Category Archives: narrative

Echoing a familial refrain

Khaled Hosseini’s third novel strikes universal chords.

A crowd mobbed Book People, Austin, for Hosseini's appearance.

A crowd mobbed BookPeople, Austin, Texas, for Hosseini’s recent appearance.

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Riverhead Books  (Penguin Group ); 404 pp., $28.95 hardback. Also available in paperback (Bloomsbury Publishing), Kindle, Nook, Audible, audiobook CD, SoundCloud, iTunes, and large-print (Thorndike Press) editions.

Guest Review by Lanie Tankard

“…and the place echoed every word,

and when he said ‘Goodbye!’

Echo also said ‘Goodbye!’”

 —Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book III (Trans. by A.S. Kline)

Hosseini CoverKhaled Hosseini took a risk in his third novel. He tried a different structure.

In his first published work, The Kite Runner, Hosseini followed one boy’s life and how it related to his childhood friendship with another boy named Hassan, portrayed through the voice of the protagonist named Amir.

In his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini focused initially on the individual stories of two women, Mariam and Laila, and then later on both as their paths crossed. I admired the fact that, being a male author, Hosseini had pulled off a convincing protagonist gender shift from his first book.

When I recently heard Hosseini discuss his third book, And the Mountains Echoed, he noted, “The structure of this novel was far more ambitious.” He addressed a packed crowd in Austin, Texas, at BookPeople, which was already mobbed an hour before Hosseini was scheduled.

“The heart of the book is about an act of separation—a relationship between a boy and his sister,” he told us, after reading an excerpt. “Splitting them affects who they become as adults,” as the boy has been “almost like a parent to her.”

Hosseini offered details about how he shaped the book.

“Like a giant oak tree, there’s a trunk to the novel that branches out with all the characters, and the geography of the settings as well. It gets wider as the book goes on,” he said. “It was the hardest book to write.”

And it was the hardest book to read, at least for me. As if traveling on the ancient Silk Road, many characters in Mountains Echoed take circuitous routes to their ultimate destinations—and so does the storytelling. These interwoven lives begin to resemble the stacked “spaghetti bowl” of an interstate highway with flyover ramps and exits.

Such a plot construction is not necessarily detrimental to a story, though, nor to one’s growth as a writer. Once again, I admire Hosseini for stretching himself rather than relying on the formulaic repetition of a style with which he’d become comfortable.

In Mountains Echoed, Hosseini constructs the metastories of an entire clan to examine their intersections. It becomes an interesting device for disentangling the relatives in a particular family of origin as they fan out across the globe. Hosseini investigates the genealogical ramifications of family connections. He scrutinizes various generations as if he were peeling back delicate paper-thin layers of phyllo from a wedge of baklava with tweezers.

Charting the novel’s cast

Lanie Tankard's aide-memoire—her cheat sheet for the novel.

Lanie Tankard’s aide-memoire—her cheat sheet for the novel.

I did have to chart my way through the book, however.  Early on, I had the fortunate premonition to start drafting a map to follow as I read. I wonder why the editor didn’t suggest inserting a family tree to assist the reader? Yet quite honestly, the lack of one did not deter me from being totally absorbed by this story, even though I did have to consult my hand-drawn legend from time to time to keep the characters straight.

Hosseini’s storytelling ability is nothing short of mesmerizing. He knows just when to stop with a particular strand, leaving the reader hungering for more detail. He puts your mind to work. As he told his Austin audience, “It’s a series of revelations and epiphanies for which the reader must connect the dots.”

While Hosseini set the story in specific countries, he grounded it in larger themes that cross borders and speak the language of the global family. He laid bare the fundamental elements of our common humanity.

Hosseini wrenched unexpected tears out of me in different sections, due not only to such universal refrains, but also because he assembled in the denouement a heartbreaking scenario similar to one I witnessed in my own family as well. Since I’ve never been fond of spoilers in reviews, I’ll not divulge the endgame of Mountains Echoed except to say it rang true.

Tears arising unbidden as I read usually alert me to the fact that I’m holding a compelling book in my hands—a “heads up” that I need to pay close attention to the illusion that I’m consuming a straightforward rendition of a simple tale.

Indeed, as some of Hosseini’s characters become Westernized in Mountains Echoed, I notice that an individualistic culture has slowly begun to muffle echoes of the earlier stages of their lives in a collectivistic society. The author writes with subtle strokes of his calligraphy brush to achieve this effect.

Perhaps such subtlety was intentional. After all, how clearly can we actually view an ancestor who lived several generations prior to our own and truly understand the choices made during that person’s sojourn on this planet?

Hosseini’s characters speak truths we ought to know like the backs of our hands already, and yet we continuously require reminding. Some of these verities underscore the values of memoir writing, genealogy research, and meditation. Hosseini prompts us to realize that it’s important to know where you came from, because in doing so you may encounter a part of yourself that was lost.

Gail Lumet Buckley, daughter of Lena Horne, wrote in her memoir titled The Hornes: An American Family: “Family faces are magic mirrors. Looking at people who belong to us, we see the past, present, and future. We make discoveries about ourselves and them.”

Flawed characters thwarted in love

Yet Hosseini denies most if not all of the characters in Mountains Echoed such types of discoveries due to assorted acts of separation he writes into their lives. He sets up many types of love in his characters’ relationships, and then creates formidable barriers to their perpetuation. Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman once wrote about herself: “This packrat has learned that what the next generation will value most is not what we owned, but the evidence of who we were and the tales of how we loved. In the end, it’s the family stories that are worth the storage.” The fictional individuals who people the Mountains Echoed plot won’t have such an inheritance, though. That’s where the angst in this novel arises, and it’s powerfully strong.

Hosseini in Austin.

Hosseini in Austin.

“I really like flawed characters,” Hosseini told his Austin listeners. “They allow me the most to work with. All of us have things about ourselves that we don’t like at all. We can see our own flaws in them.”

He pointed out that the “evil stepmother” character, Parwana, “is the black sheep of her family“ but she “gets her day in the sun later in her own chapter.”

Fiction can be a potent tool. Authors who serve up their home countries via literature to the world can call attention to inequities, assist in cultural understanding, or play roles in uniting us. Consider such writers as Isabel Allende, Orhan Pamuk, or Chinua Achebe. And when a novelist writes about the assimilation of people from one culture into another culture, as such authors as Amy Tan or Junot Díaz or Jhumpa Lahiri have done, readers gain the perspectives of characters who have migrated from their native countries. In Mountains Echoed, Hosseini depicts the homelands of his characters (Afghanistan and Greece) as well as later adaptation to new countries (France and the United States), illustrating how Westernization has changed them.

What factors determine the impact of a literary contribution? Is it the words alone—or do timing, packaging, current news events, author talks explaining motivation and intent, and advance promotion each play a role? The Zeitgeist likely creates desire for certain subject matter. Once upon a time, journalists were taught the term Afghanistanism to avoid concentrating on issues in faraway places when problems in their own cities cried out for attention. Technology, transportation, and wars have both broadened our horizons and shrunk our world since that time, negating the term.

Hosseini mentioned the influence of the poet Rumi in his Austin talk, and he uses a wonderful Rumi quote as an epigraph in Mountains Echoed: 

Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
—Jelaluddin Rumi, 13th century

 He also alluded to music in reference to his third novel: “My intention was that each chapter raises the stakes for what has happened before, creating a synchronicity—like a lot of single instruments playing together to create a symphony.”

Hosseini seems to have blended music, poetry, and myth in Mountains Echoed. An echo in music has a resonance that amplifies the sound and makes it reverberate with the underlying meaning. It’s a nice metaphor for what Hosseini accomplishes in his new novel.

There are hints of the Echo and Narcissus myth as well, if one focuses on the ideas of separation and later deprivation of speech and garbling of the tongue, as Juno did to Echo. The separation in Mountains Echoed deprived the siblings of speech with one another, and the novel’s ending symbolizes garbled memories.

The echo motif also fits into the storyline of Mountains Echoed as a rhetorical device, which Hosseini employs in both a literal and a figurative sense. With the repeated refrains and themes, one could almost view the novel as a musical composition of lyrical poetry, with a chorus continuing to sing praises to the nuclear family unit in the midst of a long narrative ballad, ideas John Hollander discusses in his book The Figure of Echo.

Hollander uses the example of echo in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which indeed Afghanistan has become.

“The country is struggling with a lot of problems,” Hosseini said of his native land. “The big question is what will move into the vacuum when the US and NATO troops leave in 2014. There’s a lot of skepticism on the part of Afghans. Not many people in the West understand what the Afghans fear. The militia wars preceded the Taliban. Those were the darkest of the last thirty-two years. There’s a reason Afghanistan has been called ‘the graveyard of empires.’”

One audience member called out a heartfelt comment: “Thank you for teaching us about Afghanistan.”

BookPeople showed a five-minute film before Hosseini spoke, highlighting the Khaled Hosseini Foundation he has set up. The author explained how his organization concentrates on helping all the homeless refugees returning to Afghanistan by finding shelter for them there.

Hosseini’s shift from a medical career

“I was a doctor in my former life,” Hosseini said in his Texas book discussion. “I wrote all my life though,” he said. “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love to write, but I didn’t think I was very good. I just did it for myself. I wrote Kite Runner, and then 9/11 happened. I felt the book would be distasteful at that time.” So he shelved it in the garage.

His wife ran across it “and made a bunch of notes on it.  She urged me to try to publish it later.” He noted that she majored in rhetoric at UC Berkeley, and is his editor and a lawyer.

“She’s edited every draft. She can’t come up with an answer as to where the story should go,” he said, adding that “the danger of having an ‘in-house’ editor is that you don’t get what you need to hear—you get what you want to hear. Although sometimes she writes things like ‘LOL. You can’t be serious.’ I go into a mini funk when she does that.”

He sent Kite Runner around, but “it got rejected a lot.” Finally an agent (who is now deceased) took him on and Kite Runner was published. “I thought maybe my cousins would read it,” he joked. “I was still a doctor then.”

So just how did the transition from medicine to literature occur?

“Three things happened to change me from a doctor to a full-time writer,” he said, and listed them: “(1) I began to notice people reading my book on airplanes. (2) All my patients wanted to take up the time during their office visits asking me to sign their copies of my book. (3) I found myself as the answer to a ‘Jeopardy’ question when I was watching the show on TV. So I thought maybe I could take a year or so off.” The health plan he worked for “didn’t allow time off, so I had to quit to write.”

Listening to Hosseini articulate tales from his own family made me realize he’s a natural-born narrator. And the Mountains Echoed is a paean to the importance of storytelling to strengthen family bonds. There is an African saying: “When an elder dies, it is as if an entire library has burned to the ground.”

Writer Madeleine L’Engle once underscored this leitmotif when she said: “If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost. Honor your own stories and tell them too. The tales may not seem very important, but they are what binds families and makes each of us who we are. ”

Every one of Hosseini’s three novels has seemed stronger than its predecessor to me, so I await the fourth with great expectations.

Lanie & Grandma

 Lanie Tankard is a freelance writer and editor in Austin, Texas. A member of the National Book Critics Circle and former production editor of Contemporary Psychology: A Journal of Reviews, she has also been an editorial writer for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. (Photo of Lanie Tankard and her grandmother by Toni Fuller. Photos of Khaled Hosseini by Elaine F. Tankard)

Advertisements

5 Comments

Filed under braids, threads, craft, technique, fiction, narrative, REVIEW, structure

A narrative of our human nature

Humans’ “emotional fossils,” the rise of ego & the hand of God: pondering life after Charles Darwin, Carl Jung & Eckhart Tolle

I asked my friend, mentor, fellow seeker, and writing posse member John Wylie to discuss the fascinating book he’s writing, qua narrative nonfiction. This also is a test of sorts to see if its exciting ideas are comprehensible to lay readers who may be totally unaware of the battles raging in the field of evolutionary psychology over what amounts to a new vision of our species.—Richard Gilbert

Guest Post by John V. Wylie

Dr. Wylie: why are we “brilliantly creative, cruel, absurd”?

Wylie: “We’re brilliantly creative, cruel, absurd.”

My book is a narrative about my own 35-year secret life exploring the evolutionary narrative of humans, and my subject matter has been the narratives of severely mentally ill patients that I was treating in my “day job” as a psychiatrist.

My first philosophical theater was a maximum security prison where I nearly got killed when an inmate slashed my face and throat. I came away from that experience, having immersed myself in the writings of Charles Darwin, with the conviction that the dominance and submission interactions so evident in prison and in apes had evolved into the authority and obedience in groups so evident in normal human society. But how did this occur?

Mental Illnesses as “Emotional Fossils”

As I worked on this question, I began to realize that the mental illnesses were “emotional fossils” revealing insight into the internal life of our ancestral hominid species. Patients suffering from the two major forms of depression and panic disorder taught me that the two most fundamental fears are separation and being trapped at the periphery of a group, as if “up against the wall of banishment.” These fears greatly intensified in hominids right from the very beginning, serving to tightly bind our ancestral kinship groups together. The central symptom of Schizophrenia—the “sacred disease”—is the experience that one’s thoughts emanate from an external source. Another thread in my inquiry emerged when recent diverse lines of evidence convinced me that our hominid ancestors lived in monogamous groups.

Putting all this together, I deduced that the entity of individual dominance “ascended” into the authority of groups dispensing justice and absolute morality; this helped to sustain and coordinate small groups of multiple monogamous families as if they were organisms. I began to see the hand of God in this transformation from the laws of the jungle to lives lived utterly within the rules of right and wrong. And to view their lives, as harsh as they must have been, to also have been Edenic. All members of a group lived immersed within a single mind that evolved for millions of years to coordinate the survival of their groups. These groups evolved passively by the emergence in each generation of the most fecund (because they were stable, because they were monogamous) and most productive permutations of mutual relationships within groups—not through competition between groups. So these creatures, our ancient ancestors, were inherently peaceful with one another.

Then I recognized that the disorder of mania (the “up” part of bipolar disorder) revealed that, 200,000 years ago, the innovation that resulted in the evolution of our own Homo sapiens species was accompanied by the development of an intensely positive feeling elicited specifically by others admiring us as individuals. The powerful drive to seek this pleasure resulted in the evolution of an endless variety of species-specific behaviors that are tantamount to competitive sexual display. The pervasiveness of this strong proclivity in humans has rendered us at the same time brilliantly creative, cruel, and absurd. An old-fashioned term for this purely human impulse is vanity.

What Mindfulness May Really Mean

So my narrative has ended up along biblical lines: God created us six million years ago with the innocence of Adam and Eve and evolved in us the power to coordinate our work under a single will for the good of our groups. But now we find ourselves in a fallen state, driven by our vanity to glorify ourselves, and worst of all to usurp the power given to us by God to wage war with one another.

I deeply connect with the writings of Eckhart Tolle. I agree with his definition of ego as that which we fear (separation and banishment) and desire (vanity). Mindfulness involves immersing ourselves in the vast spiritual subcontinent (soul, Jung’s collective unconscious) that continues as our living heritage and is the very “platform” of consciousness from which we are (self)conscious of our most recent “ego-mind.” As violent as our species’ ego has driven us to be, all of its accumulated wants have a purpose that is in the process of coming to pass.

Painfully but inexorably the undeniable movement of our history has been toward the amalgamation into ever larger groups; inevitably we’ll live as a single group as prophesied by Isaiah (and as interpreted by Tolle in his recent bestseller A New Earth). For six million years, individuals evolved to live their lives as a single organism within the minds of their small groups. Now it is our destiny to evolve into one vast spiritual creature with eternal life.

Dr. Wylie's previous book

Dr. Wylie’s previous book

Needless to say, there have been gargantuan problems in weaving together the human narrative with my own personal narrative and all my patients’ narratives, while fiercely protecting their privacy. Then there have been all the blind alleys I have gone down and the technical aspects of evolutionary mechanisms along with the narrative of the evolutionary debates that have raged during the last 35 years. My strategy has been just to pump out one manuscript after another (I’ve done eight) mainly as a way to think it all through again and again until finally I could step back and allow all the narratives to fall into place “on their own.” I’m currently polishing my manuscript and drafting a proposal for prospective publishers.

John V. Wylie is the author of  Diagnosing and Treating Mental Illness: A Guide for Physicians, Nurses, Patients and Their Families and blogs about his ideas regarding evolution and human nature at Apes, Ants & Ancestors.

6 Comments

Filed under braids, threads, emotion, evolutionary psychology, narrative, religion & spirituality

Review: ‘The Days are Gods’

No one expects the days to be gods—Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Days are Gods by Liz Stephens. Nebraska, 203 pp.

Stephens-Days are Gods

A meditative memoir with a narrative arc.

Last week I got four memoirs in the mail and picked up the most celebrated. Bounced right off it. Next, I tried The Days are Gods by Liz Stephens and got hooked. That happened despite what seemed thin material: L.A.-Hollywood gal with roots in middle America sees middle age approaching, moves with her mate, an ex-actor-turned-welder, to rural Utah for a master’s program, tries to fit in and become local, struggles but mostly succeeds, has a baby, and eventually decides to move away for better prospects, not a local after all.

Despite—or because of?—this rather ordinary human story the book works. Stephens’s persona is very appealing, for one thing. She’s smart, nuts about animals, has this pull to belong, even to the point of swallowing certain convictions to fit in, and knows when she’s being crazy or looks far cooler than she feels. For instance, no matter how artfully tattooed she is or how well she sits a horse, behind closed doors she coddles two beloved, aging uber-uncool dachshunds—which, needless to say, don’t exactly thrive in the West’s deep snows. Sometimes, after teaching local kids at the local college, she weeps in frustration over the blinkered futures they accept. Yet to her and her husband, the choice to have a baby is brave, a truly alien concept in their new Mormon-saturated hometown. But you can see it’s true what she says, that she and her mate have done something gutsy in moving there and settling in, that they’ve indeed “taken the path of most resistance.”

Here she’s writing about her boisterous husband, tough and biker-ish on the outside, who has sensitively and gamely followed her to greener pastures:

By spring, he was a smoker again. He’d quit in L.A., and the man I married was the guy who would come home at midnight from running miles through the streets of Hancock Park, gleaming and healthy. But a winter of standing in the Rocky Mountain cold with greasy hands, surrounded by a few other guys who couldn’t get other work, friends of the boss who were drinking on the job and then welding weight-bearing structures, was wearing him down. He wasn’t adjusting the way he thought he would. He wasn’t, it turned out, loving it like I was. I was stunned.

Along with Stephens’s surprisingly classical-essayistic meditative and musing bent, which in its reflection on meaning harkens back to essays’ roots in philosophy, she crafts for her memoir a relaxed forward momentum and achieves a real narrative arc. It’s a winning combination. Stephens analyzes everything she’s experiencing and thinking—as people do inwardly, though surely not as artfully—as the story ambles onward. Late in the book, when a local couple whom Stephens has idolized turn frosty because she’s leaving, it’s moving and painful to read. The truth, poignancy, and much of the payoff of her memoir reside right there.

Real locals seldom write books like this, I’d wager, for The Days are Gods is a product of an outsider yearning that can’t ever be fully sated and of a self-consciousness and insecurity that seem antithetical to what what’s meant when we call someone “a local.” Then again, Stephens shows the downsides to what in America we call local culture: folks with jobs instead of careers, steeped in tradition for good and ill, wary of new ways. But locals do seem enviously planted, whereas the rest of us must labor to earn our place. Or at least inhabit, suffer, and love long enough in one place to earn the feeling that we deserve to draw breath where we do.

We can only pray, as the days wash over us and the new and awkward become routine, that we continue to see what we may have glimpsed in the pain of starting over, seen what Stephens tries to show, that our days themselves are gods. The Days are Gods is a book with a lot of heart, and it’s a model for those seeking to turn their own experiences into memoir.

Next: See my interview with Liz Stephens.

12 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, essay-classical, essay-narrative, memoir, narrative, Persona, Voice, POV, REVIEW

Whither the postmodern memoir?

Moby Dick Kabob x

 

Beyond ‘crazy shit’ content: stories that intrigue, inform, illuminate.

 I want to believe we can think of memoir in terms of the author’s personal connection to the ideas in the book; that the form, at its best, can use personal experience to gather up the distinct threads of a book and bring them together into a narrative of thought that is more compelling and nuanced than a simple summary of the crazy shit that happened. Perhaps memoir can be about a place, a state, or about an entire generation and less about trafficking in humiliation or confessing some pain, loss, or sorrow.

—Steven Church

It’s probably inevitable, having written a traditional memoir myself, that I’d become smitten with nontraditional forms. Or taken at least with the idea of experimental memoirs, which offer the hope that they can truthfully reflect contemporary life. The risk, of course, is that by abandoning a chain of dramatic past events as narrative propulsion, they bore or anger readers. Postmodernism implies confusion and fracture, not a clean narrative line.

Shards of culture & life united.

Shards of culture & life threads united.

Which isn’t exactly what Steven Church argues for—he seems after a realistically sideways and nuanced approach—in “On the ‘Stealth Memoir’ and the Confessional Expectation,” a recent post at his site My Atomic Angst. Church, author most recently of The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst, addresses how the memoir “might accomplish some of the aims of memoir while focusing on subjects outside the self or by using different forms and styles.”

As he puts it in explaining his new book:

   OK, so the book is about the nuclear fear I felt growing up in Kansas in the 70’s and 80’s and how the made-for-TV post-apocalyptic movie, The Day After (set and filmed in my hometown of Lawrence, KS) brought these fears home in more ways than one. It’s also about the violent, apocalyptic history of Lawrence and of Kansas, culminating with a 2007 F-5 tornado that destroyed my father’s hometown of Greensburg in southwest Kansas. It’s also about the movie itself and the lasting cultural resonance of a film that even the director, Nicholas Meyer told me he didn’t consider art but instead a giant “public service announcement,” a video essay of sorts that at the time garnered the 2nd highest Nielson rating in history. And finally, the book is about the seemingly sudden and apocalyptic implosion of my parents’ marriage. The book uses a variety of forms and styles, from outright fiction and fabrication to more straightforward journalistic interview, memoir and film criticism.

Okay, sounds pretty postmodern. In the best sense: layered, formally complex and experimental, discursive, genre blurring. Church says one of his challenges in writing this book was that his own experience with the movie, other than as a scared watcher, was limited. His parents’ divorce likewise was only one thread—and, again, he didn’t have great material there (narratively speaking) but, instead, in real life, gained a happier mother.

He desperately wanted to avoid having his publisher label his book a memoir:

I begged, in fact, during production, that it not say “memoir” in the title or subtitle. I didn’t want it to be reduced to that one word label, perhaps because for the last few years, especially at conferences like the AWP conference, the “memoir” tag has been like the herpes of genre labels; but more importantly than labels, I wanted the book to behave differently than a traditional memoir. I wanted it to be something more like a book-length braided personal essay with fictional and journalistic elements. . . .

I tell myself and my students that it’s often better to begin by looking away from the personal, by starting not with confession but curiosity. I did this with my book because I believed it would make it a better book and because I knew the material was there anyway, fueling much of what I was writing about. You don’t have to see the engine to know it’s running. But whether I wanted to write about it or not divorce was a big part of 80’s culture. It was one kind of apocalypse that defined those years—the end of one reality and the beginning of a new, somewhat alien world; and as such it made a good literary device. I also tell my students that their responsibility as a nonfiction writer is to be an ethical and efficient parasite. If you’re going to use the personal, the confessional to explore some larger ideas, your responsibility is to do it for very good reasons and to do it well, with the minimum amount of collateral damage. In the 80’s divorces were as hot as parachute pants, Def Leppard, and post-apocalyptic fantasy.

Ironically, he says a memoiristic thread late in the book—helping his father and aunt clean up after that apocalyptic tornado—brings the threads in his story together.

• • •

Some recommended postmodern memoirs

A lighthearted & clever approach to memoir.

A lighthearted & clever approach to memoir.

Steven Church’s stimulating essay led me in a roundabout way to Hugh Ryan’s take on the postmodern memoir for Associated Writing Programs. Ryan shows he knows what he’s talking about in his first paragraph:

As the literary descendent of biography and journalism, it is no wonder that memoir (as a genre), has a rocky relationship with the truth. Like the artistic child born to scientific parents, it defies expectations. On the one hand, it is reportage, expected to convey facts; on the other, it is art, expected to reinvent the world.

Quite simply but ambitiously he asks whether it is “possible for writers who perceive the world as a collection of competing truths, where the ‘real’ answer may never be known, to honestly write a work of nonfiction? And if so, what would it look like?” He observes that writers who cut their teeth as readers on the great modernists, from James Joyce to Joseph Heller—and, I’d add, raised in a fractured, mediated world—are still trying to answer that question.

Ryan explains:

As the children raised in this chaotic literary moment begin to write their memoirs, it is not surprising that they are looking to recreate this sense of confusion. For these authors, it is not enough to assume that readers acknowledge the unknowability of objective fact. They are consciously creating books in which the unreliable narrator is themselves. They are not trying to report on their lives from the outside, but rather, to replicate for the reader the experience of living them.

Like the original postmodernists, they are interested in exploring those areas where the metanarrative of truth is at best useless, and at worst, stands in the way of actual comprehension. By highlighting their own bias and doubt, they are presenting a more honest depiction of life. Furthermore, while they diminish the trust of the reader in the author-as-narrator, they strengthen the reader’s trust in the author-as-writer: in a genre rocked by scandal, the writer who admits her own faults seems more reliable than the writer who presents herself as perfect. This is a dangerous line to walk, and the writer who goes too far stands the chance of losing all authority and being disregarded.

He gives these examples of postmodern memoirs, recommended by implication:

Wickersham Memoir

• Joan Wickersham’s second-person The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order, an annotation on a larger story, was widely raved, including by Publishers Weekly;

DJ Waldie’s celebrated Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, a third-person “story of alienation so profound it almost prevents him from writing his own life”;

• Ann Marlowe’s How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z, structured as a dictionary,not chronological, but it does follow an internal order separate from the arbitrary progression of the alphabet . . . [H]er nonlinear structure is an effort to call her own story into question”;

• Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, like the previous arranged alphabetically, it’s “filled with charts and illustrations, making for a more playful text,” an anti-memoir that “consciously avoids the neat linearity of most nonfiction”;

Flynn Memoir

• Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City grapples with the fiction of easy facts, even turning part of it into a surrealist play, the obviously fictional move reflecting his own uncertain experience;

Lauren Slater’s Lying, a memoir of epilepsy in which shedoes not tell us one lie and then expose herself; rather, she maintains multiple truths at the same time, allowing us to pick and choose between them.”

I’d add Church’s The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst as worth looking at. But lest we get too excited about postmodern possibilities, Ryan ends with a warning and a prediction:

The backlash against postmodernism is already going strong. Postmodern has become a dirty word, meant to convey something confusing, precious, pretentious, or just downright sloppy. When it was born, it was David fighting the Goliath of Modernism. Now it has become the dominant force, and with nothing to rage against, it seems useless. A genre designed to take things apart cannot stand alone. The New Sincerity movement, which combines postmodernism’s playfulness and rejection of universal truth with the search for personal meaning and real emotion, is gaining ascendency-and rightfully so. It is time we moved on.

But postmodernism still has lessons to teach us. They lie (and oh, how skillfully they lie) in nonfiction. As memoir struggles to be recognized as art, it must find new ways to deal with the truth, when the truth is a confused and confusing thing.

You can read his whole essay, at least for a time, here. I googled New Sincerity and apparently there actually is such thing. As someone helplessly and hopelessly sincere himself, I’m all for it—I think, though it seems enough work for now to grasp postmodernism.

Here’s Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s postmodern approach to marketing her memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life:

10 Comments

Filed under braids, threads, experimental, memoir, modernism/postmodernism, narrative, structure

John McPhee discusses chronological structure

Chronology is useful but hostile to thematic content, the writer says.

Futuristic Ceiling x

You can build a structure in such a way that it causes people to want to keep turning pages. A compelling structure in nonfiction can have an attracting effect analogous to a story line in fiction.—John McPhee, in The New Yorker

“There’s nothing wrong with a chronological structure,” McPhee explains in a recent New Yorker essay. “On tablets in Babylonia, most pieces were written that way, and nearly all pieces are written that way now.”

And yet, after ten years of chronology at Time and The New Yorker, McPhee, who is famous for his intricate structures and says he is obsessed with structure, yearned for a thematically dominated piece. In his new essay, “Structure” (Jan. 14, 2013), he says almost always there is “considerable tension” between chronology and theme, and chronology wins. “The narrative wants to move from point to point through time, while topics that have arisen now and again across someone’s life cry out to be collected.”

You must, he says, find some way to “tuck them in.” In the case of his 1969 profile of an art historian, he was frustrated by how hostile chronology was to content, or what McPhee calls themes: “the theme of forgery was scattered all over the chronology of his life.” McPhee realized something: “A piece of writing about a single person could be presented as any number of discrete portraits, each distinct from the others and thematic in character, leaving the chronology of the subject’s life to look after itself.”

McPheeArt

McPhee’s drawing of the structure of “Travels in Georgia”

McPhee returned to chronology, more or less, for his famous 1973 article “Travels in Georgia,” about a team of biologists collecting road-killed animals and sometimes eating them. It opens with scene not on day one but later, and after that proceeds chronologically: “There are structural alternatives, but for the story of a journey they can be unpromising and confusing when compared with a structure that is chronologically controlled.”

I remember “Travels” also employing a huge flashback section later on that supplies background on its subjects at one’s Atlanta redoubt. But I may be wrong, from faulty memory or because, if you try to trace the biologists’ route across Georgia as presented in the story, it moves confusingly. They ping-pong from one corner of the state to another and—if you are trying to pinpoint their location—seem to make puzzling jumps. Once, about two years ago, after I thought I had its structure figured out, I tried to lead a class through it using a Georgia map and McPhee’s pretty but odd drawing, and we all became perplexed.

McPhee always lets the reader know where the actors are in “Travels in Georgia” but does not ensure the reader knows how they got there, which maybe isn’t important. Most readers go with the flow and aren’t ex-Georgians like me. Yet anyone trying to follow McPhee’s structural diagram while reading the piece may conclude its structure is too clever by half, however great the article—and it is wonderful.

There’s more on structure, a lot more, in McPhee’s chatty “Structure,” another of a series of valedictory essays the octogenarian immersion journalist and (of late) essayist has been publishing in The New Yorker. They’ve made me glad I’m a subscriber even if reading a writer on his structure tends to be only slightly more comprehensible than hearing a politician explain the fiscal cliff.

Still, having written a memoir that’s chronologically structured I rejoice to hear McPhee speak candidly about what a hard mistress chronology can be. We live our lives chronologically, of course, so it’s an easy structure for readers to grasp. But human memory doesn’t work that way—it’s a jumble from which images arise—and neither does our understanding.

In memoir, I realized several years ago, chronology is somewhat hostile to reflection. To say a memoir is chronological is to say, in effect, that it is driven by events; the person experiencing the events is, by definition, comparatively clueless. The tension between chronology and reflection accounts for why so many writers and critics are forever seeking a memoir that can escape the trap of chronology and ignorance and, instead, emphasize meaning (conveyed by a wiser, distanced narrator). And do this while preserving some sort of timeline. That is, to have a modicum of plot.

Bestselling memoirs tend to be plot-driven, while those that achieve the most literary respect tend to be reflective. Trying to bridge this chasm seems cruelly difficult, though it may be more wholesome to view it as a glorious challenge.

27 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, essay-narrative, journalism, memoir, narrative, NOTED, plotting vs. pantsing, structure, theme

Time to call ‘In Cold Blood’ fiction?

Why Truman Capote’s masterwork keeps making news.

Everyone acknowledges that true stories can never be fully known—too many details lack corroboration, too many witnesses disagree about what really happened.—Jane Smiley, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel

Reading the excellent new writing book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, I was a tad surprised to see Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood extolled on page five for its magisterial opening. Capote’s start is gorgeous, with its plain diction, elegiac tone, and rhythmic sound and syntax:

 The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.

The original cover, 1966.

The original cover, 1966.

But there are problems. I’ve written here before about In Cold Blood (here  and here), noting that today the book that has done so much to further narrative nonfiction storytelling would be a scandal in its genre, at least among practitioners. The two major and more or less proven examples of Capote’s fabrication are when Perry Smith, the killer he identified with, apologized on the gallows for the murders (never happened, according to credible witnesses, though apparently Capote had begged him to) and the book’s closing scene in which the crime’s chief investigator runs into one of the victim’s friends at their graves (totally invented).

Kidder is known to be a stickler for factual accuracy in his work, and his and Todd’s chapter “Beyond Accuracy” in Good Prose is a deep and nuanced discussion. They wouldn’t countenance what Capote did but maybe aren’t aware of the unending low boil concerning his book’s issues. They do weigh Janet Malcolm’s overblown indictment of journalists as confidence men, while acknowledging that Capote “appears to have lied shamelessly to his subjects,” presumably meaning the killers. Nothing about the cottage industry that’s grown up around what is or is not fictional in In Cold Blood. But then, that’s a book in itself.

Voss-Capote's Legacy

That book appears to have been published in 2011, Ralph F. Voss’s Truman Capote and the Legacy of In Cold Blood.

Part of the publisher’s description reads:

Voss also examines Capote’s artful manipulation of the story’s facts and circumstances: his masking of crucial homoerotic elements to enhance its marketability; his need for the killers to remain alive long enough to get the story, and then his need for them to die so that he could complete it; and Capote’s style, his shaping of the narrative, and his selection of details—why it served him to include this and not that, and the effects of such choices—all despite confident declarations that “every word is true.”

Though it’s been nearly 50 years since the Clutter murders and far more gruesome crimes have been documented, In Cold Blood continues to resonate deeply in popular culture. Beyond questions of artistic selection and claims of truth, beyond questions about capital punishment and Capote’s own post-publication dissolution, In Cold Blood’s ongoing relevance stems, argues Voss, from its unmatched role as a touchstone for enduring issues of truth, exploitation, victimization, and the power of narrative.

I have Voss’s book and haven’t yet read it. But I need to, I realized, after a Wall Street Journal exposé on Friday. I don’t find very compelling the article, by Kevin Helliker, which points out that Capote was given special treatment by the case’s chief investigator, Alvin Dewey, and that Capote in turn made Dewey the hero of In Cold Blood. Newly discovered files from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation purportedly show Capote’s shadings of events to make Dewey look better and reveal Dewey’s large feet of clay. My guess is that readers will care even less about this than they do about the book’s fictional ending scene.

But maybe that’s not the point, or only part of it.

Admirers of In Cold Blood, including me, have used it as an example of narrative nonfiction because it’s geniusly written. But it’s inconsistent to praise it, especially to students, who love it, while knowing or even strongly suspecting its fabrications. And a recent movie about Capote has further muddied the picture, fictionalizing as it did the book’s supposed effect on him: it killed him. In fact, it made him rich and famous. And while being two-faced surely did his soul no good, what appears to have killed him, aside from severe alcoholism, was being banished by his high-society friends for revealing their secrets in his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.

Maybe it’s time for the nonfiction camp to give up In Cold Blood. Maybe we need to call it what it is, a great novel based on exhaustive research into a real crime. Its claim to be nonfiction is partly what made the book the sensation it was, of course, but it now endures on its literary merit. With added interest, for some of us, because of the deep and perplexing questions it raises about narrative and the role of the storyteller.

18 Comments

Filed under fiction, honesty, immersion, journalism, narrative, NOTED

Richard Russo’s ‘Elsewhere’

Narrative risks & rewards in a talky memoir about Mom.

“You do know your mother’s nuts, right?”—Russo’s father to him when he was twenty.

Elsewhere by Richard Russo. Knopf, 243 pp.

From the book's cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

From the book’s cover. Young Rick Russo and his Mom.

Rather dense, slow-moving, and expository, Elsewhere isn’t a memoir I’d make students read. Smoothly written, interestingly structured, a complex portrait of mental illness, love, and lower middle class life in a wretched town, Elsewhere is a book I’d recommend, with caveats, to adults. They must be serious readers, or blessed with at least one difficult parent, or love and hate their hometown, or be writers. For memoirists, Elsewhere offers lessons in narrative structure, in the power of the reflective voice, and in how to blend diction both elegant and conversational.

Richard Russo’s focus is on his mother, who, wherever she was, wanted to be elsewhere. She most especially didn’t want to be stuck in Gloversville, New York, a depressed mill town where she’d grown up and where her son was born and grew up. If that meant following him off to college in Arizona when he graduated high school in 1967, so be it. She suffered from “nerves,” as people called it in that bygone era. When Rick Russo was young, his divorced mother was stubborn, demanding, and resentful. She worsens with age, and gradually one comes to see that this isn’t garden-variety “nerves,” or mere ego, but a shaky defense. She’s barely able to control her anxiety so she tries to control what she can.

Although Elsewhere is largely chronological, there are retrospective explanations and huge narrative leaps in which years and even decades vanish in a scant line. A writer unrolling a story this way for the first time might wonder—Can I do this? Is this possible?—but it works surprisingly well to jump ahead. Readers are hooked on the heart of the story, not on every last daily event, and most surely appreciate confident summary. Russo tells the story very much from “now,” as an adult looking back. We’re in his head more than in the experience of his younger self who lived it. The first true scene doesn’t appear until page twenty-five. The writer’s stance in the present and his reliance on voice as much as on dramatized action have a distancing effect. This made the book less emotionally involving for me even as its appealing sadder-but-wiser narrator lured me onward.

Elsewhere does have a surprising narrative pull. Somehow Russo generates suspense, probably because although we know from the start the book ends with his mother’s death, we crave the story’s particulars. Details tell the world what it lost. Though I can barely remember his mother’s name, Jean—mentioned in stray quotes by family members referring to her—his mother interests because she’s made unique and her suffering and the problems she causes made palpable. Would that Elsewhere’s elusive lessons were as simple as bringing one troubled woman to life. Legions of memoirists and novelists get their work rejected each year for lack of drama, for being boring, while they burn with their stories about difficult parents, divorces, and deaths. “It’s full of details and events!” they cry.

Yeah, but . . .

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It was just the two of them—Dad abandoned the family.

It’s safe to presume that Russo, the author of eight novels and the winner of a Pulitzer prize, knows what he’s doing. While he chooses a rather talky approach—like some other prominent novelists who’ve turned to memoir, he uses it to tell more than to show—he controls all elements of the narrative. And he’s telling an iconic and resonant American story of place and people. From the start, we feel we’re in the hands of a writer who knows what he has to say and where he wants to take us. Those readers who don’t close his memoir in boredom with Jean Russo will follow him. Ultimately they will be impressed by his candor, by the truly hard-earned wisdom of a dutiful, long-suffering, and humanly flawed son. The book becomes moving as Russo becomes more self-protective and then aware of it. Too late he realizes, or finally admits consciously, that his mother suffered from severe, undiagnosed mental illness her whole life.

Aside from his stature, all those other books and that big prize, why does Russo get to tell his story, and rather successfully per his strategy? First, despite memoir’s popularity it’s not unusual to hear people disdain the genre. In large part they can’t get past a very human resentment. My mother was odd too. Why should I read about yours? Agents and publishers who feel this way, but who must scout new memoirs to sell, will read five to fifty pages to see if a writer can overcome their innate reluctance if not repugnance. Is this narcissistic or boring? A writer must do many things right, but there’s no formula—neither the purely scenic approach of many bestsellers nor the tweedy mastery of literary memoirs like Vladimir Nabokov’s and John Updike’s. And of course a manuscript’s reception is influenced by the market, by the author’s stature, and by the reader’s preferences.

Finally the proof is in the reading. The thing must transcend its elements; it must get airborne; it must become art. Elsewhere meets that test.

20 Comments

Filed under craft, technique, diction or vocabulary, emotion, memoir, narrative, REVIEW, scene, structure, style