Friday, June 23, 2017

Ten Books That Mattered: Part Five (Humblings)

1. C.S. Lewis - The Chronicles of Narnia
2. Sue Townsend - The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 1/3
3. Stephen King - Carrie
4. Blake Nelson - Girl
5. Anaïs Nin - Incest
6. Dorothy Herrmann - Helen Keller: A Life
7. David Foster Wallace - Oblivion
8. Edna O'Brien - The Light of Evening
9. John D'Agata & Jim Fingal - The Lifespan of a Fact
10. Lidia Yuknavitch - The Chronology of Water
A few years ago, my mentor, giving one of her lovely, lazy-Susan-like lectures, explained that when she first read Moby-Dick at a young age, she decided she would never write another word. She despaired of ever writing anything as good as Moby-Dick and thought it would be better not to write at all. Of course, she went back on this decision, and - having read her work - I can tell you that we're all richer for her change of heart.

Some time later, in another class, she re-told this story, and I told her that I'd read Moby-Dick since the last time I heard it, almost entirely because of this story: I didn't want to miss a book so extraordinary that it made her feel incapable of writing well.

"And what'd you think?" she said. "Pretty good, right?"

"Yeah, pretty good," I answered. We chuckled over the understatement.

Her despair about Moby-Dick was exactly what happened to me when I read The Light of Evening. I had never read such prose before, and I don't expect to ever again. I've read a handful of O'Brien's other books, after being so totally bitch-slapped by this one, and for reasons I can't explain, none of them did much for me. Her Country Girls books are probably her most famous work, because they were utterly scandalous in Ireland when they came out, but I read the first book and cared almost nothing for the characters so I didn't read the rest.

The Light of Evening is exceptional foremost because of its gorgeous, twisty sentences, but also because it is remarkably honest (and therefore terrifying) about the relationships between daughters and mothers. It takes an unusual kind of concentration to read it, and the only thing I can compare it to is the concentration I expend on remembering dreams long enough to write them down. Here's a review by Claire Dederer that explains how the sentences confuse and then captivate.

At the time - 2007 or thereabouts - I understood film extremely well, where to look for its load-bearing structures and how to determine if it's hollow inside. However, I didn't really understand prose, or the novel. I'd read plenty of them, and I'd written probably a short collection's worth of stories (mostly bad) and at least one novel (fairly bad, though fun). But I didn't understand them. I couldn't see under the hood, much less take apart the engine and put it back together again.

I didn't make a resolution not to write after I read The Light of Evening, but I did stop writing for a while in embarrassment. And the book made my mind spin off into a dozen directions of thought about why I wrote, whether I actually liked writing, why I thought I could make a go of being a writer, what I wanted out of the vocation, et cetera. I thought about writing a lot. And I despaired a lot, because I had no idea how O'Brien made the book, where she stitched things together, how she even began to pile words on top of each other to make such loveliness.

I understood correct and incorrect grammar, and I knew how to spell almost anything, but I didn't understand sentences. That is to say: of course I couldn't see the seams in O'Brien. I was a wee bairn. It was she, among others, who made me grow. Without The Light of Evening, I wouldn't understand so well a story told by Annie Dillard and retold by my mentor:
A well-known writer got collared by a university student who asked, ''Do you think I could be a writer?''

''Well,'' the writer said, ''I don't know...Do you like sentences?''
It is an absolute requirement.

Once you learn how a garment is constructed, the seams are obvious, and seamless garments seem that much more awe-inspiring. So it is for books. There are writers whose work's seams remain stubbornly invisible to me: Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, poets in general. And David Foster Wallace, about whom I've written on this blog many times. (You can click on the tag at the bottom of this post to see them all.)

Even though it wasn't even ten years ago, I don't know how I started reading DFW. I don't know which book I started with, nor what made me finally pick it up, whether it was a recommendation or an impulse or a short story in isolation somewhere or "This Is Water" or what. But I know that a story in Oblivion, "Good Old Neon", made me feel like reality was bending around me. Like I'd always called the sky "blue" without knowing there was a distinct, specially reserved word for the color of the sky. Like I'd thought I had seen all the paintings in the gallery, and then I stepped through an unmarked door into an exhibit room four times the size of the old one.

It wasn't really the book or story that showed me how to hybridize my own work (that was I am not Jackson Pollock.), but it, and Infinite Jest, showed me that Victorian realism and its descendants were not the only way to write. This seems disingenuous, because I'd read Modernist writers like Woolf and Faulkner, and I'd read some experimental work, but it's the truth. The experimental writers failed to spark anything in me (because I'd read the wrong ones, I learned later), and the Modernist writers felt like kissing cousins to realism. They wrote in recognizable ways. What Wallace was doing, especially in "Good Old Neon", felt divorced from all the fiction I'd ever read, and made it all look like a goddamn puppet show.

I still haven't found anything that feels like Wallace, and I still haven't read a story that I consider better than "Good Old Neon". I've looked, hard, but writers who sound like him sound like tinny, risible imitations of him. Or I think I've found something like him, and then I go back and reread portions of IJ and go oh, right, no. This is the only thing that sounds like this. Oh, well.

But here's the thing: Wallace didn't teach me how [I wanted] to be a writer. O'Brien didn't, either. They both showed me that I was never going to be the best writer, which is always helpful when you're heading into a new pursuit. And they both made me think hard about how books and stories are made, and what constitutes them, and how to juggle the multiple concerns inherent in them. In Oblivion, Wallace demonstrated with great facility that a writer can choose to emphasize this or that building block to make a story look or sound a particular way - characterization in one story, description in another, patient misdirection in a third, Freytag or the undermining thereof in a fourth. O'Brien showed me what devotion to language looks like, and that writing splendid, multidimensional prose should be a lot of work; every last word must be carefully chosen. Wallace showed me technical tricks, which of course one cannot imitate without it being obvious that one is imitating Wallace, but which do inspire one's own technical tricks. (I mess around with punctuation a lot, which I wouldn't do without him.) O'Brien showed me how much I had to learn about sentences in the English language.

They both told me to shoot for the moon. Language simply cannot be composed more beautifully than it is in The Light of Evening. Meanwhile, Infinite Jest is nothing if not a very long series of writerly risks, and that's one of the reasons it's so exciting ( parts). Without taking risks, without making every word collide in a meaningful way with the next, writing is just not worthwhile.

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