Archive for June, 2010

A Rant in First Person

June 7, 2010

I was in Half Price Books a few weeks ago when I ran across a book that looked interesting. However, instead of just grabbing the thing and going to the checkout like I normally do, I decided to check it out of the library instead and it was a great decision.  I really don’t want to go on about how much I didn’t like the thing. I’ve had to write a couple of negative reviews and it’s not something I enjoy. Further, I also didn’t want to finish the thing. It’s a collection of short stories, I got roughly 80 pages into its total of 120-ish pages, and I just don’t have it in me to finish the thing. Not when I had ceased caring about what I was reading and not when I knew that to finish it only meant I would come here to write a negative review of the thing.

I think part of the problem is that I’m just tired of the whiny first person narrative. It’s been one of a number of current works that I have read lately where the story (or stories) are told from the perspective of someone needlessly whiny, where nothing goes right and where life is just oh so unnecessarily hard and they don’t know why. Wah wah wah.

It would be one thing if these narratives had anything more to them, if there was a reason for the character to be so pathetic and thoroughly uninteresting, regardless of what shenanigans the character is up to and what situations they find themselves in but I think I am becoming convinced that the stories of these characters are without meaning because the writers are writing about themselves and they are without meaning. More and more, literature (especially American) reads as if the authors read works from the Beat Generation, got the fact they were writing about themselves, and took nothing else from their works.

And so we have a mountain of writers armed with the simple mantra of writing about themselves and churning out all sorts of creative non-fictional fiction that is just out and out empty and bad. The writer of the stories of which I read 80 pages of went so far as to admit that a few works had been originally published as non-fiction pieces and that the rest of the collection was more memoir than fiction. Except it’s a memoir that read like the most pathetic headlines found in the magazines collected in grocery store checkout aisles.

I remember reading once an author’s reply about why they write and they replied that they live to write. Too much fiction today seems to be a bastardization of this. People lead lives for the express purpose of chronicling themselves rather than just living their lives. At some point your life is no longer your own but just whatever you think will make the next best chapter. You’re not there for yourself, you’re notliving for yourself, you’re living for…what? I, honestly, can’t even imagine except I’m tired of reading the dead, soulless meanderings of it.

This isn’t to say that all first person narratives are bad, even if they are autobiographical. It can be done well. It still is done well. But it also seems like the Ready-Made Section of literature. It’s writing without the heavy lifting, like renovating a kitchen with pre-manufactured countertops and cabinets. It can look alright, plucking these things off the shelf at Lowe’s but they also stand out for being the same basic mediocre things that they are.

Alright, the rant is over. I also just finished a wonderful short story collection called The Lost TIki Palaces of Detroit, it’s something I want to write about but am deciding the form (review the whole thing or story by story? something in-between?). the frustration from the other reading was just overwhelming, though. On to better things.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell – Review

June 3, 2010

Washington Post Book Club says of Maxwell’s work that “few books are more convincing rebukes to the seemingly never-ending age of the memoir and all its attendant cults of authenticity” this is as good a way of entry as any into So Long, See You Tomorrow. From a single moment passing, in the hall of a new school, a friend made over one summer Maxwell unfurls  a long carpet of America.

From this moment, Maxwell talks about class, about social status, about how men and women interact with each other and the various types of power at play in every situation. Over the course of its slender 135 pages, So Long, See You Tomorrow is an unflinching, almost cruel examination of a moment that has clearly come to haunt a man throughout his life.

And it is such a small moment.

To transpose some of my personal feelings onto this, I want to say this is an argument for how important the little things are in life -especially in retrospect. Being kind to this once friend in a school hallway would have taken the smallest of acts, it would have taken a hello, a how are you. Though, as the narrator often laments, it’s not always as easy as it appears and even in his old age he wonders if he could have done anything different in that moment other than what he had done; if he would have the emotional and social dexterity to pull anything else off.

Going back over the book, So Long, See You Tomorrow is almost like a middle aged man’s equivalent of catcher in the Rye. The selfish melodramas that surrounded Caulfield’s thoughts are gone, replaced by a meloncholiac nostalgia and a horrible knowledge of the weight of happenstance and the weight of the burden of youth and the mistakes made.

This is a pretty uncritical blog entry. I haven’t been looking for themes explored in the work or tying them to other authors, other works.  There is a solitude to all of the characters that is numbing in its truth. Nearly everything that happens seems to come as an extension of a desperation to not be trapped within such solitude, to step out and make a connection, any connection with someone else. then there is the tragedy that this desperation can cause.  It’s strange, but the only time anyone seems to be truly happy in the novel, contend with the companionship they have found, is when the two boys are playing in the half finished home. There is a more feverish contentment between the adulterers, one where the woman reaps a horrible wrath on her husband for not giving her a divorce, but it lacks the ease of the relationship between the two boys, their lack of pretense, of shame.

I can’t remember where I heard it, but I remember hear that loneliness is the death of all men and, in this story, loneliness seems to be slowly killing everyone and the need to escape it is the motivator for much of the action. Then, it is the narrators refusal to attempt to break solitude that causes him the most anguish in his life, remembering years later how he hadn’t been able to say hello, wondering if his once friend ever got over all that had happened to him.

I think there is probably more to say about the time of day when much of the story seems to take place. It feels as if much of it was during that time of day when the sun was either just rising or just starting to set, that time when light is odd and the world looks different. And that the most violent aspects of the book were always carried out under lamp light, light created by man. Really, though, it’s just a wonderful read. Maxwell’s book takes you places.