Sunday, August 31, 2008

Live Blogging "War and Peace" #2: Pride and Grovelling

Starting War and Peace reminds me again of the huge advantage books have over movies and television. The daunting effort required to recognize and connect the marks on the page, to configure vocabulary and grammar into a convincing narrative full of people and conflict and weather is in fact fiction’s secret weapon. Your very engagement with the writer, your collaboration in the manufacture of your particular War and Peace, provides a far richer experience than the passive IV drip of television, or the carnival ride of a typical summer movie. It’s the difference between moving into a house and helping to build it.

With a writer as great as Tolstoy, the act of completing his suggested world has a kind of giddy presumption.: Leo describes Pierre Bezukhov … I see Seth Rogen in John Lennon granny glasses. I half expect a howl of protest, but Leo doesn't complain. It goes on -- we build a common Petersburg, a common Moscow, a common Bald Hills (Prince Bolkonsky’s estate) together. None of it may resemble the real places or even the places Tolstoy imagined in his study at Krasnaya Polyana … but they belong to me as much as him; they form the essence of our bond.

I remember my first glimpse of the real Pamplona, Spain; it in no way resembled the hill town that Ernest Hemingway and I had constructed together. So I did what any good reader would do: I forgot about the actual town and never looked at another photograph of the place again. The Pamplona of The Sun Also Rises is a prized possession, my true ‘intellectual property’.
I have no interest in imposter towns whose only claim is that they’re ‘real’
Real is overrated.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Anna Scherer’s soiree.

I think Tolstoy may have invented this idea of throwing all the characters together at a party and peppering the reader with a dozen little scenes that would have been cumbersome and time-consuming to set up separately. Everyone is introduced and so are the major themes – not just War and Peace, but war and money. After reading Jane Austen I’m no longer surprised by the overwhelming venality of the characters in classic literature.

But the desperation of Anna Mikhailovna Drubskoy to secure her son Boris’ military position and get the dough to outfit him properly feels sadly familiar. This is the evergreen universality of these nineteenth century masterpieces: the never-ending scramble for cash. I admire Anne Mikhailovna: she’s relentless, shameless. Her self-flagellating maternal determination that makes it easier, in the end, for a Prince Vassily to give her what she wants. Anything, if she’ll just go away and shut up. There’s a lesson there for desperate parents. I used it when I was trying to secure a co-signer for my son’s college loan.

Humiliate yourself and persevere: that’s what Tolstoy taught me today.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Consciousness

I’ve been hitch-hiking for the last week. I live at one end of my little island and most of my work happens at the other end, so I’m usually on the road a lot. But with one car off-island and the other in the shop – and taxis costing twenty dollars a trip – I decided to stick my thumb out and take my chances.

It was frustrating at first, but it woke me up, the way re-arranging your routines always does. Just waiting for a ride was instructive, watching all the fat SUVs full of fat people with their faces pulled tight against any eye contact with the beggar at the side of the road. I was amazed at how many of them didn’t pick me up. I’m not an axe-murderer and I live in a small island; the news would get around if we had a mad hitch-hiking killer-rapist in town.

But as car after car blew past me, metaphors seemed to coalesce around the experience. It reminded me of so many other moments in my life when I had left some small portion of my fate in other hands. In the ocean, waiting for a wave; or sending out stories and waiting for the response. Normally you get the form letter rejection slip, but once in a while the letter comes back without your own handwriting on the stamped-self-addressed envelope and you know you made contact with a stranger, and that stranger wants to introduce your work to a wider world. Eventually a car picks you up as well.

I said to old time Nantucket home builder Neils Van Vorst, when he pulled over, “You’re one in … let me see – two hundred and eleven.” He was a little shocked by the number, but there’s an upside to the ordeal. Hitchhiking filters the world for you: all the annoying jerks drive right by and invariably the people who actually pick you up are interesting, generous, smart, funny – and cool. Neils had to stop by a house he’d just finished building on the water; I stayed in the car and petted his terriers, reading the scatter of literary magazines on the rubber mat at my feet. On the way out to Polpis we talked about politics and the Conservation Commission and Vladimir Nabokov; I showed him around the old cow shed where Annie and I live, when h dropped me off. I knew he’d appreciate it.

A high school poet picked me up; a local actor and piano tuner gave me a ride. So did a new Dad who had to move his child seat into the bed of his pick-up to make room. Old money Nantucket rich people gave me rides and we bemoaned the island’s decline; new arrivals picked me up and we rhapsodized its glory. A real estate agent offered me painting work; a local newspaper editor asked me to write an editorial about my vagabond status.

It was an extraordinary week, and I thought to myself – to hell with the car! I have too big a carbon footprint anyway. I’ll hitch all the time now – unless I’m moving ladders or clearing out a job site, or something.I was asleep before in the soft futon of my old routines, and I was missing everything! Now I’m awake. Hooray for me!

But of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. I have my car back and I’m driving it happily, air-conditioning on, big-footing my carbon trail all over Nantucket, just the same as ever. Never has anyone been so eager to get back to sleep.

But I have to say ... it was fun being awake, while it lasted.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Live Blogging "War and Peace" #1

For me, one of the great pleasures in reading an approachable classic like War and Peace is the chance to meet Tolstoy face to face as it were, take his story one word at a time and derive a self-made opinion of everything he sets in front of me. The greatest novel ever written is not some monolith for Kubrick’s 2001 apes to caper around, grunting and throwing bones, cow-towing to the critics; it’s a living narrative that sets out, whatever its other ambitions, to entertain its audience. I love that about Tolstoy. Though he dwarfs me as a writer, as a reader he approaches me as an equal, as a respectful but exigent friend who needs to be amused, beguiled, thrilled.

Everyone starts with the same materials, the blank screen or sheet of paper, the keyboard or the pen, the same twenty six letters. There’s a kind of fierce democracy to that, a level playing field; or is a mine field? You feel it at my MFA residency sitting in Noble Hall at Vermont College, listening to a student reading one night and a faculty reading the next afternoon. The wild-eyed kid’s garbled ungrammatical account of catching his parent’s making love and – for example – Larry Sutin’s latest admixture of Kafka and Dinesen, precipitated with the mysterious reagent of his own lucid vision and wry humor into a compelling and mysterious potion, both start the same way, with a nervous man standing in front of an audience; with scratches on paper. In that context the difference is particularly stunning. Clearly words can be used to sharpen thought or to dull it. As Orwell points out in Politics and the English Language, many writers just piece trite phrases together as if they were “assembling the pieces of a prefabricated henhouse”.

I remember the exact moment when I turned away from the consumption of this kind of writing forever. It was about three quarters of the way through Leon Uris’ Trinity. The effortless sentence – you just know it flowed out of him with the giddy sluice of inspiration – was this: “His role was to ferret out brewing insurrection and nip it in the bud.” Not just four clichés, but four clashing and incongruous clichés jammed blithely together in the clattering rush of another day’s work. Many years ago, before computers, when an IBM Selectric was state of the art, Leon Uris gave my father some deeply considered writing advice. “You have to go faster. Get an electric typewriter.”

Over the years, I have come to believe that there’s some middle ground, some leafy suburb between the woods and canyons of literature and the grid-lock city streets of genre fiction (not to mention the graffiti-smeared urban blight of the sub-genre world).

That middle ground is my favorite landscape, and I would define it upward as a type of literature, rather than downward as a classier version of trash … in human terms: a young heir in jeans and a t-shirt, rather than a bum in a tuxedo. And of course it’s a sliding scale, with almost infinite gradations. The work I prefer, the work which has no official title, perches right on the border of literature, the rough undeveloped sections of that suburb, perhaps: the last house on the dead-end street whose back yard merges with a tangle of bushes that becomes the forest; the ranch style teetering on the border of the wetlands with the perpetually flooded basement; the canyon house stalked by coyotes.

Despite carrying the ‘genre’ stigma, these authors, these suburban pioneers if you like, combine the most enjoyable aspects of high literature and low. They don’t dig as deep into their characters’ psyches as the masters who dwell in the deep woods; but they reject the trite puppet shows of their inner-city brethren. They create the vivid dream that John Gardner talks about, they allow you to live in the particular world of a unique human sensibility and let your own perspective be colored and enlarged by the exposure.

I realize now that almost all the writers I love at least own property in this fringe area: genre writers like Len Deighton, John LeCarre, P.D. James, Dennis Lehane and Philip K. Dick; and masters who understand the power of plot, from to Faulkner to Graham Greene and John Fowles, to contemporary writers like Vikram Chandra and Michael Chabon.
And of course, standing genially above all the others, Tolstoy himself.

Tolstoy shares a craven common urge with the genre writers who followed him: he wants you to turn the page. It democratizes his greatness, somehow. It’s endearing. And it makes a book written 150 years ago about events transpiring 50 years before that absolutely present, an urgent transaction between two minds, an intimate seduction and a great mutual project.
I’ve always wanted to read War and Peace, but found the length daunting and the translations stilted. When I heard that Pevear and Volokonsky, who did the sharp and engrossing translation of Anna Karenina a few years ago, were working on Tolstoy’s masterpiece, I was thrilled. Perhaps I would finally be able to read this intimidating tome, this Everest of literature. Then it occurred to me that it might be interesting to chronicle the climb; if others chose to take it with me, we could share our thoughts and de-mystify the experience of reading a classic.

That’s the plan.

I’m standing at the base camp, among the litter of other people’s oxygen bottles, hoping you’ll join me, hoping we won’t be turned back by bad weather or the cold. If your lungs are strong enough for the thin air, and you’re not scared of heights, organize your equipment and get a good nights’ sleep.

We start our ascent tomorrow, at first light.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Thing With Feathers

Hope is a strange emotion. It’s addicting but dangerous, like some kind of new street drug, except that we manufacture it ourselves, like endorphins or adrenaline. And we stand in a somewhat different relation to those other chemicals: the body releases them involuntarily, at moments of physical exertion or stress. Hope is active, intentional, a gesture of the imagination, an attempt to conjure the future. To actually allow yourself to hope for something you care about deeply requires a peculiar unacknowledged bravery that not everyone can muster; it opens a troubling chasm of vulnerability at your feet, and looking down into that gulf of disappointment creates a dizzying vertigo.

Much better to play it cool, pretend it doesn’t matter. We have invented a whole patois of self deception on this point: ‘Easy come easy go” “That’s the way the cookie crumbles” “Que sera sera” ‘So it goes” “Who cares?” “Roll with the punches” “Lighten up” “Big deal” and the ever popular “Whatever”. But things don’t go easily, we all care and we take most of those punches right on the point of the jaw. Still, indifference remains the perfect combination of pose and protection. We act blasé while we prepare for disappointment in advance. We tell ourselves not to “get our hopes up” though we know the secret shameful truth that actually having your hopes up is one of the few clean cheap thrills you can get in life and flinching in advance doesn’t make it sting any less when the rejection finally comes.

Sustained hope in the face of relentless setbacks and failures can be toxic, though it feels nourishing – sort of like trying to live on Chai tea and muffins. My friend used to say of my Hollywood ambitions, “Until it happens, it didn’t.” And I would answer, “And when it happens it was always going to.” But releasing those hopes has been liberating, Hope requires the stamina of youth, when the seemingly limitless procession of days ahead lend any prediction a diaphanous plausibility. A five year old toddler dreams of becoming an astronaut; a twenty year old boy writes his Oscar acceptance speech on the bus to work. A fifty-year old man is happy just to make it through another week. There’s no more time for dramatic re-inventions and astonishing second acts. I won’t be going to law school or clown college any time soon. Win or lose, I am what I am: accepting that mortal tautology sounds despairing. But it contains an element of bliss, a caress of relief, like a vein of warm water in a frigid lake. I can happily call myself a ‘hobbyist’ and get on with my work. Emily Dickinson put it best: “Publication is not the business of poets.” She knew what she was talking about on that score; she made obscurity into another art form. But she understood hope well enough. She called it ‘the thing with feathers that perches in the soul/ and singe the tune –without the words/ and never stops at all.” I always wondered whether that line was a tribute or a admonition.

Away from that relentless bird-song I’ve found my own refuge, pecking away at the keyboard in privacy and silence. But hope is a tough old pigeon and not so easy to escape. It feeds on litter and perches on the fire escape, strutting snd fluttering over it three inches of hard-won territory. And so I find myself doing hopeful things like contributing to Open Salon and even –on a cockeyed impulse – contacting an editor who expressed interest in seeing more of my work. She’s reading my new novel now, as I comb the Open Salon website for comments and wonder feverishly if the last post will be an Editor’s Pick. So I guess I haven’t shaken the addiction after all and I probably never will.
I never could stay on a diet.

So please, O! charming editor who actually returned my phone call on a dreary Tuesday afternoon and chatted for half an hour about Hillary Clinton and Alice Munro, please read my book and like it and publish it, and send it off into the world with a full page ad in the New York Times. And while I’m waiting, I’ll have a Chai latte.

Make it a double, with a pistachio muffin on the side.

Monday, August 11, 2008

PLugged Nicholl

Mac Dixon, the first Artistic Director of the Theatre Workshop once remarked to my fiancée, “Only mediocrity succeeds on Nantucket.” It was a harsh comment, but even three decades later it continues to resonate because with every passing year the idea becomes more and more of a universal axiom. In politics, in corporate America, even in the building trades, the inept and the mendacious succeed while the gifted and hard-working fall by the wayside. From Jimmy Carter’s defeat at the hands of the charming but catastrophically foolish and ideologically blinkered Ronald Reagan to the more recent electoral nightmares, to the sub-prime lending scandal that may yet bring down the entire American economy (Someone decided it was a good idea to give mortgages to guys living in refrigerator boxes), the plague of dull-witted, pedestrian greed rages on. For the most part I’ve become numb to it, but occasionally the phenomenon hits close to home and I have to face it.

In the community of aspiring screenwriters the Nicholl Fellowship – a screenwriting contest sponsored by no less an organization than The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, stands as an almost unattainable measure of achievement. Blogging screenwriters compare notes on the harrowing triage of talent … who made it to the quarter-finals and the semi-finals. More to the point, they discuss the mysteries of the judging: why their script never placed at all, how to improve, where to find the secret code that unlocks this exalted prize. There are websites devoted to coaching neophytes in the arcana of this contest. I should mention I never entered the race because as a member of the WGAw, I’m automatically disqualified. This quest is for amateurs only.

I had never seen a winning screenplay until today. This one is being shot on Nantucket and a friend of mind is helping to hire the extras and scout locations. I read the script and I confess to being stunned by it, stunned the way you feel when you crack your shin on a coffee table in the dark or miss a step going down a ladder: a physical jolt of outraged surprise. Because this script is bad. The dialogue is stilted and laden with exposition. The characters are barely sketched in, rounded off to the nearest cliché. A local sailor was asked to check the sailboat details; every single one was wrong. So are the points of local color. A shrill local rants against tourists, referring to them as wash-ashores; whereas anyone who lives here knows that a washashore is a resident who came from somewhere else. My son was amused by the local girl telling the off-island boy that “We always go to Jetties for The Fourth Of July – it’s crowded but it’s a tradition.” He said, “Right, because I’ve lived here all my life and don’t know anyone with a boat or a house with a view of the harbor.” The script is a symphony of wrong notes, a trite family drama complete with the callow grandson who learns important life lessons and the curmondgeonly old grandpa who teaches them. None of this would be of even passing interest (I read dozens of scripts just this bad and bad in just this way when I was reading for production companies in L.A.) except for the astounding, jaw dropping fact that this commonplace bundle of lazy plot points and sticky sentiment won the Nicholl. It beat out literally thousands of other screenplays, at some of which were probably pretty good. The scripts that won Project Greenlight on HBO – and the films made from them – were just as awful … as are so many more traditionally produced movies and TV shows. So something is going on here. But what?
Perhaps it’s true: mobs and morons rule the world. Certainly the wrong people seem to run everything. The notion may be economically disheartening and politically frightening, but it’s kind of liberating artistically. The opinions that make one cringe and cower (people have seriously considered giving up writing after not placing in the Nicholl three years in a row) are in fact nothing more than the senseless noise Truman Capote was talking about when he dismissed critics with the phrase, “The dogs bark and the caravan moves on.” So not winning the Nicholl isn’t a defeat and humiliation, after all: it’s a badge of honor. It’s a credential. It proves you’re not mediocre. Unfortunately, Mac Dixon was right: much of the time, in every profession, in every art and craft, mediocrity succeeds.

And not just on Nantucket.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Genre Fiction smackdown: Aristotle Vs. Chandra

In Greek tragedy plot was primary. Not much has changed in the realm of genre fiction. A publishable mystery can lack interesting characters every bit as much a Greek heroic poem; it can lack insight and metaphor, aphorism and a sense of place, as long as the simple two stroke engine of what-happens-next is turning over. This is not to say that most published mysteries are so thinly-written and debased. Many detective novels have fascinating characters and settings, sharp writing, vivid imagery. But they could have been published and read without those things.

Only one element stands as essential.

Take the analogy of music. If you’re writing ‘house music’ for a German disco club, nothing really matters but the beat: bang-bang-digga-digga, bang-bang, digga-digga on an endless loop. A simple 8 bar blues melody can be floated on this current, like a canoe. You can add key changes and witty lyrics as Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard of the rock band Postal Service do. That might be analogous to teak brightwork on the little boat; or titanium paddles from Hammacher Schlemmer. But no one dancing at the 90 degrees club on Dennewitzstrasse would care … even if the words were in German. Only the current matters: diving into that swift water and being pulled downstream.

They’re dancing to the beat, not the lyrics.

But Aristotle is discussing the writing of plays; that’s why his work applies so well to screenwriting, and has been so extensively ‘anthologized’ by Syd Field, Robert McKee and others.

"Plots are either simple or complex, since the actions they representare naturally of this twofold description. The action, proceeding in the way defined, as one continuous whole, I call simple, when thechange in the hero's fortunes takes place without Peripety or Discovery; and complex, when it involves one or the other, or both.These should each of them arise out of the structure of the Plot itself, so as to be the consequence, necessary or probable, of the antecedents. There is a great difference between a thing happening propter hoc and post hoc. "

Of course by Peripety he is referring to the reversal of fortune, usually in the second act (and some would insist, on page 78) that is the core of both screenwriting advice, and most modern screenplays. Along with unity of action, the idea that nothing extraneous can be permitted in the story, that the gun over the mantel in Act One has to go off by Act Three, as Chekhov instructed, we can see the basic parameters of the modern screenplay emerging. Authors like the ones mentioned above, the first to realize the relevance of Aristotle, have made a fortune from his work without fear of copyright infringement.

Whether these strict rules – and the reductive way they are applied -- are healthy for the cinema is a subject for a different essay. The question here is: can these principles be applied to the novel, a much longer and naturally more discursive medium. The answer is clear, at least in terms of genre fiction: yes, of course. But in the realm where genre fiction approaches literature, where the conventions of the mystery novel, for instance, are played with, investigated, even subverted, can these rules still hold true?

There’s an instructive example on Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games. This is a sprawling 900-page book that encompasses much of Indian history in the twentieth century. It’s a portrait of modern Bombay, and study of Hindu-Muslim politics and simultaneously a compelling procedural police novel. Simply put, Chandra is doing everything I’d like to do. Though I am to some extent in retreat from those ambitions, it’s still inspiring to see them accomplished with such breath-taking skill and audacity.

In the first third of the book, Sartaj Singh and his partner Katekar investigate a murder. Three successful young thieves have had a falling out; one of them winds up dead. Sartaj’s work on this case runs parallel with the larger story, in which he seeks to understand why Bombay’s most powerful gangster chose to kill himself and his mistress in the basement of a newly built fallout shelter. Several other cases also intertwine throughout the story, but by the middle of the book the murder sub-plot has been resolved. Sartaj and his partner discover who the boys are, and plot to catch them in the act of fencing their loot. The ambush goes awry and Katekar is killed; Sartaj shoots the murderer as he flees down an alley. So a faceless killer is lying in the dirt, and the case is closed, but Sartaj derives no satisfaction from the senseless slaughter. It feels both pointless and grotesque.

Throughout the book, Chandra introduces chapters he calls ‘insets’, which present stories of marginal significance to the main plot. Anjali Mathur, the chief government agent working with Sartaj, was mentored in the service by her father’s best friend; one inset shows his early days, fighting the Chinese in the Hindu Kush. Another reveals the fate of Sartaj’s Aunt Navneet, who perished during the Partition.

These are sidelights, apparent violations of the Unities, but Chandra gets away with them because they deepen our knowledge of the book’s characters and their world. Plus they are compellingly written. Aristotle didn’t have much to say about the benefits of a muscular prose style, though you could cobble together a sense of it from his descriptions of Thought, Melody and Spectacle.

Near the end of Sacred Games, Chandra seems to push his fascination with the peripheral too far. In a final inset, he describes the life of a small town boy from Rajpur named Aadil Ansari. Aadil loves reading and becomes the first boy in his village to finish high school; he even goes on to college, working for two years in between, driving trucks and maintaining them, to pay for his schooling. He studies Zoology and in a just world, he would have become a university professor. But college is a torment because of money. Often he can’t afford to both eat and buy books. Meanwhile his rich friends laugh at his complaints and call him a typical weak-willed bumpkin when penury, stress and exhaustion force him to quit school. Of course, no one offers to help. These friends of his are a familiar type: born on third base, certain they hit a triple.

So Aadil goes home, to work his family plot of land. Requests for help from the local Raja get nowhere; and on top of that, the Raja is actually stealing Aadil’s family land, one thin strip at a time. There is no law court to dispute this encroachment: the government is corrupt from top to bottom. Aadil becomes bitter and winds up joining the Communist party. He’s the perfect candidate for a Marxist revelation. Eventually he becomes a full-fledged revolutionary, blowing up buildings and committing assassinations. It’s only when he witnesses a horrific episode of mutilation and torture that he becomes disillusioned with the cause.

He flees to Bombay, moving frequently to avoid being recognized. He goes back to his books, reading botany and biology texts for the sheer pleasure of it. He hires some boys to do his marketing and other errands, but his funds are running low. He is an expert at military operations, and he trains the three boys in the skills of commando-style larceny: careful planning and artful use of the threat of violence.
This is the first moment when you get a narrative twinge at the back of your neck. Three boys?

That sounds familiar.

The boys become successful and eventually have a falling out. Two suspect the third is talking more than his share of the proceeds. They confront him; it turns into a fight and then into a murder. Aadil tells the boys to leave their lodgings and meet him two days later at a certain hotel. But the police are onto them and the rendezvous becomes a catastrophe. The boys are arrested. As Aadil flees in panic, he kills a policeman. He is shot himself, and dies in the street.

Then you realize: this is the faceless thug who killed Katekar.

The revelation opens under you like a trap door and you plunge into the troubled understanding that there are no faceless thugs, that every incident has layers of irony and tragedy that make you cry for the whole human race.

So in one devastating coup de theatre, the Unities are preserved: nothing is irrelevant and everything is connected.

And Vikram Chandra wins the prize – the summerslam championship belt goes to Sacred Games: the Great American Literary Genre Novel.
Take the month of August and read it.
Sorry about the spoiler.