Friday, September 30, 2005

Am I Dreaming Political Metaphors Now?

I order a car service to drive me to an event in Philadelphia. The car arrives, and behind the wheel is Arnold Schwarzenegger. "This is just something I'm doing for extra money," he says. I don't ask questions.

So I'm in the back seat of the Lincoln Town Car and I realize he is an awesome driver. We're darting through NYC traffic like it's nothing. Comforted by his competence, and overtired, I doze off. When I wake up, we are on some kind of bridge, going like 200 MPH. It is dark. I see an unfamiliar city in the distance. I'm a little scared by the speed, but too drowsy to do anything about it.

We're supposed to pick up my friend in suburban Jersey. "You know how to get there, right?" I say.

"No, I've never been there before." He takes out a map of New Jersey that is like a primary school cartoon, four lines on an index card.

"That's your only map?"

"I never had any problem before."

Oh. I don't have directions, and I can't remember how to get there. "Let's call her," I say. "Surprise her. She'll get a kick out of talking to you."

He laughs, but doesn't want to call her. He pulls over and lets me out, saying, "OK, you look that way, and I'll look the other way." Drives off.

So I look for a landmark, something that will help me get to my friend's house. I find myself in a beautiful forest with a lake. But it doesn't look familiar. I backtrack, and end up at a gas station. The Lincoln is parked out front. Arnold is on the pay phone, screaming at someone, waving his kiddie map in his hand.

I walk up to his bodyguard (who suddenly materializes in the story) and say, "Good, I'm glad I found you guys. We should never have split up."

"He does this," says the bodyguard with a shrug.

(I don't KNOW if we ever get to Philly, because Boo Boo decided to crawl under the covers and wake me up. But something tells me we never get there. Just drive eternally, through suburban Jersey, with the lights of the unknown city on the horizon.)

PLEASE TELL ME THIS DOESN'T MAKE ME A REPUBLICAN.
(The car is, after all, a LINCOLN.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Pets vs. Furniture: It's Rigged.



There's no contest here, the cat is that big. The couch is ruined. And it's not the first one: when the dog was a puppy, he used to take a running dive into our last couch, leaving an impact hole in its center. We've given up on regular upholstered furniture, opting instead for adirondack chairs and the like. Clockwise from top left: Boo Boo (aka Porkchop), Wilbur, and Angus (indoor brother of Vince).

Boo Boo, though obese, has gotten a clean bill of health from the vet. Go figure. Despite his girth, he does turn into Action Kitty when there are creatures to hunt. Or little brothers to boss around. Or dogs to box. I think it's part of his dominant nature, getting fat. (I wish I had the same excuse!)

Willie is shedding like crazy, in clumps and tufts, true to his collie-husky genes. The furniture is not the only receptacle for his fluffy residue. I showed up at work the other day covered in dog hair, garnering ridicule in the elevator. Leave it to me to wear black. I used FedEx labels to pull the hair off. (Free! Big!) My boss was helping me, peeling the hair off of my back, and said: "It's just like getting a wax!"

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Jane Smiley on the 13 Ways

I just listened to WFMU's Speakeasy archive from last week, and you gotta check it out. Dorian Devins interviews Jane Smiley on her book, 13 WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE NOVEL, in which Smiley discusses her project of reading 100 novels. I think I need to do this. Hell, maybe I am doing this. Seems to have helped Smiley, and she and Dorian speak eloquently on the subject, on what the project did for Smiley's writing life, and on what the novel has done for our culture, for women in particular.

Here are links:

RealAudio archive version

MP3 Version

Dorian's archive

Dorian's blog

And Speakeasy is available for podcast too.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

More Homework: Kate Walbert and the “We” We Need

I’m glad I decided to persevere with Kate Walbert’s novel-in-stories, OUR KIND. I had been starting to overdose on the collective narrator thing. And Walbert’s opening story, “Intervention,” depicts a bunch of middle-aged, affluent women in love with their alcoholic real-estate agent. I worried that the book would be yet another example of Suburbia Lit, exploring the emotional bankruptcies and addictions of people-who-are-not-like-me. The problems of affluence are legitimate, certainly, but don’t always engage me.

What kept me reading, then sucked me in fully, is Walbert’s voice. Each sentence is a meandering musical path, each story an unpredictable, rerouting river. Her sense of comedy is akin to Lorrie Moore, that clever/giddy/quirky punch-in-gut feeling. But where Moore’s stories have a sharp sense of narrative control (to me, anyway), Walbert’s collection reads like a dream, or a wandering mind, or an unbridled memory.

Seems an odd choice to pair this kind of freeform story shape with the semi-gimmicky conceit of a collective narrator. But here’s why I think it works.

Backtrack a little: the collective narrator is a group of about ten women old enough to be my mother. Their kids have grown and moved away, their husbands have left or died. The women have lonely homes and time on their hands. So they turn to each other.

It sounds like a recipe for the gossipy viral thinking Tova Mirvis explores, or the proto-fascist groupthink Steven Millhauser suggests. But Walbert doesn’t go that way. Her narrator is more like a collective unconscious, and what glues these women together isn’t their passivity, or their conformity (not by a longshot), or their need to scapegoat problems. The glue is memory, of both shared experiences and individual ones reported back. The women band together out of necessity—to battle loneliness, to lend support, to pass time. But time itself is fluid in Walbert’s world, as are boundaries between selves.

Instead of exploring the darkness of “we,” Walbert plays with the other big thing that forges group identity: love.

Love. Damn. So simple, I wish I’d thought of it sooner in this discussion. Here is a “we” that requires no opposing “other.” Shared experiences of coming-of-age, motherhood, and death forge a bond much stronger—and perhaps even more interesting—than the lurking forces at work in the other stories I’ve examined. The cautionary tale is absent. Sure, there are layers of belonging in the group: some join later, some are the group's longtime core. But belonging itself (and its subtext—exclusion) is not the subject. Individually the women are flawed, but together, they form a heroine, in the traditional sense; they are a collective role model. And by ascribing this power to a group, rather than a shining individual, Walbert keeps the characters human and puts a novel spin on an old idea.

Walbert uses the same “we” mechanics as Tova Mirvis in THE LADIES AUXILIARY, and Jeffrey Eugenides in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES: the group is first person, but individuals are third person. It implies a spokesperson, but doesn’t identify one. I’m getting used to this convention and no longer find it distracting. Makes me wonder if early examples of first-person singular fiction were hard for their first readers to assimilate as well. But along with my growing familiarity comes a need for more: the “we” gimmick is not enough to keep me intrigued. And Walbert provides that needed thing with her manipulation of time.

The “now” of the stories is loose, flows freely into memory and back. One stark example of this technique is in “Come As You Were,” in which the gals have a goofy party in their old wedding gowns. Mixed in with the splitting seams and hilarity are snapshots of their younger sexual selves, some spoken, some thought, time going back and forth seamlessly. One of the women, Gay, remembers hiding in a hotel armoire on her wedding night, and her husband coaxing her out:

"I can do it,” she said.

"Great,” he said.

She was sixteen years old; she was twenty-two; she was fifty-three. It didn’t matter. She didn’t know a thing.

"I can do it,” she said.

And even in the midst of Gay’s memory is another, older one, a longing for her sister. The memory interrupts her first sex, throwing a wall between her and her husband.

She steps out of her high heels, out of the dress around her ankles; he is not a criminal. This he will say the next night, and the next. “I am not a criminal,” he will say. “This is legal, Gay,” he will say, articulating her name in the way one does the name of a child, or a particularly deaf relative when summoning patience.

Walbert organically tosses in the future tense, even as she throws time back. She doesn’t rely on space breaks and other flashback conventions to provide clarity. Clarity isn’t the goal. The meaning of a moment in time is enveloped in other moments.

A clue to this time-inside-time theme emerges in “Sick Chicks,” where the women sit in on a book club at a hospice. One of the friends, Judy, is among the dying. Another, Viv, has volunteered to lead the group. Viv gave up a promising academic career years ago. She has brought notes, and, her memory fresh from last month’s ULYSSES fiasco, is trying desperately to reign in a discussion of MRS DALLOWAY (another text playing with memory-in-now):

She looks at the group, then down at her notes. What has she written? What does it matter? On this page she’s copied, “This moment of June.” On this, “irony?” She can no longer recall what she intended to say, only the feeling of reading this book.

Viv has lost her academic chops, and her private regrets bleed in.

"This moment of June,” she says to fill in the silence, the incessant frothy dribbling of the fountain, the heat and smell of the Sunshine Room. She cannot bear this place, animals grazing on the lawn.

"Why ‘this moment’?”

"Is there any other?” says BeBe McShane, usually so quiet. The group turns to look at her.

"I think she means there’s no other than this. No future, no past. Only present.”

Viv is grateful for BeBe’s insight, but primarily because it focuses the discussion. Distracted by her own memories, she doesn’t quite get the meat of BeBe’s statement, but the collective unconscious has a clue. There aren’t any moments but this one, at the hospice, at the crossroads between nostalgia and death, having a chaotic discussion about something they all shared, the very book held in laps “like so many hymnals.”

Each of the moments in OUR KIND has the same kind of weight. Light, because it is only now; heavy, because now is full of other nows. And the collective narrator is the keeper of this knowledge, which is the source of its power.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

"Only Writers Read Fiction." Urban Legend?

I aim to find out. Because I see a lot of books on laps in the subway every day. Many are fiction, and I recently noted the following titles on the 4/5 train (at great personal risk...over-shoulder reading is bad subway etiquette):

The Namesake, Jumpa Lahiri
The Upper Room, Mary Monroe
Afterburn, Zane (a whole lotta Zane on the train, I've noticed)
The Purification Ceremony, Mark T. Sullivan
The Fuck Up, Arthur Nersesian (Yippee! Go Arthur! Akashic edition too!)
Bel Canto, Ann Patchett (OK, that might have been me...)
Something Blue, Emily Griffin
A Clearing in the Distance : Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century, Witold Rybczynski (not fiction, but wow! And the guy was riveted!)
Push, Sapphire (another common 5 train title)

These people can't all be writers. Can they? Or are there just that many of us (Oh God!)?

I'll try not to freak out (today, anyway) about the vast number of bibles, Koran, prayer books (for at least three religions), daily meditations, etc. They greatly outnumber the "literature" books. I'm just glad people are reading and keeping quiet so I can do the same. I also can't comment on the large number of books and newspapers in Russian, Chinese, Hebrew, Arabic, and Spanish around me. Again, I'm glad for the literacy, and the silence. I love watching kids read on the train. Some kids read nonfiction about animals and rockets. Others read the free AM New York and Metro newspapers. And of course, Harry Potter. It's all good. The nice thing, especially in the mornings, is that almost EVERYONE is reading. We say hello to each other, the ones I see every day, then open our books.

God, I love New York.

My unpredictable (in a good way) Russian dayjob colleague--let's call her "Scarlett Fever" to protect her identity--is an avid reader of women's fiction. I find the habits of her literary consumption most interesting. Here's an actual conversation we had today (as best I can remember) on the elevator:

ME: What are you reading? (She uses a cloth book cover, part embarrassment, part decoration.)

SCARLETT FEVER: Oh, some "thing." (Opens the book and shows me the title page.)

ME: Undead and Unwed? So like a vampire romance?

SCARLETT: I don't know yet, I just started it.

ME: Well, what did it say on the cover?

SCARLETT: I don't read the cover. I go by the picture. If it has a baby on it, those are good. And this kind of design, you can tell it is a comedy. (Shows me the cover, it has a cartoon of a cute blonde woman against a gothic sky, a goofy handwriting font.)

ME: So not the author, not the publisher, or the series, just the cover art?

SCARLETT: Just the design.

Which, as already observed, she obscures with a cloth cover. So it's not the appeal of the cover, per se, it's the existence of canned signifiers in the form of typeface and color choice, illustration style, and to a degree, pictorial subject. She's told me on other occasions, "If it has a baby on the cover, it's usually about a single dad and a babysitter. Those are tearjerkers."

(Sorry, Scarlett, if I'm butchering your witty repartee.)

Scarlett's literary commentary is designed to make me laugh, which satisfies a need I have, to stay sane in a given workday. But too, the "junk lit" satisfies a need she has, a legitimate one: immediate engagement and escape on her long bus ride home. She has read the English classics too, some in translation, some not, some in both languages. And has introduced me to English stuff too. How did I ever make it through college without knowing about the tragicomic genius of Jerome K Jerome?

And it goes without saying that her experience with Russian literature leaves me in the dust.

Before anyone chides Scarlett for "dumbing down" her literary consumption, I've noticed the books have given her an excellent grasp of conversational/colloquial English. What better way to learn to speak like a native than to read large quantities of pulp? Or, excuse me, "commercial fiction," since I firmly believe these writers work as hard on craft as the rest of us?

So here's my Exhibit A: Scarlett. A real live non-writer who reads fiction. Every single day.

Now I have to muster the courage to talk to that older guy I see on the train daily, reading literary fiction from the Brooklyn Public Library. And plowing through fast, from what I can tell. Is he a writer? A wannabe writer? A member of the "general public," whatever that is? Anyone care to take bets? Dare me?

Where You Been, Memphis?


Elvis lives! I was very happy when he showed up on our back stoop after a 2-week absence. I have no idea where he was. Trapped, possibly, or hiding, nursing some kind of illness.

He seems to have lost his innocence a little, wherever he was.

I'm not trying to gross you out with the photo. This is one of the realities of feral cat life: serious illness, without the opportunity of medical care. Memphis has been struggling with upper respiratory infection since he was a kitten. Judging by his eyes, ears, and nose, which I have only been able to inspect closely with a zoom lens, he still has a pretty bad case. All of these cats have had it, like chicken pox, and the rest have managed to shake it through strong immune systems and decent nutrition. Since he won't let us touch him, antibiotics are not an option. And it is quite possible he is FIV or FeLV positive.

Most TNR specialists argue that trapped ferals should not be tested for FIV/FeLV. If you bring them inside and let them mix with indoor cat populations, it is an absolute necessity, but outdoors, there is no way to control their exposure. Cats with otherwise good health, warm shelter, and decent food can have long lives even with FIV/FeLV. Vet professionals differ in opinion about how easily the viruses are spread. Some believe a cat walking across a place where an infected cat walked is enough. Others say it can only be transmitted through bodily fluids, which in the case of neutered cats, means fighting primarily.

Upper respiratory infections are the main killer of feral kittens, and for our indoor cats, this is covered in the distemper immunizations. But the standard procedure for immunizing ferals is to skip the distemper shot (and FIV/FeLV too), since the sterilization surgery makes the immune system vulnerable. From a public health standpoint, rabies vaccine is necessary and routine. But the others are too risky to undertake.

So, I'm glad he's back, but still sobered. Memphis seems to be a little more skittish, but is otherwise in good spirits, hanging out with his brother, and eating well. Hopefully the others have built up immunity to this infection, and with any luck, Memphis will recover too. A smart feral can dodge cars, mean humans, dogs, and other external threats, but the microscopic threats are wily and just as dangerous.

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Friday, September 16, 2005

Some Cool Prairie Air

I can’t believe my sunflower-loving, DIY-preaching, afghan-knitting, Holly Hobby-collecting, Little House on the Prairie-watching, hippy ass has never before discovered the grace and simplicity of Willa Cather. But I’m catching up. O PIONEERS is a tonic. The clear, American prose feels like sighing into a hammock. The setting is charged with nostalgia, yet free of perfume and artifice. Clean air, clean narrative. It’s a vacation into the past.

The novel’s central character, Alexandra Bergson, is the kind I needed as a kid (when we were apt to play “pioneer” in the back yard)—physically strong, with a head for business, and a sure moral compass. Following her father’s dying wish, she raises her baby brother and manages the struggling family farm into prosperity, through creative, nonconformist choices. She becomes a fortysomething, unmarried matriarch in her small community of stoic, serious Swedes, settled in the Nebraska plains, among others from Scandinavia, Bohemia (Czechoslovakia), Germany, and France.

When the book opens, the land is still wild and scary. By the end, the land has been tamed, but the people still must contend with the wildness in themselves. Classic human conflict, and I’m a sucker for it.

Alexandra is the kind of heroine you admire; she has good impulse control, and fights righteously. Okay, I know, boring. But she’s steady because she needs to be, to glue the story together; she’s the stout sunflower around whom the other characters buzz. The narration is “central intelligence” third person, looking mostly over Alexandra’s shoulder, but panning too into the POV of others, who are more in tune with the ironies of human nature. Especially Emil, the heart of the story, if Alexandra is its head.

Emil’s the kid brother, city-educated, and therefore conflicted. He has a love-hate relationship with the plains, and an even more painful relationship with Marie, the Bohemian girl he can’t have, because she is married. Here’s Emil, responding to Marie’s (blind? insensitive?) remark that he can “do anything” with his educated ass:

“And there are so many, many things I can’t do,” Emil echoed her tone sarcastically. “Sometimes I don’t want to do anything at all, and sometimes I want to pull the four corners of the Divide together,”—he threw out his arm and brought it back with a jerk, — “so, like a table-cloth. I get tired of seeing men and horses going up and down, up and down.”

Emil goes to Mexico City to party and forget Marie. He comes back more worldly, but still, there’s no tequila strong enough to kill the magnetic pull of the prairie and its Bohemian girl. Cather’s paintbrush admires women, but identifies more with men. (I won’t go into the author’s butch mode of dress, nickname “Willie,” etc., but it is interesting backstory for those inclined to read it.) In O PIONEERS, we get to explore the dark interior of Emil’s longing for Marie, but Marie herself is more object, “brown bunny,” exciting and fascinating to the stiff Swedes who love her. And me, I always fall for the lover in fiction, not the beloved, so Emil steals my heart. Or maybe I'm just hopelessly straight. (I’m getting ready to fall for MY ANTONIA’S narrator, Jim Burden; next book on my reserve list.)

The city vs. country theme is another Cather trademark: cosmopolitan thinking with a nostalgia for homestead and big spaces. Cather lays the conflict out cleanly in the voice of Carl the artist, Alexandra’s longtime friend who has returned from the city:

"When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theatres. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder. "

But Alexandra still covets this life, this freedom, for Emil. She counters, “We pay a high rent too, though we pay differently. We grow hard and heavy here. We don’t move lightly and easily as you do, and our minds get stiff.”

Stiff minds do abound, even Alexandra’s to a degree; she is blind Emil’s problem, to the erotic drama happening under her nose. But even stiff minds can find clarity in the elements and vast space. Near the conclusion, Alexandra stands in a rainstorm, chilled through, next to her family’s graves. She tells her housemates:

"After you once get cold clear through, the feeling of rain on you is sweet. It seems to bring back feelings you had when you were a baby. It carries you back into the dark, before you were born; you can’t see things, but they come to you, somehow, and you know them and aren’t afraid of them. Maybe it’s like that with the dead. If they feel anything at all, it’s the old things, before they were born, that comfort people like the feeling of their own bed does when they are little. "

Alexandra finds solace in the primal, in the found innocence that accompanies death, where social overlays like religion, marriage, propriety (and sexual orientation) are nonentities. In nature. At once familiar and mysterious.

Oh God, I’m making it sound so melodramatic. Cather is funny, too. It’s a sweet sense of humor, played out in quirky characters who only the Alexandras of the world can appreciate, like Ivar, the vegetarian hermit, who lives in a sod house:

Ivar found contentment in the solitude he had sought out for himself. He disliked the litter of human dwellings: the broken food, the bits of broken china, the old wash-boilers and tea-kettles thrown into the sunflower patch. He preferred the cleanness and tidiness of the wild sod. He always said that the badgers had cleaner houses than people, and that when he took a housekeeper her name would be Mrs. Badger.

I want to live in a sod house. I want to meet an Ivar. I want to see a prairie, a real one, not a Nebraska cornfield with a straight road and a million rednecks in pickup trucks. I want to write pure, airy prose about impure, complicated people. I’m heading for the next Cather.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Goodbye, Little Flower.




Well, we're facing facts, little Elvis Memphis, the music lover, has not been by for dinner in well over a week. So our feral colony has gone from six to five. This is the sad part of being a caretaker.

It's hard to tell if his twin Elvis Vegas misses him or not. Vegas did let me pet him last night for about 10 minutes while he was eating. Maybe he's getting a clue that the wild life is not his best chance. But Vegas is more of a scrappy survivor too; two nights ago I saw him with a mouse in his mouth.

Both Elvii had been hanging out on the roofs of the garages along the back yards of our block, but that activity has stopped. I hope that Memphis has found himself another colony. There's one at Brooklyn College nearby. And we haven't seen any feline corpses, so it is possible.

But if he's gone to the beyond, I hope he has found some Mozart there, and plenty of good food. We miss him.

Noticing What He Notices

While I’m in shout-out mode, I can’t ignore Jason McDonald’s blog, The Big Idea, which I have been greatly enjoying. If you’re a craft junkie, or a word nerd, or admire compassionate people, it’s a good resource. He’s giving dispatches on his education at Naropa: his assignments, his process, and his discoveries. For the Autodidact U. syllabus. Word Yoga!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

I Can't Stop Looking at This Cat

I must have gone to this site ten times over the past few days to look at this picture. I covet the cat. I want to meet her. It's some kind of kitty porn.

What Really Happens on the 4 Train

Maybe I'm just amplifying the embarrassment, but Girlbomb, AKA Bead Lady, had a very intersting experience on the 4 train.

I, for one, am impressed with her Yankee ingenuity. So I don't judge. I don't even laugh. I only bow in awe.

Wait...I ride that train! What car was that on?

Seriously, if you haven't read the blog, it's great. I check in daily. Bead Lady gives appropriately-delayed dispatches from her volunteer work at a shelter for teens, loves her cats and her smart young friend Sam and her awesome domestic partner, and despairs over the bourgeouis experience of her upcoming commitment ceremony. Oh, and she has a book coming out soon too. Enjoy!

"Fractals," Memory, Process, and Thad Rutkowski

Two of my favorite minds in conversation: Cheryl B, fierce poet/memoirist and keeper of the B List, interviews Thaddeus Rutkowski, author of TETCHED and ROUGHHOUSE, in Small Spiral Notebook.

Should be required reading for the University of Autodidacts, I think. If you're majoring in writing, that is. Whether you call them "crots," or "snapshots" or "fractals" (my new favorite), Thad is a master of the terse fictional fragment, the standalone moment, and the puzzle of fitting such moments into a whole.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

More Weeds (The Cute Kind)


Just when I thought I was done photographing weeds for the day, these guys had to go and be cute. Here are 3 of our backyard feral colonists, Elvis Vegas, Marcel, and Rrose, having a nap in this unsuccessful shady flowerbed. They tend to sleep in piles, even when it's hot out. Part safety-in-numbers, part family bonding.

My Ass is Feeling Grateful Today



Glad to be alive and not at work today.

The volunteer morning glories have been threatening to take over all summer, and even though I know each one of these flowers is gonna turn into more seeds, I'm grateful for the abundance. I love them! For now.

And my sweet husband too. Look at the coolio raised bed he built yesterday! Hopefully it will keep kids, dogs, and cars from torturing this little tree. (You can see the morning glories' shadow too.)

Friday, September 09, 2005

Does “It” Belong in Fiction? Part 3: Terror as Metaphor

In my last post, I promised to find a new name for 9/11; I’m not there yet. It is still “It.” But having stripped the event of its common name, at least temporarily, I’m finding it easier to take a step back.

And stepping back, I realize that for most New Yorkers, those who didn’t lose loved ones, “It” happened fairly quickly, then became a charged backdrop for our daily lives, or the new ones that we were leading, given displacements, heightened security (and maybe too the loss of personal freedoms, though I won’t go there today), and the changed cityscape. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of literature that captures this feeling. There are numerous examples of “post 9/11 fiction,” but this moniker has a slightly different meaning. “Post 9/11 fiction,” in my understanding, is about our “new” world, post loss-of-innocence, and many writers have been using metaphor to point to the event and its cultural implications. But it’s hard to find work that uses the event itself as mere setting, allowing its own metaphorical properties to comment on other, unrelated human dramas.

In other words, stories that are inside “It,” but are not about “It.”

Maybe using “It” as setting can be most easily accomplished in film. Jane Campion’s “In the Cut,” an adaptation of Susanna Moore’s novel, has some of what I’m seeking. The novel, published in 1999, is an exploration of the dark side of one woman’s sexuality, part who-dunnit thriller, part Mr. Goodbar, part poetic-textual analysis. But filmed in the surreal cityscape of the new downtown (Summer 2002? Autumn 2001?), the markers of change loom red-white-and-blue in the background, and throw another dimension of threat onto the protag, Frannie, as she continues to have sex with the cop she suspects is a murderer.

Conventional wisdom might dictate that the scarred buildings and ashy flags in the background could be distracting, maybe even gratuitous. My friend Jon Baskin filmed “Beef,” a documentary about poets, pre-“It,” then in fall 2001, scrambled to remove footage of the intact World Trade towers before sending it to festivals. I fought him on this choice—“it’s a record!”—but he was right. The film is a fully upbeat tour of free speech and po-culture, and allowing innocent pans of the towers to remain would have felt like a cheap trick.

But letting the cityscape speak for itself is an intentional move in Campion/Moore’s “In the Cut.” We see the dust in the warm yellow light. In the beats between lines, Frannie looks at the black shell of the building just south of the WTC emptiness. She watches strangers carry an enormous funeral wreath on the subway platform. But too, she observes a bride and groom through the train windows, and images begin to bleed: the Poetry In Motion verse she copies in her notebook, the same words on the tee shirt of a sexy teenager on a Tribeca stairway. Frannie is a writer herself, and in Meg Ryan’s pensive portrayal, the dream of metaphor and language overwhelms the canned signifiers of “It” all around her. And as the serial killer literally “disarticulates” dead women, Frannie becomes “disarticulated” herself, quietly building and breaking connections between the words and images in her surroundings.

The result is an accurate portrayal of the city’s post-crisis mood, that of continuing life but constantly acknowledging mortality and murder. The threshold of mortality is both sexy and scary. Or, as one of my Merrill Lynch co-workers said, “Everybody was fucking on the night of September 11.”

Okay, but I’m not trying to make films. How can this effect happen on the page? I haven’t found a perfect example, but…

Arthur Nersesian is a true New York novelist, and in his latest, UNLUBRICATED, he allowed “It” into the narrative. It wasn’t a matter of writing a 9/11 novel. Nersesian’s work is about artists and subcultures of a particular place and time, and UNLUBRICATED is the latest in his continuous oeuvre. (BTW I don’t think it’s his best…that would be DOGRUN,.) But unlike “In the Cut,” Nersesian’s work is largely comedy-of-manners. So how much time and/or distance is necessary to make “It” funny?

Nersesian took the opposite route, no distance at all. The funny characters happen to travel through “It.” His actress narrator, Hannah, finds herself in a jumble of evacuees downtown on September 11, and befriends a stranger, as many of us did. But then the terror and tragedy become more of an economic obstacle, as Hannah struggles to pay bills and produce the feminist play, “Unlubricated,” a loose nod to Valerie Solanas, the real-life gal who shot Andy Warhol. (The play itself is about a community of artists— Nersesian’s calling card—a writer’s group in this case.) Confusing enough? That’s the point. The book is full of Nersesian moments—appointments almost missed, money barely made. But foremost, the novel is true to its voice and its literary context, the quirky, “cult,” insider view of the New York underground that only this author has found.

Nersesian’s critics have poo-pooed him for not truly “taking on” the terrorist attack, for letting it in without letting it take over. I firmly disagree. While light in tone, the chaos does inform the narrative, the way chaos does, delivering both difficulty and opportunity in a high-speed simultaneity. I’m not looking to write another UNLUBRICATED. But this reader, for one, is glad Nersesian had the courage to let the events of his time be a part of his ongoing setting.

Perhaps most importantly, the “It” of 9/11 brings to mind the other “It” taking place right now. It may be too early to think about the bigger trauma of the Gulf Coast in the same way. Perhaps the writers of that region will need to tour the changed landscape themselves, go beyond the canned and politicized images we get on CNN, into their own charged memories and continuous oeuvres. I, for one, am eager to see what they deliver.

Last night I spoke to a New Orlean who has been living in New York for some time. He said, surprisingly, that he is eager to go back. I think of the breathtaking footage in Jim Jarmusch’s “Down by Law,” and the same houses now submerged, and wonder what these images will mean to those who have lived there for some time. Call it apolitical and banal, but is the narrative I crave, after all the disrupted lives find new traction, and all the yelling and blaming is done.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Does 9/11 Belong in Fiction? Part 2

So I didn’t answer my own darn question in my last post. Sorry about that. The simple, obvious answer is yes. (And Katrina, thanks for pushing the matter in comments.) 9/11 is acceptable fiction material if only because censorship sucks, especially self-censorship.

And many examples come to mind of undeniably artful literature focused on the crises of our time: Tim O’Brien’s THE THINGS THEY CARRIED (Vietnam War), Tony Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA (AIDS epidemic). Neither of these works cheapen the experiences of those most touched by these disasters. Both have insights and imagery unique enough to be memorable and resonant. To declare true, large-scale trauma off-limits to artists is a ridiculous, inflammatory proposal.

But, assuming the goal of art is emotional resonance, or “to awaken mercy,” as Steve Almond says, using well-known crises with pre-assigned meanings presents a challenge. Consider the way the news media name events, complete with animated graphics. Even as the towers still stood burning, TV screens flashed “Attack on America.” The moniker sticks, assigning meaning to the event. People start saying “they hate us for our freedom.” (Really? Are you sure they don’t hate us for our wealth? Or our military forays? And who are they, exactly?) Almost immediately, American flags go up where the towers once stood. Flags everywhere. Huge ones cover the faces of scarred buildings. Lapel pins. Tiny window stickers. Firefighters and EMS are now dubbed patriots first, humanitarians second. An entrepreneurial fife player on Fulton and Broadway is playing “God Bless America,” repeatedly, and I’m sitting in my relocated office (read: conference room with laptops) four floors above him, surrounded by my Russian and Puerto Rican colleagues, losing my shit, thinking, wait a minute, wasn’t it the WORLD Trade Center? With a globe at the center of its plaza and a giant PEACE ON EARTH at Christmastime? And now everyone accepts this new assigned meaning without question? Wasn’t Eurobrokers one of the firms who lost a lot of people? What about the large Latin contingent at Windows on the World? What happened to my New York, the polyglot, international city? Or, was I putting too much faith in another assigned meaning, namely the great Salad Bowl / Melting Pot?

(Aside: my colleague suggested we show the fife player a lemon, an old Russian trick. That the sight of it would make it impossible for him to pucker. We laughed until we hurt, while the fife player kept on, while smoke rose from the rubble across the street.)

In his essay “On Defamiliarization,” writers’ uber-mentor Charles Baxter discusses methods of avoiding “cliché,” “boring,” or emotions that feel false or “cheap.” He argues that the key to emotional resonance is the “widowed,” or de-symbolized object or image. “This removes the tyranny of meaning over event. Art that is overcontrolled by its meanings may start to go a bit dead: The images in the story will have a wilted quality, the feel of the vehement message about to leap over the experience.” The events of 9/11 are full of vehement messages and controlling meanings, and I don’t just mean the America stuff. The excess of reportage in the aftermath focused on post-traumatic stress, collective grief and the modern tradition of memorial stacking: teddy bears and flowers and kids drawings left at the scene to express our outpouring of care. While I don’t question the genuine feeling embedded in these phenomena, their ubiquity in our consciousness creates risky terrain when one is crafting a story, especially after time has elapsed and the open wounds have begun to heal.

Baxter cites several writers and scholars on the idea of stripping meaning from object. He paraphrases Gerard Manley Hopkins’ notebooks: “Sometimes an obsessive image is the product of a trauma. The trauma cannot be remembered but has left its trace in misfit details.” The misfit details become a kind of fetish; “Hopkins describes these obsessive images of objects as things for which he has not ‘found the law.’”

But Baxter goes beyond emphasizing "novelty" as the way to breathe emotion into image. The key is not to have a new image. It is to break the image from its names and assignments, which opens up the narrative. Baxter gives examples of stripped or “widowed” actions in stories, in particular moments of the “banal” that creep into situations that are supposed to be emotionally charged. Like my colleague and the lemon idea, I suppose. The incongruous laugh in the middle of a disaster. Or the time we got clearance to go back in our building, and the security guard watered our plants. Moments of dumb life in the middle of death, examples of non-reaction to the surrounding drama.

He also brings in the ideas of Viktor Shklovsky, whose theory on “algebrization” as a coping mechanism for brain saturation applies well to the 9/11 drama:

Algebrization is the process of turning an event or familiar object into an automatic symbol. It’s like saying, Oh, she’s having another one of her crazy tantrums, or Yeah, it’s another goddamn freeway gridlock. We protect ourselves from the force of her tantrum by turning it into an algebraic equivalent: let x be the tantrum. Well, she’s having another x.

This Algebrization is the thing I mean to break in my exploration of 9/11. More Baxter on Shklovsky: “…if you have a familiar object or action to describe, you would do well not to name it, or to give it a new name, or to write as if you’re seeing it for the first time, in a state of profitable forgetting.”

So step one: 9/11 can’t be 9/11, or Attack on America. If I’m writing about it, it needs a new damn name.

I’m still thinking. Suggestions for new names welcome. I’m sick of these three numerals.

We are Snowball, and Snowball is Everywhere

The dog Snowball has snowballed into an institution. Three lines from the middle of an AP story have spawned websites, big rewards, and an outpouring of worry for the little boy and the dog.

Check this latest from Best Friends...

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Does 9/11 Belong in Fiction? Part 1

The other night, Trophy Husband and I are watching the news of the current tragedy down south, and a preview spot airs: “Remembering 9/11, Sunday at 7PM Eastern,” or some shit. Husband starts yelling at the screen: “C’mon, already, how long are they going to milk this thing?”

This, from the guy who spent the entire morning of 9/11 waiting, crying, frantic to hear from me. But even through his tears, or perhaps because of them, needing something “useful” to do, he had the presence of mind to pop tapes in the VCR, which was helpful to me, since I had missed the televised version, and needed something to help me figure out what I had just witnessed.

And trust me, I prefer the rough accuracy, the speechless anchorpeople and unknown outcome of the 6-hour VCR version, over the beautifully-edited, artfully scored rehashes that start showing up on cable this time of year. When “It” happened, as we were heading away from the falling buildings, strangers around me kept saying, “this feels like a war movie.” And now that those surreal moments are etched permanently in our brains, the same footage, the same “Oh, shit,” so commonplace as to become cliché, I’m beginning to wonder if it hasn’t become a war movie after all.

Okay, so if it is a war movie, what kind is it? Are we thinking more John Wayne or Francis Ford Coppola? Are there bad guys and good guys or just guys? Will there be a set of rules about how we are supposed to feel? Or, will those rules be breached purposefully and disgustingly, a la South Park’s version of “The Aristocrats” (which some sick part of me thinks is really funny)?

Steve Almond reacted to Jonathan Safran Foer’s EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE (ELIC) in a guest column on Moby Lives a few months ago, calling the book “a melodrama, one that seeks to dazzle and soothe its readers, rather than placing them in any real emotional danger.” He slammed Foer’s Amazon fans, who “know that they’re being talked down to,” but find the novel “an act of heroism. They claim reading the book is an important way of working through their feelings about 9/11.” Almond’s column caused a small buzz of counteropinion on the Short Stories board of Zoetrope.com. I participated in the discussion too—Almond’s article angered me. Not because I love Foer’s work (I do), or because I had read ELIC (I haven’t), or even because I dislike Steve Almond (I adore his fiction and agree with all of his politics).

So why did Almond piss me off? Foer’s a New Yorker. Almond isn’t. What right does he have to be so critical? Was he there?

But if I think about it, I wasn’t there there either. I was in the building next door. There’s a big difference between an eyewitness and a victim. So by my own logic, what right do I have, having lost no one that day, to be offering my opinion right now?

I just reread the Almond column, and found myself letting go of my New York high horse, maybe wondering (in the generic sense; I still haven’t read the Foer) if Almond doesn’t have a point. His complaint is about using 9/11 as a kind of canned signifier, exploiting our pre-existing feelings on the subject, allowing us to do little more than relive the horror, then maybe claim it as ours. Like the annual TV rehash. Almond wishes that Foer had really dissected the event, maybe looked at complex political histories, motivations, culpabilities, instead of childhood fantasy and victimhood. Those are valid wishes from a reader, whether they are talking about Foer or anybody else.

In Foer’s defense, I believe he accomplished all of the above with a more loaded real-life tragedy, the Holocaust, in EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED. But since I’m not qualified to discuss ELIC, I’ll push Foer out of the discussion until I read it (which is feeling urgent at the moment).

Let’s look at the treatment of 9/11 in storytelling. And I mean any kind of storytelling: fiction, political treatise, documentary, etc. I’m starting to come around to Almond’s general point of view. If I let my 9/11 experience creep into my fiction, and I have been lately, it’s my responsibility to take a step back, to critique my drafts not as a New Yorker, or even an American, but as a citizen of the world, to take stock of my goals as an artist, and make sure I’m not just falling into the territory of a loaded gimmick. Because loaded gimmicks lose their potency over time. And if the potency is lost, true honor for the dead is not far behind.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Snowball?

Among the many news reports that sent me crying this week was the AP story of the little boy separated from his dog Snowball. My god, it pushed all my buttons. He was boarding a bus and an officer took the dog, and the kid cried until he vomited. Reminded me just how powerless children are in a disaster, how everything important to them must be pushed aside when their survival is paramount. How powerless children are in general. How I feel for that boy.

Best Friends reports now that Snowball may have been found at the Superdome by the SPCA. There were apparently rescuing dozens of dogs from inside the arena, including a pit bull mix and her 11 newborn puppies. I am heartened that people were allowed to bring their pets to the Superdome, probably encouraged many people to evacuate who would not have otherwise. Not that it was a safe place to go exactly, but still.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

"Action Shots" of Big Fat Press

Well, it feels weird and wrong to make art at a time like this, and it also feels self-indulgent to sit in front of the TV and cry over a situation I am not in and people I don't personally know. And yet I am doing both. I have decided to limit my ranting here because I have absolutely nothing articulate to say about the disaster. I am angry, distracted, sad, helpless. There are plenty out there who are blogging thoroughly on the subject.

Here's how I've been keeping my hands busy in front of the TV, exercising freedom of press in my own way, I suppose. Mostly I am just keeping my hands busy.



Here's the choco-print cover, front and back. I didn't photograph the printing press, I realize, it's a little clamshell-like thing, the paper goes on a foamy surface, and the plate against a steel surface. (The printing press is not necessary, if you want to try it yourself. A big kitchen spoon on the paper side does the job well.)



Since I use water based ink (not real chocolate...), I spray the covers with polyurethane before binding.




I dry them on a plastic laundry rack. If it's not windy, it takes about 10 minutes outside in the sun.





I print the guts on an ordinary laser printer. I trim them on a self-healing cutting mat, which is a good $15 investment, saves tables and floors.




My fabulous trophy husband made me this groovy "V" rack from scraps at his jobsite. I assemble the pieces in it, and punch three awl holes.




I generally stitch in contrasting thread, button-carpet, waxed. It's a figure eight, through the 3 holes, knotted outside the middle one.




Ta Da!



The books won't lie flat for a couple weeks, I'll put them under something heavy. Here you can see the contrast endpaper, which is another area for creativity in home-publishing. Sometimes I use vellum or recycled maps or what have you. This time I stuck with basic black.

OK, time to get off this computer and get back to work.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

More “We” Homework: Tova Mirvis Explores Viral Thinking

My ass is still stewing over the "collective narrator" idea, and here is my latest read.

In Tova Mirvis’ novel, THE LADIES AUXILIARY, the narrator-group is a close-knit, closed community of Orthodox women in Memphis. Near the book’s melancholy conclusion, one of the women has a moment of clarity:

She remembered a story she had once heard: a woman had gossiped about her neighbors and later regretted what she said. She went to the rabbi and asked how she might take back her words. He instructed her to take a feather pillow to the top of the highest hill and tear it open, letting the feathers fly every which way. Then, the rabbi said, she should return to him and he would tell her what to do. She did as he said and when she returned, he told her to go outside and gather the feathers. But that’s impossible, she cried. They’re already scattered all over the village. He looked at her and smiled. The same is true of your words, he said.

The novel is an examination of the power of words spoken in private to change the tenor of a whole community. The collective narrator is definitely not one with a collective opinion. The “we” is full of disagreements, which some have the courage to voice. What they have in common is their investment in the safety of the community for their children, and their concern for the carrying-on of their religious tradition, amid internal doubts and outside influences. When a young, free-spirited widow moves in, an enthusiastic convert to Judaism, her spirit is threatening to some, and invigorating to others. But when things start going wrong with the youth of the community, the feathers of gossip begin to fly. Talk spreads like a virus through the phone lines of Memphis, and the newcomer, Batsheva, is an easy target for blame.

Mirvis’ use of the “we” convention is consistent throughout, and surprisingly nondistracting. The narrator is a finite group of roughly a dozen women, not an amorphous mass. When individuals think, or when subgroups convene, or when they interact in the privacy of their own homes, the narrative is third person. The effect is that of a chorus with solo members stepping forward to provide counterpoint voices. The perspective is close and sympathetic to all the members, most of whom have family problems of their own: unhappy marriage, fighting with teenaged children, mourning loved ones. Even Mrs. Levy, the head gossip and finger-pointer, who is never addressed by first name, has a fairly sensitive treatment; her bad behavior is fueled by confusion over her own grown children leaving the community.

While we never get in Batsheva’s head, the community’s tight perimeter provides a clean device for witnessing her private moments: plain old spying. By positioning members of the narrator group in the next room of the shul, or on the other side of a backyard fence, Mirvis is able to give us glimpses of Batsheva’s conversations, even when the ladies are not participating.

As the thought virus spreads, the biggest victim is not Batsheva, who is a survivor and the only one who has truly chosen the life of obeying the Orthodox commandments. She earns reader sympathy from the moment she arrives with her cute daughter and New York spin on Jewish study and holiday traditions. Instead, the virus attacks the heart of the women’s community, its confidence in its own righteousness.

The group becomes sick the way groups do, more impasse than groupthink. The Ladies’ Auxiliary meets and makes a consensus decision, with a narrow majority, which presents a group identity and opinion that isn’t fully shared. Trust falls away, and like the pillow feathers, is impossible to get back. But as the hard fever recedes, new leaders emerge, brave members who are finally able to speak from the gut and clear the air, less worried about what others will think of them.

In a book full of Jewish imagery, another moment echoes the scattering feathers. The women gather by a stream for tashlich, the casting of sins into the water, and toss pieces of bread downstream toward the Mississippi River. They recite the prayer: “Who is like you God who pardons iniquity and overlooks our transgressions…He will be merciful and cast our sins into the ocean.” It is a light moment in the story, but foreshadows the heavier ones to come, when regrets will run deeper, and the women will have to pray for more than God’s mercy. If their community is to continue, they must learn how to be merciful themselves.

Jabbar Gibson for President

One 20-year old kid knew that folks in Louisiana were on their own, and rolled up his sleeves, found a bus, and took care of business. Thank god for Jabbar Gibson. He certainly has a better take on reality than you-know-who.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Big Elephant in the Room

A lot has happened since I posted concern for the pets last night...now, holy cow. Forget the pets. These people need help.

Why is the media not talking about the demographic of the stranded in New Orleans? Could there be a link between RACE and the lack of help pre-hurricane (face it, it would have been easier to bus those who could not afford "normal" evacuation out BEFORE the storm)? I suppose we all knew that inner-city poor are left to fend for themselves for security, etc., but now it is in our face. And our national leadership is just appalling. The world is watching.