I’m “Writer in Residence” for the current show at The Alice, a gallery run by Julie Alexander and Julia Freeman in Georgetown (Seattle). The show is called “Made Personal” and is curated by, with works by, Serrah Russell, Joe Rudko, and Colleen RJC Bratton. This is the piece I wrote for the show.
Thing was once a verb
The first thing you notice is the hum. Or throb. A blue-green, metallic sort of sound, with a nice subtle backbeat to it, the quiet oscillation of a mindless drone doing its thing, sometimes a little faster, sometimes a little slower, but if you close your eyes you can dance to it. In a sort of tripped-out spacey way. Like the noise of the ferry when you stand at the bow, the diesel engines pulsing and the hull cutting through the waves with their cross-rhythms, the foam piling up and spilling back, piling up and spilling back, the gulls hovering along beside.
The other night we were talking about fiction, or more generally any art, that could represent a non-human reality, a non-human perspective and experience. I argued that fiction was particularly unsuited to this task, because it’s a genre rooted in very human experiences and conventions for representing those experiences. A couple of us speculated that any art is ultimately going to founder on this problem, because we always bring our human perspective to bear, both in the making and in the reception of the work. But I suggested that other genres—poetry, nonfiction—might do better at getting us closer to some such world.
Luis Alberto Urrea spoke at Hugo House last night and, thanks to a perspicacious colleague, I knew about the event in time to actually go. The talk was in two parts: a written lecture on what Urrea calls “understory” and an on-stage interview. The lecture was good—entertaining, well written, insightful, delivered with verve despite the fact that he was reading, not speaking extemporaneously. I had issues with parts of it, but overall I liked it. But the real highlight for me was the second half, the on-stage interview, where Urrea spoke off-the-cuff about his work, spinning tales about his Yaqui relatives, speaking at all-Latino high schools, working with Border Patrol agents when writing his book The Devil’s Highway, and an astonishing story about his mother’s experiences in World War II, to be the basis for a new book. His riff on the importance of empathy was inspiring. I won’t try to reproduce the talk; suffice it to say that he was funny, engaging, profound. I came away with great respect for this author whom I’ve never read. I hope to check out The Devil’s Highway, a nonfiction account of 26 Mexican men’s attempt to cross the Sonoran Desert into the United States, and his novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter.
Kazuo Ishiguro is coming to Seattle at the end of this month, and I’m looking forward to going to see him. I got talking about him with a friend and fellow writer, and in a burst of enthusiasm went out and bought both When We Were Orphans and the new novel, The Buried Giant. (Spoiler alert: the article I’ve linked to gives away a bit of the plot, which is unfortunate, but it also has some comments from Ishiguro on the style issues I talk about here. If you want his comments without the spoilers, skip down to the last four paragraphs of the interview.)
After I finished The Buried Giant all I could say was, what a strange guy he is. And I knew, if I had the chance to ask a question when I see him, I’d say this: “You’re a master of style, of voice, of tone. What was it about the narrative voice in The Buried Giant that drew you?”
Here’s my guess at an answer. (It doesn’t jibe completely with what Ishiguro has to say in the Star article I’ve linked to above, but it’s not completely off, either.)
I’ve been listening to an audiobook version of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an entertaining fantasy set in early nineteenth-century England, and enjoying how the book thinks about magic, in two different ways. First, simply the variety of the magical inventions; second, the way it integrates the essentially unbelievable aspects of the story—the magic—into what otherwise presents itself as a realistic situation, complete with pseudo-scholarly footnotes about the magical texts and personalities. It’s historical fiction, with recognizable figures (e.g. the Duke of Wellington, King George) and situations (the war with France), but it blends these conventions with a matter-of-fact presumption of the existence of magic, so that the characters going about their daily lives in London or at war in Spain take it for granted that magic and magicians are real. The book pulls this off quite well, and part of the pleasure of reading is the amusement in recognizing how it renders such implausible material as if it were completely ordinary.
It struck me this morning, as I was chuckling over it again, that in effect what I’m admiring is how the book sets itself a certain arbitrary constraint—presume the existence of magic—and then finds ways to accommodate that constraint while telling a persuasive story. Continue reading
“Some people,” Miss R said, “run to conceits or wisdom but I hold to the hard, brown, nutlike word. I might point out that there is enough aesthetic excitement here to satisfy anyone but a damned fool.”
–Donald Barthelme, “The Indian Uprising.”
Case in point: The word “plasma.” According to the OED, its meaning in classical Latin was an “affected modulation of the voice.” In post-classical Latin it also meant “creature” and “poetic fiction.”
In English, originally, it meant a pot. Or “anything shaped or molded.” Later, long before it came to be associated with blood or the breath of the sun, it also meant in English “a green variety of chalcedony, valued as a semi-precious stone, and formerly used for carving into intaglios.” In this sense it was short for plasma emerald.
Lying in the hammock on the front porch, looking at the branches of the blue spruce, their craggy shapes against the night sky. They make the shapes whether anyone is there to look at them or not, yet we can only see them with all our preconceptions. Our aesthetic responses, our craving for form, the tension between what is and what we long for, the twanging that the shapes provoke inside us.
Looking at them, thinking about them, I think of the millions of years before human beings existed. Whole continents came and went, rivers cut their way through rock, made canyons, oxbows, alluvial plains, little banks where grasses sheltered crayfish. . . The trees stood up and splayed their branches on the sky. The shapes were there. And then they died, fell into earth, the earth swallowed itself and bent to new shapes we never knew.
There are some ideas here.
Around Christmas and the New Year, everyone in my house got that nasty flu that had been going around. When I recovered, I found I’d slipped into a moderately deep depression. This also had to do with the slow progress on my writing and the perennial doubts that accompany that work, exacerbated by fatigue and lowered defenses from being sick.
Then, for reasons I do not understand, my unconscious lobbed the opening line of To the Lighthouse at me: “Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow.” (The full line is “‘Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,’ said Mrs. Ramsay.” ‘But you’ll have to be up with the lark,’ she added.”)
I have no idea why this bobbed to the surface just when it did. It had been years since I’d read the book—probably thirty or more, though I might be forgetting something. But Virginia Woolf, and especially The Waves, have been a touchstone for me ever since I first read her in my early twenties. I suppose my unconscious mind, to rescue me from the despair I was feeling, came up with something that has given me immense joy and said, in a weirdly compelling way, “You should read this!”
Recently, in a fit of nostalgia, I re-visited Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, which I had not read since high school. It’s a funny book—both humorous and peculiar. My Ballantine paperback edition from the 70s classes it as “Adult Fantasy,” and I distinctly remember finding it in the fantasy section of the Paperback Booksmith at the New London (CT) Mall, where I spent lots of time as a teenager (the fantasy section, not the mall). The audio version that I listened to recently was classed either as “Science Fiction” or “Science Fiction/Fantasy.” And yet, the book has none of the conventional fantasy elements—no magic, no mythical creatures, no epic battles, none of that stuff. It has an enormous castle, and a host of highly unusual characters, if not caricatures, and an extremely high-flown style. It also has almost none of the conventional science fiction elements—none at all in the first two volumes, and hardly any in the third. The first two books (Titus Groan and Gormenghast) take place entirely within the castle and its immediate environs, which seem to be a world to themselves. With one or two exceptions, like the sunglasses worn by one of the characters, the time could be any time in the past several hundred years. In the third book, Titus Alone, the protagonist ventures beyond the castle to a world that more nearly resembles the world of the author—mid-century Britain—though with a couple of futuristic touches.
The most notable of those is his prescient description, and critique, of drones. Continue reading
I’m becoming increasingly frustrated by writers whose style is characterized to a large extent by what we might call argument by diktat, or the Christopher Hitchens style of argument. That is, they make pronouncements in a tone that presumes agreement; the reasons, never given, are supposed to be obvious; insidiously, the effect is to imply erudition and insight on the part of the pronouncer and those who agree, and ignorance, obtuseness, bad faith, or all three on the part of those who disagree.