Christine Schutt Florida debut novel Harcourt/A Harvest Book paperback 2004 On structure echoing content: Nothing then, nothing held its shape but blew away. (52) Dear Alice, you don’t have to tell the whole story. (79) On the structure: 4 parts with … Continue reading
Why do you refuse to admit that in poetry, as if in a mirror, I attempt to collect and to see myself, to pass through and beyond myself.
Last week, for a few days, it was doing nothing–long walks on the beach, listening to the ocean, watching the sea foam extract itself from the waves that produced it and scatter down the beach. Staring at the flower of a jellyfish, remembering being stung as a kid.
Oh, this innate bad habit of always existing in places where I do not live, or in a time which is past or is yet to come.
One week until I send in my last packet. In seven weeks I’ll be in Vermont. In a little over eight weeks, I’ll have graduated.
The memory of it would have vanished utterly had he not enclosed it in a fortress of words…
No Place on Earth by Christa Wolf (born in 1929) is a different kind of book than what I usually read. Wolf is a German author, who in this slim volume writes about the imagined meeting in June of 1804 of an unknown female poet and a famous male writer at a social gathering “for tea and conversation.” One hundred nineteen pages of almost no action and some dialogue. Mostly, it’s the back and forth of the relentless minds of these two characters, as if their minds were communing, on the subjects of life and death, the freedoms of men and women, the necessity of art:
That time should bring forth our desire, but not that which we desire most.
The repressed passions.
We are not worthy of that which we long for.
We must understand that longing needs no justification.
Although I love the way Catching Days looks on the computer, I love love love the way it looks on an iPad. If you have one (or the next time you see somebody using one, borrow it for a second), take a look.
It’s kind of weird that the blog looks different depending on what you’re looking at it. Maybe it’s like the difference between paperback and hardback. What do you think?
Structure: 618 short sections grouped into 26 chapters.
Subject: our hunger for the real as opposed to the invented.
Shields makes some strong points and shares some controversial ideas, most of which, in the real world, would require a cite. But Shields does not believe that reality–words, music–belongs to anyone. Random House forced him to credit the sections–there’s a list in the back of the book. But he begs you to cut that section out. Or at the very least not to read it.
Your uncertainty about whose words you’ve just read is not a bug but a feature.
That’s pretty cool. Of course, then there’s
- the novel is dead #327
But perhaps he’s just reading the wrong novels. Still, it’s true, as Martha Cooley wrote in “Novel Anxiety,” in The Writer’s Chronicle:
In content and form, too many novels published today fail to startle, unnerve, or exhilarate us, or to speak in fresh ways to the actual complexities of our experience.
The sense of novel-fatigue out there seems palpable to me…
Shields is FOR a blurring of the distinction between fiction and nonfiction #3. He thinks memoir is as far from real life as fiction is, and that selection is as important a process as imagination #104.
Reality Hunger is repetitive and would have been more powerful if shorter. The stronger ideas would have shined rather than been buried. Still, I’m glad I read it.
I want to explore my own damn, doomed character. I want to cut to the absolute bone. #517
~cross-posted at Contrary
Each chapter of Jennifer Egan‘s A Visit From the Goon Squad can stand alone as a story, but united, these chapters took my breath away. I got chills as I discovered yet another connection between them: Characters who age and reappear. Younger selves revealed. Shadows filled in. Events alluded to that come to pass. The language itself (Chapter 13 is called “Pure Language.)
The subject of time and what it does to us is threaded throughout Goon Squad. From Chapter 3: “Ask Me If I Care:”
Lou looks so happy, surrounded by his kids like any normal dad, that I can’t believe this Lou with us is the very same Lou.
From Chapter 5: “You (Plural):”
My questions all seem wrong: How did you get so old? Was it all at once, in a day, or did you peter out bit by bit?”
From Chapter 11: “Goodbye, My Love:”
“Let’s make sure it’s always like this.” Ted knew exactly why she’d said it…because she’d felt the passage of time.
From Chapter 13: “Pure Language:”
What he needed was to find fifty more people like him, who had stopped being themselves without realizing it.
And in that moment, the longing he’d felt for Sasha at last assumed a clear shape: Alex imagined walking into her apartment and finding himself still there—his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.
In addition to time, A Visit From the Goon Squad is also about music. The book is divided into Side A and Side B, recalling 33s and 45s. The main character, Bennie Salazar, founded the Sow’s Ear record label. In my previous post, I quoted an excerpt that mentions, in the same paragraph, Bennie and a Jets game–a subtle reference to Elton John’s song.
Chapter 12 is Alison’s (the daughter of Sasha who worked for Bennie) power point presentation on “Great Rock and Roll Pauses.” This 75-page slide show is stunning in its juxtaposition of word restraint and emotional impact.
In addition to the surface, there’s below the surface, before the surface, after… From Chapter 6: “X’s and O’s:”
I’d said something literally, yes, but underneath that I’d said something else: we were both a couple of asswipes, and now only I’m an asswipe; why? And underneath that, something else: once and asswipe, always an asswipe. And deepest of all: You were the one chasing. But she picked me.
E. M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “Music … does offer in its final expression a type of beauty which fiction might achieve in its own way … and when we have finished does not every item…lead a larger existence than was possible at the time?”
*cross-posted at The Contrary Blog
In the past week, several different readers have commented that either they didn’t know there was a list of all the writers in the How We Spend Our Days series or that they didn’t know what I was talking about when I said an article was mentioned on the Updates page. So put your feet up and enjoy the Delta Rhythm Boys as you read about the 4 blog bones: the header with tabs is connected to the blog feed is connected to the right sidebar is connected to the footer….Did you know there are…
9 tabs currently on the header: home, about me, about blog, how we spend our days, my writing, reading list, literary journals, update, and click here. Sometimes you might notice a new tab that corresponds to a new interest or current obsession. If you hold your cursor over a tab on the header–for example, on tab #4 How We Spend Our Days, you’ll see that you have options to click on 1) how we spend our days, 2) past writers in the series, or 3) next writer in the series. Each one of these is a separate page.
Home is the feed of posts with the most current one at the top. About me and about blog –obvious : )
How We Spend Our Days is the feed of all the posts in this series that posts on the first of the month. On the past writers page, there’s a complete list in chronological order of all the writers in this series. On the 8th of each month, I announce the next writer in the series on that page.
My writing is updated as something new is published. You can either see all categories at one go on the first page or go straight to the essays page, for example.
The reading list tab shows the on-going list of the books I’ve read, starting back in January of 2008, with links to a post if I’ve written one about the book. There’s also a page that shows the book I’m currently reading.
There are four pages for literary journals: general, current, some cool covers, and the One Story thank you to my commenters page. I update these pages when I have a free minute.
On the Update page, I list interesting articles about writing or the writers who’ve appeared on the blog, or new writers I’m interested in. I often list awards. This is an informational page, and you can tell just from the tab the last time I’ve updated it.
Finally, the click here page, which is the list of blogs I like to read. I’m also trying something new at the moment, which is to feature one of my favorite blogs for a month, hoping that you have time to visit that site.
On the footer, which is at the bottom of the blog feed, I have a few little odds and ends, such as a link to Facebook.
On the right sidebar, there’s the calendar that highlights the days I’ve posted. You can also hit the arrows and go to past months. Then a brief description of the blog, lists of my most recent writing on the web, a list of some of my and your favorite posts, another place to see what book I’m currently reading, blog stats, my most recent tweets (and how to find me on twitter), the very important SEARCH BOX in case you want to find out if I’ve ever posted on a book you’re thinking about reading or a writer you’d like to know more about. Then the list of categories, which is TOO LONG. I know. My next project. But even though I’ve only written two posts on William Faulkner, how can I not have his name there??? And finally, yes finally, the archives, where you can click on a month to see the posts from way back then.
So there you go. Have fun and thanks for reading!
Names and dates in uneven scrawl. White paint against dark wood. The shed is Chalet A–the insides hollowed out to make room for rakes and saws, park signs and four wheelers.
Kim was here. Becky Howe was here. I remember her. Connie Bryan in 1965. If you want to find out about the summer of ’66, write to Mary Torras, Valley Road, New Canaan, CT. Leslie 1970. Nicole Browning I remember from 1970. Rose was here in 1971. Sandy in 1962. Sally Smith in 1966. Ceci Blewer in ’68. Vee Vee was here. Heather in 1973.
This discovery fills a part of the empty box I brought along today, letting me know that part of the reason I return is to find proof that I was in fact here, that what I remember is not just in my head, not just a dream I had, but something I can touch. And here it’s made of paint and wood—words that persist.
I am part of this place. This place is part of who I am.
I’m beginning to see a pattern. Another place that holds part of me is what used to be my grandparent’s house in Mobile, Alabama. I’ve returned there once as an adult and written this story about it.
I will write more on Saturday…3rd post in 4-part series on Ecole Champlain: Part 1: places that call us back Part 2: hoping to discover Part 3: proof Part 4: writing my way there
I’ve always wanted to like yoga. I tried Pilates–for two years. I wanted to be more connected to my body. Surely this would make me a better writer.
Today I’m going to CORE, a studio in the recently renovated and very cool White Provisions Building in Westside Atlanta. Outside its large rectangular windows, trains pass slowly. This will be the last 4 hours of a 24-hour pre-training course in the gyrotonic expansion system.
I stumbled onto gyrotonics by accident. Every January I try to visit a spa. In 2009, instead of choosing what I wanted to do while I was there, I asked the two women at the desk the name of the best trainer. Paul, they both said. I showed up the next morning, and Paul began talking as we walked past the machines and the free weights.
As I wrote in The View From Here, gyrotonics
makes sense to me. Most of the movements are circular and three-dimensional—like life. As founder Juliu Horvath said, “You will…find the unexplored parts of the body.” And I have, starting with my abs. Naturally it’s not for everyone, but I clicked with it. In late April, I discovered that the “wave” was a larger movement than I had understood. I was really supposed to roll far more and involve more of my body. “Oh,” I said, “I’ve been doing it wrong all this time.” “No,” Kayley said, “you’ve been doing it right. This is just a different level of right.”
The week before Thanksgiving, I had an appointment in Atlanta with a visiting Master Trainer. Bradley is tall and lean, and was wearing frayed gray sweatpants and a fitted t-shirt. He had been reading Truman Capote and, as I was arching and curling, he was talking about the long sentences in “The Thanksgiving Visitor.” Then I swear this is what he said to me:
“I think you like doing the movements in gyrotonics because each movement seems to hold a story within it.”
Annie Dillard’s novel The Maytrees [spoiler alert], begins with a short prologue from a storyteller narrator who is hereafter rarely noticed. Its first sentence interestingly begins with the couple not the individuals: “The Maytrees were young long ago.” Although it’s difficult to grasp on the first read, these four and a half pages tell, in a fairytale way, the story of the novel.
After the prologue is a preface, written in the point of view of Toby Maytree, that begins with this sentence that divides the Maytrees into two individuals: “It began when Lou Bigelow and Toby Maytree first met.” This sentence in this point of view foreshadows the later division of the Maytrees by Toby.
After the preface, there’s a page break and the apparent first sentence of the novel, in which the narrative distance has shrunk yet again:
“Of course she glared at Maytree that fall when he came by barefoot at daybreak and asked if she would like to see his dune shack.”
Or is it the first sentence? What follows those words are what appear to be eight unmarked, short chapters—some told by Lou, some by Maytree, and some by the narrator—in which Maytree courts Lou, they marry, and have a child. Then, the reader turns the page to find on page 61 the heading, “Part One.” This innovative structure is a way of saying you thought that was the story but now we’re getting to the real story. Apparently the preface consisted of nine unmarked, short chapters.
Here’s the first sentence of Part One: “That winter the crowd on the frozen corner parted for Lou, saying, He’s okay, it’s all right.” Later that day in real time (five pages later) the reader learns Maytree is leaving Lou to go to Maine with their friend Deary. Part One consists of six unmarked chapters and covers the time period it take Lou to become “happier and wiser,” to discover “that steady ground”—six months: from “that winter” to “one cold June morning.”
The novel continues with an Interlude of eight short unmarked chapters, the first of which is narrated by the Maytrees’ son Pete, that covers the twenty years—the interlude—Lou and Maytree spend apart.
Part Two is divided into five unmarked sections. In the first one, again narrated by Pete, Pete reconciles with his father. Then Deary becomes bedridden and Maytree slips on ice, becoming incapable of caring for them. He travels from Maine back to Provincetown to ask for Lou’s help.
Part Three begins with Pete carrying Deary into his mother’s house. It’s four short, unmarked sections that cover six months and Deary’s death.
The Maytrees concludes with an Epilogue in two short sections. In the first one, Lou and Maytree live together “many new years.” The second one begins “Tomorrow is another day only up to a point. One summer five years later Maytree began to die all over the place.”
Dillard uses structure to clue the reader as to the real story, which in this case is not the courtship or the marriage of the Maytrees, but the much more interesting story of what happens after that: their breakup, how Lou got over Maytree…
She was ready to want to stop this. Thereby she admitted—barely—that she could choose to stop…She could climb the monument every day and work on herself as a task…Their years together were good. He was already gone. All she had to do for peace was let him go.
…and discovered her own life, as well as the story of two individuals who were, through whatever happened, the Maytrees…
Now in compassion they bore, between them, their solitudes each the size of the raveled globe.
Finally, if you’re not convinced, take a look at these words from page 22 about Maytree’s third book:
(After the book appeared, a poem in three parts, no one noticed its crucial—to him—structure. At thirty he feared being obvious….
Some of this post–what I understood about the structure from my 1st read–also appeared in my 1st post on The Maytrees.
In her first album in 7 years, Natalie Merchant brings 26 poems to life…
“I pulled these obscure and eccentric poems off their flat, yellowed pages…”
With her young daughter in mind and often on her lap, Merchant was inspired to show her that “speech could be the most delightful toy in her possession.” I love her description of childhood with its nod to the underside of life:
“that time when we wake up to the great wonders and small terrors of this beautiful-horrible world of ours.”
An 80-page book comes with this 2-CD collection of 26 songs (so don’t download). It’s beautiful on the outside and the inside–with copies of the poems, pictures of the poets, and odd little details Merchant discovered as she delved deeper into the worlds of these artists.
One of my all-time favorite poems, “maggie and milly and molly and may,” by E. E. Cummings is included in the collection. “Estlin, as he was called,” she writes. And then,
“In just scratching the surface of his life I found this one lost and unrequited daughter.”
A new favorite, “The Land of Nod,” by Robert Louis Stevenson, put to music with a full orchestra and on top, Merchant’s voice light as frosting, gave me goose bumps. She writes of his gift of a piano to a leper colony he visited on route to Somoa and of his “trance-inducing doomed and luminous eyes.”
“I used music to enter these poems, and once inside I was able to understand how they were constructed with layers of feeling and meaning.”
I will leave you with this March 9, 2010 interview–Natalie speaking with Granta Magazine’s deputy editor Ellah Allfrey about Leave Your Sleep:
Edinburgh, the first novel by Alexander Chee, is the best book I’ve read so far this year. The subject matter is difficult, but the writing–with its repetitions, its wondrous quality, its innocence–lures the reader forward.
“Blue. Blue because it’s the color people turn in the dark. Because it’s the color of the sky, of the center of the flame, of a diamond hit by an X ray. Blue is the knife edge of lightning. Blue is the color, a rose grower tells you, that a rose never quite reaches.”
The book is structured in four sections. The story is Fee’s, but his story goes deeper and wider with Chee’s decision to cede the narration to Warden in one of the sections:
- I: Songs of the Fireflies (Fee)
- II: January’s Cathedral (Fee)
- III: And Night’s Black Sheep Upon the Eyes (Warden)
- IV: Blue (Fee)
In its 3-page Prologue, Chee writes so simply:
“This is a fox story. Of how a fox can be a boy. And so it is also the story of a fire.”
Throughout the novel, these images recur : voice, death, monsters, pictures, foxes, fire, blue, storytelling, singing, and water.
“On the pages in front of me, the words dissolve a bit, the letters thinning until I can see, on the other side of them, like spying through a wire fence, the pictures of Peter I have collected inside of me…”
Edinburgh was published in 2001.
15 stories in this slim volume from Amy Hempel published in 1985. Only 3 of the 15 written in third; the rest, in first.
My clear favorite is the first-person story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” It’s nicely developed and goes deeper than a lot of the others in this collection. [spoiler alert]
One of the interesting things about this story, which is divided into 20 short sections, is the way Hempel uses white space–as in, not the same way throughout the story.
The first 16 sections of “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” are basically one visit of the Narrator to her friend in the hospital. As the story progresses, the visit progresses as well. It all moves forward except section 2, when time seems to stand still as the Narrator steps back from the scene to describe it, and sections 8-10, when the Narrator reminisces at the beach. In sections 1-16, Hempel uses white space stylistically–to highlight moments.
Between sections 16 and 17, the white space denotes a space and time jump. Section 17 begins:
“On the morning she was moved to the cemetery, the one where Al Jolson is buried…”
Then in sections 17-20, Hempel is again using white space stylistically but this time to highlight thoughts. These sections exist in the place and time after the friend dies.
Using white space inconsistently adds to the random, floaty feel of this story that is actually organized in a linear sequence (granted sections 17-20 could be in random order rather than moving forward chronologically, but that seems unlikely given the rest of the story).
Another interesting thing–in the first scene, the Narrator has 2 lines; in the second scene (section 3) the Narrator has 1 line; in the third, 0 lines. The fact that the Narrator does not say much, despite the abundance of scenes, contributes to a feeling that the Narrator is not fully present in the hospital room.
Finally, Hempel uses 4 tenses in this 12-page story. Perhaps to show our split consciousness, where we are when we’re not fully present–thinking about the past, imagining the future, the conditional what-ifs.
All this, and we haven’t even begun to talk about what the story is about…
“The lake rose and fell and murmured beneath his paddle like a primitive animal mass, then fell silently back into its mineral existence.”
What is happening in the novel is so magical and alive and so delicately parallels the story the character Claire is writing that the reader is unsure whether Claire is writing about what is happening around her or whether Claire’s writing is causing what is happening around her to happen.
“Who knew if diving into the void [writing] shattered the already porous walls between what appears to exist and what does not yet exist?”
Proulx wields repetition like a wand—within sentences, within paragraphs, within the content and the structure of the novel. Take a look at the opening sentences:
“Lila Szach liked uphill paths. In life so many things—and life itself, in fact—go only downhill.”
Wildlives is so beautifully structured that it gave me goose bumps. It begins with a section entitled “Lila,” in which the young Lila is able to imagine herself an old woman. The last section is entitled “Jeremie,” and in it the old Jeremie thinks he sees the figure of a child. In each of these sections, the sun surprises the character so that the world appears to be on fire.
In between these sections, the story takes place: Lila is 76 and Jeremie is a boy. Age and youth, the past and the future. And who’s to say it doesn’t all come together at a certain moment in time.
Wildlives was originally written in French and is beautifully translated by David Homel and Fred A. Reed:
“You think you’ll grow old gracefully, so slowly that you’ll hardly notice it; instead, it leaps on you and reduces you to rubble.”
“…but she could not move, weighed down with nostalgia, suddenly stabbed by the brevity of the whole adventure. How cruel it is; we barely have time to master three steps of the immense cosmic choreography before we’re yanked from the ballet.”
“Night had officially ended, but it still hung in the trees.”
Wildlives was a finalist for the 2008 Governor General’s Award for Fiction.
In Mary Gaitskill‘s story collection, Don’t Cry, is a story entitled, “Mirror Ball.” It’s one of my four favorites in the collection and is described on the book jacket as an “urban fairy tale” in which “a young man steals a girl’s soul during a one-night stand.”
I don’t generally like stories that involve the surreal, but from the first page, the language of this story is so alluring that I was able to keep an open mind.
“…the anonymous little haunts where songs were still alive and moving in the murky darkness,…”
The words just kept twirling me on down the river of the story…
“It was a cold fall night with a feeling of secret pockets and moving shadows.”
…until I was caught in the current.
“Music temporarily filled the empty space, soothing her and giving shape to the feelings she could not understand.”
My favorite passage of all is so full of concrete images that it almost seems to move this way and then that:
“In daily life, his emotions were chaos. He let himself become a vessel for them, letting feeling roar through him, pulling him around like a kite, boiling him like water in a kettle, dissolving him in a whirl of elements. Except that normally he could go into his studio and make order. He could make songs that were satisfying containers, for the kite, for the kettle, the whirl of elements–he could put each in its place. The things he was feeling now did not fit into the songs he was used to making.”
What a fantastic paragraph. It contains so many images and ideas. Every time I read it, I want to read it over again. Except that for all the rich images, the idea I keep coming back to is using containers to make order.
Growing up, when I would approach the front door with my arms full of eleven different things, my mother would always be right there with a tote bag. “Here,” she would say. “Put everything in here.”
Containers keep us from spilling out all over the place. They make order out of disorder. Here, the character poured his emotions into songs. Matisse used paintings. I empty myself into words on a page. I’m also reminded of this passage from Toni Morrison’s Beloved:
“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
In 1985 Russell Banks wrote “Sarah Cole: A Type of Love Story.” It was first published in The Missouri Review, then in The Best American Short Stories 1985, then in The Angel on the Roof. You can also listen to it on a podcast.
The first sentence: “To begin, then, here is a scene in which I am the man and my friend Sarah Cole is the woman.”
One of the interesting things about this story is the point of view. Which switches between first person and third person.
The narrator writes, “I’m telling it this way because what I have to tell you now confuses me, embarrasses me, and makes me sad…”
The story is divided into eight sections with the point of view as follows :
I-1st to 3rd
II-1st to 3rd to 1st
III-3rd to 1st to 3rd
IV-1st to 3rd
VII-3rd to 1st
23 pages. Way cool.
In a 1921 New York Times article entitled, “What is a Novel, Anyhow?”, Henry Kitchell Webster, writes “A novel is defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as a fictitious prose narrative of sufficient length to fill one or more volumes. Well, do you know, that is just about what I thought it was.”
Michael Ondaatje calls Divisadero, published in 2007, a novel. The book is divided into three narratives. The writing is beautiful. As a novel, though, I found it unsatisfying. I wonder if this dissatisfaction goes to my expectation (founded or unfounded) of what a novel is. But I’m not the only one who had issues with the form.
Erica Wagner, the literary editor of The Times of London, wrote in a New York Times article, “’Divisadero’ is a series of narratives that calls itself, perhaps for convenience’ sake, a novel. I’m not sure that it is, in fact, a novel; but then I wouldn’t be happy calling it a book of linked stories, either. Ondaatje is a writer who likes to blur form….He is a poet as much as (or even more than) he is a novelist, and the crosscurrents of his writing flow and ripple against each other as poems might. Sequences of images set themselves out in their individual beauty and lucidity; sometimes how they fit into the whole is almost beside the point.
I have to disagree with her last sentence. I’m not sure that if a book is going to call itself a novel, that how the parts fit together can be beside the point. For an excellent and succinct review of Divisadero that puts the form issue in perspective, take a look at “‘Divisadero’: Where narrative splinters.
In an audio NPR interview on June 2, 2007 (worth listening to just to hear the author’s voice), the first question to Michael Ondaatje was “What makes this a novel?” His answer was that each section by itself was unfinished, that the only way he knew to finish the first story was by another story. He does admit that it is an “odd structure.”
A better approach would, perhaps, have been the one recently taken by Elizabeth Strout. The cover of her book Olive Kitteridge merely says fiction, leaving it to the reader to ascertain the form of the work.