publishing

it’ll keep you up at night, and it’s worth it

At our house, buying a hardback book is a big event.  We splurge when authors we adore publish something new and we can’t possibly wait our turn at the library or for the paperback.  We’ll also get our wallets out for the promise of a read we can’t resist.  Not being able to resist was the impulse behind acquiring Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

Signature of all Things

In full disclosure, I never read Eat, Pray, Love.  Then and now, I rankle at the gimmick of it, at the way Gilbert pitched to her publisher a trip for healing from divorce; in three countries she’d search for love and spirituality and then write a book about it.  What really chapped my hide, in truth, was the notion that a pre-planned and pre-paid guide to healing was a self-helpish story to tell rather than a private journey.  I’m pretty sure enlightenment isn’t something you can decide to acquire, nor a thing you can pay for.  Probably I’m jealous and kind of a bitch and resistant to popular things. Divorce is shitty, to be sure, and Gilbert likely wanted to crawl in a hole and hide but resisted, but it’s been my experience that both love and spirituality are quests you can’t engage in with a head and heart full of lists and expectations.  Love and enlightenment come winging at you when you’re NOT questing, when you’re vulnerable and off-guard and open to the great mystery of being alive.

That almost every woman I knew was in a hot lather over how amazing and life-changing the book was, one they felt made them more thoughtful and stronger as a woman (a comment I heard repeatedly), only made me want to read it less.  And then even less during Gilbert’s 187 week stint on the New York Times Bestseller List.  And then even less when her story of love and spirituality became a movie (also pre-paid, I’d imagine).

Still, I was intrigued by the mission of Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, by its ambitious romp through more than a century and across the globe, and also worried that she had “gotten” to the idea of my own novel, at least a little, before I’m finished with it.  She didn’t, I’m safe there, not that we’d be allowed in the same literary room anyway, honestly, unless I’m asking for her autograph.  But this much I believe to be true:  Elizabeth Gilbert’s book will, or should be, on the list to win the Pulitzer this year.

Gilbert’s Henry Whittaker is a plant thief in 18th century England, grifting the plants and clients of his father’s employer at Kew Gardens, making his mark in the world one small exotic cutting at a time, and then transplanting himself to Philadephia to build his own botanical pharmaceutical dynasty.  Henry’s daughter Alma inherits this vast network of wealth and her father’s love of plants. A polyglot, a seeker of wild places, a solitary child, Alma gets her mother’s sharp intelligence and curiosity, and also a reserve that renders her emotionally daft in the world.  And then there’s Alma’s figure, big and strong as a man’s, and her face, tragically plain, anything but feminine, next to the stunning beauty of her adopted sister Prudence.  Such is the stage upon which Gilbert sets her tale.

And what a stage it is.  What rises to the surface, above every disappointment heaped upon heartbreak for every character, not just for Alma, is the utter loneliness braiding these characters together, and the way they soldier on in the name of survival.  For, of course, their fates are as connected as those of any Dickensian tale.  Also, pinging around the edges of the narrative are Darwin’s theories, after all.  Alma attempts to understand the human condition inside science, seeking to crack the code of what makes mosses, a microcosm of the natural world, work in order to understand people and the way they love.  There’s scientific genius in her, which a reader believes because Gilbert’s clearly done her homework, but Alma’s quest is also driven by her own aching heart.

It’s not a flawless tale, especially toward the end when we see where Gilbert’s headed with Alma, but the choices the writer makes for her are true to the story, or more to the point, true to the Alma with whom we’ve spent so many years.

For a few days now, I’ve been unable to pick up another book.  I’m still steeping in the delicious sting of Gilbert’s story, which I took my time to read because I knew I’d be sad when it was over.  I am.

Buy it in hardback.  Read it, but not too fast.  Alma’s yearning interior and lush exterior worlds will keep you up at night.

A few reviews are here if you still don’t believe me.

Barbara Kingsolver in The New York Times

Elizabeth Day in The Guardian

Advertisements
Categories: book review, books, fiction, publishing, writing | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

famine of the heart

Recently I picked up a copy of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a novel I somehow missed in my literature studies, though a long time ago his story “Barn Burning,” maybe one of the best short stories ever written, inspired me to become a teacher and a writer.  Also, I wanted to see if I remembered correctly that Faulkner’s work might not translate that well to the big screen.  James Franco is either a genius or out of his mind.  When the film comes to town, I’ll be curious to see which, or if it’s some of both.

What strikes me about Faulkner’s “experimental” novel is two things:  the deception in its structure, which is to say a first impression that its short chapters and multiple voices would make for a quick read; and also that the engine in the novel – the problem of how to get Addie Bundren’s body to her native Jefferson, Mississippi to be buried (her dying wish) despite a flood, and then injury, and then fire — is overshadowed by what motivates her husband Anse and her children Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardaman to engage in this journey.  The fifteen voices that tell the story, including one chapter from Addie herself, reveal what undergirds every action in the novel:  The inscrutable world is a dark and hard place full of relentless futility.  The best we can hope for is to survive the world or leave it on our own terms, as Addie herself seems to have done.  Faulkner once said his writing was “hammering at…that man is indestructible because of his simple will to freedom.”   (An interview from 1956 is here).  His characters’ insistence on survival, however misguided or self-interested, is the relentless drumbeat of As I Lay Dying.

Faulkner called this novel a “tour de force,” and I suppose it is in the way it was different, an experiment that flouted conventional storytelling.  I spent more time than I’d like to admit keeping track of the book in the plot way.  Time loops around, for one, and I found myself rereading chapters more than a few times to make sure I was getting it.  Addie shows up for just one chapter to speak her mind long after she’s already a dead and rotting corpse on her way to Jefferson, for example.  Anse and the five kids all help to tell the story, and in each of their pages their mundane, repetitive conversations are interrupted by language in italics that seems to represent the lyrical, internal language each character is unable to give voice to on the surface. I’m not sure this technique really works.

But to be sure Faulkner’s intentions were grand.  The title, a line from The Odyssey, is the first hint that Faulkner’s plan is epic in scale.  (Thank you, Wikipedia, for teaching me that As I Lay Dying is also the name of a metalcore band, whose “lyrics and music take no direct inspiration from the novel.”  Dear Faulkner, are you spinning brodies in your grave? ) But it’s a short epic, chock full of unfortunate events not unlike Odysseus’ journey.  There are broken bones, a rotting corpse, a burned down barn, a bad love affair, a hoped for abortion, sexual abuse, siblings sending their brother to a mental institution, and finally, a marriage. By the time we arrive to Jefferson to bury Addie, digging the hole and putting her in it only takes a few sentences, because by this time, the story is about anything but burying Addie.  What has propelled the family to this place has been eclipsed by the fractured agenda of each character, with Anse, who takes something from each of his children in order to serve himself, at the center of it all.

I had the best success as a reader when I focused on giving myself over to each character’s way of revealing the story instead of tallying up my frustrations.  They’re a heartbreaking lot, some of them despicable like Anse, others tragic like Cash, the one character aside from Vardaman whose volition is not about his own needs.

Still, between the work required to be a thoughtful reader of Faulkner’s book, and what I think is the failed technique of those italics to represent what his characters wanted to say, if only they could, I’m not sure this book would be published now.  Unless I’m reading it wrong, I’m not sure most people are willing to work that hard for an ending so dark, what with our penchant for endings in which all loose ends are neatly wrapped and characters leave the scene with no hard feelings.

But maybe James Franco’s split-screen delivery will work to unspool for audiences the existential question inherent in the gap between a heart that sings lyrically against the grim wilds of a hardscrabble life.  I gotta hand it to Franco for trying anyway.  When the film comes my way, I’ll be one of the first in line to see it.

Categories: books, fiction, movies, publishing, short story, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

the short story is anything but dead

Many writers compelled to craft short fiction do so against the big question about whether the short story is dying.  As a writer and a reader, I don’t feel this is true at all.  But then, I’m a fan of the form, even on days when I want to light my work on fire.  Short stories are the perfect length for the hectic life.  They’re much easier to inhabit, to fully drop into and then emerge out of, than novels.  You can get the satisfaction of a full narrative arc in the time it takes to commute to work, cook something at the stove, or wait at a doctor’s office.  I’ve even read flash fiction while brushing my teeth (a few times I’ve stood at the sink with suds in my mouth, the toothbrush forgotten).

I’m not saying reading short fiction should only be shoe-horned between other activities; I’m only pointing out it can be done that way, very satisfyingly.  Also, I’m guessing the reading life looks like this for many of us — more catch-as-catch-can and less feet-up-on-the-couch than we’d like it to be.

I’d argue the short story isn’t as “pallid” or “ill from neglect” as Mary Gaitskill once suggested.  Nor are short stories just “written for editors and teachers rather than for readers,” as Stephen King once lamented was the by-product of a shrinking readership.   There are many fine journals out there doing the good, hard work of keeping the short form alive, and a heap of talented emerging writers showing up in those pages.  And there are readers.  Plenty of them, and not all of them writers.

Readers are smart, after all, and know when they’re in good hands.  This is one of the first tenets you learn in any writing program.

Speaking of being in good hands, each year the Chicago Tribune invites writers to submit short fiction for its Nelson Algren Award.  Named after the writer Nelson Algren, the contest is free.  You can submit two stories.  If you win, there’s a generous prize, your piece is published in the paper, and you get to be in the company of fellow Nelson Algren winners like Louise Erdrich, Julia Glass, Melissa Bank and E.J Levy, to name just a few.

Beginning in February of this year, the Tribune added a book geek’s membership society called Printers Row.   Taking a page out of One Story‘s mission to send singleton stories to subscribers every three weeks, Printers Row sends out a weekly short story.  It’s also free to submit work for this project, and you can track your submission on Submishmash.

Heather E. Goodman‘s kick-ass story His Dog won the 2008 Nelson Algren Award and is now out as a Printers Row piece.  Goodman’s characters are a hardscrabble lot, eking out a life on the land and with each other.  The story is tender, gritty, unrelenting and carries you toward an inevitability that is the perfect final act, though you don’t see it coming.  But don’t believe me.  Read it for yourself online or pony up for a Printers Row subscription.  You’ll get to hold this gem in your hands and be reminded each week that the short story is alive and well.

Categories: fiction, publishing, short story, writing | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Blog at WordPress.com.