What’s Wrong with Perfection

My copy of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (2006) is missing a portion of its back cover and last few pages—like it’d been chow for roaches or pulled across asphalt, at a sharp and insensitive angle.
But I bought it at Goodwill—in a 10 books for $2 deal, where the lady tells me at the register that I’ll pay $2 regardless of how many books I have, so I rush around slow shoppers inspecting wooly sweaters to the back of the store and look under a stack of water-damaged Dave Barry books to find some works of fiction. And so it’s expected that this “#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER,” which has sold something like five million copies, will have a bit of damage. I’m okay with it. All necessary pages are intact. And plus, it gives the book “character,” which some reviews will tell you this book is sorely lacking.
Oh, burn, snap, roasted, etc.
The initial premise is promising: an Ivy League vet-in-training walks right out of his exit exams (because he can’t think about anything but his recently deceased parents) and right into a traveling circus.
The structure is rigidly perfect. It has all of the things you’d expect from a well-crafted (read: well-edited) story. The complications mount throughout the book. The stakes rise. A deadline is introduced. Obstacles are episodically overcome.
Which brings me to my thoughts about the separateness of plot and character. Robert McKee, in his legendary Story, explains that the two are inextricable. They are the same thing, for plot comes out of character and character is developed through the action of the plot. And thus all arguments re the precedence of plot over character or vice versa are vacuous: because they begin from a false dichotomy.
My initial thoughts about the book were mostly technical—which I admit is one reason I read the book: to get better at plotting and structure, but also description and pacing. But the book didn’t hit me in the gut, didn’t make me care or feel. The blame rests on the characters, because I didn’t see humans in this book. I saw tropes, caricatures—depthless understudies who on the night before the big production got the call but hadn’t experienced the far reaches of their character through weeks of preparation.
A couple notes about our main character: (1) The plot device/delivery system of the story is a back-and-forth given by a dreaming, ornery, unsympathetic 90-year-old in an assisted living institution—he relives the main story through dreams while he lives a poor, static story (with a good, Hollywood ending); (2) The main character is flat; even the climax of the story is observation (inaction) by the main character, our hero, our protagonist; he doesn’t act but gets swept up by the crazy world around him—literally, and larger, this is what happens through the story proper.
So back to character v. plot: I wondered how the plot could be so good yet the characters so weak—which many people say about Michael Crichton, right? And for this book, WfE, the characters are as technically perfect as the plot.
They match. They’re congruent.
(Which, hello, the author’s name is in that word, so that’s something.)
But we don’t want perfect characters. We want imperfections, what we call humanity. That’s the source of conflict, real conflict—not what this book is littered with. A stock villain and a stock character cannot offer true conflict, because—it seems to me—true conflict develops off the page, in a reader’s consciousness, her expectation of what will occur. So if what’s expected is what occurs, then that’s the absence of conflict.
So does that mean that situational irony—the discrepancy between what the audience expects and what actually happens, like “The Boy who Cried Wolf”—is the framework of our current storytelling? Irony is central. That’s for sure. But I don’t think we necessarily need situational irony, at least not as brazenly as in the aforementioned fable.
We just need to meet real characters who get motivated by the little ironies that all humans do. And not the same retreaded ones, please. Like adulterous love affairs.


Park Backwards is Krap and Cheever is a Funny Last Name

John Cheever’s Bullet Park (1967) won the Pulitzer Prize. About which fact, who am I to comment? It was written to introduce the topic, as a fact that might also validate the reading of the novel and give some credible context.

Anyway, here’s what happens: a mysterious dude named Hammer moves into Bullet Park (a suburb of NYC), meets a quiet man named Nailles (who has a son that goes through a depression), and then interacts with Nailles’ son. To inform you of the interaction would be to report the climax of the novel. So that sounds like a really brief, uneventful plot, right? Well, it is. The book’s narrative action isn’t full. But the novel nevertheless persists as a page-turner.

Rather than hooking the reader with its plot, the novel seamlessly introduces and then penetrates practically each character within the course of its reporting of the narrative proper. This is to say that we meet someone and then are told—again let me stress that this telling is consistently seamless—a history about that person, which explains who the character is and usually why they are committing the action at hand.

So I think Cheever really succeeds with the real truth that everyone has a story, rich and unique. But the problem is that none of the characters are good.

In Bullet Park, as in everywhere else the novel’s characters travel, people are fundamentally vapid and materialistic and narcissistic. And that’s only true when the characters actually choose to act. Most of the time, they just go along with whatever decision is easiest, as determined by their environment—like a woman who would make a cuckold of her husband but various odd coincidences prevent her from it. Usually the easiest decision is indecision and acquiescence to an understood way that things should be, like they were before, like we were taught.

Cheever, with two (it could be argued three) characters, investigates depression and a lack of fulfillment with the kind of world he builds, but these characters are either greatly thwarted or miraculously (read: inconclusively) cured.

Now again, the novel, at the micro-/page-to-page-level, is pretty great. Cheever’s a wonderful writer, with real talent for description and quick characterization. And he broaches some terrific techniques—that could be classified as postmodern; like, here’s the first line of the novel: “Paint me a small railroad station then, ten minutes before dark.” This introduction clearly calls one’s attention to the artifice of fiction writing. Again, mid-novel, Cheever begins to comment on the way we talk about traveling, seemingly taking writers to task, or at least calling attention to techniques of storytelling: “We speak of travel—world travel—as if it were the most natural condition. ‘Mr. X,’ we read, ‘then traveled from Boston to Kitzbühel.’ How far this is from the truth!”

But when we step back to inspect the novel from a macro-level, the worldview of Mr. Cheever—a man who lived longer than I have and wrote more than I have—is hopefully, like some of our turns of phrase, “far…from the truth.”

Review: James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain

James Baldwin’s first novel, like most first novels, is considered “semi-autobiographical.” But Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) should be regarded with as much reverence as you afford anything that holds truth—be it non-fiction or fiction or poetry or scripture.

The structure of the novel is its most remarkable aspect. The action occurs over one overnight session of fervent prayer, wherein we also receive the stories of the main character’s mother, father and aunt, each affected in different ways by their understanding of God and religion, their experiences with racism and family, and their personal discovery; all three (whose sections are titled “[Name]’s Prayer”) are sort of beautifully built through recollections but all reach a pitch of newness and resolve over the course of their prayer.

Even still, John’s realization of his identity—across those very same arenas, i.e., family, society, spirituality, etc.—is the note on which the novel ends, in a properly novelistic thrust of its last line: “’I’m ready,’ John said, ‘I’m coming. I’m on my way.’”

Baldwin was a great writer, and his skills are on display throughout the book, which reminds me—maybe because I read him first, or because Baldwin, writing in the fifties, couldn’t avoid being influenced by him—of Faulkner (or even Toni Morrison). However, some of the book became a trudge. But this isn’t to discourage its reading. I can’t quite explain why—except to hazard a guess: I’ve read much like this book—books that, I imagine, influenced it and books that have almost certainly been influenced by it.

The beauty of the book for me is in its attempt to formulate words (mostly metaphorical and vivid) that communicate characters’ explorations of faith, and the events surrounding and forcing those explorations. The language is simple, elegant and clear throughout; the characters interestingly complex; the structure intriguingly compelling; but the action was sometimes stiff.

Here’s what I can say: Baldwin sometimes seems to settle (and this is weird if most of the events are indeed autobiographical) for the easy event, but his characters’ reflection on the event is always difficult and brilliant.

Read it—if you’re American.

Mr. Waugh Makes Us Laugh

Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948) shares a young British poet’s hapless situation in Hollywood. Dennis Barlow penned his one successful volume while serving in the war, but inspiration isn’t so easy to come by these days. So he works at Happier Hunting Ground, a pet cemetery.

The novel is about death, in more ways than animals. The first character who speaks dies shortly thereafter. Sir Francis—like Dennis, a transplanted Englishman—was abruptly fired from a studio and then hangs himself. So Dennis, left to take care of his friend’s corpse, goes to a real cemetery, Whispering Glades, where he is entranced by the production, the commercialization (and capitalization) of the dead. He hopes, at first, to take some of their more successful innovations back to Happier Hunting Ground.

But he falls in love with a cosmetician at Whispering Glades, and here’s our love story—full of deceit, envy, another man and death.

The novel delivers a few laughs, maybe like one out-loud guffaw a chapter (for this reader). And it attempts to comment on capitalism and death and materialism, but alas in this progressive age, these ideas have mostly been subsumed in our monolithic cultural attitude—not reckoned with, just dismissed as something purportedly dealt with, and because it (the knowledge of our materialism) is everywhere, we can easily recognize it. And in Mr. Waugh’s way, to apply the materialism to such a bleak subject (a loved one’s death), that comical distance allows us to view the point from afar, without any personal investment or feeling, so we can laugh at these characters because they share nothing with us readers.

But that is the way of satire, sometimes, I guess. However, there are plenty of reasons to read this book. It’s short, funny, and spattered with inspections of the artistic temperament (because, as you’ll recall, our protagonist is a poet).

Make No Mistake, This is Mostly a Good Thing

Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays (2006) by David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)

The book is an assortment of essays (10), which were written for different publications (e.g., Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Gourmet, etc.), the earliest published in 1992.

I know you’re wondering already—because my wife asked, and she never asks—about the title. It is the title of an essay that was written for Gourmet magazine in 2005, wherein DFW details his visit to the Maine Lobster Festival, an essay that eventually begins raising ethical and philosophical questions about animal cruelty and the relationship between morality and aesthetics.

Let that sink in for a moment and you’ll have a decent idea of the abilities of the author, who finds life and meaning everywhere through a simply stated but maddeningly demanding-to-practice formula: he pays attention. And this is generally regarded as his greatest, most transcendental skill. Past the surface, past the first meaning, deep into any given object that enters his comprehensive gaze, DFW perceives significance in it all. Cultural, relational, personal, emotional, spiritual, whatever—it’s all there.

The real joy and fortune for readers is his power to communicate. He applies the same attention he gives the world to his writing. And because of that, the voice and verve of each piece resonate. Something is built in even the shortest essay that compels you to continue as if you’re in a real conversation. DFW transfers the capacity to pay attention to the reader, which provokes the careful thinking about the topic at hand that accompanies all good writing.

The content of the collection ranges from John McCain’s candidacy campaign in 1999 to book reviews of a biography and dictionary of usage to the rise and impact of political radio to an elegant response to 9/11.

Editorially, I think it was a bad decision to begin the book with an essay about his reporting from the Adult Video News Awards, but I am admittedly a prude who lives in the South. Even still, I didn’t find much structurally or rhetorically appealing about the piece.

However, I routinely teach two of the essays from this collection: “A View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” DFW’s Midwestern coverage of 9/11, and “Consider the Lobster.” I also include passages from “Authority and American Usage,” the sixty page treatise on the importance of writing, which uses The Dictionary of Modern American Usage as its topical locus. (And this essay changed and constructed all sorts of conceptual approaches to and beliefs about composition for me.) All three pieces present the unlikely benefits of cynicism if it can be coupled with kindness, a kindness that manifests in really close attention. Maybe respect would be a better word, rather than kindness, and maybe skepticism, rather than cynicism, but when put together, they (whichever it is) equal the critical eye. DFW shows you how to respect something by demonstratively respecting the objects of his writing. A multitude can be learned here, but I’d like to point out more clearly two things:

1) To write about something well, we must look at it closely. And only considering something important enough to be looked at closely will enable us to write about it well. This is the respect. We must respect things to know them, which, if true, makes automatic respect a prerequisite to getting to know something (or someone), as if respect is the attractive impetus that calls young men to pay attention to young and pretty women. But it’s the idea that all young women are attractive, the operating under the assumption that all things demand respect already by virtue of their existence, their being a part of our world.

2) From the careful inspection of small and seemingly singular things comes really significant understandings of larger things. The first section of “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” is titled Synecdoche, which means that the part is used (or can be substituted) for the whole, like DNA. It reminds me of a Pirsig quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower.” Whatever you think of as ultimate truth can be found in any object of this world. We must only look at it close enough to see. And writing, for some of us, can serve as our microscope or window, or even as our eyes.

A Review of Chabon’s Debut Novel (& TMI Re Me).

There’s a Pulitzer in the house or garage of Michael Chabon, I imagine. Also, in my mind, little children scurry below the shelf on which the prize is precariously perched, no glass or protective measure for it, other than elevation. The award acknowledges his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

I was informed by the internet (thanks, internet) that the long piece of fiction I’ve been giving my time to is classified (thanks, Aristotle) as Young Adult. The classification has to do with the age of the story’s protagonist, the content/subject matter, perspective and word count. Currently in YA, John Green is the preeminent author, the one who is selling massive amounts of books that are not serialized—which contrasts Suzanne Collins and Veronica Roth. On Twitter, Green, who apparently was in Pittsburgh at the time, cited Michael Chabon’s debut novel as the “first contemporary novel I [Green] ever loved.” I read this the day that I had heard another author praise it when he was talking about first novels.

I had seen The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay on a colleague’s desk. He has voiced his admiration for Chabon twice to me. These factors were enough for me to immediately begin Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Chabon’s debut novel, which he published as a 25-year-old. The book was his master’s thesis, from his time at UC-Irvine’s MFA program.

So what does a 26-year-old expect to find in a debut novel that was published 25 years ago and was written by a person who was younger than 26? Whatever I expected, I found something different, as is usually the case.

The last debut novel written by someone younger than me—or really just a novel written by someone younger than I was when I read it—that I also really liked was written by the preternaturally talented David Foster Wallace. It was also a master’s thesis.

Mysteries gives a love triangle from the first person perspective. And the triangle has two boys and one girl as its angles. However, one of the boys is the vertex. Like, our main character is angle A, and our “triangle” is BAC, which—as you geometrically savvy readers can see—might do some harm to the tried and true metaphor of love triangles. At any rate, this is indeed a triangle, because our main character Art (angle A) falls in love with Arthur (Art; angle B) and Phlox (angle C). And Arthur and Phlox work together at a library. And yes, our main character struggles with the bisexuality.

Art works at a bookstore. It is the summer after he graduated from college. Meeting these two wonderful people confuses him and constructs an amazingly unforgettable summer.

Art’s father is a “gangster,” which is written in the first line of the book. Like a Disney movie, Art’s mother is dead. And Art doesn’t really understand what his father does. In fact, his father keeps him out of the-know purposefully. However, Cleveland—a character who embodies and is represented as larger-than-life—is friends with Arthur, and he learns of Art’s father, and he aspires to make a name for himself via the gangster vocation.

And this all leads to some bizarre scenes. The most moving scenes involve Art and Phlox or Art and Arthur, or all three of them. This is the first book I’ve read that had a young character’s struggle with sexual orientation as one of its main arcs. And I thought the added layer of confusion resonated true. I couldn’t imagine how it would have been told from a high schooler’s perspective. It’s a coming-of-age story that is representative of the cultural directive that everyone goes to college: like you cannot come of age until you are free, and you are not free until you finish college.

Chabon crafts wonderful bits of language for action, dialogue and description, but none of these things ever seem to add to a real life character. Yeah, as I typed that, I understood it sounds tough, and I don’t mean that. What I would like to tell you is that some of the plot in this book, which seems to illustrate a fictionally large and excessive real world—some of that plot interferes with the characters.

Also, Chabon is—already in his debut—demonstrating his mastery of storytelling, which must’ve come from his reading. He knows how novels work.

Honestly, it’s sort of disconcerting, because on every page I see wonderful language or lines of dialogue. These characters say some amazing things, and usually that’s enough, but I just didn’t feel like the love triangle plights were real. I mean, they were very smart, but they each did things that seemed to me very dumb—in the name of love or because it was just really mean and careless/selfish. Also, Cleveland’s aspirations led to hyperbolic scenes, especially the culminating event, which is rich with tongue-in-cheek bigness.

Art is remembering this summer, from an indeterminately distanced future. The last line is, “No doubt all of this is not true remembrance but the ruinous work of nostalgia, which obliterates the past, and no doubt, as usual, I have exaggerated.” Chabon’s wonderful writing will pull you through the narrative, but when I look back on the novel, I feel those aforementioned tinges. The end does however explain—or to a cynic, cover up—the criticism.

But also the ending makes total sense to me. I get it. It just didn’t feel the way I felt when I graduated from college, but I didn’t graduate in standard time—nor was I single.

So without reading myself into the book, I can happily encourage your reading of it. There are some totally human parts and some parts that are just beautifully crafted. And when those two come together, those parts are worth your time. Some follow:

“It’s the beginning of the summer and I’m standing in the lobby of a thousand-story grand hotel, where a bank of elevators a mile long and an endless red row of monkey attendants in gold braid wait to carry me up, up, up through the suites of moguls, of spies, and of starlets, to rush me straight to the zeppelin mooring at the art deco summit, where they keep the huge dirigible of August tied up and bobbing in the high winds. On the way to the shining needle at the top I will wear a lot of neckties, I will buy five or six works of genius on 45 rpm, and perhaps too many times I will find myself looking at the snapped spine of a lemon wedge at the bottom of a drink. I said, ‘I anticipate a coming season of dilated time and of women all in disarray.’”

“I’m an atom, I bounce all over the place, like a mercenary. No, not a mercenary, a free agent—a free atom—isn’t that something in chemistry?”

“Hopping the low white rail, I checked as always for the little tangle of graffiti I’d scrawled on it one laughing, runny-nosed night with Claire two winters before.”

Slapstick – Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was one of the authors who welcomed me into adult fiction, or adult-themed fiction. So I go about the world with an understanding that he has impacted me and my reading. I respect him, which is clearly seen by my inclusion of the erudite “Jr.” after his name.

My wife also really likes his work. While we were dating, she read all of his long fiction—so, yeah, her birthday and Valentine’s Day were graciously easy one year.

The first of his books I read was Slapstick. I saw a used copy at a used bookstore and picked it up because it had a clown’s face on it and its first line was instantly inviting. I had heard of the author, Mr. Vonnegut, from a friend, whom I respected. My friend was reading Cat’s Cradle, which is probably my favorite novel by Sir Jr, and he had that book ostentatiously sitting in his passenger seat when I entered the vehicle one afternoon.

When I got home with my new clown-clad book, I was expecting some uproarious alone time. My expectations were engendered by the raving claims all over the front-/back-covers (just above the clown’s drawn eyebrows and below his painted lips). The claims said my gut would be busted and my side would be split and that I’d, in short, look like the clown after reading it, my face becoming that permanent rictus of the joyful because I’d—just as my grandmother warned—made the same face (a grand smile here) so much that it had stayed that way.

That didn’t happen.

However, I did smirk at some things. And I failed to understand others, which made me think that I didn’t understand the things I smirked at, which added to the whole discouraging affair. Thankfully, I have been equipped (a priori) with the facility of finishing. I dislike bookmarked books. I must assist that little booger on his quest to escape, so I read (except Twilight—there’s a copy of that book somewhere in the world that I started, and there is a sad, sweet, little bookmark, between pages 73 and 74, stalwartly fighting the good fight, keeping my page, a page that will forever be unturned).

So I persevered. I finished the book. And now, I think, that much of my praising of Mr. Vonnegut was really a positive projection (or is it displacement?) of my satisfaction with having finished a book I didn’t fully understand. I had read a book, but saying I’m such an awesome and cultured teenager because I read Kurt Vonnegut was somehow too much, so I instead said that the book and its author were great, which obliquely but sufficiently delivered the image of myself I wanted people to see, because saying Vonnegut was great meant I had read Vonnegut, which meant I was smart.

So now, something like ten years after I first read Slapstick, I returned to it.

The book is an autobiographical sketch by a 100-year-old, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, living in a post-apocalyptic NYC. He gives his current living conditions, which are characterized by a deluge of ignorance—ignorant people ignorantly acquiescing to ignorant situations. And then he shares his life’s story, which is meant to explain how the world became the way it is, Mr. Swain being at the center of the change, not causing it but witnessing it (though he played his part; we all do).

So I didn’t really like the book because it didn’t feel like a real story. It felt instead like a sequence of outlandish events that were all constructed so that Vonnegut could turn a hyperbolically enlarged mirror to us, which held our own American and ignorant image. Yeah, that sounds mean. And the humor that was there felt stale in such a way that it didn’t pay off the debts the story incurred. And there was no answer offered. In fact, it felt so defeatist that an answer doesn’t exist in Slapstick’s universe except for exceptionally small Asians who do not share though they have recognized the power of togetherness and community. This is indeed Vonnegut’s answer, but the way to cultivate community is not given. Maybe reading Vonnegut is the way. (Let’s all read his book and discuss it, huh, what say you all?).

At any rate, I am conflicted. Vonnegut sits atop lists of great twentieth-century American authors. But give me Catch-22 or The Crying of Lot 49 before Slapstick. Fortunately, I am still in love with Slaughterhouse-Five, but I’m scared to reread Cat’s Cradle (it’s really great in my nostalgic-tinted shades). I still love Vonnegut, but I am sadly but properly growing out of him, I guess.

Here follow some context-less sentences from the novel:

“Hi ho.”

“I spoke of American loneliness. It was the only subject I needed for victory, which was lucky. It was the only subject I had. It was a shame, I said, that I had not come along earlier in American history with my simple and workable anti-loneliness plan. I said that all the damaging excesses of Americans in the past were motivated by loneliness rather than a fondness for sin.”

“And all the information we received about the planet we were on indicated that idiots were lovely things to be.

So we cultivated idiocy.”