Monday, September 24, 2012
Last August, a friend recommended John Steinbeck's East of Eden, a book I've always been aware of but hadn't felt driven to read. I suppose, like so many high schoolers who even today invariably encounter Of Mice and Men in the 9th or 10th grade, I felt like I'd already "done" Steinbeck. In my case, it wasn't just a high school experience with George and Lennie but my summer work as a lifeguard a few years later. With nothing much else do on breaks from the guard's chair, I plowed through books, including several of Steinbeck's. I started with the shorter novels--Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, The Pearl--but the next summer, when I managed a pool at an adults-only apartment complex, and thus had no business for hours at a time during the weekdays, I threw myself into his great big dustbowl epic The Grapes of Wrath, a book that I felt deserved every bit of praise it ever got and then some. I had expected the novel to encompass an unforgettable period of twentieth century American history, but what I didn't expect was how lively and even daring was its narration. It's one of those books that is a classic for a reason.
But I never picked up East of Eden. Probably I figured one epic per author was sufficient, and so I moved on to other books and authors that until then, given my crappy high school literary education, had eluded me: The Scarlet Letter, The Jungle, A Farewell to Arms, Heart of Darkness, Armies of the Night, Main Street, a few others. It was a great summer of reading, except for A Farewell to Arms, which I remember thinking was emotionally puerile, sophomoric in its portrayal of the heroine and the romance. (This is not a knock against Hemingway generally, and I should admit that I haven't gone back to the book to see if I'd feel any different about it now.) Back then, my vague impression of East of Eden was of an ambitious but peculiar book, one that had received a very uneven reception when it appeared in 1952. I don't know how I might have known that, but I think I did, and with too many other books I needed to catch up on, I passed Eden by. It remained passed for me until this summer. I'm happy to have made the correction.
East of Eden is indeed a peculiar book, almost impossible to categorize. A historical novel? A family memoir? A biblical allegory? A tourist guide to west-central California? A cautionary tale against the zeolatry and violence that the author knew was to distinguish the middle part of the century (and did too the later, unforunately)? Yes, it's all that. And maybe the difficulty in categorizing it led reviewers to resist it at first. The biblical imagery in it can be rather heavy-handed with the Cain and Abel story pressing down on the novel in many ways, both directly and indirectly (such as in the title itself). Yes, the narrator can be clumsily editorial in passages; yes, there's just a hint of big novel melodrama in a few of the scenes and maybe a tendency toward preachiness that readers (and writers) tend to resist these days. Yes, the language the characters use occasionally feels dated. But as a fiction writer, and one who's dabbled a bit in historical narratives, I wonder at how seamlessly Steinbeck wraps all the various elements into his narrative. All in all it's amazing how fresh, how vivid, how real it all feels. The novel contains as many unforgettable characters as any book I can think of--devastatingly acute psychological portraits that only show you how little the world has changed in a hundred years. To name just a few: Cathy Ames, Adam Trask, Adam's man-servant Lee, Charles Trask, Cal Trask, Abra Bacon, Tom Hamilton, and Sam Hamilton, the most engaging character in the whole novel and perhaps in all of Steinbeck's work. Each crafted with unerring precision and in-sight.
What's fascinating to consider too is that the Hamilton family is Steinbeck's real-life own. (The young John appears as a minor character in the novel.) Steinbeck himself is the first person narrator. So there's a palpably personal element to the book that is absent from many of his other novels. And yet, this isn't simply a family history; it's certainly not Steinbeck's. It's a fiercely shaped novel, with the Hamiltons befriending and butting up against the Trasks, the fictional story of whom really comes to dominate the book and establish its biblical themes. Steinbeck takes the story of these two families back as far as the Civil War and runs their story all the way past the end of World War One, making it a fine example of historical fiction in a couple ways. The ninteenth century material is literally historic for the writer (who was born in 1902) and, in a more general sense, the book tries to provide, and does, a vivid portrayal of a stretch of time in the life of the country. But, again, how seamlessly. The fictional characters are no less real than the real ones--in some ways they are even more real--and both real and fictive are equally affected by contemporary history even as they add to that history. Perhaps the greatest character of all is the Salinas Valley, the nature, topography, and geography of which affects nearly every action and outcome in the novel. When it was published, Steinbeck claimed East of Eden as his best book, one that showed all he had learned about writing after more than two decades of practice. That statement might reflect an artist's natural excitement for his latest project, but it also rings true. If you want a read a historical novel in which the weight of history--personal, familial, eceonomic, regional, national, and international--is all but inescapable, this is a book you want to read. But you'll be glad you read it for lots of other reasons too.
Monday, September 17, 2012
Last weekend, my wife and I were discussing the 2010 novel The Postmistress, a book she consulted in order to see how other writers handle fictional material set in World War Two. She feels there are many positive aspects to The Postmistress, but one important facet of the novel seems troubling. The book's hero, in an integral twist of the plot, travels to Europe with a portable recording device. (This is early in the war, before direct U.S. involvement.) There she records accounts of ordinary people taking part in a widespread exodus from Nazi-controlled territories. The problem? The recording technology the character uses was not invented until several years after the end of the war. Okay, you might say, that's an anachronism--apparently a pretty big one--but they happen sometimes, don't they, in historical fiction? If a writer is too sure of her own conception of reality, one shaped by the era she lives in, and if she isn't sufficiently thorough in her research, mistakes happen. Yes, they do. And inevitably readers catch those mistakes and advertise them, and sometimes they disable a book's essential credibility--or the author's. But from whom did my wife find out that the portable recording technology was not invented until well after the end of the war? The author herself! In the author's own afterword! Yes, Sarah Blake, author of The Postmistress, wrote an afterword in which, while describing the extensive research she undertook for the sake of the book, she also admits that the recording technology depicted in her World War Two novel did not exist during World War Two. One can only conclude that Ms. Blake is more upset by the possibility that readers would think she's ignorant than by the possibility that they think she's being deceitful.
Wait a minute. Sorry about that. One should never talk about aesthetic decisions in moralistic terms. This is an author's choice, not a crime. But we should admit that there's a kind of historical fiction code that Ms. Blake broke along the way to completing The Postmistress. Let me step back for a second and admit--as I have in several occasions before--that my historical fictions are not always 100% accurate to biographical fact. The most glaring example of this is inventing a whole (and extremely short-lived) second attempt at an art dealing career that the historical Vincent Van Gogh never tried. In that case I was guilty of knowingly departing from the historical record, something that certain authors of historical fiction claim one can never do under any circumstances. But it seems to me there's a crucial difference between depicting something that didn't happen but could have and depicting something that could never have happened. One of my professors in graduate school, a fine writer named Wendell Mayo, spent regular time in, and frequently wrote about, Lithuania. His stories were sometimes criticized as being unlikely, unbelievable, too extraordinary. Wendell didn't immediately dismiss the claims. If someone who knew Lithuania well (like, say, a Lithuanian) objected to a plot element on grounds of credibility, he tried out to find out more from the person. "You mean this could never happen?" he might ask. Sometimes the answer was yes. And that, for Wendell, was a legitimate concern. Most of the time, however the answer was something closer to: "No; it's not impossible; it's just not likely. I can't see it." Or: "Well, I've never heard of it happening!" That was good enough for Wendell. As long as a situation was theoretically possible, it was fair game for fiction; which is, after all, fiction.
Applying Wendell's rule of thumb, you can see the problem with The Postmistress. Ms. Blake hasn't developed an improbable plot but an impossible one. Unless, that is, she's writing not for and about our commonly shared and understood reality but the reality of the multiverse, in which, due to its infinite number of universes and infinite number of chronologies, every possibiity, even the impossible ones, are somewhere realized. But that certainly isn't how writers of historical fiction typically define what they do--or ever define what they do. And it's certainly no claim made anywhere else in The Postmistress, which, last I heard, was not being talked about as science fiction.
Monday, September 10, 2012
We had an interesting discussion in writing class the other night, a discussion stemming from John Gregory Brown's wonderful essay, "Other Bodies, Ourselves: The Mask of Fiction." Most of Brown's essay seemed inarguable and long overdue when he published it in Julie Checkoway's Creating Fiction over a decade ago. Brown's thesis is quite simple: As fiction writers we tend to avoid presenting in our novels and stories the facts of our lives; typically, we employ characters that in significant, meaningful ways are different from ourselves, characters with biographies that are all but alien from--and probably way more bizarre than--our own. However (and here's the rub), even as we invent and extend these fanciful stories about people whose lives are so unlike are own, we may at the same time--certainly not always but at least some of the time--be literally laying ourselves bare for the whole world to see. Does this sound like a contradiction? Of course it does. Because it is. But it's also true. As Brown explains, the contradiction is based in the fact that the author rarely if ever intends to lay himself bare or even realizes he is doing so. Brown gives the example from his own career about a novel he was writing during the period that his wife gave premature birth to twins, one of whom did not survive and the other of whom had to remain in the hospital, strapped to machines, for several weeks running. Early in the morning, he composed new sections of his novel, and then he and his wife made the long, sad drive to the hospital to visit their lone surviving child, the one kept alive by machines. During these trips his wife read and commented on what Brown wrote that morning. Brown explains that while he never realized it at the time, looking at the book now he sees nothing in his protagonist's inner life but the shock and grief he himself was struggling through then. Understand, there is no dead baby and no sick baby in the protagonist's life, but her form of sadness is identical, Brown says, to his own at the time. He wrote his life into the novel unconsciously and unintentionally. But, I suppose, inevitably.
It's a common notion, and a true one, that a writer invests many of her characters with different pieces of herself, so much so that everyone in the story can be said to be a form of the writer even when they are extremely unlike one another. I've heard this point made--it was made the other night by one of my students--and I understand it. I've done just this thing myself many times, maybe every time. But it's also a more conscious effort, and a more purposeful kind of kinship, than what Brown describes in "The Mask of Fiction." Brown is talking about how the metaphors and parallels we subterraneously employ are truer to the facts of our lives than any actual facts we could write. I had an experience similar to Brown's several years ago with a story I wrote not long after my father died (tragically and accidentally). The story features a former circus bear who lives in a big picture window at the front of a hardware store. The hardware store owner sees this set-up as a kindness to the bear, whose career is over, its fame used up. The narrator's father takes a shining to the bear and in the process takes a shining to the hardware store owner, a man he has never had much patience for. But as the story winds down, the bear dies, upending at least three separate lives in the world of the story, leaving the picture window newly and nakedly empty. Well, I swear to you that all I thought I was doing when I composed that story was taking a pleasantly perverse idea--an ex-dancing bear who lives in a hardware store window--and running with it to a dramatically satisfying end. Not until I presented the story to a friend's class and answered questions about it did it hit me what I had been doing: writing down the raw shock of the loss of my father. The story screams it; it's in every line. But no one who does not know me privately would ever be able to see it. Because I never intended to do it in the first place.
Tuesday, September 4, 2012
A couple posts ago, I touched briefly on the phenomenon of how one person can have various identities within a single piece of writing. To reprise my point: at the very least, three separate "you"s are always present in any memoir essay (or autobiographical poem or autobiographical story): the you that experienced the event in real life, the you that is the character experiencing the event in the essay, and the you that is the author controlling how the essay is written. While the middle you is connected deeply and tangibly to the first and third yous, the person who experiences and the person who writes are so far removed from one another that at times--if not at all times--they feel like differentiated human beings. Well, I've just read an article by Eric LeMay in the latest edition of the AWP Chronicle that gets right at this understood, but rarely talked about, phenomenon. I recommend the essay to writers and non-writers, teachers and students, alike for its insight and its progressive pedagogical ideas. LeMay begins his article with a review of the brief essay "Borges and Myself," written by none other than Jorge Luis Borges (or one of himselves). Other than Wayne Booth's seminal study The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), which isolates a species of person known as The Ideal Author, "Borges and Myself" is the only bit of prose I can think of that accurately, and acutely, gets to the heart of a writer's divided identity. As LeMay reminds us, in the essay, Borges's narrator delineates between the Borges who shops for coffee and has a fondness for hourglasses and the Borges who subsumes in all the rude fabric of life for the sake of his stories. The former is certain he will be defeated and forgotten, taken over by the voracious, restless, ambitious latter. Indeed, he ends with this classic summatiion of the problem: "Which of us is writing this page I don't know."
I remember how thrilled I was when I first encountered that essay as a freshman in a college composition class. I was a neophyte creative writer, to say the least, but the essay struck me as profoundly and stunningly true. Already true, even then, to my experience as a writer. Why had no one written about this before?, I remember thinking. And why don't we who try to write shout it from the mountaintops?
LeMay (that's him above) doesn't try to outdo Borges with an essay of his own about writerly identity. What he does instead is explain how in his classroom at Ohio University he uses the Borges essay to encourage his students to conceive and define a writing identity for themselves. Thusly, LeMay hopes to launch them more directly into a conscious writing life. In short, he wants them to take their writing ambitions more seriously, so seriously that must be owned by a whole other self. He starts this process by having them write a short essay, modeled on Borges's, about the Other who is the Writer who carries their name. By LeMay's own admission some of the writing he gets as a result of the assignment is disappointing; and none of it, of course, can come close to Borges' psychological sophistication. But the idea behind the assignment is both credible and tantalizing--and just damn innovative. If you have access to the Chronicle take a look. If you don't have access to the Chronicle, get access! It really is that interesting a piece.