I really liked the almost freakishly calm style of describing creepy events, and I appreciated the plain cleanliness of that style. This was a book all about character and story -- no fancy stuff, as Frank would say. I thought it was cool how the three storylines ever so gradually approached each other, and I thought even more of Chaon when I read later in an interview that at first he had no idea how the stories were connected, that they began as images, and he just followed them all, trusting that his subconscious would do the work, until he figured it all out toward the end of the writing (and as his wife was dying).
Miles was the most attractive to me in his self-conscious but helpless obsession, and Hayden was all the more vivid for appearing off-page (or apparently so) for so long. And I sympathized with Lucy in her better-than-it-was-but-wtf attitude. Looked forward to her sections, and my favorite part of the book was her feeling her way through Africa. I didn't care for Ryan for some reason. He was too weak for me -- weak in an annoying way, as opposed to Miles' endearing weakness.
That said -- and I'm quoting now from someone's comments on a workshop story of mine -- I'm not sure what it all added up to. What was my "takeaway," what did it reveal about human nature? Nothing I hadn't already thought about. What surprised me? Not a lot. I must have picked up the exact right clues along the way, and I'm usually not that good at solving mysteries. What did it teach me about writing? It reinforced "trust the reader" by being so spare but so precise in detail. And it demonstrated that atmosphere and background really do color a book -- his descriptions of landscapes (especially Nebraska), I thought, were effective and truly enhanced whatever mood was on offer at the time. But the book hasn't stayed with me that much. I haven't found myself re-caught in its language or visuals, as happens with a lot of other books. And here's my test: If someone asked whether I'd recommend it, I see myself shrugging...
(I'm happy to slow down the discussion, too: I was chomping at the bit too much last time, I'm afraid. Too excited to talk to adults! About books! What fun!)
New 'Noveller' Allows People To Post Novels They Write During Course Of Their Day
SAN FRANCISCO—Noveller, the online macroblogging service that lets users post their impromptu narrative ruminations on modern life, society, and the nature of existence itself, celebrated its millionth post late last week, officially making it the world's most popular prose-sharing tool.
A Noveller user "novels" out his latest thoughts on the inherent frailty of man.
Social media experts said they're not surprised so many people have subscribed to the exciting new site, as it's the only online service in which users can post a major multivolume epic in the morning, and have it read, critiqued, and reNovelled by thousands of other people around the world before lunch.
"You know, before we came up with Noveller, we had all these friends creating these great 75,000- to 300,000-word works of fiction, but there was no quick, easy, fun way to share them," cofounder Chuck Gregory said. "To be honest, we were stunned there wasn't already anything like it out there. It seemed so obvious"
At 10 a.m. Pacific time on Mar. 13, Gregory and his team of programmers launched Noveller. By 10:03 a.m., the first-ever Noveller post—a primitive but vigorous account of an insurance salesman who becomes obsessed with his father's boyhood on a Philippines naval base—was put up by user johnnyK_67.
Within an hour, more than 300 user-generated "Novels" had been posted.
"I love it," said Sheena Wulf, a Novellist from Kansas City, MO. "If I'm ever sitting in a coffee shop and my sense of alienation and utter detachment from contemporary life provides me with sudden insight into the world that helped shape my family, I just grab my phone and Novel it out to people."
These days it seems as though everyone is constantly checking to see which of their friends came of age in a tenuous time and discovered their mentors and role models were not who they thought they were.
Added Wulf, "It's so simple."
Just months after its release, Noveller has become a cultural touchstone, despite countless jibes from critics who claim it has broken no new literary ground and oversimplifies the narrative form. Those who Novel on a daily basis claim to love the challenge of the utility's 140-page minimum, and popular Novellists such as TheRealJayDeeSalinger, no_i_am_not_thomas_pynchon, and aplusk soon boasted hundreds of thousands of followers.
"It makes me wonder how I ever kept track of my friends and their symbolic prose examinations of universal human experiences before this," user Joyce Carol Oates said. "I'm like, did we really ever actually go to libraries? Weird, right?"
But not everyone is so taken with the intricate-social-allegory-networking tool. In July, a University of Iowa graduate student died in a car accident while Novelling and driving, and Time magazine's "Death of the Noveller?" cover story last month cast doubts on the medium's long-term prospects.
"Nobody wants to go to their computer and read about what you had for breakfast and how it called to mind your boyhood, which morphed into a meditation on the relationship between life and art and, by extension, a metaphor for all social interaction," said Sam Alger, 24, who claimed to be "disgusted" by his friends' constant Novelling. "But some of them, it's all they do. It's like no one just talks to you for hours and hours on end any more."
"We get it: It's not just your story, but through its striving to explore basic human commonalities, it's everyone's story," Houston gas station manager Angie Ordway said. "That doesn't mean I want to go through hundreds of them whenever I open my phone."
Some, however, like MIT computer networking expert Rod Baines, argues that Noveller, which has been growing at a rate of roughly 10,000 users a day since its introduction, seems to have tapped into a previously undiscovered human need to take one's thoughts and feelings and transmute them into full-length narratives for hundreds or thousands of others to instantly see.
"I think everyone has at least one Noveller post in them," said Baines, who noted that he had just posted a sprawling, nuanced, multigenerational family saga while shopping that afternoon. "And half the fun is just following other people's Novels. Of course, that can become a problem if your employer ever finds out that he figures heavily in your satirical roman à clef."
"I've got to be especially careful," Baines added. "Mom follows my Noveller posts, and she just hates my use of the second person."
Impressions after 19 pages are entirely negative. But I'm admittedly quick to dislike things, and I hope the book improves and also that you'll all steer me right.
-- the narrator is to this point dull, even dumb. The scene with the gun is an easy example, but his melodramatic pauses during conversations (some version of "I don't immediately answer" happens five times in three pages) are forced and annoying. Maybe he's a well-informed idiot like many Nabokov characters, which I'm hoping for, but so far the portrayal seems sincere, lacking irony. I'm worried.
-- the 'hook' is melodramatic . . . but at least it's dramatic. There's not much tension anywhere else, sadly: I'm waiting to see what happens with the hook: that's it: after 19 pages. No character development, either. Rachel is a complete blank. And I've discussed my feelings about the narrator.
-- the research about cricket is shoe-horned in and the speech about the civility of cricket rings false (somewhat the giving of the speech, but absolutely the reception. No one snickers?). ((Edit: I looked again and people do laugh. I can't tell if they're laughing 'with' or 'against' him, though. Clarity, Joe.))
-- the structure is clunky without any yield that I can see (a quick brief flashback within the larger flashback seems entirely unnecessary).
--the prose has enough vague evocations and lapses that I distrust the author. Two examples:
1. " . . . I find it hard to rid myself of the feeling that life carries a taint of aftermath." (That just makes me cringe -- not only 'taint,' but the vagueness is so blah. We're supposed to be interested in a guy who talks like this? Ugh.)
2. And this exchange:
"Oh," I say, "I'm sure I've told you about him. A cricket guy I used to know. A guy from Brooklyn."
She repeats after me, "Chuck Ramkissoon?"
(Um . . . maybe I need to look up 'repeat'?)
Yeah, I'm being nitpicky but just for spiteful fun. I'll keep going with the novel. Disagreement and revelations about my stupidity/impatience are entirely welcome and even hoped for.
I cast my glance at Facebook. It's much better than blogging in most ways. But it's more public than this niche here, and I'd never want to get rid of this, but it seems most people have moved on, away, to different sectors of life, as I have myself. What to do? Not everyone is on Facebook. Is it re-Balkanization?
Where did the conversation go? What's happening, as Dr Thompson wrote -- what's going on?
Duffy (welsh girl)
Real xt oolestate ideas
Email re Ohio River
Songs to record
techno drone drums
Fame - good one
All my loving
Dad: shoes smelled says thinks leather came off a cows rear end, and only thing wrong with Montana is it's full of bad people
Creation by franco ferruci the life of god as told to himself autobiography of god (_____ recommended)
Search yt for robin williams scottish golf
Rewrite ball of string story ending shortly after cop arrives
A vitamin with an ego
How do you entertain a blind man, a zombie that has to be cheerful [quoting Bill, who is blind. -- Ed.]
Every time I lie to you I really mean it
Bus 48 to barentzplein, van diemenstraat 50
Short story: the nap
Fleet foxes and grizzly bear
Crying underwater - a funny notion
I have much to say about this attention span issue but I'll save it for another time.
For another, something about the violence didn't bother me. I find myself more disturbed by film violence nowadays, but this -- gory as it was -- was sufficiently cartoony to never let me forget I was watching a Hollywood film. Compare to violence in The Hurt Locker, for example -- there I winced. In IB I was cheering.
Third, Christoph Waltz is going to be a big star in this country now. I hope he wins an Oscar. The Nazis in general were really well done. The Frankfurt Allegemaine said the portrayal of Nazis was spot on: "...as the pompous trash they were." A German friend of mine loved it, but thinks the German-dubbed version in Germany won't translate as well. She saw it in Holland, where they just subtitle.
After Grindhouse, I wasn't sure what to expect from Tarantino. Would he continue down the road of parody to self-parody? Thankfully the answer seems to be no. This is a mature effort and a thrilling piece of filmmaking.
Can't be much argument that that's the best book promotion there ever was. If you're of a mind, have a look at this Simpsons. It's the same voice, different accent.
Has anyone ever played it better than Pynchon? "That's with the seeds and stems o' course..." Give me a fucking break. Classic.
Favorite line: Mister X looks like Le Corbusier on crack.
By the way, you'll see in the review a lengthy description of the collection's opening story, which should be recognizable--at least in the abstract--to anybody who was at the special workshop held by Jim Shepard during the WW director search. Very fond memories of Shepard getting deep into the POV of that party!
Amazon Secretly Removes "1984" From the Kindle
By Annalee Newitz
Thousands of people last week discovered that Amazon had quietly removed electronic copies of George Orwell's 1984 from their Kindle e-book readers. In the process, Amazon revealed how easy censorship will be in the Kindle age.
In this case, the mass e-book removals were motivated by copyright . A company called MobileReference, who did not own the copyrights to the books 1984 and Animal Farm, uploaded both books to the Kindle store and started selling them. When the rights owner heard about this, they contacted Amazon and asked that the e-books be removed. And Amazon decided to erase them not just from the store, but from all the Kindles where they'd been downloaded. Amazon operators used the Kindle wireless network, called WhisperNet, to quietly delete the books from people's devices and refund them the money they'd paid.
An uproar followed, with outraged customers pointing out the irony that Amazon was deleting copies of a novel about a fascist media state that constantly alters history by changing digital records of what has happened. Amazon's action flies in the face of what people expect when they purchase a book. Under the "right of first sale" in the U.S., people can do whatever they like with a book after purchasing it, including giving it to a friend or reselling it. There is no option for a bookseller to take that book back once it's sold.
Apparently, until last week, Amazon claimed it wouldn't take back purchased books either: The New York Times' Brad Stone reports:
Amazon's published terms of service agreement for the Kindle does not appear to give the company the right to delete purchases after they have been made. It says Amazon grants customers the right to keep a "permanent copy of the applicable digital content."
But this isn't the first time there has been a problem with secret deletings. Stone adds:
Amazon appears to have deleted other purchased e-books from Kindles recently. Customers commenting on Web forums reported the disappearance of digital editions of the Harry Potter books and the novels of Ayn Rand over similar issues.
Now that the public is up in arms over the Kindle deletions, Amazon is once again promising good behavior. Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener told reporters:
We are changing our systems so that in the future we will not remove books from customers' devices in these circumstances.
That "in these circumstances" bit doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. Sounds like books will be removed again under other (undefined) circumstances.
Regardless of whether you believe Amazon's promise to leave your Kindle alone, the company has tipped its hand and shown us the dark side of a culture where books are only available in electronic form. If the WhisperNet service from Kindle allows the company to delete books silently from your device, what other information might they have access to? Can the company monitor what you're reading and when - and then hand that over to law enforcement? Can it replace a book file with a different file whose content is changed?
Perhaps more than anything else, this mass deletion of 1984 has made it clear that collecting e-books is going to require some technical know-how. No e-book is truly yours unless you can get it off your Kindle and onto your computer - hopefully a computer that isn't connected to the internet.
Also reading and not particularly enjoying: Penelope Lively's The Blue Flower, given to me by the same friend who introduced me to Perdido Street Station and Little, Big, both excellent, so perhaps I can be forgiven not understanding the hype over this one, though it could just be my general distaste for historical fiction; Zoe Heller's The Believers, filled with some intensely unlikeable characters, something that somehow worked in The Corrections but doesn't fly all that well otherwise (though, to be fair, I did like What Was She Thinking? (Notes on a Scandal), even though the narrator in that one was clearly batshit crazy).
Next up: The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has been so universally praised that I'm hoping it will jar me out of this streak of negativity. Onward!
Now that I have an ipod touch, I find that I read on it all the time and with much greater ease than I do on an actual computer. Using Instapaper, I read more fiction-- and longer articles--from the internet than I ever did without it. The urge to skim is gone. I don't feel my attention being pulled to another browser tab. The fundamental difference is both unexpected and physical. It doesn't seem to be a matter of screen size so much as my ability to hold the device in my hand and twist and turn with it like it is an actual book. The architecture of the ipod itself helps too, the way it eschews multitasking. You can do a lot with this little guy but you can't do it all at once. Really, that's what I love about it.
Are readers the petty snobs Wolcott suggests we are? Probably yes and no, but I'm glad to see the e/book debate moving away from stark grandiosity and into the tangible and banal. That's ultimately where it will reside for each reader, isn't it? Once the novelty and fear of e-books have worn off these decisions won't be so freighted and we'll all make them in private moments for reasons under no obligation to be articulated--or even articulable. As a prognosticator and a librarian, my sense is that this will make for a messy and uneven reality of practice, in which both technologies more or less coexist without incident or even much heady symbolism. But what do I know? They say people always overestimate the impact of a technology in its early period and underestimate it by the time it has managed full adoption.
ps-hey, guess what? A and I just moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where, as of next week, I'll be the English librarian at a university here. Seems like a good town. People sit on their front porches and the pizza is surprisingly good. Come visit when you can.
In the meantime, I have some reading to do. I was pretty excited about Remainder because I have one friend who loves it and is bff with the author (who's a bit of an odd duck, from what I can tell), and another friend who loathed it with every tasty oatbran fiber of her being. Exciting! Plus there's Zadie Smith's article on the two paths for the novel, one of which (Joseph O'Neill's Netherland) I wasn't crazy about, which begs the question of whether I'd have any interest in the other path. Add to that the extremely mixed reactions over at the Tournament of Books, which I always enjoy, and you've got to figure you're in for something unusual.
And it turns out "unusual" works pretty well as a descriptor here. This is definitely not a Workshop-friendly type of read--the characters are made out of the thinnest cardboard, with the main character nameless and the only other real person of interest described only in terms of the whirring of the gears in his brain. Our narrator has been struck down by some sort of airborne technological detritus, which has left him unable to remember how to do even the most basic things, but which has also left him with a giant cash settlement as long as he never tells anyone what happened. Not a hard deal to accept given that he can't remember anything in the first place. After a misleading blip where he seems to be trying to use the money for good (charity) or evil (hookers and blow), he settles on using it to recreate settings that interest him--first an apartment building filled with residents who do things like practice piano and cook liver, and then the scenes of accidents that happened nearby.
If this all sounds a bit plot-free, rest assured, it mostly is. It's also quite readable, which I wasn't really expecting but which was a pleasant surprise. With that said, though, while I enjoy a novel of ideas as much as the next girl, I'm not quite convinced that the ideas we're dealing with here elevated the book enough to make up for the fact that it's basically impossible to get invested in the characters (and thus the situation). And if you're someone who reads for the pleasure of getting to know the people in the book, you're probably going to want to throw the book at the wall. I look forward to hearing if anyone actually did.
And here, just to give a sense of the plan, I'll start early. I just finished Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances, which I found very readable and intelligent but somewhat unsatisfying. It's about a man who believes, upon his wife's return home one day, that she's actually been replaced by a simulacrum of herself. Though the phrase "Capgras syndrome" is never mentioned, anyone who's read Richard Powers's The Echo Maker will likely call it to mind. Given that the main character is a psychiatrist (and therefore a medical doctor), the missing term looms a bit too large for my taste, though I'd be curious to hear what others think, if anyone's read it. (And I do recommend the Powers--really enjoyed it.)
Perfection implies fidelity to a pre-existing template. Formalism. I think with Munro the template is one largely of her own invention or, at least, stylization. It's hers, but we can recognize it from a mile away. Sometimes, also, "perfect" describes a nakedness of technical prowess, perhaps even of such impressive proportions that it eclipses emotional response. We admire perfection, but do we love it? In neither way is "perfect" a word that makes me want to read something (maybe a rhetorical text, but not a fiction.)
What does perfect mean when we're discussing Munro? Because I guess I can admit that I don't have as much love as I have admiration for this writer. Of the later, I have copious amounts. I don't want to understate that and thus invite misunderstanding. I think she's one of a kind, and she deserves all the laurels she gets. But I read her dutifully and without craving. Of course it's never very long before I'm engrossed and wondering why I don't read more Munro. But it never quite hits me where I live. As they say.
Should perfection be something fiction aspires to?
Does perfect fiction suggest one of those problematic but often fruitful conflations of a subjective model for a universal one? There's no subjectivity like the one so passionately experienced, so eager to be manifest for others, as the one that believes it is universal.
But whom should we vote for?
1. European People's Party (aligned with no. 6)
2. European Social Democrats (aligned with no. 4)
3. European Liberal Democrats (aligned with no. 7)
4. Green Left
5. Socialist Party
6. Christian Union
7. Democratic 66
9. Europe Affordable and Durable
11. Party for the Animals
12. European Whistleblowers Party (literally: "Loud Bell Clapping")
13. The Greens
14. Party For Freedom
15. Liberal Democratic Party
16. Party for European Politics
* Valid ID required
* Your ballot, which is coming in the mail, will contain your voting location. If you prefer to vote somewhere else in the city, you can do that.
* Voting is between 7:30 a.m. and 9 p.m.
Can you give us some background on how the novel got started and how long you worked on it?
It started with a very vague idea to write something about the Panama Canal. It's probably the most salient association many people have with Panama, and I was interested in telling the story of it from a perspective that's underrepresented in most historical accounts of its construction -- that of the West Indian laborers who were brought in by the boatloads to do the dangerous and messy work of building the thing and of the Panamanians whose country it irrevocably changed and has consequently defined.
So I started down that path and had written about 300 pages when it was brought to my attention (by my editor) that perhaps there was a better way to tell the story. I was writing in third-person, with a huge cast of characters, and she thought that maybe one of those characters -- Mira -- should tell the story. As heartbroken as I was to have to throw out 300 pages of work, I suspected maybe my editor was right. I'd always had the feeling the something was off in the first version. So I told my editor I'd give it 50 pages and see if having Mira as the narrator felt any better. Of course, as soon as I shifted the point of view, the entire story changed. Some of the stuff about the canal is still in the book, but it became Mira's story, which soon enveloped me in its own way.
From that first failed start until the end, I was working on the book for
about four years.
How was writing a novel different from writing stories?
The main challenge for me was this idea that I could never see the novel as a whole. I couldn't wrap my head around something so large and unwieldy. With stories, I have a fairly strong handle on what it is by the time I finish a first draft, but that was never the case as I worked on the novel. I¹m always aiming for a finished piece that feels spherical, and I rely a lot on that sense of shape to tell me whether something is done and whether its successful. Because I never felt like I could see the whole of the novel all at once, I never felt like I could accurately ascertain the shape of it. I had to rely much more on outside readers to tell me whether it all made sense from beginning to end because I just lost sight of it at some point.
It's kind of hard to talk about your book without spoilers, but your protagonist goes to Panama looking for her father and finds something -- a few things -- other than what she was expecting. How did you decide what would happen -- I mean, did you know the whole time, or did the solution emerge somehow more or less on its own?
The solutions emerged as I wrote. Generally speaking, I'm a very practical writer. I don't subscribe to the idea of Writing As Mystical Experience. But at the risk of sounding hokey, I do often find that the story leads me more than I lead the story. Characters say things I didn't expect them to say, they change the course of the action, they respond to a question and something in their response suggests a whole character trait that then, as the author, I want to track down and come up with back story for and everything spins outward and outward. For me, that's how I HAVE to write. The less I know in advance, the better the writing, the more natural the plot. So I tried -- I always try -- to know as little as I could when I sat down each day. Or even when I thought I knew which direction I was headed, to be willing to deviate from the plan. That's more or less how I operated throughout. Naturally, because it was a novel, I had to work ahead a least a little bit, but for the first draft I tried just to follow the story for the most part and to deal with the sense-making/fine-tuning/does-everything-match-up stuff in revision.
The character of Danilo felt especially real to me. Did you make him up whole cloth, or is he based on someone you met, or did certain Panamanians or national characteristics coalesce into him, or...?
I saw a photo years and years ago of a boy whose expression had always intrigued me. I mean, I just saw it randomly on a website or something. But I saved it as inspiration for a character one day. So I think, physically at least, I had that boy in mind when I was writing Danilo. But otherwise, he's entirely invented.
Your father's family lives in Panama. How often do you visit and do you speak Spanish down there?
I visit every year on average. The last time I was there was in February. I speak Spanish when I have to (meaning, when I'm not near anyone who can translate for me) and I can make myself understood. But I'm SO self-conscious about my Spanish and so crippled by the expectation that I SHOULD be able to speak it, that I tend to withdraw and not practice it as much as I could while I'm there.
Your book strikes me as essentially about communication -- what it conveys, how the simple presence of information changes people, what is lost when it is blocked or hidden. This theme occurs both in the uncovered secret that ends up changing Mira's life, but also in the opposite way with her mother, whose Alzheimer's is systematically stripping her of information. Did you consciously set that up -- that Mira's mother, who hid information from Mira, would be herself "punished" by a disease that does the same thing to her?
I would love to say I set it up that way from the start. That would make me seem very clever. But no, it was more a case of having those two elements in the book and then seeing much later how they related to each other and deepened the themes of the book. I had a teacher once who said that the goal of writing was to bring the unconscious to consciousness. And that's exactly how it works much of the time. I'm just writing, writing, writing and I don't necessarily know on first glance why I'm throwing in the things I am. It's not until I step back and look at it that I can start to suss out the ways my unconscious was doing work for me -- in magical, amazing ways that my conscious mind probably never could -- and then I can start drawing all of that to the surface and making connections more explicit and shaping the narrative in response to what's already there.
You've said you looked at your Panamanian stories and your American stories and realized your Panamanian ones were better. Better in what way, and why do you think that was so?
I've been thinking and thinking about this question, and I'm still not sure about the answer. I think I just found that the stories set in Panama were truer in some way. To break that down even further, I think they were more personal. I was writing about something closer to my heart than than anything I had written before, and that showed. I also think that a lot of the "American" fiction I was writing was terribly derivative. I was trying to imitate the writers I loved -- George Saunders, Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme -- even though each of them is of course inimitable. But when I started writing the Panama stories, that felt like untreaded terrain. Those stories were mine. I stopped imitating and just wrote.
You recently complete a book tour. How was it? Where did you go? Did you get a good reception? What's happening out there in the world of readers?
I started off in Little Rock at the Arkansas Literary Festival, where I met some great authors (including Kevin Brockmeier -- Iowa represent!) and had a lot of fun. Then I was off to Seattle for two readings, then to Austin, Houston, New York City, and finally I did a reading in Dallas. I love to tour because friends I haven't seen in ages come out and say hello, and also because it reminds me how many people out there are honestly interested in reading. People get very excited to have a book signed or to ask questions about characters they've fallen in love with, and that's so, so heartening to see.
Are you using social media to promote your work? What are you doing in that arena and how is it working for you?
I'm on Facebook (become my fan!) and Goodreads. Facebook in particular has been great for spreading the word. Book sales are largely generated by word-of-mouth, and buzz has the potential to spread quickly online. It seems to be very useful in getting people out to events, too, which is great. And, you know, beyond that it gives me an easy way to bug everybody from time to time about what I'm up to writing-wise or to remind them that they should buy my book for their entire family at Christmas.
How is Ryan? How is Sofia? How is Chicago?
Great, great, and finally warm -- hooray!
What's next? I've heard you're already working on another novel. Have you put short story writing on the back burner?
I am working on something that feels novel-ish, but it's so early that it's entirely possible it will fall apart. I've been working on stories, too. I've written two in the past few months and for me, there's just nothing like it. I adore short stories. I will never give them up entirely. But longer work seems to have wormed its way into my system as well.
See the previous Earth Goat interview with Cristina.
SAY YOU’RE ONE OF THEM
When his mother asked her young son, Uwem Akpan, to write a play for her to be performed at the Parish Mothers’ Day event, he wrote a script and got a cast together. But after practising for a week, he got cold feet.
“I lost my liver, as they say, and disappeared. The play didn’t happen.”
Since then, the 37-year-old Nigerian writer and Jesuit priest has come a long way.
In the summer of 2005, the prestigious American magazine, the New Yorker, published his short story, “An Ex-mas Feast”, in its debut fiction issue. This was the first story he had ever submitted for publication in the United States. A year later, a second story, “My Parent’s Bedroom”, appeared in the New Yorker and was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing.
Realist, tense, without apology, Uwem Akpan’s fiction is alarming. In his new book, Say You’re One of Them, he looks through children’s eyes at a modern Africa in crisis on many levels. The three short stories and two novellas that make up the collection are set in six countries—Kenya, Benin, Gabon, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Rwanda—and cover issues as dark and diverse as child trafficking, religious violence and genocide.
In the tightly strung novella, “Luxurious Hearses,” a Nigerian teenager tries to hide his mixed Christian/Muslim identity as he waits to travel south with a busload of Christians fleeing religious persecution in the North.
Before reading this story I, like many outside of Nigeria, had a fairly fuzzy notion about the conflict between Northern and Southern Nigeria. I knew it had to do with religion. I’d heard the news reports about Sharia law and the woman who was sentenced to be stoned to death. I suppose I cared in the way that you feel you should care about other people’s suffering. But all the same, I was only distantly aware, theoretically sympathetic. It was not difficult to shrug off, like flicking a fly off my forearm.
And then I met Jubril. Or Gabriel, depending on whether you are a Muslim extremist or a fanatical Christian. A young protagonist caught in the inter-religious conflict of the early Nigerian democracy, baptised a Christian by his father in the south but brought up as a Muslim in the northern town of Khamfi, he is a complex and flawed character.
And now that I’ve sat with Jubril for a few hours (I read slowly), I have a far greater understanding of the many-layered potent mix of history, religion, poverty, corruption, greed, fear and power, that can boil up into violence. I don’t feel like I’ve learnt such a thing from reading a book in a long time. This is the power of Akpan’s writing—to slide you so snugly into someone’s shoes that you can get as close to sharing their experience as possible. You may just recognise the human side of such inhuman circumstances.
It was well after I’d read through the collection that I realised these are stories about child prostitutes, glue sniffing babies, religious zealots, abusive mothers, murderer husbands, child-trafficking uncles, prejudiced parents and child soldiers. Akpan’s characters are some of the least socially acceptable people in the world.
This was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian. Despite the post-1957 explosion of theoretical linguistics, Elements settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public, and the subject was stuck in the doldrums for the rest of the 20th century.Pullum, in a similar rant on the Language Log blog, also called the cherished little chest of chestnuts
"...a horrid little compendium of unmotivated prejudices (don't use ongoing), arbitrary stipulations (don't begin a sentence with however), and fatuous advice ("Be clear"), ridiculously out of date in its positions on appropriate choices among grammatical variants, deeply suspect in its style advice and grotesquely wrong in most of the grammatical advice it gives.... One of the things that worries me about the number of Americans who seem to treasure this little piece of trash, now in its fourth edition ... is that they just don't realize how absurdly old it is — that it is pretty much not even a work of the last century, but rather reflects ideas formed in the one before that.Problem is, unlike most languages, English is officially unregulated and largely free floating. People are awkward and defensive about English because they don't really know the rules of English grammar -- because what are they? Who are the authorities? Strunk & White's Elements of Style became a raft one could cling to, but it's obviously time for an updated little grammar book for the 21st century. Whoever writes that book will be gleefully allowing split infinitives all the way to the bank.
And this, I can't resist (from Language Log rant):
Strunk had been born in 1869. That is, he was old enough to read the news when General Custer led his men to massacre at the Little Big Horn. Strunk was a grownup with a Ph.D. when Dracula was first published. By the time White was his student and had to buy the privately published precursor of what would become Strunk & White, the professor had reached the age of 50. It was 1919.
It's no wonder Strunk's view about a phrase like everyone in the community, whether they are a member of the Association or not was that it should be "corrected" to everyone in the community, whether he is a member of the Association or not: women still didn't have the vote in America, so who would care if this sort of use of he excluded them. Prohibition was newly adopted; the Model T Ford was on sale; the Treay of Versailles was being readied for signature to formally end the First World War.
But what I'm saying about the extreme age of the outdated nonsense in Strunk & White can perhaps best be put like this: White's formative experience in Strunk's class was so long ago that the Red Sox had just won the World Series the year before.
For Windows users there's DarkRoom, (and WriteMonkey -- thanks to commenter Josips, I now prefer WriteMonkey) and for Mac-heads there's WriteRoom. The downloads are free, or at least DarkRoom was.
They do nothing but clear your screen of everything except your text -- they turn your computer into basically a typewriter. I'm pretty sure I've at least doubled the amount of time I write at a stretch using DarkRoom. For example, an hour and a half just went by as I wrote my novel, and it never even occurred to me to dick around online, because I could see nothing onscreen but my novel, which kept drawing me in, in, in.
"The Cradle"is pretty damn great. It's been reviewed ecstatically, and just about everywhere. And by everywhere, I mean here and here.
But maybe I also mean it literally, too!
There are more but you get the idea. A guy can only do so much cutting and pasting in the morning.
It was the concept of doublethink that struck the hardest blow -- a sudden horrible shock of recognition. Doublethink in the novel is:
The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.... To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies — all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.If I am honest I have to admit that I am guilty of doublethink, that in my mind I hold two contradictory beliefs, that I tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, and that I keep the lie one step ahead of the truth. I have become irrational.
On the one hand, I supported Obama for any number of reasons from the very early days, watched his ascent to power with fascination and, frankly, awe -- as if he really was something of a superhero come to earth. In the primaries I was relentless in my Obamania, and in the general election I was wracked with an excruciating mixture of fear and hope for months and months. When he won the election, I had a kind of spiritual orgasm. Tracy and I retired to the couch for more or less 24 hours, watching YouTube clips of election highlights, playing our favorite joyful songs, and shaking radiant, gratified faces at each other in disbelief. Once inaugurated, I was happy with early announcements: phased withdrawal from Iraq, banning torture, no more using the phrase "War on Terror," funding stem cell research, bold stimulus to invest in green clean energy, health care, green transportation, etc. etc.
On the other hand, when I look at my country, when I look into my heart, I see that the US and the whole post-industrial world truly is a capitalist oligarchy, ruled by small elite groups for their own enrichment. The US political system is cleverly rigged, the economy is clearly aimed at pouring almost all of the wealth upwards, and the two-party system is there to simulate a minimal amount of "debate," staged by the handful of conglomerate media companies, that is largely limited to issues of importance to the ruling class. The two parties stifle any and all rivals and use extremely sophisticated coded media language to communicate to their followers. The system has now perfected the art of reaching just the right people with just the right language to support the elite's two chosen candidates. Congress is hardly better, with both houses bursting with millionaires -- and the rest with incomes and tangled connections of influence and power beyond the reach, and probably even the imagination, of most ordinary people.
The two concepts are entirely irreconcilable. To simultaneously understand that Obama has drawn almost his entire administration from the same elite roster as Bush -- and to dismiss my previous concerns about those people in hope that somehow they will get things right this time -- that is doublethink. To watch Obama deal with the financial crisis by plucking people from the the Wall Street titans, the self-described Masters of the Universe, and placing them in charge of "fixing" the very problem they created, and accepting that their solution is to immediately pay themselves and their friends absolutely colossal sums of money borrowed from future generations -- and even cheerleading this effort as unavoidable, as an unfortunate necessity -- that is doublethink. To know that President Obama is continuing to run the country for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful capitalist class and that the working and middle classes, when it's all said and done, are going to get shafted for every penny yet again -- and yet to literally beam at President Obama while he jokes around with Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes, to marvel at his intelligence and calm demeanor and sober, good-natured bearing -- that is indisputably doublethink.
I am guilty of doublethink. I am as susceptible to microtargeted PR efforts as the Fox News consumers I disdain have proven to be susceptible to the PR efforts that target them. To admit this to myself is extremely sobering and makes me head for the safety of defiant justification: What, I want Obama to fail? And anyway what choice did I have -- Mike Gravel? Wasn't the most important thing to be rid of Bush, who was overtly Orwellian, and then get on with improving things? Isn't it an achievement all by itself, sad as it is to say, to have elected a president who is well-spoken, mild in temperament, smart? And wouldn't it have been almost impossible for me to not support the first African American president, especially when he seems to be just about pretty much damned perfect in every way? And if Obama supporters abandon him, won't the Republicans just reassert control?
Those may be good questions, but they don't absolve me from needing to think rationally. Obama may be my favorite president in a long time, but that has about as much to do with justice and economic fairness as saying R.E.M. is my favorite band. The system is rotten to the core, and looking at the truly obscene debt and deficits, could well be finally past the point of no return. It's by any honest measure wildly, dangerously out of whack. At a time when the financial sector, after betting the country's future on idiotic gambles that should have been illegal, has brought the world economy to its knees, Obama is presiding over a scuffle among different factions of the wealthy regarding who will take home the biggest bags of our money, and he's billing the whole thing to the national credit card. Which is just what Bush used to do.
But even after all that ... I. Still. Love. Him. Just as after his ordeal, Winston Smith, at the end of Orwell's novel, has his ideological breakthrough: I ... love ... Big Brother. How is this possible? Because doublethink is possible. And I am guilty of it.
I don't claim to be an economist or social theorist, but I do claim to have a fairly clever head on my shoulders. Admitting my doublethink is a step away from feeling good, but it is a step toward sanity.
Now, for all I know, Castle realized he'd never finish his magnum opus and killed himself with booze and a hot shot of heroin after the commercial break (although the show looks more like a blasphemous update of "Murder, She Wrote"--God bless you, insanely murderous Cabot Cove), but from the little I saw, I realized how much this was an image of "author" I think we all want to believe at times (even if we won't admit it). Now, clearly someone wrote this show (maybe several someones), with desks full of novels and short stories that will never see the light of day (just like us), and who maybe even have fancy writer degrees (just like us). That's when I realized this show was writer porn, and that it might be just as inflationary and destructive to the literary world as the guy who told me it was a good idea to buy General Motors stock at $20 is to the economic one.
Remember when The New Yorker was running stories with pictures of the authors, and it seemed like, while the stories were fine, the main impetus behind it all was to try to get some cute people out there, laying in silk, skin heaving, freckles Photoshopped, bulges realigned and readjusted, just like those models and rock stars? OR, I saw a website with the "Literary Lions of New York!" who were just a bunch of random schlumpy book editors and what not who probably get paid slave wages and sleep in twin-size murphy beds in an apartment with a view of Fresh Kills -- but, goddamn it, they were lions! I don't need company health insurance, Aslan, you pussy! (to paraphrase the White Witch).
So, why the myth? What do we need it for? Does it encourage writers, or knock the legs out of them when the reality sets in?
Put me down as one who thought it was a bad movie. Not completely worthless, but there was a lot of bad dialogue and acting, it was too long, and it was gratuitously gruesome. And the characters felt flat to me, more there to deliver supposedly wry one-liners that came off corny too many times than to make me identify with and root for them.
Another thing that bothered me was the heavy and awkward use of baby-boomer classic songs. That has worked for films in the past, but the choices here were too over the top and I felt clubbed over the head with them. "All Along the Watchtower" (har har, get it, WATCHtower? forget it) and LC's "Hallelujah" became soundtracks to particularly irritating scenes.
No, I had not read it. I had started it and stopped.
Give yourself a clue by reading the New Yorker excerpt, which is about an IRS clerk at his desk who is so bored he has looked up the etymology of the word bore and is apparently hallucinating. It is a meditation on the empty soullessness of this daily activity -- hell, it's a foray into the very philosophy of boredom.
The whole issue was almost unbelievably meaningless and small. He thought about the word “meaning” and tried to summon up his baby’s face without looking at the photo, but all he could get was the heft of a full diaper and the plastic mobile over his crib turning in the breeze that the box fan in the doorway made. He imagined that the clock’s second hand possessed awareness and knew that it was a second hand and that its job was to go around and around inside a circle of numbers forever at the same slow, unvarying machinelike rate, going no place it hadn’t already been a million times before, and imagining the second hand was so awful it made his breath catch in his throat, and he looked quickly around to see if any of the examiners near him had heard it or were looking at him.A little flag: Hasn't the ironic/existentialist take on office meaninglessness been done? Don't we have Kafka and The Office for that?
However, now I see that the truly hilarious excerpt in Harper's last year is also an excerpt from The Pale King, and so now my excitement is revved back up. And now I will try the D. T. Max article on the story behind impending third DFW novel -- I mean, I will after I complete some work here at my desk, and I will try not to look at the clock.