Links: Speaking Terms

Cormac McCarthy on working with scientists in his role as writer in residence at the Santa Fe Institute: “I fight with them all the time. I say you have to you have to give rid of these exclamation points and these semicolons. I won’t speak to you until you do.” (via)

Peter Mountford‘s debut novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, centers on a duplicitous, craven low-level hedge-fund employee. It was apparently a tough sell: “An editor who rejected my book said she wanted the character to be more like James Bond. Then she backed away, fearing that she sounded like an idiot, which she did, but the point had been made.” It’s a good first novel; review forthcoming.

“‘What a phenomenon people are!’ exclaimed Chang-Rae Lee. ‘If you meet—if you really meet a person, how interesting.'”

The Civil War deeply influenced American literature, even if there is no great Civil War novel, writes Craig Fehrman. Plus, an interesting sidebar on photography and Nathaniel Hawthorne at Fehrman’s blog.

“Big wet sky of the republic over the big wet land”: Nelson Algren‘s poetry.

A member of the committee that gives the Nobel Prize in literature says that Horace Engdahl‘s 2008 comments about “insular” Americans was taken out of context. “What he talked about actually is that very little translated literature is read in America,” says Kjell Espmark.

Lynne Tillman, whose new short-story collection, Someday This Will Be Funny, I’m enjoying, chats with Lydia Davis. The interview is focused on her 2006 novel, American Genius, but much of what she says about the use of autobiographical material applies to the new book: “By the time I use something autobiographical, it’s not about me and my life. I see it as material, stuff I can work with and make into forms. Here are some analogies that might be corny. I look at a lot of visual work. I see how artists take what might be considered junk or banal images, but which have deep relevance to them. They use material that’s freighted for them and transform it. Painters use color differently, each color has meanings to them, aesthetic and personal associations. The important thing is, those meanings exist not only for them. Artists use material aware of its importance beyond them.” (via)

An excellent piece on New York novels by Tom LeClair, who’s concerned about the future of the form: “I fear that New York also tamps down novelists’ aesthetic ambitions, turns them into careerists of modest, consumable art—not minimalism or maximalism, but medianism.”

“No writer I know of captures as dramatically the complete brain confusion (and wonder) that goes into simply being alive on a given day than Wright Morris.”

Walter Mosley‘s Devil in a Blue Dress conjures up the tone and style of much older hard-boiled detective fiction—which, for Rohan Maitzen, makes it a bit less appealing.

“[I]n the last few years, Houghton Mifflin has chosen guest editors who are not short-story writers and do not seem to appreciate the form, for example, Alice Sebold in 2009, who does not write short stories at all, and Richard Russo in 2010 who does not write them well. Their introductions are rambling generalities and personal anecdotes that add nothing to our understanding and appreciation of the short story.” A few examples to the contrary follow. (via)

A report from a reading by E.L. Doctorow at the George Washington University:

“How much of what you write is true?” called a voice from the crowd.
“Does it sound true?” replied Doctorow.
“Well, yes.”
“Then it is true.”

More on The Surrendered

D.G. Myers is challenging my rationale for feeling disappointed in Chang-rae Lee‘s new novel, The Surrendered.* I mostly dinged the book for its simplistic characterizations; Myers suggests that perhaps I’m too eager to expect psychological realism and might be better off turning my attention to the book’s plot. When I glibly dismissed the book’s deep supply of lost and damaged limbs as serving an argument for a world without legs, Myers proposes that Lee is “more interested in the world that wants to cut them off.”

In other words (if I’m reading Myers correctly), Lee should get credit for some of the more allegorical work he’s done in the book. Which I’d be happy to give, had he done it more consistently. Stripped of any demand for psychological realism—the demand that Myers finds so irritating—at least one character remains an interesting case: Hector, the Korean War GI who fathers a son with June, who was orphaned by the war. Hector doesn’t just represent the kind of indomitable spirit that Lee wants to somberly honor, he is in fact superhuman—an alcoholic incapable of feeling truly drunk and a warrior who can’t entirely feel pain:

It was amazing but, through all the battles and firefights and skirmishes, he’d never been seriously injured; he’d been knifed and shot, even hit by shrapnel, but they were always superficial strikes, glancing off him as if he were shielded by the harder steel of some mysterious fortune, the only drafts of his blood drawn by the nurses for the blood and plasma reserves, or else come from his bloodied noses after the tussles outside bars and whorehouses. Then his wounds always healed with miraculous swiftness, as if his corporal self existed apart from everything else in a bounding, lapsing time. And in the same way that he could not feel true drunkenness he felt no true pain either, just the cold report of impact, his nerves disconnected from the necessary region of his mind, if never quite his heart.

Hector is both a moral and structural tentpole for The Surrendered. He most strongly represents Lee’s argument that we’re tethered to the past despite our best efforts to resist it, and he supports the two other lead characters in the novel: June, the orphan, and Sylvie, a missionary. He provides that support both in terms of the novel’s plot (emotionally for June, sexually for Sylvie) and in terms of its structure, bridging the chapters that chronicle Sylvie’s early miseries in Manchuria and June’s late miseries as her cancer progresses. If The Surrendered is about how the world that wants to cut your legs off, Hector sees the most of the cutting, or is at least most directly affected by it.** If we can’t take him seriously as a “realistic” character, we can at least admire him as a type, the man who’s doing much of Lee’s metaphorical heavily lifting. (Literally: He builds the orphanage’s chapel.)

So far, so appealingly disinterested in psychological realism. What I can’t see is how such a reading does more for the characters of June and Sylvie, who occupy two-thirds of the novel. What are their “superpowers” to match Hector’s, and what purpose do they serve without them? June is a headstrong orphan who grows up to become a headstrong woman; Sylvie is an addict trying to blank out the brutality she witnessed years before in Manchuria. The emotional resonances of those experiences are clear, but there’s no broader thematic value in them. Sylvie’s habit, for instance, seems to do little more than set up a somewhat interesting tension (a missionary with a drug habit!) for Hector to reckon with. And Sylvie’s justification of her habit is a familiar one:

Each time she’d take a little more [of an opium tincture], Jim warning her to be careful and that it was not meant for a healthy young woman, but she knew she wasn’t a tenth as sturdy as she appeared to Jim or to her aunt or to everyone else who saw her as a beautiful, somewhat aloof, scholarly girl who had so quickly righted herself after such a lamentable family tragedy…. [A]s she went to her classes at the college, attended church with Aunt Lizzie, a part of her couldn’t help but wish to run to Jim and the pitch-black room at the factory, drink in the potion and transmogrify, be anything but her mortal self.

The story is much the same for June. She, too, has lost her family to an atrocity, and she responds by spending her life shutting herself off emotionally, an effort that has made her wealthy but separated her from the people close to her—a worn-out theme if there ever was one. When Myers argues that The Surrendered is better read without the filter of psychological realism, only about a third of the book improves; Lee is still committed to making familiar emotional overtures, and to introducing yet another accident, another busted leg or arm, when he needs to keep the novel’s temperature up. Lee is indeed interested in the world that wants to cut your legs off, but he rarely seems interested in doing more than showing you all the bloodshed that results.

* It requires real effort for me not to refer to Lee’s novel as The Unnamed. Perhaps ambitious but flawed novels are starting to run together for me.

** Somebody could probably get a thesis out of the notion that Hector is a symbol for American imperialism since World War II, surrounded by violence but never critically wounded by it. But Lee isn’t especially engaged in the politics of war in The Surrendered, and looking at the novel that way would make it lamer than it is.

Chang-rae Lee’s Characterization Flaw

Talking to the Guardian, novelist Amy Bloom discusses her previous career as a psychotherapist and how she creates characters:

It is more the case, she explains, “that you say to [patients], ‘you seem to be carrying this little tin can left over from 1964 with you everywhere you go; maybe you’d like to put it down?’ And sometimes they go, no, it’s way too hard to put it down, I would like to ruin my relationships for the rest of my life, thank you very much. And you go OK, see you around.” In terms of her fiction, the approach translates into: “if you’ve done a good job of presenting the character, people can hear him and see him and you don’t have to go into a lot of blah blah blah about how he came to be. It’s mostly misleading and pointless.”

Bloom sounds like a terrible psychotherapist but a perfectly reasonable fiction writer: The best writers reveal character instead of explain it, and even good writers fall into the easy trap of giving their characters depth by making them products of a Deeply Transformative Moment. (To be fair, newspaper feature writers are more guilty of this flaw than novelists.) Bloom’s comment helped clarify my feelings about what doesn’t work in Chang-rae Lee‘s new novel, The Surrendered, which ambitiously attempts to capture the lives of three people deeply affected by the Korean War: Sylvie, a missionary; June, an orphan; Hector, a U.S. soldier booted from the army for “a pattern of discreditable conduct.”

There’s plenty to admire in Lee’s novel. Though a few critics have picked on its purpler passages, the writing is more often forceful and straightforward, especially when it comes to Hector, where Lee infuses the character’s humdrum life with a rare dignity, akin to Raymond Carver or Joyce Carol Oates. James Wood collects some of Lee’s more unfortunate sentences, but he’d be disinclined to do so if the characters weren’t such simple expressions of simple motivations. Hector is a brawler shellshocked by the brutality of war; June is an orphan shellshocked by the brutality of war; Sylvie is a morphine addict shellshocked by the brutality of war.

Lee can afford to carry the story for a while on the sheer intensity of three people reckoning with that brutality; the Transformative Moments for June and Sylvie in particular are so intensely detailed and gruesome that you’re willing to accept them as indeed singularly transformative. For a while, anyway. In a smaller novel this approach might work start-to-finish, but in a novel pushing 500 pages everybody is left with simple demons to conquer or succumb to, and Lee’s worst tic is that he pads the book not so much with humid writing but with violent scenes, as if to suggest that bloody brokenness is our essential way of being. Rare is the limb in The Surrendered that doesn’t wind up snapped, torn, broken, or amputated. But to what end? “She was off her feet, alive,” is the last line of the novel; Lee wants to conjure up a feeling of weightlessness and deliverance, but given all the simplistic noises he’s made before that moment if just feels like he’s arguing for a world without legs.