Thursday, March 14, 2013

Marilynne Robinson on reading and writing

Interesting brief interview with Marilynne Robinson on the New York Times website.

Does she re-read, she is asked: "I tend to think of the reading of any book as preparation for the next reading of it", she says. I have to say that's such a Calvinist outlook and although I try to fight against the Calvinist instinct within me, damn it but I can't help but associate with it.

If you could meet any character from literature, she is asked, who would it be? Her response is "Ishmael". That seems a very odd choice, I have to say. Ishmael is one of the oddest narrators in literary history: he literally expunges himself from the text for long passages, as though he weren't there. Cormac McCarthy does much the same thing with the kid in Blood Meridian. Over long passages of the novel, particularly the very gory ones, the kid simply disappears from the text. McCarthy is doing this deliberately, and so does Melville when he elides Ishmael from the action. In both instances, the authors are seeking to distance the characters from the unseemly, at times inhuman acts unfolding in the narrative. These characters, then, are witnesses to events but not necessarily complicit in them. This has always seemed something of a cop-out to me, and it seems vaguely unCalvinist of Robinson to elevate Ishmael in this way.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The World Made Straight by Ron Rash

I was introduced to Ron Rash by a regular reader on this blog and have consistently been pleased to have had that introduction. Rash is a fine writer who one day is going to write something truly stunning.

The World Made Straight is a fairly straightforward narrative, a character driven coming-of-age novel in which a number of traps are set for our adolescent main character to stumble into – literally so, in the novel’s excruciating opening, when he steps into a bear trap. He has discovered an illegal field of marijuana and returns twice to harvest it to make some easy money. The third visit leads to his fateful encounter with the trap. The young man, Travis Shelton, is a troubled but essentially decent high school drop-out, someone who feels the need to rebel without necessarily having any particular cause. The aftermath of the bear trap incident gives him a cause, however, in the form of a serious rift with his father which causes him to leave home and live with another drop-out, the disgraced teacher Leonard Shuler who is now operating as a drug and moonshine dealer to the youth of the community.

A bare description of the plot and characters wouldn’t do the novel justice. It would make it appear slight, cliched and predictable, with characters out of central casting and a too straightforward unfurling of the plot elements. To an extent, these would be justified criticisms, but overall such an analysis would seem unfair. There is a depth to the novel which isn’t immediately apparent but which resonates much longer than would be the case with cheaper novelistic fare. And, as ever, with southern fiction (Rash almost fits into that category, certainly in sentiment, if not necessarily in precise geographic location) the underlying theme revolves around time and history and the ties that bind us and the difficulty of the past.

In some ways it is too pat. The two central characters, a generation apart, are kindred spirits. The elder, Leonard, sees in Travis a chance to atone for the mistakes in his own life by ensuring the young man pursues his education and escapes the stultifying fate that otherwise awaits him. One could get away with that as a basic premise, but for them each to be descendents of participants on different sides of the Civil War, participants who came to blows in a particularly unsavoury incident, begins to establish a backstory that feels suspiciously manufactured. And just at the moment of his crisis, Travis finds himself a girlfriend who is, depending on your viewpoint, a steadying influence or a controlling restraint. The tension this provides, of course, ensures a suitable narrative propulsion, but there is perhaps a worry of writing-by-numbers here. One can imagine a writer wanting to create a character like Travis and wondering how to reveal his fears about independence and constraint: a girlfriend, natch, one who wants to do the best for him but whose ministrations can be taken by Travis as being controlling. And something will have to propel the final crisis which leads to the novel’s climax: step forward the inflexible father character, someone whose love Travis craves but whose upbringing cannot allow him to unbend and show affection to his son. There is a lack of naturalness about the plot, then, and it is exacerbated by the not wholly convincing subplot about the Civil War atrocity which brings the latter-day descendents together in unpredictable ways.

All of this sounds faintly damning, and yet I think this is a good novel, containing some very fine writing. I seem to recall having to make very similar clarifications in earlier reviews of Ron Rash. Furthermore, I started this review by saying one day he will write something brilliant, and I feel fairly sure I’ve said the same thing before. The reason is that Rash is a brilliant conjurer of words but he doesn’t, as yet, seem able to marshall a wholly convincing plot. My feeling is that he tries too hard. His writing has the feel, to me, of someone who plots everything in detail before he begins. This has the effect of straightjacketing the narrative when his writing demands that it should fly free.

What would be truly fascinating would be to rewrite this story without the character of Leonard, or without the requisite bad guy, Carlton Toomey, or without Travis’s girlfriend. Each of these feels too carefully defined in order to propel Travis towards his crisis. Each of them, in isolation, might work, but en masse they feel like a manufactured supporting cast. Life tells us that crises usually emerge anyway, so Travis would at some stage have encountered the difficulties he does in this novel without these people. Perhaps he could have done so in a more naturalistic way, which could have created a novel of outstanding quality because Rash’s writing, as opposed to his plotting, is itself beautifully naturalistic. His grasp of description and mood is exemplary and if this can be allied to better plotting and characterisation Ron Rash is capable of producing a masterpiece.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What is this?

Saw this in an antique shop in Kentucky, and I think it might be the most unappealing thing I've ever seen. It seems to be a squirrel with a baby's face. Anyone know what it is? And, more to the point, why?

Phallic flowers

This must be the most phallic object ever to be (presumably unintentionally) displayed... It's even ejaculating...

Call for submissions

I received an email with this call for submissions so I'm passing it on, in case any of my creative writing readers have anything suitable:
PageTurners, an Indian publisher, is looking for short stories, poetry, and flash fiction for their new anthology, “Across the Ages.”

PageTurners was originally a collaboration between SIP and Penguin India. Recently, they have published their own anthology, The Traversal of Lines, in order to raise money for The Gosports Foundation. “Across the Ages” is the second book in the series, and focuses on theme of cross-generational literature.

To submit simply upload your story onto ReadWave and include the hashtag #AcrossTheAges.

Please be sure to read through the submission guidelines below before submitting:

1. All submissions must be on the topic of ‘age’ – this may be what it is like to be the age you are now, what it was like to be another age, how you perceive another age group or how your perspective has changed on an experience you had at another time of your life.
2. Your submission must be under 2000 words.
3. All submissions must be the writer’s own work and available to be published in the anthology.
4. Your submission cannot be part of a larger work – all pieces must stand alone and carry their full meaning by themselves.
5. The submission deadline is 1st May.

More info here:

Good luck if you enter!