Archive for September, 2008

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Brian Brodeur’s “The Body”

September 12, 2008

Last fall saw the publication of Brian Brodeur’s chapbook So The Night Cannot Go On Without Us, winner of the White Eagle Coffee Store Press Poetry Chapbook Contest, and this fall brings a full-fledged collection, Other Latitudes, winner of the of the 2007 Akron Poetry Prize from the University of Akron Press. The new collection gathers and rearranges some of the best pieces from the chapbook and augments them with newer works — all of it giving a wider readership than ever before to Brodeur’s carefully crafted poems, poems both dense with complexity and, simultaneously, wonderfully accessible.

Writing about the new collection, contest judge Stephen Dunn notes: “Brodeur’s world is one of layers and shadings. His diction is limpid and precise, his ear a fine-tuned instrument for registering nuance. And when he writes about nature, he’s equally adept, employing a vocabulary that does what the best nature writing can do: reinvigorate its subject.”

While Dunn gives some specific focus to nature, what thrills me (a non-poet, a fiction writer even) about Brodeur’s works are the more narrative poems. In addition to being a master of words, of the line, of the image, Brodeur can also tell a fine story — deftly crafting interesting, empathetic characters and constructing short scenes that do just what the best plots should do: keep the reader asking, “And then what happened?” even if the final, important movements are sometimes more interior than action-oriented.

Reprinted here from the new collection — with the permission of the author (for full disclosure, a friend of mine) — is just such a poem.

 

The Body

By Brian Brodeur

 

The whole county heard. Schiappucci and me

found her first out back of the old Shell station

and used a hockey stick to fish her out:

 

a young Hispanic girl, face up, legs splayed,

her hair threaded with bits of yellow grass.

Stabbed, strangled, raped (and, I heard

 

in that order), she must’ve drifted all night

to have ended up so far downstream, miles 

from Rainbow Terrace, where she’d lived.

 

When her brothers came, all seven of them,

to I.D. the body, no one, not even the cops,

had tried to move her. Schiappucci said

 

she worked at the Howard Johnson’s off Quinsig.

He’d seen her — a pretty thing — down Bronzo’s Bar,

Running beers and wings to Keno players.

 

Days later, dozens of those cheap glass candles

with  the Virgin Mary painted on the sides

gathered into a makeshift funeral pyre

 

spewing wax all over the concrete landing 

where they first laid the body out to dry:

tiny flickering points of yellow light

 

you could see burning for weeks. One night,

I headed out with Schiappucci for a drive

and decided to walk down and have a look.

 

We found a break in the woods beside the stream,

groped through the dark toward the candlelight

where two women sat in lawn chairs.

 

Praying with their eyes open, they hunched over

photographs  of the girl at different ages,

and tossed flowers into the smoky water.

 

Schiappucci thought of going down to them.

I thought of the girl’s face the color of wax paper. 

How her eyes stared at the sky, as if it mattered.

 

I couldn’t move, couldn’t say a word

until Schiappucci asked what time it was

and what did we come here for again so late.

 

 

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Forward and Back… Up and Down… Diagonally?

September 10, 2008

A much-appreciated comment yesterday (from a much-admired commenter) added another book which lets readers explore it at their own pace: Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters, which readers can browse through at random if they choose. This prompted me to think of other books which defy strict linearity. Of course, one of the most famous experiments in “jumping around” in a narrative is Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, which you can read straight through from chapter one through chapter 56 (stopping at that point and leaving the rest of the book unread) or by following the Table of Instructions to “hopscotch” through those chapters and the others later in the book. Not entirely “reader’s choice” here, but it does broaden the idea of what makes a novel and how it can be read. And then maybe one of the best-known groups of books that encourage reader participation: the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series. Again, not necessarily an experiment in time (the focus of that last post), but definitely one which expands as well the opportunities for reader engagement and authority in constructing the story. Don’t laugh; I’ve seen this series taught in post-modern lit classes, and in many ways, the books are a clear precursor to hypertext novels like Geoff Ryman’s 253 — one of many great hypertext titles that could be added to this list. 

 

Thinking about alternative narrative strategies also led me to considering all those books that turn linearity on its head — almost literally. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis may be one of the best-known works that tell the story in reverse (and he goes further than most authors in trying to make the backwardness complete), but he’s not the only one, of course. Look at First Light by Charles Baxter or Ray In Reverse by Daniel Wallace, the author of Big Fish. Or if you don’t want to invest in a full novel’s worth of this technique, check out Alejo Carpentier’s short story “Journey Back to the Source.”

 

And speaking of great Latin American writers, I’m also reminded of Mario Vargas Llosa’s experiments with layering different times and places in several books, including his masterpiece, Conversation in the Cathedral, sections of which literally and intricately interweave dialogue that’s taking place at different chronological and geographical points. And then thinking further back to one of Vargas Llosa’s own influences, we can find experiments in layering time in several of Faulkner’s novels, of course, most especially those first couple of sections of The Sound and the Fury

 

No lack of possibilities, nothing comprehensive here. Others to add to the list? 

 

— Art Taylor

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So Many Books, So Many Possibilities….

September 9, 2008

While the previous post bemoaned the multitude of books that we readers will never get the chance to reach, there’s a flip-side for writers: Even though the number of titles already out there may make it difficult for us to find readers ourselves (or publishers, for that matter), that multiplicity of voices — and of subjects and themes and narrative strategies — should confirm the great openness, the great opportunities available to us. And more than confirm, perhaps even inspire.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about form recently — both because of what I’m writing myself and because of the books and movies that have engrossed me lately. While work and school have slowed my progress on my own novel, I’ve also been stymied by concerns about its form. “This simply won’t work,” I tell myself, when I look over the frequent time shifts (sometimes sudden, sprawling leaps) involved in shuttling between two stories separated by a decade or when I examine the layering of narrative voices who tell those stories, sometimes interrupting one another, interjecting, questioning.  “No one’s going to want to read this.”

 

That’s not just negativity on my part; it’s reality. Some books just don’t make it.

 

But soon enough, I’m able to put the doubts to the side and move on — nudged ahead by someone else’s words or urged forward by seeing where another writer has offered up some odd little thing and let it find it’s way.

 

Sometimes it’s a simple statement about something I already know. In Narrative Design: Working with Imagination, Craft, and Form, Madison Smartt Bell talks about the impact of movies on 20th-century narrative techniques — how the relatively new medium and specifically the “jump cut” has taught the audience

to unconsciously accept transitions from one scene to another, across widely varying lengths of real time, with no explanation whatsoever. Look at an old silent movie, and you’ll often see long title screens that summarize what happened between one scene and the next. Watch Ordinary People or Jaws III and you won’t even get a voice-over to explain how one scene relates to another — and yet, somehow, you’ll know. 

 

A recent HBO/BBC collaboration my fiancée and I just finished on DVD took the treatment of time and of jumps to a different level. Five Days, as the title promises, explores five days in the lives of several people affected by the sudden disappearance of a young mother at a roadside flower stand while her children are in the car. The trick? It’s not five consecutive days. Instead, Day One is followed by Day Three, and then Day 28, and then 33 and 79. Easy enough to follow in general, of course, especially because each episode comes titled with its respective day. And yet, given that each episode ends on a cliff-hanger and that that the interims between episodes includes drastic and dramatic changes that we’re not directly privy to, the act of watching each new “day” often requires a great amount of catching up — of reorienting ourselves to new situations or navigating both new alliances or new animosities, often ones whose development we haven’t witnessed. Even in the first episode, the filmmakers leave you to ferret out on your own the relationships between a great number of people whose lives we drop in on individually, with no clue which of them are family, which are friends, or which don’t know one another at all (or not yet at least). Still, it all comes together — often marvelously so.

 

An even more extreme example of experimentation with time management in narrative is B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, first published in England in 1969 and only just this year released in an American edition. (It’s already being scooped up by collectors and has become increasingly hard-to-find.) This work — about a writer who’s sent out-of-town to cover a football match and discovers that the place sparks memories of an old friend who died of cancer — makes terrific jumps in time and place, meandering from the present-day sportswriting assignment back through memories of the past, of lost friends and troubled romances, of happy times and bitter ones and sorrow. Even more boldly, not only do the memories seem a little arbitrary, but the reader him- or herself decides the order in which the story is read. The book arrives in a box, a series of 27 pamphlets, the whole of them not bound together but just gathered loosely in a sheath. The instructions explain:

Apart from the first and last sections (which are marked as such), the other twenty-five sections are intended to be read in random order. If readers prefer not to accept the random order in which they receive the novel, then they may re-arrange the sections into any other random order before reading.

As a result, we mimic the act of remembering ourselves — thoughts and scenes popping into our (reading) heads in a distinctly unlinear fashion. Another trick? Sure, of sorts. But also to my mind a triumph, because it clearly succeeds. Even without the guiding hand of a writer organizing the experience and leading us along gently so we don’t get lost, we readers are able to find our way, get our bearings at each stop, locate ourselves, and ultimately reach a final destination where we can look back and see even more clearly the path we’ve travelled. 

 

As writers, it’s experiences like this — seeing other writers’ choices, whether their treatment of narrative time or of a theme or of a character or whatever — that should help to open our eyes to the myriad possibilities available to us and ultimately help us to forge forward with our own creations, no matter how ungainly or ill-formed those drafts of ours might look during some stages of the writing process.

— Art Taylor

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So Many Books, So Little Time….

September 7, 2008

A couple of years back, just after I embarked on an MFA program in fiction at George Mason University, a friend gave me the book So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading. In a twist of slightly cruel irony, she also gave me a second book with a similar title: So Many Books: Reading and Publishing in an Age of Abundance. I read, enjoyed and admired the second one, but never found time for the first, which still sits unread. Turns out my friend — and these authors — had proven their own starting point: So many books, and rarely enough time.

 

There is never a lack of books that I want to read — piled on my desk or by my bedside table or on the shelves in my office — and this is far from a unique complaint. Few of my friends can keep up with their reading “to-do” list. And since many of us are writers as well, there’s a balance as well between time spent reading and time spent writing — not an easy balance at that.

 

In my work as a professor at George Mason University, I’m re-reading Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design for the fiction workshops I teach and Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point for a pair of advanced composition classes. In my work as a freelance book critic, I’ve recently read a pair of mystery/thriller titles for the Washington Post (deadlines met!); I’m delving into the novels of John Hart for the North Carolina Literary Review (one of which I reviewed for the Post last year); and I’m browsing through both a quaint little title called Ghost Cats of the South and the second edition of a restaurant guide called Interstate Eateries for my work as a contributing editor at Metro Magazine in North Carolina. 

 

And yet, I still I find myself planning ahead for the books I want to read. Reading for pay can’t replace reading for pleasure — and reading for pleasure has, of course, more abstract profits of its own. Last week, I managed to track down an already increasingly hard-to-find copy of the new American edition of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, and this week received from Amazon both Brian Brodeur’s new poetry collection, Other Latitudes, and Pagan Kennedy’s new essay collection,The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories. Last night, I read aloud to my fiancée Tara a couple of stories from a new volume of William Maxwell’s writings from Library of America; I’d just gotten it in the mail on Thursday.

 

True to my first passions for reading — mysteries — I also ordered at the end of last month  an old Ross Macdonald omnibus, Archer at Large, gathering three of his best: The Doomsters, The Zebra-Striped Hearse, and The Instant Enemy, and I’m a subscriber to the Hard Case Crime series, too. Even though the Hard Case Crime titles are ultimately a little hit-and-miss, the arrival of a new one in the mail (the latest shown here) is always cause for a little excitement — and then for a small let-down as I realize that I simply can’t keep up with reading them each month. And so the latest is added to the end of the series, waiting until I can find some free time to sit back and enjoy it or another of its brothers and sisters up their on the shelf.

 

And that’s the point to some degree: As passionate we as readers might be, we live in an embarrassment of riches, and likely already have an embarrassing backlog of books on our own shelves that we’d brought into our homes with the very best of intentions — an honored guest, one we’re excited to welcome into our company — and then quickly neglected as we went about household chores, or watched TV, or struggled to get ready for the next day at work or to wind down after a long day on the job, or (in the case of me, my fiance, and many of my friends) to try to write books of our own to add to that abundance (and hopefully not disappear themselves in the midst of it all).

 

Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books — the title I referred to in my opening, the one that I actually did read — offers up a sobering statistic. Imagining a “universal library system” which includes every title ever published in the history of mankind (or at least up until 2003, when Zaid’s book was published), he imagines what it would take for a person to read those more than 50,000,000 titles. “Suppose,” he writes,

that every human being is allowed to collect a salary for dedicating himself solely to the reading of books; that under these conditions, each reader is able to read four books a week, two hundred a year, ten-thousand in a half-century. It would be as nothing. If not a single book were published from this moment on, it would still take 250,000 years for us to acquaint ourselves with those books already written. Simply reading a list of them (author and title) would take some fifteen years…. Our simple physical limitations make it impossible for us to read 99.9 percent of the books that are written.

 

And yet we readers find our curiosity arising almost endlessly, it seems — the desire to read more, to learn more from those other voices and other worlds, or just to escape into them for a little while.

 

I’m not sure what kind of attention I can give to all the titles I’d like to explore in these postings — again, books that I’m not already writing about in publications out there with a much wider readership than one small blog. But I hope to make this a place to record some thoughts and impressions that might not have another outlet, and even if these posts don’t find their own readership (so many blogs, so little time!), at least they’ll provide a place for me to work out some of my own thoughts about the twinned literary pursuits of reading and writing.

— Art Taylor

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