Sunday, March 22, 2009

Kundera's Way

So I'm installing some new bookcases and moving things around and finally beginning to establish some kind of flow to my library, which up to now has been scattered all over the house: fiction upstairs, poetry downstairs, theory books here and there, unclassifiable books all over the place. And one of the books on top of a pile I'm trudging with is Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel, a book I read with perfect incomprehension back in my early twenties when I was under the malign combined influence of James Joyce and Raymond Carver (like tomato juice in breakfast cereal). So I opened it, and it turns out that Kundera said much of what I've been struggling to articulate recently much more clearly and eloquently. Take, for example, my complaint about the boring mechanics of fiction in that first post. In an interview that I think originated in The Paris Review, Kundera presents that point as "the will to divest," in an excursus about the Czech composer Leos Janacek:
You know, any musical composition involves a good deal of purely technical activity: exposition of a theme, development, variations, polyphonic work that is frequently quite mechanical, filling in the orchestration, transitions, and so on. These days music can be composed by computer, but there was always a kind of computer present in composers' heads: in a pinch, they could write a sonata without a single original idea, simply by following "cybernetically" the rules of composition. Janacek's imperative was: Destroy the "computer"! Harsh juxtapositions instead of transitions, repetition instead of variation, and always head straight for the heart of things: only the note that says something essential has the right to exist. Roughly the same idea applies to the novel: It too is weighed down by "technique," by the conventions that do the author's work for him: present a character, describe a milieu, bring the action into a historical situation, fill time in the characters' lives with superfluous episodes; each shift of scene calls for new exposition, description, explanation. My own imperative is "Janacekian": to rid the novel of the automatism of novelistic technique, of novelistic verbalism; to make it dense. (72 - 73)
And this is true for poetry too, of course: the automatism of technique is a risk run by any artist in any genre. What's great about discovering Kundera now is how he brings not just well-tuned grumbling but a positive theory of the novel that opposes that automatism. As I read on, I began to think that there must be somewhere in Roberto Bolaño's library a much-annotated and dog-eared copy of this book, because Kundera's theory of how the novel operates and what its aims are reminds me of nothing so intensely in my recent experience as 2666. Speaking of a novel by Hermann Broch called The Sleepwalkers, Kundera explains that it's in five sections, each of which is in a different genre, and that they are unified not by characters but only by theme. But this isn't quite enough to achieve the "polyphonic" novel that Kundera is aiming at (he's certainly read his Bakhtin), because Kundera demands that the individual "voices" that each section represent be equal—that there be no hierarchy among them, which in Broch he says there is. He calls this "counterpoint," as befits his musical background. Now this corresponds to another frustration I've often felt with modern fiction and film, which is the overweening tendency to center a narrative on a single character to the point where every other character in the story exists only to do something or teaching something to the main character. An egregious and over-the-top example would be a movie like Jerry Maguire, in which every character and scene is oriented toward producing some measure of enlightenment and self-knowledge in the titular character. As a result of my distaste for this egoism, I've long favored ensemble films and TV shows (like Big Love, the season finale of which is happening tonight, and the TiVo is ready to go). Novels don't fall into this trap quite as often, but short stories frequently do, and in most every creative writing textbook I've read the writer patiently explains how the main character has to be in some way changed by the experience of the story, but the other characters, major or minor, do not—they are catalysts for the hero's experience. I find the repetition and perpetuation of this model of storytelling to be wearisome and unattractive. More compelling—though it risks aridity, not to mention pretentiousness—is Kundera's belief that a novel ought to center on a "theme," which he defines quite succinctly as "an existential inquiry," as novels themselves are investigations of Being. That theme, that mode of Being—captured perhaps too schematically in the titles of Kundera's French novels (Immortality, Slowness, Identity, Ignorance) is the "hero" of a Kunderan novel (though he wouldn't use that term), as significant as the fundamental "unity of action" that Kundera also deems a novelistic requirement.

Kundera's theory of the novel has other major touchstones that I find attractive: his (also seemingly Bakthinian) conviction that the novel can never simply reproduce the author's attitudes, political or otherwise, and that this is a limitation (or liberation) intrinsic to the form: "Outside the novel, we're in the realm of affirmation: everyone is sure of his statements: the politician, the philosopher, the concierge. Within the universe of the novel, however, no one affirms: it is the realm of play and hypothesis" (78). And built into his notion of "radical divestment" is a rejection of verisimilitude for verisimulitude's sake, and an invitation into the novel of the discourses of dream (oneiric narrative) and essay (philosophy). As Kundera remarks more than once, there's no intrinsic reason for the European novel to have developed as it has; the possibilities inaugurated by a Tristram Shandy could have made it a more various creature, rather than simply going into hibernation until postmodernism came along.

Can, does, American fiction learn from Kundera's poetics? Stumbling on The Art of the Novel has seemingly confirmed an intuition I've been under the sway of for many weeks, which is that I need to look to Europe, to Latin America, perhaps to Asia for inspiration and ideas about fiction, but that the field of Anglo-American fiction for now is lying fallow and has little to offer me. At a time like this in my creative life I just a few touchstones to guide and reassure me as I stumble around in the dark; I need to disconnect from chatter and paranoia and market-chasing nonsense.* Kundera seems to offer one such touchstone, though I have little interest in imitating or taking cues from his actual fiction, and whose oracular tone (in his fiction and his nonfiction) sometimes rubs against the grain of my American ear.

* Just poking around on the Web I found this article by Kris Saknussemm, who sagely advises would-be novelists to "not spend years experimenting with different forms of writing and various intellectual follies" and unabashedly urges writers to write with marketing first in mind: "In what section of a bookstore or retailer’s website will your book be found? Which authors can your work be likened to? In three sentences or less what’s your novel about?" Oy vey.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Trouble with Trouble with Fiction

My last post seems to have harshed the mellow of a few folks eager to rise to fiction's defense (which I can't take seriously, as it continues in spite of everything to be the dominant literary mode) and others who feel they've caught me being reductive and simplistic (guilty as charged). Of course there's more to fiction than winding up the monkeys, though I'm intrigued by one commenter's remark that my parodic accounting of how fiction works is actually a damn interesting way to produce poems. If the piece came off as snobbery, it can only be so in a bizarre, reverse-psychology kind of way, because in spite of identifying as a poet and finding the world of poetry more engaging and more free-spirited than the market-driven world of American MFA-style fiction, I am in fact something of a frustrated novelist, who never got over having his world rocked by the titanic prose slabs of Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Pynchon, Melville, Sterne, etc., etc. Somewhere in the final section of 2666, Archimboldi succinctly claims that fiction can do everything poetry can, plus a lot more, and I kind of agree with that. At its best, the novel isn't an empty vessel for the kabuki of a writer's career, but a monster (taut or baggy) stitched together out of wildly diverse components, over months and years of obsession and possession.

I resist fiction as I encounter it in the New York Times Book Review and even the New York Review of Books, on the tables of Barnes & Noble and even BookCellar (a very fine independent store in Lincoln Square) and Myopic Books (Wicker Park). It's digestible, it's currency. The bar seems set too low: take, for example, an acclaimed recent novel, Junot Diaz's The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It's funny and tragic and the writing is inspired at times, and I can see why it got all sorts of attention and won prizes, and yet I judge it a failure, in large part because the title character is a gutless wonder completely unworthy of the attention the novel lavishes upon him—a failure all the more disappointing to this comic-book geek given its attempt to tell the story of a comic-book geek's encounter with the sad, savage history of the Dominican Republic, within the framework of a last-chance-to-get-laid picaresque adventure. Sounds pretty good, but the elements don't gel; instead we get a set of brilliant set-pieces that founder in their attempt to depict the struggle between reality and imagination that Latin American political upheaval in the context of an indvidual's own struggle between his (pathetic, inadequate, fat and loveless) reality and his (four-color, heroic, good triumphing over evil) imagination. But Oscar Wao himself is too flimsy, inept, and undermotivated, barely even adequate as a holy fool, since he himself does none of the investigating of the past that makes for its most gripping segments. He's a small man and the book around him is small too as a consequence. A worthy experiment at least, and oddly or not so oddly similar to Bolaño's overall project of depicting the flight into literature perpetrated by all of his characters as a journey into damnation, a flight from evil that ends, invariably, in evil's very heart.

It's not, ultimately, that I want to privilege language—that that for me is where all the action is, and therefore fiction will usually disappoint me because the libidinal energies of a novel or short story will be sucked up by plot and character, leaving little or no energy or interest left over for the life of words. I'm not necessarily interested in the "poet's novel," of the sort I think Brian Phillips talks about or will talk about in an upcoming issue of Poetry: that is, a novel in which the poetic function of language (to be Jakobsonian) takes precedence over plot and character. It's rather that I'm interested in a "democratized" novel, one in which the beauty and accuracy of the sentences is at least as important as the characters, incidents, and ideas that those sentences build—neither a poetic garnish for the meat of the story, nor itself the main course.

Part of the reason I'm drawn to this is because of my own experience as a writer, which has taught me that the things I write without preconception are going to be stronger and stranger than those I try to control. I want to cultivate maximum extraversion, in Jung's sense—other-directedness—like Jack Spicer, I need a good radio to tune in the Martians with. For me that happens best word by word, phrase by phrase, whereas with plots and characters one starts thinking about probabilities until every sentence feels overdetermined and I'm overcome by acedia and disgust. But of course not every writer is extraverted in that way; there must be many fiction writers whose muses, whose internalized Others, manifest through the constructs of plot and character (consider all the stories writers tell about characters who behave in ways than their creators never intended). But that's what I'm ultimately looking for from a book: not something chiseled and finite and controlled, but a loose baggy monster, a scene of struggle, something that contains more of an author and her universe than her intentions could ever have fathomed when she set out, and quite likely not afterward, either.

It just takes longer, usually, to figure out whether or not a work of fiction is extraverted in this fashion. A poem can give me an immediate hit of the alienated majesty I go to writing for. But when a novel, such as 2666, does accomplish this, and lures me all the way through to its impossible ending, it has the potential to undo and remake me in a way that individual poems can't hope to do.

Do I contradict myself...?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Trouble with Fiction

Here's my trouble with fiction: the labor, or rather the mechanics, required to interest most readers bores me silly. It's boring to read and twice as boring to write. Here is a character, here is a situation and setting for that character, here is that character's desire, here is another character who can gratify that desire but has contrary desires of her own. Wind up the monkeys and watch them dance. Beautiful or accurate prose is an accessory, a garnish; if the author's done his job correctly we'll hurry by all that stuff so we can get to What Happens Next.

I'm never bored when I write a poem: my interest is continually pricked onward by the endless possibilities of syntax and juxtaposition, of wordplay on the levels of sound, image, and connotation. I am often bored when I read poems, but when that doesn't happen I follow the turns of the language with delight, rarely hurrying on in search of the general gestalt—I don't have to, it accumulates slyly, rapidly, by indirection, so that the best poems gradually colonize my consciousness with something we might call worldness, or atmosphere, or mood (the German Stimmüng best approximates what I mean). It will do rapidly and effortlessly what fiction typically labors for many pages to achieve: that sensation of transport that is for me the degree zero of aesthetic experience.

I'm always trying to return to Middle Earth: not Tolkien's much-imitated and abused fantasy world (though that is the archetype) but that sensation of a world suspended between ours and that of pure imagination: a contested space, dialogic, allegorical but with no master key, in narrative but not necessarily of narrative. If I write my way into this space, I must not be bored. But I risk boring the reader in a hurry, and most readers are in a hurry. If I want to achieve what I think it's just possible to achieve, I will do so by inserting fragments of reality into the work, fragments with the energy, the gravity or the magnetism, to pull readers through the text, though not promising to deposit them in reality (or Truth) as conventional narratives do. To repeat the old saying: the journey is the destination. The trick is in making this as true for the reader as it is for the writer.

Monday, March 09, 2009

A Word about Watchmen

It didn't suck, though I wonder what the larger audience, the one not composed of GenX geeks for whom the comic served as a kind of serial Bible as it came out one mind-blowing, paranoia-steeping issue at a time back in the Eighties, could possibly have made of it. As spectacle, it exceeds The Dark Knight, and it's not without a certain visual poetry, particularly in the scenes focusing on Dr. Manhattan, who is gifted with a surprisingly light, properly bemused voice by Billy Crudup. The acting is a mixed bag: Jeffrey Dean Morgan makes gleefully sadistic hay in his turn as the Comedian, while Patrick Wilson is an appropriately melancholy Nite Owl (his hair is perfect). Malin Akerman, best known to me before now for being topless in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, looks the part but her line readings are wince-inducingly bad. As the trailer voiceover man would say, Jackie Earle Haley IS Rohrshach, compelling in his "squidgy" mask and even more compelling out of it. Most disappointing is Matthew Goode as Ozymandias: he gets the character's closeted self-superiority but has nothing of the necessary gravitas. He's a lightweight in more senses than one: it's hard to believe that the Comedian, even in his sixties, wouldn't have been able to throw this Ozymandias out the window instead of vice-versa.

These are quibbles. More disturbing, or perhaps just a sign of the times, is the negation or subtraction of the fundamental humanism of the comic. It's been misinterpreted as the book that cleared the path for "dark" superheroes, alongside the Moore-penned Batman: The Killing Joke and everything Frank Miller's ever done. But what Moore is really about in Watchmen is discovering the human faces behind the masks: as the first Nite Owl writes, ""Yes, we were crazy, we were kinky, we were Nazis, all those things that people say. We were also doing something because we believed in it. We were attempting, through our personal efforts, to make our country a safer and better place to live in. Individually, working on our separate patches of turf, we did too much good in our respective communities to be written off as a mere aberration, whether social or sexual or psychological." Moore takes the heroic impulse as seriously as the pathology, and none of his characters, even the very worst of them, lacks a fundamental humanity. That includes the minor characters, the non-masks: Bernard the newspaper vendor and Bernie the comic-reading freeloader; the compromised psychiatrist Malcolm Long and his wife; and the Nixon of the comic is more than the mad bomber of the movie but shows flickers of introspection and regret.

The subordination of these characters to the masked heroes is an obvious, probably necessary gesture given the task of compressing twelve issues into three hours, but it's a serious loss, made more serious by the director's moronic sadism, his need to upstage the already grim violence of the comic (but it's real, that violence—the people involved suffer, there's nothing cathartic about it). What on earth was he thinking by turning Dan and Laurie's battle with the street gang into a battle to the death? He takes a scene with a wryly humorous undertone—as shown in the final panel of the battle in which the sweat-drenched heroes are shown as it were post-coitally—and turns it into a pointless bloodbath that permanently damages our sense of the fundamental decency of those characters. There are many other moments in which the violence gratuitously goes beyond the comic, giving us a cheap little thrill that empties out the queasiness the original book induced by showing us superheroes attempting murder and rape. The cynicism of this is expressed most succinctly in the transformation of a scene in which Rohrshach outwits one of the thugs who've come to kill him in his prison cell. In the original comic, Rohrshach taunts poor Lawrence into reaching through the bars of his prison cell, Lawrence shouting, "We've got a hundred guys out here that want to kill you. What have you got?" Deftly breaking the guy's thumbs while tying his hands together, Rohrshach replies, "Your hands. My perspective." It's a dryly funny moment that emphasizes what's so terrifying about Rohrshach: not his physicality (he's a little guy) but his black-and-white view of the world. In the film, though, Rohrshach's line is "Your hands. My pleasure." That gives the whole game away. Snyder has traded the comic's negativity for nihilism, and it's too bad.

My dream for a filmed Watchmen always revolved around a mini-series or even a full-fledged series, something that could take the time to find a cinematic means of replicating the multiple perspectives for which comics are ideal. The comic packs almost every panel with multiple storylines, switching between background and foreground, each issue interpolated with texts: an essay on birding by Dan Dreiberg, a corporate report on Ozymandias' toy line, a Playboy-style interview with Veidt in Antarctica. It's a very writerly book, which makes it ever more obvious why Moore has taken his name off the filmed adaptations of his work. I liked V for Vendetta, and I liked this, if only for the set pieces and images that it brought to larger-than-life: Dr. Manhattan's glass palace on Mars, the Comedian leaping down into a rioting mob from the Owlship, Rohrshach's pitch-perfect battle with police. It's a great comic-book movie, but it's a lousy comic.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Teaching Poetry, Tossing the Coin


Most of my poetry students come to my classes with the goal of self-expression. They come to poetry with their ideas of themselves already formed, complete and entire. They seek to render, boldly or shyly, entirely “as is,” their ideal selves with sentences broken into lines. I do my level best to cut against this late-Romantic expressivist grain with a little old-fashioned constructivsm. I give them exercises and constraints, some Oulipo-inspired (S+7, abecedarian poems, lipograms, etc.) and some homegrown. One of my favorite tricks, usually at the beginning of the semester, is to ask them to write the worst poem they possibly can. The results are hilarious and raise student consciousness about the dangers posed by cliched images, overfamiliar or archaic diction, and clunky end-rhymes. To a greater or lesser degree this opens their ears and their eyes, and they start to think about poetry differently. All along, I’m working cheerfully to undermine the assumptions that they brought to the class, to fight a covert war against poetry as self-expression. It’s not that I’m against it per se, or that I’m on a moral crusade against the small-bore narcissism of Facebook and YouTube—I’m all for narcissism if it leads to interesting work. But I believe that poets, especially young poets, whether they realize it or not, write not to express the self but to discover it: to open the Russian doll of themselves, to give birth to multiplicities, to contain multitudes. Derrida wrote that there was nothing outside the text, infuriating just about everybody; but for me it’s an article of faith, at least as a poetry teacher, that the self is text, part of the larger weave of language, and a poet must find the seamy side of his or her particular embroidered corner and work it.


All semester, she’d endured the incomprehension of her classmates, while I gently and sometimes less gently tried to nudge her obvious talent toward something I could grasp, something I could recognize. She sank into stony silence while continuing to write baffling little poems, often with the grammar or syntax mangled to a degree that maddens because you can’t be sure if it’s deliberate or a mistake. The images spoke of something subterranean and grand, something having to do with sex, death, alcoholism, and a mother half helpless, half horrifying. They weren’t good poems but they were strong poems. I pointed out her mistakes, tried to encourage her, eventually just tried to avoid discouraging her. At semester’s end, in the artist’s statement I have each student append to his or her portfolio, she complained about the class. She’d felt humiliated by the experience of having her classmates read her poems, time and again, without ever getting them. They kept asking her, as I asked her, for clarity, though we meant different things by this. They wanted to know what the poem was about; I wanted the poem’s components, its lines and word choices, to ring more resonantly. She wrote a cry from the heart: “I don’t want to write from a place of clarity. I want to write from a more private, unseen place.” And reading this, after the class is over, no longer really her teacher, I want to applaud it even as I lament my inability to have seen that private place—not that I would intrude upon it, but that I could have felt its presence more palpably and encouraged its growth and slow revelation. She’s building a self, maybe several selves, maybe her mother’s self in new relation with her own. She’s doing it in language and she believes in the self. She’s a romantic, she’s a visionary, she’s clumsy as all hell. And I can’t, don’t, teach that. I gave her some tools, I got out of her way, but I didn’t get clear, and she didn’t. I hope she will. I hope she won’t.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Say It Don't Spray It: Another Note on Bolaño

Nearing the end finally of 2666, which is bound to leave a lasting and deep impression upon me. One insight I've gleaned about the challenge the novel poses I've obtained from Adam Kirsch's review in Slate of the book: his first sentence ("According to Proust, one proof that we are reading a major new writer is that his writing immediately strikes us as ugly") goes some distance toward expressing what I and others have tried to say about Bolaño's seemingly un- or antiliterary qualities. But a more profoundly practical insight comes from an Amazon review by one Stephen Balbach—here's the key paragraph:
Bolano successfully breaks one of the basic rules of fiction writing - rather than showing what happens, he tells what happens, like a journalist. Thus he is able to say as much in one paragraph that others take in a chapter. Bolano says as much in 900 pages that might normally take 2500. He does not use line breaks and quotes for dialog (except in book 5), so there are often long blocks of text with no white space - it's a 900 page novel of high word count, but smooth reading. Ironically I never felt I was wasting my time, as if every detail mattered, even though I guess none of it did, all of it did.
This explains to me better than anything else I've read what I find so fascinating and attractive about Bolaño's style. As a teacher of creative writing, I'm constantly admonishing students to show-don't-tell—that most axiomatic article-of-faith in the field of creative writing, heir to Ezra Pound's "Go in fear of abstractions" and as such an exception to the rule of our generally anti-modernist literature: it's the one little fragment of modernism universally adopted and passed on, like a virus. And to be sure, it's damn good advice, easier to offer than to accept, and students prove time and again that telling about or describing characters, thoughts, and themes rather than showing through action is the quickest path to dead-eyed and amateurish prose.

I don't regret repeating show-don't-tell to students that need to hear it, but I am beginning to regret my own internalization of that rule, and to recognize that much of what I find most valuable in writing is in fact in violation of the rule. This is part of a larger or longer pattern of education and Bildung that I've perceived in myself as a writer, which in the past I've expressed as a kind of pyramidal view of Pound's trio, melopoeia (sound), phanopoeia (image), and logopoeia ("the dance of the intellect among words"). That is, it's a pyramid I've climbed as I've become more confident and experienced as a poet. When I was very young, I was fascinated above all by the sound of words, by the way they shift and deform in your mouth through repetition. Then in the first poems I wrote to find readers I was preoccupied primarily with the creation of striking images, and this impulse carried me some ways into graduate school. Finally—it took discovering the Language poets for me to conceptualize this—I became most interested in logopoeia, in the complex and subtle interactions between the connotative and denotative levels of language, a level of linguistic action maybe best described by Bakhtin's notion of heteroglossia. That's territory at a considerable remove from show-don't-tell, which it required a certain amount of conceptual machinery and experience for me to distance myself from in my poems.

At the same time, I've wanted to try narrative, and that's where show-don't-tell has stymied me, because fiction that tells is lifeless, or so I believed, while fiction that shows bores the pants off of me. What's the distinction between lifelessness and boredom? Well, the former is a corpse, interesting only for its history as something alive: the experience that you try to transform and render in prose like a coroner's report of an autopsy. There's at least a certain honesty to that, but I find most "good" fiction to be bankrupted by its slavish adherence to show-don't-tell: I can't read mainstream short stories or novels without being acutely conscious of the machinery of manipulation that gets vividly realized character X across the pages to ambiguously revealed goal Z—Y being the more-or-less beautiful, more-or-less serviceable and vehicular sentences and paragraphs that even most literary writers hope to disappear (disappear is here a transitive verb, as it is in South America) in favor of what John Gardner, archdeacon of realist fiction, called the "vivid continuous dream."

Bolaño breaks the stalemate. He tells, and yet his prose—no, that's not quite accurate, his narrative—is full of life and interest and urgency, forcing attention to details (which is what I go to poetry for, that slippery savoring recoil from individual words, clauses, lines) through intense compression (thus Balbach's intimation that the novel is "really" 2500 pages long). How does he achieve this? I think quite simply from his adaptation of the hoariest of narrative engines, going all the way back to Oedipus Rex: the mystery. Because each of his fictions ultimately has the obsessive drive of the detective seeking to unravel a crime—a crime that, in the best hard-boiled tradition, is always also an existential or even ontological crime, and not just a murder, though it's murder too, murder most foul and unbearable in its endless iterations, as the deliberate flatness of the prose describing the murders of women in "The Part about the Crimes" makes plain. The novel takes us deeper and deeper into multiple mysteries mysteriously aligned—the parallel hauntings of the literary critics, the mad Mexican professor, the black reporter whose nom de plume is Oscar Fate, the savage naif novelist Benno von Arcimboldi whose story I'm currently unraveling, sure to leave a morass of threads in my hands at the end without anything resembling a resolution, and yet bound to satisfy through its truth content, the respect Bolaño holds for mystery, a mystery that he throws everything he's got at (and he's got a lot) and which still resists him, and us, and that's its truth, though it takes us close into its heart, and wraps us and holds us there, and will not be forgotten.

If I write narrative prose, then, I must write it like poetry, so that the details matter. But neither can I tie those details together—compress them—in a way that falsifies them. The third, most difficult thing is to coalesce them with an urgency that gets fully transmitted to the reader—otherwise I'm doomed, as so many are doomed, to produce writing that only a handful of other logophiles will be willing to parse. Not the worst fate if that's the price of integrity; but Bolaño shows—I hope he shows—another path.

Popular Posts