Rachel Cusk on Writing

This is from the LRB, 4 December 2014:

“She (Rachel Cusk) was reading Knausgaard, and coming to think that the whole idea and practice of fiction, as conventionally understood, is ‘fake and embarrassing .. utterly ridiculous’.  The real point of writing, her piece quotes Knausgaard as saying, is not to do with making things up, but with ‘drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows… Not what happens there, nor what actions are played out there, but the there itself’ — and this is where, in Cusk’s view, creative writing courses come in.  People come along as a first step in the effort to start uncovering and developing their own self-relations and their relations to the world.  ‘Very often a desire to write is a desire to live more honestly through language … The notion of “finding your voice”, simplistic as it may sound, is … a social goal.””

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?

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Inherent Vice

My copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice arrived last week, and I have dipped into it and found it delightful.  Even more delightful is the trailer (above) which, by all reports, is read by Tom himself.  This is precisely the second time in over 50 years that Pynchon has lifted the veil on his very private life, the other time being a voice over for The Simpsons (yes, The Simpsons), in which he did a cameo of himself, with a bag over his head.  No public photos of Pynchon exist.

But here’s what’s even cooler: listen to the voice-over to the video trailer, and tell me he doesn’t sound like The Dude, from The Big Lebowski.  I picture him wandering into the supermarket in bedroom slippers and a bathrobe, sampling the milk and generally chillin’ through life.  I can’t get that voice out of my head, and the book reads better for it.

The Dude Abides

The Dude Abides

Paradise

gorseMy current read is Paradise, by A.L. Kennedy, a younger Scottish novelist. It’s a good read, though difficult in places due to the harsh realities of its alcoholic narrator. Here’s the blurb from “The Seattle Times:” “A stunning depiction of alcoholism, as funny as it is sad, as ironic as it is romantic.” In this passage the narrator is standing in the doorway of a barn, soaking up the feeling of a Scottish summer, and remembering her childhood.

“Beyond the lintel’s shade, there is the sweetness of grain fields on the breeze, the bland dust of poor soil, baked to a yellowish crust: and salt, too: something of the high-tide line, bladderwrack and rock clefts dank with scrub and gorse: that slightly human, musty fug of heated gorse, the snap of its seeds, the blood drop in the yellow of each flower: which is to say, the smell and taste and everything of my being a child in summer, of running between the blue, narrow shore and the racing depths of barley with my brother until the sun had fallen and the sandy earth was cooled to match the temperature of skin.”

A beautiful evocation of place, strangely punctuated, and a delight to read aloud. As a matter of fact, you could chop it up randomly and call it poetry.

Bovine masses

Kate Christensen’s satirical novel, The Great Man, has just won The PEN/Faulkner award for Fiction. She gives a great interview:

“We live in a profoundly conservative time. The pendulum has swung backward to “family values,” whatever the fuck that means, fundamentalist religions, and a tame and docile population who’s being scarily and almost cartoonishly manipulated by the most criminally dastardly government this country has ever had. We dress alike, we talk alike, we are a big homogeneous bunch of domesticated cows in Pottery Barns.”

You go girl! Couldn’t agree more.