Brilliant Fragments

Trump. Comey. Russia. All very important, yes, but also very exhausting to focus on exclusively. The mess in Washington is serious indeed but like all of our endeavors, it stems from the mysterious processes that govern human behavior. Granted, compulsive tweeting is a relatively new manifestation of troubled conduct. Still, it can sometimes help to examine behavioral patterns from another angle.

The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris.
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris.

The writer Joshua Ferris is a case in point. He has an excellent grasp of the tragicomic nuances that underlie all our behavior, especially in intimate relationships, and The Dinner Party, his new book of short stories, may be a helpful distraction from the current news. Although there aren’t any direct political references to our present situation, the book may still help to put things in perspective.

Ferris is best known for his three novels (Then We Came to the End, The Unnamed, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour). Of these, the first and the third and most recent have been widely praised. Ferris’s second novel, The Unnamed, features a protagonist who is seized with an uncontrollable urge to walk and keep walking, no matter the consequences. It seems to have been widely disliked and/or misunderstood but I think it may be the best of the bunch, an existential journey that, as Tim Adams in the Guardian put it, shows us how “our biology will sooner or later remove us from the things we hold most dear.”

The Dinner Party is Ferris’s first short story collection and it continues the rather bleak existential outlook, leavened with flashes of humor, found in the novels. Some reviewers have savaged the book but the majority of reviews have been very positive. The stories vary somewhat in quality—stories in collections invariably do—but the best of them are very strong indeed. These include the title story, a devastating portrait of a disintegrating marriage and also the consequences of failing to know oneself, “A Night Out,” which deals with male infidelity, and “Fragments,” which counters with the female version.

The last story in the collection, “A Fair Price,” does have some direct relevance to America’s current social inequities. It concerns a clueless, self-involved privileged character and the day laborer he hires to help empty out a storage unit. The consequences of their interaction certainly gave me pause.

I think Joshua Ferris, only in his early forties, is one of the best writers currently working in America. If you’d like an extra helping of insight into the way a certain class of Americans (educated, liberal, urban) lives today, I wholeheartedly recommend The Dinner Party.

 

Slow Start for Saul

Sometimes America’s political fiascos and the world’s imminent threats become a little too much to bear. This is one of the reasons we have a “Golden Age of Television.” “Better Call Saul,” offshoot of the late, lamented “Breaking Bad” series, is one of the exemplars and Season Three is now underway.

It’s off to a somewhat slow start, especially in the season opener. Here, after a black-and-white sequence showing the erstwhile Saul as “Gene,” manager of a Cinnabon in Omaha, we have a plot line contrasting the warring McGill brothers, Jimmy (who is to become Saul Goodman) and the electromagnetic hypersensitive Chuck, with the dangerous but fascinating Mike Ehrmantraut.

 Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul.”
Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul.” Credit Michele K. Short/AMC.

The McGill brothers’ interaction is entertaining but leisurely. We learn that Chuck has secretly recorded Jimmy’s felonious confession, which Jimmy has offered in an attempt to help alleviate his brother’s (partially feigned) symptoms. Meanwhile, in a carryover from Season Two, someone has planted a tracking device somewhere in Mike’s car and he is determined to find out who and why. Again, this is interesting to watch but actual events seem in short supply.

Episode Two picks up the pace a bit: Jimmy learns about Chuck’s betrayal and is devastated by it (thus digging himself in deeper), while Mike begins to make progress in his quest to find out who’s tracking him. The extremely sinister Gus Fring pops up, which energizes things for “Breaking Bad” fans. At this point, one begins to realize this excellent series from co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould is likely to provide a compelling season after all.

As an unrelated bonus, Noah Hawley’s outstanding “Fargo” series starts its Season Three tonight as well.

Lincoln in the Bardo

This novel from George Saunders, probably America’s premier short story writer, is nothing short of an event. It has reached #1 on the New York Times hardcover best seller list, and the Times has produced a ten-minute “immersive narrative short” based on excerpts from the novel. The book’s publication has been accompanied by a spectacular audiobook version with a 166-person cast. Lincoln in the Bardo has received very strong reviews, both here and in the UK. And, it is the author’s first novel, which is yet another reason why so many people are so eager to read it.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders
A novel from America’s premier short story writer.

Saunders’s short stories are phenomenal works of art. I think “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” from Tenth of December, does as fine a job as anything I’ve read of capturing the pre-Trump American zeitgeist. In fact, all four of Saunders’s short story collections are believably absurd renditions of life in America in recent years, poignant and heartfelt, with great empathy for those who are struggling and savage satirical depictions of the powers that be. Many of the dazed and confused characters in these stories would have no doubt voted for Trump, believing (like their real-life counterparts) they had nothing to lose.

It’s a long way from Donald Trump to Abraham Lincoln, just as it’s a major transition from the concision of a short story, no matter how brilliantly rendered, to the larger canvas of a novel. Saunders used this analogy to describe the task: “It’s like I’ve spent my whole life making custom yurts and someone said, ‘Can you build a mansion?’ And I said, ‘Well, yeah, I could link a bunch of yurts together.'”

But Saunders has done much more than string his yurts together. He has done extensive research on Lincoln at the time of the Civil War, and on the unexpected death of his beloved son, Willie. The quotes unearthed have been used strategically to propel the story, alternating with the narrative of his characters in the bardo (Saunders is a practicing Buddhist). These are extraordinarily well done.

There are three principal narrators, in addition to Willie Lincoln, and each is trapped, for reasons unique to him, in the bardo, unable to move on. They don’t want the same fate to befall Willie, so much of the narrative consists of their efforts to persuade the lad to leave his transitional state, in a “matterlightblooming” phenomenon. Lincoln’s grief at the death of his son, and his heavy responsibilities as President in a time of national emergency, contribute to the novel’s elegiac tone. This is very different from the atmosphere of most of Saunders’s stories.

The unusual way in which the story is told somehow reflects the transitional state in which it is set, and does so with growing power throughout the novel. The characterizations, both historically based and invented, are wonderful. This is a book you will remember and think about long after you finish reading it.

Music for Our Times

With the Grammys coming up tomorrow, I thought I’d cast my vote in the Dance/Electronic category for Underworld’s phenomenal Barbara, Barbara we face a shining future. While I follow classical music and jazz more than popular music these days, there are some noteworthy exceptions and Underworld is one of them.

Underworld: Barbara Barbara we face a shining future
Music for today.

Back in the 90s, the group had some of the best and most popular dance/electronic albums of the day. Two of their songs featured in Danny Boyle’s controversial but widely acclaimed film Trainspotting, and the albums Dubnobasswithmyheadman and Second Toughest in the Infants were blasting people into a kind of dancing nirvana in clubs everywhere.

Barbara, Barbara is different—it’s very much of this time. From the opening track on, the album seems concerned with finding solace and inspiration where one can in the midst of confusion and darkness. The opening track, “I Exhale,” tells an abstract story of forward motion that opens out into “the lights aglow over the horizon.” It makes you feel those lights, and believe they are cause for hope.

Likewise with the other tracks on the album. “If rah,” the second track, has a line proclaiming “Life isn’t shit.” “Low Burn” urges listeners to “Be bold, Be beautiful, Free, Totally Unlimited.”“Motorhome” counsels us to “Keep away from the dark side.” And “Nylon Strung” closes the album with:

“Sliding between the dust of a scorched earth
Open me up
I wanna hold you, laugh for you
(Carry me).”

This is music for today. Barbara, Barbara deserves a Grammy.

Fiction in the Post-truth Era

“Truth is stranger than fiction,” the saying goes, and this poses a real challenge for fiction writers. More so than ever today, in our post-truth era. Yet it’s a challenge that’s being met, often brilliantly.

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley.
Post-truth and reality in a modern thriller. Photo: Post-Gazette.com.

Noah Hawley offers an excellent example. Not only is Hawley a gifted novelist—his latest, Before the Fall, made the New York Times 100 Notable Books list last year—he is a masterful screenwriter as well, as exemplified by the first two seasons of “Fargo” in particular.

Much of Before the Fall concerns the 24-hour news cycle and the ways in which appearance vies with reality. In fact, the novel’s denouement revolves around these issues. But the book is such a gripping, suspenseful read that you’re only concerned with turning the pages. The issues raised do resonate after you put the book down, though.

Fargo
“Fargo,” from FX. Photo: Backstage.com

The story (not the plot) is similar in “Fargo.” Set in the Upper Plains, the series contrasts the (mostly) polite and plain-spoken people who live there with the violent and chaotic spin of American social and political change. It does not do this overtly; both seasons are set in the past. Yet it’s there, and you become aware of it as you go along.

In both the book and the TV series, Hawley does what writers are supposed to do: dig inside his characters to present their truth. That’s one thing that has not changed in our current climate and it means that truth continues to have a bright future—at least in fiction and film.

What Are You Reading?

Are you reading at all? Too many Americans aren’t, at least where books are concerned. And that goes a long way toward explaining the current state of the country. After all, reading expands one’s mental horizons and encourages understanding and empathy, both of which are in short supply these days.

To underscore the need to read, the New York Public Library and others have launched a #ReadersUnite campaign on social media. You’re encouraged to post photos of the book(s) you’re currently reading, along with your thoughts on the importance of same.

I’m currently reading a novel called The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Australian writer Richard Flanagan.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan
Winner of the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

It’s not directly related to our current situation, concerning as it does Australian POWs in WWII, but it certainly encourages empathy. It’s a well-written page-turner, as well.

I tend to organize my reading in lists, to try to keep things manageable (this doesn’t always work). The lists are divided into “Classic” (e.g., The Brothers Karamazov), “Current” (e.g., the book described above and other recent books, both fiction and non-fiction) and “Craft” (e.g., The Best American Short Stories series)— anything else goes into a free-floating catch-all category. I try to read at least a book a week and usually succeed.

Reading and writing go hand-in-hand — as an aspiring writer, I read a lot and as widely as I can. If you’d like to become more proficient than the average social media post at expressing your own thoughts and feelings, then pick up a book! Pick up many books and keep reading. You’ll be the richer for it.

A Work in Progress

Here’s a draft version of something I’ve been thinking about for a while.

“Symphony no. 8”

When we talk about the “Mighty Nine”
We could be talking about almost anything.
Maybe it’s baseball, the ’27 Yankees.
Maybe the Supreme Court, or a video game.
There aren’t many music classes
Left in the schools these days.

Suppose you do encounter Beethoven, though.
Suppose you listen to each and every symphony
And hear them all more than once.
Which would you then say
Moved you the most?
The “Eroica”? The Fifth? The Mighty Ninth?

For me it would be a different choice,
A work not played as often as the others.
A fiery work, but somehow also cold and isolated.
I’m referring to the glittering, self-contained Eighth:
A work that pierces ice-blue skies
To no applause on earth.

—Thomas Pletcher

Sneak Preview: 2017 TV Season

Big Changes Are in Store for Your Favorite Shows!

Writeside.com has learned that the Trump Administration has negotiated major changes with America’s TV networks and cable companies—plus streaming providers Netflix, Hulu and Amazon—to “bring prime time TV programs into closer accord with America’s values.”

Virtually every prime time program will reflect these changes. Here, for example, are some of the changes planned for the well-regarded FX series “The Americans.”

"The Americans"
“The Americans” title card © FX.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Rather than being set in the early 1980s during the Cold War, the upcoming fifth season will take place in present-day America.
  • Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American married couple living in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., will come out of hiding and join their neighbor Stan Beeman at the FBI.
  • Paige Jennings, who had intended to follow in her parents’ footsteps, becomes an intern at the Trump White House.
  • Elizabeth and Philip join Stan in combating un-American bureaucrats at the CIA, who are alleging that America’s close ally Russia interfered with the 2016 election. Certain members of Congress who prove susceptible to these claims also become FBI targets.
  • Vladimir Putin will make a cameo guest appearance mid-season.
  • John McCain, who had been spearheading efforts to prove Russian interference in the election, is poisoned with polonium-210, a radioactive isotope. Elizabeth and Philip are seen hovering near his hospital bed.
  • At a news conference in the season’s final episode, President Trump makes his own cameo guest appearance. He is asked if Russia is responsible for the McCain poisoning. “That’s ridiculous,” the President replies. “Besides, I like senators who haven’t been poisoned with polonium-210.”

President Trump has announced that he will serve as executive producer for “The Americans” next year, along with “The Apprentice.” The President also referred to some “fabulous” changes in store next year for “PBS News Hour.”

“We’re going to bring back that fantastic two-woman anchor team,” the President said, alluding to the duo of Judy Woodruff and the late Gwen Ifill. The program’s new 2017 anchors will be Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Palin.

Love from Afar

There is a fantastic modern (composed in 2000) work at the Metropolitan Opera right now: “L’Amour de Loin” (“Love from Afar”) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. It is only the second time that an opera composed by a woman has appeared at the Met, and the first time in more than 100 years.

This production, featuring Eric Owens, Susanna Phillips and Tamara Mumford, and conducted by Susanna Malkki, has been well-reviewed. Saariaho’s music is like no one else’s—atmospheric, luminous, at times almost otherworldly. It suits this opera splendidly.

"Love from Afar" DVD
A fabulous performance on DVD.

If you can’t make this Met production, you can still enjoy Saariaho’s dazzling opera. A terrific performance with the Finnish National Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and featuring Gerald Finley, Dawn Upshaw and Monica Groop is available on a Deutsche Grammophon DVD.