A story doesn’t really need more than atmosphere and detail

productimage-picture-the-human-comedy-352Now that I’ve gone through Edith Wharton and Henry James, I decided to venture into the Continent, so I started reading this Balzac short story collection. What I appreciate about Balzac is that he’s one of the first authors to really pay attention to the specifics of things. For instance, in the very first short story, the narrator gets invited to the wedding of the cousin of the woman who cleans his apartment, and he notes that the wedding was on the second floor of a wine distributor’s warehouse, and that it consisted of about 80 people, and then he noted the decorations and the entertainment. That is really interesting stuff, but most authors of that period wouldn’t tell you about it. They’d just be like…it was a wedding.

Balzac, famously, thought it was his mission to capture the entirety of contemporary society, so there are entire stories here whose purpose is just to capture some sort of phenomena. For instance, the second story is just an account of an evening at a Paris salon during the Restoration era. One attendee tells a story about how he became disillusioned when his first love cheated on him. Another goes into an extended inquisition on the nature of modern womanhood. A third riffs about the character of Napoleon. And a fourth tells a dark, Gothic tale. And I loved it! For the first time I felt like I really understood what the appeal of a salon was. It was to be daring, and to shock your contemporaries, but not by arguing with them–the point is to be both elevated and light at the same time.

And I was impressed. There was story, of course. And there was theme and character. But more than anything there was atmosphere and detail. And I feel like that by itself is a pretty worthwhile reason to write a story.

Books I read this year which I really did not enjoy as much as I would have wanted to

beach26I usually don’t really do negative reviews, but once a year I make an exception, so I can list some of the books that frustrated and annoyed me.

Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas – I read this right after reading The Count of Monte Cristo, which might’ve been a mistake, since this is a very different sort of book. Where Monte Cristo has a very focused narrative and a strong throughline, Three Musketeers is just a set of loosely connected incidents that I, in most cases, found rather dull. Maybe this was just because none of the characters really charmed me; they all seemed insubstantial and foolish. I got 2/3rds of the way through the book before abandoning it.

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky – I abandoned this one about 20% of the way through. I’ve read lots of books by Dostoyevsky, but nothing in the last three years. Maybe I’ve just outgrown him, or maybe this wasn’t his finest. I really just couldn’t get into it. None of it seemed at all alive.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Oh my god, this book was so boring. At the time, I pretended to myself that I enjoyed it because that was the only way to get through it, but in retrospect I find nothing in it that was redeeming. It’s a history about a fascinating figure and a fascinating time…but it doesn’t include any of the actual fascinating stuff about that time. Rather, all the good stuff takes place off-stage, and all that you see is a lot of waffling about and misdirection.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton – I had to read this for class, and I hated it, which is weird, because I love Edith Wharton. She is a fantastic writer: subtle and thrilling and full of interesting characters. But this novella had none of those things. It was a big lumbering Gothic horror story about doomed love. Which, in my opinion, doesn’t really play to Wharton’s strengths. I have no idea why they teach this. I suspect that it’s simply because the book is short and teachers are always looking for things that students can read in a week. However, that is not a sufficient explanation: Wharton is famed for her novella-length work, and I think that something like The Touchstone is much better and more representative look of her virtues.

Antifragile by Nicholas Nassim Taleb – I forget how far I got into this, but I couldn’t finish it. I loved The Black Swan. It was a brilliant and eye-opening book. But even in that book, Taleb’s posturing got on my nerves. In this one, the posturing has been dialed up to eleven. It’s absolutely unbearable, especially in a book that’s as light on content as this one.

Mercedes Lackey – I tried to reread several books by Mercedes Lackey and just couldn’t do it. The writing is terrible.

Growth Hacker Marketing by Ryan Halliday – Oh my god, this book has zero content. Do not buy it.

The Annales by Tacitus – Do you really care which general invaded which Germanic province in which year of Nero’s reign? No. Nobody does. What put the boringness of Tacitus into such stark relief was that immediately afterward I read Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars, which covered exactly the same years, but was much more fun and personality-driven.

I actually learned nothing from assembling my list of all of the novels that I really love

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Anyone who hasn’t read this ought to read it. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I have no idea why it’s fallen out of fashion.

I’ve spend several days looking at the list that I put together a few days ago. And as far as I can tell, I’ve basically learned nothing.

I can tell because I actually had an epiphany about my own work the other day. Which is that the works of mine that I enjoy are the ones in which the character strongly wants something and takes an active role in pursuing it: they’re books where the inciting event and subsequent plot complications are mostly things that the character does. Basically, they’re stories in which the character is just as much antagonist as protagonist.

Now, that sounds like a no-brainer, but many of my favorite books are actually not like that. For instance, take Revolutionary Road. Nothing happens in the book. It’s all about this couple wishing they could break free from suburbia and run off to France, but they do basically nothing to further that goal. Or in Buddenbrooks, everything happens in a very stately fashion. The family’s rise and fall has little to do with anyone’s particular talents: it’s all a matter of the operation of fate, and the pleasure of the book comes from watching the operation of different personalities within this milieu. Or take The Privileges. People do things in that novel, but nothing really matters. In fact, that’s a novel that tricks you, because you expect dramatic things to happen. For instance, at one point the husband gets involved in this embezzlement scheme. But it actually works out fine. The novel just skips ahead a few years and he’s suddenly extremely wealthy. That book is more about the experience of living. It’s about what it’s like to exist in these moments. Which is why the most beautiful part of it is the beginning, when this young couple are getting married in hot and sticky and somewhat unpleasant circumstances, and even though you know they’re not comfortable, you can also feel the majesty of the moment. Or what about Things Fall Apart. That’s a novel whose main character is completely satisfied with his life until the village  oracle decrees that his son needs to die. Or let’s take The Magicians. The book is basically about how Quentin gets lots of wonderful things, but is perpetually dissatisfied and basically has zero idea about what will make him happy.

And all of those books are excellent! They’re some of the best books I’ve ever read!

But they’re not the kind of books that I enjoy writing.

Instead, I prefer to write books with extremely active protagonists. There, my model would be something more like Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which is a novel about two working-class German people who’re sort of cruising along and laying low during the Third Reich, but then suddenly snap (when their son dies) and decide that they’re going to work to overthrow Hitler. Or House of Mirth, where Lily is perpetually given all these wonderful opportunities, but goes out of her way to disdain them. Another example is The Haunting of Hill House, where the action is driven, in my mind, by the way that Eleanor becomes positively obsessed with her fellow Hill House inmate Theodora. Oh, or in Main Street, where Carol Kennicott is living in a perfectly fine town and has a perfectly good husband, but mucks everything up with her constant efforts to improve and civilize the people around here.

That’s the kind of book that I want to write.

Really, it’s not even a question of want. I can’t be satisfied with a work in progress if the protagonist doesn’t drive the plot in that manner. Frequently, that means that my protagonists are either comical or somewhat on the more unpleasant side. Because there’s something unpleasant about a person who just won’t let things rest. There’s something unpleasant about someone who wants something so much that they’re willing to upset a perfectly good situation in order to get it. For instance, the couple in Every Man Dies Alone are embarking upon a praiseworthy course of action, but the way they do it is so foolish and ineffective that you can’t help but feel contempt for them. Or in House of Mirth, you just want to shout at Lily to marry one of these fucking guys already. Carol Kennicott, as well, is a character who reveals an ugly side in the readers of the book. We all think, just like her, that we’re superior to the plebes around us. And we’re all led, by that superiority, to engage in overbearing and arrogant behavior.

In many ways, it’s easier to write a more passive story. For instance, this is not the classic science fiction and fantasy story. In most SF/F, you have a character who is called upon to solve a problem. Luke is told to deliver the message to Obi-Wan. Frodo is told to destroy the ring. They’re given assurance that what they’re doing is important and necessary. And, furthermore, there’s really no turning back point. Once they’re committed to the adventure, all they need to do is struggle to win. Whereas Carol Kennicott’s story is very different. She takes this cause upon herself. And she’s constantly given the chance to back down, but she insists on digging her hole deeper by resorting to increasingly condescending behavior.

But I think these more active characters appeal to me because they’re engaged in the most fundamental human problem: the creation of personal meaning. Luke Skywalker never has to decide what things in life are worth doing. He’s told that he’s important, and he’s told what to do. The guy’s basically handed the answers to all of life’s existential questions on a silver platter.

Whereas a character like Carol Kennicott is heroic, to me, because she’s willing to answer that question herself. She’s willing to say, “I want to dedicate my life to making this town a better place to live.” And she’s willing to constantly reaffirm that statement, because there’s something about it that fills a need within herself.

I constantly wonder whether there’s anything in life that’s worth doing. But when I write a book about a girl who is, for instance, willing to cheat and scheme her way into her school’s valedictorianship, there’s something about that which is, to me, life-affirming. It’s saying, oh hey, I am able to imagine something in the world that’s worth desiring (even though I don’t personally desire it).

So those are all the things that I didn’t learn by staring at that list of books.

The Week of Capsule Book Reviews Continues With Another Day of Predictably Good Books

imagesNine Stories by J.D. Salinger – Catcher In The Rye is another of those books that I hated in high school (where, due to a change in schools, I had to read it in both 9th and 10th grades), but loooved when I re-read it in college. I also really liked Franny and Zooey and even Raise High The Roofbeams, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (you know you’re a Salinger fan when you enjoy 70 pages of Salinger rhapsodizing about the utter perfection of one of his Mary Sues). I can’t say why it took me so long to read Nine Stories. I think I was just put off by the first story: “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” I mean…it’s a great story, but there’s just something about it that’s so wrong. There is no reason why it should work. Anyway, once I got over that (which took about two years), I loved this collection. Salinger has such a warm, comfortable voice. You can just read it for hours, even when he’s talking about Buddhism and crap. Which he mostly doesn’t do in this volume! There’s so much good stuff in here. In “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” an 18-year old kid becomes arts instructor at a correspondence college and starts to obsess about the beautiful paintings of one of his students (who’s also a nun). In “The Laughing Man,” a narrator talks about the scoutmaster of the “Comanche Club” that he belonged to in his youth and how the scoutmaster used to tell him thrilling Lone-Ranger-type stories about a figure called the Laughing Man—eventually we see how the spiritual disintegration of the Laughing Man is paralleled by that of the scoutmaster. Just good, intricately-structured, warmly-written stuff. I’ve only rarely read short stories that were as purely enjoyable as this.

its-good-life-if-you-dont-weaken-seth-paperback-cover-artIt’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken by Seth – This Canadian graphic novel frequently makes those lists of best graphic novels ever. And it deserves it. I have to say that I was up in the air about this one for most of the time that I was reading it. There was something about the art style—very pale blues and reds and simple figures without much depth—that put me off. And the story is a bit slow. It’s about a modern-day cartoonist who becomes interested in the creator of a few New Yorker strips way back in the 70s. All he knows about the creator is his pen-name: Kalo. From there, the cartoonist slowly delves into Kalo’s history. But, at some point, everything clicked for me. The sparseness and colorlessness of the art meshed with the loneliness of the storyline. And the ending is so understated and so perfect.

driwerDrinking At The Movies by Julie Wertz – I don’t think I ever write about graphic novels that are not mopey autobiographical comics…in truth, that’s mostly what I enjoy. You can keep your Walking Dead and I’ll busy myself with comics about a cartoonist who moves from San Francisco to New York and spends a year just…I dunno…being miserable…drinking a lot…doing mid-twenties stuff…fighting roaches…quitting terrible jobs…squabbling with roommates. It’s just good times.

17728House Of Mirth by Edith Wharton – I love Edith Wharton, even if I can never remember which of her books is which. All of her books have such totally forgettable and similar-sounding titles: Custom Of The Country; Age of Innocence; House Of Mirth. But whatevs, this was my favorite of them all! It’s about a woman, Lily Bart, who is super beautiful and somewhat poor and lives by sponging off her rich society acquaintances. From her girlhood, she’s been trained to marry money. But…although she doesn’t lack for offers, she keeps putting it off. Every time she comes close to making a match, she swerves and turns away. And every time she comes close to falling in love, she swerves away from that too. What I love about Lily is that she’s not brilliantly self-actualized. She’s brave and she’s ingenious, but she doesn’t know what she wants. She needs money and she needs love and she can’t find both. There are no good solutions for her.

PicofDorianGrayPicture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – I wish that me and Oscar Wilde could’ve been friends. I wrote a few years back about how I think “The Importance Of Being Earnest” is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. And I love his essays. I’m not sure how right they are (“The Soul Of Man Under Socialism” seems, to me, very fuzzy and aristocratic), but he always words things so beautifully (and you can tell that he’s given a lot of thought to what he says). Oh yeah, and his only novel is the bomb. And, it’s kind of a fantasy novel! As you probably well know, it’s about a handsome young fella whose portrait is painted by a well-known artist. And then, for the rest of the life, the portrait ages instead of Dorian. Anyway, roughly 80% of this book is talking. A lot of it is witty, highly-mannered, vaguely philosophical talk. I’d be lying if I said that I remembered what exactly they were talking about, but I do remember that it was exceedingly funny, but that it had these undertones of despair. It’s a portrait of a place and a time and a people (a gay people, one might note); in many ways, I suppose it’s the depressing autobiographical comic of the 1890s. Anyway, it was an experience. I read it in one sitting, while on an airplane.

Woman as Financial Vampire

I’m currently reading (and considerably enjoying) Edith Wharton’s Custom Of The Country. But I am also disquieted by the novel. At its core, the story of this novel is a very familiar one. It’s about an ambitious woman who sucks dry a somewhat dreamy man with her incessant financial demands.

The cunning woman who only longs for fine society and fine objects and uses her beauty as a tool with which to entrap men into providing for her desires is an incredibly familiar figure in literature. She is so familiar, in fact, that I kept having these strange echoes while I read the book. I’d have a brief impression, and then I wouldn’t be able to rest until I remembered the other book that I was being reminded of.

I haven’t tracked down all the impressions of what I call “woman as financial vampire”, but I can name a few. There’s Emile Zola’s Nana, about a French prostitute who destroys the fortunes of her admirers. There’s Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, whose eponymous heroine eventually gets her husband deep into debt after issuing numerous notes and trying all kinds of financial manipulations with the village moneylender. There’s Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: the main character has a paramour who engages in embezzlement to meet her monetary demands. There’s Becky Sharp, from William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, who bankrupts her creditors (and ruins her admittedly horribly husband) by knowingly borrowing huge sums and then running away from her debts. There’s Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind: who screws over her second husband in various business deals. There’s Grushenka in Dostoyevsky’s Brother’s Karamozov, who causes the central conflict of the novel by creating a large need for money in the oldest brother, Dmitri. There’s Polina in Dostoyevsky’s The Gambler, whose mysterious need for money causes the hero to take up gambling.

Perhaps the most nuanced and complex use of this female trope comes (rather surprisingly) from Charles Dickens. David Copperfield’s first wife, Dora Spenlow, shares many traits with the financial vampires described above: she’s spoiled, petulant, short-sighted, and used to being supported by wealthy men. And when she married David Copperfield, one is almost sure that she is immediately going to drive him to ruin. But she doesn’t. Their marriage is not precisely happy, but she does not destroy him. In the end, it seems like he genuinely loves her and she genuinely loves him.

Most of the examples I cited above are from a particular time period, and, indeed, I think it’s difficult to find more recent examples of the woman as financial vampire. An example from the fifties is Millie, from Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana, whose financial demands cause her father to enter into the spying business. Another that springs to mind is Jorah Mormont in A Song Of Ice And Fire, who becomes a slaver and a mercenary in order to satisfy his wife Lynesse’s need for jewels and finery and parties.

There must be many more examples of this trope, but its frequent occurrence in my own reading is enough to satisfy me that it is definitely “a thing”.

But it does puzzle me. The occurrence and reoccurrence of the fantastically spendthrift woman in literature seems to suggest that she is being used to work out some sort of deep cultural anxiety. In many cases, her financial needs are coupled with a sexual unfaithfulness, which seems to suggest that they’re both part of some kind of fear of emasculation or loss of control.

But it’s the financial aspect that has always been more startling to me than the sexual aspect. After all, a woman can’t be spendthrift without her husband’s consent. In most of the above relationships, the man has to sign for each and every purchase. He is fully capable, at any time, of cutting the purse strings, but he is so ensnared by her charm that he is unable to.

It’s a strange sort of anxiety and I question how often women like this actually existed. She’s more like a monster than she is like a real person. She has an unholy power to glamor a man. And she has an unquenchable appetite for jewels, hotel rooms, meals, carriages, and dresses.

In some cases (as in Our Man In Havana) the financial vampire is just a plot device. She’s a way to provide the hero with a huge need for money without also making him seem greedy or repellent. But many of these novels are explicitly devoted to the psychology or origins of these women. It’s quite fantastic that so much ink has been spilled about the inner workings creature that can’t have been very common.

But it doesn’t matter that the financial vampire probably didn’t exist too often: what matters is that she ought to exist. Most of these novels conclude that mankind deserves the financial vampire. Halfway through Custom of the Country, a character rather explicitly says that America gives rise to these financial vampires because it infantilizes women and doesn’t allow them to have real pursuits: the reason they have no real concept of money is because they are not allowed to work, and the reason they ruin men is because they are taught that their virtue is measured in what they can extract from males using their beauty and charm.

Personally, though, I am not convinced by these pseudo-feminist morals. Despite the gloss that these novels put on what they’re doing, they are still trafficking in very charged, very sexist imagery, and I think that part of their emotional appeal, as literature, is due to the horror that these women arouse in men. If I created a movie where a mob of blacks rioted and raped a bunch of white women, I think I would still be playing to the racist anxieties of my audience even if I ended the movie by saying “They were driven to this by your racism!”