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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

3 Literary Novels that Reinvent Language

For years I’ve been told that my writing is “not safe.” I take this as a compliment. But it’s also the cause for problems: How does an agent sell such work? How can one communicate about it to readers? After much teeth gnashing, my literary agent finally figured out how to place my work in a genre: “You don’t sound like anyone else,” she pronounced. That was my genre—not like anyone else. “Yes,” I said ecstatically. “Yes, and that’s my favorite kind of book to read: writers with original voices.”

Who but Alice Walker could have ever written The Color Purple? John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide in despair and whose mother finally published A Confederacy of Dunces, was one of a kind. And more recently Emma Donoghue’s Room, which is written in a child’s language all its own, was such a hit it has been turned into a popular Hollywood movie. But, except for the rare writer who achieves fame with something out of left field (Haruki Murakami, for instance) and becomes his own "brand," these books are not the rule. Most popular books fit into a standard genre: women’s fiction, young adult, mystery, etc. I like these books too, but the books I love, the ones that get inside me and change me, are those that are written, and had to be written, by writers who used their original voices. Here are three such books:

The Summer That Melted Everything (St. Martin’s Press, July 26, 2016) by Tiffany McDaniel

Imagine the best Southern writers of many eras, plus a serving of a script by Shirley Jackson produced in Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, with a touch of futuristic Kurt Vonnegut seasoning, all cooked with an imagination that belongs only to Tiffany McDaniel.

The setting is the fictional small town of Breathed, Ohio, during the abnormally hot summer of 1984. The story is told by a man called Fielding Bliss (son of the town’s prosecutor, Autopsy Bliss)—from his point of view in a future none of us have yet lived.

At Autopsy’s invitation, because he cannot live with being certain and wrong, he invites the devil to Breathed; surely the devil will be someone he is certain about and right. A boy shows up claiming to be the devil. And all hell breaks loose.

This is a poetic parable about how, in fear, driven by our herd instinct, in the high heat of unexamined beliefs, we humans easily and instantly allow common sense to be melted away. It is about our species—beings who have not been accepted as they are, disappointed in themselves, similarly rejecting themselves and then others. Paradise Lost. (Each chapter begins with an epigraph from the Milton poem.)

This book has an epic quality. The writing is unusual. Is life an ongoing tragedy? This story is one to live with and contemplate. And the mystery of how a debut book can be this mature is solved in this interview; it's the "fifth or sixth" book McDaniel has written! Read More 
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Reflections on “Hold Still” by Sally Mann

Earthy, fierce, sensual, and elegant—that is the nature of this person, the gorgeous writing, and also, it seems, the nature of the American South, as expressed by photographer Sally Mann in her stunning autobiography. Just like the cover which shows a child “holding still” mid-jump, surrounded by sky, the writing manages to simultaneously move and hold you.

Sally Mann and I are the same age, we occupied the same territory for a time (same class at Bennington), but I don’t recall knowing her. If I did meet her, I’m sure I took one look at the ferocious expression in her eyes—illustrated in some of the many photographs in this book and acknowledged by her—and I would have given her a wide berth. She describes herself as a “feral child.” Funny, because I’ve used the same words to describe myself at that time. But where she was fearless, I was afraid of anything and everything. Where she moved forward with jet propulsion, I free fell. But I think now we would be friends.

She is honest, self-aware, and naked about her personality proclivities:

“. . . I have always been susceptible to some form of opportunistic sorrow—of the deepest, most soul-wrenching, step-off-the-cliff variety.” (203)

In a world filled with people (and media) who move seamlessly from true grief to exaggerated, self-feeding “opportunistic sorrow,” I think this is the first time I’ve ever read it admitted and so well named, and it made me cheer.  Read More 

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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

Ever since I ran my fingers through my mother's cremation remains, just before sending them sailing into the ocean, I've wanted to know what happened to her body in the gap between the moment I kissed her still-warm face goodbye in the ICU and her transformation into emulsified bone matter. Although I'm not in any rush for it and I really loathe losing anyone I love, I am not turned off by death. It's inevitable and I'm very curious. I realize this is an idiosyncratic thing, but I've found that when someone I love dies, I instantly distinguish the dead body as an object quite different from the being who moments ago inhabited it and lose interest in the container; to my senses, it's suddenly like a well-worn shirt. I also rather enjoy the Buddhist exercise of imagining my own disintegration. So I dove into Caitlin Doughty's book, appreciating it for the treasure that it is: answers!  Read More 

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Artists Fail . . . It's What We Do

I just read a wonderful essay by Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner about his many years of failure prior to success. And one of the quotes that especially got to me was this one:
. . . the most stinging responses I heard were along the lines of, "This is one of the most beautiful, well-executed, exciting things I’ve ever read, but I’m afraid that we just don’t do this kind of show." Those comments made me feel as if I were alone in the universe.
I honestly don't think I've ever read that particular loneliness articulated: when somebody actually sees and appreciates you and then they reject you.

In the documentary A Sense of the Sacred, a portrait of Jungian Helen Luke, the revered analyst and author talks about the difficulty of individuating via a path that has never been taken: “If you go a way that is not a conventional way, you have no right to think that on that account you are absolved from the duty of sharing your truth that you have experienced, no matter if it is totally rejected. There may be one person here or there that may be affected—that’s what we base our lives on.”

Both of these statements catapulted me back in my own history:

In 1986, after performing a workshop of the one-woman play that I’d written called Darleen Dances—about a girl who is trying to rock ’n’ roll dance her way into the Guinness Book of Records in order to feel as if she’s mattered by the time she gets “old and decrepit and eventually dead”—I was delighted when the phone started ringing with queries about producing the play.  Read More 
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Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

This is bawdy, spontaneous, poetic writing.

Eugene Henderson, an overblown, twice-married, millionaire pig farmer and violin player is having an existential crisis.

I want, I want, I want, I want, I want!

This is the geshrei that drives fifty-five-year-old Henderson into and through a spiritual quest in Africa. He doesn’t know what he wants, just that “everybody is working, making, digging, bulldozing, trucking, loading, and so on . . .” until it is a form of madness. (I think he would be right at home in our time when value is quantified by how many “likes” we’ve accrued.)

Henderson the Rain King is a quest as complicated as any Haruki Murakami tale, but the protagonist is a bloated, bungling American—a man with “the Midas touch in reverse.” In Africa, his first stop is a village of people whose beloved cattle are dying of thirst because the water reserve is occupied by frogs. On one hand, Henderson wants to rescue everybody; on the other, he longs to be rescued:

This was a beautiful, strange, special place, and I was moved by it. I believed the queen could straighten me out if she wanted to; as if, any minute now, she might open her hand and show me the thing, the source, the germ—the cipher. The mystery, you know. I was absolutely convinced she must have it. The earth is a huge ball which nothing holds up in space except its own motion and magnetism, and we conscious things who occupy it believe we have to move too, in our own space. We can’t allow ourselves to lie down and not do our share and imitate the greater entity. You see, this is our attitude. But now look at Willatale, the Bittah [highly evolved] woman; she had given up such notions, there was no anxious care in her, and she was sustained. Why, nothing bad happened! On the contrary, it all seemed good! Look how happy she was, grinning with her flat nose and gap teeth, the mother-of-pearl eye and the good eye, and look at her white head! It comforted me just to see her, and I felt that I might learn to be sustained too if I followed her example. (74)

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Best Funny Books about Difficult Women

After publishing The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, a funny novel about a 4'11", 237 pound woman with a habit of lying, burgling, and incinerating houses--a woman desperate to be seen and accepted for her talent and inner beauty--I became a little desperate to read funny novels about other difficult women. There are not a lot of them. But here's what I found.  Read More 

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National Novel Writing Month is Here! (And so is Stoner!)

Two Quickie Topics:

1. In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I'm addressing the craft of writing in a blog at Black Lawrence Press. Writing a novel is a healing process for the writer, but the subsequent existence of a novel is potentially healing for readers who are willing to experience the discomfort of having their flaws poked--which The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, the subject of the blog, has been known to do. If this subject interests you, I hope you'll click the link.







2. Also on the subject of craft: I just received my 50th anniversary hardcover edition of Stoner, which I mention in my list of recommended books in the aforementioned Black Lawrence Press blog. (It is currently 30% off at NYRB)

The hardcover doesn't have a dust jacket, but it does have a paper sleeve with praise from stellar people, and at the top, under the title and author's name, it says "The International Best Seller."

I mention this because this edition includes letters from John Williams to his agent in which he seems to foretell the luminous future of this book, despite massive discouragement. These letters are so wonderful because they give you a feeling for John Williams, the man. How clear, savvy, and aware he was of exactly what he had created—with almost no validation:


From his agent, Marie Rodell
Now, from a business point of view: I may be totally wrong, but I don't see this as a novel with a high potential sale. Its technique of almost unrelieved narrative is out of fashion, and its theme to the average reader could well be depressing. . . .

From John Williams
I suspect that I agree with you about the commercial possibilities; but I also suspect that the novel may surprise us in this respect. . . . The only thing I'm sure of is it that it's a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one. A great deal more is going on in the novel than appears on the surface, and its technique is a great deal more "revolutionary" than it appears to be. Despite this, it is, I think available to the ordinary reader; or at least I hope it is. One afternoon a few weeks ago, I walked in on my typist (a junior history major, and pretty average, I'm afraid) while she was finishing typing chapter 15, and discovered great huge tears coursing down her cheeks. I shall love her forever.


I shall love John Williams forever. If you are interested in the craft of writing, he is the master.

 






 

 

 



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Apostroph'itis: An Editor's Primal Scream

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Haruki Murakami's KAFKA ON THE SHORE

I'm interested in the grotesque—so interested I devoted a whole book, The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, to a grotesque character. I was impelled to do this because I believe what Zelda embodies—fear, craving to be known, envy, desires that overwhelm her—is what we all, every one of us ego-driven humans, most try to hide. My feeling is that if we can acknowledge these things inside us, even laugh at them—engendering compassion for our human condition—we can grow into the best of us. My epigraphs for the book (and there is a whole page of them) focus on "exile." Why? Because I believe either not knowing these grotesque parts of ourselves or knowing but hating them puts us in a state of exile from who we really are.

An earlier blog on Flannery O'Connor's work gives O'Connor's take on the power of writing the grotesque: ". . . you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."

The following review of Haruki Murakami's wonderful book offers a different definition of grotesque—one that makes even more sense to me. Read More 

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Original Voice: Jeffrey Euginedes, Amanda Filipacchi, Bradley Somer


About a year ago I attended a Jeffrey Euginedes lecture on the subject of writer's voice (Columbia University School of the Arts, Heyman Center for the Humanities Creative Writing Lecture series). If you have about an hour, by all means listen; it's rich. [He stops reading and turns loose, funny, and charming during the Q&A which starts around 40:00. (My questions are at 52:58—about the nature of the personal "starter yeast" that brought him to commit years of life to researching Middlesex. His wonderful answers involve Latin class, Ovid's Metamorphosis, whether men or women enjoy sex more, and having a hopeless existence.)]{POSTSCRIPT: THIS VIDEO HAS BEEN PRIVATIZED. I'M SO SORRY. BELIEVE ME, IT IS WONDERFUL}

I start reading a lot of books and nothing makes me abandon them faster than a generic voice; to my eyes and inner ear, it's like fingers with no fingerprints. Not only is something off, but there is no feeling of surprise for me when I hit that kind of writing; no pulse. And the majority of books fall into this category. Why? Probably for the same reason so few of us generally and regularly express who we really are from our deepest essence. Which makes me all the more grateful when I land on a writer with a voice like no other—as unique as their fingerprints, so resonant with pulse that the words vibrate off the page and throughout my physical/spiritual system. I recently discovered two such writers: Amanda Filipacchi and Bradley Somer. Here are my reviews of their magnificent new novels: Read More 
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Taking Dead Mom to BookExpo America

It all started at BookExpo America (BEA) 2013, arguably the largest book publishing convention in the U.S., so it seemed fitting that I asked my mother, Edna Robinson, whose debut novel, The Trouble with the Truth, found a copacetic agent there, to accompany me to BEA 2015. The fact that she has been dead since 1990 is inconsequential.

"Mom," I said, "things have changed since 1958 when you wrote your coming-of-age book about a lost but funny girl named Lucresse in the 1930s, (called by Booklist, 'a gem of a book') [No, of course I didn’t really say all this, but I’m trying to make this conversation both comprehensible and appealing!] You thought getting a word processor in 1989, a year before you skedaddled, was wild. Just wait till you see what’s going on now!"

Edna Robinson: "I can hardly contain myself. Are you really going to wear those shoes?"  Read More 

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My Dogged Life

For a nine-pound Maltese, Rosie had a big life. For her first two years, it was her job to keep my sick mother company and refuse to be paper trained.

"You have to say 'No!' like a bark," I’d tell my mother. "Use a deep, sharp voice."

"No!" barked my mother, but still Rosie urinated on the carpet.

She learned to sit for a treat and to run under the bed on command whenever the visiting nurses came. "Heel" and "stay" where not really relevant.

"She's not happy," my mother would say when she phoned. "Can you bring Daisy over to play?"

Rosie lived for our visits, and she and Daisy would play for ten hours straight, and, although she adored my mother, Rosie would beg to go with us when Daisy and I left.

When my mother died, it was Rosie’s job to take care of me. "I can't," I'd moan at the whole mess of life and death, and, cuddled in my lap, Rosie would lick away my tears.
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I Could Use the Help of Flannery O'Connor … But I Have Issues

I've had this Signet paperback (pub. 1964) on my bookshelf for decades. I'd read parts of it many years ago, and, in a minute, I'll get to why I recently decided to read the whole book.

The anthology is in three parts: a novel (Wise Blood), a collection of short stories and a novella ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"), and another novel (The Violent Bear It Away). Since I couldn't remember what I'd previously read, I went from back to front in the hope of sampling the new material first.

Part 3. I was brought up with no religion and in some ways I think that has sensitized me to fundamentalism in many forms—not only religious, but political (including progressive fundamentalism). Fundamentalism is characterized by somebody's absolute certainty that their belief is the only true one and anybody who does not agree is wrong, misguided, an idiot. In The Violent Bear It Away, O'Connor painfully evokes the feeling of being torn to bits by warring sides, of being a confused and helpless angry child without the wherewithal to deal with this level of extremes. O'Connor was Christian and deals with Christian fundamentalism, but the pain transcends the particular story. Reading through all the Scriptural references was a slog for me, since this is not my natural territory, but ultimately I found myself riveted by the basic human drama: a child torn apart by warring adults, and everybody is nuts. I can relate … Unless I completely missed the point and the great-uncle prophet who creates a murdering boy prophet is supposed to be sane. This was the most difficult (unenjoyable) section of the anthology—not easy reading. Read More 

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The Truth about The Trouble with the Truth

It was February 2013. I’d been freelance book editing since losing my magazine job—on a day christened “Bloody Wednesday” in New York publishing—just before Christmas in 2008. Freelancing is a feast-or-famine deal, and I’d had close to a month of famine when a little voice in my head whispered, “It’s time. Pull Mom’s manuscript out of the closet.”

In 1957, when I was six, my mother, Edna Robinson, had written a short story called “The Trouble with the Truth.” After it was published in the 1959 edition of the New World Writing book series, selected as one of the “most exciting and original” stories of its time by editors who had previously introduced the work of Samuel Beckett and Jack Kerouac, Edna’s intensity became impenetrable. I remember watching her burrowed in her study typing. Why was she so mad, I wondered.

She wasn’t mad. As a writer, I now understand the intensity. She was working her story into a novel of the same title. And when that novel was optioned by Harper & Row—and then dropped simply because it was about a single father with two peculiar children in the 1920s and ’30s, and To Kill a Mockingbird had occupied that territory, I believe something in my mother died.  Read More 

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The Music of Language: 1930s, '40s, '50s . . .

I became vividly aware of the musical sounds of language, specific to past decades, when I was editing my late mother's novel, The Trouble with the Truth. My mother, Edna Robinson, was born in 1921, and the novel takes place largely in the 1930s and early '40s. However it is written from a perspective in the late 1950s. This could pose a problem musically. We all know the sound of the 1930s and '40s from black-and-white Hollywood movies. Staccato and matter-of-fact-sounding. The 1950s, on the other hand, is softer—think Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Like the 1930s and '40s, the '50s have a patriarchal beat, for lack of a better way to express it. Father did know best and that was not questioned. Edna solved the problem of differing decades' music logically—the narrative was good literary writing of any era, and dialogue was perfect pitch for the 1930s–40s.

As an editor, you live in the head of a writer, and I became so involved in the life and sounds of those three decades that I wanted to read other work of the time. For several months, I've been reading the master of the short story, John Cheever—his Pulitzer-prize-winning anthology The Stories of John Cheever. Talk about perfect pitch!

For a while I wondered if the music of those decades, 1930s–1950s, had an influence on what people accepted as normal. Both Edna Robinson and Cheever accepted as inevitable the pain and confusion and heartbreak of human life. Not like today where we seek help, actively try to transform, meditate, or complain on social media. Read More 
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