Thursday, January 31st 2013

Kevin,

It’s my last day at Brush Creek, and thus the last day of our little experiment (I’ll probably post more stuff as time goes on, but doubt at this regularity). Just in the past few days I’ve finished The Wild Palms by Faulkner, which ranks up there for me among his greatest work (and boy is it devastating, kind of like Light in August if it was entirely a tragedy). The book has two distinct narratives that never intersect: one, about a couple that elopes to pretty horrifying circumstances, and another about a convict who is washed away by a flood on the Mississippi and rescues a pregnant woman. The book’s about the duty we have towards other human beings, and how love can be treacherous. It’s also about how much we’ll fight for the kind of life we want to live, no matter how perverse that life may seem. I’d highly recommend it. But, I’ve also:

Tried snowmobiling again – and liked it (turns out they put me on the wrong kind of machine in my first go, a mountain one instead of a trail one), saw some bison, a herd of deer, climbed to the top of a foothill of the rockies, finished my own novel, finished the first section of my next one, and become rather good at Buck Hunter (that videogame that’s interchangeable with Golden Tee in douchey bars).

But January has been kind of an incredible month in general. Music wise, especially. There’s of course the new Bowie on the way, as well as a new project from Will Sheff, but just today Iron and Wine announced a new album, and you know how much I love Sam Beam. There are a bunch of great new books announced, and being here in Wyoming has been an incredible gift. Likewise, the end of my Sandman project is bittersweet, but I’m so proud of it. Also, I’ve got some job leads (much needed, dear god, I am so poor right now), and I’ve got a project for the upcoming months: getting this book published.

I’m sorry that you’ll be far away for so much of this coming year. I can feel in my bones it’s going to be a good one. I hope you get everything you want from it.

Much love,

 

N

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Monday, January 28th 2013

Kevin,

So I’ve been having a bit of a debate with my friend Alex Heimbach over how to read Pale Fire. The book is in 3 sections – an introduction, a long lyrical poem, and endnotes to that poem. I contend (though no one actually does this) that the fullest way to read the book is to flip back and forth between the endnotes and the text of John Shade’s poem, which is what the editor, a certain Charles Kinbote, suggests. Here’s our back and forth:

Alex: Okay, so, my slightly delayed take on Pale Fire. Whereby take, I mean
mostly disparate thoughts.

The book really came together for me at the end (those last two paragraphs or
so where Kinbote talks about what he’s going to do next are just gorgeous),
especially as an interrogation of who has the right to tell a story and what it means
for a story to be true. Through the notes, Kinbote attempts to rewrite Shade’s life
(as it is represented in the poem) to more closely resemble his. He is proclaiming
himself the final arbiter of the truth of Shade’s life, which is certainly a repulsive
act, and a violent one, but mostly it’s futile. Sybil and the other scholars dart
around the edges of the narrative, casting doubt on its longevity as well as its
veracity. But even their control over the narrative is tenuous when we have the
poem itself—John Shade’s last testament. This is part of why (along with my
innate laziness) I didn’t read “like he tells you to,” as you put it. The poem, and its
author, should get to speak for themselves, before someone else starts dissecting
it. I would say it’s the reader who is ultimately the arbiter of Shade’s story. None
of the versions are true, per say, but the reader’s is the most honest, since it lacks
the calculation of Kinbote’s or Sybil’s or even Shade’s own.

I think the value of the individual reaction is also part of what Nabokov is
getting at with the clearly irrelevant or unenlightening notes (which though I
appreciated as a whole, I still really don’t understand individually). Yes he’s
satirizing how useless a lot of academic criticism is, but he’s also warning against
an official interpretation. For one thing, what if the guy in charge of the official
interpretation is Kinbote? But even more than that, Nabokov is making room for a
multiplicity of voices without particularly preferencing one.

There are similar issues at play with the Zembla story. Kinbote’s tale is pretty
clearly untrue, at least in a literal sense. But it’s certainly a much better story than
Shade’s, and some of the critiques Kinbote makes of Shade’s poem are pretty spot
on—the poem is slavishly literal and sometimes painfully pedestrian (not that
everything about family life necessarily is). So do we preference reality or the
imagination?

As far as I’m concerned, the end read pretty clearly that Kinbote was a Russian
exile, rendered homeless and forced to watch as the country he loved was
transformed into a horror he no longer recognized. And it drove him a bit crazy.
Art creates the feeling of reality. Thus he encouraged Shade to recreate “his
Zembla” in an effort to recapture the stability he’d lost. But instead Shade
solidifies his own narrative, his own base, and Kinbote, rejected and ever more
adrift, uses the notes to solidify his story and undercut Shade’s.

Thus ends my grand unifying theory of Pale Fire.

Noah: I would quibble with your first point, though. “The poem, and its author,
should get to speak for themselves, before it gets dissected by someone else.”
That suggests a couple of things:

1. Shade is real.
2. Shade is not Kinbote.
3. All art should be first experienced without referential filters.

So to address 2, there’s a line of thinking in the literature around Pale Fire that
Kinbote and Shade are in fact the same person. My gut doesn’t go that way, but
I’m not entirely against ruling it out.

To address 1, “the poem, and its author” are Nabokov, not Shade. Thus one
could very well argue that one should read along with the footnotes as one goes,
because that is the author, Nabokov, speaking for himself. Furthermore, you’ve
already failed at sticking to your plan, since you read Kinbote’s introduction.
You’re already reading the poem with Kinbote’s framing (and how could you
not have? Nabokov purposefully puts the intro in, and you start reading it like a
normal book, unaware you’ve fallen into his trap).

I’d say my answer to 3 is pretty much the same as my answer for 1, except with a
couple more things.

Firstly, what about authors like Borges or Susannah Clarke, who put footnotes
in their work? In many Borges stories, the footnote is written by an “editor” who
is not the “author” of the main text (although both are Borges). Should we then
ignore the footnotes? I bet you don’t. Same for Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr.
Norell – you’d miss a lot if you decided to read the entire book first, then go back
to the footnotes. So I’d challenge you on this point, because I’d wager it has more
to do with them being end notes than an actual position you’re taking on how a
work should be read.

Secondly, what about translation, which inherently isn’t the artist speaking for
him/herself, but in fact someone else speaking for them? Or books that have
references to minutia from earlier eras, which editors give us notes to explain? I’ll
admit I skip these a lot, but mostly out of laziness, as opposed to some principle.

My point in arguing for reading it with the endnotes going along isn’t about the
most “true” version. You’re entirely right that no particular version is more or
less true (but I don’t believe in “truth” per se, so you’re preaching to the choir
here). Instead, I feel like you miss an interesting experiential aspect by reading
them separately. I think Nabokov wants you to flip back and forth, in an effort
to physically recreate the distance between the two authors, Shade and Kinbote
– and, also, play up the dichotomy between poetry and criticism (something
where you clearly fall on the poetry side, since you’re arguing for “poem first, crit
later). But he of course upends with dichotomy with Kinbote’s story being told
throughout the notes, which turns the idea of endnotes on their head. Lastly, you
lose the parallels in the narratives (or pointed lack of parallels) because you can’t
see how their rhythms match up side by side. It’s not that this way is more “true,”
it’s just that there’s mores stuff going on in the physical experience of the book

that I think you ultimately miss. Nabokov was a genius, and I doubt he made them
endnotes instead of footnotes on a sheer whim.

But I’m pretty much with you on everything else.

Alex: Regarding the first two: obviously Shade isn’t real, but I do believe he
is within the context of the narrative. And so I wanted to, essentially, hear his
side of the story first. Which, to a certain extent does privilege the poem over
the criticism, though that isn’t so much a statement of my belief in their inherent
values (something about which Nabokov seems to have had a far stronger
preference than I do) as a statement about how I find it most meaningful to
consume criticism. Yes, I could’ve flipped back and forth (but now that I think
about it, how did you even do that? There are no note numbers so you don’t know
when to look at the end. Do you start with the notes and then read the relevant
part of the poem? Because then that’s pretty much what I did, except with reading
the poem as a whole first), but aside from driving me up the wall, it would’ve
completely destroyed any understanding I might have had of the poem. Which
might be the point, but would’ve been annoying.

I also think you’re falling into the same trap you accuse me of. Kinbote is no more
the author of the book than Shade is. And unless I’m missing something, you read
it the way Kinbote told you to, not the way Nabokov told you to. And I didn’t
miss any of the things you mentioned (except maybe more overarching thematic
parallels), because I did still flip back to check the relevant lines (most of the
time, at least).

Regarding your more general point about mediated texts: I didn’t think that
through all the way and should’ve been more specific, because I think there’s a
big difference between prose and poetry in this case. You’re right in that all the
cases you mentioned I would read the notes as I go along. But in poetry, I never
do, because it relies so much more on rhythm and flow and notes disrupt that.
Even stuff like Shakespeare and the Canterbury Tales, where notes tend to be
helpful, I usually end up ignoring them the first time through because they’re
more distracting than anything else. So I just read the poem the same way I’d read
any other. I agree that Nabokov made them endnotes for a reason, but I’m also
sure he realized that made it more likely for people to read the poem alone first
(or else he was the world’s dumbest brilliant person).

And finally: I don’t take orders from fictional crazy people. I do what I want!

Noah: My point was that it isn’t clear that Shade is real in the context of Pale Fire
– though you (and I, for that matter) think he is.

It wasn’t hard to flip back and forth, you just read the poem with the
corresponding notes page open.

Here’s why I’d argue I’m not falling into the same trap: the introduction. Because
we are made aware that there are endnotes, we are thus aware that there are
explanations for passages (and, presumably, able to look them up). I wasn’t just
taking his advice because, but because that’s how the book is physically laid out
(yes I know it’s laid out with poetry first and notes second, but you know what I
mean, it’s structured in such a way that you are aware there are notes and you’re
going to have questions about the text).

I’ll grant your point about not wanting to look at notes because it disrupts the
flow. But, is that possible is epic poetry? The flow gets disrupted all the time -
everytime you take a break, for instance. So in this case, where we’re dealing with
something akin to an epic (although it’s quotidian, which, as you mentioned, is
kind of the point), the argument that the notes are interrupting the flow doesn’t
really hold water. I usually flipped back to the notes at the end of each stanza -
breaks in flow provided for me by Shade/Kinbote/Nabokov.

But this all gets us to the question of how poetry is meant to be consumed. I’m pretty partial to the idea that it’s supposed to be read aloud (though I expect a lot of contemporary poets would have my head for that). Thoughts?

Any thoughts on your end, Kevin? Have you read Pale Fire? We were just discussing A Visit from the Goon Squad on Twitter with Zack Handlen, where we started to get into questions for formal experimentation. What do you make of the book, or how we consume poetry in general?

- N (with help from AH)

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Wednesday, January 23rd 2013

Kevin,

I’m going to be lazy tonight, so here’s the latest song I wrote. It’s partially about our collective trials this past year (for anyone else reading, 2012 was, well…disappointing in places).

 

- N

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Monday, January 21st 2013

Kevin,

I don’t know about you, but being up here has made me nostalgic. Something about the fact that I’ve been ripped from my everyday concerns (albeit I’m still on the internet, ALL THE TIME) makes me think about my past more than I usually do. It’s odd. I’m not wishing my life had gone in a different direction, but still, I feel strangely aware of my choices, old loves, lost friendships. Usually I don’t think about the people who no longer affect my life because I’m so plugged into my current world than unless they have an impact on it they don’t show up. Now that isn’t an issue, so memory takes a turn for the weird. If I had less willpower I’d probably send out some stupid emails to people about getting back in touch. Jesus, I already have trouble being attentive to the friends I do have, I don’t need to reclaim any past relationships.

All right, enough prattling on about my emotional state (Though here’s a photo of me at 15 with one of my good friends, Will, who I’m lucky to still be very close with. Why? Because it’s the youngest picture of myself I have on the internet).

Me and Will

I finished Austerlitz, and have moved on to one of Sebald’s influences, Borges. Yes, this is my first time reading him. Yes, that’s a huge failure in my life as a reader (you’ve read him, yes? It seems like you should have, considering your love of Bolano). But I’m more interested in the differences between Borges and Sebald. Or, more importantly, how Sebald takes some of Borges innovative ideas and makes them better.

So, Borges basic shtick (to really dumb everything down) is to make up worlds and fictions that he describes for us. He won’t give us a book that takes place in a magical realm, but instead will write a short story about the author of that magical realm, and describe the place as artifice. He also takes the opposite tack: telling fake biographies – short pieces about fictional people who are treated with the utmost gravity. It’s artifice, again, clothed in the semblance of science. It’s pretty genius, and his prose is so incredible that he can make anything interesting.

Sebald takes this idea of “fake biography” and runs with it. Austerlitz is in many ways a chapter from Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity expanded into a novel (except not quite, since Austerlitz the character is a decent man). But while it is always obvious in Borges the whole thing is fiction, Sebald consistently undercuts the idea of disbelief. Like I mentioned last time, Sebald keeps blurring the line between what is real, and what is not. The photographs that I mentioned in my last letter are key to this. Sebald will have Austerlitz describe a scene with deadly accuracy, and then produce a real photograph to back up his description. Here’s the problem: Austerlitz isn’t real, and neither is the scene he describes (unless he’s just describing a building or landscape, but even then, his description of the scene isn’t real, because it’s from the perspective of a fiction). What are we to make of the fact that we’re given visual evidence of something we know, because we know we’re reading fiction, isn’t true?

It’s a toughie, and that’s the reason I love Sebald so much. But back to his relationship to Borges. Borges uses the rigors of biography and science to illuminate (and undermine) fiction. That’s exactly what the photos do as well, but they’re eversomuch stronger. I’m always aware as a reader that Borges is pulling my leg, and he’s aware of it as a writer. I never have any idea about what’s close to real, or totally made up, in Austerlitz. Sebald takes the ground out from under me, and makes me question our distinctions between autobiography and fiction. Borges gives me the same questions, but he does not do so with such power. It’s like Borges invented a machine, and Sebald souped it up to make it so much more effective. I think that’s why I’d say Sebald is a better writer – not that Borges is “bad” in any sense of the word (again, he’s a genius) – because he takes the conceptual work Borges starts to play with and really uses it to shake the understanding of fiction to its core.

Anyway, long story short, you should read him.

-N

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Saturday, January 19 2013

Kevin,

I’ve been thinking a lot about “showing and telling.”

The old adage in fiction is to “show and not tell.” Which, frankly, is bullshit, but covers up a more important point. But let me give an example:

Austerlitz, the book I mentioned last letter (which I just finished) is almost entirely made up of the main character, Austerlitz, telling his personal history to the narrator. The whole book is telling – except for various photographs that pop up across the text (which are super-interesting in their own right, but are worth their own post). And the book is amazing. It’s enthralling, beautifully written, and emotionally resonant, even though the entire thing is told. There’s very little in the way of subtext. Sebald basically just tells you his themes and expects you to think about them. And it works.

It’s got me thinking, since as I write this new novel I’ve already devoted a few chapters to telling – laying out my main character’s past in order to get the exposition out of the way. I think it feels a little more organic than simply shoving a couple of expository chapters in the middle of the narrative, but still, I’m telling. A lot. And a lot of stuff that is actually shown in the previous two novels.

The book has to stand on its own, so I need this exposition in it, but I wonder if readers are going to rebel at the site of such obvious groundwork. Do I need to care, though? If Sebald can do it (though he’s a much stronger writer and prose stylist than me), why can’t I at least try? When is “telling” actually the optimal choice between the two, getting the information out of the way so it doesn’t slow down the narrative? Sometimes everything can’t be shown.

But, on the other hand, there is a germ of truth behind “show and not tell,” because too much telling is narrative kryptonite as well. You load people with too much information, and they get bored, especially if you provide it like you’re giving a book report. Sebald manages to hit that perfect middle, where he’s telling, but he does it in such a way that it never feels like he’s bogging us down in information.

I’m not sure how my chapters fit right now (nor should I, really, I’ve hardly begun the book), but it’s something I’m going to be thinking about as I move forward. I’d love your thoughts, too, especially from a short-story perspective, where you have so much less time to lay out the scene.

On a totally unrelated topic, have you heard the new song from Will Sheff of Okkervil River? Holy cow is it good.

 

N

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Thursday, January 17th

Noah,

I am officially terrible at writing letters.

In my defense, I technically moved twice in the past month, the second time with my dog. And most of the letters I’ve written in my life have been physical paper letters…and I’ll even admit to writing most of them with a quill and ink pots.

I’m all moved in and settled up in Tahoe City. I’ve got a PO Box and everything, which is new for me. Dynamite loves being up here, and he gets so excited around the snow that he tires himself out pretty early on in the day. Here’s a picture from our walk this morning:

Image

Since we’re living in a neighborhood that’s mostly vacation homes, there aren’t a lot of houses occupied right now. With MLK weekend coming up, that’s going to change, but for now? I don’t think more than 20% of the houses in the entire neighborhood have people in them right now. That makes for a very quiet existence, and I’m really enjoying it so far.

Making a schedule for myself and sticking to it is going to be really important here, especially since I have to keep to Dynamite’s schedule of eating and exercise (in addition to, you know, my own exercise, writing, reading, etc.).

I limited myself to one box of books in my car to bring up to Tahoe, and I’m starting to pick my way through it. I’ve been reading some other books for reviews, and Karen Russell’s Vampires In the Lemon Grove is a very accomplished short story collection. Not quite as good as George Saunders’ new book, but you know he’s one of my heroes, so it’s kind of hard to reach that level in my mind. Hopefully I’ll get to keep trucking through a bunch of books this weekend.

But there’s still some work to be done around the house, not that Dynamite is helping out with that.

Image

More to come!

-Kevin

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Wednesday, January 16th 2012

Kevin,

I’ve got another song to share, but there’s still plenty of time for you to hear my terrible attempts at lyrics.

I just got back from snowmobiling, which was really not my thing. Here’s a look at me with my snowsuit and helmet on. I kind of felt life a Stormtrooper.IMG_0037

My hands are still aching from the grip (and my throttle was kind of a bitch to control). Almost flew off a couple of times, which was scary, especially when we got up to 30 mph. More and more I’m reminded how petite-bourgeois I am. But the damn thing was so jerky. I hardly enjoyed the scenery, which was amazing, since I was so focused on trying to stay on and have the thing move in the right direction.

Anyway, I also finished Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins today, which is one of the strangest books I’ve ever encountered. Imagine if the narrator from Pale Fire was an American and a psychiatrist and you’ll start to get a sense of how wacky it is. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure what to think, ultimately. Sometimes strangeness doesn’t turn me off so much as puzzle me into submission, so that I don’t feel comfortable thinking critically about a piece. If you like Vonnegut or Heller, this book would definitely be in your wheelhouse.

I also started Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, an author I very much admire. He, along with J.M. Coetzee, has a wonderful habit of playing with autobiography. The novels I’ve read of his are all from the first person, and read in such a way that you start to assume Sebald is the narrator. But, of course, he isn’t, or if Sebald is the narrator, it’s not the same Sebald as the one that’s writing it. One might think he’s just tricking the audience, but there’s more going on here. He’s skewering the idea of “author as great authority on his work” (which is funny in itself, since author comes from the same root as authority). Giving us a narrator that’s almost, but not quite, the author makes us realize just how much we project onto writers, how much we expect them to know about their work, how much we expect them to delineate for us what’s “real” or not in their fictions – like my favorite question, “what aspects of your novel come from your own experience?” as if to experience something is the only way to be able to speak with any authority about it (sometimes it is, but our ability for empathy is far stronger than we in western culture tend to think).

There’s a nice little coincidence in Austerlitz that I thought would be fun to share. The book begins in Antwerp, which is one of the major settings in the book I’m working on here in Wyoming, Evening on the Grounds. Hearing another writer talk about the city is already giving me some ideas for a little extra polish on my draft.

The narrator in Austerlitz is visiting the city long after my protagonist is stationed there. My character, Peter Rath, spends some weeks scrambling over the canal to try to take the city from the Germans. The Canadians, along with the Poles, were charged with opening up Antwerp for shipping, so that the push to the Rhine could continue. But the city ended up being a surreal place for the soldiers – almost everything remained open, and the city remained mostly intact. They called it The Streetcar War, because Flemish civilians could take a streetcar across the line of battle. Soldiers on either side of the line would take time off to get drunk in bars and enjoy the city, before battling it out at night across the water. Coming from the pain and brutality of the push through France after D-Day, Antwerp must have seemed like paradise to these men. Peter’s in the middle of it all, and his memories of Antwerp expand to try to push out the other horrors he witnesses during the war. Dealing with his trauma in an authentic (there’s that word again) way has been my biggest challenge, hopefully at some point you can tell me whether I’ve succeeded or not.

 

- Noah

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