Thursday, February 28, 2013

Winter Institute 8 Galley Haul

Winter Institute is an annual booksellers educational conference that features workshops, panels, meals, authors, presentations and, much more importantly, books, talking, drinking, eating, drinking, talking, and books. Never having been to any other conferences I can't say, with any empirical data, that WI is the best conference that happens anytime anywhere, but you'd have to present some apple on the head kind of data to convince me otherwise. (I'll accept water flowing over the sides of the bathtub as well, but only if you show your work.) Afterward, I always find myself lugging a now full suitcase of books home, though lugging isn't quite the right word as lugging generally does not imply the level of joy I feel in the transportation process. Here are some of the highlights. (Also, I have the next issue of Lucky Peach. Figured I'd get that bit of gloating out of the way.)

The Arcadia Project edited by Joshua Corey and G.C. Waldrep. I bumped into Meg, the sales representative for Small Press Distribution, and she said, “I've got one copy of this galley and it's for you.” As someone who matches books to readers for a living, that might be the single best sentence I can hear. I love G.C. Waldrep's poetry, especially Archicembalo and think he'd bring a fascinating curatorial gaze to the project. Also, the first truly American poets, Uncle Walt and Aunt Emily, brought a daring, experimental edge to looking at the world around them and wrote a lot of pastoral poems from that perspective. If you really look at Frost (especially his angrier poems) and some of Bishop, you can see traces of that perspective on nature, but for the most part, American nature poetry tends to be the most vacant works committed to paper. The Arcadia Project could, not only, reveal an important current of American poetry I have just missed, it could reclaim and revitalize what should be a fundamental genre of American poetry. (Just noticed this is actually a finished copy. Do you think it would be poor taste to ask Meg to marry me in a blog post?)

Ravickians by Renee Gladman. The Ravickians is the second volume in Renee Gladmans series set in the strange and shifting city of Ravicka. The first volume Event Factory is like walking through the Escher print with all of those stairs; you know you're moving through space, but it's hard to see where you are going. As such, it was a little difficult to know exactly how I felt about the book. What I hope from this volume (and I believe there's a third as well) is a deepening and expanding of that experience so that I can be, to use a very strange phrase, more constructively lost. And my real hope is ultimately, the books maintain the quality of the first and are published in a single volume, because that book would gather much wider reader, critic, review, and award attention than the separate small volumes.

Surfaces & Essences: Analogy as the Fuel of Fire & Thinking by Douglas Hofstadter & Emmanuel Sander. As a writer, I spend a lot of time thinking about how meaning is made, both in the literature artistic sense and the neurological psychological sense. The question always being something like, “Are we narrating our life, reading a narration of our life, or a paradoxical combination of both?” The function of analogy plays into this question in a challenging way because you are lead back to wonder what the original thing was that was used to understand the next thing. (Which could lead into the critical essay on House of Leaves and The Raw Shark Text that's been kicking around a bit in my head.) Hofstadter has done this kind of big thinking book before so if anyone can pull this off, he can.

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell. This was the galley that made it on the plane ride home (which there should be an award for somehow) not just because Matt Bell, also an editor at Dzanc Books let me pitch my novel to him at the hotel bar, not just because it has one of the best, if not the best, cover design of the books I saw, and not just because the title is so intriguing; I also opened it and started reading. (Early plot description: Rustic, folktale, Eraserhead. Yep.) Bell writes in a very challenging voice I like to think of Neo-Folklore, where the prose takes on the voice, tone, and rhythm of a story that has been told around campfires and bedsides for centuries. To make matters even more difficult, unlike Jesse Ball perhaps the best practioner of this style, who tends to use a distant perspective, Bell's novel is in first person and so the voice has to be ignorant of some of the mysterious forces driving the events in the story, and have a voice that differs distinctly from contemporary speech, and still have enough insight to communicate events and ideas. So far, Bell is balancing on that tiny pinnacle.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. To roll out a little jargon for you, this book is an Advanced Reader's Edition with french flaps, deckle edges, AND an embossed cover. I don't think I've ever seen a publisher spend this much money on a galley and in such a way that clearly states, “We really, really, really, believe in the quality of this book.” Marra has won a number of big awards for a relatively young writer. Set in strifeworn Chechnya this book is calling to the squalor connoisseur in me and if it also pays off in literary quality and significance, I will gladly help make it a bestseller.

The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon. There are lots of typical reasons for this to end up on the highlight list; the author is a cute 20-something Brit still at Oxford, Bloomsbury signed her up for seven books in the series, they've already sold the movie rights, it's being published in a gillion countries, etc. It makes my highlight list because Kenny Coble (@kennycoble) told everyone to get it. At breakfast it came out in conversation I review poetry, he asked me what I was working on, I told him Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, he responded that he'd read every book put out by that publisher. To sum up: a bookseller who is intimately familiar with the list of a small poetry publisher insistently recommended a book marketed, essentially, as the next Harry Potter. I don't know exactly what it is, but something is definitely up with that.

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan. As a book about sexual identity in teenage girls in Iran, this novel could be a powerful prism through which we can find a new perspective on the challenges of sexual identity in our much more open, but still rather closed, society. For a number of years now, I've sold books for the Lesley Low-Residency MFA Faculty readings, sitting out in the lobby of a theater with a couple of tables worth of books, watching young writers pass back and forth. Sara is the first graduate of the program who has come across my radar as a published author. It was very cool to see her at the start of what should be an awesome career.

I also got my mom her birthday present, which I will discuss no further here.

Click here to see all the other books I brought back with me.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

It Must Be Style: On Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

Exactly what Tim Gunn is talking about
It is often said there are really only X number of stories, two, four, seven. A man goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. Sometimes the idea will be varied to conclude that every story has already been told, probably by Shakespeare, or some other dead guy who is no longer trying to make a living. I think there is some truth to this idea, but too often the implications of this idea don't move beyond a vague acceptance of the impossibility of originality. Then we try to be original anyway. If there are a limited number of stories, than the distinguishing feature of all stories, what separates them, what makes one narrative good and another not good, is style. How the story is told becomes the absolute defining feature of a work of narrative. It's not that originality is entirely impossible, but that it rests solely in the realm of style.

I'm not sure I agree with the absoluteness of storytelling archetypes beyond a kind of conversational shorthand. To me, the idea of the limits of plot originality is as much about the way we organize the world into patterns as it is about, well, the limits of plot originality. Essentially, there are an infinite number of stories that can be told and in order to get a handle on the storytelling beast dwelling in the labyrinth of our brain we categorize, organize, and limit.

Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style confronts the idea of absolute patterns in storytelling and then reduces the idea absolutely. A banal story is told in 99 different ways. (Queneau, like Jay-Z, did not have a “bitch” problem.) A young man with a long neck and a strange hat believes a man standing next to him on a bus is purposefully treading on his feet every time someone gets on our off the bus. When a seat opens up, he sits in it. Later that same day, the narrator sees the young man somewhere else, and notices a friend of the young man advising him on the placement of a button on his overcoat. Using constraints, formats, styles, voices, substitutions, translations, and other techniques, Queneau writes a kind of Metamorphoses, transforming a single event into an exploration of the fundamental actions of telling others about a single event. Like If on a winter's night a traveler, and other works by Oulipo, Queneau breaks apart the act of storytelling into its constituent parts. He splits the atom of narrative.

Queneau was also a pioneer in photo booth vaudeville
I think it makes for a freaking awesome book. Funny, insightful, weird, baffling. Why do words produce certain effects? What is plot if it can be surrounded by infinitely mutable style? How do words come to having the meanings they do? Patterns of speech. Political leanings. Poetic forms. In essence, Queneau has produced a nearly definitive text book on how to get an event out of your head and into the world. But Queneau doesn't quite go all the way into the land of textbook. In the original edition, (the new one from New Directions has additional exercises both by Queneau and some of today's best and brightest) Queneau manages to create a surprise ending. Yes. The 99th permutation of the same banal story has a totally realistic, totally believable, totally shocking, surprise ending. (That sound you heard a couple of weeks ago, might very well have been my brain exploding.) Still I could see why some (OK, many) people would not be interested enough in the gears of the literature machine to read an entire book about them.

And that is fine by me. However, just become one might not be interested in the book, doesn't make the book self-indulgent or pretentious or any of the other pejorative words often thrown at experimental writing. Sure, it probably is most interesting to readers who write and/or readers curious about writing, but that doesn't mean Queneau was just showing off. Here's how I think about this idea; I don't read the Lancet, but I'm glad my doctor does. Even though articles in the Lancet would be totally impenetrable to me, filled with references, jargon, allusion, and extremely complex sentence construction, it doesn't mean the authors are just “showing off,” and it doesn't mean those who read the Lancet are “showing off.” In every profession, there are experts who do stuff to make everybody else in their field better at what they do. We don't dismiss their materials. We probably don't read them very much, but we don't dismiss them. In some ways, “specialist” literature is even more accessible, democratic, populist, than any other specializations, because you can use basic reading skills to teach yourself how to read and appreciate them. The Lancet is pretty much always going to be impossible for me to read, but anybody could reach a point in their reading lives, if they want to put in a bit of effort, where they can read and enjoy Exercises in Style. But even if few readers decide on that course, the writers who have read Exercises in Style will write better and more interesting books. Because of Queneau and Oulipo and every other writer who has experimented, dared, pushed the limits, made mistakes, failed at creating a new form, wrote something terrible in the process, mainstream books get better. Like labs and the Lancet, books need Raymond Queneaus.

But, beyond all that “gears of literature” stuff (or maybe because of it) I think there's another ultimate truth expressed in Exercises in Style, one connected to some of the other great works of literature, Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, and In Search of Lost Time. (Don't look at me like that.) We have very little control over what happens to us in life, but we can decide how our life is told. To put this another way. Plot constrains, style frees.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Dream Dictionaries Lie: On George Perec's La Boutique Obscure

I am skeptical of every dream sequence I encounter in an work of intentional creation. The problem with created dream sequences is that they have a different level of freedom of imagery than the rest of the work in which they appear. Essentially, when events normally permissible within the framework of the narrative cannot directly communicate whatever it is the creator wants to communicate, a dream sequence is inserted to bear overt symbols from one part of the narrative to the other and magically we know the protagonist is chosen for the quest, or uncomfortable with their title, or desperate for the affection of an otherwise distant other, or whatever other emotion or phenomenal fact of human existence that doesn't routinely come up in the course of every day existence.

Don't get me wrong. Dream sequences can sometimes do other things, shifting the narrative to a realm of fantastic and surreal imagery to present a kind of alternative reality to what makes up the bulk of the story, for example, but it's clear that dreams are sometimes narrative lean-tos for the creatively lazy, techniques that let them organize their supplies for the real storytelling ahead. And it is also clear that sometimes dream sequences can absolutely shatter whatever storytelling momentum the creator has mounted until that point. At worst, it's like somebody farted in a car. But I'd go so far as to question whether the very idea of the interpretation of dreams makes any sense at all. First of all, we never analyze the dreams themselves, but the memories of our dreams; we analyze the chaos of our dreams as preserved by the chaos of our memories. Second, I see no reason why we should assume systems of conscious meaning, like symbol and metaphor, work in our unconscious as well. Finally, we still don't know, biologically, why we sleep at all. Odds are, dreams are just neurological excretion produced by some neurological maintenance process. It seems like it would make sense to figure out what dreams are first, before assuming they tell us anything. Assuming we know what they tells us then, is right out.

Yep. A Look into this guy's brain.
Even with those doubts, even if you can't be sure what you are seeing, dreams offer a look into another person's brain and I wanted to look into George Perec's brain. A founding member of Oulipo, the literary group that experimented with form and constraint as a way to drive creative literature, Perec is one of those figures in contemporary literature, at the moment, always in the background. Whenever a writer tries some kind of formal experimentation, Perec's A Void, an entire novel written without the letter “e,” hangs over the writer. And his Life: A User's Manual is one of my favorite books, a brilliant, massive, novel of a moment in a building and all the life that goes into every moment in every building that should be considered along with Gravity's Rainbow, Underground, and Infinite Jest, as one of the great post-modern novels and could stand up favorably in comparison to any of the great novels of any time. Perec's imagination, his commitment to formal exploration, his belief in constraint and structures, make him uniquely suited to explore the mystery of dreams. Essentially, I trust him to actually share what he dreams to the best he can remember, without any yearning for stable symbolism.

It's French for "The Boutique Obscure."
The result, La Boutique Obscure, is a collection of dreams that actually feel like the dreams I have, not because I've got a mind like Perec's (at least, that's not what I assume) but because these dreams have all the chaos and nonsense of the dreams I have. I recognize the mechanisms of phenomena in Perec's dreams, that are almost always absent from dreams presented in narrative. The chaotic passage of time, change in location, and presence of character. Knowing you know something without knowing how you know it. Sudden change in event without explanation and without any disorientation from the unexplained change. Lack of conclusion. All of the things that make dreams totally useless purveyors of narrative meaning. For example here's how “The refusal to testify,” opens; “I think I've found a large room in my apartment, but it turns out it's not mine, and, in fact, it's the street.” And there's this from “Decorated with medals,” “L. does not look like himself. He has a beard. He looks more like Bernard P. would if Bernard P. grew a beard. His wife looks vaguely like Bernard P.'s wife.”

Which is not to say that Perec's dreams are totally devoid of images and events that make us think of symbolism and meaning, but that says more about the state of the mind than the state of dreams. As a writer, Perec thought a lot about symbolism and meaning, and so naturally, aspects of that would show up in his dream as surely as this does in “The hypothalamus;” “It starts with a few harmless comments, but soon there's not denying it: there are several Es in A Void./ First one, then two, then twenty, then thousands!/ I can't believe my eyes./ I discuss it with Claude...How did nobody every notice?”

(I don't know if other writers would feel the same way, but it's hard to describe just how comforting it is to me, to see George Perec have a nightmare about A Void. And that it's this specific nightmare, about the one mistake he cannot make; I don't know.)

Read in succession and with a containing conscious structure, it's clear that what occurs in Perec's dreams does not follow the rules and systems of symbol and metaphor. And when they appear to, as in Perec's dream “The puzzle,” in which he dreams “Close up, though, you realize the whole thing is a puzzle: the puzzle itself (the painting) is but a fragment of a larger puzzle, unfinished because it can't be finished,” you're not experiencing direct communication through the mechanisms of literary meaning, your brain is just processing what you spend your time thinking about. Perec actually thought about puzzles. A lot. Along with the puzzle nature of much of his work, he also wrote crossword puzzzles. Of course, at some point he would dream about puzzles, not because they had some deeper symbolic meaning in his life, but because he was constantly thinking about puzzles. If dreams tell us anything at all that is of any use at all in our waking lives, they tell us what is on our minds.

If we learn anything applicable to consciousness from Perec's or anyone's dreams it is that we are drawn to interpret, whether there is meaning to be found or not. We have dreams and so, just like with the arrangement of stars in the sky over time, the seasonal patterns of migratory birds, or the way tea leaves collect in the bottom of a cup, we interpret them. “Interpretation,” might be the mythical name of the double-edge sword held by human consciousness; everything that makes us beautiful and everything that makes us repulsive comes from our ability to see what is not there.