This site is moving to a new domain: check out

“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

From Stanford to Abu Graib: short excerpt from upcoming untitled story

You treat someone bad once, and to escape having to admit you’re the type who treats others badly you alter your perception of that person until you’re sure she had it coming. Psychologists call it cognitive dissonance, this experience of realizing you’ve done something you can’t admit you’re capable of. Memories and perceptions are shockingly malleable, and the dissonance forces us to adjust our view of the other person so what would have been bad treatment seems completely justified. But then your after-the-fact rationalization becomes a ready excuse to treat that person bad again. Add to that excuse any further justification provided by his attempts to fend off your bad treatment and you get a snowball effect. The more you abuse this person the more you hate him. The more you hate him the more you’re given to abuse him. I’ve heard an expression that the Germans couldn’t forgive the Jews after World War II for what the Germans had done to them. It’s like that. The profoundest hatred and the most inhuman atrocity can begin with tiny acts of uncharitability. I suppose the reverse is probably true also.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

What to Leave Out: Minimalism and the Hemingway Mystique

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” features a man who is lamenting his lost opportunities to write a bunch of stories he’s been saving up in his mind as he lays wounded and dying from an injury he suffered while on safari in Africa. It turns out Hemingway himself once suffered an injury while on safari in Africa; but of course he survived to write about the ordeal. Several of his other stories likewise feature fictionalized versions of himself. In fact, there are very few works in the Hemingway oeuvre that aren’t at least obliquely about Hemingway.

The success of the famous “iceberg theory” of writing, which has the author refrain from explicit statements about important elements of the characters’ minds, histories, and motivations, probably relied in large part on readers’ suspicion that the stories they were reading were true. In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway explained,

"If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing."

The prose style of this theorizing on prose style is markedly unlike Hemingway’s usual “short, declarative statements.” And it is remarkably revealing. It almost seems as though Hemingway is boasting about being able to get away with leaving out as many of the details as he does in his stories because he’s so familiar with the subjects of which he writes. And what exciting and fascinating subjects they are—wars, romances, travels, brushes with death, encounters with man-eating beasts. Yet readers coming to the stories with romantic visions of Hemingway’s adventures are quickly disappointed by the angst, insecurity, and fear of the actual Hemingway experience.

Stories like “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” unsettle us because there is a truth in them that not many people are given to exploring (even in America, land of “happily ever after,” marriages entail struggles for dominance). But much of the impact of Hemingway’s work comes from the mystique surrounding the man himself. Hemingway was a brand even before his influence had reached its zenith. So readers can’t really come to his work without letting their views about the author fill in the blanks he so expertly left empty. That’s probably why feelings about it tend to be so polarized.

If you take Hemingway’s celebrity out of the equation, though, you’re still left with a formidable proposition: fiction works not by detailing the protagonist’s innermost thoughts and finding clever metaphors for his or her feelings; rather the goal is to describe the scene in enough detail, to render the circumstances so thoroughly that the reader doesn’t need to be told how the character feels because the reader can imagine for him or herself what it would be like to inhabit a real-life version of the story. This proposition may have begun as far back as Proust, and having been taken in a completely new direction by Hemingway, reached something of an apotheosis in the minimalism of such authors as Raymond Carver. Of course, Carver’s more domestic dramas rely on a common stock of experience in place of the celebrity of the author, but the effect is of even greater revelation—or perhaps recognition is a better word.

Really, though, if you take this theory of storytelling to its logical endpoint you have films and movies, and you’ve lost the element that makes fiction writing unique—the space for interiority. It’s no coincidence that the best candidate for the Hemingway mantle today—at least in his most recent works—has had his two latest books adapted into films within a couple years of their publication. Cormac McCarthy hasn’t been able to rely on any public notion of his interchangeability with his characters; nor does he write about experiences he can count on his readers to recognize. Instead, he builds his stories up from the ground of popular genres we’re most familiar with from our lifetime love affair with cinema. No Country for Old Men reads so much like Hemingway at points that you wonder if McCarthy took frequent breaks from the writing to dip into the icon’s complete short stories. At the same time, the novel reads so much like a script you wonder if the movie rights were sold before or after he began writing it.

If Hemingway could only write about things he’d actually experienced, and Carver can only write about experiences similar to those his readers have actually had, and McCarthy is dependent on our familiarity with popular genres, it seems the theory of omission or minimalism either runs up against a wall or gets stuck in an infinite regress. The possibility of discovery, the author going somewhere new and taking his readers along for the ride, recedes farther and farther into the distance. These limitations are real, of course, no matter what style you’re writing in; all writers must follow the injunction to write what they know—at least up to a point. I think the lesson to take from Hemingway and his followers is that the emotion inferred is often more poignant than the emotion described, but inference is only one of many tools in the writer’s toolbox.

Also read: 

What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Another Excerpt from the upcoming novel, "The Impostor"

            Where the sidewalk wraps around the southern shore of the lake, you come to the backs of the first houses since the one closest to the entrance of Burning Tree. After looking up at one, at the odd expanse of balcony hanging precariously from the back of its awkward, jutting, skeletal supports, and then looking ahead to the upcoming curves of sidewalk, the last two before it arcs back behind all the facing houses across the lake, George sees in the distance the lone tree spared by the voracious overseer of the toy garden factory. His impassivity as he gazed up through the branches of the oak in the front yard of the house he’s renting with Vanessa was a final prompt for him to come all this way, shirking his responsibility to his shiftless students. So, what about this tree, the one he used to stop for so frequently? Would it have any power over him? And at the westernmost shore of the lake he sees the stone bench, with lamps on either side like luminescent dripping noses, where he has in mind to sit for a minute and decide whether he should call Vanessa and have her come pick him up. He’s noticing the cold more and more now that the sun is gone. And it’s still early enough to get to most of those papers, if he ignores Vanessa for the rest of the night.

            George used to enjoy weaving biographies for the occupants of one or another of the houses he passed, usually whichever one offered up a scrap of information in the form of a lit view of the interior, a snippet of audible conversation or argument, or even just a succession of lightings and castings into dark through adjacent rooms. Now he’s slightly shocked at how little he’s managed to glean about any of these families over the ten year span of his walks. It’s been another ten years of course, but he couldn’t say how many kids lived in any of these houses even when he still lived in the house on Union Chapel, whether a married couple lived there, what kind of jobs they had, or if they were retired. It was a memorable event, and he indeed remembers some, whenever he saw someone alert enough to the outside to notice him. The young girl with pop star posters leaning on the window sill of her bedroom on the second floor, the group of middle aged revelers on that precariously exposed balcony he just passed, once he even passed a young girl, alone, sitting on the grass near the Burning Tree entrance and looking out over the lake with her knees drawn up. He was afraid she would be afraid of him so after returning her greeting he walked on, as if he were on his way somewhere important.

            All these people, enough to fuck up the world for eons, and somehow we find ways to remain isolated, each to his own bubble. George reaches for the phone in his back pocket. The bench is still a ways ahead but whatever brought him on foot to this neighborhood he has no business in has ebbed enough for him to feel foolish and impatient with his predicament. He’s got Vanessa’s name on the contacts list highlighted and is moving his thumb to the green call button when he sees out of the corner of his eye, beside the sidewalk a few paces back, his old oak tree. Still holding his thumb over the button, he turns, and forcing himself to take a slow, deep breath he gathers the view of the tree from the roots up the stem to the leafless spiking branches, continuing the progression upward over the crown into the darkening blue of the sky until his head is resting as far back as his neck and shoulders will allow. He hears the hum of distant cars and televisions and notices the scent of fabric softener. There is no wind. He closes his eyes and begins to spin around again, not to disrupt any whirlpool of wayward thoughts but only to help him feel more aware of where he is, to twist out of his negative inertia, to awake to some helpful realization. If he ever does write about this walk he’ll have to have his protagonist, the hero, arrive at some epiphany. So he spins, to make himself dizzy, to lose his bearings so he can properly orient himself. But he only makes it three turns before lunging at the tree and leaning against it with his outstretched hands.

            “What are you doing, George?” he asks, breathless, he head hanging between his uplifted arms.

            As a corollary to being an impostor, George always has the sense that even when he’s working he’s not really working but playing. So even as stress from teaching, or from any of the other jobs, like serving at various restaurants, gnaws away at the edge of his consciousness, he at the same time feels pressure to find and set himself to his real work, his real career. Now, leaning against his old tree, it’s not the papers he has to comment on that rankle him. “What the hell are you doing, George?” he says at a whisper. “It’s time to fucking grow up. It’s time to be a man.”

            He lifts his head and looks at the yards surrounding the lake on the other side of the tree and his eyes light on the phone still in his right hand, braced against the bark. “Thirty-five,” he says. “How did I get to be thirty-five? And I’m still just dinking around.” Wasn’t something supposed to happen, he goes on thinking. Wasn’t there supposed to be some clarifying moment, when even briefly all the confusion and doubt lifted and I could see clear to my future? Instead, this—everything remains how it was, I remain who I am, and the years slip away. Too many movies, ha! Waiting for something to happen, feeling passed up, betrayed even, when nothing does; waiting for a clarifying moment, an epiphany—too many novels and stories—and sad that it’s not just people and houses crowded into anonymity, but moments, little pieces of time, of each day, of entire weeks, seasons, years, decades, one flowing into another and washing it away. Rushing water is never clear. And time…?—enough with your stupid metaphors. Finish your walk and get home.

            George stands up and pulls away from the tree, looking down at the phone in his hand with its blank screen. Then he looks away, over his left shoulder to the rise beyond the lake and the sidewalk, to the tops of the telephone poles running along Union Chapel Road. Of course they’re not just connecting phones but carrying electricity as well, from some huge coal plant somewhere—and aren’t coal plants nicely hidden?—to all the houses in the city, all the businesses, all the schools, all the buildings where people go about being people. These wooden beams sticking up at the side of every road all over the country, but you almost have to be an archeologist to notice them, as invisible as they are ubiquitous.

            Returning to his old ritual circuit without having made the decision to do so, George sets to pondering the resemblance of telephone poles to crosses. So obvious a comparison and yet he can’t recall ever making it, or coming across someone else who made it before. They’re a little too perfect to be crosses, sometimes having multiple crossbeams, and those white cylindrical packs on either side (transistors?), lending to them a mathematical quality, like an x and y axis hanging on the horizon, a grid for relative quantities of sin and forgiveness. And why, George wonders, do we need some myth about eating from the tree of knowledge—with its own mathematical dimensions—when there are so many real sins of origin? Genocide prefiguring all the sacred freedoms established with the declaration that “all men are created equal,” slavery prefiguring prosperity, war billed as prefiguring peace. And who will be our redeemer for the sins we don’t recognize or refuse to acknowledge, the plague of exponential population growth, the scourge of coal-scorched skies? As endless as the lines of telephone poles are, there are still too few to crucify all the human souls in poor countries we are this minute condemning to death for the sins of being poor and living bellow sea level.

            George steps off the sidewalk and eases down onto the bench alongside the west tip of the lake. Behind him, an enormous lawn rolls over flattened earth with incongruous pines and neat, even grass, awaiting its first trim of the season. The sun has disappeared without fanfare. George holds up his phone, resolved not to check the time, not to see his eye staring back at him, the clock embedded in the reflection of his crow’s feet. Now that he’s ceased moving, he notices how tired he is, the slight throbbing ache of his feet and legs. As recently as seven years ago, George made a weekly run from his dad’s house to Metea Park, five miles down the road, and then back for a total of ten miles. He calculates that since leaving his front door he couldn’t have walked more than seven or so miles. The loss of his exceptional fitness contributes to the sensation of his slipping away into the void, as he lets go of what holds him together, piece by piece, and loses control over where the remnant lands.

            And this is just like modern fiction, he jokes to himself. Some passive loser laments his powerlessness in the face of mass, impersonal forces. Willie Lowman, Mohun Biswas, Setha, Rabbit Angstrom, Holden Caulfield, Moses Herzog. James Williams writes a beautiful novel featuring a man who prevails over a less fortunate man, dangerous for what he lacks, and gets dismissed as a bourgeois panderer, a teller of fairy tales. You cannot allow your protagonist, the hero, to win his struggles against evil social forces because that trivializes those social forces, holds up injustice as a prop for the virtuous man’s (or woman’s) heroism. If Winston Smith withstands O’Brien in Room 101, then defeating Big Brother is reduced to a developmental inevitability, instead of a moral imperative. But if literature is to serve some social agenda, to promote activism, should it really restrict itself to passive characters?