Oh You Doll

Recently I came upon a startling video of a Japanese woman’s quest to fill her nearly deserted town with life-size dolls that represent the hundreds of people who used to live there. “When I make dolls of dead people,” she says, “I think of them when they were alive and healthy.”

For example, the town’s school closed down two years ago for lack of students, and she has re-inhabited it with pupils and teachers.

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It’s what you might call an outsider art project, but on a vast scale, creepy and poignant, a town haunted by silent figures of memory. This video of the artist, commenting on her life and work, blends sweet with unsettling.

Valley of Dolls from Fritz Schumann on Vimeo.

But why should this touching short film be so haunting, why do those dolls attract us in such a discomforting way? I’m reminded of one of my favorite essays, “Some Reflections on Dolls,” by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in which he writes about an exhibition of wax dolls of the artist Lotte Pritzel.

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Lotte Pritzel in her workshop

Rilke remarks on the sadness of dolls that have no children in their lives. Or, rather, that dolls have no lives without children: “It was their habit, during the day, to be lived unwearyingly with energies not their own.”

And because dolls have no energies of their own, they can give us nothing back but what we invent of them. A doll is “the horribly foreign body on which we had wasted our purest ardor; as the externally painted watery corpse, which floated and swam on the floor-tides of our affection.” Dolls are like us, and yet they are nothing like us. Perhaps this accounts for our disquiet. As Rilke observes, “One is confronted and almost overwhelmed by their waxen nature.”

In some ways, they are like fictional characters still in the process of being fully imagined. We struggle to invent them, to give them the breath of believability. The hard work of imagining and revising our characters can give us the intimacy of a relationship, and, with luck, this intimacy extends to a reader.

As with all intimacies, though, something may go wrong. In my short story “I Dreamt about You Last Night,” (published in The Art of the Knock), Turley, the main character, returns home one day to discover that his wife has left him and their daughter, and she has also left behind her scrawls, painted on the walls, of all the lies he ever told her. In the wake of her abandonment, the daughter searches for attention elsewhere: “Julie turned to her largest and favorite doll, sitting on a chair opposite them. Its grave, porcelain face seemed to listen as Julie quietly asked it for help in the same coaxing tones she used whenever she wanted something from her mother.”

Distracted by his own grief and trying to reassure her, Turley lies idly to his daughter that the doll will indeed talk to her someday. A mistake, because before too long he finds the doll in pieces, the victim of his daughter’s rage at her doll’s stubborn silence. In shame, he takes the doll to a repair shop tricked out as a “Doll Hospital” (these places actually exist).

“The woman took the doll from the box. Its dress was badly torn and the ends of the limbs were jagged remains of ceramic hands and feet. She examined the porcelain head, with its punched-in, loose left eye. “This may be a difficult job,” the woman said. She pulled off the mohair wig, revealing the hollow skull of the doll, and she poked her fingers inside to manipulate the glass eye from behind. Turley found this almost impossible to watch.”

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Despite the repair, things will not go well for this doll.

To my surprise, I realized that dolls of all sorts make appearances in my fiction. How odd, to uncover a thread in my work that was always part of the weave. My novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, starts when a mother begins a game of pretending to be someone else, anyone else, to her young children. But the mother’s private performances become a dangerous descent into multiple otherhood and, too soon, she is lost to them.

The narrator of the novel, Michael, one day finds himself in class watching a slide show his fussy and over-prepared teacher has stuffed with any kind of information about whales, including photos of a Yuquot Northwest Coast Indian shrine devoted to attracting whales. What at first appears to be a crowd of people in one slide proves to be something else in the next slide:

“We were inside the shrine, and now came another surprise: those people were life-size wooden statues, their torsos stiff, their hands and feet stumps. Their openmouthed, flat faces seemed to be shouting out a warning at the approach of trespassers.”

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Yuquot whalers’ shrine

These statues are wooden images of dead whale hunters, and their open mouths are believed to sing songs that can attract whales and cause them to drift too close to shore. Michael can’t get enough of this slide, although he is still unsure what excites him until the next slide:

“Now another slide filled the screen: a close-up of maybe half a dozen statues, their identical, plaintive expressions so much like . . . my mother’s own unhappy features that last terrible day. I blinked back tears at the thought, yet still I couldn’t look away from that wall of faces. And then I knew why: they could easily be Mother’s hidden characters. I longed to hear them sing out keening songs like whales, songs filled with secrets that I would finally understand.”

Finally, my story, “The Pose” (published in Interior Design), is devoted to a husband and wife who, nearing an emotionally estranged endgame in their relationship, begin to relearn how to communicate with each other through a strange figure in the closet that is constructed out of clothes hangers. The husband, Richard, a tinkerer and inventor, is trying to design an “all-purpose clothes hanger.” But when his wife Isabel first discovers this figure, it is still in process:

“Before her sways a peculiar construction of clothes hangers, elaborately fit together into the full-sized outline of a person. But this flat thing doesn’t have a face, only a wire circle for a head, and from its top the hanger hook rises like a question mark.”

Its incompleteness disturbs her, and she can’t help adding her own touches to the figure.

“It’s really just a cartoonish outline. Why would anyone want to fit clothes over something that looks so awkward? Isabel reaches out for one of the wire hands, examines the clumsiness of the circular palm and broad fingers. With some strain she manages to bend a metal curve into a recognizable thumb. Then she squeezes the rest into tapered fingers and goads the palm into an oval. She places her own hand against the cool wire outline: it’s a comfortable fit. Isabel stands up and moves back. Those thighs are too thin, the shoulders too squarish. Gripping the cold metal, she begins to press and pull.”

Before long, Isabel and Richard collaborate separately on the figure, dressing it in the clothes she once wore during their early courtship, the clothes she wore when he first undressed her.

What a fertile landscape dolls offer us, they are mirrors that reflect ourselves, but only if we want them to. And their coming alive ignites something in us, allows us to nurse a present hurt or nurture a budding future self, or reclaim a missing piece of the past. But because these dolls or doll-like figures come alive from without and not from within themselves, they can too easily be abandoned, and then their similarity to us is no longer a comfort, but instead an unsettling mask that fools no one.

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The poet and Nobel laureate Wistawa Szymborska captures this alienation well when, in her slyly exhilarating collection of book reviews, Nonrequired Reading, she writes of visiting a wax museum: “That macabre facsimile of life, the rosy cheeks, the half-smiles, the eyelashes, the mustaches, the glassy eyes behind your back, all that dolled-up deadness, maudlin and pretentious—now that was frightening. I felt sick and had to go out for some fresh air.”

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Perhaps what is most wrong about the wax face of Prince Charles above is that his expression is following no previous expression, and isn’t leading to another. Our faces are never fixed and are always reacting, revealing, hiding. In fiction, we have to bring the fresh air in and ascribe an inner life to our nascent characters that sets their thoughts in motion throughout the course of a story, we try to do our best to write them out of their masks and make the unblinking eyes blink, encourage the frozen mouth to speak, and put enough of us inside them so that, unlike dolls, they will come alive–for us, and for others.

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Related posts you might enjoy:
The Secret History of Objects.
You Got to Take Care of Your People

November 6th, 2014 by admin | No Comments »

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 a 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 »