gained weight for the second half of the movie.

anyways i do agree with you on the part where you say "and why again should they be together" "the movie doesnt bother to show us". totally true. i loved this movie only b/c i believe in that kind of love and the whole growing old part and still loving someone after all those years. the only thing i didnt like is the fact that they didnt build noahs character to the point that you would know for a fact that allie would choose him. of course you knew b/c it was predictable but i just wish they that could have set noah apart from lon which they didnt do to well. i mean think about it. lon loved allie, he had money, and he was very cute. noah also loved allie, had money but was not rich like lon, and is also very sexy. but the movie doesnt actually show why it is so easy for her to just go back to noah. the only thing that the movie shows is that she doesnt paint when shes with lon and that lon works all the time. i really dont know how to explain it but i think they needed to play on noahs love a little more that way it would show hoe easy it was to go back to him.


---
well have fun with that then. though it seems to me like a waste of time. you obviously have made up your mind about the film. and now you might rewatch it just to analyze what you truly hated about it? unless you are a film critic, i don't see why anyone would do that.
and i will tell you why i think so many people like this movie. the majority of people in this world are in love with love. they want to find it and experience it and maybe one day grow old and die with it. and this, my friend, is a love story to the very end.

p.s. ryan gosling's beard was most definitely real in the movie.
---
ok. if you watch the movie again then you need to watch it on dvd that way you can watch the extras at the end in which the director and ryan gosling clearly states that he grew a beard and gained weight for the second half of the movie.

anyways i do agree with you on the part where you say "and why again should they be together" "the movie doesnt bother to show us". totally true. i loved this movie only b/c i believe in that kind of love and the whole growing old part and still loving someone after all those years. the only thing i didnt like is the fact that they didnt build noahs character to the point that you would know for a fact that allie would choose him. of course you knew b/c it was predictable but i just wish they that could have set noah apart from lon which they didnt do to well. i mean think about it. lon loved allie, he had money, and he was very cute. noah also loved allie, had money but was not rich like lon, and is also very sexy. but the movie doesnt actually show why it is so easy for her to just go back to noah. the only thing that the movie shows is that she doesnt paint when shes with lon and that lon works all the time. i really dont know how to explain it but i think they needed to play on noahs love a little more that way it would show hoe easy it was to go back to him.

---
well have fun with that then. though it seems to me like a waste of time. you obviously have made up your mind about the film. and now you might rewatch it just to analyze what you truly hated about it? unless you are a film critic, i don't see why anyone would do that.
and i will tell you why i think so many people like this movie. the majority of people in this world are in love with love. they want to find it and experience it and maybe one day grow old and die with it. and this, my friend, is a love story to the very end.

p.s. ryan gosling's beard was most definitely real in the movie.
---
lol..that has to be one of the funniest post i've seen!! you're really trying hard to diss it lol!!! fake beard come on!!!!!! you're trying to hard now..you know very well that is not the case..unless you're T.V has a defect on it. Look earthgoat, let's face it love stories has two outcome you either going to love or hate it and just like Ryan Gosling said that movie is not made for everybody some people will love it and some will hate it and i have to agree with that. So it is not your cup of tea it's cool! just don't invest all your energy on a movie you hate..that ridiculous!!!

6.27.2005

Modern or feminist takes on Grail Legend?

I'm at the Java House, and a friend who's preparing the syllabus for an undergrad class on The Grail Legend is asking me for any suggestions on a modern or feminist take on it. She's got the old stuff covered and is ordering Malamud's The Natural (who knew?), but needs one more title. She's considering The Once and Future King and The Mists of Avalon, but they're pretty long. She's even flirting with The Da Vinci Code, but is hesitating for obvious quality reasons. Any quick ideas? Are there comic books, graphic novels, something from the past 50 years or so? Any thoughts appreciated.

"The Blow" by J. M. Coetzee

New Yorker fiction -- June 27, 2005 issue

red light
I strongly suspect this is a novel excerpt, though it's impossible to tell, because the magazine doesn't make it clear. It does note that Coetzee has a novel called Slow Man coming out in September, which could be a heads up, given recent experience. The piece is indeed about a "slow man," one who loses his leg on the business end of bike vs. car (the "blow" he's suffered) and ends up falling in love with his assigned caregiver, a married Croat woman, and helping her son go to private school. This review is based on one reading instead of the usual two or three because life is short and because the piece is approximately 34 New Yorker columns long.

The prose here is lovely, the personalities well rendered, the situation of medical recovery painstakingly realistic. You would certainly expect these things from a Nobel laureate. The writer guides the POV character along from understandably grumpy pessimism to understandably moderate optimism. However, as a self-contained piece of fiction, it drags on way too long, in my opinion, and for what? For a pretty darned conventional stretch of writing that contains no surprises. I kept expecting it to lead somewhere unexpected, but in vain. It chugs on relentlessly and with meticulous detail until it pulls in, brakes hissing, at the station of its half-satisfying half-conclusion.

Shall I talk about the relationship theme, the subtle comparisons between his sometime lover Margaret and his sturdy nurse Marijana? What about the fact that he wishes he'd had a son -- and guess what, Marijana has one, and he really likes the kid? Or the fact that his life is now curtailed thanks to two-wheeling it on the highway, and whaddya know, his would-be offspring is a motorcyclist? No. I don't think so. Even without reading the story, you pretty much can figure out how these things play out. They are not strange enough to sustain enough interest to analyze them. If this is a novel excerpt, maybe there are surprises elsewhere in the book, and maybe it does eventually answer the question Elizabeth McCracken told us fiction should -- of why "this night is different from all others." All I know for sure is that the piece before us doesn't answer that question and is therefore probably only of interest to committed Coetzee fans.

6.24.2005

Dan Coffey interview

Dan Coffey is a graduate of the Iowa Playwright's Workshop and lives near Chelsea, Iowa, in an old farmhouse that is also the site of the Chelsea Writer's Retreat (though he just sold this house -- on eBay -- and is moving this fall). He is best known as NPR's Dr. Science and still answers questions on the Dr. Science Web site. Dr. Science claims that "there is a fine line between ignorance and arrogance, and only I have managed to erase that line." Coffey was involved in Duck's Breath Theater, recently had a play with a successful run here in Iowa, and is the author of Get Smart!, Iowa Curiosities: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities, and Other Offbeat Stuff, and other books. He can sometimes be heard on "Talk of Iowa" on WSUI. The interviewer has a long piece about a week spent at Coffey's farmhouse in the current Passages North.

EG: Can you encapsulate the origins of Dr. Science for us?

DC: Dr. Science came out of Merle Kessler (MFA fiction, 1973, Playwrighting 1974) and I horsing around at KQED, the NPR affiliate in San Francisco. We were trying to come up with a short, comic segment that could fit into the holes in "Morning Edition" now filled with traffic reports or underwriting credits. I had long played condescending creeps in our Duck's Breath skits, and so it was a natural. We were back in Iowa, playing the State Fair, doing ten shows a day right next to the Iowa Pork Growers and their perpetual pork fog-emitting Bar BQ when we got a call from KQED asking if we had anymore of those Mr. Science things, as people were asking about them.

EG: What was your experience at the Playwriting Workshop like?

DC: I think everything I learned from the faculty at the Workshop could be summarized in a few paragraphs. What I learned from my fellow students was everything. Some of it in the variety of "what I hope to avoid."

EG: You were involved in the San Francisco theater scene. That had to be interesting...

DC: Sam Shepherd was still premiering his plays at the Magic Theater, and I caught a couple of them. Ed Harris and Kathy Baker were still just local San Francisco actors. Whoopi Goldberg was doing stuff in Berkeley with the Blake Street Hawkeyes, a theater troupe started by David Schein and Bobby Ernst (both with Iowa connections, hence the Hawkeyes). Mostly I remember feeling envy. Lots of envy. I won a few hundred dollars and a production of a one-act play at the 1976 Bay Area Playwrights Festival. I was dissapointed by the production. I had written the play stoned on pot I found in Golden Gate Park on the first day I arrived. But I blamed the director and actors, because I knew I was a goddamn genius.

EG: What are you writing at the moment?

DC: I'm still cranking out about ten Dr. Science answers a month, my monthly column for The Source, and then scratching away at my ungainly novel, which has now progressed to 46,136 words. Wow! How long is a normal novel ms? [varies -- Ed.]

EG: What have you been reading lately?

DC: At the moment I'm reading a couple of books about zen. Iowa is a good place to practice zen. There's little competition for your attention.

EG: Why do you live in the country? Does it help you with your writing?

DC: This living in the country thing was an experiment. Ever since I was a wanna-be hippie in Columbia, Missouri, I'd always promised myself I would try. My mental sketch at that point (1970) involved a common-law wife who looked like the singer Melanie, lots of home-grown ganja, and hours of relaxation, listening to music. But I noticed that the people I met who actually lived like that were incredibly boring, so I never allowed myself the other parts of the rural dream, red-winged blackbirds on a fencepost, etc.

When I turned 50 I vowed to do something about it. Now that I live in the country, it's hard to imagine moving back into town, much less a city. But I think that's what I'm going to do. I'll probably buy a house in Oskaloosa come this fall. It's good to have an affordable home base so you can travel. Adventures are more fun when there's some security at the base.

I think living in the country has affected my writing. When I get inspired, I can stay with the initial rush of inspiration longer, because I have fewer distractions. On the farm I don't have cable, and I no longer have Internet access [!!! -- Ed.]. So when I want to find out who Lindsey Lohan is dating, I'll have to make a concerted effort to do so. That's not a bad thing.

People who pride themselves on being NPR news junkies or think they're benefitting from having 150 cable channels at their disposal are deluding themselves into thinking that brings some sort of freedom. Wherre you stick your head determines what you think about.
(Sounds like a profound zen quote, no?)

Last night at about 3 am the yips of coyotes woke me, and I took the rifle out and stood guard over the sole surviving fowl, an adolescent goose. It was a wonderful experience, one not easily duplicated in a city or suburb.

EG: Why do so many writers love guns? You, Hemingway, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, William Burroughs...

DC: Most writers are convinced that others regard them as sissies. Hence the obvious gun/phallus substitution. But few realize that writers often develop a condition called index finger dermatitis which comes from logging too many hours at the keybaord. This condition can only be addressed by pulling the trigger on a very loud gun. Oh, sure, there are other remedies, but they involve hydrocortisone creams and medical insurance. Very few writers have medical insurance, but most of them own guns.

EG: Who was your favorite Beatle?

DC: I've always felt a deep kinship with Pete Best. He was the one the others fired, and his career amounted to nothing, while the others became world famous. Apparently, there was nothing wrong with him, he just didn't take the whole Beatle thing seriously. As Jacob said to his mother, Rebekah, "Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man." Even though Esau was tricked into selling his birthright for a bowl of porridge, his name lives on in history, and if he were alive today, he could probably narrate a series on The History Channel. So we see that some of us will cruise through life hirsute, popular, and wealthy, while others grovel in the shallows, balding, bitter, and impoverished. Hope I answered your question.

6.23.2005

Movie about the most obscene joke

Can anyone fill us in on what this "Aristocrats" joke, now to be a Penn & Teller movie, might be? (Brando and Gwarbot?)

Upcoming fiction reviews: sharpen your keyboards

Next up in the New Yorker is a story -- or maybe a novel excerpt, because we don't really know, do we -- by J. M. Coetzee. The week after that is cek's story, "Ashes," which will not be reviewed here, due to EG recusing itself from reviewing published work by Goats. We should just sit back, read it, and be happy for her, and tell her how happy we are again. At any rate, there'll be no review. Just champagne popping.

In early July (on newstands July 12), we will reap the upside of the Atlantic's controversial decision to gather all its fiction into one annual issue. The fiction is being explicitly billed as "putting short-story readers center stage." Hopefully, then, the pieces will not be novel excepts in drag.

Here are the writers who will have "new tales" in the issue:

Joyce Carol Oates
Adam Haslett
Charles Baxter
Shira Nayman
Marc Jacobs
George Singleton
Maximilian Schlaks

Dearest Goats and Babies (and honorary Goats and Babies), if you'd like to call front seat on the Coetzee piece or one of these Atlantic ones and be the one to post analysis of it on this screen, shoot me an email (see my profile if you don't have it). First come, first serve. No way can I do all those. Plus I'll be gone July 8 - 15.

Maybe I'm deluding myself, but I feel that pounding out opinions on and reading responses to the scant short fiction that's still coming out in national publications is helping me retain a dim awareness of what makes fiction work or not and why. I certainly don't have time to be reading all the contemporary novels that I should be reading, and stories are helping to fill the gap. I hope some folks feel the same and want to help keep the effort rolling. (If you feel that the exercises are pointless or unhelpful, or if you're sick of being confronted with solicitations like this, let me know that, too.)

P.S. In the Atlantic issue there will also be an essay by Rick Moody on "what goes wrong in writing workshops" and one by the lovely and talented Curtis Sittenfeld on "the very satisfying perils of success."

6.22.2005

MY FIRST BIRTHDAY PARTY

Hi -- I'm getting George to type this for me, and we broke into Pop's ACCOUNT -- I'm having my first Birthday party this SATUrday JUNE 25 at MOM AND DAD's HOUSE at 5 PM. Just Bring YOURSELVES and whatever else you may want (and many many dog treats -- they don't feed us -- God help us please -- we are so hungry --so very, very, hungry --G & P). We'll grill and PLAY games, READ Ulysses to appease my doofus Pop, and maybe even KARAOKE!!! (I play very good drums). VICTORIAn DRess APPreciated, BUT not Required. NO CATS.

Sincerely,

JIMMY

6.21.2005

Romeo Tango

Last weekend, I had just finished up two projects, and traca de broon and I were biking around town getting hot, sweaty, sunburned, tired, and thirsty, and we thought we 'd try to go somewhere we'd never been before. Decided on The Vine, south of Burlington off Gilbert. For some reason, we'd just never gone in there in our four years in the IC.

Walked into the cool of a dark sports bar and were immediately hailed by Possum (trademark grin) and T-Bone (flushed with wedded bliss), in a booth by the door with Possum's parents. Mama Possum smiled and Papa Possum stood and shook my hand and kept standing the whole time because he is a gentleman. He was put at ease when his daughter informed him I am a fellow Hoosier. "Tipton? Yep, I know it." I fell in love with Papa Possum, who, when Possum calls him, says, "Come home."

We stopped bothering them and sat at the bar in the middle of the bar and ordered two Guinness. I counted nine TVs, most of them showing baseball, and then overheard a conversation between two summer scalawags seated next to us at the bar.

"Did you see the latest issue of Playboy?"
"Nope."
"Did you read any of the articles?"
"Nope."
"Did you read that article about smuggling pot from British Columbia?"
"Nope."
"See, they helicopter it across the border to Washington..."

The Guinness was good, not as cold as normal, but very refreshing. When we were done, we decided to continue our journey of discovery.

"What about that bar..."
"Yeah, that one..."
"...that you see when you take the recycling."
"Yeah, okay..."

We biked down Linn to Benton and locked up the bikes by the side entrance of Romeo Tango, or RT's, home of "The Iowa City Volleyball Club." Into this repurposed, ramshackle, haphazardly constructed, huge old house, with every room seemingly added by a different builder, we filed out of the heat and into air conditioning and approached the bar. Didn't see anything in the way of good beer on tap.

"We have Boulevard Wheat around the side there," said the barmaid, "on a different tap." I said yes. T. ordered a G&T. She brought our drinks, but my pint glass was filled only about 2/3 the way up. "The keg is finished. I'll knock a dollar off." No offer to change the keg -- she just took the money and walked away.

We looked around. Your usual kind of place. A woman at the bar confidently ordered a "tah-quill-ah." We wandered up a ramp toward a back room, a grimy and dusty 1950s time capsule, with broken chairs and crooked, faded posters, and one of those long "puck bowling" tables, I forget what the game is called, powdered with silica sand for sliding the pucks. T. had never played, so I fished out two quarters, loaded them into the slots, and pushed in the sh-kagung-gung mechanism. The quarters simply fell to the floor and rolled away. I bent down and noticed the entire back of the coin-eating contraption was gone.

"What's out there?" She was looking at a dirty plastic door, opaque with scratches and smears, that seemed to lead out to a beer garden. We heard voices through it and shoved it open -- and entered a bright blue-painted, canvas-roofed Fort Lauderdale cantina bar, alive with loud, sloppy youngsters.

"Where the other half drinks," I observed.

Several young men had pushed together some tables and were playing a converted carnival game, the one where you have to throw a ping-pong ball at a triangle of plastic cups, except these cups were filled with an inch of beer, and when you made it, you had to drink the beer. If, as often happened, the ball ricocheted and bounced crazily around the filthy floor, it was simply fetched, rubbed on a shirt, and thrown again into a beer that would be drunk. Empty plastic pitchers littered every corner.

Then we noticed, toward the rear of the cantina, a kind of deck, and a volleyball sailing by. Investigation revealed a full-sized sand pit, with a six-on-six game in full swing under the merciless sun.

"How fun does that look?" The whole scene was surreal, as if we'd tripped into a wormhole and been spit out somewhere Not Iowa. I looked around for the MTV truck.

Back under the tarp there was a long, low bar lined with metal deck chairs, two of which we planted ourselves in, and a different bartender told us there were leagues, and you had to sign up in late spring. "Although, if no one is playing, you can just go out there and play."

A kid walked up with a t-shirt that featured a close-up of a man sensuously licking a bowling ball. Ping-pong balls clattered by randomly. We enjoyed our refreshments while gawking at the happy, chattering denizens of this out-of-place place. Another guy came up to the bar in a Bulldog t-shirt, and he and T. made conversation about the joys and pleasures of Amsterdam. "Hey, I lived there, too," my mind cried as I was ignored by the flirty would-be boy-toy. Like, whatever. Not soon enough, he walked away. "What?" T. all innocent.

At the end of our drinks, we sighed and grinned around and vowed to come back, though we felt a bit like Mom and Dad on the set of Girls Gone Wild. Amazing that in a town where you think you've turned over every rock, there is something like this place to consider. Are there more IC secrets? Rest assured, we will find out. If you know of some, dish, dish.

6.16.2005

"Haunting Olivia" by Karen Russell

New Yorker fiction -- June 13 & 20, 2005 issue

green light
The story is here.

First a spotlight on the author. Karen Russell teaches undergrad fiction at Columbia U., where she got her MFA. She also, coolly, has led Spanish language immersion programs in Cuba and Spain, and is leading a student "Cultural Exploration" trip this summer in Australia, NZ, and Fiji. I poached all this from her bio here. Russell appears to be older than twelve, MSF and TLB, but perhaps not by enough to keep you from self-flagellating. (I couldn’t find that picture ya’ll mentioned, but here’s a little interview).

This is an excellent unconventional story. [Political aside: In my world, the word "conventional" has lost its positive associations and decayed into a synonym for "boring and uninspired." This is probably my own personal counter-backlash against the backlash against the unconventional; I now associate "unconventional" with “original” and “good”. Something unique is by definition unconventional. It's a sui generis work that jerks one momentarily from one’s reading complacency and into the full-color, Dolby Digital™ waking dream. ("Experimental," by the way, just means "misguided".)]

The Florida Keys. Fourteen-year-old Wallow—real name Waldo Swallow—and his younger brother Timothy Sparrow (Tarot, we infer), are trying to find the ghost of their little sister Olivia, who disappeared without a trace two years before. On that fateful night, the three siblings had been out crab sledding—an ingenious non-existent sport where sledders zip down coastal dunes in giant, hollowed out, racing-stripe-adorned crab shells. Neat, eh?

But also: tragic. Hungry, bruised, and sick of sledding, Wallow and Timothy return home to watch porn on their grandmother's illegal cable box and experiment with Demerol—leaving eight-year old Olivia (“But we still have half an hour on the sled rental!”) to play by herself, at the beach, at night.

In this cosmos, reality and fantasy pivot on the "diabolical goggles", a magic snorkel set that the boys find in the hold of a sunken ship. The goggles allow the wearer to see the glowing spirits of creatures who have died in the sea. Wallow and Timothy—who blame themselves for their sister's death—quickly realize that the goggles might allow them to locate Olivia, and the search begins. An Ahabaian Wallow captains a series of night-time expeditions, forcing his freaked-out brother to keep his head underwater at every moment. Along the way, Timothy sees a panoply of unearthly sights, including the awesome ghost of a plesiosaur (“It is a megawatt behemoth, bronze and blue-white, streaking across the sea floor like a torpid comet.”).

The story is rife with this kind of haunting, (bio)luminescent description—everything seems to glow with the phantom of its own vitality. A glow, if you’ll recall, is a little tiny light in a cloud of darkness, and Russell taps this metaphor nicely. We see that Olivia’s spirit is very much alive. [Language aside: every word from "limn" to "lambent" to "celestial" to "constellate" is deployed to, well, "illuminate" the murky milieu. Usually such plundering of the light lexicon irritates me—probably because it reminds me how annoyingly few light-describing words we've got. English, ye benighted tongue!—but this time I didn't much notice.] Here's a snippet that describes the lost Olivia, "one weird little kid" who
played “house” by getting the broom and sweeping the neon corpses of dead jellyfish off the beach. Her eyes were a stripey cerulean, inhumanly bright. Dad used to tell Olivia that a merman artisan had made them, out of bits of sea glass from Atlantis.
Initially the conceit seems a bit silly—sunken ships, magic glasses, ghosts. But the story is committed to its premise, and is soon able to outgrow its limitations. It's not a magic realism story, where you can't decide if it takes place in our world or some extraordinary but somehow normal otherworld. It is just a latter-day tale of wonder, in the vein of Peter Pan: where the brilliant minds of children collectively reimagine the tragic until it is softened into the fantastic. This story does this well.

From a pedant's perspective, sure, there are a few things wrong with it, but they're all surface-level and so don't matter to me much. The grandmother character is weak, despite her gigantically perfect name, Granana, which rhymes with her favorite food. She eats so much banana-based fare that "her farts smell funny, and her calf muscles frequently give out." Quirky stuff, but Granana never quite comes alive. Ah well. Also, one of the story's central places, the Glowworm Grotto, is a locus of some considerable reader confusion. I won't go into that because it doesn't make for interesting commentary, but if you read it you'll see what I mean.

It's a successful, classically constructed story. The beginning starts right before the end, the middle flashes back to before the beginning, and the ending continues from where the beginning left off (i.e. right before the end). But take note workshoppers and workshopees: there's not a ton of leaden "back-story" to weigh down the narrative—only enough to fill us in on the essentials. And the flashback—really, there's only one scene of it—is all action. Things move quickly throughout. Usually one glance from the narrative eye is enough to keep us hypnotized. The language knows when to be whimsical and when, glancingly, to be profound.

6.15.2005

“The Laser Age” by Justin Tussing

New Yorker fiction -- June 13 & 20, 2005 issue

yellow light
The story is about a high school student named Thomas who becomes involved with his teacher in 1972, told at some indeterminate point in the future. One of its strengths is the fact that it nicely sidesteps any forays into the many possible clichés inherent in the subject matter, in part by (mostly) avoiding discussing the sexual details of the relationship, keeping the focus on Thomas’s romantic and protective urges, and interspersing the relationship storyline with another storyline about Thomas’s relationship with a local legend (I mean that semi-ironically) and with his family.

Thomas begins narrating in the present, discussing the state of contemporary high schools as “pastel-hued laboratories” with “no sense of curriculum.” He claims that the teachers don’t teach but just joke, and the students ostensibly motivate themselves. However, it’s unclear where Thomas gleans this knowledge, since the story gives us no sense of whether his experiences with contemporary secondary education stem from his role as a teacher or a parent or just an interested observer. This normally wouldn’t be much of an issue, but because of the interplay between the 1972 narrative and the hints about the future, it raises questions that the story eventually fails to answer.

The “annexes” (i.e., trailers) where Thomas and his friends took classes in the 70s stand in sharp contrast to Thomas’s perceptions of the high schools of today. In Annex 11 Thomas meets his new teacher, Alice Lowe, whom the class initially mistakes for a student. She teaches a course entitled “The History of Technology,” which is a replacement for the upper-level Ancient History course. Thomas and his friends are not considered stellar students—the impression the story leaves is that they’re on a vocational track and will be expected to work at the power plant, as many local men do, including Thomas’s father and, the previous summer, Thomas himself.

The story alternates between sections about Thomas and his developing relationship with Miss Lowe and sections about Thomas’s interactions with his family and a local man who he learns is named Shiloh Tanager. Thomas meets Tanager while Thomas is sitting on a bench trying and failing to pick up girls. Tanager looks like a bum but engages Thomas in some odd conversation. At dinner that night, Thomas’s grandfather, PawPaw, tells Thomas that he’d just met the King of the River Rats—“river rats” being the town nickname for “lower class.” Tanager has been the subject of town rumor and had been thought to be dead, and his return leads the family to discuss the issues of luck and mistakes.

The sections of the story describing Tanager and Thomas’s family are generally the sections that also discuss technology and its local effects. In this section, we learn that Tanager likes to “pok[e] around the plant,” and was known for making “paranoia boxes” that monitor the government’s secret radio frequencies in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. Though Thomas worked at the plant the previous summer, he was distracted then—as now—by his thoughts about girls. Thomas’s father decries people who “don’t know science from nonsense,” but the story moves quickly from that statement to another section about Miss Lowe—Thomas isn’t too concerned about distinction, either.

Thomas extols Miss Lowe’s teaching prowess in the next section, explaining that she wasn’t a graceful teacher but rather one who was willing to get dirty to make them learn: “She spaded the soil of our ignorance and pitched it out.” The first real example of her technique comes when she discusses the wall that rings the town. Why is it significant? she asks. “What does it tell you? That the river sometimes floods.” The students focus on the fact that it hasn’t flooded lately, and we all know what that means. Five bucks to anyone who can guess what happens before the story’s over. Just kidding. I’m broke. But it’s okay—as clear as it is that the flood’s coming, it’s equally clear that the flood will serve only as the catalyst for other things, so it’s not a big deal that we know it’s going to happen, although it might have been nice if we didn’t.

Miss Lowe tries to engage the students in a conversation about tools and technology (this is where we get the title of the story), but they’re not really having it. Thomas can’t focus on technology and Miss Lowe at the same time, and so he lets the conversation go but moves on to discuss the power plant with Tanager at their next meeting. Once again Thomas is waiting at “the girlless plaza” when Tanager walks by. Tanager talks about all the damage he could do at the electrical plant if someone would just let him in, but Thomas doesn’t think so—he remembers all the safeguards that kept him from causing problems on the job when he was daydreaming about girls.

By this point, I felt as if the astute reader would have a good understanding of the nature of this triangle: technology, Tanager, teacher. I, unfortunately, am not as astute a reader as this story seems to require, and I couldn’t put it together. I was enjoying the writing and the process of trying to make connections between the various ideas, but I was starting to get frustrated at my inability to do it. Luckily, things started getting moving with Thomas and Miss Lowe, and a nice teacher/student romance always holds my attention. In this section they agreed to meet outside of school, at a “neutral location.” Then Thomas went home to talk to PawPaw, who talks to him about his service in World War II, and I became distracted by the author photos, which revealed that a) the girl who wrote one of the other stories is like twelve years old, rendering my life a failure, and b) Justin Tussing is h-o-t. I resolved not to let that have any impact on my feelings about the story itself.

Moving on: Miss Lowe and Thomas have a meeting at the local movie theater’s café. Here we get our first reminder that this story is being narrated in the future, with a very nice line: “It’s hard to remember if she acted the way I like people to act, or if what I like in people is to be reminded of Alice Lowe.” I enjoyed this whole scene very much—Thomas tells Miss Lowe that his grandfather says any welcome event is a miracle, and that Thomas believes in miracles but not accidents. Then Miss Lowe puts her feet up on the cushion beside Thomas—“by PawPaw’s definition, a miracle.” Thomas pushes up in his seat and his hand comes down on her ankle, and he is “amazed that [his] hand had achieved something [he] couldn’t will.” Sounds like an accident to me, though. They walk to her car and she talks about how nice it would be to float down the river. At this point I would think even adult Thomas might comment on the probability that Miss Lowe has some issues that she might need to deal with before this story is over, but no—future Thomas is staying mum.

From there Thomas goes to find Tanager’s makeshift home along the riverbank. Tanager shows him how he’s basically bootlegging electricity and living for free, and tells Thomas that he came back to town because the river is like a mother to him, and he suspects the same is true for Thomas. Then he tells Thomas that he’s really here to rebuild his heart. This leads Thomas to wonder, “What was wrong with me, that drove people to talk like that?”

Only a month passes, though, before Thomas feels something building in his own heart, after the town has begun to flood and the walls are rebuilt to separate the town from the river. This is the beginning of his romantic relationship with Miss Lowe, which is foiled the first time because he arrived unprepared, so to speak, but presumably they get down to it when we’re not looking, because he’s who she calls when the meltdown finally happens and she takes an overdose of aspirin. Apparently she was once married and her ex is trying to find her again, and she doesn’t want him to. Thomas decides he wants to save her, over and over again, saying, “That’s the type of life I wanted to lead when I was seventeen.” The story ends with them walking back to her car.

I’m leaving out details which I’m sure are significant—the fact that we only see Thomas’s mother boning or cooking chicken, his use of first names when referring to his parents, etc. But I was distracted by the pretty triangle, and that was where I focused my attentions. And I have to say, in the long run, I didn’t get it. I liked the story for its ability to hold my interest, for some lovely writing, for interesting hints of what becomes of Thomas, but ultimately I thought it was a bit coy. After countless workshops taken and taught, I’ve found that my big question nearly always is “Why this story, in this way, now?” and if I can’t answer that question, I feel like something’s been hidden from me. I’m willing to work to extract meaning from disparate elements of a story, and I don’t need things to line up perfectly for them to be satisfying, but I like to feel that sense of connection, of understanding why someone needs me to know these things, together, at this very moment, and I didn’t feel that here. I would, however, desperately love to know if people saw what I couldn't.

6.14.2005

Hip, Hip, Henriquez!

Cristina's very great story "Ashes" will be published in the New Yorker on June 27th.

Yahoo, Cristina!

6.13.2005

"An Ex-Mas Feast" by Uwem Akpan

New Yorker fiction -- June 13 & 20, 2005 issue

green light
Nothing kills a piece of fiction faster than asking the reader to feel bad for your poor, poor characters. Ethan said something like that once in workshop. I'm always impressed by writing that manages to deal with abject poverty, for instance, without once getting sentimental or hand-wringing about it and without ever asking for sympathy from the reader. Angela's Ashes is a good fairly recent example. This story is another. Both feature impoverished, retrospective, first-person narrators in which the action happens to the narrator-as-child -- in this case, Jigana, an 8 year-old Nairobi beggar -- but the narrator telling the story is the adult writing with the perspective of years. Letting the narrator grow old before the telling adds necessary heft and interest for the reader, whose understanding of the world is (hopefully) much advanced beyond that of a child's.

So Jigana describes his street family living in a shack in the bad part of a dangerous town with neutral matter-of-factness. Jigana as the eldest male is "the hope" of the family -- they just need to figure out how to pay for him to go to school. Want to write a story? Have a character want something. Jigana wants to go to school. How will he get the money for it? Well, his mother says he needs to get it from his sister Maisha, a 12-year-old whore and the family breadwinner. But of course this causes complications. Bang: a story.

His father is a lazy thief, who sleeps through much of the story. His mother is your basic stay-at-home glue-sniffing drunk who has caught a pregnant dog and is hoping to sell the puppies to pay for Jigana's schoolbooks. His other sister, Naema, at ten years old, is an apprentice street whore being trained by Maisha in using makeup and condoms. There are two young twins who flop around the shack and scream in their sleep. And there is Baby, an object, whom they shove in people's faces in round-the-clock shifts to help extract coins from tourists.

It's Christmas day in this happy household. Instead of figgy pudding, though, they have shoe glue, kabire -- highly prized stuff because sniffing it kills hunger. (To be fair, on Ex-Mas Eve there was a bonanza of three cups of rice and zebra intestines, scrounged from an N.G.O. party). In the story, the family is sitting around the shack waiting for Maisha to return with the "Ex-Mas" feast after a hard night of shagging white men and their monkey. Maisha, though, is getting restless and has hinted that she is leaving home to hook full-time, complicating Jigana's quest to go to school.

Notice that, for the moment at least, we do have an intact family here! And it really is a Christmas story. Are there gifts? Sure! The glue was a gift (it's for youngsters only, though Mama indulges). And some neighbors bring over a new pen and pencil for Jigana -- and forgive his father's four-year-old debts, thanks to Maisha, who persuaded them. When Jigana asks Mama what they are getting for the neighbors, she says (high on shoe glue), "half a litre of petrol." Jigana informs us that this is shameful, that petrol is culturally beneath glue as a gift. Merry Ex-Mas.

Let's get all Chad and talk structure: We have ten sections, separated by DSBs (double-space breaks). DSBs are to stories what stanzas are to poems. They are supposed to show passage of time or changing of POV character, though the New Yorker especially loves them (I suspect) because they chop the story nicely into bite-size chunks and allow for eye-catching 36-point initial caps. Here are the sections:

1. Introducing the family, setting up Maisha as the "magnetic" or "mysterious" character. "...none of us knew how to relate to her anymore." Baseline established.

2. Scene with Jigana and Mama sniffing glue, fighting (he bites her), then making up. Here is where Jigana's goal of convincing his sister to provide him enough money for school is declared by Mama. And here is where the neighbors forgive the family's debt. Tension: way up, then down a bit.

3. The only flashback section: Jigana hangs with Maisha on the street. We see their relationship, which is chummy and childlike ("We were not afraid of the city at night. It was our playground.") until he makes the sudden mistakes of using her real name and mentioning their parents, thus revealing on the street that they are related. "She ignored me for weeks." Tension slackened, then cranked back up.

4. It's raining outside the shack. Dad (Baba) wakes up. Jigana describes Maisha's disappearing with white men in a Jaguar. Mama starts the Ex-Mas ritual -- reading names of people she thanks God for, including Maisha's white clients. Tension stable.

5. Naema returns with Baby from begging, says Maisha is moving out, that it's time for her to start whoring full-time. Jigana blames himself because he needs the money and has been the reason for the pressure on Maisha. If he had only joined a street gang, he wouldn't need the money, and there'd be peace in the family. He becomes angry at her white clients. Tension up.

6. Jigana has a talk with Baba about quitting the school plan, which is rejected. Jigana sniffs more glue and has a psychedelic vision of going to school ("I was floating. My bones were inflammable. My thoughts went out like electric currents into the night ... I saw the teacher writing around the cracks and patches of the blackboard like a skillful matatu threading his way through our pothole-ridden roads."). Tension up and story expanded via vision.

7. Maisha returns in a taxi. Baba picks the driver's wallet, but Maisha makes him return it. Tension up. (This scene could have been cut, I think.)

8. In the shack, Jigana tells Maisha that if she leaves, so will he. Everyone tells him to shut up, that the matter is off the table, that the school fee is already arranged. Maisha and Mama have a reconciliation, but it seems Maisha's still leaving. Tension up.

9. A kind of vigil, Maisha's last night. Mosquitoes attack. Misery deepens. Tension up.

10. Naema emerges as the new Maisha, says will take care of Jigana, pay for his school. Then she remembers that Maisha brought the feast after all, bags of random foods all but forgotten in the sadness of her impending departure. They all gorge, including beer. A great line: "The twins fell on their backs, laughing and vomiting." Taxi arrives, Maisha leaves. Jigana sniffs more glue, destroys his pen and pencil, gets dressed, weeps. Street kids circle their bounty, making off with the balloons and cards Maisha had also brought. Jigana uses the occasion to slip away. His last memory: "...the twins burping and giggling," the Ex-Mas feast at last. Tension released.

This is not just a Christmas tale, then, but a coming-of-age story. Jigana tells us which development he wants (school) in the story, and the action shows whether he's going to get it -- he's not. He's going to have to get things for himself. He bails on the situation, following the example of his sister. It's hard to gauge whether he does the right thing. A family splitting apart is not good, though it could be argued he's already at rock bottom here. Still, it's a bit abrupt, as we've spent a lot of time getting to know the family with all its weaknesses and difficulties, and he plainly loves them, but in the end he simply ditches them.

Ambiguity like this is good in a story, done right, and in this case I like it. Eight is a bit young to strike out on one's own -- and of course a perfectly natural reaction would be horror at the tragedy that has led to this small child running off into urban who-knows-what -- but within the context of what has happened, it's understandable. (And as he says, the city is his playground.) As a reader, I am rooting for Jigana as he vanishes into Nairobi. Is there much hope for him? Well, he is telling this as an adult, and with good English, and so we know implicitly that he in fact does make it out there.

One fascinating thing about this story is it was written by an ordained Jesuit priest, a Nigerian currently studying at the U. of Michigan MFA program (the New Yorker Web site has a short interview with Akpan). Uh, did he not get the memo from the Vatican that preaching abstinence and the value of not using condoms will solve all these troubles? Akpan has strayed from the script to say the least. More power to him. I hope there are ten thousand Akpans out there.

The story doesn't just confirm the worst of the (American) reader's fears about the chilling situation of African children, it depicts a world much further degraded than the one we imagine: the sheerest squalor, the adolescent as sexual cash cow, the collapse of everything decent and civilized that typically sustains a family, the crooked depths of cynicism and survival -- yet not despair. The reader is denied the mind-closing luxury of despair. As a fictionist, then, Akpan holds up his end of the bargain admirably. By facing the bleak truth and giving us a POV character who, in the moment, doesn't know any better (as McCourt did in Angela's Ashes), by never caving to a desire to wring tears from the reader, he creates a world where the situation on the ground can be glimpsed, however briefly, on its own terms, without the usual distancing filter of pity; its failures and successes can be judged within their own contexts, its characters appreciated directly for their struggles. And this is what fiction is for -- it may be the one way to sneak such information intact past our pre-framed conceptions. It makes us see people, no matter their circumstances, as people. In this way, characters such as the ones presented here magnificently transcend our carefully constructed stock images of Africans as hungry, blank-eyed accusers and fly-covered appealers for relief -- and thus people we will likely never meet can at least be gathered into the common humanity of our imaginations, where they belong.

New Yorker Poetry (June 13 & 20) Cheaters Edition

I wasn't wild about any of the poems this week. I didn't think any of them were bad, but all three have pretty big flaws. “The Mare Out on the Road” borrows some of the effect of the pantoum (more on this) but the experience is confused and many of the lines that get repeated are pretty weak. If you're going to say something twice it better be better than “Sliding fast with the brakes shoaling gravel” or “Five meters down, and would the car capsize?” I guess a poem about a crash should feel less arranged.

“An Elegy for My Mother,” take out the first three stanzas and the poem is about the same. Also a bit melodramatic”--language, language--”

“Steady Now” is the best of the three with good control, but too poetic for my taste, “Updraft of oblivion” “world of rain” “rock of ages.” Everything is abstract. We don't get to smell the grass, we “feel the smell of grass greeting.” These are all ideas and I posit that experiencing the world rather than thinking about experiencing the world might solve some of the stability issues. Have a seat on one of those rocks. Pretty stable.

But the first poem did put me in the mind of reading some pantoums and perhaps my favorite is this one, by our own Donald Justice. If you read the brief note before the poem you'll see this is a form that requires a ton of repetition and that's something we're all contending with in some form or another.

I think Dean said something like repetition only being interesting once variation arises. In the case of the pantoum, the line stays the same (or nearly the same) and it is the context (the lines right before and after) that change. So the repeated line gets held under two completely different lamps. Despite my downplaying of subject matter previously, look how perfectly the form manages the Great Depression here. The lines are slow and the repetition introduces the mundane inevitability of “going on and on.”

“Our lives avoided tragedy” is a radical beginning for a poem about the Great Depression. We're not talking about Hoovervilles, stockbrokers, or dust clouds. “Oh there were storms and small catastrophes” but why not leave those alone—you've heard all about that before (Seabiscuit). “Simply by going on and on,” the second time around, isn't, in itself, anything too special, but there is a pleasure as it is now the beginning of a sentence, rather than in the middle of one. It leads into the cut and dry, “We managed. No need for the heroic.” The heroic, along with “tragedy,” “chorus,” “verse,” and “story” puts us in the presence of the Greek plays, which, if I remember right, generally involve some pretty bad stuff. But he doesn't “remember all of the particulars.”

When this line first occurs, it is commenting on the storms and small catastrophes, when it returns, about “ the usual celebrations, the usual sorrows.” This is as anti-sentimental as you can get, which isn't to say unfeeling. You can hear, in the monotony of the repeating lines, the regular line lengths, a desperation and quiet acceptance. You can also feel the mind dwelling, concentrating. “And if we suffered we kept quiet about it.” All of these lines are end-stopped, most by a period. It takes forever to read this poem out loud. Further down the spectacular, “We gathered on porches; the moon rose; we were poor.” So emphatic and some of the only imagery and fellowship in the poem. I love “gathered.” It has the same quality of inevitability. We're people; we're social; we gather.

The two lines that follow this one are interesting. First, it's followed by a question (which was a statement in it's earlier iteration) which feels pleading, amazed, and sad because it has transformed into a question. Perhaps the statement hopes for its opposite, that the story would get told. The question then confirms the truth that it won'y. The second time it (the “We gathered” line) is followed by the first metaphor in the poem, “And time went by, drawn by slow horses.” That's just beautiful. The “We gathered” line changes from being emphatic, almost proud, to being a condition to bear seemingly endlessly. In both cases, it is combined with, “beyond our windows shone.” So even the moon is mediated by a barrier in a sense. This is the great part. The first coupling of the “we gathered” and “Beyond out windows” (6th stanza) is in an abstract setting (pity, fear, audience, story). The second coupling (7th stanza) is full of imagery (moon, slow horses, windows shone, fog). When you finally get to “The Great Depression,” the thing in the background, the tragedy, it is practically cinematic. It is full of sorrow and acceptance, but gorgeous.

Next stanza you have the two imagistic lines, with two more abstract lines. We're winding out of that climax. We end up in the present tense in the final stanza. To be reductive, what got said doesn't change because the Depression ended. Or better, the feeling of the Depression didn't end for those who lived through it. The piling on of the mundane difficulties, day to day life, is somehow more transformative than tragedy. Finally that uneasy rhyming of “tragedy” and “poetry.” No story gets told here. Life ends up being a condition, not a story. I suppose we do tend to think of life as a narrative and this poem undercuts that. But what is the poem saying about poetry? The ending is baffling—any takers?

I had hoped to talk more about repetition, but the poem is fucking hard. It is really resistant. It just means what it means. Maybe I should have savaged one of those other poems.
One more quick thing. There is an AIG insert with poems! in the magazine. The first is perhaps the most American poem, “The Road Not Taken.” American I say because it is has been appropriated for a certain cause while being completely misunderstood. The facing page has the prototypical, rugged individual who has chosen to be unconventional and will thereby become wealthy, happy, and successful by swimming against the current. But the poem isn't called “The Road Taken,” its called “The Road Not Taken.” The obsession is with what could have been (“I shall be telling this with a sigh / somewhere ages and ages hence”). Second guessing (or even analysis of facts), as we're learning, is decidedly un-American. Also, as for being unconventional, the poems says, about the two paths, “Though as for that the passing there / Had worn them really about the same,” or, to modernize it, “Everyone has a pair of Doc Martins.”

I adore the irony here. It's an ad for insurance, loans, and retirement which says, “We can help you prepare for the road ahead.” Oh, and also, the road ahead is full of regret; initial here, sign here, initial here and here. How did/does this happen? It's a clear commentary on the times. There is absolutely no pressure on anyone to pause and think.

The Old Negro Space Program

Oh my. Brilliant fake documentary. Think Dave Chappelle doing Ken Burns. My stomach still hurts five minutes later. Not safe for work (or turn it waaay down - language).
Likely to offend if racial sensitiviy set to 5 or above. A setting of 4 or lower is recommended.

Kerry Egan interview

Kerry Egan is the author of Fumbling: a Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago, a memoir that recounts the author's pilgrimage along a medieval route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the remains of Saint James are supposed to have been buried. "With introspective artfulness," says the National Catholic Reporter, "Ms. Egan matches up the landscape of her soul to the landscape of the journey." Publisher's Weekly calls her writing "confident, sharp and engaging," and Booklist says Fumbling is "compassionate and unforgettable testimony." Earth Goat caught up with her after a softball game in Iowa City.

EG: Your book is about a pilgrimage in Spain that you and your then-boyfriend, Alex (aka Señor El Gordo), took a year after your father died. Was it hard writing a book that is so brutally honest?

KE: It was very hard. I remember one afternoon especially. I was sitting in the Java House trying to write about my Dad. I had just moved out to Iowa City from Brooklyn, I had no real friends yet (apart from El Gordo, of course), I had no idea how to write a book, and I desperately missed working as a hospital chaplain. As I was trying to write, I started crying. One of Alex’s fellow workshoppers came over, introduced herself, looked at me closely in the darkness (that’s the reason I don’t go in the Java House anymore—I can’t take the gloomy, cave-like atmosphere) and suggested I take a break from the computer because my eyes were so bloodshot. I cried a lot while writing, but it was really helpful. I feel like the writing process was a necessary part of my grieving, as necessary as the pilgrimage was.

I think that memoirs can easily fall into the trap of navel-gazing. The question for me is always, why should my story be meaningful to anyone else? People have their own stories to tell. Why should I presume to write about mine? For me, the answer came in that brutal honesty. By going back down into those dark, sometimes shameful memories of grief, by reliving those experiences and putting it on the computer screen, I think I connected with readers. At least I hope I did. I’ve received a lot of letters from people who read the book, and I think in 9 out of 10 people have said that they wrote because they experienced many of the same things I described—anger, shame, meltdowns—and thought they were the only people who felt that way, and thought they had to keep this awful secret.

As painful as it was to re-feel all that stuff, I think it’s a necessary part of writing a memoir. I really dislike memoirs where the writer is trying to show just how very cool he is by mocking his own experience or the reader with flippant ironic detachment. I think it’s just self-indulgence. And I think most readers can tell when you are faking it. Another thing that was hard was distinguishing between what were my stories to tell, and which stories really belonged to my dad, or siblings, or Alex or my mom. I think that there’s always that risk, in writing nonfiction, that you will trespass on someone else’s story.

EG: Americans, more than almost any anyone except perhaps Saudi Arabians, overwhelmingly regard themselves as believers in God. Yet many of our actions as individuals and as a nation -- from practicing capital punishment to waging war to tolerating poverty, homelessness, and lack of medical care -- would seem to indicate otherwise. What do you think this gap indicates?

KE: I think it indicates that many Americans don’t think very deeply about what it means to “believe in God.” I think it also indicates that the organized churches to which these people belong are choosing to focus on certain issues, at the expense of others. Economic issues are moral issues, but they are much more difficult to talk about and act on than questions of sexual ethics. It’s easy, if you are, say, a middle class, married parent of three, to tell young women that they cannot have an abortion, and to declare that premarital sex is wrong. It’s much harder for that middle class parent of three to accept personal responsibility for the health and well-being of a baby born to a poor teenager.

Few people are willing to give up their second cars and vacations and eating out at restaurants in order use that money to help feed their fellow human beings. It’s much easier to focus on sexual ethics in our hyper-sexualized, materialistic society than to focus on the real message of Jesus, which was “give up everything, heal the sick, ameliorate suffering, and preach that the kingdom of God is here.” I’m not saying that I actually do that. I still lust for an Audi station wagon. But I think that the almost-pathological focus on sexuality by the Catholic Church and the evangelicals, the two biggest religious blocks in our country, is distracting “people who believe in God” from the deepening crisis of social justice in the US.

EG: The National Catholic Reporter described Alex, your companion on your trip and husband now, as "a saint." Any comment?

KE: It’s true. He is a saint. And he reminds me of this every time he doesn’t want to change the baby’s diaper.

EG: The inevitable question: What was it like being a workshop spouse and working on your own book? Did anything Alex brought home help you, or were you on your own, private path to writing?

KE: I never thought I wanted to be a writer, so I knew nothing about the craft and discipline of writing. Alex’s experiences in the Workshop helped me realize that the only way to learn to write is through a lot of practice. And that was an important thing for me to realize. The other important thing I learned from Alex was something he learned in Sam Chang’s class. She suggested that writers “map out” stories and novels they admired. I did this with about five or six books that I really liked. This was very early in my writing process, and it helped so much. People have commented on the way I weave different times and places and ideas through the narrative, and I learned how to do that through mapping other people’s work.

For the most part though, writing nonfiction about religion and grief kept me pretty isolated, as a writer, from the workshoppers. Many of them would just look at me blankly when I told them what I was writing about. But of course, El Gordo says the same thing. I write about relics and saints eating scabs and drinking the pus of the wounded. He writes about flying monkeys and Baba Yaga. People look at you funny. Thank God we found each other.

6.08.2005

Deconstructing Franzen

Anyone else find themselves groping about in JF's memoir/essay "The Retreat" in this week's New Yorker? At Large Vibrating Egg, guest blogger "Mr. Gnossos Pappadopoulis" brutally eviscerates it in a four-part close textual analysis (scroll down for links to all four parts).

Tag, we're it

Check out Vutopia's response to the book meme over at Iowablog. He's tagged Babies and Goats (is that fair? Supposed to be five people, not dozens! But bless you, Vu). Put yours here if you like. I may do so later today. It's also fun to click through the links to see the alleys through which this meme has skulked our way...

Book abandonment

Title of Book: Mason & Dixon

Author: Thomas Pynchon

A. Total pages: 773

B. Page reached:
326

Percent finished (divide B by A):
42%

What was happening on the page where you stopped? The man who gave Dixon the magic watch called the Chronometer that never has to be wound and was never to leave Dixon's side found out that it had been stolen and was mysteriously laughing like a maniac.

How long did you try to read the book? Three weeks.

Reason(s) for abandoning: Requires absolutely rigid concentration to even get through a page, and I feel like I "get it," it doesn't grab me anymore, it seems to be more about author's brilliance than about characters' story. My reading time is limited. I can't spend the whole summer turning 773 pages and after each one muttering, yes, you are very clever indeed, Mr. Pynchon, but caring less and less what happens to Mason and Dixon.

Have you abandoned a book by this author before? Yes, Gravity's Rainbow. And V.

For the same reasons? Pretty much.

Have you finished a book by this author before? Yes, The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland.

Is there anything that would get you to finish the book? Well, sure, if Pynchon came over for dinner or a beer or something. Or consented to his first interview. Or let me take a picture of him.

Is there another book you're planning to read instead? Yes, Cloud Atlas. I started it last night and it seems to be what I was looking for when I picked up Mason & Dixon.

Do you think you'll ever try again and finish the book? Maybe in a different phase of life. Retirement maybe.

6.06.2005

New Yorker Poetry -- June 6, 2005

To answer dunkeys' questions, when prose is really good it gets called poetic. Many of you have heard the story of a certain Goat who had written a particularly prosey poem and was assailed for having “committed prose.” Kidding aside, I think that the music and the emotional tenor (probably something like diction or the particular word's natural habitat) of the language are vastly more important than subject matter, characters, setting, or situation. That is probably not true for most prose. Also line breaks are units of meaning that prose doesn't use. They are as important as commas or periods.

What makes a poem is tricker, but I don't think what makes a poem has changed since the advent of free verse. A poem is made by setting up expectations (rhythmic, sonic, intellectual, emotional, cultural, etc.) and either confirming or upsetting them in a meaningful way so that we can be made to feel something otherwise ungraspable. Part of the reason why poetry is difficult for many people to read is simply because they are not attuned to the rhythmic and sonic expectations. Kenneth Koch refers to poetry as a foreign language and the metaphor is a good one. If you can't hear the trochee in the third foot, you're missing out on part of the creation of the meaning. Part of the reason sub-par poetry flourishes is because it spends most of its time using emotional and cultural expectations. So, “I didn't expect to see that couple snogging in the cemetery.” I think I'm paraphrasing Richard Hugo: once the poem begins to attract itself more to what it should mean/say rather than how it should sound, it is dying.

I was going to do both poems but got carried away with the Merwin.

blue light
"Just This"
W.S. Merwin

15 lines. 10 syllables apiece. A whole shit load of anapests (syllables lined up unstressed – unstressed – stressed; often an anapest manifests itself in these patterns: preposition, article, noun (in the rain) or -ing, preposition, verb/noun (-ing the wall or -ing to run). Well, here are sounds making meaning at least. Let's investigate further.

Anapests are kind of rhythmic banana peels. You slide through the first two syllables and land hard on the stress. They are part of the reason why this poem jerks around a lot trying to settle itself, but moves into further reaches of its contemplation. And this poem is about thought and the movement of thought -— its fits and starts, its inability to stay still. The line late in the poem, “this reading by lightning” describes the main effect of the poem. The nouns and verbs get a lot of power; they go off like flashes, little explosions that provide meaning —- always partial. In reading poems that are particularly concerned about meter, one always feels that iambic feet (or several in succession) mean stability, safety, or comfort. They are the norm; some think of the beating of the heart -— we heard this pattern once we grew ears in the womb. Unstressed/stressed, unstressed/stressed. The ten-syllable line is to iambic what the color green is to leaves. Usually, other rhythmic patterns are scattered about runs of iambs so that you can feel the aberrations, then return to the calm of the iamb. This poem won't allow many iambs to collect anywhere so the search feels unsettling, chaotic.

First, look at the anapests in the first three lines “of the patience” “in the dark” “it was night.” Then something funny happens. “Light came” is a spondee. Two stresses in a row. Think of how powerful the slogan “Raid Kills Bugs Dead” is. Four stressed syllables in a row. Anyway, the first light we see in the poem is an explosion of stress. Night is something like being in Plato's cave. Then the anapests in the next line “at the speed it was born” before another bombshell, “born to.” So both the light and birth are the agents of power, agents of stress. The anapest “in the world” then another spondee, “fly through.” Also now he's rhyming, which is another agent of stress. So it's the thought/consciousness, it's genesis, and it's flight that are getting us all worked up.

The next line flirts with being iambic; this makes sense given the “not concerned.” The line is kind of the smoke break of the poem. Thought is always happening to us. Only when we really notice it does it begin to alarm or call attention to itself. Then we're back to our pattern “of the first stars.” This anapest followed by a stressed syllable is a kind of iamb on steroids, really unstressed-unstressed-stressed-stressed. The next two lines end trochee (stressed – unstressed), trochee. There are more anapests in there. The sounds are married to the meaning -- a flowery two lines. Ending the lines in the unstressed syllable speeds up the sound, letting you drift into the next line more easily. The hard stress at the end of a line is jagged, jarring. Then two anapests in a row in the next line “and the ages of rain.” Gorgeous. Two more lines in a row that end in trochees to recall the earlier two lines. Yes, we're still meandering around. Our thoughts are the genesis of universes. Still, when I paraphrase it, say what it “means,” it loses much of its meaning. The meaning is very much in the sound. The definitions of the words need to be thought of in the context of their pattern.

Then a rhetorical shift. The question is “how.” Appropriate for this poem as the how is much more important than the why. We're watching the dance not the dancer. Line ends, spondee – iamb. Lot of pressure, release, a little pressure “this little time.” Then the next line begins anapest (stress on time again) spondee (“this read-”). Another anapest (“-ing by light”) and a final unstressed syllable “-ing.”

There are 9 -ings which also keep the poem rhyming throughout. Vines to swing on though they come not regularly, which is a way to stay in constant motion, but haphazardly -— catch them if you can.

In the last line, the poles switch. The final six syllables are stress-stress-unstressed, stress-stress-unstressed. The ying to the anapest's yang. I had to look it up to see if it had a name, but it seems not to. It feels so emphatic but it has also moved from those early spondees to allowing this little release valve at the termination of the line. A move from the power of assertion, power of thought, to the acceptance and bliss of the inescapable imperfection of thought? The preference of this faulty bliss over the bliss of non-existence/total consciousness (after all, “patience” in the first line seems good)?

I don't know, but I can feel the mind moving behind the language. The mind is trying to find somewhere safe to land and cannot really light anywhere. I don't know. On the first few reads I was rather dissatisfied with the ending —- it felt pat to me. After beating it up a little though I can hear it singing and find it extremely accomplished and ultimately beguiling. By the end, the speaker is asserting, but it is emptiness that is found. Paradox, but one we're used to. Heaven is so loaded and I love “reading by lighting” more. I think it is a completely satisfying poem until the last word. It feels like it couldn't resist the urge to mean, to pronounce. Ultimately, the flip flop of the anapest signals the change in feeling, so I guess saying “heaven” makes it redundant. What if the last word was “cosmos?”

"A Mouthful of Cut Glass" by Tessa Hadley

New Yorker fiction -- June 6, 2005 issue

green light
A tale of two British classes colliding amid an early 1970s college romance. Neil grew up in a condemned Birmingham slum with a wall that leaked so much rain he and his sister had to sleep in their parents' room (she on a cot, he in their bed). Sheila is from a professional, educated household, daughter (one of five children) of a vicar in Suffolk. These two get involved at university in Bristol and both of them romanticize the other's background. Then we are shown how the collision plays out. There are two long scenes, the first detailing Sheila's visit to Neil's parents' home, the second his visit to hers.

Introducing Neil first is neatly deceptive, as it's gradually understood that he is a mysterious character for Sheila, and we draw closer to her as he becomes more distant. She loves him "quite desperately," especially for his "reserve, like a strength witheld," when it comes to his reluctance to exploit his humble background to score points with politically active students -- but the story shows how she has probably drawn the wrong conclusions about this. She is the one who wants to visit his parents, and imagines them as honest, blue-collar, salt of the earth folks. She is looking forward to it as a contrast because "for all her family's crowded closeness, neither her parents nor her siblings were any good at intimacy." Sheila "prepared a perfect openness for her visit to Neil's home, ready to offer up her real self at last."

The first visit appears to go well at first. She finds plenty to romanticize once she arrives in Neil's home, even the "cheap thin towels and bathmat," which are the same as the ones at her parents' house, except these had been "cherished and ironed." She recalls Neil saying his mother had been his confidante, staying up late talking to him and the friends he brought home. She envies this, but misses the Mama's Boy Alert. After dinner, in bed (she is lodged in his sister's room -- who is apparenly gone, unclear where or why unless I missed something), she becomes lonely and sneaks to Neil's room. There she tries quietly to initiate sex, and he'll have none of it. He's uncomfortable, as the walls are thin, and this is the first sign of tension. She gives up, and on her way back overhears his mother complaining, in a different voice "that must be her real voice 'How can I talk to her?... with that accent like a mouthful of cut glass.'" It's a little disappointing that we don't get much reaction from Shelia about this. She merely muses that Neil's mother has mixed up "talking through a mouthful of plums" and "an accent like cut glass." The overall impression is we have an only son with a close, protective mother. I would have liked more of Shelia's thoughts about these revelations.

But we're off to her house, out in the countryside, a messier, more chaotic, more "natural" family. She is disappointed that Neil gets along with her dad the vicar and talks intellectual stuff with him. In her family, the children, deathly afraid of a sermon, have cut off the parents from any intelligent conversation. She despises her mother's plain cooking; nice detail: a French cookbook she gave them as a gift sits unused on a shelf, "its pages gummed together by the steam of hundreds of pans of boiling potatoes." "How can you not see how awful they are?" she asks him. And, she accuses, "You closed your eyes when he prayed at the table last night."

By now the reader is completely drawn into Sheila's POV, and Neil is still really a stranger. I love how the author manages this. It's all given in carefully selected physical detail and dramatization. Except at the beginning, when we are getting background in a hurry, I think there is only one time in the whole piece that the author stoops to telling us what Sheila is feeling. Otherwise, we see it through action, as we should. "Sheila was walking backward ahead of him on the path, in her eagerness to convey to him the truth about her parents." And the way his father "was paying her subtle harmless attentions ... spooning sugar into her tea and smoothing creases out of her coat when he hung it up." Great stuff like that. Lots to re-learn about the supreme value of concretizing details in this story.

Unlike his family, she believes hers avoids intimacy, communicating in "evasive codes, fumbling and deflecting contact." This climaxes in a game of charades, which the stoic, industrial Neil has never played. He can't get the hang of it, but Sheila's family throws everything into it: costumes, props, and mounting, eccentric excitement. Neil is assaulted by (and the reader treated to) the vicar parading about in a green dress, for example. The POV switches briefly to Neil to underscore his discomfort at feeling "strong stirrings of desire" as he watches Sheila, in her father's silk robe (which she lets fall open) playing the part of a hairdresser, trying to kiss her own mother, who is dressed up as a shy boy with a moustache penciled in. A game of charades is a darned handy thing to have in a story. When the family is done, they sit "flushed and panting" and emit "shamed giggles." Yet even as the "Issues!" bell is going off in the reader's head, the sense is that this family is in some ways more authentic with their feelings, even if they have to couch them in theater. Sorry, theatre.

Then out in Nature, Neil believes they are alone and it's his turn to ask for sex, and it's Sheila's turn to get uncomfortable, sure that someone has been tracking their movements. Neither is comfortable being "sexy" on their home turf, then. And this is a little weird true thing that surely many of us have noticed in our own lives. There is a lot going on sexually under the surface of this story -- from Neil sleeping in his parents' bed to the cross-dressing and desire he feels at watching his girlfriend basically trying to seduce her own mother. The couple in fact never has sex in the story.

The final scene brings Sheila herself closer to reintegrating with her family, as she goes off to town with her sister Hilary to do something with Hilary's "mousy hair" (note she has kept the hairdresser character in this neat detail). As they slog through the damp, verdant countryside on their way home, the author (mistakenly in my opinion) does "tell" rather than "show" her transformation: "For the first time, Sheila experienced a rush of strong feeling for her home and past." No! We get it through the action. Trust the reader. Anyway, the two girls spy Neil through the window in the vicar's study as he listens to one of their brother's records. Outside the earth is choking itself on humid country imagery of decay, with "dead weeds" and "water seeping" into their socks; "the silky seed heads of flowers and swollen blackened pods, slashed down by wind and rain, lay dissolving in the earth." Hilary begins chucking rotten apples at the window to annoy Neil, and Sheila joins in, and this is the last image: Neil, in their father's study, separated more than ever from everyone, "a stranger" now, being pelted by rotted fruit. (Note to Ms. Hadley: Should be plums.) And the final image echoes the first one: Neil being assaulted by intruding, wet, messy Nature. In Birmingham, he was able to take shelter from the elements in his mother's bed -- in Suffolk he is trapped and isolated as Sheila and her sister join Mother Earth in trying to get access to him.

As for their relationship, it seems rockier at the end than at the beginning. I think maybe they don't make it, that Sheila has discovered more about herself. Neil, even in the house's "inner sanctum," is only paradoxically more remote from her in the end -- is in fact an object of ridicule and mockery. The two visits have destroyed each other's illusions and highlighted what they each turn out to have valued of their own childhoods.

The main problems I had with the piece were Sheila's lack of reaction to Neil's mother's overheard disparagement of her. What did that mean for her? Did she tell Neil? It seems she didn't. Couldn't that have sharpened the divide between them, bringing more to a head -- or is Sheila's own stoicism being advanced, and we are to respect her for overlooking this petty and disappointing event? That and more Hilary -- Hilary turns out to be important in the story, as she initiates and takes part in the final action. Hilary is suddenly revealed as the missing link to Sheila's rediscovered bond with her own family. Would have been nice to have a bit more of her earlier, so we have an even better idea what her imagistic combination with Sheila means for the story. And Hilary's strong ending presence reminded me that we know little of Neil's sister Chris, who'd be another chance at contrast -- but maybe the story is complicated enough as it is.

I like that the author basically takes some archetypes/cliches (Country Mouse, City Mouse, Oedipus, Wacky Rural Family, Blue-Collar icon -- he almost seems a socialist realist painting) and mixes them all up but good to see what happens. I think the story does a lot of things right in terms of foregrounding the action and playing visually and physically off the sharp differences between the families. There is a great deal of characterization of a number of people via slim but well-chosen details.

The story gained a lot from second reading. I don't know if that's good or not. Frank Conroy said you should never expect a second read, and if something comes through on a second pass that didn't on the first, it's a sign the thing isn't quite done. Then again, Frank was surely one of the greatest readers in the word, and I'm not. I can't really think of a good piece of writing that didn't get better in subsequent reads. Lots of details slip through the fingers of my brain on a first read and are put in a different sort of memory that enriches a second one. I appreciate a story like this one that pays off more than once -- I liked it better on second read. But in the end, I most admire the author's choice to tackle the subtle and maddening little habits and ruts of family life that weigh so heavily on one's preception of oneself.

(For another take on the story, check out The Marvelous Garden.)