A Tried and Tested Method

War alexieEver find you really like a book but don’t have much to say about it?  So it is with Sherman Alexie’s War Dances.  It is, in typical Alexie fashion, a gracefully written collection of short stories and poems that manages to be insightful not just about what it means to be Native American in the 21st Century, but how personal identity is a profoundly unreliable thing that nevertheless greatly influences the way we get by in the world.  Each piece is – if I can use such a word without fear of ridicule – delightful, even when they tackle questions of racism, homophobia, marital dissolution, and dementia.  Some of my speechlessness is due to my short story overdose in 2008; the rest of it is feeling like sometimes it’s enough just to say, “Yeah, that was pretty good,” and not belabor the point.

So rather than wrestle with finding my way in to another lengthy screed, here’s a quick snapshot of three of my favorite stories in the collection, and I’ll close with a brief personal story about Alexie.

“Breaking and Entering.” George is home alone when he hears someone shatter a window in his basement.  He descends the stairs to find a black teenager rifling through his possessions.  George casually, almost thoughtlessly, picks up his son’s aluminum Little League bat, more for protection than aggression.  When the teenager attempts to bolt past him for the door, George swings the bat, catching the thief in the temple and killing him instantly – and totally accidentally.  George is pilloried by the African-American community as another in a long line of white men responsible for the death of a black youth.  The catch, though, is that George is Native American.  Alexie never tips his hand about this fact too early, and once he’s made the big reveal, spends the rest of the story reflecting on the nature of power.  Is it possible for a story to be even more relevant years after it was written?  Recent events in Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and elsewhere make it unfortunately so.

“The Senator’s Son.” William, the son of a remarkably (and atypically) progressive Republican senator, is involved in a hate crime, taking part in an attack on three gay men late at night.  It turns out that one of the victims is William’s former best friend, a fellow Young Republican who came out to him in high school.  Provocative (and resonant) not just for what it tells us about the lengths people are willing to go to in order to protect their reputations, but also for William’s acknowledgement that, yes, homosexuality is biologically hard-wired into some people, but hatred might be just as inescapable for others.

“Fearful Symmetry.” A marginal writer gets his shot at the Hollywood big time when he’s hired to write a screenplay adapting a book about a firefighter.  He fails miserably, suffers an existential crisis, quits writing altogether, takes up competitive crossword-puzzle-solving, and finds redemption in lying to strangers.  It’s the lightest story of the bunch – a breezy read that still manages to say some important things about recognizing one’s place in the world.

For the uninitiated, War Dances is a quality entry point into Alexie’s world, an award-winning collection that doesn’t overstay its welcome while still giving the reader plenty to chew on.

And now the personal story.  I’ve been a fan of Alexie’s since the late 90s, coming to him first through the movie Smoke Signals, and more recently through his spectacular Young Adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  When I heard he’d be doing a book signing at the National Council of Teachers of English Conference a few years ago, I set aside other obligations to make sure I was there.

When I got up to the table, the man was kind and generous, making each person feel noticed and appreciated despite the long queue that had already shuffled past and which still wound through the exhibition hall behind me.  Alexie signed a couple books for me, and I asked him if I could get a photo with him.

His response: “Can we take it like we’re at the prom?”

What was I going to say?

Rob Aexie

*****

Current listening:

Urusei we

Urusei Yatsura – We Are Urusei Yatsura (1996)

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Waste of Sunshine

The_Martian_2014Sometime in the late 90s, in my third or fourth year teaching high school, I thought I would be a novelist.  I was emboldened by Stephen King’s experience, how he wrote his first works in the evenings and summers while he was teaching, but the true tipping point was when I read the last book I would ever read by Dean Koontz.  I vividly remember turning the last page, closing the cover, and thinking, “Well, if this hack can do it…”

After about a week, I gave up.  This pattern has persisted for nearly twenty years.  Every so often I’ll get a brief jolt of inspiration, sit down to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), struggle manfully for a few days, and then realize I don’t have much to say.  I still think I can write at least as well as Koontz – and I want to make it clear it’s not because I think I’m that good but that he’s that bad – but the crucial difference is that he has more faith in his shitty writing than I do in mine.  I always find the act of trying to write a novel to be an interesting experiment, but I soon find myself frustrated and depressed – which I know proves to some degree that I actually have the perfect temperament to be a writer.

But my own forays into failed novels always make me wonder how horrible writing gets written. (Side note: I never wonder how it gets published.  There’s always been a huge market for poor writing.)  Let’s take Andy Weir’s bestseller, The Martian.  It’s a compelling story told in the most graceless, self-conscious prose I’ve read since encountering Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a book whose artlessness I blame at least in part on the translation.  But Weir’s writing in English, which makes its clunky stabs at humor and obsessive attention to scientific detail even more unforgivable.  Did he ever doubt himself along the way?  Did none of his friends have the nerve to say, “Um, Andy, your main character is a dolt and the supporting cast are speaking dialogue that appears to be beamed directly from some early 1960s Coleman Francis b-movie”?

But I get ahead of myself.

Like I said, it’s a compelling story.  It’s going to be a hell of a movie when Ridley Scott’s version hits the big screen later this year, and it’s the white-knuckle nature of the plot that drags the reader across the book’s bumpy stylistic terrain.  To describe it simply, astronaut Mark Watney has been left behind on Mars.  The rest of his crew believe him to be lost and fatally injured in a freak dust storm, and they must evacuate the planet’s surface before they’re killed, too.  Watney wakes after they’ve left and makes his way back to the small command center, called the Hab.  The rest of the book details his struggle to stay alive until NASA can rescue him.

Good stuff, right?

It would take multiple problems to botch such a set-up, and that’s exactly what Weir’s given us.  Let’s start with the Watney character, since that’s who we spend most of our time with.  Much of the book is told in Watney’s voice, in the form of logs written on the planet’s surface.  We learn that Watney, a botanist by trade, was chosen for the mission for his professional prowess, but also because he’s a whimsical scamp who likes to keep things light.  This means we’re treated to some of the most insipid first-person narration ever recorded.  It happens early and often.  My first eye-roll happened on page 6:

I stumbled up the hill back toward the Hab.  As I crested the rise, I saw something that made me very happy and something that made me very sad: The Hab was intact (yay!) and the MAV was gone (boo!).

So impossibly twee.  And this is the kind of sub-Wes Anderson monologue we’re treated to throughout the book, where Watney bitches about disco and, rather than repeat the phrase “kilowatt-hours per sol,” decides to call them “pirate-ninjas” instead.  Because that’s wacky, see?  And Weir is all about the wacky.

Except for when he descends into byzantine science-talk, which I think he thinks is supposed to be fascinating and show the detail with which Watney must attend to his own survival, but it’s excruciating.  Try this on for size (and do your best to stay awake):

I hope you like drilling.  The drill bit is 1 cm wide, the holes will be 0.5 cm apart, and the length of the total cut is 11.4 m.  That’s 760 holes.  And each one takes 160 seconds to drill.

Problem: The drills weren’t designed for construction projects.  They were intended for quick rock samples.  The batteries only last 240 seconds.  You do have two drills, but you’d still only get 3 holes done before needing to recharge.  And recharging takes 41 minutes.

That’s 173 hours of work, limited to 8 EVA hours per day.  That’s 21 days of drilling, and that’s just too long … The drills expects 28.8 V and pulls 9 amps.  The only lines that can handle that are the rover recharge lines.  They’re 36 V, 10 amp max.  Since you have two, we’re comfortable with you modifying one.

And on and on and on until you want to scream, “I don’t need to know this!”  Virtually none of this scientific detail is crucial for the reader to know, and it happens a lot.  From the number of Joules in one food-calorie (4,184) to the exact formula he uses to determine how much oxygen is in his space suit (which he describes in five paragraphs lasting an entire page), no stone (no tedious, extremely boring stone) is left unturned.

Matters don’t improve when the action shifts to Earth.  The characters at NASA are virtually interchangeable.  Mitch, Teddy, Kapoor, Rich, Mindy, Annie – who’s speaking?  It doesn’t really matter, because they all sound the same, speaking in variations on Watney’s snark, and where we’re supposed to believe one of NASA’s supervisors would actually utter the sentence, “Sorry if I’m grumpy, I got like two hours sleep last night.”

I’m not against stylized dialogue, but if it’s not going to reflect the way in which real people speak, it better be entertaining (see my recent review of Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 for evidence of what I mean).  Weir’s characters, however, are unbelievably and unlikably sarcastic dummies with a penchant for spouting off unnecessary scientific details.  It is, in the end, this contrivance that got to me, which eventually extended to the plot.  I don’t want to see an author’s flop sweat.  If I notice the contortions of your writing, it’s not working.  As the book continues, Weir throws so many obstacles in Watney’s path – another dust storm, an emergency depressurization, a failed rescue launch, a near-electrocution, and so on – that after a while you can see the strings.  It reads less like a genuine story of survival than an author saying, “Let’s see how much shit I can throw at a character to pad this baby out to 400 pages.”

I haven’t even discussed the book’s main structural flaw (that some of Watney’s logs read like they’re happening in real time even though the central conceit is that he’s recording them after the fact), but even if the narrative form worked, there are so many other problems that it wouldn’t matter.  And so the question for me becomes, “Does an interesting story trump good writing?”  Or, put another way, is idea more important than execution?  In some cases, I think it must.  How else to explain the publication and popularity of The Martian (or Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey or any of the Nicholas Sparks books, etc., etc.)?  In those moments when my authorial confidence falters, I need to figure out how to tap into whatever hubris is fueling the people that keep writing the stuff that doesn’t need to be written.

*****

Current listening:

R.E.M._-_Green

R.E.M.  – Green (1988)

The Immaculate Deception

elmore unknown manLike Ian Rankin (whose Black & Blue I recently reviewed and which, okay, was more teacher education Common Core navel-gazing than actual review), I’ve read a lot of Elmore Leonard since I began this little experiment without actually penning a full review.  This is the fifth of his books I’ve read since September (and the tenth overall), and while I’ve loved each and every one of them, this is the first one I’ve engaged with on an emotional level.  That immediately elevates it to the upper echelon of Leonard’s not-inconsiderable bibliography.

So, for the uninitiated, what’s so great about Leonard? Let’s start here: Without fear of hyperbole, he’s the greatest crime writer of the 20th Century.  Better than Chandler, better than Hammett, better than Ellroy, full stop, hands down.  Better even – whisper it – than Agatha Christie (although I think I’d be more likely to classify her as a mystery writer). Leonard didn’t invent the genre, but he polished it to a high sheen.  If you love crime novels – or even if you just appreciate them from a distance – Elmore does everything you love about them as well as it can be done.  Tough guys?  Check.  Street-smart broads?  You know it.  Double crosses and long cons? Done and done, without breaking a sweat.  Whip-smart dialogue that practically crackles on the page?  Absolutely.  And it’s all accomplished in unadorned prose that, like Kurt Vonnegut’s best work, seems effortless but is nearly impossible to replicate. (The quotes in blue peppered throughout the rest of this review are some of Leonard’s best tips for being a good writer.)

My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.

All of this is present and accounted for in Unknown Man #89, only with some added emotional heft. Jack Ryan is a Detroit process server – so charming and ingratiating that the served often don’t mind – who’s hired by a New Orleans businessman named Mr. Perez to track down the recipient of some shares of stock.  The stockholder turns up in the local morgue – toetagged with the words in the book’s title – and Ryan is then tasked by Perez with tracking down the deceased’s next of kin, his alcoholic wife, Denise.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Ryan eventually learns she’s living outside Detroit, and when he sets up shop there, he coincidentally runs into her at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (which is, to be fair, the only phony note in the whole book).  She’s cleaned up and tidied up, and what follows is a relatively quiet, surprisingly touching sequence where Ryan and Denise get to know each other, all without Ryan ever revealing who he is or why he’s there, choosing instead to enjoy his time with Denise rather than pursuing the job Perez set for him.  Perez, of course, has developed plans of his own, and sets himself to stealing the shares of stock – and the money they represent – for himself.  What follows is a series of feints and counter-feints, as Ryan and Denise set about double-crossing Perez with the help of a minor-league, big-hat-wearing criminal named Virgil Royal and a Detroit cop named Dick Speed.

Write the book the way it should be written, then give it to somebody to put in the commas and shit.

In some ways it’s boilerplate Leonard.  Ryan is a tough-talker, Denise is too cool for school, and Perez (and his hired muscle, Raymond Gidre) are colorful con men who threaten their enemies by dangling them out a window.  Virgil is sort of a dummy, and his sidekick Tunafish is one step down from that.  But complicating things is the emotional gravity that has largely been absent from Leonard’s earlier works.  Perez’s first gambit to steal the money from Denise is actually to hire Virgil (like I said, double- and triple-crosses, and no allegiance save one is solid) to get her drunk and have her sign the papers.  The scene is, in a word, heartbreaking.  We first meet Denise in Detroit as a miserable drunk, and her transformation to the optimistic artist Ryan encounters in Rochester is dramatic.  But with one ill-intentioned, eminently selfish move, Denise is reduced once again to her messy, belligerent former self.  Ryan handles this with panache, kicking Virgil out of Denise’s apartment, sobering her up, and leaving with her for Florida the next day, where the two of them can get out from under Perez’s suffocating influence.  The halting romance that ensues is balanced on the knife edge between pragmatic and sentimental.  It’s a graceful sequence that looks nothing like anything Leonard had previously written.  It’s just a lull, though, as Ryan and Denise realize there’s a reckoning waiting for them in Detroit, and it needs to be resolved before they can ever truly settle down.  Blood will be shed.

I won’t read a book that starts with a description of the weather.

 

As my first proper Elmore Leonard review, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the dialogue. It exists on another plane, the one where the characters might as well be speaking lines transcribed directly from a voice recorder planted in some seedy bar on the wrong side of the tracks.  I could share any number of exchanges, but I’m partial to this one between Ryan and Virgil, as Ryan prepares to initiate the next part of his plan:

‘I don’t see you doing much,’ Ryan said. ‘You want something, but I don’t see you breaking your ass especially to get it.’

‘I’m being patient,’ Virgil said, ‘waiting till everybody make up their mind.  You want a real drink this time?’

‘No, this is fine.’ Ryan still had half a Coke.  He watched Virgil nod to the waitress.  She was over at the bar where several black guys were sitting with their hats on, glancing at themselves in the bar mirror as they talked and jived around. ‘What’s this, the hat club?’ Ryan said. ‘There’s some pretty ones, but they can’t touch yours.’

Virgil was looking at him from beneath the slightly, nicely curved brim of his uptown Stetson. ‘I get my money, what’s owed me, I’ll give it to you,’ he said.

‘I’ll take it,’ Ryan said, ‘and everybody’ll be happy.  If we can get you to do a little work.’

‘What kind of work?’

‘First, how much we talking about?  What you say Bobby owes you?’

‘Half.’

‘Half of what I heard he got is nothing.’

‘No, I’m telling you. Round it off, ten grand,’ Virgil said. ‘Now you tell me, how much we talking about?  The whole deal.’

There’s a rhythm and cadence to all of Leonard’s dialogue – playful, but with the internal logic of really good jazz.  It rings true, and unlike a lot of dialogue, it just sounds good when read aloud.

Unknown Man #89 ends, as many of Leonard’s novels do, in a way that can best be termed “cautiously optimistic.”  The bad guys get their comeuppance, the good guys get their reward – although it might look different than they thought it would – and the moral of the story, if there is one, seems to be this: “Be careful who you trust.”  But this ending resonates more for me than in Leonard’s other books because, for the first time, the main characters have suffered enough for us to want them to be happy.

*****

Current listening:

Frightened winter

Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010)

Waiting Around for Grace

sleepy-guy-300x199261What can I say?  I got lazy.  Again.  The thought of cranking out 1,000 words every few days got to be too much for my TV- and video game-loving ass to handle,  and that’s the only excuse I have for the gap in posts between mid-December and mid-February.  I wish I could say I was doing something important – writing a book, traveling the world, solving crimes with a plucky sidekick – but I was probably watching movies and playing Far Cry 4.

And reading.  Loyal followers of this blog will notice I’ve started posting full book reviews again.  As usual, the primary motivator for this was guilt.  I’m asking my students to write and post reviews of what they’re reading this semester, so it seems just a wee bit hypocritical for me not to do the same.  Walking the walk, etc.  And even though I haven’t been posting formal reviews, the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project is still in full swing.  So, in keeping with precedent, here’s a bunch of one-sentence reviews of all the books I read in the lost months of early 2015.

Sherman Alexie – The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. A gritty and unforgiving short story collection set in the one corner of the United States we rarely see: a Native American Indian reservation.

Ian Rankin – The Black Book. Rankin’s Inspector Rebus digs into Edinburgh’s history of organized crime to solve a murder in the fifth compelling book in the long-running series.

Russell Banks – Trailerpark. Banks is one of my favorite authors, but this loosely-connected collection of short stories set in the titular mobile home park is an entertaining but ultimately minor work.

Michael Chabon – The Final Solution. Simultaneously clever and slight, it’s unabashed genre fiction (starring a never-explicitly-identified Sherlock Holmes) from one of America’s greatest writers.

Elmore Leonard – 52 Pick Up. One of Elmore Leonard’s first crime novels is also his best – hard-boiled tough-guy deliciousness.

Don DeLillo – The Body Artist. DeLillo wrote one of my favorite books (White Noise), but two months after reading The Body Artist, I don’t remember a single, solitary thing about it, which probably tells you all you need to know.

Jennifer Egan – The Invisible Circus. Egan’s first novel is a stunning, melancholy tour de force about the perils of delving too deeply into family history.

Ian Rankin – Mortal Causes. Rankin broadens his scope in this sixth Inspector Rebus book to take in the connection between Scotland and the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Joshua Ferris – Then We Came to the End. A laugh-out-loud condemnation of modern office life, Ferris’ book is Grade-A satire.

Alex Grecian – The Yard. Depicting the birth of Scotland Yard, Grecian’s first book in this series is  a brutal murder mystery that promises great things to come.

Elmore Leonard – Mr. Majestyk. More modern noir from the master of the crime novel, it’s a testament to the badass who refuses to take shit from anyone.

Matt Haig – The Humans. An outer-space alien takes over a professor’s body to protect an intergalactic secret and in the process learns schmaltzy lessons about What it Means to be Human. ™

John Irving – A Widow for One Year.  I love Irving but struggled with this one, an epic-length treatise about family, obsession, and the writing life that takes a long time to go nowhere special.

Ian Rankin – Let it Bleed. After taking on the Troubles, Rankin investigates the corridors of power in the twisty-turny  seventh Inspector Rebus book.

Stephen King – Blaze. An early Stephen King novel (writing as Richard Bachman) that really should have stayed lost.

John Le Carré – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s a brilliant spy novel – totally, unequivocally, unquestionably – but holy cow was I bored.

Elmore Leonard – Swag. The funniest of Leonard’s early-career crime novels, it sets the template for all of his subsequent novels that revolve around dim-witted tough guys.

*****

Current listening:

Cure kiss

The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (1987)