Saturday, December 28, 2013

Near-Fetched vs. Not

One of several books I read over the holiday was Bel Canto, a 2001 novel by Ann Patchett which won several prizes upon its release. I had read her latest book, State of Wonder, this past spring, and I really didn't know what to make of it. At the time I said this:
It's the first of her books I've read. ...I found myself looking forward to finishing, but also reading with enjoyment (Patchett creates narrative tension extraordinarily well)...much of its plot struck me as outlandish. Yet when I was in the last chapter, I felt like I'd been through a remarkable experience. I looked back at the journey of the novel with amazement and pleasure at what I and the characters had been through. Ultimately I am confused about it. 
State of Wonder gave me a great deal of food for thought; I've been thinking about it on and off since I read it in May. "Outlandish" is still the best word I know to describe the plot of the book, and yet I never scoffed and gave up because Patchett had written something that wasn't believable on the human scale.

The question I found myself asking after I read State of Wonder was whether it matters that the world of a book is far-fetched, as long as the author has confidence and skill. I thought State of Wonder worked, and I enjoyed it in the process of reading it, but when I was finished, the down-to-earth side of my brain protested that such a wacky premise should never have gotten on the page at all, much less published.

What's the point of novels, anyway? To build a world that's so realistic, on its own terms, that no one will question that they're reading something that could actually happen? Or to build a world, any world, into which the reader can tumble, entire, like Alice into the rabbit-hole? State of Wonder made me ask these questions. A book that casts a complete spell the way it did really reorients my view on fiction, and reminds me of how books felt when I was a little girl - how much I viewed them as utter escape from the present. A magic carpet, bound and glued, that took me wherever the author wanted me to go, no matter whether the destination was a real place or not. Wonder was maybe not realistic, but it was spellbinding, and it reminded me that there are more things between paper covers, Hemingway, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

I've read weirder stuff, sure. Sci-fi and fantasy books go way outside the realm of near-fetched. But Patchett is a contemporary literary author, and I don't think Wonder is meant to be magical realism. Even if it is, it doesn't read that way; it reads like...crazy realism? Exotic realism? I don't know that there's a term for it. It reads like it's outside the rules of any one genre.

But I fell head-over-heels into it, and I did the same for Bel Canto, which is not equally far-fetched, but close. It's based (loosely) on a real incident, but truth is stranger than fiction and this is pretty strange fiction. I loved the characters, I raced through every page, and I was slightly bereft when I was finished. I bought into every detail even as that other side of my brain tapped a foot and sniffed highly improbable. Once I was used to the outlandishness, I was sorry to let it go to return to more firmly realistic fiction.

I think the old truth about the rules of writing fiction - the importance of not breaking them is inversely proportional to how good your work is - applies here, but I still couldn't nail down for you exactly what rules it seemed to me like Patchett was breaking. There's no rule that says your scenario has to be believable in the real world. State of Wonder made me see that potentially, the most important rule is that the reader has to want to turn the page and read what comes next.

I guess the takeaway is that every writer needs to build a rabbit-hole - a consistent, intriguing world in which it's safe to suspend disbelief. Maybe that world is 90s-era Portland, where young grungers fall in love and have unsafe sex (Girl); or it's an otherworldly backcountry that's populated by fairies as well as credulous, romantic young men (Little, Big); or it's Viking-era Greenland, so thoroughly historically accurate that the novel can be used as a secondary source (The Thrall's Tale). Make me a sound rabbit-hole, and I'll tumble in without a thought.

Maybe another takeaway is that I need to suspend that foot-tapping self a little more often. She's kind of awful.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Marking Time

I haven't written anything in a couple of weeks. I haven't read much, either. The end of the semester seems to have let all the air out of me and I'm expending energy on everything else but reading and writing.

A rainstorm a few weeks ago evidenced a massive leak in our bedroom ceiling, and yesterday, workmen tramped in and out of the apartment all day...doing...stuff. This was the result:

Yeah. Reassuring. We're looking at other apartments in the area; asbestos is kind of the last straw with this place.

We're sleeping in the living room. During the day, the box spring and mattress lean across the couch. Like a Murphy bed, except a lot more work. They still have to put actual drywall in the ceiling and presumably paint it with that popcorn crap. So there will be more tramping. For some reason, I am incapable of being pleasant and shit-happens-y about all this, even though it's just a couple of days of inconvenience. All I want to do is bitch.

At the end of this week I travel to Florida for the Christmas holiday. After that will come a couple of weeks of taking it easy. Everything in between the Vegas party and New Year's feels like marking time. I am not in the holiday spirit, and I'm not ready for 2014, and I really just want to sleep in my bedroom.

Sorry. There'll be actual Fictating sometime soon.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

What I Did on My (Second) Vegas Vacation

Names have been changed for the author's amusement, and because she is terrible with names.

Prologue: November 28-29

Thursday, AM: Drive the five hours between Los Angeles and Las Vegas with husband and friend. Rent supercool Dodge Challenger. Have rip-roaring time.

Friday, AM: Drive home.

Chapter the First: One Week Later

Thursday, December 5

Morning: "Race" husband to Vegas. His company Christmas party is there, tonight. We leave the house at the same time. I drive, he flies. He beats me by about 90 minutes.

We're doing it this way because his flight is free; because I prefer driving to flying, while he is the other way around; and because I have to go to a class on Friday that starts at 11 AM. If I don't attend this class, I lose the equivalent of 5% of my final grade. I have explained the situation to my professor, and she has said she'll understand if I'm late. But I'll have to leave insanely early in the morning - after an epic Vegas party - to get back to L.A. in time, and I don't want to subject husband to such evil. So.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


I keep wanting to write a post on how I feel about the holidays and stopping myself. My inner Grinch is on the rampage this year, and I don't necessarily want to expose her to friends and loved ones.

I finished Airships. Heavens above. I've really picked some incredible books of short stories to read this year! If you want to be amazed, read that thing. There was also an interesting treasure in the inside cover:

Space Library: 1999!

I took out Under the Volcano from the library to read next, but I am so tired of men's writing that I just couldn't take it. Nearly everything we've read for my UCLA class this semester has been by white men, as have most of the books I've read for fun over the same period. I'm used to this, of course, but the insistent feeling of standing outside the party has been a lot worse lately. Male writers often (unintentionally) (?) create worlds in which I stand apart, where all the characters who look like me are trophies or objects or barnyard animals. So I fled to the girliest unread book on my shelf: a Georgette Heyer. I gobbled it in less than 24 hours and I feel such relief. Yes, I do exist after all.

I'm also following two comic books right now: the Matt Fraction/Chip Zdarsky collaboration about which you will get the wrong impression (and I'll draw unfortunate searches) if I name, so I'll just direct you there; and the Kelly Sue DeConnick/Emma Rios book Pretty Deadly. I adored PD #1, but #2 was...largely confusing (and OMG learn to use commas, whoever letters these books). I still can't wait for the next one. The pleasure of following a comic book upon release, book by book over several months, is one I wasn't familiar with until now. And a pleasure it is, indeed.

Matt and I and a lovely friend spent Thanksgiving Day in Las Vegas this year. It was a very cool trip. On the drive back, Matt and I developed an idea about a Western that I am now committed to writing. The landscape inspired us. I've sketched out the idea, and I've already fallen in love with the main character. She's like a much more damaged version of the main character of Highbinder, one who believes in revenge instead of not. I really want to just write it, go go go, but I feel I need to at least read a couple of Westerns before I do; thus far all I've read are Elmore Leonard and Annie Proulx stories. Anybody know if Lonesome Dove is really that good?