A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Learning to Read

The following review appeared today in the San Francisco Chronicle:

HOW FICTION WORKS
By James Wood
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 266 pp., $24

"How Fiction Works" is an audacious title, not only because explaining the mechanisms of fiction is a large task but also because fiction doesn't seem to be working as well as it used to, if you take the decline in book sales as evidence. But if any contemporary critic is up to the task, it's James Wood, who has read more and better than the rest of us. Wood, who reviews for the New Yorker, has also published a novel, "The Book Against God," so he knows first-hand about the making of fiction.

This is anything but a densely theoretical book. Wood doesn't waste time on defining the term "fiction." He assumes that we know it when we see it. Instead, what he gives us is a demonstration of smart reading, an exploration of works of fiction by a sensibility finely attuned to both the words on the page and the tricks an author plays in an effort to make it real.

"Making it real" is what the book is about; as he tells us at the outset, "the real is at the bottom of my inquiries." Fiction, he says, "floats a rival reality." It "does not ask us to believe things (in a philosophical sense) but to imagine them (in an artistic sense)."

To this end, he discusses the usual elements of fiction -- point of view, description, style, characterization, dialogue. The only thing he doesn't spend much time talking about is plot -- he even refers to "the mindlessness of suspense" and "the essential juvenility of plot." Plot matters for him only as an outgrowth of the characters -- the dilemmas they face, the decisions they make, the lessons they learn, the flaws that undo them.

Most of the burden of his argument is focused on "free indirect style" -- what some of us usually refer to as limited third-person narrative. For Wood, it most effectively exploits the essential tension of fiction, the relationship of author and character: "Thanks to free indirect style, we see things through the character's eyes and language but also through the author's eyes and language. We inhabit omniscience and partiality at once."

He dazzles us by citing examples of free indirect style not only from its master, Gustave Flaubert, but also from Robert McCloskey's children's book, "Make Way for Ducklings." And he shows us how violating point of view and voice can be fatal to the narrative balance between character and author with a devastating example from John Updike's novel "Terrorist," in which Updike, writing from the character's point of view, inserts a detail with significance for the author but one that would probably not occur to the character. The passage in Updike’s book, he tells us, "is an example of aestheticism (the author gets in the way) ... which is at bottom the strenuous display of style."

Eventually, Wood gets around to E.M. Forster's famous distinction in "Aspects of the Novel" between "flat" and "round" characters. He comments that "Forster is genially snobbish about flat characters, and wants to demote them, reserving the highest category for rounder, or fuller characters." But Wood finds that "the very idea of 'roundness' in characterization ... tyrannizes us -- readers, novelists, critics -- with an impossible ideal," and in a footnote (some of the best stuff in Wood's book is in the footnotes) tentatively proposes a distinction between transparent characters and opaque ones. The opaque ones are characters like Hamlet and Iago, whose motivation retains a certain mystery.

Of course, Wood is largely concerned with what we sometimes call "literary" fiction -- as distinguished from "popular" or "commercial" fiction. In constantly striving to make it new, to dodge clichés, literary fiction leaves behind a clutter of old conventions that linger in popular fiction. "Commercial realism has cornered the market, has become the most powerful brand in fiction,” Wood says. “The efficiency of the thriller genre takes just what it needs from the much less efficient Flaubert or Isherwood, and throws away what made those writers truly alive." Even the best commercial fiction, Wood posits, citing a passage from John le Carré's "Smiley's People," "is a clever coffin of dead conventions."

But the chief joy of Wood's book is its abundance of shrewd close readings of such writers as Austen, Flaubert, James, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Kafka, Woolf, Nabokov, Bellow, Roth and Updike -- among many others. (The bibliography at the book’s end is a deliciously enticing reading list, if you’re looking for one.) He helps us understand how they achieve (and sometimes fail to achieve) what he calls "lifeness: life on the page, life brought to different life by the highest artistry."

"How Fiction Works" is, in essence, a master class in reading.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Summer Page-Turners (and Some Aren't)

The following review appeared today in the Dallas Morning News:

THE GARGOYLE

By Andrew Davidson

Doubleday, 480 pp., $25.95

“The Gargoyle” is a tricked-out romance about a man who was severely burned when his car went off a cliff and a woman who sculpts grotesque statues and may be schizophrenic. But wait, there more. Before he was disfigured, the man was a devastatingly handsome porn star and a coke-head. And the woman claims that she’s 700 years old and that she and the man were lovers back in the 14th century, when she was a nun and he was a mercenary soldier. You don’t get hookups like that on Match.com.

By now you may have decided whether this novel sounds like it’s for you, and you’re probably right. If you’re interested in spending almost 500 pages deciding if he was and if she isn’t, then “The Gargoyle” will keep you happily turning pages for several summer days. And if you aren’t, then you’ve been warned.

This is the first novel by Andrew Davidson, a Canadian writer in his 30s who says in an interview supplied with the review copy, “I have a list of things that I want to do before I die: become a published novelist was on that list. The list remains long.” He also reveals that at successive stages in his earlier life, he “wrote a great many mediocre” poems, plays and screenplays.

“The Gargoyle” isn’t mediocre, thanks to Davidson’s solid research into the effects and the treatment of burns. The first part of the novel contains harrowingly convincing descriptions of what the novel’s anonymous narrator underwent during the accident and his recovery. They give the novel a grounding in reality that it seriously needs.

Davidson also knows how to tell a story, how to withhold and reveal details at the right time. As the narrator recovers, the woman – who calls herself Marianne Engel, her surname being the German word for “angel” -- tells him engaging old tales of true love, and gradually unfolds the story of the relationship she claims they had in their earlier life together.

But Davidson also has the novice fiction writer’s inability to self-edit, to toss out both the needlessly clever and the tiresomely familiar. As the narrator grows more and more dependent on morphine to help him through recovery, he imagines that his spine has been replaced by a demonic serpent: “The sibilant sermons of the snake as she discoursed upon the disposition of my sinner’s soul seemed ceaseless,” he writes, summoning up a silly, self-conscious hiss. At other times, even such dubious cleverness eludes him, as when the narrator tells us at a moment of crisis that “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” reminding us that weary writers resort to dried-up catchphrases.

And in the end, the narrator and Marianne never become much more than puppets in Davidson’s pageant of Love and Redemption. They are sometimes provocatively imagined, but they’re not such fully living characters that we put much emotional stock into what direction their relationship takes. They’re only ideas, and not terribly original ones at that.


The Gargoyle reminded me of another much-hyped debut novel of a few years ago, which I reviewed at the time for the Mercury News:

THE HISTORIAN

By Elizabeth Kostova

Back Bay, 642 pp.


If you've never read ''Dracula,'' that great, clumsy novel by Bram Stoker, you really should go do it. And don't think because you've seen any number of film versions of the story that you've really gotten at its creepy essence.

The vampire legend reaches back to antiquity, but because it's really about our fear of and fascination with sex, it seems to crop up most in times of repression or anxiety. That may be why it got its definitive treatment from Stoker at the end of the Victorian era. And why the age of AIDS has seen a charnel-houseful of cold-blooded but hot vampires. Think of Lestat and his cohorts in Anne Rice's novels, and the broody dudes Angel and Spike and the femmes très fatales Darla and Drusilla on ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer.''

''Buffy'' put a feminist spin on the vampire story, which in Stoker's hands had been about imperiled virgins and their doughty male defenders. And now Elizabeth Kostova gives us another intrepid heroine, less hip than Buffy but no less determined to stake her claim as an eradicator of evil.

Kostova's heroine, who remains unnamed throughout the book, is a historian at Oxford University. Thirty years ago, when she was 16, she discovered a strange old book in her father's library. All the pages were blank except the ones in the center, which showed an image of a dragon bearing in its claws a banner with the word ''Drakulya.'' Her father, whose name is Paul, tells her that when he was a graduate student, the book mysteriously showed up one night in his library carrel. It spurred him to research the historical Dracula (the name comes from the Romanian for ''dragon''), Vlad Tepes, a 15th-century Walachian feudal lord with an unsavory reputation for torturing his serfs and impaling his enemies alive on stakes.

When Paul showed the book to one of his professors, Bartholomew Rossi, he learned that Rossi possessed a similar book, and had tried to trace its origins. What Rossi learned convinced him that ''Dracula -- Vlad Tepes -- is still alive.'' A few days after telling Paul this, Rossi disappeared, leaving traces of blood in his office.

So Paul began a quest to find out what happened to Rossi, which led him to an encounter with a woman named Helen Rossi, who claimed to be the professor's unacknowledged daughter. And she joined forces with Paul in the search for Rossi.

The narrator is fascinated, not least because her mother, whom she never knew, was named Helen: ''I did not dare repeat the name aloud . . . she was a topic my father never discussed.'' But before she can hear the rest of her father's story, she awakes one morning to find a note from him: He's been ''called away on some new business,'' and he wants her to wear a crucifix and carry garlic in her pockets.

No self-respecting heroine is going to leave it at that, of course. And so we get three related stories all mixed up together: the narrator's search for her father, his search for Rossi, and Rossi's own quest for the truth about the undead Vlad Tepes. And these stories, set in three different eras (the '30s, the '50s and the '70s), take us to France, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. Will she find her father? What happened to Rossi? Is Helen really his daughter? Is she really the narrator's mother? Is Dracula really still with us -- and if so, what's to be done about it?

And will you care enough to keep reading for more than 600 pages?

Sure you will. Vampire stories are irresistible, and Kostova has stuffed hers with arcane history and colorful locales. There are plenty of narrative cliffs from which the story is hung, and an abundance of creepy or dubious characters. (My favorite is the ''evil librarian'' -- an epithet that made me laugh every time I encountered it.) ''The Historian'' is the kind of book you won't put down -- but you may not be glad you picked it up.

Kostova not only resuscitates Stoker's villain -- apparently all that business about Van Helsing and company putting a dusty end to Count Dracula was just fiction -- but also evokes Stoker's way of telling a story. ''Dracula'' is an epistolary novel -- or, more precisely, a documentary novel, since it's told not only through letters but also through entries in the characters' journals and diaries. Kostova's heroine is the central narrator, but this is a book of stories nested within stories, flashbacks within flashbacks, so a lot of it is told through the journals and letters she uncovers.

''Dracula'' zips along so breathlessly that you don't trouble yourself with the awkwardness of the documentary narrative, the story's inconsistencies and improbabilities, and the fact that Stoker is nobody's idea of a prose stylist. ''The Historian,'' on the other hand, feels overextended, and there are so many digressions -- stories within stories within stories -- that the pacing goes slack, giving you time to wonder, for example, how her characters can recollect, in precise detail, events and conversations that took place years earlier. And when you ask that, the illusion goes poof.

''The Historian'' is Kostova's first novel, and it's said to have taken her 10 years to research and write. Too bad she didn't take a little more time and work out some of the kinks in her prose. She slips too often into cliches: ''Chills crawled on the back of my neck.'' And there's way too much dialogue in which the exposition seems to have gotten stuck in the characters' throats, like this: ''It seems to me too much of a coincidence that you appeared when we had just arrived in Istanbul, looking for the archive you have been so much interested in all these years.''

But worst of all, Kostova forgets what made ''Dracula'' such a grabber. It's the Count who counts, and Stoker -- with the help of actors from Max Schreck to Bela Lugosi to Gary Oldman -- made him the stuff of our nightmares. Kostova often seems more interested in giving us lore about the historical Dracula and in touring Eastern Europe than in giving us the creeps. By the time Dracula himself shows up, we've almost forgotten why we should be scared of him. Buffy would take this guy out with a pointed stick and a wisecrack, and it wouldn't take her 600-odd pages to do it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Bird's Blythe Spirit

The following review appeared yesterday in the Houston Chronicle:

HOW PERFECT IS THAT

By Sarah Bird

Knopf, 302 pp., $23.95

Sarah Bird’s new novel is a Cinderella story. Although when it begins, her Cinderella has already married and divorced the Prince; she’s been booted from the palace not by her wicked stepmother but by her wicked mother-in-law. She has to return to the scullery, but she finds there the equivalent of a fairy godmother. And when another Prince comes along, she has some helpers, like the mice and birds of the Disney version, to prep her for the ball.

But in truth, Bird’s heroine, Blythe Young, is an anti-Cinderella. Her “trailer-trash tramp of a mother” had christened her Chanterelle – “in her single, solitary moment of maternal lyricism she had named her only child after a mushroom.” After graduating from the University of Texas at Austin when the dot-com bubble was at its most inflated, Blythe started a catering business called Wretched Xcess Event Coordination Extraordinaire. At one event, she caught the eye of the crown prince of Austin high society, Henry “Trey” Biggs-Dix the Third, whom she married, thereby surviving the bubble burst by riding in triumph into Bushworld.

Now, trying to make a comeback as a caterer after her divorce, she stages a garden party for one of her old socialite friends. But when the hostess discovers that Blythe is passing off taquitos from Sam’s Club as Petites Tournedos Béarnaise à la Mexicaine, she threatens to withhold payment. Whereupon Blythe spikes the party’s kir royales with Rohypnol.

Blythe has been fueling herself with her “proprietary blend of Red Bull, Stoli, Ativan, just the tiniest smidge of OxyContin, and one thirty-milligram, timed-released spansule of Dexedrine.” She’s up, she’s down, and – having slipped a mickey to the cream of Austin society – she’s out: of money and gas for her catering van. Moreover, the Internal Revenue Service is nipping at her heels because of her casual attitude toward her taxes. So she heads toward the only refuge that remains: her old college rooming house, the Seneca Falls Housing Co-op, now run by her former roommate, Millie Ott.

Blythe’s antithesis, altruistic Millie tends not only to the needs of Seneca House’s fringe-dwelling college students but also to various street people: homeless men, illegal-immigrant day workers, and panhandling runaway teens. With Blythe’s arrival, this secular saint meets the devil wearing Prada. (Actually, Blythe is decked out in her last remaining outfit, Zac Posen with Christian Louboutin shoes.)

And thus Blythe plummets – ascends? – from Bushworld into hippiedom, giving Bird a chance to gleefully skewer the denizens of both planes of Austin existence and serve them up as a satiric shish kabob. Readers of Bird’s novels know that she loves her misfits, and won’t be surprised that in the end, hippiedom wins out. Not to give anything away that the reader won’t see coming a mile off, this time it’s the fairy godmother who gets her prince while anti-Cinderella learns a few things about what really matters.

How Perfect Is That doesn’t have the range and depth of Bird’s best novel, The Yokota Officers Club, or the engaging exploration of a subculture found in her most recent one, The Flamenco Academy. It has to be said that her satiric target, the Bush-worshipping nouveaux riches, is as bloated as a blimp, and that Bird attacks it with a broadsword. The women all have names like Kippie Lee, Bamsie, Cookie, Blitz and Missy, and they vie with one another to see who can build the most extravagant mega-mansion in Pemberton Heights. Kippie Lee’s ideal is Becca Cason Thrash, whose 20,000-square-foot Houston house has 13 bathrooms, but her husband insisted on only four, whereupon “Kippie Lee split the difference and went for eight” and her husband started having an affair with his dental hygienist.

Topical satires usually wind up in the remainder bins, victims of creeping obsolescence. But How Perfect Is That takes note of the winds of change. The story begins in April 2003, a month before the declaration of “Mission Accomplished,” when Bush’s popularity was near its post-9/11 peak. But time wounds all heels, and by the end of the novel, even Kippie Lee and Bamsie are distancing themselves from the president: “We never really liked Bush anyway,” Bamsie confesses to Blythe. “Every Southern girl in the country knew a hundred frat guys just like Bush and every one of them was smarter and better looking.”

Bird’s snark is tempered with heart, and the tug of her plotting and the warmth of her characterization overcome the occasional heavy-handedness of the satire. Blythe is a splendid creation, a kind of Auntie Mame for the Internet age. Though How Perfect Is That isn’t perfect, it’s exactly what you’re looking for if you want an enjoyable summer read.


As I noted, How Perfect Is That isn't quite up to the standards of either The Yokota Officers' Club or her more recent The Flamenco Academy. Here's my review of the latter:

THE FLAMENCO ACADEMY

By Sarah Bird

Knopf, 381 pp., $25

Early in her career, Sarah Bird wrote a clutch of romance novels as Tory Cates – a pseudonym that might be translated as "conservative delicacies," which almost sums up the damsels-and-rakes genre in a phrase. But genre fiction is too limiting for a writer as irrepressibly clever as Bird, whose novels under her own name have earned her critical praise and a small, enthusiastic following. The best of them is probably "The Yokota Officers Club," a coming-of-age tale about the rebellious daughter of an American military family stationed in Okinawa.

In her latest, "The Flamenco Academy," Bird has given us another coming-of-age story, but her central plot is one that Tory Cates might have dreamed up: A shy virgin meets a dark, handsome, mysterious man who awakens in her the possibilities of passion, but when he disappears from her life as suddenly as he entered it, she becomes obsessed with finding and winning him. Her quest will take her into the heart of the exotic culture from which he emerged.

There are passages of the ripest romance in "The Flamenco Academy," but they blend into Bird's funny, touching portrait of two misfit girls, Cyndi Rae Hrncir and Didi Steinberg. They meet as high school seniors in an Albuquerque hospital, where their terminally ill fathers are being treated. Didi is flamboyant, interested only in "bands, astrology, and weirdo diets." Rae is a nerdy math whiz. But they strike up a friendship born of their alienation from other high school students and are soon breezing about the city in Didi's red Mustang. When their fathers die, they're pretty much on their own: Didi's mother is a lush and Rae's joins a religious cult. The girls move in together and get jobs at the Pup y Taco, a hot dog and Mexican food take-out joint.

Didi has a hunger for stardom that she feeds by playing groupie to touring bands. One night, Rae follows her to a post-concert party at a motel, and meets a flamenco guitarist who has hitched a ride with the band. Rae is captivated by his music – and by him, especially after he helps her escape when the party is raided by the police. The two of them spend the evening wandering the city, but when he discovers she's a virgin he abruptly backs off, flags down a ride and disappears from her life.

Through an Internet search, Rae identifies the mystery man as Tomás Montenegro, a rising star in the world of flamenco. When she learns from a newspaper article that the University of New Mexico has "the only university-level flamenco program in the world," she enrolls in it. Moreover, the teacher of the beginning class turns out to be Doña Carlota Anaya de Montenegro – not only a superstar of flamenco, but the one who adopted and raised Tomás.

Didi follows Rae to the first flamenco class and gets caught up in the dance. Soon the two are star pupils, but with very different styles. Doña Carlota dubs Didi "La Tempesta" because of her fiery but undisciplined style. Rae has a better understanding of compás, the complex rhythms of flamenco, because she can translate them into mathematical patterns. Doña Carlota calls her "La Metrónoma," for her technically perfect, metronomic mastery of compás. She tells Rae and Didi, "'The head and the heart. Together you are the perfect dancer. Apart?' She gave an Old World shrug that dismissed both our chances."

What chance could these two misfits have at excelling in flamenco, an art whose greatest practitioners are Gitano por cuatro costaos – "Gypsy on all four sides"? Didi (née Rachel) Steinberg, "the little girl who wanted AC/DC to play at her bat mitzvah," was born to a Filipina mother and a Jewish father. And Rae has to acknowledge that she's "the exact reverse of all things flamenco, … my broad, pale Czech face … evidence that, not terribly far back in my genetic lineup, there were generations of dozy, strawberry blond milkmaids, all pale as steam."

But Didi reinvents herself. She becomes a star, the diva Ofelia, by studying "Doña Carlota in the same omnivorous way she watched Madonna and Cher, the same way she read Sylvia Plath and listened to Joni Mitchell and studied Frida Kahlo's painting." To succeed, Rae will have to follow the advice given her by Doña Carlota and move out from under Didi/Ofelia's shadow: "You will never have enough light because you will never have enough courage to grow past her and reach the sun." The complementarity of Didi and Rae turns to rivalry, not only as dancers but eventually for Tomás himself.

"The Flamenco Academy" is not only the saga of Rae and Didi. It also gives us Doña Carlota's tales of Gypsy childhood in 1930s Spain, shadowed by the civil war, as well as the reasons for Tomás' own enigmatic behavior. This makes for a heady brew of a novel, lushly romantic at one turn, wryly and wittily observant at the next. If it seems to shrivel into anticlimax at the ending, that's because so much high passion has gone before. And when it comes to characterization, especially compared to Rae and Didi, Tomás never quite turns from Tormented Artist into convincing human being. At times, he's little more than a hero-hunk sent over from central casting at Harlequin Books.

But good conflict makes good fiction, and that's what gives "The Flamenco Academy" such irresistible energy and narrative drive. And what really makes the novel more than just an exceptional summer read is Bird's wonderful ability to create a milieu, from the Albuquerque prowled by teenage girls to the Spanish caves inhabited by Gypsies. Best of all, she gives us the complex lore and intricacies of flamenco, which Didi – always one to get the last word -- describes as "obsessive-compulsive disorder set to a great beat."