Archive for the 'Point of view' Category

It’s hard not to gush about Price’s Lush Life

Lush Life by Richard Price is flat out one of the best books I’ve read. I’ve always loved his novels for the windows they open on urban life, for their rich portrayals of people caught in awful events, and for their sheer propulsive drive. Clockers, Samaritan, Freedomland — these are books one can’t help but guzzle in a few long, greedy gulps; Lush Life is no different.

But calling it a page-turner or crime novel devalues its abundant artistry, and there is much here to admire. I’m painfully aware that trying to tease apart all the different strands that go into fine writing is a difficult and clumsy business. Focusing on narrative pacing leads to a discussion of scene construction and before you know it, to plot, with several branching threads like tone and setting emerging at the same time. And can you really separate character development from dialogue, description and plot? The sum is definitely greater than the parts.

Nevertheless, Price’s greatest gifts may be with dialogue and in rendering character in a few deft strokes. Here’s his introduction of one of the main characters, Eric Cash, 35, who runs the front of the house at a restaurant called Berkmann’s:

He had no particular talent or skill, or what was worse, he had a little talent, some skill: playing the lead in a basement-theater production of The Dybbuk sponsored by 88 Forsyth House two years ago, his third small role since college, having a short story published in a now-defunct Alphabet City literary rag last year, his fourth in a decade, neither accomplishment leading to anything; and this unsatisfied yearning for validation was starting to make it near impossible for him to sit through a movie or read a book or even case out a new restaurant, all pulled off increasingly by those his age or younger, without wanting to run face-first into a wall

Why is it so many writers still insist on providing physical details like hair or eye colour? Are those details ever important? Price, in just one sentence, situates his character within the arc of his own life — and then gives us the character’s response to that.

Even the relatively minor characters in Lush Life have lives that are rich and textured. Making the most of  the walk-ons gives a novel heft and authenticity; it makes the world being created seem deeper and therefore more believable.

Realistic dialogue is another technique that aids in the portrayal of character, but also keeps the narrative humming along.

“See you din’t live round here back in the heyday, so no way you’d know, but about ten, twelve years ago? […] Man, it was, there was some bad dudes up in here. The Purples on Avenue C, Hernandez brothers on A and B, Delta Force in the Cahans, nigger name Maquetumba right in the Lemlichs. Half a them got snatched up by RICO for long bids, the other half is dead, all the hardcores, so now it’s like just the Old Heads out there sippin’ forties and telling stories about yesteryear, them and a bunch of Similac niggers, stoop boys, everybody out for themselves with their itty-bitty eight balls, nobody runnin’ the show.”

“Maquetbumba?”…

“Dominican dude. Dead now. My brother told me him and his crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight.”

“What kind of name is that.”

“I just said. Dominican.”

“What’s it mean, though.”

“Maquetumba? Man, you should know, you Dominican.”

“Puerto Rican.”

“Same shit, ain’t it?”

Tristan shrugged.

“Sss,” Little Dap sucked his teeth. “Like, ‘he who drops the most,’ some shit like that.”

“Drops what?”

Little Dap just stared at him.

And so on. I love the omission of question marks in some of those questions — it’s pitch perfect. Price manages to capture the speech sounds of these two without resorting to an overabundance of annoying word contortions. He gives us one “din’t” for didn’t, but doesn’t overdo it. “My brother told me him and his crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight,” is just as strong and less distracting than something like, “Ma brother tol’ me him ‘n’ ‘is crew had the Lemlichs sewed tight.” Our ears are already filling in the speech patterns by that point.

Lastly, Price’s lower eastside Manhattan also figures as a character. Here’s a nice bit of rendered setting — a description of a desanctified synagogue that now serves as a condo — which also gives us some detail about the main character:

“But for all this reborn carriage house’s ingenuity, its artful attempt at appeasing its own history while declaring itself the newest of the new, it was the double layer of evicted ghosts — pauperish tenants, greenhorn parishioners — that still held sway for him, Matty having always been afflicted with Cop’s Eyes; the compulsion to imagine the overlay of the dead wherever he went.”

One of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing is to leave out the boring bits that readers tend to skip over. There’s nothing boring here; this is a riveting account of what happens after a routine mugging turns fatal when a twitchy teen holding the gun overreacts at a victim’s bravado. So rich. So believable. I recommend it without reservation.

Incidentally, there’s an interesting interview with Price about Lush Life at Amazon, here, and another from NPR’s Fresh Air, here.

Zombies: at last lurching into the limelight?

If we can say Bram Stoker’s Vampire, Count Dracula, personified fears of unknown perils and unchecked appetites when if was written in 1897, then the Zombie seems to be a fitting trope for our Wal-Mart world of rampant globalization fostered by sociopathic corporations. The Vampire mesmerizes, plays on repressed sexuality, and “vants to drink your blood.” The relentless Zombie, together with gazillions of his friends, just keeps coming at you — “brains…brains,” he moans.

Zombies have pursued the living up on the silver screen since the 1950s, well before George A. Romero’s groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Since then, comic books, video games, many more movies — and novelizations of movies — have followed. But the Zombies have never quite cottoned to the printed page like the vampire. A Google search for “Zombie fiction” yields 18,400 matches, while “Vampire fiction” delivers 155,000. The difference in the number of fictional titles at my local library is even greater: Zombies – 15, Vampires – 301.

There could be many reasons for that. Books were the dominant entertainment medium when Stoker popularized his Vampire, while the Zombie is very much the child of cinema. (Even so, numbers from the Internet Movie Database also indicate Z. has a long stagger to catch up to V.) Zombies have little, if any, personality, intelligence or sex appeal, so it’s pretty much impossible to create an engaging character out of one. Reanimated decaying corpses are just too conceptual and machinelike and can’t capture the imagination like those charming, shape-shifting vampires can.

But perhaps a new day dawns for the dead with the publication of World War Zby Max Brooks. And yes, I freely concede I’m betraying a certain snobbery by suggesting Zombies haven’t fully arrived until they’ve broken into the bookstore and mainstream bestseller lists. So go ahead — bite me. I mean, as long as you’re not a Zombie or anything.

Brooks gives us a future history describing the global conflagration known as “The Crisis,” “The Dark Years,” “The Walking Plague,” or simply “World War Z.” The real genius of his novel is to appropriate the journalistic technique pioneered by Studs Terkel, in which the event is told from a multitude of different voices and perspectives. Just as Terkel’s war reporting ranged across time, rank and theatre of operation, Brooks covers the progress of World War Z from Sydney to Jerusalem, Manitoba to Tokyo. And then some.

Through more than 50 different voices we learn about the early days of the conflict, The Great Panic, pivotal battles like Yonkers, cleaning up frozen Zombies in the north and the rationale for key decisions by world leaders.

It’s all very richly imagined and capably told. Although the narrative structure precludes the development of any genuine suspense, Brooks does register a reasonable creepiness quotient. Consider this scene told by a Japanese man about how, as a teenager, he managed to flee his infested apartment building by climbing down the outside, balcony by balcony. (Note: he uses the Japanese word for Zombie, siafu.)

I looked up at my balcony and saw a head, the one-eyed siafu was squeezing himself through the opening between the rail and the balcony floor. It hung there for a moment, half out, half in, then gave another lurch toward me and slid over the side. I’ll never forget that it was still reaching for me as it fell, this nightmare flash of it suspended in midair, arms out, hanging eyeball now flying upward against its forehead.

It takes a very special ear to be able to particularize the speech of more than 50 different speakers and if I have a quibble with World War Z it’s that many of the accounts wind up sounding much the same in tone and diction. Brooks sets himself a formidable challenge and does succeed admirably with several memorable accounts — but one wonders what might have been achieved by a more gifted ventriloquist. For example, here is an excerpt from a novel I’m reading now, Lush Life, by Richard Price:

See you din’t live round here back in the heyday, so no way you’d know, but about ten, twelve years ago? […] Man, it was, there was some bad dudes up in here. The Purples on Avenue C, Hernandez brothers on A and B, Delta Force in the Cahans, nigger name Maquetumba right in the Lemlichs. Half a them got snatched up by RICO for long bids, the other half is dead, all the hardcores, so now it’s like just the Old Heads out there sippin’ forties and telling stories about yesteryear, them and a bunch of Similac niggers, stoop boys, everybody out for themselves with their itty-bitty eight balls, nobody runnin’ the show.

I didn’t tell you anything about who was talking or where, but I bet the dialect and detail helped you form a pretty reasonable picture. Although I know nothing about this milieu, it sounds pretty authentic to me. And I guess that’s the trick – capturing the specific cadences, slang, attitude and character-appropriate imagery to create a believable portrayal.

Those misgivings about World War Z aside, there is still much to enjoy and shudder about. On the macro level it attains resonating plausibility. We’ve already got a brimming Pandora’s box with global warming, illnesses hopping species to species, and humanity’s clumsy and dangerous interference in so many areas. Is a Zombie-like plague really so farfetched?

So if you want to see how it all might go down, check out World War Z. If nothing else, you’ll know what supplies you might want to think about laying in….

Incidentally, if you care about this sort of thing, Brooks is a former Saturday Night Live writer and the son of filmmaker Mel Brooks and actor Anne Bancroft, according to the World Wide Web, which is never wrong. A movie based on the novel is in production for a 2010 release by Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment.

Looking for the great 21st-century Pakistani novel …

I wanted very much to like very much the novel Broken Verses,whose author, Kamila Shamsie, has received high praise.

brokenverses.jpgAfter the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the former Pakistani prime minister, I began to wonder about the country’s literature and why I could name several writers from India but not a single novelist from Pakistan. That led me to an excellent piece in The Guardian by Shamsie, which made me feel not quite so poorly read, and that, in turn, persuaded me to rectify this particular deficiency with one of her books.

But alas, we were two ill-suited ballroom dancers who were out of sync and occasionally on one another’s feet.

For my part, I’ll admit that I brought my own clumsy expectations to the reading enterprise and sometimes found myself annoyed by what the novel wasn’t doing. ‘Give me more Pakistan — more local flavour and context and political insight,’ I kept thinking. But criticizing a novel for what it’s not is hardly fair.

For her part, Shamsie was sometimes distant and distracted in the writing. The story centres on a young woman’s remembered experience of her charismatic mother’s love affair with an equally charismatic poet. The mother, Samina, is a political leader and something of a firebrand; her relationship with the poet is played out during a time of great turbulence in the country.

Sounds pretty good, yes? And oddly resonant with current events. I would certainly be interested in a novel about these two lovers. But it’s not their story. At least I’m pretty sure it’s not. It’s Aasmani’s, the narrating daughter who attempts to find meaning in those times and solve the mystery of the mother and poet’s disappearance — which, it turns out, is only a mystery to the narrator. (I won’t spoil the ending, but the overall effect is a bit like reading a detective novel where not only is the bad guy never caught, it turns out there may not even have been a murder in the first place.)

Although the remembered action of the past is often dramatized, it seems too far removed and I feel like the first-person narrator is keeping me at a distance. Maybe this is a deliberate strategy — the two lovers would probably dominate the novel entirely if they were made any more immediate, and as I’ve said, Shamsie’s story is about the daughter.

Lastly, Broken Verses is many time zones away from Chick Lit (or at least what I understand to be Chick Lit) but I do have a nagging suspicion that women will cotton to it more than men. Where women might see a certain emotional richness in the struggles of the narrator, men would likely see a surfeit of self-absorbed hand-wringing.

You say ‘tomato’…I say ‘tomato’….

A book is rarely all bad, of course, and Broken Verses has many things to recommend it. The narrator is sharp-witted and engaging, and, despite my grousing, the book does open a window on Pakistan. I will certainly consider reading whatever Shamsie offers next….

Amuse bouche*: Lorrie Moore

Here is a strong opening from a short story by Lorrie Moore called “Amahl and the Night Visitors.”

self-help.jpg11/30. Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you. She takes on love with the whiskery adjustments of a golddigger. She is just a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend. Recall how just last month when you got her from Bob downstairs, after Bob had become suddenly allergic, she leaped into your lap and purred, guttural as a German chanteuse, familiar and furry as mold. And Bob, visibly heartbroken, still in the room, sneezing and giving instructions, hoping for one last cat nuzzle, descended to his hands and knees and jiggled his fingers in the shag. The cat only blinked. For you, however, she smiled, gave a fish-breath peep, and settled.

‘Oh well,’ said Bob, getting up off the floor. ‘Now I’m just a thing of her kittenish past.’

That’s the way with Bob. He’ll say to the cat, ‘You be a good girl now, honey,’ and then just shrug, go back downstairs to his apartment, play jagged creepy jazz, drink wine, stare out at the wintry scalp of the mountain.

There are a couple of things conspiring here to quicken a reader’s interest:

  • A dated, diary-like entry, but with a curious use of the second-person perspective, which comes with all those imperatives — “Understand…,” “Recall….”
  • Strong imagery, such as “Guttural as a German chanteuse,” “familiar and furry as mold…,” “wintry scalp of the mountain”
  • And some well-observed details about cats: “a gorgeous nomad, an unfriend.”

The first sentence also begs the question — Why does the narrator need help, anyway? The diary device promises privileged, inside information and narrows the gap between writer and reader. At the same time, the unique prism of the second-person perspective filters the speaker’s voice into a weird and compelling light.

I haven’t read anything else by Moore, but after reading “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” I plan to.   

* “An amuse-bouche, also called an amuse-gueule, is a tiny bite-sized morsel served before the hors d’œuvre or first course of a meal. These, often accompanied by a proper complementing wine, are served as an excitement of taste buds to both prepare the guest for the meal and to offer a glimpse into the chef’s approach to cooking.” -Wikipedia

Blessed are the peacemakers

Bravo to Canadian writer Jonathan Garfinkel for giving us Ambivalence– Crossing the Israel/Palestine Divide, which is an account of his travels in the Mideast in search of Capital T Truth. Like most books of this type, it recounts much more than just the physical journey — Garfinkel traverses memory, politics and culture, traveling miles from his Zionist-Canadian roots.

ambivalence.jpgThis is a brave effort; one wonders what sort of personal fallout the book is going to create for Garfinkel. Needless to say it’s not going to make it as a ‘Heather’s Pick’ at Chapters-Indigo, and there will be some on the pro-Palestinian side who will criticize him for moving only to a state of ambivalence on the issue — not outrage.

But one shouldn’t underestimate the scope and meaning of such a shift in perspective.

The ideologies and prejudices that get hardwired into us as children are often those to which we cling most tenaciously. We don’t get to choose the time, place or culture into which we’re born, nor do we get much say in our earliest encounters with some of the most influential people in our lives.

These include teachers. Garfinkel borrows from a fiction writer’s toolkit in creating a composite character of just such a dominating and influential personality — Mrs. Blintzkrieg. She haunts and taunts his thinking long after he leaves the grade school Zionist classroom she ruled. She is an effective device, the physical manifestation of childhood indoctrination who pops in and out of the story to express her disappointment in her former student.

“Ah, the Blintzkrieg complex. I suppose what’s most unsettling about her is she makes the questions I ask about Israel feel like the ultimate act of betrayal; critical thought is equal to being a Nazi or a terrorist. The Blintzkrieg-in-the-head: ‘What do you know, you foreigner, you Diaspora Jew? While we stay here and fight your wars – yes, every war we fight in Israel is for all Jews all over the world – you stand back and criticize us. Like a typically spoiled North American liberal’.”

The old tapes keep playing, but Garfinkel continues to seek understanding while confronting the realities of the Israeli Occupation.

There are other effective passages, such as a bit of Hunteresque reportage on some chance meetings with a couple of outsized characters in Jerusalem shortly after he arrives. He also has an eye (and ear) for detail:

“There wasn’t enough room in the old city so many Jews started to live in what is now called Central Jerusalem. In the 1960s and 1970s it was a real artists’ hangout. Now it’s becoming more and more religious. There’s a synagogue on every corner. Walk through the streets and you’ll hear the same prayers sung in myriad ways — the Yemenite wail, the Shlomo Carlbach hippie riff, the Ethiopian chant, the Ashkenaz dirge. The words are mostly the same, but each melody varies so much it’s difficult to imagine it being the same prayer.”

Although Garfinkel has a couple of volumes of poetry to his credit, any traces of stylistic gloss are overshadowed by the weight of the subject matter. Discussions of the Occupation vary only in the different layers of tragedy and suffering they reveal.

I should probably get my own cards on the table: I visited Israel in 2005 with the humanitarian aid agency Canadian Lutheran World Relief and came away appalled at the conditions under which Palestinians are forced to live, shocked at the distortions rampant in the Western media, and saddened by the world’s continuing indifference. (See: ifamericansknew.org.)

As Rabbi Michael Lerner noted in his Globe and Mail review of Ambivalence: “The Jonathan Garfinkels of the world will be increasingly ambivalent about their Jewish identity until a community emerges that can affirm the unity of all being and the oneness of humanity, and abandon its insistence that anyone who cares for Palestinians is either a ‘self-hating Jew’ or an anti-Semite.”

Amen.

And Shalom.

The Apartheid Wall.

masha-mural1.jpg

Amuse Bouche: G.B. Edwards

bridgereflect1.jpg

Voice rules.

Whether it’s the writer’s voice, or the writer’s characters’ voices, we can’t help but be drawn by the sound of another soul manifesting itself through voice. Sometimes characters figuratively grab us by the lapels and sometimes they quietly charm. However they choose to draw us into their worlds, their primary medium is voice.

I’m starting a feature I’m calling Amuse Bouche — a little sampler of compelling voices that tantalize and awaken the senses. I’ll serve a few of these up, from time to time.

See what you think of this, the first paragraph of a strange and wonderful book by G.B. Edwards called The Book of Ebenezer Le Page.

Guernsey, Guernesey, Garnsai, Sarnia: so they say. Well, I don’t know, I’m sure. The older I get and the more I learn, the more I know I don’t know nothing, me. I am the oldest on the island, I think. Liza Queripel from Pleinmont say she is older; but I reckon she is putting it on. When she was a young woman, she used to have a birthday once every two or three years; but for years now she have been having two or three a year. To tell you the truth, I don’t know how old I am. My mother put it down on the front page of the big Bible; but she put down the day and the month, and forgot to put down the year. I suppose I could find out if I went to the Greffe; but I am not going to bother about that now.

I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly looking forward to what the rest of that meal might hold. Conversational, slightly gossipy, and from someone who is above all from a different time and place — this voice promises to give us a story. Or two. The first-person allows for greater intimacy but compelling voice can be heard in all the POV’s. More examples to come…

Three-ring character development

I recently finished Paradiseby Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy, which tells the sad story 21EWP1P03DL._AA_SL160_.jpgof Hannah Luckraft, a 40-year-old alcoholic whose drab life is on a 40-proof express train to rock bottom. According to the dust jacket, it’s “an emotional and visceral tour de force. A compelling examination of failure that is also a comic triumph….”

Well, perhaps the marketing winkies got a trifle carried away there, but it is indeed a very fine novel.

Textured, fully rounded characters populate literary fiction more than the genres. There’s a passage about two-thirds into Paradise where Hannah recalls a childhood memory of going to the circus with her father. Forgive the lengthy passage, but it’s worth the effort.

… I can call up the heavily, sweating air, sagged between the canvas and the cold, odd lights, the fascinating quantity of sawdust – more than I’d ever seen in a butcher’s shop – and here were live animals jolting through their stressed little party pieces before maybe the sawdust claimed them and they turned into meat. But that’s as much as I recall.

It was a long time ago and I was extremely young, but that isn’t why I have such trouble bringing it to mind. I’m unwilling to see the tired, dull, real circus, because it degrades the much lovelier one I have, perhaps always, kept inside my head.

Everyone goes through a circus phase, of course: the wonderful horror of watching adults behave insanely, the mysterious charge of their costumes, their skin, and all those compounded risks. You can run through the list of charms yourself: the terror of clowns, the unsettling allure of whips and glitter, your identification with those harried and overly willing creatures, the tang of unreasonable display.

They still often televised this perversity when I was a girl and then there was that film with Jimmy Stewart and Charlton Heston – lots of films, in fact, with jealous lovers and wicked ringmasters and anthropomorphic chimps – people knew about circuses – they were around. And children were supposed to like them and I was a child. But my circus, the one True Circus, I never disclosed: because it had nothing to do with all that.

In my circus, the band plays always: banjos and flat trumpets, out-of-kilter violins, twisted accordions, steam organs and bad unresonant drums: they grind out in limping waltz time and make the air giddy, gamy with sweat and topple me into the place where there are only circus people, sideshow people, my own people. They have parts that are missing, or parts that are extra in sly and unspeakable ways. They lack propriety, love to exhibit, often practise after-hours. They have marvelous, shocking skills which are not useful anywhere, not anywhere without an audience. Their pasts and their futures are sheened with misfortunes, with an enforced appetite for pain. Their damp and close and everlasting present stiffens with blood on demand. They can read strangers, curse them, work them into helplessness. They are freaks. They are monsters. They are my natural family.

A lesser writer might have Hannah express her self-perceived place with a cliched, “I feel like a sideshow freak.” But by extending the descriptive image as she does (which is beautifully rendered in its own right, wouldn’t you agree?) Kennedy opens up a window on Hannah’s state of mind. She is an exile, a misfit and, like the carnival barker, well-versed in the arts of manipulation.

Hannah could be a writer.

Such beautifully observed and articulated detail: “…the terror of clowns, the unsettling allure of whips and glitter, your identification with those harried and overly willing creatures, the tang of unreasonable display.” Just so. Give us an eye and a voice like that and we’ll follow anywhere. OK maybe not the tin ears on Amazon.com, but most of us will.

Kennedy’s web site, cited above, is well worth the visit for her FAQ.