Sunday, February 19, 2023

How do you trust an unreliable narrator?

The Witch Tree by Tana French is a remarkable novel for a number of reasons. One is that she manages to tell the entire story, all 528 pages of it, in the first-person voice of Toby and maintain the reader's interest.

Toby, like other characters in the novel, is unreliable, and French is fascinated by unreliable narrators, “because I think that one of the core points of the arts is to give us a glimpse of what it’s like to be someone else, to see the world for a little while through someone else’s eyes, and to realize that other people have viewpoints that are completely different from our own, and that those are just as real and intense and vivid and valid."

Continuing to make her point in a New Yorker interview, she said. "And—this is going to sound odd—but I think an unreliable narrator does that best, because we are all unreliable writers of our own lives. We all reshape our own narratives to make them fit what we want to believe or what we need or just what interests us most. Like, if you’ve got siblings, and the two of you tell a story about some argument that happened in your childhood. You’re gonna get two completely different versions of that argument, because both of you have shaped the narrative to fit what suits your thoughts best. 

"If you’re reading an unreliable narrator, that’s what brings you closest to the person, because you’re not seeing their experience objectively. You’re seeing it the way they see it, which is through their thoughts, through their biases, through their needs and their fears and their desires. So I think an unreliable narrator is the one you know most intimately, ironically, and the one who comes closest to fulfilling what the arts are really for.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

A heartfelt attempt to bring reason to the world

Christer Sturmark is a Swedish musician, mathematician, computer entrepreneur, and publisher. Douglas Hofstadter is an American scholar of cogitative science, physics, and comparative literature; his 1979 book Gödel. Escher, Bach won both the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and a National Book Award. The two are friends, and the title page credits Hofstadter for contributions and a forward to the book, which is subtitled Clear Thinking for the Twenty-First Century.

To Light the Flame of Reason
is an argument for secular humanism, a science-based tolerance of people of all races, lifestyles, cultures, and belief systems, a belief in benevolence toward all humans, not for religious reasons but out of a belief in the power of tolerance and clear thinking, and also out of a sense of our collective fragility on earth. It is an argument for atheism, which means that in some countries the author could be killed for publicly promoting such views.

Sturmark argues that never has scientific progress been as impressive as today nor has it been so easy to find information and knowledge. Never has it been so difficult for totalitarian regimes to keep their populations ignorant. (Consider that the Russian who wants to about the conflict in Ukraine can, apparently, get a good idea even as the government tries to control the news.) “Never,” he writes, “has it been so simple to make oneself be seen, heard, or read by a global audience.”

Yet, “On a daily basis, homosexual people are being killed or imprisoned, thanks to certain people’s interpretations of God’s will. Women are dying because they have been denied abortions. People are being stoned to death, or are having their hands chopped off, because of the way they happen to conceive of divine laws. Religious fundamentalists post videos of beheadings on the internet, urging viewers to join them in their holy war. People are hoodwinked into thinking that God can cure deadly diseases through miracles.”

True, all too true. 

Part I of the book is titled “The Art of Thinking Clearly,” and describes the author’s own efforts to understand reality and to avoid the traps in thinking. It asks basic questions: What is knowledge? Is what seems to be real really real? What is truth? Is belief in science a kind of faith? 

He points out that one may believe something is true because you have good reasons to think it is so. “When I say that I ‘know’ that the earth is round or that Paris is in France,” he writes, “all I mean is that I believe it, am convinced of it, have faith in it, and have lots of very good grounds for believing it.” One may still be mistaken in your belief, but the more you know about yourself, other people and cultures, and the quality of evidence on which you base your beliefs, the less likely you are to question them.

Faith however means “I accept this as true without any proof or evidence.” If one believes in something merely because you want to believe in it—because it makes you feel good or because it gives you hope for the future—this is not sufficient reason to call your belief knowledge. What are the grounds for your belief? A holy book? A spectacular sunset? A mysterious creak? A charismatic speaker? A suspicion of all authority? Do these grounds carry the same weight as the grounds you have for believing the earth is round or that Paris is in France?

Sturmark has an interesting discussion about agnosticism (withholding belief) and atheism (not believing in a god). He asks whether atheists can be moral, which leads to an entire chapter about being good without needing God. Spoiler alert: Atheists can be moral actors.

Part II of the book, “The Pathway to a New Enlightenment,” has chapters on religion, evolution, and the roots of secular enlightenment. For example, what is religious freedom? Should people be allowed to do anything they please in the name of their religion? Adult Jehovah’s Witnesses, should be able refuse to accept a blood transfusion for themselves, but should they be able to prevent their children from receiving life-saving blood transfusions? Moreover, what is a religion? I once attended a wedding officiated by a minister (priest?) of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

To Light the Flame of Reason is a thoughtful and heartful attempt to do just what the title says. Until I reached the last chapter in which Sturmark discusses changes Swedish education in more detail than I care to learn, I found myself nodding and approving one page after another. This is a book written of me. It describes clearly so many things I have thought, believe, and wondered about, and it discusses them far better than I am able.

Unfortunately, I believe Sturmark and Hofstadter are—you will excuse the religious metaphor—preaching to the choir. The readers who believe they should meet the world with an open mind and question what they know and how they know it probably don’t need this book unless they want to be reassured they have the right attitude.

I suspect that those readers who believe in God or Allah, in ghosts and spirits, in astrology and homeopathy are not interested in a book that might cause them to question what they know. Most of the time, of course, that’s harmless. Sometimes, it’s not, as the dying Covid-19 patient begged for an earlier-rejected and now useless vaccine shot learned. What you believe can kill you just as what you don’t believe can, in some societies, get you killed. If only the flame of reason were enough to liberate the world. I would like to hope that Sturmark’s candle makes a positive contribution, but, I’m sorry, I’m skeptical.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

This is catnip for Cagney & Lacey fans

An editor would not have chosen me to review this memoir. Before I read Sharon Gless’s book, I did not know who she was. I have never watched an episode of “Cagney & Lacey” in which she played the Cagney half of the team. Nor have I ever seen an episode of “Queer as Folk,” a more recent television series in which she starred. Nor have I ever knowingly seen her in any of the other vehicles in which she appeared.

I picked up the book because I was interested in the life of a TV actress, and Gless is that. Based on the evidence of Apparently There Were Complaints, she is also a writer. As a former ghostwriter I scrutinized the acknowledgements and concluded she wrote the book herself. Even with extensive editorial help, it’s genuine accomplishment. 

Gless has had a full life and it’s hardly over. She was born on May 31, 1943. She comes from Hollywood royalty. Her grandfather Neil McCarthy “was the most famous and powerful entertainment attorney in Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood. He represented Howard Hughes, Cecil B. DeMille, Mary Pickford, and Katherine Hepburn, along with other stars and motion picture interest.” On her Gless side, she is a fifth-generation Angeleno. “The Gless family owned about 44,000 acres of land, now known as Encino, California.” Her uncle was the head of casting at 20th Century Fox.

Her grandparents divorced. Her parents divorced. Her father was remote, unfaithful, and an alcoholic. Gless begins her book by acknowledging her own alcoholism, and mentions in passing her cocaine use. She has gained and lost excessive weight. In her mid-teens, she attended a Catholic girl’s school where a nun caught her writing a letter although it was forbidden. The sister confiscated Gless’s stationery and pen and promised consequences.

Gless writes, “I sat on the edge of my bed, crying with so much force I thought my heart would literally break I had no place to go and no one to go to. Then, something slowly came over me, and I could sense a shift in myself—I was going from feeling absolute despair to feeling . . . nothing at all. I was dead inside.” 

Although Gless mentions therapy in passing and acknowledges her psychotherapist of thirty years, she has used her ability to go to a “dead place” to survive. She writes that she could laugh, tell stories, perform, “But I was dead. . . . I would go there in my head to stay alive.” It sounds grim, but the book is not. Gless sounds like a very funny lady. (Or the humor masks the unhappiness.)

She never completed her college degree. She had a number of office jobs before she took an acting class in her mid-twenties. She was taken under the wing of Monique James, the head of talent at Universal Studios, who signed here as one of the studio’s fifteen contract players. It was a dying system and Gless became the last contract actor in Hollywood.

She asked James why she had signed her. Because, James said, “Nothing about you fits. Your voice doesn’t match your face. Your stride belies your lack of confidence. You’re as soft as a puppy, but you talk like a teamster. Absolutely nothing fits. However, you put it all together and it works. Something happens.” 

Gless talks about working with well-known actors—Andy Griffith, John Ritter, Robert Wagner—about whom she has only good things to say. This is not a memoir in which the writer wants to relitigate old battles or settle scores. Although Wayne Rogers does come off as a jerk.

Not everything goes smoothly, of course. She spends time in the Hazelden treatment center for her alcohol addiction. She does not stop drinking as a result, but the experience helps her, enabling her enough to continue working as a television, movie, and stage actress. She stopped drinking at age seventy when it became painfully clear that another martini would literally kill her.

During her time on Cagney & Lacey, she fell in love with Barney Rosenzweig, the show’s creator and executive producer. (What about a cop show with female partners? Starsky & Hutch with women!) They begin an affair. He ultimately divorced his wife, Barbara Corday, one of Cagney & Lacey’s two writers. Sharon and Barney married. She was 48 and although she’d had several long-term relationships it was her first marriage. Despite all—and all includes fourteen-hour work days, publicity tours, shows that just don’t work, and more—they have stayed married.

Given who I am, I was more interested in the mechanics of creating something than in opinions about fellow actors. I was fascinated to learn that they shot all the New York establishing shots and exterior scenes for an entire season at one time then spliced them into the rest of the material which was taped in Los Angeles. It meant Gless and Tyne Daly wore hats, coats, and gloves in New York’s August heat because the story was to take place during the winter. It also means that the continuity person is critical so that scenes shot months and a continent apart fit together—you will excuse the expression—seamlessly.

This is a memoir, not an autobiography. It is Gless’s opportunity to put memories and anecdotes between hard covers. As such, other readers—former lovers, co-workers, relatives, and step-children—may have different memories of what happened. Nevertheless, writing as someone who knew zero about her before reading Apparently There Were Complaints, I found Gless and her life fascinating. Cagney & Lacey fans will eat it up.

Saturday, June 11, 2022

How to adjust to the land of short sentences

“The principal knocks three times in quick succession and lets herself in. That’s how we do it out here, she says when I look up at her in surprise. Doesn’t anyone in Villing have sex, I ask, isn’t there anyone who watches porn or masturbates, you can’t get your clothes on after just three knocks. People manage, says the principle . . . .”

So begins Stine Pilgaard’s The Land of Short Sentences, translated from the Danish by Hunter Simpson. Because my knowledge of Danish is non-existent and have no access to the original, I am going to assume the absence of quotation marks, the uncontrolled commas, and the lack of paragraphing is the way the author wrote it. 

Readers who are put off by this will be missing “a tragicomic genre hybrid including advice columns, højskole songs, and a thoroughly maladapted, infinitely charming narrator,” to quote a Danish reviewer. So let me supply some context.

The narrator, her boyfriend, and their infant son have moved from Copenhagen to “Villing” a small (very small) town on the Jutland peninsula. Her boyfriend has taken a job as a teacher in the town’s højskole, which the translator helpfully explains in an endnote, “is attended mostly by young adults looking to deepen their skills in a certain field (e.g.: arts, music, sports, or design).”

The school’s principal worries about the town losing young people to the big city. She says, “We need youthful energies here,” and to give the narrator another reason to stay, “she gives me a job that doesn’t exist and for which I haven’t applied.” The narrator begins to write an advice column aimed at all age groups local newspaper can use.

There is not much plot. The narrator observes and comments on small town life. She adjusts (I think I can use that word) to being a mother. She learns—barely—to drive. She answers reader questions often in considerable detail using her life as the example. 

A 37-year-old married man is a recovering alcoholic. His wife supports him but cannot understand the demons he’s struggling with. “My mentor at AA is a middle-aged woman who knows exactly what I’m living through. My feelings have grown for her as has hers for me . . . .”

The answer, which I’ve edited: “Alas, soulmates rarely make for good couples . . . the sum of darkness that two people share must not be greater than the love, and this fact creates some very natural boundaries for who you can and cannot be with. When I fall in love with someone else’s sorrow, and get swept into their craziness, I know I’ve got to get away as fast as possible. Trust me, it’s best for everyone.”

In addition to Pilgaard’s to translating effervescent prose and sensible advice, Hunter Simpson has also translated nine lejlighedssang or “occasional songs” that are sprinkled throughout. He explains, “These are original lyrics “written for a specific occasion (often a wedding or a birthday) and set to well-known melodies so that everyone can sing along. The song in The Land of Short Sentences could be considered lejlighedssang, as many Danish readers would be able to sing along while reading the lyrics.”

Pilgaard writes, “I’m very interested in language and how we use it as a tool to connect with each other, but language can be a hindrance as well as a helper. The novel is about settling in in a new place and finding a home, but also coming to understand that language won’t always save us, and sometimes it might be the silence that we need.”

As I reread that paragraph, it makes the novel sound ponderous. While serious, it is also funny. And while thoughtful, it is also lively. If you read only one Danish novel this year, The Land of Short Sentences should be it.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Don 't sum up your story like this

From a final chapter of a mystery that will remain nameless:

". . . she was my half-sister. It just seems unbelievable that . . . " His voice trailed off. Nelson sympathized with the unspoken words. Almost unbelievable that Edward's father turned out to be a murderer who killed a child while in his teens and attempted murder again as a seventy-year-old? Almost unbelievable that the crime lay buried for over half a century, while the killer's son planned t dig up the land for profit? Almost unbelievable that, on the same site, a children's home would provide a refuge for hundreds of children and yet two would run away, one dying soon afterwards? All of it is unbelievable, yet all of it is only too true . . .. 

No. It's not true. It's fiction. And I'm afraid I found it unbelievable.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

"Wrapped in Rainbows": An Appreciation

Because there is a hole in my education (one of a many), I bought a paperback edition of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God to fill it.

Because the novel’s setting and dialect were such a shock, I needed more help to appreciate the work than came with the paperback, a forward by Edwidge Danticat, an afterward by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and a brief bio of the author by Valerie Boyd. I therefore checked out Boyd’s full biography, Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston.

Published in 2003, biography was the result of nearly five years of research and writing. Boyd detailed Hurston’s life from her birth in 1891, her upbringing in the all-Black town of Eatonville, Fla., her literary activity during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s and her anthropological explorations of African-American folklore, and her death in 1960 in Florida, where she was buried in an unmarked grave.

Boyd told an interviewer for the online magazine In Motion, “I wanted to give readers a sense of what it was like to be Zora, to walk in her shoes, to live inside her skin. “Because I am a Black Southern woman, I felt very close to Zora, as if I could paint a picture of her life almost from the inside out,” I was so impressed by Boyd’s biography that I was about to write her a fan letter when I read that she died on February 12, 2022 at age 58, much, much too young.

I needed help with Their Eyes Were Watching God because it took a while to adjust to Hurston’s dialogue, which is written in dialect: “You behind a plow!” says Janie Crawford’s suitor. “You ain’t got no mo’ business wid uh plow than un hog is got wit uh holiday! You ain’t got no business cuttin’ up no seed p’taters neither. A pretty doll-baby lak you is made to sit on de front porch and rock and fan yo’self and eat p’taters dat other folks plant just special for you.”

With Boyd’s deeply researched account of Hurston’s life, it is possible to see—or infer—the elements Hurston incorporated from personal experience in Their Eyes Were Watching God: daily life in Eatonville . . . being raised by her grandmother . . . banter by the locals on the porch of the general store . . . marrying a man younger than herself . . . following him to work in the Everglades. 

Yet Boyd points out, Janie is not Hurston. Janie “is more conventional than Hurston ever was; consequently, she seeks her identity, her selfhood, in the eyes and arms of men. Hurston, on the other hand, sought her identity in her own self, in her work in writing and speaking her mind. Not coincidentally, the capacity to know her own mind—and to speak it—is a large part of what Janie seeks in the novel, and eventually finds.”

With Boyd’s history and explication, Their Eyes Were Watching God became a much richer and satisfying. I was not fighting with Hurston over the dialect and was able to recognize what she was trying to do. And Hurston’s straight writing is marvelous.

Hurston was much more than a one-book wonder. Her life, wrapped in rainbows as it was, was full, fascinating, and ultimately heartbreaking. She was a graduate of Barnard College, a student of anthropologist Franz Boas, a student and practitioner of New Orleans hoodoo and Haitian voodoo. She became one of the most important folklore collectors of her time. She was—until a deplorable rift—a close friend of poet Langston Hughes, and was a friend of actor Ethel Waters, the writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten, and was briefly secretary to and continued as a friend of best-selling novelist Fannie Hurst. (And who reads Imitation of LifeBack Street, or any one of Hurst’s other seventeen novels these days?)

Wrapped in Rainbows is a superb biography and history of the Harlem Renaissance, of the Great Depression’s effect on writers and artists, and the incipient civil rights movement after WWII. It is fill with revealing anecdotes about Hurston who died in Fort Pierce. FL, in 1960.

Hurston’s writing made a profound impression on writer Alice Walker who managed to locate Hurston’s unmarked grave in 1973 and commissioned a marker for it. I cannot improve on Walker’s comment on the biography, which “will be the standard for years to come. Offering vivid splashes of Zora’s colorful humor, daring individualism, and refreshing insouciance, Boyd has done justice to a dauntless spirit and a heroic life.” 

Monday, April 25, 2022

Did the teacher sexually abuse the student?

The Head of School asks Sam Brandt, a former student at the exclusive Leverett School and now a long-time English teacher at the school, to investigate a letter from one of Brandt’s classmates which alleges that he was sexually abused by a teacher when he was a student.

That’s the setup for School Days. An exclusive boy’s prep school in Connecticut. Two time lines—the 1960s and the present. Fifteen characters—Sam’s friends and teachers during his student days at Leverett and today’s colleagues. The reader sees the school from both student and teacher perspective. How it was, and how it is.

The plot—was the student abused or not—is secondary. Rather, the novel is a consideration of love and sex, friendship and rivalry, desire and power, and the dance of benevolence and attraction between teacher and student. As the publisher notes, “Sam is flooded with memories of attending Leverette in the sixties: the beautiful reaches of the campus, the constellation of boys whose lives were, at one point, knit up with his own, the support and friendship of his most inspiring mentor, Theodore Gibson, and above all his overwhelming love for his friend Eddie.”

Jonathan Galassi is the chairman of Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, the former poetry editor of the Paris Review, a former chairman of the Academy of American Poets, and the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship for poetry. He has published three books of original poetry and translations of the poetry of Eugenio Montale, Giacomo Leopardi, and Primo Levi. His first novel, Muse, set the world of publishing, was published in 2015.

With Galassi’s background as poet and editor, the writing in School Days is superior without calling attention to itself. The book is filled with interesting observations and thoughts. Although Galassi has never been a teacher, here is a representative paragraph:

“Sam loved teaching. True, the kids were unchanging, predictably fresh-faced and self-preoccupied while he and his peers grew ever hoarier and more crotchety. What kept him engaged was the hunger of some of them, their desire to take hold. To devour life whole, with the help of a well-timed nudge or two from their mentors. The moment when a student understands how a book makes its impact not frontally but by stealth, how it imperceptibly changes us, when it does, forever, was for him, as the saying goes, better than sex. He’d seen kids literally come alive, as had happened to him: slough off their families’ need to shroud them in security and open themselves up to riskier ways of becoming themselves, at times with spectacular results. These were the achievements he was proudest of.”

On reflection, School Days seems to spend a lot of time on sex and the adolescent confusion of sex with love, entirely expected in the hothouse of a private boy’s school and turbulent teenage hormones. Sam as a middle-aged man still seems undecided about his own sexuality. He was married, but retains sexual feelings for Eddie and, late in the book is hooking up with men he finds online. (Although, where is it written that you have to decide your own sexuality? That you can be sexually attracted only to people of your own sex?)

Perhaps more importantly, Galassi explores the issue of teacher/student power relations and the opportunities and dangers of abuse. There is also the issue of entitlement. Leverett’s students are entitled. They have affluent, if not wealthy, parents. They are on escalator to an ivy league school; Harvard welcomes them. It influences the way they see themselves and the world.

(I once asked a friend on the staff of a private girls’ school what percentage of their graduates go to college. She looked at me with surprise at my innocence. A hundred percent, she said.)

In an author talk, Galassi said, “Sam has a lot of unfinished business in his life,” and in the last quarter of the book we follow him as he looks up former classmates to try to finish some of that business. I’m not sure he does. In a last, first-person chapter, Sam muses, “We were all . . . trying to slough off the selves we’d been handed and become someone else: to rise and fly where we like, break fully out and away. We never could, though, try as we might.”

Nevertheless, Sam’s effort to do so makes School Days superior and engaging literary fiction. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Riding Compton's very mean streets with a black officer

Frederick Douglass Reynolds is the son of poor sharecroppers from rural Virginia. When his family moved north, he associated with the Errol Flynns, a street gang founded on the lower east side of Detroit during the 1970s. He was a criminal, receiving six-months probation for a fight in juvenile hall where he’d been confined for stealing a bicycle.

He joined the Marine Corps and served for four years. When he tried to re-enlist the Corps would not have him because he’d been reduced in rank twice. He ran through his savings and became homeless, worked two jobs, and slept in cars and all-night movie theaters, unable to earn enough to house, clothe, and feed his growing family. And just when the rent “was two months past due, the city of Compton offered me a career as an armed security officer.” 

Black, White, and Gray All Over: A Black Man’s Odyssey in Life and Law Enforcement is two books in one: Reynolds’s memoir as a cop and a history of Compton, CA. The memoir elements of this self-published book are much more interesting than the details of Compton’s growth, decay, and politics. Although, given the city’s history in the last twenty-years and Reynolds’ position, that could have been a fascinating separate story.

Reynolds was a cop and detective for 32 years in Compton, a 10-square mile city in southern Los Angeles County. In 1991 the city had 87 murders for a rate of about 90 per 100,000 people. The entire county rate that year was 9.8 per 100,000. “And the Compton total didn’t include those labeled suicides because the city’s four-man homicide unit was too overburdened to investigate them.”

Most of the murders were the work of the gangs—Black gangs, Hispanic gangs, and splinter gangs from larger gangs. “At least one gang claimed every neighborhood and they were always fighting,” Reynolds writes. “Piru gangs fought Crip gangs. Crip gangs fought other Crip gangs. Piru gangs fought other Piru gangs, and Hispanic gangs fought them all. At least three people were shot on average every day. And someone was murdered on an average of seven times a month.” (Piru gangs are African-American; they originated in Compton.)

We ride with Reynolds and his fellow officers as they do their best to keep the peace or pick up the pieces after a drive-by shooting. He is candid about his personal history, his marriages, his weakness for alcohol and gambling. The life sounds brutal, and as a result “I believe that every cop who worked at Compton PD suffers from various degrees of PTSD. In addition to all the violent crime incidents I also responded to horrific fatal traffic accidents, including hit-and-runs involving pedestrians, some of whom were children.”

Much of the memoir is made up of war stories, which are well-told and fascinating, while at the same time “TV shows and the movies make it seem as if police work is nonstop shootouts, car cases, and fighting, real police work is long bouts of boredom, mundane conversations, and insults interrupted by short bursts of fear.” Which does not make for exciting television.

Reynolds carrying an historic name has interesting things to say about race relations. He writes that when a white Jewish landlord began renting him a condo for less than the going market rate, he began to realize the color of your skin is irrelevant. “Nothing matters except the content of your character. People of good character don’t see race. And I’m talking about the so-called ‘liberals’ who call themselves helping Blacks because we can’t help ourselves. We don’t need your pity, your condescension, or your extra test points because of our skin color. In my eyes, to accept such help is an admittance that Blacks need help because Whites are superior. We just demand the same opportunity. Nothing more. Nothing less.”

In July 2000, the Compton City Council voted to disband the police department and hired the LA Country Sheriff’s Department to replace the police. The reason: the Compton PD was “powerless to stop the out-of-control violence.” As one of the officers who traded a police badge for a sheriff’s, Reynolds argues that disbanding the department had more to do with city corruption and politics than the over-worked and underfunded police. The violence, by the way, continued.

Reynolds is not a professional writer and the book could have used better editing. In an attempt to recognize his fellow officers, he gives a thumbnail description of virtually every one. These do not help the reader keep the large cast straight but tend to slow the book. I would also like to better understand the motivations and needs of the gangs. They’re protecting sources of income from crack and other drug sales, but are there other reasons for the violence?

But Reynolds sounds like a guy that a mystery writer like Michael Connolly could use as a source to understand the life of a cop in a high crime neighborhood. The rest of us will enjoy reading about an absorbing life in Black, White, and Gray All Over.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Can you steal a plot? What happens if you do?

I believe it was John Updike who remarked that two terrible things can happen to a writer: She can fail. Or she can succeed.

Jacob Finch Bonner, the writer-protagonist of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s best-selling (a New York Times bestseller!) novel The Plot begins the book as a failure, writes a runaway best-seller and becomes a towering success. It does not go well. 

Here’s what the publisher say about the story which I quote so I do not even inadvertently give away spoilers (far be it from me to spoil The Plot, which depends on surprise for the greatest effect):

“Jacob Finch Bonner was once a promising young novelist with a respectably published first book. Today, he’s teaching in a third-rate MFA program and struggling to maintain what’s left of his self-respect; he hasn’t written―let alone published―anything decent in years. When Evan Parker, his most arrogant student, announces he doesn’t need Jake’s help because the plot of his book in progress is a sure thing, Jake is prepared to dismiss the boast as typical amateur narcissism. But then . . . he hears the plot.

“Jake returns to the downward trajectory of his own career and braces himself for the supernova publication of Evan Parker’s first novel: but it never comes. When he discovers that his former student has died, presumably without ever completing his book, Jake does what any self-respecting writer would do with a story like that―a story that absolutely needs to be told.

“In a few short years, all of Evan Parker’s predictions have come true, but Jake is the author enjoying the wave. He is wealthy, famous, praised and read all over the world. But at the height of his glorious new life, an e-mail arrives, the first salvo in a terrifying, anonymous campaign: You are a thief, it says.”

Korelitz has nailed the writing biz. The wannabe writers who attend MFA programs and writer’s conferences. The disappointing second book. The unpublishable third book. Then, shazam! A blockbuster! The twenty-city book tours with a minder from the publisher. Taking a meeting with a famous movie director and an interview with Oprah. Fans lined up at book signing events. One can only dream.

The worm in the bud, of course, is Jake’s original transgression and it raises an interesting question: Is there such a thing as an original plot? Apparently, you cannot copyright a plot any more than you can copyright a title, a recipe, or an idea. There is plagiarism, of course, and that is a clear no-no. 

But is it stealing to use the framework of a story on which to hang your own characters, their thoughts, motivations, and actions? When does appropriation cross a line into illegal, immoral, or fattening? 

Nevertheless, Jake feels guilty as sin, and the anonymous You are a thief message starts him careening toward disaster. I became impatient with him because he becomes such a liar. But if he didn’t there wouldn’t be a book. Or not this book.

He could have said something like, “My book is based on a story a former student once told me,” and avoided a mess of trouble. As Korelitz writes, “Stories, of course, are common as dirt. Everyone has one, if not an infinity of them, and they surround us at all times whether we acknowledge them or not. Stories are the wells we dip into to be reminded of who we are, and the ways we reassure ourselves that, however obscure we may appear to others, we are actually important, even crucial, to the ongoing drama of survival: personal, societal, and even as a species.”

Late in the book, Jake talks about a story’s theft, migration, or appropriation. “In my world,” he says, “the migration of a story is something we recognize, and we respect. Works of art can overlap, or they can sort of chime with one another. Right now, with some of the anxieties we have around appropriation, it’s become downright combustible, but I’ve always thought there was a kind of beauty to it, the way narratives get told and retold.”

Insights like these (and there are more) set The Plot apart from other mysteries. Writers and wannabe writers especially will enjoy Jake’s struggles and triumph in his chosen career. I have only one caution to readers: Don’t assume you’ve figured it out too soon.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

It's more than menopausal malaise

I picked up Wayward because it was a New York Times Notable Book in 2021 and I want to know what’s notable in the world of books. I’d heard of Dana Spiotta because I read reviews all the time and mentally filed her name away as an author I ought to look up. 

She’s well-credentialled. Her book Innocents and Others was winner of the St. Francis College Literary Prize and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Stone Arabia was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Eat the Document was a finalist for the National Book Award and the winner of the American Academy’s Rosenthal Foundation Award. And Lightning Field was another New York Times Notable Book in 2001. 

Other awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, the Rome Prize in Literature, the Premio Pivano, a Creative Capital Award, and the John Updike Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in Syracuse and teaches in the Syracuse University Creative Writing program.

Wayward’s point-of-view-character Sam Raymond, short for Samantha (and that she has a male name is not an accident), is a 53-year-old woman who lives in a Syracuse suburb; the wife of Matt, an affluent lawyer; the mother of 16-year-old Ally; the daughter of an aging Lily who lives an hour and a half away from Syracuse. Sam works part time as a docent in the Clara Loomis House, which Spiotta based on the Fayetteville museum home of Matilda Joslyn Gage, a 19th century abolitionist and suffragist. 

Sam is unhappy and on page 12 she buys a run-down (but incredibly charming) house in a depressed neighborhood without telling her husband who she’s decided to leave. I was not sympathetic. 

I’m sure other readers can identify with Sam’s angst, but I had trouble with a white, upper-middle-class, wife and mother just chucking her husband and daughter and having the resources to buy a house as easily as buying a pair of sensible shoes. Unfortunately for me, Spiotta writes so well and invents characters and situations so engaging that I stuck with the book and finished it envious of her talent.

The Trump election of 2016 was the final straw for Sam. Her mother is ill but will not say what ails her. Ally is increasingly remote, and Sam finds herself staring into "the Mids"--that hour of supreme wakefulness between three and four in the morning in which women of a certain age suddenly find themselves contemplating motherhood, mortality, and, in this case, the state of our unraveling nation.

Rather than have an affair, Sam falls in love with a beautiful, decrepit house, buys it, and abandons suburban life--and her family to grapple with how to be a wife, a mother, and a daughter, in a country that feels as if it is coming apart at the seams.

If it were only the malaise of one woman, I would have given up halfway through. But Wayward is much more than Sam’s angst. Spiotta has three chapters from Ally’s point of view. Ally begins having sex with a 29-year-old developer, one of her father’s legal clients. 

He gives Ally Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as her intellectual mentor and she drafts a college application essay that is almost worth the price of the book. Libertarians, she writes, “describe themselves as believing in ultimate equality without condescending ‘nanny-state’ interference.” They tend to believe that a person is homeless because he made “poor choices.” But, Ally asks, “how much of our choices are shaped by things we didn’t choose?”

She points out that libertarians “might take federal, state, and county tax breaks in shitty desperate cities that will do anything for development. But how is that the unfettered marketplace?” And what about “the things people need to do collectively like fire departments and utilities and the post office and schools? . . . Also, protection of private property requires police and prisons and copyrights. So libertarians like rules in some cases. Maybe they are not for total liberty, but for protecting their own liberty at the expense of others’.”

I found the subplot interesting because while the relationship is inappropriate and, I believe, illegal, neither Ally nor the guy suffer any obvious consequences. Ally sends him nude pictures of herself, but, as far as we know, he never shares them or passes them on. By the end of the book, Ally is older and wiser in the ways of men (certain men) but unharmed.

Wayward is indeed, as the publisher says, a stunning novel about aging, about the female body, and about female difficulty--female complexity--in the age of Trump. Probing and provocative, brainy and sensual, it is a testament to our weird, off-kilter America, to reforms and resistance and utopian wishes, and to the beauty of ruins.

Time for me to look up Spiotta’s earlier books.