Friday, December 30, 2011

Reading Murakami's 1Q84

I've begun one of my Christmas presents, Haruki Murakami's massive (925-page) "international best seller," 1Q84. I'm not going to say much because (a) I'm only 170 pages into it; (b) it has been reviewed and commented on extensively. Having said that, I'll now say something.

1Q84 was published in Japan in three separate volumes and I'd read that Knopf hired two translators to produce the English edition in one volume. In the first books, the point of view of each chapter alternates regularly between Aomame, a 29-year-old woman who appears to be on a mission to rid Japan of men who abuse their wives, and Tengo, an aspiring novelist who becomes involved in a plan to anonymously rewrite a young woman's novel.

One of the challenges of writing from alternate points of view is to make each character's perceptions, thoughts, dialogue, and personality clearly individual. Ideally (I think), the author should not have to identify in a chapter headnote from whose point of view the chapter is being told. I'm sensitive to this issue because I'm attempting to individualize three characters in my current work in progress. Barbara Kingsolver does this brilliantly in The Poisonwood Bible. I thought that a neat way to accomplish this almost without trying in 1Q84 would be to assign the Aomame chapters to one translator, the Tengo chapters to another.

The publisher didn't do that. Jay Rubin, who has written an entire book about Murakami (Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Harvill Press, 2002; another wonderful book by the way), translated the first two books of 1Q84. Philip Gabriel translated book three. I suspect they flow seamlessly (I'll let you know). And thank goodness Rubin and Gabriel did translate because otherwise we who do not read Japanese easily would not have the pleasure of Murakami's imagination and company.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"You're not a novelist"

Two months ago very old friend bought my novel. We met for lunch yesterday and he was ready to comment. "You're a very good writer," he told me, "but you're not a novelist."

He was not, I'm sure, deliberately malicious. I asked why he thought I wasn't a novelist. Because the book didn't hold his or his wife's interest. We spent the rest of the lunch talking about other things, but I'm afraid I have not yet recovered.

It's one thing to say, "The book did not hold my interest," or "I found the situation preposterous," or "I did not like the main character," or as another friend just said about a book (thankfully not mine), "it is woefully over-written, and under-imagined." Novels fail for different reasons for different people.

Moreover, it's one thing to say, "You're not a very good novelist." It's very different to dismiss someone with, "You're not a novelist." That statement closes the door on any improvement, on any possibility of being a novelist. It's both thoughtless and cruel.

First, it assumes there's a profession(?), trade(?), racket(?) called "novelist," akin to doctor, lawyer, truck driver. Second, it assumes, I believe, a level of craft rather than a diploma or acceptance into a professional group. It assumes one is a novelist, not by writing long fictions, but by writing novels that meet a certain standard of excellence, and that standard can be defined and measured.

There is, however, very little agreement over what defines a novel. It's a work of fiction, in prose, and lengthy, but even these can provoke debate. And if we cannot even pin down the concept of the "novel" who would be arrogant enough to define a novelist?

My toxic friend.

He knows what is a novel and what is not. (Robert B. Parker is one of his favorite novelists. Now there's someone who holds your interest! I agree; I'm not Robert B. Parker.) He knows my book is not a novel because it didn't hold his interest. Nor did it hold his wife's interest. Ergo: He knows I'm not a novelist. As a friend, he wants to save me from wasting any more time writing works for which I am not naturally suited.

I'm ashamed that his arrogant ignorance bothers me so much I took time from my current novel to write this. I wish I knew why mild criticism stings so much more painfully than sincere praise gives delight. It's something I'll work on.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

I did my best to like this novel. I was impressed by an interview with Giraldi in Poets & Writers magazine and I thought Giraldi's short story, "Hold the Dark" in the Winter 2011-12 issue of Ploughshares was wonderful. I'm afraid I gave up on Busy Monsters around page 100, however.

It certainly starts with a bang: "Stunned by love and some would say stupid from too much sex, I decided I had to drive down South to kill a man." Who could not keep reading after an opening sentence like that?

I could. I found the narrator, Charles Homar, both unbelievable, unsympathetic, and ultimately I did not care what crazy pickle in which he next found himself. In Chapter One he feels he has no alternative to marital happiness with the adorable Gillian, "the only woman I've ever met who hasn't asked me to adjust my persona, enlarge my heart, tweak my ideas, or alter my language, and this from a lady with Opinions," except to murder her former lover who threatens the lovebirds. He's assisted in this plan by a high school buddy, Groot, a Navy SEAL and experienced killer. When Charles finally reaches the home of the former lover, timidly intent on mayhem, however, he finds the guy has offed himself, saving Charles' conscience. Gillian can now be his.

No. Gillian, who is obsessed by the giant squid, has abandoned Charles and her marriage plans to join a world-famous giant squid hunter without so much as a by-your-leave to poor Charles. Charles follows her to a port in southern Maine, armed with an untraceable automatic rifle (thank you Groot), that he eventually empties into the hull of the world-famous giant squid hunter's ship. Charles is locked away in a minimum security facility for three months and Gillian sails off with her squid hunter.

I gave up on the book when Groot suggests that Charles could win his lady love away from the squid hunter by bagging the (a?) Sasquatch in the Pacific Northwest. Big Foot would be more impressive than a giant squid. And Charles apparently accepts this logic.

I had the feeling Giraldi was strained for originality. I thought much of the writing was great: "The whole way down to Virginia [to murder the ex-boyfriend], I listened to Nina Simone to comfort the shebang out of me. If I were a man given to the depth of philosophy, this would have been the time: more than eight hours in my cushioned car, a killer's knife tucked into my boot, on my way to commit a capital crime, all for the love of a woman and, sure, an uninterrupted existence. Of course I considered the law and my soul, but neither seemed very vital just then...."

Yet halfway through, I just didn't care enough to go on. This is, I have no doubt, my failure, not Giraldi's. I guess all I can say is that if this is the sort of think you like, you'll like this.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

British writer Terry Pratchett is a marvel and Snuff is his most recent and may be his last novel. He has Alzheimer's disease. He has, however, written 41 Diskworld novels, 14 young adult novels, and four other novels. The man has been prolific.

He is also has a way with words: "Lady Sybil knew her husband in the way people living next door to a volcano get to know the moods of their neighbor. The important thing is to avoid the bang."

"Young Sam [the hero's six-year-old son] did not need very much in the way of entertainment, manufacturing it in large quantities out of observations of the landscape, the stories that had lulled him to sleep at bedtime last night, some butterfly thought that had just sped across his mind and, increasingly, he'd talk about Mr. Whistle, who lived in a house in a tree but was sometimes a dragon...."

Adding to the fun is the occasional footnote. To a discussion why the housemaids in the grand country home turn their backs on the gentry as they pass, Pratchett appends the following: "Willikins was an excellent butler and/or gentleman's gentleman when the occasion required it, but in a long career he had also been an enthusiastic street fighter, and knew enough never to turn his back on anybody who could possibly have a weapon on them."

The Diskworld stories take place in an alternate universe, one that resembles Victorian England, but populated with dwarfs, trolls, werewolves, goblins, humans (and more), but without guns, phones, automobiles, airplanes, steam engines, or modern plumbing. There are carriages, crossbows, and clacks (which permit communication over distances). Many of the stories take place in Ankh-Morpork and involve members of the City Watch. Snuff features the Commander of the Watch, Samuel Vimes, who we've watched grow, change, and get married in past books. Lady Sybil has imposed on him to take a vacation (vacation? ha!) on her country estate where, as is the policeman's lot, Sam finds crime.

While I don't think Snuff is the best Terry Pratchett novel I've read, it is still laugh-out-loud funny, that is if you think "Monty Python" or "Fawlty Towers" are funny. If you've never read Terry Pratchett and you do think "Monty Python" is funny, you have a feast of enjoyment ahead of you. (And if you've never seen Fawlty Towers, get off the damned computer and go rent, borrow, or steal the disks.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Orientation by Daniel Orozco

Among the many delights in this collection of short stories is Orozco's experiments with form, all of which work in my opinion. For example, the title story is an unnamed supervisor orienting a new employee: "Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That's my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it. This is your Voicemail System Manual. There are no personal phone calls allowed..." The supervisor also talks about the other people in the office, the man who occasionally uses the ladies toilet, the man who is hopelessly in love with the woman who ignores him but who plasters the walls of her cubical with pictures drawn by her autistic son, the woman whose left palm began to bleed during a meeting.... By the end of the story we have a picture of a soulless office and the shades doomed to work in it.

Another story reads like an police Incident Report: "...400 Block, Sycamore Circle. Barking dog complaint. Attempts to shush dog unsuccessful. Citation left in owner's mailbox. Animal Control notified. 1300 Block, Harvest Avenue. Suspicious odor—a gas lead or "the smell of death." Officers investigate. Odor ascertained to be emanating from a neighbor's mimosa tree in unseasonal bloom. "The smell of life," officer [Shield #647] ponders aloud. Officers nod. Homeowner rolls eyes, nods politely...." Gradually the entries become more and more personally revealing and human.

Orozco has a story about a painter working on the Bay Bridge, about a warehouse clerk, about a temp, about the grossly obese (and food obsessed), and about an earthquake. The settings change, the points of view change, but I found all the stories powerful and convincing. Moreover, not only did I find the stories engaging, they suggest possibilities in fiction I've never considered. What more could one want from a book?

Monday, December 5, 2011

The NaNoWriMo Experience

I'm back from NaNoWriMoland. During November I wrote 55,448 words on a new novel tentatively titled "Mt. Koya." I have not finished, but I have a clear idea where it will go and in the next week or so I will have a first draft.

The NaNoWriMo experience was extraordinary. I tend to be a writer who distracts himself easily. I will not happily go ahead with a new sentence, a new paragraph, a new section until I am happy with what I've just written—and I am seldom happy. With the challenge to write an average of 1,667 words a day, I did not have time to be distracted. I worried that if I fell behind by a day or more, I would never make up the words, and I had to think about the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. As a writing teacher says about first drafts: "Write too fast."

I know that some people think through an outline before November 1 so all (all!) they have to do is fill in the blanks during the month. I had an idea for a story and simply began writing. On result of this approach: I was regularly surprised by what the characters said and did. I would like to think this leads to a more spontaneous and interesting work.

I am now almost in the habit of turning out 2,000 words a day. I did it before, I can do it again. So saying that I'm going to get started on today's 2,000 words.