Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Elena as Opposed to Elena

Over the long weekend I finished the third book in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series. I'd read the first book in just a couple of large gulps, but the second one took me a little longer due to school, timing, whatnot. The third took me from Los Angeles to Chicago and part of the way back on three plane flights. I'm going to start the fourth right away; I can't help but devour. But this post is mostly about a single thing I perceived in the second book. (If I said all I had to say about these books, I'd be blogging about them for weeks.)

It is not fair to say that, since starting My Brilliant Friend, I'd been proceeding on the notion that the first-person narrator of the novels, named Elena, definitely was Elena Ferrante. The notion I had was not precisely that the entire book is 100% a roman à clef, top to bottom, everything true. However, the books are so vivid, their detail so minuscule, their characters so woven together, everything so thoroughly of a piece, that I thought at least I was dealing with a Proust situation, where certain details are different but mostly it's just the shape of the author's life. Her global audience knows almost nothing about Elena Ferrante, and the nature of these novels supports her privatizing herself, in a way. That is: we don't necessarily need to know about Elena the author because we know Elena the character so well.

Multiple assumptions helped me to go forward into the second book with this idea in mind, that the novel was not a novel as much as it was a mild fictionalization. I assumed that Elena the author was the same age as Elena the character, and grew up in the same era. I assumed that no one could write these books from scratch, without pulling them mostly from life. I assumed that whatever she'd done to fictionalize these characters was tremendous authorship, but still not whole invention.

At the end of the second book, Elena the character publishes her first novel. Elena the character is in her early 20s, and the year is 1968 or 1969. This was the first moment when I definitively knew that Elena the author was not taking the books altogether from life. Elena the author's age is unknown, but she published her first novel in 1992. Obviously, something has been altered.

After doing this math, my reading experience changed, and I felt personally disappointed. (This is a stupid reaction, I know, but bear with me.) I had been wondering how much in the books was true and how much was invented, and wondering how Ferrante was capable of such sorcery even if it was mostly true and only a little invented, and so on. Instead, now, I felt as if the ground had shifted, was unstable. If this one aspect of the book - crucial in character development, thematically critical - was fictionalized, what else was? Some things? Everything? I didn't know, suddenly, when before I'd thought I had a handle on it.

In reality, nothing changed. I was foolish to think I knew anything about Ferrante's endeavor (at her desk, I mean), or about her life, only because I'd read the childhood and young adulthood she'd shaped for me in about 800 pages.

This is not Elena Ferrante. But it could easily be Lila.

Isn't that interesting, that I felt unstable because of my own perceptions of the book changed? Not because the book itself changed in any way?

Whether we want to get into the metaphysics of readership and writership or not, I thought it was worth noting that there was an actual pinpointable moment in my reading experience where it was no longer possible that Ferrante was writing about herself. At least, this moment was when the average reader with an internet connection knew that the author wasn't writing about herself with total factual accuracy.

In my view, this only intensifies her achievement, which is already lauded as one of the most remarkable in contemporary literature. If she's made these books up, completely, I'm staggered. The way the characters grow and move and change around and with each other, and the way the characters' movements demonstrate the books' thematic underpinnings, seems too real, too consistent, too true to be fiction. There's melodrama in the reappearances of certain characters, but it's always believable melodrama. There's a cast of dozens and there's depressing consistency in the way the cast ages and matures (or fails to); there's mundane tragedy via deaths and degradations.

If this is absolute fiction, it is indistinguishable from witchcraft.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Paper Dioramas

I've been reading two books simultaneously (by which I mean a couple of hours with one book, and then a break, and then a couple of hours with the other) over the course of the past week: I Hate the Internet, by Jarett Kobek (male), and I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus (female). The writers are not similar in background, and the books are not similar in tone, but I wondered whether, if I slapped them together analytically, they would make some kind of lightning.

It's sheer coincidence that I'm reading them at the same time but I noticed that one is titled with hate and the other with love, and that these abstractions in the titles correspond to the stereotypical behaviors of the genders from which the titles spring.

What else? Well, Kobek's book is cynical to the point of misanthropy. Kraus's book is blackly optimistic, in that the prose betrays optimism even while the larger arc of the plot entails hopelessness. Both books are strongly thematically tied to communication and express this awareness in form; Kobek's is the experience of internet surfing in continuous prose form, while Kraus's is largely epistolary. The engine of both books is obsession: Kobek's with 21st century culture, and Kraus's with a single human love object.

Kobek's novel circles queasily forward, like the path of a gaggle of gnats. Kraus's book doesn't have significant forward motion except in time. Her character's obsession progresses, but that seems to be a movement inward and downward rather than forward. It's a cloud that spreads. And time is of the essence in Kraus's book - the date is mentioned every couple of pages at least - while time is treated quite casually in Kobek's novel.

And the truth is, I don't especially like either book.

I Hate the Internet is so bilious, so all-critical, that it's like reading the comments section for dozens of websites all strung together. The cords that bind it into a genuine book are explanatory - one concept (or noun) after another, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, explained in the narrator's condescending, negative, polemical voice. It's funny, often, and quotable, but it's also rude and heartless, and that gets tiresome. The author visited a class of mine some weeks ago, and I couldn't help but ask him if the person who hated the internet was himself, was Kobek, rather than an invented voice. He said no, that he meant it to be a kind of hateful little teenage boy voice. That offers a little redemption, in my view, as does the book's humor, and its equal-opportunity criticism rather than excepting this or that concept as OK. But it's still exhausting to read.

I Love Dick is much less hostile, but I harbor a distinct lack of belief that it's going anywhere. It's extremely well-written and thoughtful and intelligent, but it feels self-indulgent and a little pointless. Like I'm reading the author's diary rather than her work. I'm much less farther along in it than in the other, so maybe this will change, but at the moment I feel like she might be wasting my time.

I will keep reading, though, because both books share a rare quality: subversiveness.

One of my pet theories is that there is so little actual subversive art in American culture at the moment that we can barely recognize it when it appears. It's what's so good, and so crucial, about South Park: no matter the target, the treatment South Park gives its subjects is subversive. Sparing nothing, unafraid, free of sacred cows of any kind. For class I read Kobek's novel Atta, which is a false autobiography of one of the 9/11 hijackers, and I recognized it, too, as subversive art. It's a 9/11 novel that's funny, and a book that makes human a national symbol of inhumanity.

I Hate the Internet is bound to piss off everybody who reads it about something, because it holds nothing as sacred, nothing as objectively true or fine. That is subversion. I Love Dick is unafraid of revealing all the wackadoo crannies where we hide our obsessions and fantasies, unafraid of turning a marriage inside out and showing its oozing viscera. That is subversion.

Forcing you to sit uncomfortably and stare at a series of assumptions on which you've relied (we are all mostly sane, we are all mostly good, most of us are hiding nothing, most of us are safe in our skins), only to find that they have been paper dioramas all along: that is what subversive art does, and that is what both of these books are doing in different ways.

It's rare. It's necessary. It's not just polemicking or ideologuery. It upends the table and then stands there and asks you if you really want to set things back the way they were.

Do you?

Friday, May 20, 2016

One Writer's Experience at AWP

In March I attended the 2016 AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference in Los Angeles. It was interesting. I'm going to write about it as if you, the reader, are a writer who is considering going to AWP in a future year and you need help deciding whether or not to go.

Well, I'd go, unless you don't like crowds, in which case definitely don't go. It wasn't packed like a concert (no sardine syndrome), but it was packed like an amusement park (astonishing in the sheer number of people around you). I read that 12,000 people were at this particular AWP, and I fully believe it.

But yeah, I'd go. For these reasons:

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Crotted Cream

(ha! finally got to use that pun!)


Observation: I really go out of my way to avoid other humans when I'm doing laundry, checking the mail, taking the trash out, etc. Something about chores makes me want to accomplish them totally alone.


Semester's done. Papers are all handed in, classes are all attended, professors are all thanked, readings are all clapped at. I feel anticlimaxed. I was not much stressed at the end, there, but many of the people around me were, so I got stressed by proxy.

Is it dumb that I can't wait for the fall? I'm looking forward to getting some stuff in my personal life back on track this summer, and reading for fun, of course, but there's so much to be excited about come September. The aforementioned people around me who were stressed, I imagine they don't feel this way.


No writing news right now. If inclined, this week I'll do up an essay I've been considering for a while. No significant fiction ideas at the moment. I have a thematic idea, but no realistic skeleton to hang it on, and I'm not sure I'm wise enough to write it yet anyway.


In March I bought a five-year diary, a little book with a few lines of space for each day of your life, five sets of lines on every page. There's room for little more than impressions, or recordations, or maybe one thoughtful thing. I have tremendously enjoyed keeping it. I don't go back and read it, like I do most of my diaristic writings, but I'll be interested to see what happens when I'm a year in, and I'm reading, you know, this day one year ago.


I am a thorough failure at budgeting. Most recent purchase:

I MEAN. YOU TRY TO RESIST THAT. I needed a backpack anyway (sort of).


I'm still planning to write an AWP summary post, I swear. The topic feels dated, so I keep deciding to write a post about the current stuff instead, and then it feels even more dated the next time. But it will happen.


Last weekend I spent a not insignificant amount of time in my big pillow napping and reading intermittently. I'm trying to feel guilty about this indulgence, but I can't. It was bliss. And now I have a bunch of catching up to do.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Fully Fused

Part of last weekend was spent like this:

click to embiggen

Oooh, panorama feature. This time really do click to embiggen,
the size of this is just silly and the carpet looks weird. 

I was at work on the scary story. Which turned out to be like 20% fiction. Everything else was personal essay, film criticism, and Southern wives' tales. Oops?

Something amazing happened in this story that I didn't know was happening until I cut it up. I had to cut it up because the sections weren't flowing into each other smoothly and I couldn't figure out what needed to go where until I could look at all the pieces together, instead of looking at them on the computer screen in the order I'd written them. So I cut them up and then I grouped them together by...category, I guess? I put the parts about Django Unchained together, and the parts about Gone with the Wind together, and the parts about my youth together, and the adult anecdotes together, and the fiction together, and the wives' tales together. When these sections were grouped, something became visually clear: I had written three sections of each category, and there were six categories.

That's the amazing part. I didn't know that I'd done that. I didn't do it on purpose, didn't think "oh, I need one more anecdote to make three" or "oh, I need one more category to make six" - no. I wrote it in a messy, disorganized fashion and it just came out in multiples of three.

As Matt said to me once, and as my brain has been saying back to me at appropriate moments ever since, humans like threes. And I know that I tend to arrange my writing in threes, on a variety of levels. But I had no idea that I'd be capable of doing it unconsciously.

It's kind of like that time I put a ticking clock in act three of a novel I was writing without even realizing it. But there's a crucial difference: that ticking clock thing was derived from a lifetime of movie training, and this threes thing is not. It derives not from external stimuli, from other storytellers explaining to my subconscious how stories are told, but instead from me, from the writing brain that tells stories the way I see fit to tell them.

I find this exciting. I find it humbling. I want to jump up and shout in jubilation and then lie down on the floor and cry with relief. Because - in case I haven't said this in a specific enough way, and if you haven't gotten the impression from this blog, if you've been reading it for a while - I think I've learned that artistic prowess grows in cycles rather than in a straight line.

At first, you create per instinct, and unless you're some kind of preternatural talent, your instincts are good and your toolbox sucks. Then you pick up some of what's in the toolbox, and you create per a mixture of your instincts and your tools. That's even worse, because the raw power of your instincts is blunted by the tools and the tools are employed awkwardly because you are new at using them. There's this long apprenticeship where the quality of those two elements twiddles up and down, and it's awkward, for you and for the people who read your work, because this is sincerely the best you can do but it's not terribly good.

You have breakthroughs, small and large ("suddenly", conflict, recursive sentences, organicness, scenes, the truth and trial and absolution of "omit needless words"), but you don't feel like you're moving forward. You feel like you're moving in circles. Because just when you think you've learned something, it's pointed out to you that you don't know that thing at all. You think you know how to write a sentence and then you read Edna O'Brien. You think you know from postmodernism and then you read Moby-Dick. You think you know how to do a fragmented, multi-perspective narrative on a single event and then you read Mary Gaitskill and you really, really want to crawl under the floor and die.

Repeat. For years.

And then you come out the other side of something, some cave-cum-tunnel where you've learned that you do not care about the rules of writing, or the toolbox you need to write, or the way Freytag insists that short stories always are. You begin to do the thing from muscle memory, and it feels as terrible and wonderful as it always did, and it feels about the same when it's finished  (="Yeah, I guess so") as it did somewhere in the middle when you learned to stop loving every word you put on the page. But people tell you it's different. People tell you it's good. They stop kindly being quiet and they start effusing, and their ideas to make it better seem good instead of irrelevant.

At this point, instinct and toolbox are fully fused, and they're a creature of their own. They constitute muscle memory. They're the hamster on a wheel that spins the engine of your work. You do the dreaming on one end and the transcribing on the other end, and you dialogue with the draft until it's what you meant it to be. But the instinct, the power of your voice and no one else's, plus the toolbox - that dual entity is the strongman that's going to lift your work out of mediocrity.

It goes around and around, still. The strongman needs constant training to lift heavier and heavier concepts. The hamster is not actually going anywhere, even if she runs long enough and fast enough to power the world. There's no Freytag in the actual process of writing, I don't think. You just keep finding the same problems and fixing them, finding problems and fixing them; this applies to everything from editing your sentences to coming up with something to write about in the first place. Circular, not linear.

The point of that whole tangent is to say that when I found those threes in the scary story after cutting it up, I realized that my instinct and my toolbox had formed a viable life form at last. I wrote the piece somewhat artlessly, without worrying about how it would be received or whether it was Freytagian or any of that. And yet the toolbox gave the piece rhythm and quality, while instinct gave it symmetry and imbued it with my particular voice and style.

The author, in Downward-Facing Line Edit 

It was very, very hard. Not the hardest thing I've written in terms of labor, but certainly the hardest emotionally. I kept having to stop writing and shake out my trembling hands. I ate less than usual. It was like being really hung over: that feeling of wanting to die just so it'll end, and knowing you have to wait it out, but having full awareness that the current sensation could not possibly be worse.

I don't know what happens now to this piece, because I'm hearing from readers that it's extraordinary but I am not comfortable sending it out. My professor's going to read it (as well as something I've been considering writing for three years, it's the final project for a class), and maybe he can give me some direction.

It feels good to have it out - empowering, both personally and professionally - but I'm also slightly at loose ends for what comes next. As I said last week, I have a few little projects on my plate, but nothing that's as intense, or as important to me, as this was.

There are always more cycles to come. More circular, asymptotic movement toward mastery.

Monday, May 2, 2016


Another weekend full of writing. Remember how I said
it feels like I'm not digging down deeply enough into my own flesh to write it
? Yeah, I don't feel that way anymore. I bled. It was terrible. I wrote a HALP-type email to a friend, and she conjured up the image of Spongebob and Patrick under the drying lights at Shell City

and yes, that was exactly how I felt at the end of it. I drank some whiskey and played Spider and felt better, but I do not want to write this story again.

I'm going back to it either tomorrow or next weekend to add another short section and assemble it properly, and I think I'll be assembling with scissors and tape. The sections don't go together as I wrote them, and as of yet I don't know exactly how they will.

A talk with Matt yesterday forced me to confront the fact that I'm not sure this piece has an audience beyond the professor who challenged me to write it and maybe two other friends. I don't like the idea of putting my name on it in the public sphere, and Matt likes that idea even less (not because he's interested in censoring me, but because he loves me and doesn't want people picking on me).

I don't really know what to do about this, because I have never been much afraid of revealing personal stuff about myself in the past, but this thing - this subject - it's truly frightening for me. And what I wrote goes beyond me to people I love, which isn't fair to them. (I'm sorry to be vague, but that is the nature of the few subjects I'm afraid to talk about: I don't end up talking about them.) There may be a time for me to revisit this piece as something publishable, or it may be something I can send out anonymously, but in the state it's in, I can't imagine strangers knowing it was me who wrote it.

This is the first time I've ever been in this position. I try to be a warrior on the page. It feels weird to be so profoundly uncertain. I'm uncertain all the time about whether this is better than that or whether I'm doing writing the right way, but to be uncertain about whether it was a good idea to write this thing at all? That's new.

I have half a dozen other things to write - a piece about aging, revisions on the secret project, an academic paper that is little more than an attempt to go to Hawaii, at least one application for a fellowship, an idea that's not fully developed yet but that could be interesting if it doesn't turn out to make me look absurdly arrogant. I wrote a poem the other day, too. I think the transition into summer, and shifting all my brewing energy toward things other than school, may have begun.

In other news, I'm reading this book called I Hate the Internet, because the author is coming to my class tomorrow to talk about a different book and I wanted to read this one before I met him. It's misanthropic and hilarious and cleverly structured and I'm enjoying it. But I don't think it's a book for everybody. I haven't figured out whether its negativity is working for me or actually not working for me, whether or not it's other stuff in the book that is making me like it rather than its overwhelming cynicism.

In other other news, I filled out an application for graduation (with my M.A.) in spring of 2017. A plethora of things could happen between now and then that would push my graduation back to fall '17 or spring '18, but I think I can make it. It's kind of scary, because I don't know what will happen after that. But I also can't wait to see what happens after that.