R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries had built up considerable anticipation and buzz before its publication on July 31. In part, this was due to superb marketing, on both the publisher’s and the author’s part (Kwon is a whiz at social media and networking). For the most part, though, it was due to the novel itself, which is arrestingly good.
I had the considerable good fortune to participate in a fiction workshop led by Reese Kwon earlier this year. Kwon is an engaging instructor, as one would expect. She was also generous enough to share several asides about the 10-year gestation period of her novel, such as the fact that she spent the first two of those years compulsively reworking the opening 20 pages. Kwon is on record as being absorbed by language at the molecular, syllabic level—she is acutely attuned to sound and rhythm, and to how these serve meaning. I suspect her original intention was for nearly every sentence in her novel to stand alone as poetry, and in fact many of these sentences survive in the published version. She is a beautiful writer.
The plot opens with a bang, deliberately so. The rest of the book is then given over to an exploration of the elements and events leading up to the terrorist blast. This in accomplished by interweaving vignettes from the point of view of the three principal characters, always in the same sequence: Will, a student at a leading Hudson Valley college, John Leal, a cult leader with a mysterious past seemingly tied to North Korea, and Phoebe, Will’s sometime girlfriend.
Will’s point-of-view is the dominant one, because he is deliberately trying to achieve a coherent and comprehensive explanation for the events that take place. Will wants meaning. But no such explanation, at least with the comprehension Will desires, can be reached. Its absence does nothing to impede the interest generated by the novel’s characters, though, and indeed the absence of “complete” answers for all complex human affairs seems to be part of the novel’s message. Loss of faith is the major theme here. There can be no all-encompassing answers, ever.
The Incendiaries has one of the finest, most beautifully rendered endings I’ve read in quite some time. I’d quote it for you, or at least a portion of it, but I’d much prefer you read this short novel in its entirety instead. Highly recommended.
Two recent opinion pieces in the New York Times sum up the miserable state of the country as another July 4 has come and gone. The first, published on July 3, is headed “America Started Over Once. Can We Do It Again?” It describes the post-Civil War Amendments to the Constitution, with particular emphasis on the 14th Amendment, which includes these lines:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Simple, straightforward, but of course still unfulfilled. Yet the promise is there, clearly evident in the words “any person.” Unfortunately, as the Times notes, the promise is receding even further as the Supreme Court continues to tilt right.
The second piece, published by columnist Roger Cohen today, is headed “America Never Was, Yet Will Be.” The line is from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again,” and it too deals with a promise that remains unfulfilled. A deep, magnificent promise that was once resonantly symbolized by our Statue of Liberty. A promise still alive for many around the world, even in our current dark times, even if it can never be realized under Trump’s appalling administration.
In his poem, Hughes addresses America’s downtrodden, still plentiful today. Such people are the spiritual ancestors (I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart) of many of Trump’s current supporters, and those supporters remain fooled, too distracted by “fake news” to see the truth and act accordingly.
Here is “Let America Be America Again” in its entirety:
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek— And finding only the same old stupid plan Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean— Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream In the Old World while still a serf of kings, Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, That even yet its mighty daring sings In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned That’s made America the land it has become. O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas In search of what I meant to be my home— For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea, And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me? Surely not me? The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we’ve dreamed And all the songs we’ve sung And all the hopes we’ve held And all the flags we’ve hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay— Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again— The land that never has been yet— And yet must be—the land where every man is free. The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME— Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose— The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives, We must take back our land again, America!
O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain— All, all the stretch of these great green states— And make America again!
How does one cope with today’s endless stream of poisonous news? People have wide-ranging methods, none of which completely suffice. They console or goad one another on Facebook. They distract themselves with a binge-worthy streaming series or a good book. They (quite reasonably) decide to get drunk or high on occasion.
Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker tells himself, and us, that life is actually getting better in his new book, Enlightenment Now.
I decided to post this love poem, a bit belatedly after Valentine’s Day. The poem originally appeared in Antiphon’s Issue 21 last year.
Sometimes I wish I were still back
in the city, astonished to find her
standing tremulous outside the door of
my fifth floor walk-up, radiating belief
and determination. Yes and yes and yes
and yes again, as a sudden cascade of
comprehension sweeps my wits away.
I feel my soft defenses dissolve
in a quickly rising light that seems to come
from everywhere as we embrace
and exchange our silent vows. The glow
envelops us and cushions us and lifts us up
to float on a stream of bodily joy
down the narrow stairwell to the streets below.
And now the city’s raucous throb drifts
outside as we walk hand-in-hand within our cloud
along the crowded sidewalk, awash in reflected
traffic lights, illuminated windows and the shimmer
of a thousand strangers’ eyes, who recognize us
and yet do not. We breathe in and leap up,
far above New York, to a night sky High Line
where our bodies feel free
to stroll forever
weightless and without pain.
We are amazed how time has flown.
We would do anything to fly again.
This may be an aesthetic question, or perhaps it’s a question of craft. Maybe it’s both. Put simply, the question is: how important is it for a fiction writer to get the facts straight—particularly the technical facts?
As someone now writing fiction who has previously worked in technology, I probably have a special interest in the question. For me, flubbing a bit of technical description brings the narrative to a crashing halt. It also undermines the writer’s credibility to some degree, depending on the writer’s overall talent and the power of his or her narrative. (The same would be true, I believe, if a writer botched the terminology or tools of medicine or law.)
Granted, writers have a built-in license to modify anything in the interest of the story, so I should be clear: I’m speaking about inadvertent mistakes when describing technology in the course of the narrative.
I should also note that I’m not referring to the kind of genre fiction where facts already seem secondary. For example, I’m not speaking of a fantasy novel like The Book of Joan, where technology in general is lazily glossed over—the author doesn’t regard specifics or plausibility as important and her readers likely don’t, either.
The writer who raised this question of technical accuracy for me most recently is instead an extremely talented generalist, who has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I’m speaking of Adam Johnson, and specifically of the story “Dark Meadow” from the National Book Award-winning collection Fortune Smiles.
“Dark Meadow” is a compelling and disturbing tale of a pedophile (“made,” not “born”; his own abuse as a child contributed to his sexual development) who is trying hard to purge his urges. The narrator (who was nicknamed “Dark Meadow” by his molester) works out of his home as a kind of jack-of-all-trades computer technician; people hire him to repair, troubleshoot and secure their systems. But in the meantime Dark Meadow himself has disconnected the internet in his own house, and is whittling down his collection of child pornography photos to almost nothing—he crops pictures so that only a pair of eyes, a hand, or some other non-sexual detail is all that remains. And before the story has finished he will dismantle his computer completely and destroy its hard drive.
The technical errors in Dark Meadow’s narrative could be viewed as minor—for one thing, a solid majority of readers probably won’t be aware of them at all. And even for those who are, the errors ultimately don’t wreck the story; Johnson’s work is too well-wrought in every other respect for that. Still, the errors are troubling.
Here’s an example: “I stopped using Tor, eDonkey and Fetch.” These are three different kinds of technology that don’t plausibly fit together for a child pornagraphy addict. Tor, which provides a degree of online anonymity, yes; though Tails would have been a more appropriate choice. eDonkey and Fetch, no. eDonkey is a file-sharing network but would have been risky to use; Fetch is an old Mac FTP client (though it’s since been updated) that dates all the way back to the 80s and would have been riskier still. Plus, the name itself seems dated. Several lines later, Dark Meadow references his “Fetch Dropbox,” conflating the FTP program with the popular online storage service. (You can set up Fetch to link to Dropbox, which I suppose is what Johnson means here. But Dropbox is not particularly secure either, unless you provide your own encryption.)
As I said, these are small errors. But, with a writer of Johnson’s stature, they bother me. “Dark Meadow” was published in Tin House in issue 60 (Summer 2014); apparently no one at the literary magazine had the technical chops to question these usages. And when the story was incorporated into the Fortune Smiles collection published the following year by Random House, no one there seemed to offer any suggestions, either. Did Johnson himself ask for technical guidance at any point? He’s based at Stanford, so nearby expertise is certainly plentiful.
To answer my own question, then: yes, writers should get their facts straight. And given the ubiquitous role technology plays in life today, that goes double for tech references.
I’ve just published a poem, “Transient,” in Poetry Quarterly (issue #30, Summer 2017, running a bit behind schedule). Because the magazine is behind a paywall, you would need to purchase a rather expensive printed copy or else subscribe to the online version to read it. That being the case, and because the poem is about empathy, a quality sorely needed today, I’ll reproduce it here.
A damaged person on the floor,
filthy, scuffed, like the station itself.
Above the person hulks a cop, hand
on holster. The cop smirks and says, get up.
Get up scumbag and move the hell out.
His victim tries to stand but slumps back down,
a person in transit who needs to rest awhile.
No vagrants in the terminal
the cop says. Port Authority badge.
I remember this the only way I can,
hazily, since I
was drinking myself.
All this many years ago, when
the city’s days were dim and grim.
What was wrong with that person?
Couldn’t he/she rise?
Has karma messed that cop up by now?
I walk over and see the dull badge
has no name, only a number. Meanwhile,
the individual moans.
We need some help here, I say.
Some help my ass the cop says.
He kicks the prone figure once, then leaves.
I bend down to check:
that numb stare could yet be anyone’s.
Society’s conception of sin continues to evolve over time. Religious instruction we may have received as children might not match up with our conception of what’s thought sinful today. In addition, the categories of sin have expanded to include the institutional and the national, among others, in addition to the personal. And sin’s contextual setting is generally secular.
Despite this fluidity, two recent novels tackle subjects that qualify as sinful from almost anyone’s vantage point. The multiple-award-winning (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize) novel The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead tackles America’s original sins of slavery and genocide (violence and theft perpetrated against Native Americans appears as a thread throughout the book). This year’s buzz-generating novel, My Absolute Darling by debut author Gabriel Tallent, is focused on the personal: child sexual abuse and incest. The two novels are quite different but both are intensely gripping reads.
Let’s begin with The Underground Railroad. Whitehead has done a number of extraordinary things with this book. First, he has done a phenomenal job of describing the experience of slavery and the pervasive, lasting damage it caused. The novel’s primary heroine, Cora, is completely believable in her fluctuating fear and courage, hesitation and anger. Cora is pinpointed within her biological (her grandmother Ajarry and her mother Mabel are nicely delineated) and geographical (Cora starts her journey on a vicious plantation in Georgia and travels the railroad from there) settings, so she seems very tangible and real, as do her antagonists. One of these, the “slave catcher” Ridgeway, reminds me of of the judge in Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian in his flamboyantly malevolent behavior and philosophizing. Among its other sterling qualities, The Underground Railroad is a real page-turner. It’s a hell of a story.
The story is even richer for its ingenious sci-fi twist: the underground railroad is a literal railroad, complete with tracks and actual trains traveling unseen through hidden tunnels laboriously carved out beneath the earth. The stations are hidden under the homes and barns of abolitionist sympathizers deep in the South. This literal railroad is handled with subtlety and actually seems quite believable in context. Its operators run enormous risks, and some of them pay dearly. The Underground Railroad presents a unique and unforgettable view of the horrors of slavery, and its lessons pack unfortunate relevance in today’s America. The fact that the novel is also a fabulous read only adds to its achievement.
The case for My Absolute Darling is not quite so convincing. It too is a stunning read, but in an entirely different and more claustrophobic way. It was published quite recently and hasn’t garnered any awards yet, but it has received extraordinarily extravagant, not to say hyperbolic, praise. Stephen King has already hailed the book as a “masterpiece”; this strikes me as a bit premature.
The core of the book concerns the struggles of 14-year-old “Turtle” Alveston to survive the depredations, sexual and otherwise, of her charismatic but dangerously out of control father, Martin. The Alvestons (Martin’s wife has already died under sketchy circumstances) live alone, in a remote setting nearly off the grid outside Mendocino. Martin is a survivalist as well, and browbeats his daughter on a regular basis to master the necessary skills. Between that and the incest, it’s small wonder that Turtle struggles in every way at school and is a conspicuous outcast.
It has to be acknowledged that the book is exceptionally well-written. Tallent’s mother Elizabeth (one of his two mothers; he was raised by lesbians) is a well-regarded writer in her own right, having published stories and essays in The New Yorker and many other publications. So writing runs in the family. And Gabriel was brought up in the area where the book is set, which contributes to its sense of authenticity. His writing on Northern California flora, and the distinctions to be drawn between various firearms, is incredibly detailed and adds another layer of verisimilitude. Furthermore, Tallent’s depiction of Jacob, a high school boy who starts to draw Turtle out and eventually draw her toward the outside world, is marvelously done. Jacob’s sophisticated banter and essential innocence ring completely true.
Yet there is an ugliness in the book that revolves around its subject matter. Tallent has stated, in interview after interview, that he wanted to handle the sexual abuse of a teenage girl by her father gingerly without any hint of exploitation. He probably does this as well as it can be done but the subject stands regardless and continues to radiate its own unhealthy attraction for the reader.
I want to give Gabriel Tallent the benefit of the doubt, simply because this book is so well written. But the book’s denouement gives me pause: it is written in such a sweeping cinematic style that it is as though the writer were simply transcribing the scene from the film that is sure to come. My Absolute Darling is going to transform Gabriel Tallent’s life and make him famous (well, as famous as a writer can be these days) and wealthy. Did he set out to achieve this? You might reply that the book is so masterfully done it doesn’t really matter. But if Tallent chose to depict Turtle’s sufferings simply to draw readers in, wouldn’t that be a kind of sin in itself?
In the Guardianrecently, fantasy author “Robin Hobb” (real name Margaret Ogden) is quoted as saying, “Fantasy has become something you don’t have to be embarrassed about.”
I strongly disagree—I think readers and writers of fantasy alike should be highly embarrassed, and that includes writers as popular as Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin and as feckless as Lidia Yuknavitch, whose very poorly written The Book of Joan is briefly reviewed below.
Fantasy fans should be embarrassed because what they do has no bearing on reality, be it the reality described by astrophysics or the inner life of the mind. There is only the sketchiest, most tangential connection to real world concerns and problems. Fantasy enthusiasts are estranged from these concerns and problems, or hiding from them. They are children playing games of make-believe. They are fleeing adult responsibilities, including the responsibility to strive to make some sort of sense of the world.
I realize there are people who enjoy the genre, and these folks will obviously disagree quite strongly with what I’m asserting here. But consider: we as human beings have not yet gained the abilities to fully understand the universe we inhabit. Why waste time creating imaginary worlds that invariably pale in comparison to the mysteries of our own? It strikes me as an abdication of sorts, like a child turning his back on other children and retreating to a corner to play by himself.
I suspect deep psychic pain may make fantasy attractive for some people, as the genre offers a way to escape from the known world without the extreme of actually, physically quitting it. This is likely so in Yuknavitch’s case; the author apparently had a deeply traumatic childhood and the world limned in The Book of Joan features supernaturally strong women as a probable consequence. I can understand and respect this. But I can’t respect the way it’s done.
The following critique relates to The Book of Joan and extends to fantasy in general.
It’s intellectually lazy. Read this description of the scenario Yuknavitch sets up: “CIEL was built from redesigned remnants from old space stations and science extensions of former astro and military industrial complexes. We who live here number in the thousands, from what used to be hundreds of countries. Every single one of us was a member of a former ruling class. Earth’s the dying clod beneath us. We siphon and drain resources through invisible technological umbilical cords. Skylines. That almost sounds lyrical.” CIEL and skylines are key to the core plot of the book, yet we are supposed to take them on faith. Redesigned remnants and invisible technological umbilical cords. OK, got it.
It’s badly written. A sample: “‘Okay! You have my attention,’ I yell. The walls echo back at me. ‘What the fuck was that?’ My voice merely ricochets around. I walk closer to the wall. I put my hands against it; solid matter. ‘Nyx?’ Nothing. Just the vanishing points in the cave where light gives way to shadow.
Then it’s Nyx’s voice: ‘Please take care to move slowly; you are not exactly among the living.’
What the fuck does that mean? Not exactly among the living?”
It’s pointless. Various attempts have been made to link this … novel of a reimagined Joan of Arc to today’s controversies and dangers. All of these attempts are nonsense. The book has no bearing on today whatsoever. It’s pure escapism, for those who can buy into its lazy premises and tolerate its clumsy narrative and preposterous (yet clichéd) plot.
I really don’t mean to single out The Book of Joan for special abuse; for all I know, it may be one of the better recent fantasy novels. I think HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation has all of the flaws found in Yuknavitch’s novel and then some. It’s every bit as irrelevant and yet it is wildly popular. In a similar vein, Donald Trump is completely unqualified for any sort of leadership role and yet he is President.
There are other, better ways to stretch your fictional boundaries, if that’s what you feel impelled to do. Science fiction? For sure. Speculative fiction? Absolutely. But fantasy? Sorry, no.
I recently published a poem in Antiphon, the estimable UK online poetry magazine. Although the poem’s title is “High,” the heading of this post refers to the magazine as a whole—it is simply excellent, and serves as a wonderful antidote to today’s bleak morning headlines.
Antiphon is edited by Rosemary Badcoe (who is also the magazine’s designer) and Noel Williams, and it is an obvious labor of love. Each issue (which the magazine’s website notes is archived by the British Library) features a wide range of poetry, with careful attention paid to sound, rhythm and image. The magazine is friendly towards metrical and non-metrical work, and its editors have very good ears. Some of the standout poems in this new issue (no. 21) include “The Weather We Call Raw” and “Sylvia’s Games” by David Troupes, “A catch-all” by Patrick Theron Erickson, “A Bag of Frozen Kidney Beans” by Burgi Zenhaeusern, “C282Y” by Susan L Leary and “Afterwards” by Anthony Watts. There are a number of other very good poems as well. The tone nods toward the traditional but standards are quite high (no pun intended). You won’t find any Michael Robbins poems here. Not that there’s anything wrong with Michael Robbins; he simply operates with a different set of criteria in mind.
Ms. Badcoe says, in her prologue to this issue, that she disagrees with the idea that all poetry is political. I concur—politics tends to coarsen language and ideas, and never more so than today. I’ve spent far too much time recently thinking and writing about political issues. It is enormously liberating to take another path and come at the world and its meanings from a different angle.
Again, Rosemary Badcoe: “Poetry is subtle, and takes the long view, the intensely focused close view, the light-bent-around-a-corner view. It uses precise, carefully observed language and appreciates nuance and differences and similarities. There are better ways to protest than to write a poem, I’d contend, but writing a poem is one way of expressing the complexity of a world that others would try to reduce to sound-bites.”
I’m delighted to be published in Antiphon. I’ll reproduce “High” here eventually but I’d like to give the magazine exclusivity until their next issue appears. In the meantime, the Antiphonblog features audio recordings of many of the poems in this issue, including mine.
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 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 Guardianput 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.
The Writers Studio, which I’ve covered previously on this site, celebrated its 30th anniversary this weekend. To mark the occasion, there was a sold-out, standing-room-only reading at the Strand Bookstore in NYC last night, followed by a party for faculty, students and guests at a private apartment overlooking Union Square. There was even a 30th anniversary cake.
Philip Schultz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who founded The Writers Studio, kicked off the evening’s remarks at the Strand. He seemed very pleased by the Studio’s durability and growth, if somewhat astonished by how quickly three decades have gone by. Schultz was followed by a parade of writers associated with what the New York Times has called “the most personal of the [writing] programs.” Perhaps my favorite piece of the evening was by Therese Eiben, the Studio’s Hudson Valley Director. This was a funny and frightening take on the perils of flying today, and all too evocative.
In addition to the reading and the party, The Writers Studio has commemorated the occasion with the publication of The Writers Studio at 30 (“Fiction and Poetry from the First 30 Years of the Landmark School of Creative Writing and Thinking”). The paperbound volume is 500 pages and contains a wide range of work from writers associated with the Studio, including the Studio’s advisory board and friends, teachers and students. Starting today, you should be able to order a copy directly from the publisher.