Some of you will remember my September 28th post entitled three things. Well, there’s more. Sometimes I choose a book knowing it will have to do with a certain subject. Usually the choice of my next book has more to do … Continue reading
From the first page of Dan Chaon‘s novel:
On the seat beside him, in between him and his father, Ryan’s severed hand is resting on a bed of ice in an eight-quart Styrofoam cooler.
Dan Chaon’s second novel and fourth book, Await Your Reply, which was published in 2009, intertwines 3 seemingly unrelated narrative threads that exude echoes of each other, assuring the reader that they will eventually come together. And they do. But no spoilers here.
3 threads. 324 pages. 3 parts–each one divided into numbered chapters.
Chaon gets each of the threads off the ground in a hurry: the 1st chapter is 2 pages; the 2nd is 5 pages; the 3rd is 3 pages. Bam. In 10 pages, the reader is aware of all 3 plot lines.
The “severed hand” scene comes first and takes place at night in a car. Chapter 2 begins with Lucy and George leaving town in the middle of the night. “Not fugitives–not exactly.” AND “They would make a clean break. A new life.” (Chaon has a sense of humor.) In Chapter 3 again a character is driving a car. And I wish I had time to count how many times the word hand or hands is used in each of the threads.
As I said, because of the repetition of images and details and echoes of themes, the reader knows that these threads are related. So the reader’s mind is fully engaged as she is reading, trying to answer the question of how. It’s like a treasure hunt. We’re looking for clues, reading carefully because we don’t want to miss anything. All of this creates energy and narrative drive.
In July in Vermont, Dan said that with Await Your Reply, he began with 3 images and a story, but that he had no idea how they were connected until the end of the first draft. He said that the second draft is always “super important” to him because he’s looking for iconography, like tarot cards, to signal where the power is–where an image and/or a moment is important.
Each image distinct and capsulized, like tarot cards laid down one by one. (147)
Read it, if you haven’t already. You won’t be disappointed.
~1st in a series
~cross-posted at Contrary Blog
Pine trees that are all wiry and taller than the other trees so they stick out, different textures coming together, abandoned things and places, stairs and thresholds, rainy days and fog, sunrises and sunsets, doors and windows, trains and tracks, lines of laundry, row houses, fall leaves, a full moon, the ocean…
What’s on your list?
It’s difficult to believe it’s been six months, but here I am again and this time, no snow on the ground. Green grass, blue skies, and flowers blooming. 60 degrees right now with a projected high of 66.
I arrived Monday afternoon and we started right in with a lecture by David Jauss on how to know when you’re done with a piece of writing. Connie May Fowler, a new faculty member, read Monday evening from her new novel, How Clarissa Burden Learned To Fly. She read a scene that included the point of view of a fly. And yesterday a fascinating lecture by Doug Glover on symbols and image patterns–more on that later.
In fact, more on everything later. Off to another lecture…
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.
Dory Adams on her blog, In This Light, has been writing about abandoned things, which made me realize that although I haven’t yet written about it, I take pictures of abandoned things–boarded-up buildings, the graffiti that signals neglect, the remains of things that are no longer as they were, the razed space where something used to be.
I’ve been wanting to do another post on clotheslines but haven’t done it yet. That’s actually what I sat down to write about this morning. Yet clotheslines seem a subject for the spring and summer. Whereas abandoned things, a subject for the fall and winter.
What used to happen behind this window, behind Number 16? What are your recurring images? Your abandoned things?
I thought if I wrote about it here either I might figure it out or maybe one of you would. You see, I’m working on my third piece of fiction where he tries to make an appearance.
Which he in fact did last night in Columbus!
In a 2001 (early, early) draft of my first novel, I opened every chapter with a few words from a Jackson Browne song. In July of that year, Howard Norman in a writing workshop said ever so gently, “Man, I just love Jackson Browne. Those quotes really took me back. But they’ve got to go. Your writing has to stand on its own.”
Perhaps you’d like to see what he was referring to:
Chapter Thirteen: “Whatever it is you might think you have/You have nothing to lose/Through every dead and living thing/Time runs like a fuse/And the fuse is burning/And the earth is turning.”
Chapter Fourteen: “And the heavens were rolling/Like a wheel on a track/And our sky was unfolding/And it’ll never fold back/Sky blue and black.”
Chapter Fifteen: “Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder/Where the years have gone/They have all passed under/Sleep’s dark and silent gate.”
Then there was a draft of a story I sent through my writing group in September where two characters were listening to JB in the car. Not working was the consensus.
Last night I was beside myself, as the saying goes, in my front row seat. At 7:30 Jackson Browne appeared out of the darkness onto a stage set up with 16 guitars and a keyboard. He was wearing dark blue pants, a dark blue shirt, and black shoes. His long straight hair is tinged with gray.
He had no setlist but chose songs that appealed to him from those that the audience members shouted out, commenting late in the show that we were “a fractured group.” Several times he commented that he was concerned with trying to string the songs together in the right way, that he wanted everything to be “just so.” Then he said, “Really, when I think about it, it is ‘just so.’”
With the exception of a fifteen minute break, he played until 10:00. 1-Barricades of Heaven 2-I Thought I Was a Child 3-Looking Into You 4-Jamaica Say You Will 5-Running on Empty 6-Don’t Let Us Get Sick written by Warren Zevon 7-Naked Ride Home 8-For Everyman 9-Late for the Sky (better than I ever heard him play this before) 10-In the Shape of a Heart 11-Giving That Heaven Away 12-Rock Me On the Water [break] 13-Something Fine 14-Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate 15-Going Down to Cuba 16-Lives in the Balance 17-Redneck Friend 18-Time the Conqueror (which he endearingly forgot the words to) 19-new song for a movie Here Without Her (title?) 20-Doctor My Eyes 21-These Days 22-Just Say Yeah 23-For a Dancer 24-The Pretender, and for the Encore: 25-Take it Easy (which he also forgot the words to), and 26-Our Lady of the Well.
He was amazing. See for yourself on my first (and shaky) YouTube video:
*the sneeze at 38 seconds belongs to my husband : )
This new piece of fiction that I started six weeks ago? Yup. “Running on Empty” is the name of a little coffee shop where Angelina likes to stop after work. Maybe this one will work, and I’ll be cured.
“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.”
It’s writing group week at Point Reyes, California–nine of us here (several in absentia) with Pam Houston. We arrived Thursday night at the Old Point Reyes Schoolhouse Compound for a dinner of fish stew.
We come from all over the country–from Columbus, Georgia to Bend, Oregon. In the mornings we critique manuscripts; in the afternoons, walks on the beach. This morning we did a phone conference connecting with New Orleans, Louisiana.
Saturday night we took Highway One into the city to the Make-Out Room. Pam was giving a reading, along with several other people. It was an amazing drive, winding around the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean withviews of San Francisco in the distance. Sorry to say, I got a little carsick.
Yesterday we walked into town to the independent bookstore, Point Reyes Books. I bought a copy of Yiyun Li‘s (pronounced E-yoon) new novel, The Vagrants, recently reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Book Review section. She was driving up from Oakland to eat dinner with us. We sat around the kitchen table, eating lamb, curried cauliflower, and spinach. And talking about American children today and how we write and where characters come from.
Last night around 10:15, I was driving into San Francisco and fireworks were going off across the bay. I got a little lost, but my gps saved me. Around eleven pm, I was crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. Amazing.
Today, a gray day in Sausalito, I found a small, independent bookstore, Habitat, and bought, at the owner’s recommendation, one book I’d heard of, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, and one I hadn’t, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.
At her recommendation, I headed to Fish, a 30-minute walk from town on a tucked-away pier. Definitely worth the detour.
Also found this really cool door,
There’s something about the wash hanging outside a window that pulls me toward it–almost like the feeling I have for row houses. ”The task of finding your key images is lifework,” Georgia Heard wrote.
Oddly, though, with the wash, it’s the differences that attract me; whereas with the houses, it’s the similarities.
Still, I think the fascination comes from what I can see rubbing up against what I can’t.
There’s a beauty in the colors and shapes blowing in the wind. an honesty in putting it out there. This is who we are, it says.
When Georgia Heard was asked what one image she thought represented her life, she answered “layers,” clarifying “as in the Grand Canyon.” I would have to say houses, as in rows of identical ones.
Georgia Heard wrote in Writing Toward Home, “The seemingly random observations I make or the subjects I choose to write about are like the branches of a tree whose roots reach down to the depths of myself and reveal my obsessions….The task of finding your key images is lifework.”
Pam Houston wrote in “Pregnancy and Other Natural Disasters,” an essay in A Little More About Me, “There is only one story of our lives and we tell it over and over again, in a thousand different disguises, whether we know it or not.” And I swear one of her characters says this too, but I can’t find it.
I don’t know what my one story is, but I’m working on it. The more I write, the more I see similar shapes. I have pictures from all over Columbus of these row houses. (Unfortunately, I just realized, not digital ones. And my scanner is refusing to work with Vista.) When I travel, I take pictures of these houses as well. The one at the top of the blog, as well as the one in today’s post, were both taken in Provincetown in 2006. The one on my website is of the same houses but taken by a professional photographer.
I think the houses have something to do with exteriors and interiors. All alike on the outside, but what goes on inside must be so different. Or maybe a fascination with the exterior to avoid the interior. Also, maybe something to do with simplifying our lives to one of these small little houses–something manageable. Perhaps even , though this one will surprise me if it turns out to be true, something to do with community.
In an interview at the back of Waltzing the Cat, Pam Houston said, “I surrender myself to the truth of the metaphors I have chosen (that’s the scary part), and eventually, the story finds its own truth.”
“He stepped from the dark porch, into the moonlight, and with his bloody head and his empty stomach hot, savage, and courageous with whiskey, he entered the street which was to run for fifteen years.”
“The whiskey died away in time and was renewed and died again, but the street ran on.”
The street running on recurs in the novel–in both language and image.
It should have come as no surprise to me when I recently discovered that Faulkner was also a poet. Apparently he referred to himself as a “failed poet.” Read this and see what you think:
“He thought that it was loneliness which he was trying to escape and not himself. But the street ran on: catlike, one place was the same as another to him. But in none of them could he be quiet. But the street ran on in its moods and phases, always empty…”
And if you’re one of those people (I am) who likes to hear the writer’s speaking voice, you can listen to part of Faulkner’s December 1950 Nobel Prize speech online. In the speech, he says that the only subjects worth writing about are “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.”
If you’ve never read Faulkner,I recommend starting with Light in August.
If I weren’t reading all of Rachel Cusk‘s books to look at how her writing develops over time, I would not have finished her sixth book, In the Fold, published in 2005. As one reviewer wrote, “too little happened to too many people.” Or another, the book was “so lacking in anything to capture my interest that I couldn’t even finish it.”
There are other opinions: it was long listed for the 2005 Booker Prize.
In the Fold is narrated by a man and full of dialogue. Perhaps an important step in a writer’s development is to try something different. It gives you a reference point: You do that better than this. And then you can go boldly forth.
My favorite thing about the book is the name of the country home where most of the action takes place. It’s called Egypt–no explanation given. My favorite line refers to Egypt: “This is our home. It’s the place that matters, not the people in it.”
Another interesting point: without realizing I had done it, two of the titles of posts on Rachel Cusk involve circles. In this novel, the narrator’s wife says, “He’ll come around.” The narrator then explains that she must be talking about the ‘big wheel,’ a theory whose basis is that “existence is not linear but circular and repetitive.”
One of the reasons I love reading this novel is the way the author intertwines the lives of the three women with recurring words and images–steps forward, cold water, failure, flowers, hours everywhere, the soul, the word yellow…It’s like a treasure hunt. On every page, a discovery.
Spend your extra hour reading–something old or something new.