Monday, July 17, 2017

Two mysteries, one book, and too clever by half

I did not care for Anthony Horowitz's best selling Magpie Murders but I feel that anyone interested in writing and publishing should read it because, aside from the stories it tells, it includes a wealth of information about publishing, mysteries, and the writing life.

The book begins with Susan Ryeland, a British editor, introducing "Magpie Murders," a new mystery by Alan Conway, the house's most popular author. The next 213 pages (separately numbered, different type) is that manuscript minus the last chapter. The rest of the book is Susan's story of tracking down the missing last chapter and trying to understand why Conway has just committed suicide. Or has he?

Horowitz has (at this writing) written over 40 books including the teen spy series Alex Rider, which he adapted into a movie. The Conan Doyle estate commissioned him to write two new Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Moriarty and The House of Silk, both bestsellers. The Ian Fleming estate commissioned him to write the James Bond novel Trigger Mortis. As a television screenwriter he created and wrote Midsomer Murders and Foyle's War.

Alan Conway's "Magpie Murders," ostensibly the ninth in the August Pünd series, is in the style of Agatha Christie set in a 1955 English village complete with a brilliant, if opaque, private investigator; his faithful, much younger, sidekick; a helpful, if dim, police inspector; two murders, and a half dozen suspects with reasons to kill. That is, everyone but the actual killer which Pünd has to finally expose.

I did not care for either "Conway's" mystery nor the mystery in which it is embedded because they are both puzzle boxes with red herrings, lucky (or unlucky) coincidences, and—for me—unconvincing murderers. Interestingly, we learn that Conway himself did not care for the character and the series that had made him wealthy, and one of the book's many pleasures is learning the connections between Conway's life and his book.

I am in awe of Anthony Horowitz's ability to write in the style of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and others of the period. Here is "Conway's" third-person, omniscient POV introduction to Pünd:

"Dr. Benson examined his patient with a certain amount of puzzlement. The name Atticus Pünd was familiar to him, of course. He was often mentioned in the newspapers—a German refugee who had managed to survive the war after spending a year in one of Hitler's concentration camps. At the time of his arrest he had been a policeman working in Berlin—or perhaps it was Vienna—and after arriving in England he had set himself up as a private detective, helping the police on  numerous occasions. He did not look like a detective. He was a small man, very neat, his hands folded in front of him. He was wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a narrow black tie. His shoes were polished. If he had not known otherwise, the doctor might have mistaken him for an accountant, the sort who would work for a family firm and who would be utterly reliable. And yet there was something else . . ."

By contrast, here is Susan Ryeland's first person POV description of Alan Conway:

"I didn't like him. I'm sorry to say it but he just struck me as a bit of a cold fish. You'll have seen photographs of him on the book jackets, the slim face, the closely cropped silver hair, the round wire-framed glasses. On television or on the radio he'd always had a sort of eloquence, an easy charm. He was nothing like that then. He was puffy and a little overweight, wearing a suit with chalk marks on the sleeves. His manner was at once aggressive and eager to please. He wasted no time telling me how much he wanted to be a published author but he showed almost no enthusiasm now that the moment had come. I couldn't work him out . . ."

And here is a sample from the thankfully brief excerpt of the kind of book Conway would like the be known for:

"Lord Quentin Crump comes slumping down the staircase, lording it as he always does over the cooks and maids, the under-butlers and the footmen that exist only in his anfractuous imagination, that have in truth slipped hugger-mugger into the adumbration of family history. They were there when he was a boy and in some ways he is still a boy, or perhaps it is more true to say that the boy he was lurks obstinately in the fleshy folds that fifty years of unhealthy living have deposited on the barren winter tree that is his skeleton . . ."

I believe any aspiring mystery writer could study Magpie Murders to understand how a consummate professional describes character and place, drops clues, and propels the story forward, in this case both stories. While puzzle box mysteries are not to my taste (I agree with Edmond Wilson; who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?), I learned a great deal from the book that I plan to use in my own writing.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

History pokes its nasty nose into truffle country

Martin Walker is an interesting guy to be writing mysteries. He's the Senior Director of the Global Business Policy Council at A.T. Kearney, the management consulting firm. Membership in the Council is by invitation-only and the symposium is closed-door. Members include academic, corporate, and government thought leaders, who meet annually to discuss issues that affect the worldwide business climate.

He spent 28 years on the staff of The Guardian newspaper, working as bureau chief in Moscow and the US, European editor, and assistant editor. Passed over as editor in 1999, he jointed United Press International, is now editor-in-chief emeritus of UPI. He's a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, senior fellow of the World Policy Institute at The New School in New York, and a member of the board of directors of the Global Panel Foundation. Born in 1947, he and his wife have a holiday home in the Périgord region of France—truffle country.

And that's where Black Diamond, the third mystery featuring Benoit "Bruno" Courréges is set. Bruno is the police authority in the town of St. Denis, which is on the Dordogne River. There seems to be a problem in the truffle market in nearby Ste. Alvère, and Bruno is asked to investigate.

Black Diamond, which is one way to describe a good-size truffle, is an interestingly complex novel. Although it is set in contemporary rural France, the country's colonial history in French Indo-China and Algeria pokes its nasty nose into present-day affairs. And when Hercule Vendrot, Bruno's elderly friend, hunting companion, former secret agent in Vietnam and Algeria is found brutally murdered in the forest, that history has invaded Bruno's patch.

Bruno is an interesting cop. He's a gourmet cook (don't read this book if you're hungry), still plays rugby, and is former soldier who was wounded on a peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.  He's had an affair with a policewoman who's moved on to bigger things in Paris, and he has a relationship with an English woman who lives in St. Denis. He never carries his official pistol and "has long since lost the key to his handcuffs," but he also has good relations with the larger police organizations and knows the neighborhood and the people.

Given Walker's background, the book feels unusually rich. We learn not only about truffles—how they are found, graded, and marketed—but France's current challenge of illegal Chinese immigrants, friction between the Chinese and Vietnamese, and—not the least—what ordinary life in a French town is usually like.

Black Diamond satisfies my three criteria for a decent mystery: an engaging protagonist/detective, a convincing setting, and a plausible murderer. I'm going back to the first two Bruno mysteries in the series.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Why does Michiko throw the man under the train?

A successful mystery for me, I've concluded, is an engaging mixture of character, place, and plausibility. If the detective, the killer (you have to have a killer), and the supporting cast are not convincing, the mystery fails. If the author is able to evoke a place and the local culture—Bangkok, Tibet, Ghana, Sicily, places I know nothing about first hand—so much the better. Indeed, following an interesting detective around the landscape as he/she interviews witnesses, collects clues, and makes associations is almost all I want in a novel.

Which is why the plausibility factor spoils so many mysteries for me. Who is the killer? What are his/her motivations? (Pure naked viciousness isn't good enough.) Was the murder planned or impulsive? Generally I'm dissatisfied with elaborate puzzle boxes because I find them preposterous, the kind of mystery that concludes with the detective gathering all the suspects in a room and explains the steps that reveals the murderer.

Michael Pronko's debut, The Last Train: A Tokyo Mystery is doesn't do that and in fact is satisfying on all three counts: character, place, and plausibility.

According to his bio, Pronko has lived in Tokyo for twenty years. He has a BA in philosophy from Brown, an MA in comparative literature from Wisconsin, and a PhD in English from the University of Kent at Canterbury. He is a professor of American Literature at Meiji Gakuin University and has published three collections of essays about Tokyo. He says about The Last Train, "My book goes into the realities of Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, looks at the injustices of economics and the unfair position women are put into. It's not just 'set in' Tokyo, it's about Tokyo, in and of Tokyo."

The book begins by following a lovely, and determined young woman as she throws a drunken man into the path of the night's last express train.

In Chapter 2 we meet Hiroshi Shimizu, a police detective specializing white-collar crime, and his senpai, Takamatsu. A senpai is a senior, superior, predecessor, mentor; someone whose calls you take. The body on the tracks is a problem for the police: An American businessman. No sign of robbery. Unlikely to have simply fallen. Yet not someone who would kill himself. The American consulate is interested, as is the American Chamber of Commerce. Takamatsu wants Shimizu on the case because Hiroshi, after college in Boston and a romance with an American woman, speaks fluent English.

Pronko tells his story from the points of view of both Hiroshi and Michiko Suzuki, a woman strong enough and skillful enough in akido martial arts to throw a man in front of a train (and a former sumo wrestler through a plate glass window). Both are well-rounded and their motivations comprehensible. Pronko has lived in Japan long enough to understand the nuances of Japanese culture and behavior. We understand—if not agreeing with—Michiko's decisions, which echo those of the 47 ronin, the loyal retainers who took revenge on the lord who caused their lord's disgrace and death.

We follow Hiroshi and Takamatsu (until he ends up in the hospital after tangling with Michiko) and Sagamichi, the former sumo wrestler, as they visit the Roppongi entertainment district, goes to temples, corporate offices, and industrial wasteland in their effort to make sense of what they learn. In a set piece at the end, Hiroshi fights his way through the maze of Shinjuku Station, something anyone who has been there can empathize with. You don't have to know anything about Japan to enjoy The Last Train, but if you do, much of it will resonate—even learn something new as I did.

Monday, July 3, 2017

What happens if you just walk away from your life?

Am I the only husband who has thought once or twice about walking away from his wife and children? Just taking off and leaving one life behind for an entirely unplanned, unstructured, utterly free new life? That's what Thomas (no last name), a middle-aged, middle-class Swiss accountant does one evening.

He and his wife Astrid have just returned from a vacation in Spain to their small town in Switzerland. They are sharing an evening glass of wine in their garden when a squabble between the children draws Astrid into the house. After she settles Konrad and Ella, rather than return to the garden she goes to bed exhausted after the drive home. And Thomas walks away, leaving his wine unfinished.

So begins Peter Stamm's short novel To the Back of Beyond, his fifth. It is of a piece of his earlier work. The Financial Times wrote of an earlier novel, "Stamm eschews middlebrow concerns of plot and resolution . . . his narrative is centered on the ruptures in his main characters' lives and their consequences . . ." Stamm never gives the reader a neat, pat explanation why Thomas leaves. We can infer possible reasons from what he does, but different readers will make different inferences.

Astrid's first reaction is to lie to the children, lie to Thomas's secretary. When it seems he won't turn up after a day or two, she goes to the police.

The book has no chapters as such, but the narrative switches point of view as first we follow Thomas's peregrination, then Astrid's with almost no access to their thoughts. "Thomas imagined Astrid making two separate piles of clean and dirty clothes . . ." Is about as close as we get to his inner life.

Rather, we watch them do things and move through the landscape, often with precise and lovely descriptions smoothly translated by Michael Hoffmann: "Ahead of him grew his shadow as cast by the streetlamp behind, then it merged into the life of the one following, which cast a fresh shadow behind him, which in turn grew shorter, overtook him, and hurried ahead of him, growing all the while, a sort of ghostly relay of specters accompanying him out of the neighborhood, across the circular road, and into the business district that sprawled away from the village out into the flat land."

If "plot" is what happens to characters in a story, To the Back of Beyond clearly has a plot (pace Financial Times). Astrid does try to find Thomas. The police are as helpful as they can be, although as one sympathetic officer tells her, "An adult has the right to disappear." (Some readers, I know, will be put off by the novel's lack of quotation marks; others like myself will have no trouble following the dialogue.)

Among the novel's strengths are the questions it provokes in the reader: Is the life we're living the one we want? What motivates us to obey our routines? Can one person ever truly know another? In a sense the questions are unanswerable, but Stamm's To the Back of Beyond makes a fascinating stab at addressing them, at least for this very ordinary, but extraordinary, Swiss couple.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Following Elena Ferrante's extraordinary journey, Part 2

Elena Ferrant's Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey is a collection of letters and e-mail responses to interviewer and reader questions. In Part 1 of this blog, I wrote about her unusual relationship with her publisher. I now want to quote her extensively on writing, starting with her observation that "when you begin a story, you have to be the sole source of the story, you have to get lost in it, because there are no predetermined maps; and if perceptible traces of what you have learned from books remain, they have to be eliminated without indulgence, assuming it's possible. Because it's not always possible, nor is it good: writing is also the story of what we have read and are reading, of the quality of our reading, and a good story, finally, is one written from the depths our our life, from the heart of our relations with others, from the heights of the books we've liked."

It should be clear to anyone who reads her novels that Ferrante has written, if not for the ages (as if one could), but from as deeply within herself as she can. She is not interested in the well-plotted story in which all the pieces fit together neatly, all loose threads tied off by the last page. Nor is she interested (pace MFA programs) in "beautiful" writing. She wants to write a story that has the energy to create a world, "not because it strings together metaphors. . . . The problem, if anything, is the cult of the beautifully wrought page, a recurring feature that I've long struggled with in myself. Today I throw out the pages that are too written—I prefer the rough draft to the final version."

Frantumaglia is full of gems for working fiction writers like this observation about dreams in novels. They are "difficult to relate; as soon as you write them they force you to invent, to put in order, and they become false. In novels especially they are so shamelessly functional to the requirements of the psychological construction of the character that their artificiality becomes intolerable."

One of the questions serious writers ask themselves often when no one seems willing to publish their books is: Why write at all? Is it simply a form of self-pleasuring? Pure solipsism? Apparently Ferrante has always believed that a book will find its readers. Her international success has validated her belief. She asks therefore, is it possible to make an immaterial organism of language, ethics, stories, experience "a concretely narratable object, that is, to employ techniques capable of conveying that organism to the reader as one does with the wind, the heat, the feeling, the events that make up the plot? To control that noisy permanent fragmenting in your head, explore that transformation into words that lasts as long as the story lasts is, I think, the secret ambition of anyone who fully dedicates himself to writing."

She notes that writers ask themselves "what experiences do I know I can be the voice of"? But that, says is not the most urgent question. "The more pressing questions are: what is the word, what is the rhythm of the sentence, what is the suitable tone for the things I know? These seem like questions of form, of style, all in all secondary. But I am convinced that without the right words, without long practice in putting them together, nothing alive and true emerges."

As I hope I've indicated in this quick review I believe Frantumaglia to be interesting and inspiring for anyone seriously interested in serious writing, that is someone who believes she has something deeply truthful to say and wants to express it in a profound and profoundly honest way. The book may also interest readers of Ferrante's novels for her notes on her characters and why she has insisted on remaining anonymous. And asked whether readers can expect to see more from her, she gives perhaps the one rule of writing: "If you have nothing worth writing, don't write any more."

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Following Elena Ferrant's extrarordinary journey, Part 1

This is the first of two posts about Elena Ferrante's Frantumaglia: A Writer's Journey. The book offers too much to readers and writers to pack into a single note.

"Elena Ferrante" is the pen name of an Italian author, who, I suspect, has very mixed feeling about the success and consequent attention her recently-published extraordinary tetralogy My Brilliant Friend has provoked. (Rights sold in forty countries, New York Times best seller.)  

"Frantumaglia" in the Neapolitan dialect means "a jumble of things." Ferrante describes it as the word her mother used to name "a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain." The book is a collection of letters and e-mail responses to interviewers, a jumble of things all related to the author's writing, literature, feminism, and what she has attempted to do in her novels.

Ferrante's first letter in the book, dated September 21, 1991, informs the publisher of her first novel, Troubling Love, that she will do nothing personally to promote the book—no TV, no radio, no personal interviews. "I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won't." What, after all, do we need to know about Shakespeare's childhood, methods of working, or thoughts about other playwrights to appreciate and enjoy his plays? Until very recently when an Italian reporter apparently revealed Ferrante's identity, she had been able to remain anonymous—no book jacket author photo, no potted author biography.

It's a position that contradicts everything I know about American publishing today that, in general, believes an author is a brand and should be marketed as such. What the author produces is almost secondary. Faithful readers are buying King, Steele, Roberts, Cussler, Patterson, Grisham, Woods, Child; their books have to meet a certain level of interest, entertainment, engagement but not much more. With the tens of thousand of books published and self-published every year, how else is an author going to stand out enough for readers to find her.

What I find extraordinary in Ferrante's journey as a writer is that her publisher, Edizioni E/O, with whom she has stuck through nine books, was willing to make that deal. An editor had to fall in love with Troubling Love and be willing to defend it as a publishing investment without the author's participation. Ferrante (and the publisher) were also fortunate that an Italian movie director fell in love with the book and made a well-received film based on it. Ferrante commented extensively on the script, and Frantumaglia includes her observations about and suggestions for the script.

Her publisher was also willing to wait ten years for her next manuscript. Ferrante says that she wrote constantly during those ten years, but produced nothing she felt met her own standards. For her next novel, however, The Days of Abandonment, she had softened enough to answer in writing and at considerable length (70 printed page, including outtakes from the manuscript itself) five relatively short questions from an Italian magazine. To sell foreign rights to My Brilliant Friend, the publisher promised an e-mail interview with Ferrante . . . which is why I suspect she has mixed feelings about the book's popularity.

Finally, I found it extraordinary that Ferrante wrote all four volumes of My Brilliant Friend—1,682 total pages in the English edition—in one go. She writes that she does not think about how long a book should be (or not be) when she's writing. She tells the story that has to be told . . . and I imagine the publisher had to figure out how to put it into a  form a bookstore can actually stock.

So one appeal of Frantumaglia to Ferrant's fans is the insight the author can give to the characters and their stories, all skillfully translated by Ann Goldstein. If you enjoyed The Days of Abandonment, Troubling Love, The Lost Daughter, The Beach at Night or the Neapolitan quartet: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child you should find this collection of self-contained
fragments a fascinating appendix.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

What happens after the terrorist's bomb explodes?

We read about or watch news stories about terrorist bombers. So many dead, so many wounded. A group claims response or doesn't. The bomber dies or doesn't. And that's it. There's a blast and then it's over. But who are these people? What do they want? What's the point? And what happens to the survivors? Their relatives? The bystanders? The authorities?

The Association of Small Bombs, a novel by Karan Mahajan, published in 2016, was a National Book Award finalist, and named one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times Book Review. The author was born in1964 and grew up in New Delhi. He's a graduate of Stanford University and the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, Austin.

It is not an easy book. It is populated with Indian characters and a casual reader may have difficulty keeping names and relationships clear. It begins with a bomb set off in a neighborhood market in Delhi in May 1996. Three boys, friends, have gone to the market without parental permission. Two brothers are among those killed, the third wounded.

It's only a small bomb. The Kashmiri activitists who planted it are disappointed that it killed only a handful of people, but the psychological damage it does to the families of the dead boy and the surviving boy is incalculable. Much of the book is the story of how these extended families cope or don't with the tragedy.

Moreover, Mahajan takes the reader into the mind of the bomber and shows us his actions, his drives as, in the course of the book, he initiates a Delhi resident into the movement. The Indian police do arrest an activist and torture him, but he is only (only!) a theoretician of the movement, not a bomber himself. On the evidence given in The Association of Small Bombs, the men who prepare and set the bombs, foot soldiers in a murky war, don't really understand the larger point, have no coherent political goals themselves. It's also difficult (impossible) to see how killing innocent Hindu and Muslim shoppers helps the cause unless it boils down to: "You want to stop the bombings? Give us Kashmir."

And the red thread running through the novel is the tension—hostility—between Hindu and Muslim. For the boys, the difference hardly mattered. Once two are dead and the other survives, the difference matters to the families and swells over time.

Aside from the power of the story, which at times is almost too strong to read, Mahajan writes lovely passages like this: "Vikas [the father] was awfully partial toward Tushar [one of the dead boys], though he would nave never acknowledged it. Nankul [the other dead boy, his brother] was popular in school, good at sports, intense, competitive, moody—just like Vikas, in other words—whereas Tushar was lumpy, effeminate, eccentric, troubled, getting pushed around in school, and moseying up to his mother in the kitchen with the halting eyes of an abused animal, always eager to please, reading the newspaper and engaging his father in incessant chatter about politics, a pet topic for him, one he had honed through quiz competitions in school, the one area in which he shown."

The action in the book concludes in 2003, and it feels as if we have lived with the characters through their entire lives, pre-bomb and post. The Association of Small Bombs engages the reader in a exotic yet comprehensible world. I think it's an important book, and the world is one in which more and more of us seem to be living with every news cycle.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Why we argue even when we can't win

Prolific Stanley Fish, perhaps best known for How to Write a Sentence (which I reviewed in this blog), has just published his eighteenth book, Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn't Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom.

The title is a double entendre. It could mean "here's how to win arguments" or it could mean "here are arguments that win." The jacket flap copy author took the latter meaning: ". . .  Stanley Fish . . . reveals how successful argument can be used to win over popular opinion." Actually, it doesn't.

Indeed, Fish argues (you'll excuse the word) persuasively that a successful argument only provokes further argument. "Argument could produce certainty only if we lived in a world where a settled dispute stays settled because its resolution has been accomplished by a measure everyone accepts and accepts permanently." But, as he points out, we don't live in that world.

Rather than tell readers how to frame their arguments for maximum effect, Fish does something much more interesting. He indicates why no argument is going to persuade a Trump supporter or a Clinton supporter to change. No scientific data will persuade a climate-change denier that it is real or man-made. No husband's entirely reasonable defense of working late will ease his wife's feelings of abandonment. No academically certified Holocaust denier will find a job teaching a university that prides itself on being open to all ideas, even the most abhorrent.

Fish, who is a professor of law at two universities, does point out that it is possible to win an argument in a court of law, but it's not the participants who decide who won. It's a judge or a jury. (The same is true in an academic setting in a formal debate.) In a courtroom, unlike in a political debate, in a bedroom, or in a classroom, formal rules constrain what can be used in one's argument. No discussion of a criminal defendant's character for example. But even a decision of the US Supreme Court can be overturned (eventually). After all as Chief Justice Taney wrote in 1857, "[Negroes] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit." And a civil war, not argument, changed that decision.

Rather than explaining how to win an argument or providing examples of winning arguments, this relatively short book helps the reader (this reader at least) understand the function of argument in life, when not to argue (an argument with one's spouse is almost always a bad idea), and how to spot a flawed argument (not that it would change your mind anyway).

Fish gives an example of this last point: In any issue involving science—smoking/cancer, human activity/global warming, immunization/autism, evolution/intelligent design—there can be no absolute and conclusive answer. A research consensus "is merely the present thinking of fallible men and women." New evidence or discovering a flaw in the source data can always disrupt the consensus. (Too bad for those who want clear, unambiguous conclusions.) Therefore the consensus should not be the basis for action. I.e., we shouldn't spend money to discourage smoking or regulate acid rain until there's conclusive evidence that smoking causes cancer, human activity causes global warming, immunizing children causes autism, and more and more and more.

But! But! But! We've just argued that, for a scientific question, the evidence is never all in. As Fish writes, "if incomplete evidence is the inevitable condition of inquiry, you can't cite the incompleteness of evidence as a reason for failing to act on the evidence that is in."

Much as I enjoyed Winning Arguments, I would have enjoyed it more if it had an index and a bibliography. Fish bases some of his points heavily on other works and it would have been handy to have them easily available. Still, the book is a provocative and fascinating discussion of an important topic.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Revenge as a dish best served cold

The Hogarth Press was founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in 1917. It was relaunched in 2012 as a partnership between Chatto & Windus in the UK and Crown in the U.S. In 2015 Hogarth launched the Hogarth Shakespeare program to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. "The project sees the Bard’s plays retold by acclaimed, bestselling novelists and brought to life for a contemporary readership." Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood's take on The Tempest.

When the novel opens, Felix Phillips is the Artistic Director of a Shakespeare Festival theater in Ontario (shades of "Slings & Arrows," the Canadian TV series), rehearsing a production of The Tempest and starring himself as Prospero. His wife died shortly after childbirth, a late marriage for him, and three years later his daughter, Miranda, also died. In his grief, Felix buries himself in the artistic side of the festival, leaving all administrative, fund-raising, director-massaging activities to Tony, the festival's second-in-command. Tony forces Felix out in a board-room coup, claiming artistic mismanagement. By page 35, Felix has withdrawn from the world, is living in an isolated two-room shack, and communicating from time to time with his daughter Miranda's living spirit.

Nine years later, Felix spots an opportunity to teach in a nearby prison. He convinces the woman responsible for the job, a woman of a certain age who has known and admired Felix in his earlier life, that a program of mounting Shakespeare's plays in the prison would be valuable. He's hired to work three months a year, and produces Julius Caesar, Richard III, and MacBeth employing inmate actors and technicians. The plays are recorded on video and played through the prison's CCTV system (no assembling a large inmate audience in a medium-security prison) and well-received by the prisoners and administration.

In his fourth year at the prison Felix learns that Tony Price and Sal O'Nally, the two who colluded in sacking Felix from the Festival and now both government Ministers, will be visiting the prison in the spring: "The one place in the world where, with judicious timing, he might be able to wield more power than they could." Felix decides to produce a contemporary version of The Tempest, a revenge play as a vehicle for revenge.

Margaret Atwood is a sorceress. She never slips into mechanically moving her characters around to fit the plot while she does manage to set up echoes and resonances with Shakespeare's play.

—Felix, as theater director, is the wizard controlling events as he plays Prospero who employs magic to enchant his enemies.

—The prison might be an island.

—The relationship between Price, O'Nally, and Felix echo the relationship of Antonio, who usurped his brother Prospero's title as Duke of Milan; Alonso, the King of Naples; and Prospero, the rightful Duke.

—O'Nally brings his son Freddie into the prison to watch the production where he's attracted to the actress who plays Miranda; Alonso's son Ferdinand, also magically shipwrecked, falls in love with Miranda.

—Felix spends twelve years in his cell of a shack; Prospero spends twelve years before Alonso's ship strays close enough to his island that he can use his magic to simulate a shipwreck.

Because this is a contemporary production, in a prison, with inmates, directed by a man willing to push theatrical limits, Felix's Tempest includes raps that the cast—i.e., Atwood—writes. For example:

I'm the man, I'm the Duke, I'm the Duke of Milan,
You want to get pay, gotta do what I say.
Wasn't always this way, no, no,
I was once this dude called Antonio,
I was no big deal and it made me feel so bad, so mad,
Got under my skin, 'cause I couldn't ever win,
Got no respect, I was second in line,
But I just kept smilin', just kept lyin', said everything's fine . . . .

You don't have to know The Tempest to enjoy Hag-Seed. You will have to suspend disbelief if you are familiar with prison routine (although, to be fair, perhaps Canadian prisons operate differently than American). If you know your Shakespeare, however, I believe you'll find Hag-Seed a marvel and a joy.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Whose writing tools should we use?

The New York Times Book Review has an interesting opinion piece by Viet Thanh Nguyen, "Your Writing Tools Aren't Mine." It begins by pointing out that American literature is being read around the world and that the American way of teaching writing is also spreading. "The writing workshop, with all its unexamined assumptions, has spread to Britain and Hong Kong, a model of pedagogy that is also an object lesson in how power propagates and conceals itself."

Nguyen touches on his own experience as a refugee from war, from an Asian country in a workshop that deliberately or otherwise, "produces a particular kind of writing." He says that workshops typically focus on "strategies of the writing 'art' that develop character, setting, time, description, theme, voice and, to a lesser extent, plot."

They generally do not have anything to say about politics, history, theory, philosophy, or ideology. Writing teachers avoid these subjects for fiction, not because they put off readers or because the teachers are unqualified to teach them, but because they threaten the workshop's origins.

As an institution, Nguyen writes, "the workshop reproduces its ideology, which pretends that 'Show, don't tell' is universal when it is, in fact the expression of a particular population, the white majority, typically at least middle-class and often, but not exclusively, male."

It's an interesting argument. (And it echoes themes in Minae Mizumura's The Fall of Language in the Age of English, which I discussed recently.) If nothing else, the piece is sending me to read Nguyen's novel The Sympathizer, which won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize and a ton of other awards. I am curious to see how his own fiction reflects his ideas. In any case, his fiction provokes strong feelings among readers as few minutes skimming through the 1,478 Amazon reviews suggests:

" . . . simply superb. Written with an unflinching eye and great humor . . ."

" . . . boring. Nothing actually happened, there was no plot . . ."

" . . . a fabulous book that brought so many memories of my two Viet Nam tours . . ."

" . . . overrated, predictable, no plot twist at all . . ."

" . . . a very serious story, but with wonderful humor interlaced with the tales of political intrigue."

" . . . a potentially interesting theme and plot ruined by the narrator's flippant attitude to everything . . ."

But you get the idea. And I wonder how far Nguyen is willing to go. 

Should writers not develop character, describe a scene, set a time, have a theme (in my experience, a work has a theme whether you want one or not), tell not show? Which is not to denigrate or dismiss politics, history, theory, philosophy, and ideology. It seems to me that the more tools a writer can employ effectively, the more engaging, the richer a work is likely to be. 

I'd be interested in hear other opinions.