Category Archives: style

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.

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

Klinkenborg’s hymn to prose

Verlyn Klinkenborg’s long poem celebrates short sentences.

The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Back Bay Books, 224 pp.

Several Short Sentences About Writing by Veryln Klinkenborg. Knopf, 224 pp.

“You’ll make long sentences again, but they’ll be short sentences at heart,” writes Verlyn Klinkenborg in Several Short Sentences About Writing. Is that wise and poetic or opaque and unhelpful? This passage from Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life, 2003, may show what he means:

The Fourth of July steals over a small town daydreaming the summer away. A young boy rides his bicycle in a serpentine pattern down the middle of a dusty street. Blue sky divides a broken pavement of clouds. The road out of town seems to stretch farther than usual before it fades out of sight between fields of corn or soybeans, alfalfa, or cotton. Near a railroad siding, the silence of noon is broken by the sound of a mechanic’s hammer ringing against steel in the darkness of a repair shop. An old horse sleeps in a small corral behind the drive-in. The mail fails to arrive. A firecracker goes off in the alley.

It’s hard to believe that such towns still exist. Harder still to realize how many of them there are, once you leave behind the cities and the suburbs and the unincorporated sprawl and break out into the open. But in those towns the Fourth seems to come into its own, whether it’s a hamlet like Texas, Ohio, little more than a bait shop on the north bank of the Maumee River, or a place like Lander, Wyoming, where the Fourth goes off like the crack of doom.

Here and everywhere in this book Klinkenborg showcases his spare declarative chops. Just when you think he’s risking syntactical repetition, he shifts. (As he says in Several Short Sentences About Writing, “Variation [in length and in structure] is the life of prose . . .”)

My wife gave me The Rural Life, and I avoided reading it for a year or two. I assumed it was another of those “I-live-on-a-farm-and-grew-a-tomato—aren’t I cute?” books. How mistaken I was. The book is organized by months, a new chapter for each. His activities and observations are shaped by the seasons. There’s a pleasurable lack of connective tissue; sometimes we gather that he’s traveled with his horses from the East, where he lives on a farm, to the West, where he rides and looks.

He’s in high reporter mode, his beat anywhere humans and nature intersect. There’s a somber, wistful meditation on America’s 1969 manned lunar landing. The Rural Life is no Norman Rockwell portrait: he views America as venal towards the land and rural folk. He employs metaphors and words that emotionally characterize: a berry is “mordant pink,” headlights cast a “nullifying glare,” a “predatory” snow falls “clumsily,” and another is “fox-deep.” His vignettes are precise, the result of looking at nature closely and of looking things up, the types of clouds and the parts of plants:

Along every road, every path, a fringe of opulent grasses grew, ligules shading into lacquered purple, blades into the blue of dusk, awns into an almost roanlike coloration. In the waste clearings grew foxtail barley—supple, iridescent. Sagebrush rose along the fence lines in sharp-scented thunderheads. South of Sheridan, near Ucross, the hayfields are edged with sloughs, and in uncut pastures, yellow-headed blackbirds hovered momentarily before settling onto grass heads that dipped slowly beneath their weight. A buckskin horse at liberty in one of the unmowed fields showed only his back and ears, an island of contentment.

From the time the dew dried in midmorning until full dark, the windrowers moved across the fields, following the curves of the creek bottoms and the sidehills, laying the grass out in narrow rows like the isobars on a weather map. The balers followed once the grass had dried, and for a few days birds gathered on the tops of the round bales lying in the fields, looking out over a terrain that had lost much of its softness.

One might call his writing in The Rural Life not just declarative and spare but lyrical and shyly romantic. We use terms like lyrical loosely. What I presume we mean is prose about the world’s beauty in which we sense the writer’s feelings: grass blades that carry the “blue of dusk” and how harvest changes a hayfield from soft to bristly. And it’s romantic to say a town “daydreams the summer away.” Yet we assume or intuit emotion and outlook and personality from what’s on the page. Klinkenborg doesn’t tell you what he’s feeling or ask you to share it; overt emotion is restrained. So is his persona—like Joan Didion whom he admires, he’s cool. He bares his intellect, not his soul. But the content and the shape of his prose say something else is going on, too, in a way reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories. In all that buried feeling, a love for the green earth.

You may wonder, Who notices what he notices? How can I? His periodic columns in the Times are surprisingly diverse; in some of them his persona is warmer. Appreciations of John Updike and Jacob Riis and David Foster Wallace and John Lennon—and Michael Jackson and J.K. Rowling. Meditations on e-reading and iTunes and writing on computers and overly polite female student writers—and Jim Morrison and Brian Wilson. Thoughtful and generous, his concise essays are models of precision, of how to distill an elixir from the slurry that overflows your ever-noticing heart.

Like all good writing, his makes you want to be more awake. Not just to write better but to live better. How to foster this quality of mind, the writing mind, lies at the heart of Several Short Sentences About Writing. As the epigraphs I’ve used show, his writing advice is presented like poetry. Technically it is poetry because often he’s controlling the length of his lines. This compulsively readable declarative poem runs for 149 of the book’s 204 pages, the balance being examples of prose, good and bad, and concise commentary. Here are some of his gnomic stanzas that interested me:

If you notice something, it’s because it’s important.

But what you notice depends on what you allow yourself to notice,

And that depends on what you feel authorized, permitted to notice

In a world where we’re trained to disregard our perceptions. . . .

Is it possible to practice noticing?

I think so.

But I also think it requires a suspension of yearning

And a pause in the desire to be pouring something out of yourself.

Noticing is about letting yourself out into the world,

Rather than siphoning the world into you

In order to transmute it into words.

. . .

The longer the sentence, the less it’s able to imply,

And writing by implication should be one of your goals.

Implication is almost nonexistent in the prose that surrounds you . . .

 

Try making prose with a poetic seriousness about its tools—

Rhythm, twists of language, the capacity to show the reader

What lies beyond expression,

But with the gaits of prose and a plainness in reserve

That poetry rarely possesses, an exalted plainness.

Implication seems to be an aspect of writing that’s hardly ever discussed. Eudora Welty commented on it in One Writer’s Beginnings, discussing one of her stories, about a girl who learns in painting to frame scenes with her hands, only to see unwelcome reality thereby intrude. Welty writes, “The frame through which I viewed the world changed too, with time. Greater than scene, I came to see, is situation. Greater than situation is implication.” (Lee Martin has an astute recent post  on his blog about implication.)

As with any advice, in the crucible of your practice you must test the utility for yourself of  Klinkenborg’s opinions—he calls them “conclusions, not assumptions.” But he urges wariness about all dogma, even his. Contrary to so many process-based writing theorists, including the influential Peter Elbow, he says the creative and critical functions occur simultaneously. Elbow calls writing this way “the dangerous method” because it invokes the mind’s editor at the same time as it asks for creation.

Klinkenborg isn’t buying it:

Revise at the point of composition.

Compose at the point of revision.

Accept no provisional sentences.

Make no drafts

And no draft sentences.

Bring the sentence you’re working on as close to its final state as you can

Before you write it down and after.

Do the same for the next sentence

And right on through to the end.

Think of composition and revision as the same thing,

Different versions of thinking,

Philosophically indistinguishable.

Or as he said at Goucher College:

The critical and creative mind are not separate. I never write drafts. I write one good sentence to another. All writing is revision. The last piece you delete is the part you’ve been trying to save. You have no idea where you are going. I want to hear the voice of discovery. Writing is not cobbling things together. Every moment is an act of discovery.

See my previous post on him, “A Life Sentence.”

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Filed under implication, REVIEW, style, syntax, working method

Noted: John Gardner’s great sentence

I was reading the late novelist’s short story “Redemption,” based on the accidental death of his younger brother in a horrifying farming accident, and found its sentences beautifully crafted. John Gardner, at eleven, was driving a tractor when his brother fell under its towed cultipacker, a pair of giant rolling pins for mashing the clods in harrowed soil that weighed two tons. In the story, grief almost destroys the father, like Gardner’s father a dairyman, orator, and lay preacher; the surviving brother is tortured almost to madness by guilt.

This sentence is about the wife and mother—Gardner’s was an English teacher:

Because she had, at thirty-four, considerable strength of character—except that, these days, she was always eating—and because, also, she was a woman of strong religious faith, a woman who, in her years of church work and teaching at the high school, had made scores of close, for the most part equally religious, friends, with whom she regularly corresponded, her letters, then theirs, half filling the mailbox at the foot of the hill and cluttering every table, desk, and niche in the large old house—friends who now frequently visited or phoned—she was able to move step by step past disaster and in the end keep her family from wreck.

That’s 112 words. Virginia Woolf wrote longer ones, 140 words and more, but what Gardener kept aloft—the construction of his sentence and its clarity and beauty—and those double parenthetical dashes—amaze me. ‘‘Redemption” was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1977, and Gardner later included it in his collection The Art of Living in 1981; the complete story is available on line.

There’s a famous quote by Gardner that seems to apply to this story:

By the time you’ve run your mind through it a hundred times, relentlessly worked out every tic of terror, it’s lost its power over you . . . [Soon it’s] a story on a page or, more precisely, everybody’s story on a page.

In the 1970s his novel The Sunlight Dialogues was everywhere I looked, but I didn’t read it, nor have I read what’s considered his masterpiece, the novel Grendel. I did enjoy as they appeared his books on writing—On Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction—and later read two novels I much admired, October Light and Mickelsson’s Ghosts.

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Filed under fiction, style, syntax

David Foster Wallace’s fancy style

Below is an excerpt from John Jeremiah Sullivan’s interesting review in GQ of David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel The Pale King (actually a review of DFW himself). When he speaks of “plain” writing, Sullivan apparently is alluding to Annie Dillard’s distinction, in her book Living by Fiction (reviewed on this blog), between “fine” and “plain” writing. She admires both but seems to prefer plain, the category into which her own lyric style falls, and to consider it the appropriate modern and postmodern response to a senseless, fractured world.

Sullivan on Wallace:

 The “plain style” is about erasing yourself as a writer and laying claim to a kind of invisible narrative authority, the idea being that the writer’s mind and personality are manifest in every line, without the vulgarity of having to tell the reader it’s happening. But Wallace’s relentlessly first-person strategies didn’t proceed from narcissism, far from it—they were signs of philosophical stubbornness. (His father, a professional philosopher, studied with Wittgenstein’s last assistant; Wallace himself as an undergraduate made an actual intervening contribution—recently published as Fate, Time, and Language—to the debate over free will.) He looked at the plain style and saw that the impetus of it, in the end, is to sell the reader something. Not in a crass sense, but in a rhetorical sense. The well-tempered magazine feature, for all its pleasures, is a kind of fascist wedge that seeks to make you forget its problems, half-truths, and arbitrary decisions, and swallow its nonexistent imprimatur. Wallace could never exempt himself or his reporting from the range of things that would be subject to scrutiny.

Sullivan resumes:

His voice was regional in more than one sense—the fastidiousness about usage, for instance. Only midwesterners will waste time over the grammar of small talk with you; nowhere else, when you ask, “Can I get an iced tea?,” does anyone ever say, “I don’t know…can you?” And Wallace did think of himself as in some ways a regional writer—else he’d never have let the über-author photographer Marion Ettlinger take the well-known trench-coat-lion shot of him smiling wryly beside a waving cornfield. He knew that he came, as he said in the essay he read that night, from a landscape “whose emptiness is both physical and spiritual.” The very “maximalism” of his style, which his detractors claimed to find self-indulgent, suggests an environment with space to fill. . . .

He’s maybe the only notoriously “difficult” writer who almost never wrote a page that wasn’t enjoyable, or at least diverting, to read. Yet it was the theme of loneliness, a particular kind of postmodern, information-saturated loneliness, that, more than anything, drew crowds to his readings who looked in size and excitement level more like what you’d see at an in-store for a new band. Many of Wallace’s readers (this is apparent now that every single one of them has written an appreciation of him somewhere on the Internet) believed that he was speaking to them in his work—that he was one of the few people alive who could help them navigate a new spiritual wilderness, in which every possible source of consolation had been nullified.

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Filed under modernism/postmodernism, NOTED, style, syntax

Bill Roorbach’s tasty syntax

I read Bill Roorbach’s memoir Temple Stream: A Rural Odyssey a couple times last summer. I’d been impressed with his review of my memoir for a prospective publisher, and hired him to line-edit a draft of it. Bill is a novelist, an award-winning short story writer, an essayist, the author of a popular how-to book, Writing Life Stories, the editor of a creative nonfiction anthology, and most recently a blogger.

On my first readings of Temple Stream, I don’t remember consciously noticing what really jumped out at me on my recent third reading, probably because not long ago I’d noticed he does it on his blog: an unusual sentence construction, sometimes technically ungrammatical, that’s wonderfully visual, poetic, and colloquial. I may steal it, if I can, to enliven my own prose.

“Leaves blew down the road, forlorn.”

On the one hand, this is just hanging a strong adjective off the end: “He fell back, wounded” is an example. But Bill tweaks it. This literally says leaves (the subject) were forlorn, but placed next to “road” the word implies the road was forlorn, too—achieving the effect of typing the entire scene: the effect of the leaves blowing down the empty road was forlorn. That elaboration is perfectly clear, but twice the words and half the poetry of Bill’s sentence.

It was strange as I wrote this post to stumble across, in the New York Times Book Review of March 27, a criticism of this same “syntactical short cut” in Ward Just’s new novel Rodin’s Debutante. The reviewer called Just’s move “presumably a side effect of his laudable economy of style but one that creates grammatical ambiguities.” Just’s sentence: ‘She began to describe her studies, utterly fascinating.’”

Very Bill Roorbach-like, that. The construction has an offhand quality, emphasized here in another of Bill’s Temple Stream sentences:

“This dour presence and I gazed at each other through the bubbly old windows until I pointed at the porch door, where I met him, holding Desi and Wally by their collars as they clamored sniffing and snorting, Desi with his back up, theatrical growling.”

Grammatically that would be theatrically growling. But again, it’s a flash of imagery, auditory in this case, in the emphasis spot. It hovers over the whole hectic scene and captures it. Bill’s usages eliminate words, often while implying much more with a dying fall:

“And he described again the dense woods he’d found there, days gone.”

And with a dying punch:

“I say, ‘Okay, boys,’ and the dogs leap out, investigate every hump and knob of snow, piss amply on a pair of spectral snowmen—the ghosts of millers no doubt—while I retrieve my skis from the back of the truck, get them attached to my boots in a rush of bare fingers, painful.”

Again, this allows him to end on a strong word, but also to employ an odd, interesting pattern. And I feel the cold pinch keenly. At least one reviewer of Temple Stream on Amazon noted the book’s delightful wordplay—especially the occasional funny unusual word—and this is part of that, higher order stuff.

Here’s two in a row, perfectly grammatical, and again putting the emphasis on the strong ending words:

“She must have walked down to the stream sometimes to think, grief-struck. Her parents’ house burned down about the same time, more sorrow.”

In the first sentence I might reverse it, except the adjectival modifiers placed where they are seem to surmount the fact they’re otherwise inescapably ordinary, and the paired rhythm is nice. Overall I like this emphasis placement better than poet Mary Karr’s striking construction that appears occasionally in her recent memoir Lit: “Freaked, he was,” to make up a likely example; anyway, hers often stopped me. But Bill doesn’t over-use his pet—not much more in the 300-page Temple Stream than I’ve culled here for the blog—and his construction probably devolved from poetry, too, come to think of it. Even the writer of prose had better be after poetry.

Here’s a Roorbach variation with implied words and also what amounts to a comma splice because of the missing words:

“The day had grown balmy, nice breeze from the west.”

As an aside, I always admire writers who use intentional comma splices well, even if I seem unable to bring myself to do it—partly out of craven conformity, no doubt, and partly because I’m so hard on students who splice unknowingly. Oddly, in that same book review noted above, in a piece on the novel Seven Years, the reviewer said that its “conscientious translations even maintain the comma splices that occur regularly in German but appear as grammatical errors in English . . .” Who knew the Germans merely spliced anything?

More:

“The Temple entered at a turn before a stretch of real white water, entered flat and deep, a lost lagoon stained golden black with leaf tannins, strong current.”

“Outside the wind blew, frosty night.”

A variation is to use these descriptive, modifying bursts in the middle of sentences:

“Already exhausted, late morning, I drove my truck by our house four times: reconnaissance.”

“In her note back, fierce handwriting, Professor Mills declared I was the one who was obscure, and how about that?”

“He shook the fearsome ax at me, brandishing it with one hand, enormous strength, admonished me in a low rumble . . .”

Or Bill uses these visual bits to come rushing at the end, the classic additive sentence:

“The road dipped down, and down a little more to where it crossed the watercress brook, which we found flowing with authority through its galvanized pipe under the road into cattails and ice knobs on sedges, sandy bottom, gold glints of mica, hearty flow, jubilant babble of bare languages, washed rocks cased in ice.”

And here tumbling after a short declarative start and fetching up against an arresting detail on a ninety-degree Maine day:

Bill Roorbach, maestro

“He was enormous, wide beard untrimmed, two streaks of gray in it, thick mustache that fell over his mouth, flannel shirt, top button ripped, thermal-underwear shirt beneath despite the heat, massive shoulders, massive arms, massive hands black with engine grease, massive chest pressing the bib of a huge pair of Carharrt overalls, legs like tree trunks, big leather shoes that looked to be shaped by a chain saw, unlaced, heavy rawhide dangling, one pant leg rolled up showing long johns.”

I sent all the above this to a friend and he said, “Anyone who can write as well as he does can do whatever he wants to with the English language because he’s inherited the poetic license Shakespeare, Faulkner and Joyce had.”

He added, “It seems very masculine to me, authoritative. It’s a highly conversational style and these seem to me confidential asides to the reader, sort of ‘Between you and me that dog’s growling was purely theatrical.’ Or, ‘Let me tell you something, the way he shook that axe in just one hand showed he had enormous strength.’ Except he’s figured out a way to do it without the verbiage. I bet it’s a colloquial idiom wherever he came from. I’m definitely going to read the book, strong stuff.”

See, it’s catching. I’m not a grammarian or a literary critic and don’t pretend to be, but find this usage interesting and effective: visual, telegraphic, emphatic, colloquial. I plan to try it myself very soon, diligent student. 🙂

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Filed under craft, technique, memoir, NOTED, style, syntax

Review: Memoirs by James Michener

March is still monochrome along Alum Creek, Westerville, Ohio

Sharing this small immense world

A guest post by Olga Khotiashova

Pilgrimage: A Memoir of Poland and Rome; The World Is My Home: A Memoir

Reading The World is My Home by James Michener was a rare case when I read a memoir not being acquainted with the other works of a writer. Well, not exactly. I had already read his Pilgrimage: A Memoir of Poland and Rome and was hooked. As I had known a lot about Poland, it was kind of a validity test, and Michener passed it 100%. I anticipated it would be like some Hollywood movies—interesting for those who knew nothing about the country and ridiculous for those who loved it—but it was not. Moreover, I was pleased to find almost complete coincidence with my views and evaluation of the events.

It was surprising to know that in 1970 to 1980 Michener was a senior member of America’s Board for International Broadcasting—two radio stations in Munich which broadcast to the countries behind the Iron Curtain. I thought of my grandfather who was born the same year as James Michener, 1907, was brought up in a small village in the western part of Russia, graduated from the university, worked as a teacher, and participated in combat during World War II. There are so many similarities in the biographies of these two noble men, I thought, and probably, when my grandfather went for a walk in the fields on summer evenings and switched on his pocket radio to listen to Radio Liberty, it was James Michener who directed the broadcasting.

The second part of Pilgrimage is about Michener’s meetings with Pope John Paul II which began when the latter was known as Karol Wojtyla. To give a glimpse of this book I will just quote one sentence showing the Pope’s attitude to the restoration of political and religious freedoms in Central and Eastern Europe: “He did not gloat over the collapse of communism; he gave thanks.”

So I borrowed The World is my Home from the library eager to know more about James A. Michener, a person and a writer, first-hand. And I was not disappointed.

Structure and language. The book is thoroughly structured. It is not the boring chronological list of meetings and events, not at all. As a regarded storyteller, Michener presented the story of his life in fourteen chapters, each one addressed to some major concept that affected him. He develops the main idea, gives captivating supportive examples, spices everything with gentle humor, and it seems we can see him smiling congenially looking at us, readers, enjoying his book. I was also impressed how meticulously the writer dealt with the language. When he said that he took editing seriously, he really meant it.  Each word matters and serves the writer’s goal. Some sentences are short and austere, and sometimes, especially when Michener writes about art and nature, he lets his emotions free and produces wonderful paragraphs:

And then, because you are in the part of the earth where, because of the bulge near the equator, the sun rises and sets with a tremendous crush, to see it suddenly explode into red brilliance, big enough to devour the world. And then to see ahead, its crest inflamed by the sun, the dim outline of the island you have been seeking, and to watch it slowly, magically rise from the sea until it becomes whole, a home for people, a resting place for birds.

Isn’t it beautiful? And what a nice balance between the informational and emotional richness!

Wise and honest. The World is my Home creates the image of the author as a wholesome person with positive attitude who had been studying all life long, was loyal to his country and achieved a lot—an almost chrestomathic example of the American dream come true. It does not feel tedious or didactic, though. It feels like you have a conversation with a wise, frank and supportive friend who wants to share his experience and help you avoid common mistakes.

I came through remarkably unscathed, delighted with the world as I had found it, and always prepared to face gladly the next encounter it offered.

In his memoir James Michener reflects on eternal questions everybody faces at some point like profession, health, and politics. Sometimes I stopped reading, tried to compare his views with my experience and often came to the conclusion, “Yes, it’s settled now.” The book was published in 1991. What a pity I did not come across it that time!

Second opinion. The title, The World is My Home, assumes that the author was interested in people, nature, culture and politics all over the world. “The converse must also be true,” I thought. So I translated one chapter, “Travel,” into Russian and emailed it to my friends back in Russia to get their opinion.

The first response arrived almost immediately. My friend wrote, “Reading your translation, I felt the romanticism of James Michener, his optimism, zeal for traveling. It is clear that the book was written by an aged person, however, he managed to preserve through all those years the young fervor and interest for everything new.”

It took a while until I got the second response. “You know what,” my friend wrote, “as I had read that book, a passion for traveling overcame me, so I grabbed my daughter, jumped into the car, and we drove as far away as to Sardinia, Italy. It was awesome—both the book and the journey”.

One deficiency. So far, it sounds like the book is perfect, educating and captivating simultaneously—a unique combination. It definitely is. The only flaw I want to mention is that at some point a déjà vu like feeling struck me, “It seems I’ve already read that same paragraph!” Yes, a couple of paragraphs were moved to The World is My Home exactly as they appeared in Pilgrimage. I also noticed a few cases of minor benign autoplagiarism in other Michener’s nonfiction later. Well, those were always solid meaningful paragraphs, and there was nothing wrong in repeating them. Moreover, it was kind of a funny practical counterweight­—each good phrase should be utilized as much as possible—to Michener’s romanticism.

If I were asked to characterize The World is My Home in one phrase, I would say, “Job well done, life honestly lived.” When I finished reading the book, I reread selected pages with great enjoyment; I was delighted translating “Travel” into Russian and sharing it with my friends; I have read several books by James Michener since then, both fiction and nonfiction; all of them were worth reading but The World is My Home is the one most memorable.

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Filed under editing, memoir, REVIEW, structure, style, travel writing

Stylist nabs National Book Award

I was glad to see a dark-horse novel, Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon, win the National Book Award recently for fiction. I hadn’t heard of the sixty-six-year-old author, and neither had a lot of folks. But I ordered her winning book, set in the 1970s at a horse-racing track in West Virginia, after reading excerpts from some of her other novels on Amazon.

Lord of Misrule is about a reckless young woman and two “lonely and childless old men deeply tired of the daily work they do, facing their last years without the protections of family,” she tells Bret Anthony Johnston on the National Book Award web site. Having worked herself as a groom at half-mile racetracks from 1967 until 1970, she says, she did some reading for Lord of Misrule (the name of a horse), then field research at Pimlico, and talked to a trainer and to an elderly black groom.

“I don’t know much of the story before I start,” she told Johnston. “I’ve got the characters and their rich interiorities, which always share, unbeknownst to them, certain patterns of preoccupation and language. I twist them together into some kind of plot, and I do believe deeply in plot, or rather in whatever attribute it is of novels that makes a reader need to know what happens in the end. Stuart Dybek, who blurbed Lord of Misrule for me, called my style ‘profligate.’ In Lord of Misrule I stuff linguistic extravagance into a fairly tight formal corset. I use a shape for the novel that I have always liked, a narrative design that moves the characters forward, from early on in the book, towards some planned but morally neutral future event that all of them, carrying their baggage with them, are bound to attend.”

Gordon heads the MFA program at Western Michigan University and has published essays, novels, novellas, a narrative poem, and a masque, which Wikipedia tells me is “a form of festive courtly entertainment which flourished in sixteenth and early 17th century Europe.” She’s said that she’d become discouraged with her career. She was known and admired by a circle of discerning writers, but her books hadn’t sold well or been championed. She started writing Lord of Misrule in 1997, and an advanced draft of it lay around her office for ten years. A persistent publisher at a small trade house dragged her into reworking the novel.

In a circa 1983 interview with Gretchen Johnsen and Richard Peabody for Gargoyle Magazine, Gordon discussed her literary apprenticeship, including master’s and doctoral work at Brown University where, she says, she was rather a loner, not very workshoppy. She confesses a “preoccupation with exceptional and beautiful style.” Some excerpts from the Gargoyle interview:

When Michael Brondoli, Tom Ahern, and I were all living in Providence at the same time and writing elaborate fictions, people began to speak of a “Providence Baroque.” We all cheered on each other’s work, different from each other though we were, and we found a receptive audience there, not only in the Waldrops [proprietors of Burning Deck press]. Tom Ahern is the most truly avant garde, I am the most genuinely baroque in the stylistic and historical sense of the word, and Michael Brondoli is the most likely to write a great American novel as that artifact is traditionally understood—though it may be set in Turkey.

[T]rade publishers are resistant to certain qualities of prose: the dense, the opaquely inward, the flamboyantly learned. Either the editors are unable to read these themselves, or they can’t believe their clientele will read them, and they advance statistics, some highly suspect, to prove it. Of course an independent-minded or powerful literary editor will from time to time see such a book to publication, and in fact the literary establishment traditionally keeps a small kennel of difficult prose stylists behind, or rather in front of, its main house, piously praised though unread. (How long the conglomerates will continue to keep up genteel appearances in this fashion is another question.)

Trade publishing, overall, to borrow a trope from William O’Rourke, reacts to the complete spectrum of prose style no better than a dog’s eye to the color spectrum. They see only the middle range, which has sufficient clarity or, more correctly, openness about it. Openness means access: they are concerned with how many readers will troop into the clearing.

I haven’t jettisoned my rhetorical fireworks for The Adventuress [likely the working title for her third novel, The Bogeywoman]. I would even wager that I will pass my whole literary life without once being praised by critics for writing in a “deceptively simple style.” I have been able, however, to add to my repertory over the years certain conventional accomplishments of what is nowadays commonly regarded as a novel. I never disapproved of these conventions, I just ignored them (ignore as in ignorant) and used what gifts I had in abundance at the outset, which were all rhetorical.

George Meredith, a novelist whom I much admire and feel in some respects closely akin to in the evolutionary scheme, says in An Essay on Comedy that “any intellectual pleading of a doubtful cause contains germs of an idea of comedy.” All my characters have doubtful causes to plead or crank theories to propound, and that is why I am a comic writer, no less so when I try to use some part of myself as a subject. Intellectual absurdities interest me. The mediating element is always rhetoric.

At nineteen, in 1963, I began writing fiction I still consider to be part of my mature oeuvre (though I may suppress it from public viewing), unguided, and unharassed, by the program of contemporary feminism, but with complete confidence in my rhetorical powers, which as I’ve already mentioned is not quite the same thing as complete confidence in my ability to write a novel as that genre is commonly understood. But about my prose style, about my ability to create and sustain an original narrative voice, to make a beautiful, thoughtful, subtle object every time I constructed a sentence or paragraph–about these, I never had the slightest question I could, as they say, compete with the field, male or female. My extraordinary facility there, in fact, was one of the imbalances in my nature that made me feel like too much of a freak ever to put myself, in female form, at the center of my own fiction.

I write in longhand first and often rearrange and amplify a sentence or a paragraph even as it comes to me. Like the baroque prose stylists I mentioned earlier, I try to imitate the athletic movements of the mind in its complex irregular race from thought to thought. I also try to imitate, and occasionally to plagiarize outright, antique prose stylists I admire. My notebooks are full of minutely written inserts and numbered parts all over the pages. I have to follow the numbers when I finally get to the typewriter. I can do it in my head if I must, and often do, when I’m driving, walking, or lying in bed; but soon I have to get to a notebook. I also have a bad habit of composing on the fly-leaves of other people’s books. It must be my unconscious urge to take over.

As you can see, I think the freshmen I teach need a political education and might actually accept one. A direct literary education they would not accept and so I try to let it steal upon them. As for my creative writing students, I don’t impose my literary specialties on them. I try to guide them to the best examples of whatever traditions I perceive they are writing in, however well or ineptly, and whether they know it themselves or not. I think that’s the proper function of a teacher of creative writing.

She names a number of contemporary and past writers whose style she admires. The long Gargoyle Magazine interview is worth reading in its entirety.

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Filed under audience, fiction, immersion, narrative, research, style, teaching, education, working method, workshopping

Review: Dillard’s ‘Living By Fiction’

Living By Fiction by Annie Dillard. Harper Perennial. 192 pages.

The cultural assumption is that the novel is the proper home of significance and that nonfiction is mere journalism. This is interesting because it means that in two centuries our assumptions have been reversed. Formerly the novel was junk entertainment; if you wanted to write significant literature—if you wanted to do art or make an object from ideas—you wrote nonfiction. We now think of nonfiction as sincere and artless.

Perhaps this has changed, in part due to her own work, since Annie Dillard first published Living By Fiction in 1982. She might have called it Living by Literature because although it’s about her love affair with reading fiction in particular, she says more about nonfiction in a few asides and by implication than some books entirely on the topic.

Her categories of “traditional” and “contemporary modernist” approaches, of “fine” prose and “plain” prose styles, cross genres as well. In fact, Living by Fiction enabled me better to appreciate and to understand David Shields’s less coherent and useful Reality Hunger for what it is: a modernist’s aesthetic.

Dillard prefers “contemporary modernist” work herself (in her lexicon, that’s postmodernism), but she’s knowing in her explanation of the forces—human, societal, economic—that drive writers into the middle ground. She observes that most writers are working there, including excellent ones, somewhere on the bell curve between traditional and modernist approaches, between fine prose and plain. Most people “write largely traditional fiction.” But she wonders, all the same:

After you have performed or read a detailed analysis of Eliot’s “Four Quartets” and Stevens’s “Comedian as the Letter C,” why would you care to write fiction like Jack London or Theodore Drieser’s? Contemporary fiction writers may be more influenced by Pound’s criticism than by Joyce’s novels, more by Stevens’s poems than Kafka’s stories. In style their work more closely resembles “The Waste Land” than Herzog; in structure it more closely resembles “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” than The Naked and the Dead. This strand of contemporary fiction has purified itself through the agent of criticism; it has adopted the brilliant virtues of Modernist poetry, whose bones are its beauty.

Of course, she allows, modernist poetry has, like such art, pretty much evaporated its audience as well. In any case she takes pains for readers to understand her categories by grounding them in literary and artistic history. With modernism, representative storytelling in prose and paint became secondary: “each was considered for centuries the irreducible nub of its art, and is no longer.” What is modernism? It’s not a mirror or a window on the world, Dillard says, but is characterized by the shattering of the narrative line, by collage. The juxtapositions and work’s surface are the point.

The reason? “Time no longer courses in a great and widening stream, a stream upon which the narrative consciousness floats, passing fixed landmarks in an orderly progression, and growing in wisdom. Instead, time is a flattened landscape, a land of unlinked lakes seen from the air. . . . The use of narrative collage, then, enables a writer to recreate, if he wishes, a world shattered, and perhaps senseless, and certainly strange.”

She distinguishes between good modernist collage and bad in a discussion on structural unity and integrity that draws on painter Rene Magritte’s birdcage example: the playful modernist’s birdcage might enclose fish or a shoe—but those are arbitrary and ad hoc, whereas an egg has something final and right about it. “Must arbitrariness always be damning?” she asks. “Must it forever be out of bounds not as a subject but as a technique. I think so. . . . Art is the creation of coherent contexts.”

Among her own works, certainly For the Time Being (reviewed previously) is modernist narrative collage. In it, she writes about birth defects, sand’s formation and ubiquity, China’s buried civilizations, clouds, numbers, Israel, random encounters, thinkers, and torture, and she makes the subjects cohere: her own obsessions with mortality and evil unify the work. Her latest book, and avowed last, the novel The Maytrees, is a shimmering work of art whose love story is told as if by a coolly distant modernist God. And each sentence of it is distilled into poetry.

Which brings me to her categories of fine and plain prose styles. Think of William Faulkner as the apotheosis of the former and Ernest Hemingway as the exemplar of the latter. Fine prose is showy and rhetorical, while plain is snappy and visual.

The great prose writers of the recent past, until Flaubert, were fine writers to a man. A surprising number of these—those I think of first, in fact—wrote nonfiction: Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Macaulay, Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Ruskin, William James, Sir James Frazer. . . . I think fine writing in fictional prose comes into its own only with the Modernists: first with James, and with Proust, Faulkner, Becket, Woolf, Kafka, and the lavish Joyce of the novels.

Fine writing is energetic, though not precise, dazzling, complex and grand, an edifice that celebrates the beauty of language; it strews metaphors and adjectives about, even adverbs, and “traffics in parallel structures and repetitions.” All modernist fine writing begins in Joyce’s collages, Dillard says. “Fine writing does indeed draw attention to a work’s surface, and in that it furthers modernist aims. But at the same time it is pleasing, emotional, engaging . . . It is literary. It is always vulnerable to the charge of sacrificing accuracy, or even integrity, to the more dubious value, beauty. For these reasons it may be, in the name of purity, jettisoned.”

(Others in Dillard’s modernist fine-writer pantheon: Nabokov and Marquez. Among traditional fine writers she mentions Updike, Gass, Styron.)

Plain writing, like Hemingway’s and Chekhov’s, is a prose “purified by its submission to the world” and represents literature’s “new morality,” says Dillard. This “courteous,” “mature” style emerged with Flaubert, who eschewed verbal dazzle. Clean, sparing in its use of adjectives and adverbs, avoiding relative clauses, fancy punctuation, and metaphor, plain prose can be as taut as lyric poetry. In an extreme form of plain writing (as in Dillard’s own The Maytrees), the simple sentences themselves “become objects which invite inspection and which flaunt their simplicity.” It risks the fatuous: “Hemingway once wrote, and discarded, the sentence ‘Paris is a nice town,’ ” Dillard observes. But plainness helps the writer to honor and to under-write real drama, respecting readers’ intelligence and permitting “scenes to be effective on their narrative virtues, not on the overwrought insistence of their author’s prose.”

Writers like Flaubert, Chekhov, Turgenev, Sherwood Anderson, Anthony Powell, and Wright Morris use this prose for many purposes: not only to control emotion, but also to build an imaginative world whose parts seem solidly actual and lighted, and to name the multiple aspects of experience one by one, with distance, and also with tenderness and respect. In two sentences I heard read aloud many years ago in a large auditorium, Wright Morris introduced me to the virtues of an unadorned prose. The two sentences were these: “The father talks to his son. The son listens and watches his father eat soup.”

(Other modernist plain writers, per Dillard: Borges, Paul Horgan, Henry Green.)

If you’re having trouble placing your favorite author on Dillard’s traditionalist-modernist or plain-fine continuums, remember Dillard’s dictum: most writers work in the middle.

There’s much more in Living By Fiction, especially regarding criticism, which Dillard views as the modern “focusing of the religious impulse.” The making and interpreting of art, she implies, may be our last clear purpose left here on Earth. At least she expresses the view that, of human intellectual activities, art still produces and retains holistic meaning, and she holds faith that we may discern it.

Fiercely intellectual without being pedantic, Dillard also goofs around in her sidelong way and has her quirky fun that’s fun to see. Hers and others’ theories aside, she believes, “Always, if the work is good enough, the writer can get away with anything.”

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Filed under aesthetics, Dillard—Saint Annie, experimental, fiction, journalism, modernism/postmodernism, narrative, REVIEW, structure, style

John Updike’s impressive sentences

We are all so assimilated. Last Saturday, Hope was watching the evening news and the newscaster instead of Tom Brokaw was a perfectly stunning young woman, light topaz eyes as far apart as a kitten’s, sharp-cornered wide mouth pronouncing everything with a perfect rapid inflection, more American than American, crisper, a touch of that rapid barking voice of the     thirties gangster films and romantic comedies, and when she signed off her name wasn’t even Greek, it was more like Turkish, a quick twist of syllables like an English word spelled backward. The old American stock is being overgrown. High time, of course: no reason to grieve.—John Updike, Seek My Face

Recently, after reading John Updike, I was driving on an interstate and, because of him, wondering how I’d describe the bruised horizon ahead and the mountainous white cloud rising from it—and I realized, from miles away, that I was driving into rain. It turned out to be a storm, a whopper. I could barely see in the downpour but felt I’d been more awake because of Updike’s prose.

I just read Seek My Face, his 2002 novel, which must be required for anyone deeply interested in American art and especially the postmodernists. Updike tells the story from the point of view of an elderly woman painter (not in first-person but in very close third-person omniscient), and he sets the novel during a day-long interview between the woman and a young art journalist from New York. Both these feats—the opposite-sex point of view and the restricted, present-tense time frame—are impressive in themselves. The art theme allowed Updike to deploy his considerable knowledge and passion for art—he began as a visual artist—and although that subject sometimes caused the novel to drag for me, I was enthralled with his spooky ability to portray interpersonal dynamics. The way Updike captures his characters’ shifting feelings toward themselves and others is remarkable, delicious.

Throughout the day in Seek My Face, Hope is irritated by brusque Kathryn “with that easy New York knowingness that withers all it touches,” but sometimes curious and sympathetic toward her. Hope’s inner life is hidden to Kathryn but revealed to us:

The visitor’s voice, insistent with a certain anger yet femalely flexible, insinuating itself into her prey’s ears, asserts, “You were raised as a Quaker.” . . . Hope imagines Kathryn’s naked body—the swing of hip into thigh, the rose-madder-tipped breasts floating on the rib cage, the pubic triangle pure ivory-black and oily as in a Corot—all in a flash, then renounces the image: of the creature. Her susceptibility to beauty, Hope has always known, is what has kept her minor as an artist. The great ones go beyond beauty, they spurn it as desert saints spurned visions of concupiscence and ease: the Devil’s offer of world as reward.

I really read him for his beautiful, complex sentences and for his inspiring eye. He’s been called a lyric writer for the way he could paint life’s look and its feel. His sentences are unabashedly lush compared with today’s more pervasive plain style, a refreshing break from it and an inspiration to enhance my own considerably plainer style. He also makes me want to see better, to look at the world and capture it.

She rarely sits in this room; the kitchen, her bedroom above it, and the studio beyond it contain her usual orbit. Each evening, having added the supper plate and glass to those already in the dishwasher for it to be full enough to run, she thinks of coming in here and drawing the curtains behind the plaid chair against a draft and reading her book of the week, or even looking into one of the art books growing dusty, but she rarely does, drifting upstairs to the warmth of her bedroom instead. Climbing the stairs—“climbing the wooden hill,” her grandfather called it—hurts her knees and left hip but helps keep her mobile, she believes, helps keep her for another year out of one of those assisted-living facilities with rubber floors and off-limits stairwells where her two sons would like to see her settled for the ease of their own consciences, it would make them look bad if she were to die alone and broken on the stairs a la Edna St. Vincent Millay. She so rarely sits in the front parlor that the space from her standing, momentarily light-headed perspective appears startled, its corners jarred into flight, elastic and awry like the corners in rooms by Van Gogh or Lucien Freud. There is something lavender, a psychedelic tinge, in the papered walls, in the thin warped windowpanes, that at moments enters Hope’s eyes from the side, as if the room’s inhabitants in the century now gone had breathed a hint of their lives onto these surfaces.

When I was young Updike put me off—I said he was “cold toward his characters”—and I’m not sure what I meant, maybe that he intimidated me. Now I just take off my hat to him. He was some kind of genius (i.e. brilliant plus seemingly always inspired) and he inspires me. He could tell a story too. You might not like it, or his characters, or his preoccupations, but very early in life he learned what he was doing. You sense his confidence, the sureness of purpose of someone who’s mastered his medium.

And if a novel or memoir or collection of poems, stories, or essays fell short, if critics hated it, no matter: he’d hand-write another and then type up two drafts (with a typewriter for years, on a computer late in life), and only one year later there it would be, a new book. Because of his productivity, I think he was taken somewhat for granted.

Last month The New York Times published “John Updike’s Archive: A Great Writer at Work” that shows how he revised one of his manuscripts.

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Filed under NOTED, style, syntax, working method

Review: ‘Lit’ by Mary Karr

Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr. Harper Collins. 386 pages

Her family drank. As a girl she sat with her father in bars and sipped from his beer cans. On her first trip home as a college freshman, at Christmas, her father picked her up at the bus station and offered her a swig of the whiskey he’d hidden under his truck’s seat. “The bottle gleamed in the air between us,” Mary Karr writes in her latest memoir, Lit. “I took the whiskey, planning a courtesy sip. But the aroma stopped me just as my tongue touched the glass mouth. The warm silk flowered in my mouth and down my gullet, after which a little blue flame of pleasure roared back up my spine. A poof of sequins went sparkling through my middle.”

Until then, in high school and college, drugs had been her preferred escape. But that day in the truck, her birthright of drink claimed her. She dropped out of Macalester College—which had admitted the poor girl from a redneck Texas town in the first place, she says, out of pity and oversight—at the end of her sophomore year. Why? She didn’t know, at the time. But it’s hard to keep on track when you feel empty and lost.

Karr’s family was epically dysfunctional. Her mother was often drunk and was disordered in some major narcissistic way that could flare into psychosis. What parental love Karr felt seemed to come from her father, who as a dedicated alcoholic wasn’t reliable and who likewise neglected her. In this atmosphere, in which she never got “that sense of acceptance and security” kids need, she and her older sister had to raise themselves as best they could.

In Lit Karr looks back at herself from the vantage point of twenty years of sobriety; we know she’s in a safe place and so can enjoy her harrowing pilgrimage. I don’t envy Karr her material, however plucky her voice and chipper her attitude as she stares into the abyss—but my gosh what a delicious book this is.

She’s a master at making scenes (chapters typically begin with some authorial musing and summary, with visual snippets, before fading into a major scene that renders experience and that propels the narrative). And her mordant humor (a gift from her colorful mother, as were her literary ambitions) underscores the larger awareness that seems always to have been there. Poets write well, of course, and Karr has some interesting moves. Like sometimes starting sentences with a verb: “Fitful, this rest is.” “Worried, I must have been, about . . .”; or the noun: “The child-abuse tour, she jokes it is, for my agenda is to double-check my words against . . .”

Early in the story, Karr the college dropout is tending bar and trying to get her poems published. A side gig teaching retarded women at a group home finally seals her resolve to become a poet. A snippet shows her prose’s smooth clarity and its colloquial kick:

As staff people herded them in I felt my armpits grow damp. The faster ladies spilled into the room around me like kids lining up for a pony ride. A flat-faced woman with the severe and snaggled underbite of a bulldog stood introducing herself with a handshake before she sat. I’m Marion Pinski, she said. P like Polack Pinski. She wore a brown beret flat atop her head like nothing so much as a cow pie.

Alongside her squeezed other women, whose heads seemed as small as dolls’. Under narrow shoulders, their bodies went mountainously soft. And they were mushroom pale, as if they’d been grown underground. It’s a shocking thing to face all at once so many kecked-up, genetically disadvantaged humans. In a country that values power and ease and symmetry, velocity and cunning, kinks in their genetic code had robbed them of currency.

A romance with Mr. Right seemed part of a steady, if labored, upward arc. So her mismatched marriage is poignant: Karr calls her patrician husband, also a poet, “Warren Whitbread”—as in complex white bread—and it’s hard to say whether, at base, they didn’t love one another or whether they each were just too damaged. He was from a wealthy WASP family and hers was poor blue-collar. His withdrawal from Karr, her chaotic family and her emotional plight, feels about as bad as her self-destructiveness. But Warren also grew up feeling unloved, and Karr paints his chilly parents’ sins as more inexcusable than those of her own because, in her house, cruelty wasn’t deliberate but “the haphazard side effect of being shitfaced.”

And yet, she says, “Poetry will deliver him from his stultifying fate as it will me from my turbulent one.” Literature delivered them separately, however. (In her subsequent affair with David Foster Wallace, whom she got to know in AA, we see another brilliant intellectual brought low enough by addiction to learn coping skills from bikers and hookers.)

In an interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” Karr said Lit took seven years to write largely because she kept trying to get her marriage and divorce right. She threw away 500 pages in August 2008 in which her ex was an angel and as many in January 2009 in which she was the wretch. “It was so horrible,” she said of the process. The third version felt to her finally balanced.

In her 1995 bestseller The Liar’s Club, Karr wrote about her chaotic early life. Cherry, in 2000, dealt with her adolescence and high school years. Lit reprises the highlights of the earlier books and covers Karr’s early adulthood, marriage, motherhood, and early middle age, with her growing alcoholism and her slow, erratic and precarious recovery the through line.

Karr reluctantly turns to Alcoholics Anonymous and prayer as she tries to get sober. Almost immediately, good things begin to happen, including an unasked-for $35,000 writing grant; at that time, she’d written one ignored book of poetry. With this windfall, her angry rejection of faith weakens a notch. Her ragtag AA fellows, whom she had largely scorned as losers, begin to coalesce for her into a safety net, their community based on “radical equality.” Their small kindnesses humble her. Slowly she begins to widen her concern from herself to them and their struggles.

And here Lit begins to achieve its greatness, as Karr documents how, kicking and cursing, the canny, heartbroken little atheist gradually became the humbled soul who got religion. For a writer of her gifts to document such a thing is valuable. And I wish she’d said even more—more about God, revealing her conception of her deity, if she has one (one female AA buddy told her she prays to the sane part of herself—the kingdom of heaven indeed within). But describing the God you do or don’t believe in is more taboo than anything. In understandable deference to her large audience, assumed to be unbelievers, Karr holds back. She and her publisher may be too concerned for their tender feelings, but her trying to explain faith to the secular world without seeming idiotic or preachy gives Lit a nice tension.

Prayer, if not God, helped her kick booze. And yet, when Karr got sober she got suicidal. Pitched by depression off the folding steel chairs at her AA meetings, she landed in a locked mental ward. She had drunk to ease the pain that years of therapy hadn’t touched. She’d drunk out of an abiding sadness. Make no mistake: this is a sad story, the sequel to a “tortured and lonely” childhood, made tolerable by humor and a happy outcome.

In the loony bin, abandoned by her colleagues and writer friends (yet not forgotten by her posse of recovering drunks), Karr at last truly surrendered to prayer and humbly asked God’s help. She’d feared that such capitulation would erase her individuality, but found it delivered her unto herself. And still she quibbled about the meaning of words like will and care—so much so that her support group votes “that I’ve surrendered already and am just being a bitch about it.” To their will she yields, another softening of her egoistic armor. Her buddies have her write a list of what she feels angry, hurt, or self-reproachful about—from being raped as a child to her minor unfaithfulness to a boyfriend in college—and the litany runs to almost eighty pages. A marathon session with an ancient priest, whose own pre-ecclesiastical life was far from holy, helps ease her shame.

Even today, one senses, her path wasn’t forever smoothed. Her equanimity takes a daily spiritual discipline. In a powerful summation regarding an unhappy childhood’s legacy, Karr indicates she remains vulnerable to a species of fragility and suffering:

When you’ve been hurt enough as a kid (maybe at any age), it’s like you have a trick knee. Most of your life, you can function as an adult, but add in the right proportions of sleeplessness and stress and grief, and the hurt, defeated self can bloom into place.

Aside from Karr’s considerable gifts as a writer, we keep reading because she’s the story’s hero—we root for her, her own worst enemy—and she rises. Karr learns to live with herself by managing herself. Which means coming to terms with her brokenness and her understandable anger and her mother, whom she loved and hated, almost became, and was able to forgive. Prayer, this ancient answer, did it, along with community and service to others.

Karr documents a transformation that enabled her to own her own faults and misdeeds—her own badness and sin, in her words—instead of blaming all her dysfunction on her abundantly dysfunctional parents. I found this a moving testament to the healing power of a spiritual discipline. In our time, this is underestimated, in comparison with psychotherapy, certainly. The sources of Karr’s misery—let it be said—were in no way connected to religious “guilt” (quite the opposite); instead, traditional devotion, admittedly preceded by twenty years of therapy, shattered her prison of pain and anger.

I’m amazed by Karr’s accomplishment as a writer in this inspiring memoir and moved by her journey as a human. Lit is a generous, yeasty book that elevates Karr’s “journey into awe”  into literature.

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Filed under humor, memoir, narrative, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, scene, style