Welcome to a Hidden World

The more I read, the more I read for an author’s offering of interior access to his or her characters, and for years I have felt that fiction is the narrative art that best enables this access. With a simple “He thought” or “She imagined” in a text, we as readers are welcomed into a hidden world—the thoughts of others, to which we have no entry in our daily lives. We simply cannot hear the unadulterated thoughts of other human beings, and we never will. But in fiction we can.

For years I have always emphasized to my fiction writing students that movies and television are primarily visual narrative forms, and so aren’t as well equipped to express the depths of interior revelation. No matter how expressive an actor’s face, for example, the emotions conveyed there can’t reveal as much as the detailed memories or fantasies of a character in a novel or short story.

Over the years, I’ve found more than enough exceptions to my criticism. Of course. Art always finds a way to try to express the inexpressible, whatever that art might be. My favorite examples are Being John Malkovich (written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (written by Charlie Kaufman—him again!—and Michel Gondry, and directed by Michel Gondry). In these movies, all the attention seems to be directed at cracking open the brains of the characters and looking inside.

In Being John Malkovich, a strange little portal is found behind a filing cabinet in an office, a portal that leads to the brain of the actor John Malkovich. For fifteen minutes, a person can enter into his thoughts, until being dumped in a ditch in New Jersey (ho ho). The movie is also a hilarious dig at the narcissism of actors—in Malkovich’s thoughts, everyone has his face, even babies! This film is breathtaking in the risks it takes, its humor, and the new territory it carves out for film (should anyone care to follow).

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is just as audacious, but far more emotionally affecting. Turns out there’s a medical practice in town that employs a technique of erasing memories from willing patients. Want to get rid of a traumatic event, an annoying relative? Well, now there’s a place you can go. So when a couple in the movie has yet another cruel argument, first the woman and then the man go through the procedure and erase each other from their lives. Problem is, at bottom they are truly in love, and so the story proceeds with their halting efforts, in a dangerously altering dreamscape, to try to remember each other.

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Which brings me to the immediate reason for this post, a video of the song “These Days” by Ane Brun, a Norwegian singer/songwriter of impeccable pop artistry. The complexity and clarity of her storytelling/songwriting chops, and her singing, place her in a hang-out pantheon with Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell.

In “These Days” we are confronted with Brun only, her ashen face bordered by a black hoodie, singing directly to us. At first, it seems that she is singing to an ex-lover, and this remains one of the possibilities embedded in the lyric. It hasn’t been an easy ride:

There were nights and mornings
When you came to me
Found your way into my bones, my joints
Into my veins
Like an animal you coiled your darkness around me
You spelled your name in charcoal
All over my body

Brun’s face is starkly expressive, anguished. And yet slowly, after about a minute into the video, thin lines begin to appear across and up and down her face, appearing, disappearing, and reappearing. They seem to reflect the scars left behind after this relationship, or at least the marks of change that can’t, normally, be seen from the outside, and yet are certainly there. Everyone has been marked in life by troubled relationships, and those marks remain largely invisible to the world. The brilliance of the video is the exposure of this reality, one that everyone has experienced—it enables us to see our lives anew.

The song, however, isn’t necessarily about a physical ex-lover. The lyrics also hint at a different kind of relationship, with one’s inner voice of self-doubt and criticism:

The things you’ve shown me over the years
The roads you blocked and how you’ll define me

Here, the antagonist of the song cannot ever be truly escaped. Our negative inner voice will always be there, at best, perhaps, managed at a distance:

These days
I let you stay
A little further away
But I walk with you
These days
I let you stay

In this interpretation, those sinuous lines tracing the singer’s face are generated from within, patterns of self-reproach and doubt that remain part of the invisible fabric of her inner life. And we all have such lines that others cannot see.

Either way (or perhaps both, depending on one’s interpretative mood?), this song and video display how a visual narrative form can find an inventive way to crack open the façade of appearance, and approach the insinuating interior depth of fiction’s power.

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Postscript:

Soon after writing this post, I became aware of a marvelous short film by Julie Gautier, “Narcose,” that explores the hallucinations experienced by a diver, Guillaume Néry, who can hold his breath for several minutes at a time (those hallucinations are caused by carbon dioxide narcosis as his dive extends in time). Here is another film that digs a little deeper into mental landscapes, a brilliant display of the physical drama of Néry’s dive, juxtaposed with the unfolding drama of his dream-like inner life that occurs at the same time.

August 6th, 2014 by admin | No Comments »

What’s So Mysterious About Suspense?

Way, way back in the day, when I was coming up as a young writer, there was a good deal of serious chatter about why plot and characterization were the horseless carriage and icebox of literature (they were done, finished, just like tonality and melody in classical music). Characters in novels weren’t really anything like actual people, just a handful of quirks and ticks and more-or-less convincing dialogue on the page. And plot? Plot resembled the trivial, methodical work of chewing gum. Serious writers had better things to do.

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I nodded my head to those arguments, especially the ones against plot. Growing up I’d read a lot of plot-driven adventure novels, and as my ambitions as a writer grew those early pleasures seemed like child’s play. And yet. Many of the sensitively written, highly praised, plot-starved books I read then felt, well, wanting. Something in me needed, if not more plot per se, than at least more suspense, even if I knew it wasn’t supposed to be good for me—like cheese.

What a pleasure, then, to discover in the early 1990s the craft essay “The Magic Show,” by Tim O’Brien (from the anthology Writers on Writing). “Unlike animals, we conceive of tomorrow,” O’Brien writes. “And tomorrow fascinates us. Tomorrow matters—perhaps too much—and we spend a great portion of our lives adjusting the present in hope of shaping the future. In any case, we are driven to care, and to be curious about questions of fate and destiny: we can’t help it, we’re human.”

Every morning when we wake up we’re already plotting out the day ahead. And very often the schedule we hope to follow doesn’t quite work out that way, we have to be ready to make adjustments to the world’s unpredictability. And these are baby-step adjustments we must learn in order to adapt to the larger unfolding course of our lives. So we know how to plot a narrative, and we understand its potential fragility as well.

O’Brien continues; “On one level, then, I am arguing in defense of old-fashioned plot—or in defense of plot in general—which is so often discredited as a sop to some unsophisticated and base human instinct. But I see nothing base in the question ‘What will happen next?’ I’m suggesting that plot is grounded in a high—even noble—human craving to know, a craving to push into the mystery of tomorrow.”

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But plot isn’t simply a “and then and then and then.” Mere event in fiction can be as enervating as nothing happening at all. That craving to know must be messed with. And that brings me to the subject of suspense.

The author Lee Child, in his essay “A Simple Way to Create Suspense,” argues that it comes down to one question, and one answer. The question is, “How do you make your family hungry?” The correct answer, he says, is this: “You make them wait four hours for dinner.”

Dinner, of course, is a plot payoff. “As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer . . . readers are human, and humans seem programmed to wait for answers they witness being asked.”

Near the beginning of Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend, we get this sentence:

“My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark steps that led, step by step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment.”

Needless to say, it takes quite some time for those two young girls to make it up those stairs. In the meantime, we get the details of the budding but not yet settled friendship of Lenù and Lila, all the neighborhood rumors about Don Achille and his family, the power relations between the local families, and so on and so on, sub-plot upon sub-plot, and only fourteen chapters later do the two girls finally reach that landing and knock on the door. Of course, the encounter is not quite what they, or the reader, expected, and so the scene combines both resolution and surprise (and moves the larger plot forward, too): a masterly touch in a magnificent novel.

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Aside from literature, we all know how this tactic of delay works in daily life. When your friend leans in and says in a kind of teasing whisper, “You won’t believe what Jackie did last night,” you’re already hooked. You don’t know what Jackie did yet, and you’ll be damned if you let your friend walk away without delivering the gossipy punch line.

These small moments of sparking interest are easily embedded in fiction, too. Lee Child continues, “The principle works in a micro sense, as well as in a macro one. Page to page, paragraph to paragraph, line to line — even within single sentences — imply a question first, and then answer it second. The reader learns to chase, and the momentum becomes unstoppable.”

A good example here would be the story “The Man Who Sold Braces,” by Yoko Ogawa (from her collection Revenge). The first sentence teases with “Everything my uncle touched seemed to fall apart in the end.” The beginning of the second paragraph complicates our knowledge with “He was the sort of man who changed professions like other men change their socks.” And two paragraphs later, we read, “I got a call from the police telling me my uncle had died and I should come to claim the body.” By now, we’re in deep.

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This partial knowing seems to me to be an essential aspect of characterization as well. As readers, we glean what we can from a character’s behavior, knowing that, as in life, such details can’t possibly be the whole picture. And in fiction, giving access to a character’s inner life is a way of doling out the long tease of interior revelation. And if an author is doing his or her job well, those revelations will always remain partial, allowing a character her necessary mystery (as is true with all the people in our lives).

We are used to this suspension of knowing, each of our days being a halfway house toward a conclusion that never quite arrives. That’s why the wrapped-up endings of some novels and movies feel so unsatisfying—they’re a form of wish fulfillment whose comfort is false. With suspense, we’ll always be in the middle of who-knows-what.

Anthony Doerr, in his craft essay with a hefty mouthful of a title, “On Suspense, Shower Murders, the Sword of Damocles, and Shooting People on the Beach” (from A Kite in the Wind), notes that “Suspense is literally the temporary cessation of something. As in, you’re suspended from school; your sentence is suspended; you’re suspended in a solution; you’re suspended in midair. Its origin comes from the Latin suspendere, and inside of suspendere is pendere, which means to hang.”

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Yet withholding information for the sake of suspense doesn’t mean withholding everything. A reader can’t worry if there’s no information to set off that worry. Providing information can be crucial. Alfred Hitchcock, known by the unofficial title Master of Suspense, offers an inside look at the delicate balance of providing and withholding.

Notice that Hitchcock provides the important, give-away detail that there’s a bomb about to go off under the card table. But that information fuels the tension of the scene, because what isn’t known is whether anyone will notice the bomb before it explodes, and if not, who will get hurt. And again, like that long-delayed dinner Lee Child speaks of, the waiting can become unbearable.

There are, of course, exceptions to everything when it comes to writing, and no path should go unexplored just because someone with a voice of authority says you shouldn’t go there. One of my favorite novels, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by the British writer G.B. Edwards, violates seemingly essential principles of when and what to reveal.

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The novel is narrated by an 80-year-old man who has lived all his life on Gurnsey, one of the Channel Islands located between England and France. Ebenezer is looking back on his long life, recalling friends and family, settling scores, confronting his mistakes. Very near the beginning of the book, though, he gives away much of what will later happen in his life: this friend will die, this relationship will never come to pass, etc. No no no! I remember thinking when I read this passage in the novel, don’t give so much away, so soon!

And yet, because Ebenezer’s narrative voice is so involving, and the people he describes so complex and engaging, I found myself reading on, still in a state of tension, because I cared for these characters enough that I hoped against all hope that Ebenezer’s early revelations wouldn’t come true. In this case, too much information, combined with masterful characterization, kept me turning those pages.

Suspense is shaped in infinite patterns, and close look at one’s daily life will reveal just how intimate we are with its sometimes ambiguous and confounding nature. When we read, hungrily, a novel or a short story that captures the sweet teasing tension of not quite knowing, what unfolds for the characters may very well be unfolding for our own hidden dramas as well.

May 24th, 2014 by admin | No Comments »

The Kinship of Secrets

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, while I’ve been on leave this year to complete the revisions on a novel, I’ve also been serving as an “editor-at-large” for the website of Ninth Letter. Which means finding work that breaks out of the confines of our print magazine: video essays, multi-media collaborations, or serialization of work that pushes the borders of our length requirements.

Right now we’re running a five-part series of a long excerpt from Inside the Secret, a memoir of travel to North Korea by the Portuguese writer José Luís Peixoto (a winner of the Saramago Prize for his novel The Implacable Order of Things). The essay also includes beautifully unsettling photos he took while in the country that have never appeared anywhere else. Peixoto is a fine writer, and he is quite observant about the bleak playacting of the citizens of North Korea, especially when describing his visit to a bookstore, a grocery, and the rarity of a hamburger restaurant. His description of watching the paranoid dramatics of the country’s only TV channel is absolutely chilling.

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Elsewhere, though, Peixoto does what only the best writers can do—connect the foreign with one’s intimate self. Any decent writer can work up a good scene about a North Korean hamburger joint—the experience practically writes itself. But that’s seeing from the outside, keeping the North Koreans firmly in place as an Other. And certainly, all the lying and false claims of the country wear him down over the course of his trip. But in the 4th installment, Peixoto describes calling his family from the hotel, and now we see a first-rate writer in action, revealing what the best literature always does: making transparent what had been obscure.

He doesn’t want to upset his family during the phone conversation, and so he says everything is all right, though that hides a great deal of what he’s feeling. And he realizes that they are probably doing the same thing, that if something were really wrong, they wouldn’t tell him, because he’s so far away. They’re each keeping secrets. And then he says to the reader:

“We keep our secrets together with all the other things we don’t say. Up in that great big, shadowy attic there are things we don’t say because we’re afraid, because we’re ashamed, because we simply can’t; there are things we don’t say because we don’t know about them, really don’t know, even though they’re right there inside us. Secrets aren’t like that. They are there, we can visit them, observe them, know exactly the words to express them and, often, we want so much to tell them. But we choose not to.

“Our secrets are within us. Along with everything else that we know, we are made of our secrets. When we hold them in, when we are strong enough to contain them, they spread inside us. From within, they seep up through our skin. They keep on going until sometimes we catch sight of them when we turn around, or hear them in the silence. Then, at that moment, it’s not just our secrets that are inside us, it’s also we who are inside our secrets.”

Note the use of the first person plural, “we.” North Korea may seem like the most alien of places, but really, North Korean society is (among many other things) an institutionalization of a basic human impulse—we all keep secrets (secrets that are all too often capable of altering us). It’s secrecy and masking gone mad, yes, but in Peixoto’s view, the North Koreans are kin to us, and we are kin to them.

May 14th, 2014 by admin | No Comments »

Write Like a Toltec

This past holiday season, the sight of an occasional Santa seated in a mall or ringing a bell at a street corner has brought me back to the memory of one of my oddest jobs—as the house Santa at Saks Fifth Avenue in White Plains, New York, way back in 1974. I was only 23 at the time, not exactly the go-to age for a Santa, but that white beard hid all the wrinkles I didn’t have.

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The first day on the job I was flown, in full holiday regalia, in a helicopter to the department store, where hundreds of children and their parents waited on the rooftop parking lot for my arrival.

Staring down at the crowd massed below, I waved my hand at them through the curved window, almost idly, and in response hundreds of hands rose and waved back. This was my first hint of the power I’d been given.

It was an impersonation of power, to be sure, but still a form of power, and I was a little nervous about how to handle it. Luckily I had time to consider the issue while I sat on my throne (yep, I had one, flanked by a giant stuffed toy elephant and a giraffe), since I gazed out at mainly empty spaces of that elegant store. It was a time of economic recession, and Saks had no real toy department.

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Except for those busy times when throngs of children were shipped in from local schools, I often sat alone, and I took to reading from a book I thought might help me better inhabit my role as a magical holiday figure: Technicians of the Sacred. It was an anthology of spiritual poetry from indigenous peoples from around the world, and one poem in particular has stayed with me these many years, a work on the craft of making art, written by an unnamed Aztec poet:

The artist: disciple, abundant, multiple, restless.
The true artist: capable, practicing, skillful;
Maintains dialogue with his heart, meets things with his mind.
The true artist: draws out all from his heart,
Works with delight, makes things with calm, with sagacity,
Works like a true Toltec, composes his objects, works dexterously, invents;
Arranges materials, adorns them, makes them adjust.

The carrion artist: works at random, sneers at the people,
Makes things opaque, brushes across the surface of things,
Works without care, defrauds people, is a thief.

I’ve taught this poem in various fiction writing workshops, and my students tend to find that last stanza a little judgy, but I have to say it sounds a lot like my secret critical interior voice when the writing isn’t going well.

That first stanza, though, that’s the real keeper. It describes so well the buzz of inspiration, combined with the sweat of revision and reconsideration—the sturm and drang of creation.

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And that first word is perhaps the most important one: disciple. But a disciple of what? The world, I’d say, or better yet the worlds—both inner and outer. To be a writer, an artist, one should avoid the pretense of authority and instead be an apprentice, always willing to learn, to reevaluate, to be surprised, and delighted, and humbled. Perhaps humbled most of all, by the task of applying one’s limited skills to the vast and patient Everything Else.

But what’s this about working “like a true Toltec”?

I’d always wondered about that reference, until one day I realized that, duh, the internet existed, and with a few swift clicks discovered that the Aztecs had a kind of mythology about the Toltecs, an earlier (going back to around 800-1200 AD) Meso-American culture. A little like the Romans’ regard for the artistic achievements of the Greeks. So much so that the word “Toltec” came to be synonymous with “artisan.” An example or two of Toltec art will easily explain why.

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Here’s some poor soul being devoured by a coyote, catching his last glimpse of the sweet world before the final gulp. The animal’s “fur” is made of mother-of-pearl, and those teeth are real bone. Beautiful and terrifying art.

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Even more telling, to my eyes, is the face of this clay vessel. Someone with a lot of power, I’m guessing, and not a lot of respect for who or what he’s regarding. Or maybe those eyes express a life-weariness, an expression of I’ve-Seen-It-All-So-What-Have-You-Got? Or maybe he’s about to pronounce a verdict that will not be especially welcomed. Or he’s just received one. This is a face that contains a life history I’d like to imagine. Thank goodness that ancient Toltec artist worked like a Toltec.

Right now, I’m in the throes of a novel, a season of inspiration (but how long will it last?), skating on possibilities and unforeseen connections that fly up before me, and facing the multiple paths that open new territories while closing off others. Choices, choices, each filled with opportunities and pitfalls. It’s an exhilarating time, and humbling, too, because all I have to do is draw out all from my heart, and then adorn it, make it adjust.

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For a complete account of my adventures as a Santa, you can take a peek at “The Man Behind the Beard,” an essay which originally appeared in the Washington Post Magazine, here.

December 27th, 2013 by admin | 2 Comments »

My Mambo King

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Of all the photos taken of him, the image above captures best, I think, the man who was my friend for thirty-eight years. Oscar Hijuelos and I met in graduate school at City College in 1975, two young writers in Frederick Tuten’s fiction workshop. Oscar was shy, even deferential to the other writers in the workshop, but when he first read his work to us in class, his head bowed over the pages on the desk, his voice low, everyone recognized his enormous talent.

We became friends, visiting each other often in his apartment on the Upper West Side or the house I was renting with old college friends north of the city. We read each other’s manuscripts (and continued to do so over the years), discovered that we were born within two days (and only a few miles) of each other, and we talked about our life-or-death love of literature, drank and joked and ate at any Cuban-Chinese restaurant we came upon in New York. To say Oscar had a good sense of humor is not quite right—he had a great sense of amusement, about everything in the world (and he also had a great curious appetite for everything in the world), and when I hear Oscar’s voice in my mind (and I listen to him a lot these days), I can hear his restrained chuckle, or the casual bemusement in the very tone of his speaking. That slight, gentle smile in the photo says it all.

When my wife Alma and I spent the summer of 1987 in New York City with our then months-old son Nathaniel, we rented an apartment a few blocks from Oscar’s place. He was just back from living abroad (he’d won a Rome Prize for his first novel, Our House in the Last World). Our first night in town, we walked over to Oscar’s, to introduce him to our first child. We were shocked at his hollowed-out apartment—he’d inadvertently gotten into a little trouble with the IRS over taxes while he was in Rome, and now he was selling his furniture piece by piece to raise money. As we spoke, my son began wailing in my arms, and Oscar reached over to a nearly empty shelf, picked up a kalimba, and began improvising a serenade.

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Almost immediately Nathaniel calmed down, and without hesitation Oscar made us a present of the instrument—one of his last possessions. That generosity was typical of Oscar. You can see that kindness in the photo, as well as some of the sadness that was never far away, through all the decades that I knew him, through success as well as failure.

The evening of Oscar’s wake, Alma and I took the train in from Princeton, where we’ve been living this fall, and then the subway to the Upper West Side, landing just a few blocks from the visitation. We’d arrived early, and because I wasn’t quite ready to put the stamp of finality on my friend’s sudden death, Alma and I walked about the neighborhood, which was filled with memories of when Oscar and I had first forged our friendship. At the wake we paid our respects to Oscar’s beloved wife Lori, who in her grief was overwhelmed by the large crowd of friends and family there to offer support. Oscar’s casket rested in a corner, and for a few minutes I foolishly spoke to it as if my friend could hear me from inside.

Later, Alma and I walked to the nearby Cuban-Chinese restaurant La Caridad 78 (“Comidas China y Criolla”), where Oscar and I had often taken a meal.

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The same spare décor, the heaping plates of food, and speakers in the walls played salsa music, the same joyful music Oscar had written about in his Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. It wasn’t the best meal I’ve had, but it tasted of history, and loss, and love, too: fried rice and beans, hunks of tender chicken, Chinese vegetables. By the end of our meal, I noticed a young couple at a nearby table, enjoying a side order of plantains.

I nodded toward the table and said to Alma, “I forgot to order plantains. The meal doesn’t seem right without some.”

“It’s not too late to order,” she replied, but our meal was almost done, the moment for that really had passed.

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Yet after I paid the bill and we gathered our coats, I found myself approaching the couple, and I explained that I’d just left the wake of a dear friend, and he and I had often eaten at this restaurant, and I’d forgotten to order a plate of what we’d always ordered, plantains, and would it be all right if I could have just one piece?

They happily agreed, offered me the entire plate, but no, a single slice would do. Then Alma and I thanked them and left, walking down the street to the subway station, while I nibbled slowly at my slice of plantain, each bite another little goodbye.

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For another remembrance of Oscar Hijuelos, which includes Oscar’s take on what constitutes a writer’s afterlife, you can visit this entry of the Ninth Letter blog.

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The beautiful photo of Oscar Hijuelos was taken by Dario Acosta.

November 24th, 2013 by admin | 8 Comments »

How Can You Tell the Writer from the Dance?

The first contemporary dance performance I ever attended sent a shock through me, one whose effect I still feel today.

My previous experience with dance had been watching ballerinas go through ritualized poses during a high school performance of The Nutcracker. I had no eyes at the time to appreciate the athleticism of their leaps and spins—too mild-mannered, too “girly” for an adolescent boy.

My second year in college, I found myself willing to do anything to impress a cultured young woman who had spent most of her life in France and Germany, where her father had been posted as a diplomat. This was a doomed endeavor from the start, but when she mentioned that the Maurice Béjart dance company was performing in New York City (a short hop from our Sarah Lawrence College campus) I didn’t hesitate at the opportunity to accompany her. They were performing their interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, that masterful squawk of modernism (and one of my favorite pieces of classical music). I knew that The Rite of Spring had originally been composed for a ballet, and that the premiere performance had sparked an uproar back in 1913. The object of my affection gave a little smile at my minor display of cultural knowledge and said that the new Béjart choreography had created its own controversy.

We sat in the stratospheric reaches of the balcony, which turned out to be quite a blessing, since the full force of the patterns shaped by the dancers was clearest from a distance. Béjart’s choreography marshaled over forty dancers on the stage, often in great blocks of swirling sexy movement. No tutus here, no polite duets! The power of all those dancers creating a kind of mural that twisted and turned in time was beyond anything I could have anticipated.

My relationship with that elegant young woman lasted only a few months, but my interest in modern dance continued, and a desire to somehow write fiction about it grew. I’d come up with some big ideas over the summer: I would write a novella about a small dance company that performed to Bartok’s Fourth String Quartet (another favorite of mine). I’d write about the individual musicians playing the quartet, the dancers, the rehearsals and the ultimate performance. So I signed up for dance and choreography classes (and had the good fortune to work with Don Redlich and the legendary Bessie Schonberg), music history and notation, and a creative writing conference course devoted to this project with my mentor, short story writer Grace Paley.

To my mind, Bartok’s quartet offered special possibilities for this writing project. The music was so varied and unusual, so haunting, that I couldn’t wait to create scenes with the dancers’ interpretations, especially in the fourth movement, where the quartet members set aside their bows and pluck at the strings instead, creating music that sounds something like a side-step spider hoedown:

By the end of the year, what I came up with was absolutely terrible, a disaster. My ambitions had clearly outpaced my twenty-year-old self’s limited talents as a writer, and I am grateful that no copies of this experiment still exist.

And yet . . . when I think back to that project, I don’t think of failure, but of a different kind of success. Taking contemporary dance classes transformed my writing, and in ways that I couldn’t possibly have predicted once I’d started.

First, dancing simply released some rhythmic energy in my body that came to influence the rhythms of my sentences. I had been a careful writer, serious about finding just the right word, though often to the detriment of the larger needs of a sentence. I continued worrying about that ideal word, but this concern now came later. Instead, I first let my language, well, dance, allowing the infinite varieties of sentence structure to take me places I’d never visited before, much in the same way dance allowed my body to move in ways it had never moved before.

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As one of the few men in the dance program, I was quite popular with the female student choreographers, who were always looking for a man to perform in one of their dance pieces. Being choreographed, being moved about in three-dimensional space on a stage, seeing that creative process develop and change, and my role as a dancer therefore changing too, gave me a sense of how to better create dramatic scenes in my own fiction. Having been moved about in space, adapting to the rhythms of timing and interacting with the other dancers, now I found I could more easily move about my sometimes reluctant fictional characters.

Finally, part of my dance study included learning how to apply the dance notation system called Labanotation. Developed by Rudolf Laban in an effort to record and preserve on paper the movements of choreography, it’s akin to musical notation, and can be adapted to even complex pieces (click to enlarge).

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Holding still on the page the fluid soul of dance helps one to see the underlining structure, what I guess you could call the long game that binds the accumulating incidents together. My attempts at learning how to apply Labanotation helped me think more deeply about artistic structure in general, and story structure in specific (developing rudimentary skills in reading musical notation helped here too).

It took a while for the changes in my writing to unfold, and even longer for me to fully grasp where those changes had come from (always a slow learner, me). But those lessons learned taught me something else. I was blessed as a student to work with a great array of writing mentors—Grace Paley, Frederic Tuten, Donald Barthelme—but also to explore the possibilities of another art form, an arena outside a writing workshop. I was able to see that language is not only words, and that dance is not merely contained in the body.

October 16th, 2013 by admin | 3 Comments »

Disasters Both Outside and Within

I’ve recently read Kenneth Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters (after watching the author spar with Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report), a book I found profoundly moving–a reaction I hadn’t expected, but probably could have predicted.

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The book is a series of transcribed radio broadcasts (with a few exceptions), as the events are unfolding, of crucial blows to the American psyche: the assassination of President Kennedy, then his brother Robert, John Lennon’s murder, the Challenger disaster, the Columbine massacre, the World Trade Center attacks and the death of Michael Jackson. Virtually anyone reading this book will have experienced living through at least some of these events, if not all (I was in seventh grade when Kennedy was killed).

So the book is a You Are There account of some of the main body blows of recent American history, but it also creates an alternate personal history of the reader, too, if he or she is old enough.

The first chapter, of the Kennedy assassination, begins with radio patter of an almost child-like American innocence, a care-free world managed by helpful advertised products: Armour Star turkeys (“government inspected and graded to give your family a very special treat this Thanksgiving”), Falstaff beer (“no deposit, no return cans in handy packs of six”), and the Robert Hall department store (“robes and pajama sets are priced from only $3.97″). In between, songs by the Chiffons (“I Have a Boyfriend”) and Tommy Rowe’s “Hey Everybody” keep the tone light.

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But slowly, breaking news about shots being fired at a Kennedy motorcade in Dallas eventually overwhelm the radio station’s normal proceedings, and this news grows ever alarming: Kennedy has been shot at, Kennedy has been hit, Kennedy’s wounds are minor, Kennedy’s wounds are grave, Kennedy is dead. Though of course I knew what was coming since I lived through this national trauma, I found myself wishing certain reports were indeed true, that Kennedy’s wounds were minor, manageable, and because of this need to deny what could not be denied (an impulse that surprised me as I read), the transcribed radio report created an almost unbearable tension.

Perhaps I felt this way because the Kennedy assassination revealed to me the wider world of adult tragedy, the shocks that often come without warning. And in some ways, the willful innocence of the country’s popular culture was lost that day as well.

When the on-the-scene radio report of Robert Kennedy Jr.’s assassination kicks in, there’s an odd emotional quality to the reporting, a sort of Can this really be happening again? tone that seems to imply that history’s lesson hasn’t completely been learned. Less than three years after the death of his older brother, this death almost hits harder, because it illustrates that the first assassination wasn’t an anomaly, but another step in a horrific future business-as-usual (Martin Luther King, Jr. had also been assassinated months earlier).

And the litany of disasters follows: John Lennon’s murder appears to cap off any last remaining promise of the Sixties, and the Challenger explosion crumples the country’s assumptions of technological superiority.

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The chapter on Columbine is perhaps the most powerful: a transcription of a teacher’s 911 call as the killing unfolds at the high school, and it captures a chilling, head-shaking sense of helplessness and disbelief at such carnage in such an unlikely (then) setting.

After the grim on-the-scene news reports of the World Trade Center attacks (attacks that also tore down America’s willful belief in our safety and invulnerability), we come to the rather jaded reports of Michael Jackson’s death. We have become so inured to tragedy that the commentators can argue about whether Jackson was really the King of Pop or not.

Goldsmith’s book of transcribed tragedies would be a difficult read if it weren’t also a compelling secret history of the country, and of the reader. As individuals, we have all had to absorb terrible news and events in our lives, and these radio reports of disasters “as they happened” captures the emotional shock and disbelief, the hopeless bargaining with reality to return to normality that we undergo when our personal or family lives go kablooie.

So, if all of this book is transcribed reporting, then how does Goldsmith get to be the “author”? I’m reminded of the work of Studs Terkel, whose transcribed interviews in such books as Working and Hard Times are masterpieces of revelation: voices we haven’t heard, only brought together through Terkel’s efforts, and shaped into an overarching narrative. Or Charles Reznikoff’s Testimony, a reclamation of late 19th century and early 20th century court documents that reveal stories of despair and violence lost to history (see my post on Reznikoff’s book “To Remain a Witness”).

Goldsmith, I think, has done a similar service, taking the disasters that now loom like horrible monuments in our history and bringing back to them the “shock of the new.” It’s not perfect: Goldsmith says he couldn’t, for example, find a contemporaneous report of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death that captured the developing despair of the news. But this still remains one of the best history books I’ve ever read, voices from the past, under great stress, that recapture the immediacy of the present, and that laid bare, by example, the raw emotion of some of my own life’s (much smaller) disasters.

August 10th, 2013 by admin | No Comments »

Disquiet in Lisbon

In two weeks I’ll be returning to Lisbon, for my second year participating in the Disquiet International literary conference. Besides giving a reading from my fiction and nonfiction, I’ll also be leading the conference’s Fernando Pessoa walk though the streets of the city’s Baixa neighborhood to follow the haunts of the great 20th century Portuguese poet. And I’ll be teaching a generative travel writing class, encouraging my students to explore the nooks and crannies of Lisbon (and there are a lot of them).

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There’s a stellar cast of writers in the program, including the Portuguese-American writers Katherine Vaz and Frank Gaspar, as well as writers Terri Witek, Tayari Jones, Adam Levin, Sam Lipsyte, Robert Olmstead, Denise Duhamel, screenwriter and actor John Frey, and some of the best Portuguese writers of the day: Jacinto Lucas Pires, Teolindo Gersão, Patricia Portela, José Luís Peixoto, and Gonçalo Tavares. And of course Richard Zenith, perhaps the premier translator of Portuguese literature into English. One of the main organizing spirits behind it all is the marvelous fiction writer Jeff Parker.

But most of all, there’s Lisbon: the palimpsest of history on every street, the summer scent of grilling sardines, the beauty of the language, and the music, the music. Fado is the style most known outside of the country, but Portuguese music offers much, much more than that. There’s jazz, rock, folk, you name it, and because the creative genius of Portugal is particularly attuned to music (and literature too, let’s not forget literature, and did I mention food?), it’s all of a very high quality. These cultural riches are probably not a small part of how the Portuguese are surviving these difficult days of austerity. That, and lots of demonstrations.

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One of my favorite Portuguese bands is Madredeus. After the loss of their singer, Teresa Salgueiro, the band experimented with their musical identity for a while, but now they’re back with a new instrumental line-up that includes two violins, a cello, and the classically trained voice of Beatriz Nunes. Here’s their quietly stunning version of one of the oldest songs in the Madredeus repertoire, “Adeus . . . e nem voltei.”

The violin is also an important instrument in the music of Cape Verde (an African nation of nine islands and a former Portuguese colony). The singer Lura, born in Lisbon of Cape Verdean parents, brilliantly recreates the music of those islands, her voice both powerful and tender. I love the violin in her version of the song “Flor di nha esperanca”–it gives a chamber music touch to the slinky dance hall proceedings.

Will I be lucky enough to catch Madredeus or Lura in concert this summer? I doubt it. But whichever live music I make my way to, I know it’ll be wonderful.

Like what you’ve heard? Then try these posts, which also include videos of Portuguese music:

A Naifa (includes my take on José Luís Peixoto’s excellent novel, The Implacable Order of Things)

Bernardo Sassetti

Or you could read “The Pleasures of Saudade,” my article on the thrilling range of contemporary Portuguese music, which includes numerous videos and MP3s, here at The Morning News.

Interested in Portuguese literature? Try this post on the work of Fernando Pessoa.

June 16th, 2013 by admin | No Comments »

Sleepwalkers Strolling Through Fire

I read this week in the Portuguese newspaper Público that the Mozambican writer Mia Couto has been awarded the 2013 Camões Prize, a major international award that honors writers from the Lusophone world—those eight countries where Portuguese is the official language.

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I’m delighted by this news, because ever since I first read Couto’s work back in 1990, the story collection Voices Made Night, he has been one of my favorite writers. I was immediately struck by the strength of his poetic prose, which reminded me in some ways of the prose of the poet Rilke, writing that somehow describes the world and alters it at the same time.

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Couto, though, writes of his African country’s war of independence, civil war, and the tragic aftermaths of so much destruction on the lives of ordinary people. Here, from the story “The Day Mabata-bata Exploded,” is a description of a cow that, while being led by a young cowherd, steps on a landmine:

“Suddenly, the cow exploded. It burst without so much as a moo. In the surrounding grass a rain of chunks and slices fell, as if the fruit and leaves of the ox. Its flesh turned into red butterflies. Its bones were scattered coins. Its horns were caught in some branches, swinging to and fro, imitating life in the invisibility of the wind.”

This passage is typical of Couto’s strengths as a writer: terrible things remain terrible but are transformed into strange beauty by the power of language. Perhaps language is a survival skill in the face of so much violence and turmoil in his country’s recent history. In his first novel, Sleepwalking Land, Couto writes,

“They should invent a gentler, more affable gunpowder, capable of exploding men without killing them. An inverse powder, which would generate more life. And out of one exploded man, an infinity of men inside him would be born.”

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Couto is a master at inverting reality, reversing the order of the world with a swift aphoristic grace that leaves us puzzling over our normal assumptions. “Life is a web weaving a spider,” he says in another story in Voices Made Night, while in this passage from the novel Under the Frangipani he takes his time setting up this conceit of inversion:

“The tide was out and had left stretches of sand and rock uncovered. The gulls could be heard, screeching in a melancholy way. Before long, one would be able to hear the plovers, those white-fronted little birds that summon in the tide. The tide rises and falls in obedience to those birds. Just a short while ago, it was the sandpipers that had ordered the waters to ebb. Curious how such a gigantic creature as the ocean is so attentive to the commands of such insignificant little birds.”

This same novel is notable for the way it reverses the normal detective procedural. A Mozambican police inspector investigating a murder has to work his way through the baffling stories of multiple suspects: rather than deny, they all confess to the murder.

The world, transformed by violence, is transformed into something else, more hopeful, perhaps—certainly more magical. Though so many of his compatriots have been stunned into a kind of sleepwalking in their lives, Couto declares that we are all kin, that each of us resembles a “sleepwalker strolling through fire.” But language, and stories, may save us.

Mia Couto’s most recent novel translated into English (by David Brookshaw, wonderfully as always), is The Tuner of Silences. It sits near the top of my Must Read pile.

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May 29th, 2013 by admin | No Comments »

That Opening Paragraph

Ever wonder why you can find your way to a distant location in town, even if you only know a few, if any, of the names of the streets on the way? Erik Jonsson, in his book Inner Navigation: Why We Get Lost and How We Find Our Way, claims that we all create “cognitive maps.”

“Navigation is knowing where you are and how to get to where you want to go. In an unfamiliar area this means that you have to use a map and compass to find your way. But if you know the area you need no such help. You know where you are, and you know how to get to where you want to be next. It is all in your head: you have a ‘map in the head,’ a cognitive map to go by.”

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Once we come to know a place, we develop an “inner compass,” that turns with us, so that no matter where we’re facing we don’t get disoriented and can find our way.

I remember how hard it was, at first, to memorize the grid of New York City when I worked nights as a cab driver in the summer of 1972. Street by street I learned to orient myself, memorize the names and numbers of streets and avenues, the direction of one-way streets, the entrances and exits through Central Park. Soon enough, though, when a rider slipped into the backseat and named an address, I could see in my mind’s eye alternate routes, could quickly pick the one I thought might get us there faster. Yet I couldn’t say exactly how I had come to know this. Practice, yes, but something else was at work.

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Jonsson claims that this is “another neural system that operates at a level below awareness, the one that keeps us in balance as we stand and move around. It is automatic: we rely on it unthinkingly, taking it for granted, but when something goes wrong with it, we get in big trouble.”

And it can indeed go wrong. When the Vermont College of Fine Arts administrative offices were moved to the top floor of College Hall, I first visited the new digs by walking up the stairs on the west side of the building.

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Once there, the floor’s space imprinted itself on me, without my knowing it. Entering by the west stairs, however, was an unfortunate mistake, since the more convenient entry is from the stairs on the east side, an entry that I’ve usually taken ever since.

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And when I climb the eastern stairs, once at the top I feel disoriented for a moment, everything seems in the wrong place, because my initial mapping of the floor came from a western approach. I have to turn the floor around in my head before continuing.

First impressions, spatially, indeed count. And this reminds me of that crucial moment in any short story or novel: the opening paragraph.

Those first words serve as a crucial orientation, of the physical and emotional landscape of what is to follow. A reader begins a story as if opening a door to a new room: is that initial view inviting, intriguing, does it promise a path to perhaps more interesting rooms, does it encourage a step forward?

Here is the opening paragraph to Debra Eisenberg’s story “Transactions in a Foreign Currency” (from her story collection of the same name), which deftly defines the physical terrain and intrigues with unanswered questions:

I had lit a fire in my fireplace, and I’d poured out two coffees and two brandies, and I was settled down on the sofa next to a man who had taken me out to dinner, when Ivan called after more than six months. I turned with the receiver to the wall as I absorbed the fact of Ivan’s voice, and when I glanced back at the man on the sofa, he seemed a scrap of paper, or the handle from a broken cup, or a single rubber band–a thing that has become dislodged from its rightful place and intrudes on one’s consciousness two or three times before one understands it is just a thing best thrown away.

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We see the fireplace and sofa, we can imagine the type of cozy living room that contains them, the brandies, even the poor hapless man who has been so trumped by the unexpected call from Ivan that his value has plummeted to a near worthless bit of nearly nothing. We see the narrator, her back to him, phone by her ear. And yet much remains unanswered: who is this Ivan, why has he been silent for six months? And is the narrator reliable, is Ivan worthy of her so easily recharged devotion, or is she clinging to the promise of a man who hasn’t treated her well in the past and won’t in the future?

Eisenberg gives us details that allow us to create a cognitive map of the living room, and the likely social class of the narrator those details hint at. Yet we’re no sooner settled in this room than Ivan calls, and we realize that we won’t be hanging around here for long, the wider world outside beckons, as well as stretches of the narrator’s as yet unrevealed past, and some explanation for Ivan’s sudden reappearance. In one short paragraph Eisenberg has guided us beautifully into her story, blending concrete detail with emotional mystery.

Here’s another opening paragraph, one that orients us in a different way. It’s from “The End of the World,” by the Italian writer Dino Buzzati, from his Restless Nights: Selected Stories:

One morning about ten o’clock an immense fist appeared in the sky above the city. Then it slowly unclenched and remained this way, immobile, like an enormous canopy of ruin. It looked like a rock, but it was not rock; it looked like flesh but it wasn’t; it even seemed made of cloud, but cloud it was not. It was God, and the end of the world. A murmuring, which here became a moan, there a shout, spread through the districts of the city, until it grew into a single voice, united and terrible, rising shrilly like a trumpet.

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This rather frightening image catches a reader’s attention: if the end of the world does come, it might look something like this, and those voices in the city below convey humanity’s understandable terror. So, who wouldn’t read on to the second paragraph?

Buzzati doesn’t continue in this monumental vein, though. The setting established, he then floats down to the city’s street level, showing the reactions and fears of first crowds and then individual people, finally focusing, until the end of the story, on the plight of a single priest who must decide, in the short time remaining, whom to absolve among the supplicants crowding around him. Yet even though the perspective has long shifted from the hand of God to a single individual below, that threatening fist still hovers in the mind, its clenching like some terrible ticking clock. Buzzati can depart from that arresting initial image because it never really leaves the imagination of the reader.

Writers take great care with the opening paragraph, because the reader, however unconsciously, is looking for clues of what will follow. A false move—either an excess of detail, or not enough; contradictory metaphorical language; or a passive narrative voice—can jar a reader’s “inner compass,” and delay the entry into the fictional world. When writers begin the construction of those first crucial steps, we would do well to remember the words of the novelist Allan Gurganus, who says of the writing process, “You have to maintain your critical sensibility and not just assume, because it was an extraordinary dream for you, that it will be a dream for other people. Because people need maps to your dreams.”

May 13th, 2013 by admin | No Comments »