Saturday, December 29, 2007

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 41

The List is Life

The above has nothing to do with the novel I am writing, but that's kind of on hiatus at the moment (see below). Since I know Duke's the only one who's gonna read this anyway, I thought I would make a few quick overdue observations about his Top Ten Books list this year. Notice how drastically different it is from mine, which I always find very interesting about these lists when we post them annually. They really reflect the differences in our reading, while at the same time many of the books on his list could have been books I would have enjoyed as much or nearly as much, and vice versa. I lean heavily on fiction titles, always have; but Duke reads more widely than I do, in poetry, general nonfiction, and religion, so his list frequently reflects those interests. I am interested to some extent in all of those things, and probably should read more of them, but I don't always seem to prioritize them over the fiction I am (at times) irrepressibly interested in checking out. There's one exception for me, which is my annual Spiritual Reading challenge during the 40-day period of Lent, when I generally try to read exclusively religious titles. It's my way of taking time to focus on those concepts and realities, which I think is helpful in some ways. But anyway, I just wanted to comment on how much I can appreciate the diversity of Duke's list, with a poetry collection, two short-story volumes, a 19th century classic, a spiritual classic, a pair of memoirs, a play, and three contemporary novels. Now THAT'S a diverse best-of list. Furthermore, I defy anyone who sees this to find a single other person who, if they would even make a best books of the year list, include a Papal encyclical on that list. Only a Duke Altum list would contain that, which is why they're so enjoyable to check out every year.

Holiday Hiatus

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to make any progress on starting into Chapter V of my novel. After finishing the draft of Chapter IV back on November 6, I thought for sure I would be able to start Chapter V before the end of 2007, but it hasn't happened. I guess you can chalk that up to a lot of things, not the least of which is the holiday madness around Christmas and visiting relatives, which makes getting anything done difficult. But the real problem is that I have a concept of how I want to open up the chapter but don't have a sufficient amount of research information to start writing, and I have not had time to go to a library and try to track down what I need. Unfortunately what I do need is not going to be easy to find so it may take some time. Time to spend at a library doing research is not something I can usually attain unless I do a certain amount of prior planning and make arrangements. Not so easy during this time of year. Not to mention the fact that I'm not really sure how to go about getting what I need in the first place. So I guess it's natural that I might fall behind this time of year but I don't much like it, it gives me concerns about whether I will be able to sustain overall momentum on the project. It occurs to me that I have had concerns of a similar nature before during the writing of this novel, and have been able to overcome them. Overcoming past obstacles doesn't guarantee you will be able to overcome future ones, but it does give you some confidence that you might not have had before. At least I do have a general idea of what I want to do in the chapter, with plenty of open spaces to fill in as well, but filling in those spaces is the least of my concerns, because I know that happens when you get into the actual writing. What I need to worry about for now is finding time to gather information and actually get started on the chapter. But I think it will still be a little while before I can get to it; we're still in the holiday season. In the meantime, I get really antsy if i am not writing at all, so I have taken a couple steps to try to stay active in the middle of this break in the novel action. Hope it doesn't derail me permanently......

Two New Writings

As I mentioned, even when I am having problems in the novel, I don't like to be completely inert when it comes to writing. I like to keep working. This was borne out last year when I was having so much trouble writing Chapter III in the middle of my family's house hunting and move to Pennsylvania. I was really stuck in the middle of the chapter, but I wanted to keep working, so I took some time to write a short story (the only one I wrote last year) called "In the Throes". Now, during this hiatus, I wanted to do the same thing, so the first thing I took on was a short essay on a topic I've been meaning to write on for about 4-5 years, and it's a departure for me. The subject is the Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, and the essay is called "Sling It: Brett Favre as Literary Inspiration". As I said, I wanted to write a piece on Favre for some time, but I could never find the angle on it that I wanted. I even started several different Favre-related essays but they all fizzled out. This time I ran into a contest run by a magazine called Sport Literate that asked for "Football Essays" and hopes to run a winning piece by the start of the '08 football season. Since the magazine seemed to aspire to bridge the gap between literature and sports (who knew that gap needed to be bridged?), I thought I would take a literary sort of angle on my being a fan of Favre, and the essay is what I came up with. I think it turned out pretty well and that I said most of what I have been wanting to say in writing about this great player, and I plan to ship it in for the contest after this football season is over (how far Favre goes in the post-season may have some bearing on the essay!). Stay tuned here to see what happens with the piece. The odds are long but that never stopped a champion like Favre so I don't see why it should stop me.

The second piece during this break is the one I am working on now - a new short story tentatively titled "I Will Be Out of the Office". I just started working on it and I am not sure if it's going to fly, but we'll see. I have never had any publishing success with stories so I always go into a new story hoping that 'this will be the one'. At the same time I enter into a new story with some trepidation because I don't feel very adept at the form, never seem to be able to keep my stories as short as they probably need to be (I need a kind of Gordon Lish, not that I'm any Ray Carver), and usually feel that they don't quite reach my original ambition. These are the same qualities that keep me trying on stories, though; I feel like I want to stick at it until I get one right. I don't want to say too much now about the one I am working on, because I don't know if it will make it past the sputtering stage, but I can reveal that it is about grief, something that I don't have a lot of first hand experience with. This, in an odd way, is why I wanted to write the story now, since it relates to losing a direct family member. I haven't lost one myself, aside from a grandparent, and in a strange way I kind of feel like for me to write a story on the subject after this inevitably occurs would just be a way for me to channel my own grief, and would end up being a kind of memoir-disguised-as-a-story. It would be therapy, and I don't want to write this particular story that way. Doing it now for me is an exercise in trying to enter into the emotions of someone else, which I think is a valuable enterprise. I can't rely on my own experience because I haven't had it yet. So the literary challenge for me is to make it a believable story in spite of the fact that I haven't experienced it myself yet. That to me is what a fiction writer has to be able to do and I may very well bungle it, but the challenge itself is a motivator to me. We'll see if I get this one done.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Well, here we go again friends... another year has gone by (almost), and I have had the opportunity to read many great and interesting books. And some not so great. But here are the ten that have made the most lasting impact on me this year, in no particular order... and some honorable mentions thrown in as well. Enjoy!


A Christmas Memory/One Christmas/The Thanksgiving Visitor, Truman Capote - The book in this list that was read the earliest (January 2007) has stuck with me ever since. Each of these exquisitely written memoir pieces is embued with enough innocence, poignancy and sheer beauty to break your heart.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy - So much has already been said about this one that it seems absurd to try and capture it in a smattering of cheap words... an absolutely riveting and deeply haunting tale of good and evil, the end of the world, and the love between a father and son. It's strange that a book so cold and seemingly devoid of hope can feel, by the time you get to end, so uplifting.

In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Tobias Wolff - This debut collection of stories set mostly in the American Northwest examine the foibles, pitfalls and consequences of human infidelities, both marital and otherwise. But they are written with enough originality, attention to detail, human insight and razor-sharp wit to remind of writers as good as O'Connor and Carver.

Middlemarch, George Eliot - As argued in an earlier post on this blog (see Archives -> November 2007), Eliot's masterpiece of English provincial life is really a book about vocation, and the profound significance and impact seemingly inconsequential lives can have on other lives around them, and on the world as a whole.

The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis - The only re-read on this year's list, Lewis' brilliant attempt to answer one of the world's oldest questions -- "Why do we have to suffer?" -- is one of the most lucid, insightful, and ultimately helpful theodicies I've ever read. More than just a philosophical treatise, this book is a manual to help us to live in a profoundly fallen world, even while hoping and and preparing for a greater one. Somehow, it manages to challenge the intellect and rejuvenate the spirit at the same time.

Gould's Book of Fish, Richard Flanagan - By far the most original of all books I read this year (and quite possibly, ever), Flanagan's book-within-a-book conveys the horrors and wonders of a 19th-century Tasmanian penal colony through the strangest of devices: a catalogue of local fish, painted by a lonely prisoner with a colorful and violent past. In the end, this surreal and haunting tale is a powerful treatise about the nature, and the limits, of art -- and the evils men are capable of inflicting upon one another.

A Long Day's Journey Into Night, Eugene O'Neill - There's always one I'm fairly confident I read late in the previous year, but nevertheless want to single out for this year's list because I am unable to forget it. Long Day's Journey is definitely that one this year for me. This soul-shaking drama from the American Nobel Laureate has got to be one of the most devastating portraits of family failure ever written, in any age. Even the stage direction notes gave me goosebumps! Heartbreaking, but brilliant.

The Art of Living, John Gardner - A fascinating, eclectic collection of stories from one of America's most underappreciated writers who profoundly understood the human condition and used his art to wisely plumb its mysterious depths.

The Voice at 3:00 AM, Charles Simic - Has to be at least one poetry collection on the list. This extraordinary collection from 2007's U.S. Poet Laureate not only contains some of the most vivid and interesting poetry I've read in a long time, it also bears my favorite book title of the year. That voice is relaying some pretty strange, but fascinating, things to Simic when he can't sleep, apparently!

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Ron Hansen - Well, I missed the movie version (of course) this year, but I was very glad to have read the book! Hansen's meticulously crafted historical novel is a fascinating character study and morality tale that strips away all sentimentality and explores the reasons for, and the consequences of, the titular murder. Very few novels explore the aftermath of violence as effectively as this one.

BONUS ROUND: Titles that deserve mention and would have made the list if it were longer:

The Greatest American Short Stories (anthology)

Deus Caritas Est, the encyclical on Love by Pope Benedict XVI

A New Selected Poems, Galway Kinnell

The Short Stories of Jack London, Jack London

Billy Budd, Herman Melville

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Journal of a ‘Novel’-Entry 40

My Year In Review

It’s already December, and that means it’s time for year-end assessments, if we dare to make them. The fortieth entry of a journal tracking the progress of what may become my first novel, should it ever find its way to the light, is probably an appropriate place to consider how 2007 has panned out in terms of the novel’s development and in terms of my overall progress as a writer. If that sounds like a bore to whoever is reading this, all I can say is that while it is possible that a writer’s journal may one day end up being read by others, it’s not written with that possibility in mind, so you can’t really expect it to offer thrills.

My goal for 2007 was to write three more chapters of Only the Dying (working title). In the end, I was only able to complete two. If this is a kind of failure, it’s not one that I can’t recover from; it only means I fell one chapter short of the goal. Two chapters beats one or none. The main thing is that the novel in progress can be said to still be in progress – and trust me, given my track record with starting novels I was unable to finish, that’s a good thing.

In fact, I still think I am doing pretty well overall, with an attainable goal to complete the novel by age 40 (just turned 37), and having a Prologue and four chapters of the first draft complete (save additional revisions). I wrote 3 chapters (the Prologue is a chapter, more or less) in 2006 and added two this last year. I have always envisioned the novel to be made up of a Prologue, three parts, and some kind of epilogue or postscript, and my current plan is to write one more chapter (Chapter V), after which Part I of the novel will be finished. I project that the final novel will run somewhere between 12 and 15 chapters; by that measure, you might say I am 1/3 of the way there, and that’s not at all bad. I still have three years to complete the other 2/3 of the book, and although I doubt that will be easy, it seems achievable.

Length is a problem – for me it always is – but it can also be checked later on in the process. Through the end of Chapter IV my first draft is now running at around 260 pages, double-spaced. At this rate the draft will probably be somewhere around 1000 pages, and that is obviously too long, but I am sure a lot will change before this is all over! It’s always better to have too much written than too little, something I always say to the college students I tutor. Somebody once compared writing a novel to sculpture; you start with the raw cube or block of material, and you hack away at it until you get to the work of art inside. That’s what I would liken this process to, although I’m not sure if what’s inside my block is exactly Michelangelo’s Pieta. But you get the idea.

The good news is I have a general idea of how I want to kick off the next chapter (but I haven’t started it yet, I have some more research to do), and a vision of the overall concept and structure of the book, while somewhat nebulous, exists in my head. It’s been in development there for years, not months, so it’s not something I cooked up just last March and started scribbling at pell-mell. I know in broad terms what I am trying to accomplish, and I know from my experience that the creative process works if you put in the necessary effort. Many times now in the process of writing this longer story I have not had a clear idea of how to complete the section I was engrossed in, and every time it has come together eventually by sitting down and working at it. While most of the real grunt work of this novel still lies ahead – 2/3 of the first draft and all of the revision and editing labors –, it is critical for me to understand that I am capable of overcoming obstacles.

I had a tough time on Chapter III of the novel, which I started in December 2006 and didn’t finish until June of this year. But there was also a lot happening in my personal life during the same period – I started a new job, searched for and found my first house, moved my entire family, and worked on settling in a new state. In addition, I experienced the worst period of blockage I’ve had so far in this effort in the middle of this chapter, which might have happened even without all those ‘x’ factors. A few scenes didn’t feel right to me, and I am still not sure if they are. Nonetheless, I battled through it, finished the chapter, and had a somewhat easier time with Chapter IV. Chapter V is anybody’s guess, but if I’ve written I through IV, I guess there’s no real reason why I can’t write V. I’m proud that I made it through that tough chapter and that challenging period in my life in general and can say I am still writing the novel!

I’m also proud that I didn’t just sit idly by while I struggled on the book. During the first half of the year I also managed to publish twice – a period of torrid output in light of my few-and-far-between publication successes! In June my short essay on Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch appeared in Paste magazine, published throughout the United States and Europe. Later on, in the September/October issue of St. Austin Review, an appreciation I wrote of the novelist Ron Hansen’s work appeared, which I wrote in February, while I was blocked on Chapter III of the novel. This experience was gratifying in a number of ways: a) it had been a goal of mine to some day pay tribute to Hansen’s work, as he is one of my all-time literary heroes; b) this piece in particular was rejected three times but I still found a home for it; c) my name appeared on the cover of the magazine itself, only the second time it has happened to me; and d) most significantly, I was encouraged by many people to send the article to Ron Hansen, who teaches at Santa Clara University, and when I did, Hansen wrote me back a personal card to thank me for the tribute, which I will keep forever, in which he said I had ‘made his week’. It was a generous gesture from a great writer and a fine role model for young novelists, and of course I am grateful to Ron Hansen for making it.

Finally, in my never-ending quest to become a published fiction writer, I made another attempt this year to write a short story (also during my ‘blocked’ period), which I finished, the only short story I have produced in the last two years (after writing primarily stories between 2003 and 2005). The story was called “In The Throes”, and I think it turned out pretty well; it was ambitious both in terms of subject matter (it was written as a kind of response to the sexual abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church) and in character (my protagonist was a teenage girl). I thought it had some of my best prose writing to date. Nonetheless, it failed to find a home in print (it was rejected by two magazines), and after about fifteen years of trying, I still have yet to successfully publish a work of fiction. I won’t give up on that, however, I can assure you.

So, I think that 2007 was a literary year I can be somewhat proud of in spite of falling short of my goal of writing three chapters of the novel. For 2008, I will follow the old adage of “try, try again”, and set my goal for three more new chapters, so that hopefully sometime around December one year from now I will be saying I’ve made it through to the end of Chapter VII of the book (possibly ½ through?). It won’t be easy: this year brings yet another monumental life change in the form of my third child, due in May/June 2008, and I will still be working two jobs and trying to live up to all of my responsibilities at the same time.

When does a man find time to write in those circumstances? The answer is, whenever he can. It is obvious that with regard to the giant task of writing a first novel at my stage of life, there is still a long row to hoe, as it were; however, to quote an old hymn I managed to turn up in my research, “the Lord’s blessings are in the plow”.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Mutt Ploughman’s Best Books of 2007

A listing of my favorite books read this year with brief comment, listed in order of merit.

10. The Unknown Terrorist, Richard Flanagan. Brilliantly-executed, morbid thriller about a stripper mistaken for a terrorist makes a very powerful statement about where our leaders are taking us.

9. Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, Meg Meeker, M.D. I feel forever indebted to Dr. Meg Meeker for this wonderful advice manual for raising girls – the most useful nonfiction book I have ever read.

8. Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar. Any novel in which the publisher’s description includes the phrase ‘intellectual acrobatics’ will resist any synopsis that I can provide, but this absurdist classic is a memorable, challenging, and mind-expanding experience.

7. The Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Andric. This is the ultimate novel of Bosnia/Herzegovina/Yugoslavia, centered on the symbolic largesse of a centuries-old stone bridge over the Drina River.

6. White Teeth, Zadie Smith. First novel from wunderkind Zadie Smith, a prodigious talent, this is a remarkable Dickensian novel built around two very different London families and written with wit, intelligence, and huge ambition.

5. Freddy’s Book, John Gardner. Fascinating novel by the wonderful, sorely missed novelist Gardner contains a book-within-a-book set in Medieval Sweden and telling the unsettling tale of a battle between a knight and the Devil.

4. Forty Stories, Anton Chekhov. The undisputed master of the modern short story offers the reader compassionate, intelligent tales about common folk with emotional resonance and unmistakeable artistic genuis.

3. Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Jim Shepard. Simply the best contemporary short story collection I’ve read in years; if you read one story collection this coming year, this should be it.

2. What is the Point of Being a Christian?, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. This book stunned me – a wonderful, lucid, but highly readable attempt to answer this question, from a priest with compassion, intelligence, and a breadth of experience from travels he made around the world.

1. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert. A near-perfect work of literature, hands down the best book I read this year, satisfies on all fronts.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #59: Three by Simic

Welcome to the Theater of the Absurd on this gray Sunday after Thanksgiving!

Here are three very short poems from the man currently serving as Poet Laureate of the United States, Charles Simic. His recently published collection with what just might be my favorite title of the year, The Voice at 3:00 A.M., is on my current reading shelf and I am finding it to be wonderfully complex and inspiring.

As I hope these three will show, he is very gifted at creating strange but vivid images using just a few well-chosen words. I don't pretend to understand any of these, but something about the atmopshere and mood they bring to one's mind, considering how brief they are, is impressive to me. They remind of scenes from a Fellini film -- you don't pretend to know exactly what they mean, but they feel like dreams you can somehow relate to anyway. And like Fellini, Simic is celebrated as an artist of the surreal -- whatever that means!

I really appreciate the end of that last one, if only because it makes me laugh heartily and yet, for some reason which I don't fully grasp, feels like it carries some wisdom with it as well. Maybe one day I will understand its impact on me... but then, maybe not!?!


Evening Chess

The Black Queen raised high
In my father's angry hand.


It snows
and still the derelicts
carrying sandwich boards --

one proclaiming
the end of the world
the other
the rates of a local barbershop.

Folk Song

Sausage-makers of History,
the bloody kind,
You all hail from a village
Where the dog barking at the moon
Is the only poet.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Living Faithfully a Hidden Life: Thoughts on George Eliot's 'Middlemarch'

I have just finished the second of a projected three weighty, challenging classics of Western literature that I'd decided I would try to read this year, after repeated procrastinations and delays: George Eliot's Victorian-era epic of English provincial life and manners, Middlemarch. (The first one, reported on earlier on this blog, was Thomas Mann's philosophical novel The Magic Mountain, and the third, if I ever get to it, will be Fyodor Dostoevsky's monumental spiritual classic The Brothers Karamazov.) This was also the first installment of my aforementioned "British Literary Invasion," in which I attempt to fill in the embarrassing gaps in my literary education when it comes to British literature. Soon I will be moving on to the next installment in that series with one of Thomas Hardy's best-known novels, The Return of the Native.

But enough about other novels -- I'd like to share a few thoughts about the massive one I have just completed. This was my first encounter with George Eliot's work, although of course I have been hearing about her famous novels for as long as I can remember: acknowledged classics such as The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner, as well as lesser known works like Daniel Deronda and Adam Bede. Several years ago I learned about the spiritual and moral import of her work through reading Dr. Robert Coles, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sociologist and literary critic who famously taught the works of the Western literary tradition to doctors and lawyers at the graduate level at Harvard. The focus of his courses for these graduate students was always on how literature teaches us critically important moral and spiritual lessons of life, and several times in his writing he refers to Middlemarch as a work that has much to say about (to swipe the title of a book I just finished) "the art of living." I made a note to myself that this was a classic I needed to get back to at some point. That 'point' happened to be the last few months -- yes, it took me that long to get through it, but with a family of five and a full-time job to juggle, you don't exactly have huge chunks of time to sit back and read at your leisure! If you're going to take on a book as long and complex as Middlemarch, you have to be resigned to the fact that you're going to be living with these characters, and this writer, in your head for a long time...

All that said, I am happy to report that although Middlemarch takes real effort to get through, it is well worth the time spent. One might well wonder what a Victorian-era novel about the life of the citizens of a provincial English country village -- in which no major events happen, no crimes or battles or strange incidents or accidents or riots -- could possibly have to say to adults living in 21st-century America during the age of instant information, postmodern confusion and the pervasiveness of pop culture. My answer, perhaps not surprisingly to anyone who has visited this blog before, is simply this: everything. One of the great glories of literature is firmly rooted in the fact that human nature, in its essence, does not change. When the external wrappings of time and place are stripped away, the core is revealed to be something we all hold in common. And though the physical, logistical and social constraints and conditions of Victorian-era life in rural England may be quite different than those we live with, the deep and profound questions these characters are contending with were ones I found to be quite familiar. See if you agree with me. Questions such as:
  • What is the best way to live respectfully with others in community, while at the same time remaining independent with one's own ideas and not being afraid to express them?
  • What are one's obligations to those neighbors outside the boundaries of one's own family circle? What happens when one's perceived responsibilities to those less fortunate than you start to impinge on one's responsibilities at home?
  • What does it mean to "work out (one's) salvation with fear and trembling" within the context of a marriage relationship?
  • To what extent should one's own hopes and dreams be sacrificed or put on hold so that a spouse can pursue theirs?
  • To what extent should financial concerns and stewardship guide one's everyday decisions?

Middlemarch is a book that deals with the realities of married life vs. the societal conventions and expectations husbands and wives have imposed on them, the struggle to maintain a healthy moral and spiritual relationship to the material goods and resources we need in order to live, and the challenges and blessings of living in community. Beyond (and including) all of this, however, I think it is a book about vocation. Eliot chooses to begin the book with a fascinating prologue, comparing her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, to Saint Teresa of Avila (!):

Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity . . . . With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness . . . . Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse . . . . Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heartbeats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering in some long recognizable deed.

Which sounds bleak, I realize (though interesting)... but my point is that Eliot is concerned with taking this seemingly ordinary life and opening it up for us, like a flower, to show us that inside is a heart that's much more complex and ambitious than it would appear on the surface. This is, in point of fact, no ordinary life at all. As we observe Dorothea's courtship and marriage, and then the terrific emotional and spiritual struggles she and her husband go through to maintain a happy and healthy life together, we come to realize that this is the crucible within which Dorothea's soul must be tested in order to realize who she really is. We are all tested in our lives with daily battles that roil and rage under the surface of seemingly "normal" and conventional situations. The people you pass by, work with, and talk to on the phone could very easily be going through excruciating, or exhilarating, seasons in their lives that will have a profound impact on who they are and what they have been put on this earth to do. But what we do, and specifically what we do with, to and for others, can have an impact that goes well beyond what our limited minds can account for.

Eliot expresses this profound reality eloquently in the final, and strangely hopeful, sentence of this great and serious book:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

If the Novel is Olympus, Dickens is Zeus

Introducing Mutt Ploughman’s first ever Annual Non-Scholarly Charles Dickens Essay to Correspond with Dickensfest VI

It’s a nice thing to be able to commemorate here my annual Dickensfest reading event, in which I spend about 3-4 weeks making absolutely certain that I read at least one work by Charles Dickens every year. This year I am bringing to life a new feature of this annual event, a web-only, non-scholarly, appreciative essay on the work of this master of English literature. Because this is the first year that I have presented an essay in any ‘official’ way on the blog (in past years I have usually posted some thoughts about whatever I was reading for that year’s Dickensfest), my primary goal is to review the short history of this self-applied annual literary regimen and provide some brief comments on the works of Dickens that I have had the pleasure of reading thus far.

Although I am working to repair the damage, my relationship with the work of Charles Dickens is not what it could have been. I am the immature student of this master novelist who was dumb enough to blow off several critical early blocks of instruction (i.e., reading assignments in my high school years) only to have to play catch-up later on (the present) when the ‘exams’ hit me (trying to write my own stories and novels). If I had been a more forward-thinking teenager, with any insight whatsoever into what I really wanted to do in this life, I might be on the second round with Charles Dickens’ works by now. Instead, I literally ignored any assignment I had in high school which had anything to do with Charles Dickens’ writing. If memory serves, I was certainly assigned to read both Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities in my freshman year of high school. This would be around 1983-4. I remember only trying to stay awake as my terrible high school English teacher, Miss Zelkin, waved her witch-like fingernails and talked in a monotone about Miss Havisham in her wedding dress and the wimpy (to my mind) Pip running around dirt-infested London of the 19th century. The only thing I retained about A Tale of Two Cities was the phrase “it was the best of times; it was the worst of times” and a vague image of French people licking the cobblestones where wine had spilled. I am sure too that I must have been assigned to read “A Christmas Carol” in high school but I know I never did, opting to watch the movie like most other students. Probably the one with the Muppets. (Which holds up over time, incidentally, with the great Michael Caine as Scrooge!)

Based on these forgettable experiences, and my own shortage of interest, I was positive that once I left those courses I was done with Charles Dickens forever, and I couldn’t have been happier. And that same attitude, more or less, remained in force, I am embarrassed to admit, until somewhere around the turn of the last century. That’s right, when I was almost thirty years old. I had discovered in college, finally, that I was interested in writing fiction, and henceforth in literature in general, but this was sometime around 1990, and it still required another 9 to 10 years of maturation (only word I can think to describe it) to understand that Dickens was canonical reading for anyone interested in writing fiction well. For some reason before then I was unable to muster up an interest in 19th century literature or in England, and I perceived Dickens’ novels as huge, boring monoliths that no one could possibly enjoy.

Finally, in the Spring of 1999, I had the first of three watershed experiences that would help me to see the light and start reading Dickens. By this time I was attending The New School in New York City as an MFA candidate in Creative Writing, because I wanted to write my own stories and novels, and had made many ill-fated attempts to get my ‘career’ started in both forms. At The New School’s MFA program we were required to attend literature seminars, one per semester, that were led by working writers. I took one such seminar under the novelist and journalist David Gates, who writes columns on books and music for Newsweek magazine, and has written two novels and a story collection that at that time was just about to come out. Both of his novels were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a dour, acerbic, Baby Boomer with an extremely dry sense of humor, but he knew what he was doing, and I admire his writing in both magazines and in fiction even today. All I want to say about him was that he talked repeatedly, I mean ad nauseam, about Dickens and Jane Austen, frequently referring to their works or stories about their lives. The sheer breadth of his understanding of those writers’ works and the importance they seemed to have to him began to work on me, and I began to reconsider reading them. I wouldn’t have touched either of those novelists with a ten foot pole before I took Gates’ course, and I feel like I owe him for that.

The second watershed event was my own brother (Duke) making the prescient and intelligent choice to buy me an awesome Modern Library edition of A Tale of Two Cities in celebration of our 30th birthday on November 7, 2000 (the same day George W. Bush was not yet elected President). This, obviously, was a choice that would pay off. You must give credit where it is due, and in this case it is Duke’s. It became the first Dickens novel I ever read, but technically it was not the first installment of Dickensfest, because I hadn’t come up with that concept yet.

After this, exactly seven years ago in fact, I traveled with a friend to London, England, for an off-season 4-day weekend stay. I took A Tale of Two Cities with me, for by now I was convinced I had to explore Dickens, but I didn’t feel too excited about it. I started reading it on the plane, and I was astonished at how much I was enjoying it. On that same day, we arrived in London early in the morning, and came to the third, and by far the most influential, of the three watershed experiences. The guy I went with was a fan of the theater, the really old-school kind, and he wanted to go on a tour. I thought that would be great for sight-seeing reasons, so I agreed to go on a “Charles Dickens Walking Tour” of London. I thought it had to have at least some intrinsic literary value (my own dim intelligence starting to glow feebly).

Here’s how it worked: we found a brochure which told us a location near the river Thames and a time to be there. It was around mid-afternoon; I’ll never forget it. We wandered down to the riverside to a chilly location by a newsstand and waited with a group of other tourists. From where we stood we could see the London Eye and this other hideous stadium monstrosity that they had built for the millennium celebrations, the name of which escapes my memory. We were early, so we just milled around in the cold breeze. Precisely at the required time, a tiny, frail-looking older woman in 19th century peasantry dress showed up out of nowhere, gathered the small group around, and launched into a very vivid, spirited acting performance in which she was a character from that era and was going to guide us to numerous important locations in the life and in the work of the great Charles Dickens. I knew from the way she pronounced his name that the tour was going to be unforgettable. She said it like she was the voice of England herself, and her pride was clear. She was a tremendous actress; her voice inflection and enthusiasm were colorful and uninhibited, and she seemed like one of those great English stage actors that you see in BBC productions and “Masterpiece Theatre”. She took off – her pace belied her ragged appearance – and we all rushed to keep up.

That small woman and the places she guided us to changed my mind about Charles Dickens forever. She took us all over the place, to the financial district, St. Paul’s Cathedral, numerous pubs, school halls, and, to my surprise and pleasure, many back-alleys, fogotten streets and stone passageways. She brought the world of Charles Dickens vividly to life. I remember visiting a stone alleyway Dickens used to pick pockets in as a boy; a huge legal ediface called a ‘chancery’ in which Dickens set many scenes from Bleak House; a bank that played heavily into A Tale of Two Cities, which pleased me since I had just read about the place; a blacking factory like the one Dickens worked in as a child; the actual site of The Olde Curiousity Shoppe, which is still in existence; the location of the fictional murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist; and many drinking establishments where various Dickens scenes had been set. It’s hard to describe how interesting I found the entire tour and how the entire Dickens universe exploded to life in my brain, once I actually set my eyes on those places. As we continued the tour, the evening fell, and I remember ducking under archways in the glow of ornate iron streetlamps, hearing church bells, and hauling open large oaken doors to pubs where inside fires glowed in the hearth and male voices roared in laughter and song. I knew on that tour that I had to dig in to Dickens for real, and this time I had to go all the way. I had to read his books – every one of them – and see why he was the undisputed master of the novel. Just to wander on streets that Charles Dickens himself walked late at night while unable to sleep, plotting out his complicated stories in his brain, was a galvanizing experience for me. I remember those places every single time I open a Dickens novel. I know what they look like; I know what they sound like.

From that whole week sprung the idea of Dickensfest, although it really didn’t take root until two years later, 2002. I had already read Cities, and at some point that year I decided that I was going to read one novel or book by Charles Dickens a year for the rest of my life. This is the essence of Dickensfest. I thought, Why not? I will want to read most of the novels again, and there are a ton to begin with, and if you toss in the shorter works, ghost stories, Christmas tales, and all of his journalism, you can read a book a year forever and never exhaust the well. And I don’t know another author whose work is more worthy of devoting this kind of time and effort. Many people consider Dickens the greatest novelist who ever wrote in English, and I tend to agree. His novels are large, brave, and thrilling; poignant and hilarious; sinister, brooding, and compassionate. He was an undisputed genius of plot and character development, and he had the courage to take on large, important social issues in the context of that most arduous of artistic pursuits: the writing of novels.

Since I began with my annual Dickensfest, I have read some of the most unforgettable novels of any era, including Our Mutual Friend (2002), Bleak House (2003), Dombey and Son (2004), Martin Chuzzlewit (2005), and Nicholas Nickleby (2006). This year’s selection is probably the most famous of them all, Great Expectations. From each book I have taken many favorite moments, but here I will list what I consider to be unforgettable from each story:

-the scene in Our Mutual Friend where the schoolteacher Bradley Headstone captures his mortal enemy Rogue Riderhood in chains and plunges them both into the Thames River to drown in a murder/suicide
-the brilliant, symbolic opening descriptions of a thick fog crawling over a sleeping London in Bleak House
-the gut-wrenching death of Paul Dombey’s six-year-old son in Dombey and Son
-the heart-pounding suspense of what might be the ultimate Dickens murder scene, a bludgeoning in the woods perpetrated by the evil Jonas Chuzzlewit in Martin Chuzzlewit
-the incredible thrashing the title character doles out to the abusive schoolteacher (with the awesome name) Wackford Squeers in Nicholas Nickelby

I’m hopeful that these moments will give anyone who might read this an incentive to enter this world if you haven’t already, and if you are a fan of literature and novels. It is a joy every year to come back to Dickens and discover a new novel of his that I haven’t yet read, thanks to my lack of foresight when I was a younger reader! I am looking forward to the fruitful years ahead where I will rediscover again and again Charles Dickens’ works, and deepen my appreciation of his artistic genius and his big-hearted compassion. Dickens always championed the average Joe and the virtues of humanity in the face of the false authority of power-hungry institutions and the reality of Evil in the world. He never forgot what we all have in common with one another, and he may have put this sentiment best by inserting those internationally famous words in the small mouth of Tiny Tim: “And may God bless us; every one.”

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #58

It probably doesn't need to be said here that the American writer Raymond Carver is known for his short stories primarily, rather than for his poems... but nonetheless he did write quite a few of the latter, and took the challenge of it very seriously. His poems may not go down in history as technically brilliant (not that I'd be a good judge of that!), but they are certainly interesting and, in their better moments, quite powerful.

This one is very meaningful to me because I think it can apply equally well both to the spiritual as well as the intellectual/artistic life. Anyone interested in pursuing both matters of the heart (i.e. following one's passion to create art) and matters of the spirit (i.e. attempting to approach something like holiness) should be able to relate to his determination to learn from the "book of Nature" without distraction -- and his subsequent failure to keep such distractions at bay: "But, as usual, my thoughts began to wander." Man, I sure found myself nodding in agreement over that line... anyway, I find it an admirably honest and accurate depiction of a common interior struggle.


This Morning

This morning was something. A little snow
lay on the ground. The sun floated in a clear
blue sky. The sea was blue, and blue-green,
as far as the eye could see.
Scarcely a ripple. Calm. I dressed and went
for a walk -- determined not to return
until I took in what Nature had to offer.
I passed close to some old, bent-over trees.
Crossed a field strewn with rocks
where snow had drifted. Kept going
until I reached the bluff.
Where I gazed at the sea, and the sky, and
the gulls wheeling over the white beach
far below. All lovely. All bathed in a pure
cold light. But, as usual, my thoughts
began to wander. I had to will
myself to see what I was seeing
and nothing else. I had to tell myself this is what
mattered, not the other. (And I did see it,
for a minute or two!) For a minute or two
it crowded out the usual musings on
what was right, and what was wrong -- duty,
tender memories, thoughts of death, how I should treat
with my former wife. All the things
I hoped would go away this morning.
The stuff I live with every day. What
I've trampled on in order to stay alive.
But for a minute or two I did forget
myself and everything else. I know I did.
For when I turned back i didn't know
where I was. Until some birds rose up
from the gnarled trees. And flew
in the direction I needed to be going.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 39

One Milestone is Here Now, Another Approaches

This edition of the journal is being written on November 7, 2007, which happens to be my 37th birthday. Thirty-seven on the seventh, in the seventh year of this millennium. Is this a positive omen? We can hope so. I may end up posting this on a later date, but I'm writing it on November 7, so it is on the actual day I was born. For those paying attention, by the way, it's also the day my cohort on this blog, Duke, was born, since we're idential twins. So: happy birthday Duke! Nice to cross the line on another year with you.

Since this is ostensibly a journal that marks progress on my 'novel', tentatively titled Only the Dying, it is good to report here today that as of yesterday, or November 6, I finished writing the draft of Chapter IV, 'A Lawyer's Return, Life After Death'. For those keeping the stats (I like to pretend that I have a whole crew working on this project, when it's really just me that's responsible), I started writing the chapter on July 20 and finished on November 6, so it has been another grueling 14 weeks or so on this chapter alone. Also, as I am now typing the chapter up and watching it grow, it looks as though instead of getting more streamlined, my chapters are only getting longer. Unless I edit more extensively than I have done in the past, this one will be my longest chapter yet. At first this bothered me, since I always envisioned that I would have 12-15 chapters in this novel. After I complete this one, it looks like the draft of the entire novel to this point is already going to be close to 300 pages! It seems way too long to me. But, as I was commenting to Duke recently, I cannot worry about that now. I would much rather have too much to work with than too little, and I have to get the story out of me. I can worry about more cuts when I have a complete draft of Only the Dying in front of me. Furthermore, I know of at least one novel that I have great admiration for, Edward P. Jones' the Known World, that has lengthy chapters, and that didn't seem to weigh his novel down. On the contrary: it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Not making any predictions, of course, but the point is that long chapters didn't mar his book.

So, I would say that in general, far from being concerned, I am very pleased with the progress of the novel so far on the story side of it. I feel immersed in the material, and I feel as though I have a strong sense of that bygone Hoosier world, or more correctly of that world as I imagine it to have been. I am not as pleased about the laconic speed at which I am working, but it is true that I have never worked quickly on much of anything, and certainly not anything literary. It is not simple for me to find the required time to write and rewrite. I am not in a good position to neglect my responsibilities to other things, nor would I ever want to. Indeed, there are more reasons than ever for me now to be a responsible and realistic adult while chasing down my dreams. (See note below.)

Nonetheless, I do want to be a novelist, there's no hiding that fact, and as I turn 37 today, at least I can say I am working steadily towards that difficult goal. I have to date drafted one Prologue and four chapters of a novel. It's the best progress I have made towards this goal in all 37 of those years. I hope to write about 6-9 more chapters, give or take, and an Epilogue of some kind before I am done. A long time ago, I gave myself until I was 40 to have my first novel in the can. I thought that seemed reasonable. As I hit 37, I don't know if I will reach this milestone, but I do know and am proud to say that I have made measurable progress.

One other note. I have recently learned that in addition to my two daughters, age 4 and almost 2, my wife and I will soon be welcoming a third child into the world. My new son or daughter is due to arrive around May 31, 2008. I'd better get as much writing in as I can now! I want to achieve my dreams so that I may demonstrate to my new child as well as my other children that dreams are attainable with hard work. May God bless all my children, for it is for their sake that I intend to better myself in matters of art and of faith.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Striving to Prove Yeats Wrong

A few evenings ago I sat down in eager anticipation (for I had been meaning to catch up with this for a long time) to watch Ken Burns' documentary film on the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The films opens to a black screen and the following quote appears, the first thing you see:

"The intellect of man is forced to
choose perfection of the life,
or of the work, and if it takes
the second must refuse a heavenly
mansion, raging in the dark."
-William Butler Yeats

No doubt this is a famous stanza but I had not heard it before, and knowing something about both the genius and the tumultuous personal life of Mr. Wright, I was struck by how perfectly appropriate it was for the subject matter at hand... but perhaps even moreso by its profound relevance for anyone who is interested in pursuing some kind of artistic vocation, and balancing that desire with a healthy and (if one is a Christian) even a holy life. I mention the holy there not only because of the concerns that undergird this blog, but also because Yeats himself hints at it there in his allusion to the 'heavenly mansion' an artist, or so he seems to imply, chooses to forsake in the earthly pursuit of his art.

It is a troubling quotation for those of us interested in balancing dreams of creating great art alongside hopes to become worthwhile men/women, husbands/wives, fathers/mothers, and, finally, disciples of Christ.

A Christian artist (and by this I mean a Christian who strives to create art, not one who has necessarily been recognized as an artist by the society in which he or she lives!) fearfully recognizes both the warning and the challenge in Yeats' quatrain. My brother and co-creator of this blog, Mutt, knows this struggle all too well. I know it too, but at this point in my life am not pursuing my own artistic dreams with the vigor and determination equal to his (for various reasons). But Mutt is aware, sometimes painfully so, of the extremely difficult balancing act that is required of him as he tries to pursue his chief calling, that of God-fearing husband and father, while at the same time chasing down that elusive but worthy dream of becoming a novelist. Each of these pursuits exacts a personal price, but in the first case it is easy to see that the returns are well worth the struggle. This is not so clear, however, in the case of the second. And therein lies some of the danger. If a man allows his frustrations and disappointments over the second stuggle to interfere with his attempts to lead a good life, is he not somehow morally, or even spiritually, compromised?

This is one of the questions implicit in Yeats' words, and he seems to be holding to the line that a man cannot possibly be both 'great' in art and 'good' (in a moral sense) in life. But a Christian artist must strive in his own life to prove Yeats wrong. As Christians, we have no higher calling than to pursue a place in that 'heavenly mansion,' and if we are fathers and husbands, the way we will work out this salvation is through a life of faithful and loving service to our families. But this should not preclude us from also putting into practice whatever artistic talents have been gifted to us by our Creator. I do not believe that God has made it to be a rigid, either/or proposition. The witness of so many great artists in Western (and at least nominally, Christian) culture can lead us to despair on this question, but we should not take any one man's (or woman's) case as our norm. The Lord has called each of us by name, to pursue a vocation unique to our own souls. Let us live up to that great challenge he has set before us. Let us never be afraid to pursue the True, the Good and the Beautiful, in all of its forms, with integrity and passion -- but let us refuse to compromise our attempts at holiness in order to do so. Our success is not up to us... but our spiritual lives are indeed our own responsibility.

So, to echo Pope John Paul II (echoing Jesus): "Rise, let us be on our way..."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #57

Here's one for all true book lovers out there... some wonderful imagery in this poem from Charles Simic, the recently-named Poet Laureate of the United States. I love the idea of untold riches lying in wait within 'dark unopened books,' if only we would take time to pull them off the shelf and explore them... then again, more and more these days we are not doing so. And the poem brilliantly gives us a glimpse of what it is we're missing...

"The books are whispering"... we must slow down, quiet ourselves and try to hear what it is they're saying. Is it too much to say that our very souls depend on it?


In the Library

There's a book called
"A Dictionary of Angels."
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies. The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She's very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Journal of a “Novel”-Entry 38

Chapter IV Title Revealed

Boy, if that doesn’t get you fired up, I don’t know what would……little by little I am slowly making progress towards completing Chapter IV of the novel. I have two segments to write after the one I am working on presently, and it will be done. I think the chapter is turning out pretty well, especially in light of the fact that it has to account for three years of time that has been skipped over (this is the first chapter, aside from the Prologue, not set in 1924 – it jumps forward to 1927). For Chapter V, I am trying to decide if it will skip ahead another few years, or pick up where Chapter IV leaves off – still to be determined. Before the end of the novel, the story has to advance out to at least 1941, and possibly up to 1960, depending on decisions to be made later about what to include from the full arc of Brogan’s lifetime.

The current chapter, Chapter IV, is officially called “A Lawyer Returns, Life After Death”. To me that title captures the main events of the chapter well without revealing too much. It also contains an element of mystery that may or not be what the reader expects. It’s certainly a lot of fun to give these chapters their titles; some of them probably work better than others. And in the case of the first chapter of the novel, “Sweet Music, Pretty Flowers”, the title was provided by a real-life source, a newspaper clipping from Mishawaka, Indiana, circa the turn of the last century, reporting on the wedding of my real-life great grandfather, Valoris Lovell, to Florence Gilman. (I altered it slightly for my story.) Maybe for no other reason that symmetry or even convenience, I decided that the other chapters would be titled the same way – two elements contained within the chapter separated by a comma. Sort of a comma splice, really, but I like it for its balance – each title having a similar structure to me will look interesting, potentially, on a Table of Contents page. For example:

A Novel


I. Sweet Music, Pretty Flowers
II. A Premature Death, New Experiences
III. The Fiery Cross, Revelations
IV. A Lawyer Returns, Life After Death
V. Blah blah, blah blah

Et cetera……

Anyway, this is all I really wanted to mention here. I still have two critical sequences to compose for Chapter IV so it is by no means in the books, followed by the usual 2-3 part editing process, before I can move on. I have some loose ideas surrounding the next chapter, but they are fairly nebulous at this point – it will take settling in to the work on that chapter to get it moving. For now I hope to continue what for me constitutes reasonably steady effort on the rest of this chapter and see it through to the strong and hopefully resonant conclusion it definitely requires.

Stay tuned, for anyone who tunes in in the first place…..

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Truly Mindblowing Short Stories

It's a theme we've been tackling here for some time now (Mutt mostly has been leading the charge, with me, being much less well-read at least in short fiction, yapping behind him like a junkyard dog!)(actually come to think of it, I've been doing that more or less my whole life... uh... let's pick that up some other time...). But it simply refuses to go away, and now it seems like everywhere you turn, people are writing and commenting about it. Famous people, like Stephen King and Joseph Epstein and Philip Roth and others. What am I talking about? Simply this:

Where have all the truly mind-blowing short stories gone? Why can't we (generally speaking) seem to write them anymore, and what will take to bring some back?

Stephen King, who was recently asked to edit the Best American Short Stories, 2007 edition, offered up this essay that was printed by the New York Times (, taking on these very questions directly. It has generated a lot of debate and comment. And then just today, I come across this quote from perhaps America's most respected essayist, Joseph Epstein... which, while perhaps not directly related, gets to the same issue Mutt and I have been discussing that may well hold the key to this mystery:

"Belief goes to the heart of the problem: if you don't know what you believe in, you cannot construct moral dramas, which leaves you with making jokes through elaborate literary constructs to make the sham point about reality not quite existing, or that life is really no more than a dream, sha-boom, sha-boom."

Mutt, I sure don't know if he was thinking of the recent crop of stories from the much-ballyhooed New Yorker when he wrote this, but it sure does seem like the shoe fits in this case, don't it??

Well, I certainly am not the guy who's going to deliver the answer to these questions, not here or not anywhere else. But, to celebrate all that the craft can truly be, and secondly, because lists are just plain interesting, here is my personal list of truly mind-blowing short stories. My criteria for this list is simply that these are some of (certainly not all of!) the stories that stopped me dead in my (figurative) tracks when I read them, that lingered in my mind (in most cases) not for days, but for years afterward... and are obviously still there. These are stories that I, in fact, never expect to fully leave, and I don't want them to. They are pieces of writing I truly savor, go back to and will continue to go back to be reminded of the soul-shaking impact great fiction can have on your average ravenous mind.

As always, I end with a challenge: which stories would be on your list?


"A Distant Episode," Paul Bowles
One of the most powerful -- and appropriate -- endings I've ever read in a short story.

"Murders in the Rue Morgue," Edgar Allen Poe
The greatest whodunit ever conceived? Hollywood wishes it could conceive of a "twist" this shocking.

"Wickedness"/"Nebraska," Ron Hansen
The "bookend" stories of Hansen's only collection deserve to be mentioned together... perfect depictions of the malice, and the miracle (respectively), of nature.

"The Enduring Chill," Flannery O'Connor
Of course I could have picked literally ANY O'Connor story for this list... but this one's final image of the Holy Ghost descending in a stain on the ceiling might just be the perfect summation of her inimitable, sacramental art.

"Roman Fever," Edith Wharton
One of these brilliant stories whose final line changes all that came before it.

"An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge," Ambrose Bierce
Reads like a 19th-century era Sixth Sense... haunting and unforgettable.

"Mothers," Shusaku Endo
A remarkable, moving portrait of a hidden band of Japanese Catholics who have been making it up as they go along on a windswept island, without the spiritual or practical aid of any priests, for decades.

"To Build a Fire," Jack London
A story that is absolutely terrifying in its plausibility and detail. Makes a great companion piece to Hansen's "Wickedness."

"Benito Cereno," Herman Melville
A short but complex masterpiece without equal, I think, in American letters. Light years ahead of its time, like almost everything Melville ever wrote.

"Trilobites," Breece D'J Pancake
This story, written by a virtual unknown (at the time), is stunning from its opening lines and never lets up. Bleak, brutal and beautiful, like the West Virginia landscape he describes down to the exact geologic layer.

"The Falls," George Saunders
This last story from his amazing second collection Pastoralia is the one that proved to me there's a lot more than great humor to Saunders' fiction.

"Prince of Darkness," J. F. Powers
This classic about a selfish priest pining for a parish of his own has one of the greatest -- and most devastating -- last paragraphs I've ever read.

"The Dogs of the Great Glen," Benedict Kiely
Maybe it's my Irish sappiness coming out, but I was almost in tears at the end of this wonderful short tale about an American teacher visiting the land of his ancestors.

"In the Penal Colony," Franz Kafka
Like the entire Inferno in miniature, this horrifying story of a torturous machine incribing one's crime into one's skin is like the reading equivalent of a root canal.

"The Open Boat," Stephen Crane
A fascinating existential parable that prefigures Sartre and Camus, with men struggling on a flimsy boat against the endless, raging sea.

ALL of Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
I literally can't pick one in this astonishing collection, which to me is the first truly great work of American short fiction. I've never read any better collection... nor a better book on youthful passion and the desire to break away and make something for oneself. The stories are heartbreaking, but they hit you like the best poetry -- straight in the soul.

"The Races," Jude Joseph Lovell
I happen to know the author and know he will scoff with embarrassment at this choice, but it was the first story he wrote that caught me off-guard, hitting me in the soft underbelly where the emotions are vulnerable... a truly moving little tale about the fragility of young boys' dreams, and the tragedy when they are ignored.

"The Ballroom of Romance," William Trevor
This story of a young woman going to a local dance in a small Irish village manages to convey the heartbreak of wasted youth and unfulfilled love about as well as anything I've ever read. Another devastating last sentence.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #56: 'The stanzas of an immense poem'

Ladies and gentleman, once again... the incomparable R. S. Thomas. The most profound poet I have ever encountered, with the possible exception of Hopkins.



I praise you because
you are artist and scientist
in one. When I am somewhat
fearful of your power,
your ability to work miracles
with a set-square, I hear
you murmuring to yourself
in a notation Beethoven
dreamed of but never achieved.
You run off your scales of
rain water and sea water, play
the chords of the morning
and evening light, sculpture
with shadow, join together leaf
by leaf, when spring
comes, the stanzas of
an immense poem. You speak
all languages and none,
answering our most complex
prayers with the simplicity
of a flower, confronting
us, when we would domesticate you
to our uses, with the rioting
viruses under our lens.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 37

Not Givin’ Up

Recently, I did something related to this novel in progress that I have been wanting to do for some time – I shipped off a redacted (edited) version of Chapter 1, ‘Sweet Music, Pretty Flowers’ to two fiction periodicals for possible publication. The two journals I sent them to were Story Quarterly and Notre Dame Review. Buoyed by a recent publication success (“Ron Hansen: An Appreciation”, published in the September/October issue of the St. Austin Review – see Duke’s kind-hearted post below), I thought now might be the time to give it a shot, since if I hear back that the journals rejected the excerpt, at least I can have a recent memory of the opposite experience. But if either of the journals accept the piece, not only would it be the first time ever – after at least 12 years of trying – that I would be publishing fiction that I wrote (which remains a highly elusive goal of mine), but it would also be, for my money, the ultimate motivator to get the novel done. For how could I not complete it after some of it was published, with the implicit promise of more? Anyway, for anyone who reads this, stay tuned to this ongoing Journal for updates when they arrive. Given my track record, this will probably be a tiny line or two saying that the chapter will not be published, but on the other hand, I think it’s some of the best stuff I’ve ever written and I do believe I have a chance with the first chapter. So the odds are against it, but they always are, and one thing is for sure: I will not give up on the dream of publishing fiction someday. You can take that to the bank.

The Story Unfolds

Speaking of getting the novel done, I am trying to press ahead on that front, but many things intervene. Not the least of which is the fact that I now work two jobs, one full-time, and one part-time at a community college as a Writing Tutor. This is a new gig for me and is not the easiest thing I have ever attempted. But I am slowly catching on I guess. I only do it two nights a week and some Saturdays, but it has cut into my morning writing time because I have had to take some mornings (there’s only so much time to use, with the jobs, two little children, etc.) to bone up on basic grammar! You have to be able to answer those sorts of questions, and it has been a while since I have had to speak to such things, to say the least.

Nonetheless, Chapter 4 of the novel is progressing. Originally, I had a tentative title for it (‘A Chance Encounter, Overdue’), but I warned readers that this would change, and it looks like it will. But I am not sure of what the new title will be. Maybe I will finish the chapter before titling it – a novel concept. There are many possibilities and I don’t want to commit to anything again here. But I know I have several scenes written and about four more scenes to write. I think it is going pretty well, but I have to deliver on the last four scenes, which if nothing else present the characters in a variety of different settings, including a domestic/conjugal (frankly) situation, a grocery store, a pre-NFL professional football game, and a lakeside convent during a nun’s funeral.

I suppose the main thrust of this chapter, if there is one, is to illustrate that Walter and Greta Brogan have ventured further on with their married lives, but have not quite achieved yet all that they hope to for themselves, mainly a home of their own and a family. Both of them are trying their best to make these dreams a reality, but are encountering certain snags. Brogan is working very hard indeed to try to make his father-in-law’s service station a profitable success, and he’s doing a good job of it. But it’s taking a physical toll on him, and he’s establishing ways of dealing with the stress that may not serve him very well in the long haul. For Greta’s part, she is dutifully holding down the fort, but to put it bluntly, she thought she’d have had a baby by now. Hasn’t happened. And while she has that on her mind, someone she hasn’t seen in a long time has returned to Bentonville – someone with ambition and who could potentially add a distraction to her life she doesn’t quite need.

Meanwhile, P.G. Heinricks is making plans to take his business ventures in a different direction, one that will make him a lot of money, but will require a lot of hard effort. And his son, Peter, is still following along with the questionable schemes of the oil-hunting renegade businessman, Pops Wheeler, somewhere in Texas.

By the time we reach Chapter 5, the landscape will have changed again. Greta and Walter Brogan will have become parents – we know that from the beginning of the novel – and P.G. will have pulled off his biggest entrepreneurial triumph yet – the grand opening of The Golden Wheel, a family restaurant. But by then, it’s late in the decade, and no one yet knows what the 1930s, ‘the dirty thirties’, have in store.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

TST's Imaginary Film Festival

Speaking of Ron Hansen (see previous post), I’m in the middle of reading his second novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which some of you may recognize as the name of a movie that’s about to be released starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck (respectively) in the title roles. Needless to say I am eagerly anticipating the release of the film, and am looking forward to see what the impressive combination of Ron Hansen’s writing (he co-wrote the screenplay), Pitt and Affleck’s acting and Andrew Dominik’s (Chopper) directing will yield.

This got me thinking (fantasizing, really) of what other literary adaptations I would like to see on film… and I thought that might make a fun topic for a blog post here. So here, without further ado, is The Secret Thread’s inaugural Imaginary Film Festival: featuring novels and/or stories I would love to see made into films, along with intriguing director/cast recommendations.

The Violent Bear it Away
Adapted from: the novel by Flannery O’Connor
Director: the Coen Brothers
Cast: Nick Nolte as Mason Tarwater; Edward Norton as Rayber; Barry Pepper as Francis Marion Tarwater

The Clearing
Adapted from: the novel by Tim Gautreaux
Director: Gary Sinise
Cast: Gary Sinise as Randolph Aldrige; Chris Cooper as Byron Aldridge

Independent People
Adapted from: the novel by Halldor Laxness
Director: Tom Tykwer
Cast: Max von Sydow as Bjartus

On the Road
Adapted from: the novel by Jack Kerouac
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Brendan Fraser as Sal Paradise; Woody Harrelson as Dean Moriarty

Blood Meridian
Adapted from: the novel by Cormac McCarthy
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: David Morse as The Judge

Seven Mountains
Adapted from: the biography of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott
Director: Jim Sheridan
Cast: Tim Roth as Thomas Merton

The Canterbury Tales
Adapted from: the novel by Geoffrey Chaucer
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: everyone he ever used in the LOTR films and King Kong!

Benito Cereno
Adapted from: the short story by Herman Melville
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor; Djimon Hounsou; Roy Winstone

Adapted from: the novel by Frank Norris
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman as McTeague

Adapted from: the novel by Clive Barker
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: ???

Going Native
Adapted from: the novel by Stephen Wright
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Michael Keaton as Wylie

What would your choices be?? One could go on and on with this... I'll be interested to hear any responses readers may have!

"You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus."
-Mark Twain

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Essay by TST's Own Mutt Ploughman to Appear in Print

The Secret Thread is proud to announce that our very own writer-in-residence Mutt Ploughman will have an essay of his featured in the upcoming issue of the St. Austin Review, a Catholic literary magazine published in both the U.S. and Great Britain! The essay is a tribute of sorts to one of our favorite writers on this site, the California-based novelist (and more recently) Deacon, Ron Hansen.

The timing could not be better on his choice of subjects, since the film version of Hansen's novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck -- if you haven't seen this trailer yet, go find it on Apple Trailers or wherever, it is worth seeing!) is about to hit theaters, and his newest novel Exiles about the life of Gerard Manley Hopkins is going to be released some time in early 2008.

Interestingly enough, Mutt blogged about finishing this piece on these pages back in May, and here is what he wrote then:

"So I plugged that time with two smaller pieces that I did not expect to write. The first was a tribute to one of my literary heroes, the novelist Ron Hansen. Simply titled, “Ron Hansen: An Appreciation”, I thought the piece turned out well and I tried to sell it to three magazines. But each rejected it. I’m running out of places to send it, but I am glad I tried."

Well, sometimes persistence pays off... and no one knows this better than Mutt, who has been persisting with his writing for many years now. And it is indeed starting to pay off. Mutt has now published essays and book reviews on such diverse writers as Hansen, Stephen Wright, Flannery O'Connor and Philip K. Dick. All of his pieces are exceptionally written and I am very proud that he has sold a few and is continuing to branch out to different periodicals and subject matter.

Congratulations are in order for Mutt on placing this essay in a magazine that has featured the writing of Joseph Pearce, Thomas Howard, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Fr. James Schall and even His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI!

When and if Mutt's essay becomes available online, we will be sure to feature a link to it here... way to go bro!!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Journal of a "Novel"-Entry 36

Excerpt: Chapter IV

The first appearance of a portion of the fourth chapter from my novel, Only the Dying, currently in progress .

It was a typical Saturday afternoon in late September. Brogan was at the service station, of course, hard at work. At least Greta knew he would have some respite the next day from his labors, as the Men’s Club from St. Joseph’s was taking an autobus to Chicago to see Fred Gillies’ Chicago Cardinals take on the Pottsville Maroons. Her husband had been looking forward to it all week long, rather gleefully; few things in the world seemed to give Walter Brogan as much pure joy as watching a football game. Greta would never understand this, which is not to say that she didn’t understand sports – she’d loved baseball since she was a teenager, and used to relish watching semi-pro league games and reading about her favorite pitcher, Christy Matthewson, striking out eighteen batters in one game. But football, with all the hitting, the grunting, the interminable drives and the bloody faces – to her it was far more barbaric and disagreeable to watch, and seemed less intelligent, less strategic. Perhaps one or two steps up from the gladiator contests of Ancient Rome.
The weather was bright, crisp, windy and cool. The sun was shining so clearly and the colors were so vivid that from the inside it almost looked as though it had gone back to the stifling temperatures of July or August. In actuality the temperature was hovering around a modest 58 degrees and the gusts contained a hint of the sharp edge that warned of approaching seasonal changes. The harvest was still a few weeks away but the corn stalks were transforming into tans and browns and golds, and the leaves on the high trees were curling inward and drying out, readying themselves for final flight.
Greta fought against it as creatively and proactively as she could, but on this particular afternoon, she was bored. There seemed to be no escape. Walter was off earning his pay, as he so often was. Her mother had been suffering from headaches all morning, and she was currently taking a repose; getting her to do this much was hard to pull off, but now Greta paid with the lack of even her company. Her younger sister Eva had gone to Indianapolis to a woman’s vocational school where she was studying – if that was what one could call it – the secretarial arts. She longed for a job in an office, taking shorthand or answering phones, something neither Greta nor Eva’s own twin sister, Gertie, had ever aspired to, even for one moment. So much for the common misconception that identical twins always want to do all of the same things. The fact that Eva was actually boarding at the school, at least on a provisional basis until the winter holiday, was remarkable in itself: she was certainly the first woman on either side of the family to do this. As for Gertie, she had remained at home, nothing unusual for a young woman only 20 years old, but she worked as well – Heinricks saw to that. She was employed at the local grocery mart, what they sometimes still referred to as the General Store, on Township Avenue in Bentonville. Miller’s Grocery, it was officially called.
It was to Miller’s, in fact, that Greta decided to walk just then. She did so spontaneously, but had nothing better to do, and had been reading from a novel her friend Bea Owens had recommended – Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, by Anita Loos – for the better part of the previous hour. Normally, Greta didn’t take much to popular novels. There were some exceptions, like Sherwood Anderson or some Edith Wharton books. She was still trying to banish the overall taste of The Great Gatsby from her mouth, with that irascible Daisy Buchanan and her unending lamentations. The writing was brilliant, she could see, but the characters were at their worst deplorable and at best highly confused. More evidence of the obvious malaise she could perceive creeping across the ever-hedonistic landscape like darkness visible. Give her Dickens, Balzac, or Jane Austen over these ‘modern’ novels any day and she would find so much more to sink her teeth into.
However, one could only read for so long, and as much as she enjoyed it, her sense of duty would ultimately interfere. There was probably something she ought to be using her time for that was more constructive for more of the household. In this case she remembered that her father had made plans to have two gentlemen to their house for Sunday dinner on the following night, and her mother had mentioned that she wanted to bake some pies to serve after the meal. One rhubarb and one apple, Greta thought she had said. They were low on sugar and had no rhubarb, and required a few other odds and ends, so Greta decided that while her mother rested she may as well head into town and pick up the needed items.
The men coming to the house were business partners, Greta knew, and there was no real surprise there. One of them was William Jonsrud, her father’s accountant, and the other was a man she’d never met, but her father had mentioned that he was coming in from Chicago. Greta knew from Heinricks’ tone and from the fact that one of the men was Mr. Jonsrud that the reason for the ‘meeting’ was not a trivial one. If his accountant was involved, there was at least some serious discussion taking place; probably there would be deliberation over a significant business decision her father was preparing to make after the meal with brandy and cigars and behind a closed door.
Of course, her father told Isle and Greta little about his business plans, but they did know he was considering the establishment of a restaurant where The Golden Room was currently located, and Greta was capable of putting together more of the puzzle than her father would sometimes give her credit for. She would have been willing to wager some of the little money she had put away on the role of the second visitor – the man from Chicago – as an investor.
This meeting, in addition to adding chores and tasks to Ilse’s (and Greta’s) usual Sunday workload in the house, had caused a spell of tension between her father and her husband. The difficulty was that Walter would not be present for it. Heinricks was miffed that on an occasion where he felt it would be beneficial for his son-in-law to be present, and when he had had the consideration to include him in their post-dinner plans for discussing the matter, Brogan evidently had better things to do. Heinricks had made it perfectly clear that it wasn’t necessary for him to arrange the meeting in his own home and that when he did things like this it wasn’t just because he was too lazy to do it elsewhere. In his view it was painfully clear that his son-in-law was still developing his ability to recognize and take advantage of a sound opportunity when it came his way.
What Greta knew about her husband that her father didn’t appreciate, or couldn’t be bothered to understand, was that Brogan could see what his father-in-law was doing. The fact was that he did appreciate it, at least on the surface, and often took Heinricks’ lead. However, Brogan didn’t operate the same way as Heinricks did, and he never would. It was a matter of style, a fundamental difference in their approach to work, and to life. Heinricks was well versed at making these connections, forming networks; his way of doing business was not unlike politics; it was about who you knew, and who knew you. Brogan wasn’t that sort of man. He didn’t want to work people over or to sell anything. He wasn’t interested in pandering to the little man and romancing the big one. All he wanted to do was knuckle down and get to the job at hand and do it as hard as he could.
A man who approached his work this way was probably never going to get very far ‘ahead’, as Heinricks tried to impress on his bull-headed son-in-law. Here was an example of why: missing this dinner and the discussion to follow to go watch a football game. Greta had fallen for and still admired her husband’s brand of oxen integrity. He was a workhorse, all right, but he got things done his own way. However, she had enough of her father in her to see his point of view also and, worse, to occasionally find herself aligning with his concerns that Brogan’s style might be a financial disadvantage. But he was exactly who he was. Which meant that on workdays – like this day, despite it being Saturday – he would be hard at it. And on days meant for leisure, like the following day, he would direct the same energy towards the action on the gridiron and the two-fisted camaraderie of being with his friends.
Greta laid the novel down on the cherry wood table and rose. It was almost completely silent in the house, something she was never able to get used to in the previous three years. Indeed, she had thought that by now her daily life would have been considerably noisier than it actually was. Everything in its own time, she reminded herself. Or, in God’s time. The sun blazed brilliantly through the maple trees outside in the yard and the air was almost visibly contorted by the vigorous autumn wind. It was coming into that time of year in Bentonville that everyone seemed to love, and how could they not feel that way? The colors and the weather and the wildly various smells that erupted in and around a farm town like this one during the autumn months – nothing could match its sheer earthiness, its palpable spirit of plentitude, communion with the land, and general optimism. All of this, uniquely American. The hour of the harvest in the heart of the vast country. The soil-dusted hands of the farmer and the gritty salt of the earth.
She wandered down the groaning staircase and threw a lambswool sweater over her shoulders. Down the hall towards the back of the house she could hear her mother’s steady breathing and was glad that she was asleep. Ilse was more willing to concede the times she felt fatigue or illness or both to her daughter now than she had ever been when Greta was being raised. Greta was thankful for this because of the implicit trust and level of comfort on her mother’s part, but also because it revealed to her that her mother was more human than she had ever seemed before, when Greta and her two sisters and Peter were all schoolchildren.
She went in to the kitchen and rummaged in a drawer until she found the nub of a brown pencil. On the counter there was a brown paper sack with a dozen Granny Smith apples inside. Greta tore off a small piece of the sack and scribbled on it: GONE TO MILLER'S FOR SUGAR, RHUBARB, ETC. BE BACK SHORTLY. G. She withdrew one of the apples, curled the sack up around the rest, and pinned the note down with the apple in the middle of the counter. Then she moved through the parlor and out the heavy front door with its dazzling top half of beveled glass and brass ornamentation. She didn’t bother to wear anything on her head, something she would regret shortly, much to her own embarrassment.
In front of the house near the curb she stopped to breathe in the wonderful Hoosier air that she had always loved. In the spring and early summer you couldn’t step out of your door without getting pummeled by the odor of manure as farmers worked to fertilize their crops. One grew used to this, even to the point of having affection towards it, something city dwellers found borderline insane. Mention this to someone from Indy or Chicago and they’d consign you mentally to the booby hatch specifically erected in their own heads as the appropriate place for most country folk. But to smell the manure in the Spring meant the payoff of the harvest in the fall – the burning leaves, the cool wind, pumpkins ripening, corn roasting.
The end of 4th Street was not far from Heinricks' front door and beyond that stretched an expanse of soy fields and brittle corn stalks. On that very afternoon Pete Johnson, who owned both fields, was working his way south on foot through the corn, muttering to himself. He had a long job ahead: he had only four aging horses and an old plow, for it would be some time before he could manage to afford a tractor-drawn combine. Further still than these fields was a tiny graveyard laid out in a rectangular patch of land with one large, graceful tree standing near the middle of the stones like a sentinel. From where she stood Greta could see the individual graves with their tiny markers like a conclave for organized insects, aligned in careful rows. They had been burying the townsfolk here since just after the Civil War. The graveyard was not as large as one might expect. To one side there had recently been added an elevated statue of the crucified Christ under which the parish priests were reposed in a semi-circle of their own, a separate entity from the more geometrically arranged graves of the laypeople. That is where I am headed, someday, thought Greta, but rather than any feeling of despair or self-reproach for being so morbid, she found, as she had before, consolation in the thought. Perhaps it came from her sense of certainty that she would never stray far from where she felt she belonged.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #54 (and 55!)

This installment is in fact a double feature from one of the most important writers of the last (20th century): the poet and Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz. The man needs no introduction (least of all from me), and these two poems reveal the depths of his insights, the genius of his poetic gift and the troubled conscience of the artist, trying to express the voice of his people in the midst of totalitarian rule.


In Warsaw

What are you doing here, poet, on the ruins
Of St. John's Cathedral this sunny
Day in spring?

What are you thinking here, where the wind
Blowing from the Vistula scatters
The red dust of the rubble?

You swore never to be
A ritual mourner.
You swore never to touch
The deep wounds of your nation
So you would not make them holy
With the accursed holiness that pursues
Descendants for many centuries.

But the lament of Antigone
Searching for her brother
Is indeed beyond the power
Of endurance. And the heart
Is a stone in which is enclosed,
Like an insect, the dark love
Of a most unhappy land.
I did not want to love so.
That was not my design.
I did not want to pity so.
That was not my design.
My pen is lighter
Than a hummingbird's feather. This burden
Is too much for it to bear.
How can I live in this country
Where the foot knocks against
The unburied bones of kin?

I hear voices, see smiles. I cannot
Write anything; five hands
Seize my pen and order me to write
The story of their lives and deaths.
Was I born to become
a ritual mourner?
I want to sing of festivities,
The greenwood into which Shakespeare
Often took me. Leave
To poets a moment of happiness,
Otherwise your world will perish.

It's madness to live without joy
And to repeat to the dead
Whose part was to be gladness
Of action in thought and in the flesh, singing, feasts
Only the two salvaged words:
Truth and justice.


You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree.

What strengthened me, for you was lethal.
You mixed up farewell to an epoch with the beginning of a new one,
Inspiration of hatred with lyrical beauty,
Blind force with accomplished shape.

Here is the valley of shallow Polish rivers. And an immense bridge
Going into white fog. Here is a broken city,
And the wind throws the screams of gulls on your grave
When I am talking with you.

What is poetry which does not saveNations or people?
A connivance with official lies,
A song of drunkards whose throats will be cut in a moment,
Readings for sophomore girls.
That I wanted good poetry without knowing it,
That I discovered, late, its salutary aim,
In this and only this I find salvation.

They used to pour millet on graves or poppy seeds
To feed the dead who would come disguised as birds.
I put this book here for you, who once lived
So that you should visit us no more.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Historic Post: Mutt & Duke’s First Ever JOINT, DOUBLE REVIEW

Richard Flanagan’s novels The Unknown Terrorist and Gould’s Book of Fish

Mutt Ploughman:
Duke turned me on originally to the work of the Tasmanian writer Richard Flanagan when he spotted the novel Gould’s Book of Fish, which he reviews below. Perhaps because he hails from so far away, I had never heard of him, but a little research revealed that his three earlier novels have all been highly acclaimed in other parts of the world, and he seems to have massive ambition and talent. A Rhodes scholar who is also the descendant of Irish convicts that were imprisoned in New Zealand, Flanagan evidently has a long and colorful personal lineage as well as a bloody and conflicted national identity to work with, and both of these obviously inform previous work. Now he has produced a fourth novel called The Unknown Terrorist, which is my introduction to his writing.

To judge from the descriptions of earlier works, this new book is clearly an effort to take a different direction, something I can’t fully appreciate because I haven’t read the earlier novels. It’s a very modern story, set in an urban environment (Sydney, Australia), and it resonates deeply in the current global context of terror alerts, privacy infringement, and mass media-induced paranoia. The new novel can be seen as Flanagan’s comment on the state of the post-9/11 world. It’s not a complementary one, but one wonders how it could be.

The Unknown Terrorist is hard-hitting and brisk, written with a sense of urgency. No character comes off entirely well in the beginning and few of them are doing any better by the end. The most sympathetic – and this should tell you something – is the novel’s heroine, known as ‘the Doll’, who makes her living stripping, has severed ties with remaining family, and eschews modern capitalist conventions (such as credit cards), as well as many moral ones (in addition to stripping and casual sex, she likes drugs). Despite her rather loose lifestyle, she does have goals, maybe even principles, and is attempting to adhere to these when she stumbles into a hornet’s nest through an ill-advised one-night stand with a suspected terrorist.

Soon the Doll is on the run, attempting to call in favors and avoiding the police, whom she does not trust. Her face is plastered all over the news as an accomplice of homicidal Islamic extremists, and she is tried, judged and sentenced in the minds of the general public, who are being urged on by a callous, blood-thirsty media. All of it spins wildly out of control, innocent people are caught up in the currents, and blood is spilled, irrevocably and tragically. The most frightening thing is that every part of this story is thoroughly plausible. Flanagan has crafted this bracing novel carefully, streamlining the prose and shortening chapters, so that the breakneck pace matches the speed of our current moment.

This is no conventional “thriller”, however. It is simply that this book cannot plod and be effective. The narration has no time to brood on the tragedy or take solace in small moments of respite. He also is wise to refrain from polemical messages or political statements. This book’s firm footing in the reality of our time speaks for itself. It builds to a climax that is all the more shattering because it is clearly coming from the very beginning.

The only warning I would offer here is that this book begins darkly and only gets more so as it progresses. The character of the Doll – in both senses of the word – is totally annihilated by the relentless pursuit of a world the author clearly feels has fallen far from any form of Grace. The conclusions Flanagan seems to draw from his meditation on the current state of the world, and I mean the entire globe, feel heartfelt but they are nihilistic. You will feel the author’s sadness and despair, while you may not entirely agree with his conclusion that all is beyond hope and God has long forgotten this planet and its residents. If you suffer from existential angst, this book is not going to help.

*** *** ***

Duke Altum:
It’s fascinating that Mutt and I would each encounter a celebrated contemporary fiction writer’s work at right around the same time, and yet have such different experiences with the novels we read. And yet, this is part of what makes Flanagan one of the most exciting relatively young novelists working today – he is a writer absolutely committed to not repeating himself. Nothing reveals that commitment more clearly than a look at his last two works, the aforementioned The Unknown Terrorist and his previous novel, the one I had the distinct pleasure to read, Gould’s Book of Fish.

To start off with a statement like “this novel was unlike anything I had ever read before” is excruciating, I know, and yet in this case it is absolutely the truth. And I can almost guarantee that 95% of readers who pick it up will think the same thing at some point in their experience with it. It’s a novel that almost eludes description. It’s got the tone and language of a Dickens novel, the fantastical and mythic imagery of Marquez, the unsparing violence and darkness of McCarthy, and (from what I have heard) the love and respect for the mysteries of original Australian/Tasmanian landscapes and culture of someone like Patrick White. Flanagan appears to be a remarkably chameleon-like writer, since he has said (and Mutt confirms above) that he was deliberately aiming for short, terse, clean, clipped sentences in Terrorist (“prose like a windowpane” he says, no doubt consciously echoing Orwell) – whereas Gould’s writing style is the exact opposite. Long, lyrical, ornate sentences and paragraphs, complete with ampersands and arcane spellings of English words to mimic that distinctive 19th-century novel look and feel.

This is a Russian doll of a novel, a book within a book within a book that at times has you scratching your head as you might in a Charlie Kaufman-scripted film, wondering which level of reality you’re currently immersed in. The central tale tells of the convict William Gould, imprisoned on a horrific prison island somewhere off the southern coast of Tasmania, literally the ass-bottom of the world, eking out his miserable existence in a cell carved into the side of a cliff (which, depending on the tide, is often near-full with sea water). His only companions in this watery hell are a corpse, the creatures of the sea and his manuscript – a “book of fish” he has been asked to create by the warden of the island, a Kurtz-like maniac who meets a grisly end in a staggering heap opf wild pig dung. Oh yes, there are many nightmares to be found in this book, and some of the images are shocking, not just for Flanagan’s vivid descriptions but also for the cruelty man is capable of inflicting upon man.

The oddly ingenious structure of the book – “a novel in twelve fish” – provides Flanagan with a perfect framework within which he can muse upon his favorite themes, which seem to be love, the loss of both native land and native cultures, and the wonders of nature itself. Clearly someone who draws inspiration from the beauty and complexity of the created world, Flanagan can be quite moving when describing something as simple and (seemingly) inconsequential as the shimmering colors found on the underside of a fish’s belly. And yet, as Cormac McCarthy recently and memorably reminded us (for we seem to have long since forgotten) in his astonishing final sentences of The Road, within those miraculous hues lie mysteries we cannot even begin to fathom.

Flanagan has said that “up until The Unknown Terrorist, my books have always been about love, land and memory.” And it’s interesting that he has reacted to what he calls “a crisis of love” in our age with a book like the one Mutt reviewed above, in which the insanity and fear of a post 9/11 world simply takes over a woman's life, leaving her with no recourse but to embrace the fate that has been so randomly thrust upon her. Gould’s Book of Fish describes a different world indeed, a world in which mystery is still respected, and indeed celebrated in works of art that have the power to transcend class and culture and, ultimately, achieve a kind of liberation for the downtrodden. Frankly it’s hard to say by the end of the book whether that “liberation” is the stuff of reality or of metaphor (for the characters I mean – for us, it’s clearly the latter, as it must always be in fiction), but in writing this powerful, moving, and at times terrifying meditation on art and on evil, Flanagan has proven he has the talent and the courage to follow the "thread" of fiction to where it must inevitably lead: straight into the dark, despairing, God-haunted heart of man.