Two Takes on Sin

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.

The Underground Railroad provides an extraordinary and unforgettable journey.
The Underground Railroad provides an extraordinary and unforgettable journey. Photo: Amazon.com.

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.

My Absolute Darling is painful to read and difficult to put down.
My Absolute Darling is painful to read and difficult to put down. Photo: Amazon.com.

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?

Irrelevant Fantasy

In the Guardian recently, 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.

The Book of Joan—preposterous and poorly written. Cover: Amazon.com
The Book of Joan—preposterous and poorly written. Cover: Amazon.com

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.

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.

 

30 Years of Creative Coaching

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.

Mark Peterson, the Studio's San Francisco Director.
Mark Peterson, the Studio’s San Francisco Director. Photo: Thomas Pletcher/Writeside.com

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.

The Writers Studio at 30, Epiphany Editions.
The Writers Studio at 30, Epiphany Editions.

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.

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.

The Writers Studio

I mentioned recently that I was taking a workshop at The Writers Studio. I’d like to expand on that a bit and tell you why I find it worthwhile.

In general, I’m in the camp that finds creative writing courses of any type to be of limited value. I’ve taken courses at august institutions, such as Columbia, which only reinforced this belief. The Writers Studio is different, and it is different because it focuses specifically on craft and the narrative voice. The method is to offer a fiction or poetry example each week (usually alternating between the two) and analyze it according to the voice of its Persona/Narrator (“PN” in Writers Studio parlance). Tone (“the surface,  the sound of language on the page, like sunlight glinting on the ocean”) and mood (“the undercurrent that draws you in”) are also examined.

The Studio’s goal is not to network or score an agent, and not to focus on publishing one’s work per se. Instead, the intent is to help students by experimenting with and trying to emulate the craft involved in a wide range of other voices, with the ultimate goal of discovering one’s own voice(s). I find it it quite helpful and thought-provoking, and the weekly deadlines are also important in producing “kernels” of work (short poems and two-page story beginnings) throughout the workshop.

The Writers Studio was founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz (the prize was for his collection Failure, published in 2007). You can read more about the history and philosophy behind the Studio here, and elsewhere on their site.

To give you an idea of what the workshop is actually like, consider the narrative voice, tone and mood of T. C. Boyle’s widely anthologized short story “Greasy Lake,” available here. Then read my two-page work derived from it following the break. (NB: the goal is not literal imitation but rather inspiration derived from materials in the original.)

Continue reading “The Writers Studio”

Some Timely Reading

I’d wanted to write about craft today, in conjunction with a workshop I’m taking at the Writers Studio. However, in light of Donald Trump’s illegal, immoral and un-American ban on refugees entering the United States, I’ve decided to focus on other fiction instead. Dystopian fiction. Fiction perfectly suited to today’s “post-truth” environment and the Trump administration’s “alternative facts.”

1984 by George Orwell
1984: the best-known dystopian novel.

First up: George Orwell’s 1984, the dystopian novel. It gives me some hope to tell you that the paperback version is temporarily out of stock at Amazon; I’ve linked to the Kindle version instead.

There are very good reasons why so many people have felt compelled to read or re-read this book—its depictions of the obliteration of objective truth and the destruction of fundamental human rights are very much in keeping with Trump’s first week in office.

Next, two classic alternative histories portraying a fascist America. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, originally published in 1935 (and also out of stock at Amazon), still retains the power to shock. So too does Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), which describes a fascist American government run by Charles Lindbergh. It too is out of stock. With hate crimes on the upswing and swastikas popping up around the country, you’ll find both books resonate strongly.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World has entered the language.

After 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World may be the best-known dystopian novel. Amazingly, the paperback version is currently available. This is a masterful portrait of psychological manipulation writ large, at the service of a totalitarian state. Helping to preserve order is a wondrous new antidepressant and hallucinogenic drug, soma. Today’s American equivalent would be opioids in the impoverished rural areas and social media among the chattering classes.

Finally, a title of special interest for those who participated in the Women’s March on Washington: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. This 1985 novel concerns the subjugation of women in a totalitarian theocracy. Many would argue that Mike Pence and the desire to destroy Planned Parenthood are steps in that direction.

In this dark time, it’s heartening that many Americans can see the distortions and deceptions of Trump’s administration reflected in classic titles. Together with the continuing protests around the country, it suggests that resistance may eventually produce change.

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.

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.

Jump for Trump

What follows is an excerpt from my recently completed NaNoWriMo novel draft, The Divide. The story takes place in the days immediately before and after the 2016 presidential election, and the national zeitgeist certainly seeps into the plot. However, the story is not about the election per se. It portrays a number of different people on both sides of the widening national divide, and the ways their lives are affected by change and growing instability.

Here, without further ado, is chapter 15 (of 37 chapters in the first draft). The book’s chapters are numbered rather than titled but if you’re a fan of heavily underscored irony, you could call this one “Jump for Trump.”

—Thomas Pletcher

Continue reading “Jump for Trump”