John McFee on Writing by Omission

From The New Yorker, Sept. 14th, John McFee tells it like it is:

“When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out….

Creative nonfiction is a term that is currently having its day. When I was in college, anyone who put those two words together would have been looked on as a comedian or a fool…What is creative about nonfiction? It takes a whole semester to try to answer that, but here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.”

He knew not what to do

From LRB, an old piece about Coleridge, and how it might have been better had he died young:samuelcoleridge

He knew not what to do – something, he felt, must be done – he rose, drew his writing-desk before him – sate down, took the pen – – found that he knew not what to do.

After the first glorious days of his friendship with Wordsworth, Coleridge set about – or perhaps only resumed – a course of procrastination and ruin from which it seemed decent to avert one’s eyes. His life grew complicated and his poetry sparse, and his achievement took forms that required sometimes unreasonable effort to value.

In December he recognised that ‘I never had the essentials of poetic Genius, – that I mistook a strong desire for original power.’ By March 1801, Coleridge had decided it was all over: ‘The Poet is dead in me.’

Diski and Doris

Jenny Diski, whose work I have always admired, has begun a sort of memoir over on LRB, and this is the second or third installment  of the story of her life with Doris Lessing, who took Jenny in as troubled teen, age 15 or so.  Anyway, I love this:

“For weeks I listened intently to the table-talk, not daring to join the conversation, not having anything to say, and wondering where and how one acquired opinions, so many and that seemed to come so easily. We left cinemas and theatres, Doris and her friends and me tagging along, and before we were out in the street, they were sharing their judgments of what they’d seen. It was a matter of whether things ‘worked’, how exactly they had failed or succeeded. Nothing was expected to be perfect, so the conversation was about the way in which things worked and didn’t and a judgment was made on the balance. Details of mise-en-scène and dialogue were picked out and weighed. On the other hand, Brando was preposterous as Fletcher Christian and wrecked whatever chance there was of it being a good film. How did they know such things? How did they make so many different angles relevant to their final analysis? And how were they so expert and so sure?”

This notion of “taste” (as Diski goes on to explore it) did not come naturally to the young lady.  In fact, I would wager that it does not come naturally to most people, who view films (and tv and books) as entertainment, first and last.  This is a very revealing transformation, noticed by a 15 year old girl, moving in new circles.

The Bone Clocks

As a Mitchell fan from way back, I looked forward to reading this book from the time I first heard rumblings about it.  I even managed to snag a signed copy of the book, like a true fan, and started reading.  Wow.  I was blown away by the first section, set in 1984, with its narrator, Holly Sykes, an angry 15 year old from Gravesend, in London.  This section was rooted in reality, had depth of character, and voice.  Also, it was true to place; setting, in other words, was real – so real I found myself tracking Holly’s wanderings on Google Earth as she set off on her adventure.  I was totally into it. The writing in this section is crisp and insightful – Literature, with a capital “L”, in other words – and lots of fun to read.

Then, as is Mitchell’s wont to do, Holly’s narration gives way abruptly to that of Hugo Lamb, a minor recycled character from “Black Swan Green”, who now comes to the fore.  (In a BBC interview Mitchell speaks of his recycled characters as workers fulfilling an “in-house job application.”) Seven years have passed. The year is 1991. Setting here (Cambridge)is still quite strongly invoked, but Hugo’s friends start to seem less real than Holly’s family, in part one.  And Hugo also starts to seem unreal, hard to reconcile.  Of course, Hugo eventually meets Holly, now 22, and working at a ski resort in Switzerland.  Connections made.

Section three (2004) is less successful, more prosaic, in the voice of Holly’s husband Ed, a war correspondent home for a family wedding.  Still, the wheels have not come off, and there is hope of a better voice, better narration in the next section.  But no. Section four (2015) starts to be a real stinker, told in the voice of one Crispin Hershey, a cynical and resentful author – an amalgam of Timothy Cavendish (“Cloud Atlas”) and Martin Amis, or more specifically Amis’s character Richard Tull from “The Information”.  While on the book promotion circuit, Hershey eventually connects with Holly, who has by now written a book called “The Radio People”, detailing the strange inner voices which populate her head.  Her book is a runaway bestseller, which sparks Hershey’s resentment, but in the end the two become close friends. This was the longest, and perhaps most pointless section of the book, with a very unsympathetic character narrating a shaggy story.   

Section five, “An Horologist’s Labyrinth” is set in 2015, and is easily the silliest of the six sections.  It is here that the novel start to take on the attributes of so many YA novels these days, with weakly drawn characters and supernatural mumbo jumbo culminating in a battle royale between the forces of evil (who are, by the way, also known as Carnivores!) and the forces of good (yep, Vegetarians).  I got through it.

By the time we get to section six (2043) Holly is back as the narrator in what seems like a long coda to the book.  She is by now an old woman, living in her grandmother’s croft in remote Sheep’s Head, Ireland.  This is a post-apocalyptic world, again, remarkably similar the central Hawaiian section of “Cloud Atlas” in subject, if not quality of writing.  By 2043 there has been a general breakdown of society, the Chinese seem to be running things, there are shortages, and there is lawlessness.  There is some nice, tense, dialogue in this section, but there is no transcendence.  Mitchell simply seems to be phoning it in here, with oblique references to events, extrapolations from our present, and general gloom and doom.  This is the part the Wing Nuts object to (a memo seems to have gone out) – this, and section three, which is critical of the American involvement Iraq war.  Political people see things through a political lens, so they see this as “propaganda”.   Of course, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  It’s much easier to criticize the actual writing, however, without bringing in politics.  I mean, isn’t every dystopian novel an extrapolation of current political and social events?  Isn’t “Hunger Games” all about inequality and abuse of power? Isn’t “!984” merely an extrapolation of what could happen, should we continue going down the path we’re on? Does that make it propaganda? Some visions are done better than others, however.

I am tempted to invoke the cliché “I really wanted to like this book”.  In my case, however, it’s no cliché: I really did want to like it.  And I did, to some extent.  Which is where the three stars come in.  Mitchell is a first class writer, a hugely talented guy, but this novel is, on the whole, second rate.

No difference

Most mornings I walk three or four miles.  As I walk I like to listen to podcasts or books on tape (or whatever they are now called). This morning it was episode 257 of the Kunstler Cast, an interview with Piero SanGiorgio, author of Survive the Coming Economic Collapse, a practical guide.  Fascinating stuff, especially in light of the different approaches Americans take (lone wolf survival, a la Jeremiah Johnson) vs. European approaches, which do not involve turning your back on society and manning big guns.  The great thing about being alive today is the ability we have to go further, track down books we hear about, and even download first chapters on Kindle to read.  That’s what I did.  And .. even though I will probably not read the book in its entirety, I read enough to be inspired.  I love the quotes which open each chapter.  Here’s one from Einstein: “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment.  Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.”  And also this:

“To doubt everything or to believe everything are two equally convenient solutions; both dispense with the necessity of reflection.”

― Jules H. Poincare

Yes.  Yes .. it works on so many levels, from the unthinking, uncritical fundamentalist, to the whack jobs who populate the far right – the birthers, the truthers, the deniers and the assholes who throw sand in the face of truth, for whatever benighted or greedy reasons.  What, I ask you, can you do with people who refuse to believe in climate change, despite overwhelming evidence, but who are more than ready to believe that ISIS is at the Mexican border, spreading Ebola.  For the former there is evidence – ample, sound, mainstream evidence.  For the latter there is none – just naked, ignorant fear.  Imminent “threats” trump long term problems. Cranks and crackpots get listened to, while mainstream expertise is ‘elitist” .. or whatever.  Fear does this, fear and denial.

To doubt everything is no different to believing everything – it all amounts to the same lack of thinking.  And my oh my, that makes life convenient, doesn’t it?