Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Journal of a 'Novel'-Entry 48

Meanwhile, Back on the Farm…..

As of today, the writing is underway for Chapter VI of the novel, tentatively titled “The Black Giant, Obeisance to Mammon”. I am pretty motivated about it right now for at least two reasons. The first reason is a simple one: it did not take me anywhere near as long to begin with Chapter VI after finishing Chapter V as it did to begin Chapter V after writing Chapter IV. Between Chapters IV and V there was a spirit-crushing 6-month interval. The interval between finishing Chapter V and starting this one is more like 6 weeks. Readers, this is progress! With an infant and two other children in my house, it feels worthwhile to celebrate whatever little victories I can achieve in this long, long haul.

The second reason I am excited about getting into this chapter is that it allows me to dig further into the stories I am creating around a few of the “secondary” characters for this novel. Why is this exciting? Well, it mixes it up, for one thing – I won’t be writing exclusively about Walter Brogan’s auto station or P.G. Heinricks’ business endeavors or about Greta Heinricks’ state of mind. All of these things are critical components of my story, and I don’t mean I don’t like writing about them; but like anyone trying to gut their way through a particularly long and difficult task, it is nice to have some variety. And hopefully the same thing will apply for whatever readers this novel may or may not find in the future. Also, on perhaps a deeper level, writing about the stories of other characters in the book expands and broadens the horizons of the fictional universe I am creating. It provides a larger canvas for me, a wider playing field, and given that extra space, my imagination can further stretch out its muscles and plumb its limitations, as it were. A novel, from the writer’s point of view, is partially about new discoveries. It’s about testing how far my mind can take itself and gauging the strength and endurance of my creative abilities. It is an exciting time, I am finding out. You begin to learn that your greatest obstacles are within. It’s one of those things that everyone knows, but going through a process like this bears the adage out.

Also, I must state for the record that this is the ONLY kind of “OJT” or “on the job training” I ever really enjoyed in my life, unless you count parenting.

The first “secondary” character that will be encountered in the opening of Chapter VI, which moves ahead only briefly from the end of Ch. V to the Spring of 1930, is the farmer Cal Wittenburg, who had a significant role in the story in Chapters III and IV, and will certainly have a more prominent role in events as the story rolls on. He will become a pivotal figure in Walter Brogan’s own story, because of the friendship they will continue to forge as Brogan transitions from a gas station manager to a fuel oil distributor and thus Wittenburg’s fuel delivery man. Brogan will soon enough be making regular visits to the Wittenburg farm to conduct his duties in this capacity, and that in turn will allow him to make observations of the farmer’s way of life as the Depression rolls into full swing across the land. Therefore, I think it is important for the reader to see some of that lifestyle ahead of time, and learn some more information about Cal Wittenburg and his story.

In order to gain inspiration and information, I have been reading about farm life in the early 30s, and I just completed a book that might as well have been Heaven-sent for this purpose: a book called Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, which is nothing more than a memoir of daily life in a farm in rural Iowa during the Depression. The book is a nostalgic but unsentimental look back in time to an era that is now gone forever, as no one realizes more than the septuagenarian author. It was recognized as one of the Top Ten Books of 2007 by the New York Times and the Washington Post, and one can see how it garnered this sort of acclaim. It is literally jammed with details about this fascinating, long-forgotten but much simpler and, arguably, healthier way of life. I am lucky to have found the book, which contains colorful anecdotes about almost everything you can imagine, from farming procedures to cooking to saving money to church life to animals to flora to getting an education, in more ways than one. Reading Kalish’s priceless memoir has given me plenty of ideas for fleshing out my own vision of what life must have been like in and around the Wittenburg household, which I must now work into compelling scenes that also advance the story I am telling. A hard task, but let’s keep things in perspective: it’s not as hard as raising an entire family on somewhere around $300-$400 a year’s earnings.

Right now I am putting together a sequence, for lack of a better word, which will present the reader with some up-til-now lacking information on Cal Wittenburg’s back history and will also reveal Wittenburg and his wife and children engaging in a family ritual which will hopefully reveal a lot about their collective character and priorities. Who is Cal Wittenburg? Where did he come from? How long has his family occupied the land he lives on? What sorts of measures will he have to take just to provide for his family? These questions will be answered. Wittenburg for me is a stand-in for legions of faceless men and women from this era who kept America fed while shouldering the crushing burden of some of the worst economic conditions in the history of our country. For these farmers, the Depression started long before some stock market crash. Wittenburg is the sort of man whose indomitable will and unshakeable fidelity to his family, his land and his values will naturally draw Walter Brogan and inspire him to act in certain ways later in the novel which may or may not have a dramatic effect on his own fate – and his family’s as well.

Boom! Like That

Another storyline I am looking to unpack in this next chapter, to an extent that even I am not sure of yet, concerns P.G. Heinricks’ son, Peter, and his adventures in Texas with Pops Wheeler, oil man/con artist extraordinaire. Peter Heinricks hooked up with Wheeler in Chapter I of this story, and has been with him ever since, from around 1924 through 1930, when this chapter begins. For the most part he has been weaving briefly in and out of the narrative only in letter format, sending correspondence the one member of his family he still feels closeness with, his elder sister Greta. To this point his letter have been rambling explanations of the various measures Wheeler and his team have been taking, in vain, to locate and drill for deposits of oil that Wheeler insists must exist underneath the topsoil in the eastern plains of rural Texas. Needless to say, Peter’s letters have been noticeably free of details of however else he might be spending his time, or whatever money he can rustle up, while detached from his family and any other close relations over that slow, meandering six-year stretch.

But things are about to change for Peter. For Pops Wheeler is on the verge of a discovery that will prove all the naysayers were wrong and he was right after all. And this will make Peter, at least for the near future, a rich man. In real life, the “Black Giant” – a more than 1,500 mile reservoir of raw petroleum – was discovered on October 3, 1930, in eastern Texas, causing a major oil boom. Hangers-on, hungry migrants, businesses, executives, scientists – they all came running, and those who discovered the oil and sold it became insanely wealthy almost overnight. This chapter attempts to re-imagine that boom scenario, a windfall at first for Peter Heinricks. But with the boom comes temptations and debauchery and other forms of excess, and the question will be whether Peter can manage these additional pressures while living far away from the shadow of his entrepreneurial father, without restraints.

Soon, he will be driven to other measures to stop his losses and feed his own greedy frenzy for more of everything, measures that may be illegal and dangerous…..

It’s all going to make for some interesting writing experiences for the guy making the attempt to bring it all off. Hopefully the end result will be some arresting and entertaining moments for future readers.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

She Who Must Be Read

Reflections on Rowling’s Harry Potter Series, at the Halfway Point, by a Luddite Muggle
It seems impossible, or maybe magic was involved, but somehow I managed to completely avoid the entire Harry Potter phenomenon up until about a year or so ago when the film version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was released. By ‘avoid’, of course, all I mean is that I didn’t personally read the books or watch the films. There IS no magic that could make any citizen of the Western world avoid this incredibly popular creative explosion entirely. The simple fact that there’s no need to even expand on their popularity, because everyone already knows all about it, says it all.

But, like just about everyone else who is a part of civilization, I eventually fell under its spell. I think I may have the most backward entry into the series ever, though. I entered the Harry Potter universe through the film just mentioned above. That’s right, I STARTED with the film version of the fifth novel. Huh?? Before then I just wasn’t convinced that the books would hold my interest. It’s not that I thought they weren’t good books. I didn’t really know how they would measure up in terms of literary quality, because I had never cracked one open. But I just didn’t take much of an interest in fantasy, wizards, spells, sorcery, wands, and all of that. I never even made it through the Narnia series. It just hasn’t really been my thing. It still isn’t.

So how did I decide to enter the story, and at the fifth movie? More or less by accident. I was going to the movies with a friend, and he is a huge fan of the series. Neither one of us ever get to go to the movies too often, and at that time Phoenix was just hitting theaters. He’d read all the books to date (the world was still waiting for Book Seven) and was saying that he really wanted to see the newest film, but he knew we couldn’t go because I hadn’t read the book or seen the other films. ‘So what?’ I said. I like going to the movies, and can usually find at least something to enjoy in almost any movie. I was curious to see what sort of job they were doing on the films. I suggested I would go to the movie with him if, over a burger beforehand, he would give me the world’s quickest primer on the first four Harry Potter novels. He did, and off we went.

Most of the films are wonderful, I think, and Phoenix was no exception. But this post is about the novels. You see, in the first few scenes of the fifth film, I knew I was going to have to go back and read every one of the books. In deciding I would not like the Harry Potter series because I wasn’t into wizardry-type stories, I had forgotten the simple power of stories themselves. A good story is a good story. It can be about anything, as long as its creator draws you into the unique world of it through believable characters that you care about. And it became clear to me – after it had already been clear to hundreds of millions of other people – that the entire Harry Potter universe boils down to one great, great story. It drew me right in.

Once I got into the novels, I learned what most others knew – that there is no getting out until you go all the way through. It’s a fantastic story set in a vivid and fully-realized fictional universe. The overarching concept of the orphaned boy with special abilities he doesn’t fully understand trying to get to the heart of the mystery of his own curious existence is certainly nothing new, it’s in everything from Oliver Twist to Star Wars. But it’s still a brilliant conceit, because it hooks our sympathies from the very beginning of the series, and never affords us the opportunity to lose our compassion for Harry Potter. Are you going to lose your sympathy for a kid that’s merely trying to find out why someone murdered both of his parents and what it means? Me neither.

For me, the funny thing about it all is that once I was drawn in to the story, by the circumstances and for the reasons I just explained, I could find, and continue to find, plenty of my own personal motives for continuing to unpack it. Of course I find the storyline compelling, but I find other aspects of this fictional series even more intriguing. Such as the amazing tale of how it got started in the first place, the well-known story of author Joanne Rowling’s fateful 1990 ride on a London train in which she conceived of the entire saga in one tremendous windfall of inspiration. Or the totally unpredictable phenomenon of its worldwide domination as the most popular fictional story in literary history. Or the absolute genius of Rowling’s plotting skills, something I think no one has even approached since Charles Dickens (more comparisons to Dickens come to mind which I may have to explore at greater length in a future installment).

Or, there are the more voluminous but equally interesting questions the series inevitably raises, such as: Is the whole series really unique, or just the cleverest-yet rehashing of old archetypes and myths? But aren't all novels like that? Are plot and story really superior to aesthetic quality? Does its British-ness make any difference? Does the fact that it was written by a woman have significance in terms of what the books know and and are concerned with? Why is the series THIS popular, when similarly-themed stories have been floating around for centuries? Does the story really have any religious implications, dangerous or otherwise?

All of these are fascinating ‘riddles’ to consider, and are freshly evoked every time this series of books comes back into the news, as it will again next year with the release of the film version of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

I can’t hope to answer them now. But here I stand, at the half-way point through the series, having just completed the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. It was published in 2000 to near-universal acclaim. I remember when it came out: I was working in New York City at the time, right across from what used to be the World Trade Center. If I’m not mistaken, it was the first time they had built up such a frenzy for the Potter books that they did midnight sales parties and people dressed like wizards to go get an early copy of the book. After it was published (not at midnight!) I went across the street to the Borders book shop that only months later would be buried in the rubble. I can vividly recall being astonished at the sheer GIRTH of the book. I knew next to nothing about the series, but it was hard to believe that young kids would go nuts over a book that could also be a door stop. At 734 pages, Goblet of Fire was just about twice as long as any previous Potter tome.

But read it the kids did, and so did everybody else, and by this time even the critics were talking about the books being classics. Recall these remarkable superlatives from the New York Times book critic Janet Maslin in her review in July 2000:

Ms. Rowling, a kindred spirit to both Lewis Carroll and the pre-Jar Jar Binks George Lucas, turns out to be a fantasist who lives inside a thrillingly fertile imagination, mines it ingeniously and plays entirely by her own rules. Talk about supernatural tricks: she has turned this odds-defying new book into everything it promised to be. As the midpoint in a projected seven-book series, ''Goblet of Fire'' is exactly the big, clever, vibrant, tremendously assured installment that gives shape and direction to the whole undertaking and still somehow preserves the material's enchanting innocence. [….] This time she achieves her most lucid, well-plotted and exciting conclusion, complete with a spectacular wand-on-wand confrontation to recall Luke, Darth and their light sabers, enhanced by the identity-twisting tricks in which Ms. Rowling specializes. The book ends on a mournful note with the loss of one character, and with ominous, cliff-hanging hints of a next installment. Two things seem certain: it will involve giants and be awaited with justifiably bated breath.

I have been nothing short of amazed at my response to these books. For a very long time I didn’t have much interest, as I said before. But here at just over the halfway point to the end – three novels wait for me to read, the last two of which I know virtually nothing about save their titles – I am engrossed by them and fascinated by Rowling’s accomplishment.

It’s not the literary quality of the books. Rowling’s prose is serviceable at best. It’s clean, and can be occasionally elegant, but it’s not groundbreaking or beautiful or even particularly interesting, on its own. It gets the job done. It seems to me that Rowling has a novelist’s gift for details, but I wouldn’t even say she has great skills in writing dialogue.

Furthermore, some of the side characters are cardboard-stiff. Draco Malfoy, Harry’s foil, has been using the same twittering harrassment techniques since the first novel. He fails to evolve much as a character, unlike Harry, who is growing and learning and entering further into his own personal darkness with each new year, and finding the realities of life not as enticing or rewarding as he once may have thought. Malfoy’s no real threat to Harry; he’s not up to the job. Perhaps Rowling didn’t intend him to be a truly meaningful character, since we all know Harry has a REAL enemy, Lord Voldemort. This is to say nothing of Malfoy’s two cronies, identified as Crabbe and Goyle, who are nothing but thugs. They may as well be made of cardboard and propped up in the scenes they appear in next to Malfoy. In fact, they usually are. At least that is the case through Book Four. Professor Gilderoy Lockheart from Chamber of Secrets is a recognizable caricature of the egotistical fraud whose bark is far worse than his bite when things start to get a little messy. Rita Skeeter from Goblet is a thinly-veiled stand-in for the paparrazzi, and an easy target at whom someone like Rowling can gleefully hurl her bolts of lightning. Not that I can necessarily begrudge her the fun of doing so, but it doesn’t make the character any more genuine.

However, in terms of characterization, there is a noticable upgrade when it comes to the main cast. It might make for an uneven literary performance by English course textbook standards, but it is still to the books’ gain that Harry himself, Ron Weasley and his entire hardluck family, Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape, Hermione Granger, and even Voldemort are all engagingly drawn and capable of inspiring strong feelings in us, one way or the other. Voldemort, to this point, has been seen little, and what we know of him reveals him to be more or less a purely evil spawn of Hell with a snake’s nose and terrible claws. Needless to say this gives him little in common with anyone or anything save a really, really awful mother-in-law. But once you’re done with Goblet of Fire, and particularly if you’ve seen Ralph Fiennes’ film-stealing cameo in the film version of same, at least you know you’re dealing with a genuine badass. Voldemort was cast off for dead and literally disembodied for thirteen years. When he finally arrives back in flesh in the conclusion of Goblet, he is not interested in putzing around. It may be ridiculous, but it is shockingly good fun to watch Fiennes scream, “I’M GONNA KILL YOU, HARRY POTTER!!!” One believes him!

But characters, prose, and suspension of disbelief aside - (wait, can you cast those things aside?? it's part of the debate) - it’s clear to me by the fourth novel that Rowling’s books deserve their tremendous success. That’s because they are sheer genius in the only game that really matters: storytelling. The plotting in these stories is magnificent. As I mentioned before, no one since Dickens has created stories that are so complexly plotted and deliver so much satisfaction as these plots come to their resolution. They can get very heady: The Prisoner of Azkaban gets particularly convoluted near its end. But so far, Rowling has managed to keep all of the balls in the air and she makes all the pieces come together exactly enough to keep you asking questions after reading each book, while giving you a satisfactory measure of thrills. Her command of the Potter universe is total and supreme. You never doubt the writer for a moment. This is amazing, when you consider the fact that everything in the stories is utterly unbelievable. As soon as you read that a cat has transformed into a witch in the opening chapter of Sorcerer’s Stone, all plausibility goes out the window. But at that same moment Rowling’s extraordinary imagination takes you prisoner. And she never releases you.

I think the reason for Rowling’s success in crafting these stories, which must have taken such a tremendous jolt of inspiration, only to be followed by years of hard literary labor – for writing novels, as some of us are learning, is very hard work – may be able to be traced back to the circumstances from which she brought the entire saga forth. Once upon a time, Rowling was a single mother on public assistance who had a dream and at least one other mouth to feed. She’d seen hardship in her own life, and even more hardship in the lives of others as an employee of Amnesty International as a young woman. She had a tremendous hunger to write stories and a terrific responsibility to find a way to improve the quality of her life for her child’s sake. I think somewhere in the midst of all that she must have made a firm decision: it’s now or never. My imagination is my only way out of this, and to fail is unacceptable. So she settled on the only course of action a writer can turn to in the end: to get to work.

As for what happened after that, I guess you might call it magic.

Friday, August 08, 2008

On Beauty, part 2


Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, when it appeared in 2000, was a remarkable debut, a literary sensation. This British wunderkind, the daughter of a white Englishman and a black mother, wrote the novel while still an undergraduate at Cambridge University, and it was published to wide acclaim. Though not perfect, the novel’s flaws were overpowered by its bravado and comic sophistication. It had a bevvy of multi-racial, international characters, witty dialogue, a Dickensian scope, and a zany, madcap conclusion which bordered on overkill but was also impressive for its sheer audacity. White Teeth was the quintessential bellowed announcement of a bold new talent in contemporary literature.

Smith’s second novel, The Autograph Man, was not as well received critically. I have not read it, so I can’t comment on it directly. From what I can glean about it, however, though it may have tried and failed on some levels, it doesn’t appear to be any less confident or ambitious than White Teeth. It must be very difficult to be hailed as a new sensation with one’s first book – you would be under enormous pressure with your second. Inasmuch as The Autograph Man seemed to tackle broad cultural subjects like the nature of celebrity and the influence of popular culture on one’s identity, I can only conclude that Smith was not cowed by high expectations. However successful that novel may or may not have been, it wasn’t timid, and seemed to demonstrate Smith’s confidence in her own abilities.

Then came On Beauty, her third novel, published in 2005. I am late to the party on this by a wide margin, but I’ve had my eye on it since it was hailed by some critics as a near-masterpiece. Sometimes it just takes me a long time to get to the books I want to read. But I am now finally reading it for the first time and I wanted to offer a few reflections on the novel. The book deserves some thought. It is hard for me to imagine another young novelist (Smith is younger than I am) who is as talented and as advanced in her understanding of craft and literature as Zadie Smith, on any side of the Atlantic, and irrespective of gender. There are a lot talented young writers in the world today, both male and female; Smith stands up against, and more than likely surpasses, any of them. I must admit that I am fairly devouring On Beauty, not only making my way through it rapidly, but doing so with relish and the pure joy that comes with reading very good fiction. I feel compelled to examine why I find the book so pleasurable.

The plot has been rehashed and condensed in so many available reviews that it doesn’t make much sense to go into it in detail. Let’s just say the novel is set in New England and in London, and concerns the intertwining destinies of two familes whose patriarchs, both academics, are arch rivals. One family is headed by Howard Belsey, a white Englishman and a liberal professor with a cynical and disappointed view of the world. The other belongs to Sir Monty Kipps, a black intellectual and a conservative Christian. They both have multiple children of various ages. The event that sets the novel in motion is that Kipps agrees to take a position in America at the same small New England college where Belsey teaches art history, and so the two families suddenly find themselves in close quarters with one another.

Smith taught for a year at Harvard while composing On Beauty and clearly has a lot of fun sending up academic life, American culture, and other easy targets such as the Creative Writing workshop. She has the intelligence to approximate the language of such environments and the cultural awareness to be able to contrast it with urban dialect, rap music, and the cynical, information-saturated outlook of college students today. Possessing both a wonderful ear and a wicked sense of humor, Smith demonstrates these to ample effect throughout the novel in exchanges of sharp and often hilarious dialogue. The result is crackling comedy, but I think it’s her concerns with deeper themes that elevate her novel above most others.

The title of the book comes from an essay by Elaine Scarry, and Smith takes on the daunting topic of beauty in a few different ways, exploring everything from body image and female psychology to fine art and specifically the study of Rembrandt. It’s also clear that Smith has compassion for all of her characters and wants to do more than just create a plethora of different voices. As she has said in interviews, she is interested in the souls of these people. She uses the relationship of these characters to the ideal of beauty, as found in both objects of art and in human beings, as a means of discovering what is true about both art and humanity.

These concerns bring the novel a certain heft that it would be lacking without them. It is like the difference between picking up a piece of gold-plated metal and a piece of solid gold. The weight of the thing is evidence of its quality. One gets a similar sensation while reading On Beauty. It may not be flawless, but it has gravity, purity, and grace. A good reader can perceive this a short distance in. But it takes a very talented writer indeed to be able to give a novel that sort of weight to begin with. And it’s doubly unusual in a writer who is still under 35 but whose words bear testimony to a surplus of insight and sophistication.

Of course, it frustrates me as a person who aspires to write novels that I am still scrapping for increased quantities of both, and that it will probably take me many more years to acquire them, if it’s even possible. But I can’t hold that against Zadie Smith, who is blessed with prodigious talent, but has also obviously put in the necessary work to take full advantage of it.

On Beauty, part 1

It's a pleasure to post this message with the news of the arrival of TST founder Duke Altum's fourth child and first-ever daughter, Susannah Micheline. Reader(s), this little girl is beautiful and precious!!!! Born August 7 at 3:05 am, she is unfortunately suffering from a few treatable complications and is currently under observation at a University hospital in Baltimore. I talked to Duke yesterday - he and his wife are in the middle of an exhausting emotional journey, but are taking it all on with great faith and love for their daughter. It goes without saying that Duke and his family have all of my prayers and support. I've seen some early pictures, and his family has truly been blessed - she is a teeny, rosy little girl with a ton of dark hair. After 3 sons, it is fascinating and wonderful to see Duke with a little daughter, and a beautiful one at that. God Bless You and welcome, Susannah!!