I was sadly and stupidly ill over Christmas break—got sick right as Fall final grading was beginning (try grading when you’re sick sometime—it’s unpleasant) and I stayed sick through the New Year. A fitting way, maybe, to end wretched 2017—worn down, with a weird and seemingly endless cold. A fucking uncommon cold. But I survived.
Helping greatly with my healing were the three Cass Neary novels by Elizabeth Hand: Generation Loss, Available Dark, and Hard Light. Cass Neary is the greatest character of 21st Century American Literature—a damaged human, knowing and cynical and resourceful and funny. One of the great pleasures of reading a novel is identifying with a character who’s about to do something you know they shouldn’t do—and you’re yelling aloud—“NO! DON’T DO IT!”—and then of course they do do it. Cass does it—whatever the it is she shouldn’t do—over and over again. Fun.
Now Playing at Canterbury, by Vance Bourjaily. Here's the book situation: a group of academics and theater professionals get together to stage a faculty-composed opera at a fictionalized version of the University of Iowa--and things happen. Stories happen. Life happens. Magic happens.
I love this book so much.
I remember the day I bought my first copy: 19 years old and coming down with a cold, I was in a Minneapolis bookstore looking for something to read while I suffered. I saw NPAC, a mass-market paperback edition. I vaguely remembered a review a year or two earlier in Time--was it on the year's 10 Best List? I think so. Don't really remember. I bought it, though, and took it back to my squalid, mouse-infested apartment, and I read it pretty much straight through in one sneezing coughing Nyquilling sprint, caught up in the magic of the stories and characters in this book.
I loaned that book out to someone, never got it back. No problem. I bought other copies, loaned them out, too. Read it nine, ten, fifteen times. Gave away more copies. Bought new ones (used ones), learned from the writing. Went back to it again and again.
In grad school my thesis was supervised by James Hannah, whose thesis at the University of Iowa was supervised by...Vance Bourjaily. I found this amusing and pleasing, my lucky proximity to greatness.
But--you know what? Now Playing at Canterbury is out of freaking print and has been for several years! How is that possible?
So. Here is what you need to do: go grab a used copy and read it right now. And lobby to somehow bring it back into print....
The characters in my novel, Professed, are all English teachers or students, and they read a lot. This post is the first in what will be an occasional series discussing the books they read….
Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections on Sixty and Beyond
Toward the end of the “Dead Professors” chapter, Clayton texts Camille:
Im reading that mcmurtry book u gave me, he had
Clayton has had a heart attack and is sitting around depressed. Camille gives him the book, which, in part, describes McMurtry’s depression following a heart-bypass. Camille’s goal, I guess, is to get Clayton thinking that he’s not alone in his reaction to illness—also maybe to kick him in the ass and get him out of the house, to tell him to quit feeling sorry for his bad-heart having self. Camille's feelings toward Clayton are—complicated. Though it’s also the sort of book Clayton would enjoy—not just the bad heart depression section, but also McMurtry’s use of Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” as lens to examine the passing of traditional Texas folk culture.
Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen's a good book. Worth checking out.
You should read this book.
Today in the Fiction Writing class we read Jennifer Egan’s “Found Objects,” a story that first appeared in the New Yorker and is the lead narrative (chapter?) in her terrific novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. I’ve loved this story from the first time I’ve read it.
One of the problems/annoyances I’ve encountered teaching fiction writing is that students very often want to write allegedly creepy and disturbing stories about violent…stuff. About serial killers, serial rapists, creepo stalkers, etc. I just get sick of reading them. They are never any good, they are always ill-imagined, and they never stop coming. One semester I had a class with 25 students, and 23 of them turned in stories about serial killers or rapists.
It was too much!
“What do you know about serial killers?” I asked the students. “Just what you see on TV, right? But I bet every single one of you knows a shoplifter—or is a shoplifter. So why don’t you write me a story about a shoplifter!”
And of course no one ever did, or has….
So, anyway, I bought Goon Squad just after it came out in paperback, and I carried it around for a year and a half before I actually got around to reading it. And of course I fell in love—it’s a wonderful, beautiful book. But I was especially thrilled by “Found Objects” —a story about a kleptomaniac, which is sort of like a shoplifter. Finally, I had a petty theft story to share with students.
And so I was rereading it this morning before class, and I came across a short sentence that I missed the first time I read it, a short sentence that sparked a shock of recognition in me
“It’s almost like she did it on purpose,” Alex said. “For attention or something.”
There is nowhere else.
Where had I read that before? That—or something similar?
In Hemingway. The Sun Also Rises.
It was a warm spring night and I sat at a table on the terrace of the Napolitain after Robert had gone, watching it get dark and the electric signs come on, and the red and green stop-and-go traffic-signal, and the crowd going by, and the horse-cabs clippety-clopping along at the edge of the solid taxi traffic, and the poules going by, singly and in pairs, looking for the evening meal. I watched a good-looking girl walk past the table and watched her go up the street and lost sight of her, and watched another, and then saw the first one coming back again. She went by once more and I caught her eye, and she came over and sat down at the table. The waiter came up.
Isn’t anywhere else!
Is this a deliberate allusion by Egan, or just a coincidental line of dialogue? If it is deliberate, why? Is there some connection--across time, across texts--between Sasha and the prostitute? I don’t really know. But it was fun to find this. We live in such a very mysterious world—and, just like the characters in Goon Squad are connected and networked and intertwined, so too are the products of our culture, our books, our music, our movies….
My first copy of Gatsby...
I just finished going through The Great Gatsby with my “Craft of Fiction” class, and I’ve come to the conclusion—hey, call me a rebel, call me crazy—that it is the most perfectly punctuated book of all time. A few examples that I discussed in class yesterday….
“…They’re nice to have—a dog.” (27)
A bit of dialogue spoken by Myrtle Wilson. The em-dash there is heartbreaking, an indication of Myrtle’s selfishness and shallowness. The singular “dog” and plural “they’re” also give us a lot of information about Myrtle….
“I thought you inherited your money.”
Dialogue between Nick and Gatsby. The comma in “…did, old sport…” is perfect. But most of my students will not notice that. Very odd—students have tremendous difficulty punctuating dialogue, especially the comma after an introductory clause. Also the lovely “old sport,” which of course is totally pompous and condescending to whomever is being addressed.
“All this ‘old sport’ business. Where’d you pick that up?”
Tom is addressing Gatsby, but Daisy intervenes. I suppose you could italicize the “old sport” here, but the single quotes work too and bring out an air of contempt in Tom’s question. Italics would have indicated greater contempt, more sneering, and might have been too much.
Nice comma before Tom, too. And Daisy’s use of “Tom” is interesting in itself. How many times do people actually use names when they address one another? Not too often, in my experience. Names in conversation are used to get the addressee’s attention and, sometimes, to assert control. That’s what’s happening here….
“Still—I was married in the middle of June,” Daisy remembered, “Louisville in June! Somebody fainted. Who was it fainted, Tom?” (127)
Nice use of the em-dash—a little lurch of speech. Then calling out Tom again….
“I know I’m not very popular. I don’t give big parties. I suppose you’ve got to make your house into a pigsty in order to have any friends—in the modern world.”
Tom, Nick, Gatsby. Daisy. Again the lurching em-dash in “friends—in the modern world.” Tom sounds confused and stressed. Grasping at priggish straws.
Then Gatsby speaks with an unusual double em-dash! “...old sport——“ Really helps show Daisy’s interruption—Gatsby is left gasping. Then, Daisy’s “Please don’t” should logically be “Please, don’t” but the missing comma imposes a feeling of urgency to her words. “Please, let’s all go home” is a gentle plea. “Please let’s all go home” is a desperate plea. And, I try to convince the students, it is a deliberate missing comma, not a missing comma of ignorance….
“I’m going to drain the pool to-day, Mr. Gatsby. Leaves’ll start falling pretty soon, and then there’s always trouble with the pipes.” (153)
Perhaps I obsess over properly-placed commas. But—I’ve read so many stories by beginning writers that I have become acutely aware of how hard it can be to see these things, how hard it is to read like a writer.
“Don’t do it to-day,” Gatsby answered. He turned to me apologetically. “You know, old sport, I’ve never used that pool all summer?” (153)
The “old sport” thing again. But creating that last sentence in the form of a question? Changes everything.
“Have you got a church you go to sometimes, George? Maybe even if you haven’t been there for a long time? Maybe I could call up the church and get a priest to come over and he could talk to you, see?”
Michaelis is talking with George. No dialogue tags in this passage—we know who is speaking, and there’s no need for Fitzgerald to assert extra pacing. The constant use of “George” is there as Michaelis tries to get George’s attention is also very cool…..
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—— (180)
A non-dialogue passage—a very famous passage, justly famous. But look look LOOK at that amazing double em-dash that leaves us dangling at the end of the book, setting us up for the beautiful last sentence! An ellipsis wouldn’t be as effective, nor a single em-dash. Doubling helps make this memorable and moving….
This is how absent-minded I can be sometimes: I will buy a book, and enjoy it—love it, even!—and then lose it, or think I’ve lost it. And so I buy another copy.
And then I find the first copy hiding somewhere.
This most recently happened with Alice Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease, a book I’ve mentioned before—it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read on writing.
And so, yesterday I was happy to find the older copy, the long-lost friend, and I leafed through it, looking at Flaherty’s words and my various marginal notations, and I came across a puzzling one:
The photo is sadly blurry. There is a wavy line around a paragraph, and above it a little sort-of circle with lines emerging
from it—a dandelion seed, maybe, or a bacteria. It took me a while, but then I realized, no—it’s the sun! For
next to it I wrote: “Sunshine!”
Here’s the passage I was commenting on:
I strain my nerves for the faintest sense of the feeling I should write, the feeling that my feet are starting to lift off the ground. Although I sit down to write every day at five in the morning, on the days when my muse has left me, I can no longer pretend to sit down because I am in control of the situation. I am not writing but doing penance for all the days when the muse spoke and I failed to listen (87).
I do like this passage. I’m not a muse-man, but sometimes writing does indeed feel like penance. I love this book.