Posts Tagged ‘laura van den berg’

I’m at AWP

February 3, 2011

Well, I’m there. I made it to AWP this year. For those who don’t know, and I certainly wouldn’t have until my girlfriend asked me, “Hey, you want to go to AWP?” it’s where’s a bunch of writers and writers/professors and writers/whateverers gather to talk about writing. There are a bunch of different little sessions where four or five writers get together and do a presentation on a theme or idea that they’re interested in, usually followed by a little Q&A. This morning, I went to a session that was basically about monsters and their prevalence/use/possibly abuse in fiction. Hannah Tinti was awesome. She was quick, she was insightful, she was engaging. And she had trouble with this little projector thing, which introduced a welcomed bit of levity and everydayness that should have set the tone for the rest of the session.

I wasn’t a fan of Laura van den Berg’s short story collection, but I thought she did well here. As she guessed, she would have people disagreeing with her over Murakami’s work being his After the Quake collection (for my money, it’s still  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or, maybe, Kafka on the Shore) and with her description of Murakami having a lot of “zaniness” in his work, but it was still entertaining.

I don’t really want to get into a review of the whole thing, largely because I don’t also want to be critical of any of the presenters . What they are doing is difficult, and I know they are doing the best they can. By and large, the session was fun and informative and, in the end, I think that’s what counts. What I do want to say, though, is that I have a feeling what I feared about these sessions will come true – writers talking about writing isn’t always the most entertaining thing and they aren’t always the best at it. As one of the presenters said, writers like to write because they’re better at that than talking. And he might have been right. From the start I was thinking that this might have been a more engaging experience if it was a group of lit professors up there, plying their trade (which is really what the writers were doing =- trying to be lit professors). While I was engaged by the discussion, I can’t say I learned much. I wonder what some legitimate lit professors would have said up there, what they would have focused on, and what I might have learned. This isn’t to knock the group who were up there, or the event, it’s fun, it’s engaging, it’s entertaining. But, so far, it’s also been a bit hollow. I’m not looking at putting together a session heavy schedule (I really would like to see all of the touristy crap, I can’t help it, I AM a tourist here for god’s sake), so I don’t plan on having a lot of little posts about this, but I do plan on having a few. So…until the next literary thing pops up…

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What the World Will Look Like When The Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg – Book Review

March 25, 2010

I wanted to give Laura van den Berg’s collection the same diligence I have already given AS Byatt and am giving David Foster Wallace but I just don’t see a reason to go through each story. They are roughly the same story repeated throughout the book with a young female narrator, some inept/weak guys, searching, and unseen monsters.  Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat. You have a collection of short stories.

Is this overly harsh? Yes. But van den Berg’s collection is frustrating because a couple of stories do show promise (such as the title story, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and Inverness) and you want to like the other stories. van den Berg is certainly a writer adept at using words. Her descriptions are elegant but also repetitive. The first time you encounter her female lead the character is crisp but by the fourth time you encounter her, you already know what to expect from the story. There is a certain level of depth and connection that is simply missing. With the first story, Jean is a woman working as a Bigfoot impersonator and dealing with a dying friend and a family who wants her to give up the acting stuff and move home. There should be some pretty clear connections to be drawn between Bigfoot, her impersonating Bigfoot, people paying to have a run-in with a fake Bigfoot and the pretense her friend can no longer live under because of his impending demise. But they’re just not justified by the text. Next is a story of siblings where the daughter is trying to take care of the younger, mentally disturbed brother after their parents die in the Amazon looking for South America’s equivilant to Bigfoot. Again, there is thread after thread after thread that is begging to be ran together at some point but it never happens.

In the end, the collection feels like a big box of pastry puffs. They look like they should be substantial little bits of goodness, their presentation is bang on, they taste really good but after consuming the box you realize that they were just hollow shells crammed with sweet goodness and empty calories. The moments where van den Berg comes the closest to working are the moments when she either connects the monster more closely to the story or when the monster isn’t a focus at all. With “Inverness,” we follow a woman looking for rare flowers around Loch Ness as another group of scientiest search for the Loch Ness Monster. It works because the woman’s significant other never shows up just like how the monster never shows up. There is a futileness to each quest that is doubled over and balanced by eachother. It is equally paralleled by the story of one of the investigator’s, McKay, and his marriage that is more endured than enjoyed by his wife.

The second story that works well is the title story, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leave Us. A daughter goes on a mission with her mother in search of some lemurs to prove a scientific theory correct. The mother is distant, distracted, inattentive and largely inaccessible. It’s clear that she is more concerned with herself (her studies and her lovers) than her daughter and, to the daughter’s credit, she recognizes this and largely makes peace with it while trying to find her own identity. While her sexuality grows with her being around a colleague of her mother’s (who also happens to believe her mother is wrong in her theory), the daughter increasingly becomes her own person and the story ends with her deciding to head back to NY to pursue her life as a professional swimmer while her mother treks off into the jungle in search of a validation for a theory we are led to believe will be entirely futile. While various monkeys/lemurs are talked about as having once been thought of as monsters, the whole mythical beast angle simply isn’t played up – and it’s a strong suit as the mythical beast isn’t some ape wandering around the forest but the mother’s obsessions that steal her attentions and energies. I think it also works because it creates a tension that is largely lacking in other stories. Where her other works feel malformed or half-formed, this feels like a total work. There is a reason for the events beyond it being five days in someone’s life with Bigfoot. With “What the World…” van den Berg isn’t obtuse with the conflict. A common problem throughout the collection is a vagueness in purpose and in meaning, they become frustrating reads because they continually refuse to offer a reason for having read them or for the significance of the events given to us. There is a profusion of images which the reader instinctively desires to find meaning with but not enough material within the stories to properly make any connections. “What the World…” sets up a dynamic between the mother and daughter and provides the material to support connections drawn within the text.

If van den Berg was more consistent in drawing connections between the use/need of the imaginary monsters and the stories told, or if there was greater variety in her characters or if there seemed a point beyond the stories other than “Five days in my boring life…”…well, if if if.  I wanted to like the stories.  There are aspects of van den Berg’s prose that I really enjoyed but this collection is just too flat and repetitive. Each of her stories has the pieces to be good, just like you can go out and accumulate the pieces to build a car engine. But it only matters if they are put together correctly so that the engine can run. van den Berg’s engines are nearly completed but she seems to be missed a key part here or there, just enough to keep the engines from firing up.