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What’s the difference between an innovation and a gimmick in literature? An innovation expands the author’s vision while a gimmick tries to hide his lack of one. You’ll find excellent examples of both in George Saunders’ recent short story collection, Tenth of December.

When Saunders is good in this volume, he is very good indeed, and the elements he uses frequently throughout Tenth of December work well together to create resonant stories. These elements include …

  • language that is faulty or inadequate, usually because the narrative voice belongs to a person with whom Saunders has not shared his gifts as a writer.
  • characters who are teetering on the edge of economic / social / psychological / personal failure confronting other characters who enjoy extraordinary success (no one seems to occupy the middle ground).
  • the motif of fictional pharmaceuticals that can regulate every human characteristic.
  • strong satiric impulses balanced by great empathy for his characters.

tenth of december george saundersOne of the best stories in Tenth of December is “Escape from Spiderhead” in which Saunders slowly reveals to us that the narrator is being used as an unwilling test subject for powerful drugs because he has been convicted of murder. Here words are deformed by bureaucrats and scientists, who use technical language to obscure the horror of their actions, and Saunders deploys his innovative premise to deliver a knock-out meditation on free will, regret, and redemption.

Another excellent story is “Victory Lap” which tells the anxiety-provoking tale of a high school girl, the middle-aged man who attempts to kidnap her, and a high school boy who intervenes.  Saunders nails the voices of all three characters. The kidnapper narrates the pathetic execution of his pathetic fantasy to perfection, but it is the teenagers who really shine. Their words grasp at ideas and emotions without quite seizing hold of them, and you get the sense in the end that Saunders intends the triteness of their language to be a deliberate defense against the fear they experienced.

In these examples, the innovations – the science-fiction premise of “Spiderhead”, the conspicuously stylized narration of “Victory Lap” – work with the other elements to create stories that capture your mind, your heart, and your gut. But that’s not the case for every story in Tenth of December.

For example, “Exhortation” is a staff memo composed of inept motivational business-speak wrapped around the message that the department will all be fired unless performance measures improve. “My Chivalric Fiasco” is mostly about what happens when a worker at a Renaissance-Fair business takes a drug that makes him a highly articulate speaker of ersatz medieval dialect.

Other than admiring Saunders prose, or nodding in automatic agreement at the obvious lessons (offices are insane places in “Exhortation” and sexual harassment is bad in “Fiasco”), there is little for the reader to do. The gimmick of the style doesn’t hide the thinness of the story.

The longest piece in this collection, and I think the weakest, is “The Semplica Girl Diaries”. The story is told through the diary of a man who plunges his family from serious money problems to desperate money problems by making an expensive, impulsive, and useless purchase.

This purchase happens to be (as is eventually revealed to us) four young girls from poor countries who hire themselves out as living lawn ornaments.

As a big honking obvious metaphor for the exploitation of third-world labor by Americans, you would be hard pressed to find a metaphor bigger or more honking or more obvious. Once Saunders shows the metaphor to you, however, there is not much left. You can enjoy the gyrations of the story. I didn’t. You can admire his prose style. I did. But virtuosity alone is never enough to satisfy me. It has to be in the service of something other than itself.

Don’t let this stop you from reading Tenth of December. The rewards outweigh the frustrations, and your effort will be entirely redeemed by its best and shortest story, “Sticks,” in which a man tries to connect with his family by decorating a metal pole in their yard with clothes and words. Here Saunders does more in two pages than many writers can do in one hundred. And that’s neither innovation or gimmick. That’s  talent.

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brief wondrous life oscar wao junot diaz reviewWhen artists are really good, I tend to curse at them. G-dd-mn Jane Austen. G-dd-mn Beethoven. G-dd-amn Billy Wilder. Now I’ve got a new name on my curse list. G-dd-mn Junot Diaz.

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao principally concerns its title character, his sister Lola, and their mother, although it does also tell the story of their extended family as well as that of its ostensible narrator, Yunior.

Diaz’ novel is that rare find – a work of current fiction that entirely lives up to its hype. The number of successful elements it delivers is simply ridiculous:

Big vivid characters that make a big splash on the page? Check.

Big vivid characters that are also richly imagined, convincing, and affecting? Check.

Multi-generational saga? Check.

Lots of sex but no sex scenes (thank you Junot!)? Check.

Healthy dollops of magical realism? Check.

Locations exotic to the typical American reader of literary fiction: hard scrabble New Jersey and the Dominican Republic? Check.

A narrative voice that is part gangster, part geek, and part grad student? Check.

A whole bunch of fanboy references to comic books, science fiction, and fantasy novels (oh god not again)? Check.

A great deal of untranslated Spanish dialogue, narration, and commentary? Check.

A third-world history lesson — in this case about the hyper-over-super-achieving sadistic Dominican dictator Trujillo and his thirty year reign of terror — much of which is told through jazzy footnotes? Check.

A story focused on the wild, uncompromising, irrational, destructive but all the same soul-sustaining power of love? Check.

A satisfying ending that unites all these elements in an organic whole that meets Nabokov’s definition of art, “beauty plus pity”? Check and check.

G-dd-mn Junot Diaz.

The only criticism of the novel I have is a flaw in the narrator which, as it turns out, isn’t a flaw at all. In the beginning of The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Yunior pushes the comic book/sci-fi/fantasy references so hard that they almost entirely obscure the character of Oscar.

I kept muttering, “I can’t see Oscar, Junot, because all these Lord of the Rings references keep getting in the way.”

But what I realized is that early in the novel, Yunior is a young man who writes like a young man: overly earnest, full of himself, self-absorbed, and inept. He matures as he ages, and his narration matures too, until it is much wiser, more self-aware, more observant and empathetic, and more rueful.

Yunior is also one of those (not uncommon) characters who are their author’s alter ego, to the extent that they often share their creator’s omniscience. Yunior describes many things in the novel which are simply impossible for him to know.

Diaz doesn’t give Yunior the excuse of being the fictional author of the novel. Instead, Diaz shimmers in and out of Yunior’s character, which I think gives the novel more depth, because Diaz keeps getting you to fall into the dream of the story, then waking you up from it.

That’s another element I should have put in my list. Well, I’ll check it off now and conclude with this: G-dd-mn Junot Diaz.

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My Antonia by Willa Cather Willa Cather’s My Antonia is one of those novels I saw as having faded into a genteel but deserved obscurity. Anything that struck readers in 1918 as innovative or shocking had long since become quaint, I believed, leaving little to command the attention of modern men and women.

So I was delighted by how good I found My Antonia. Much of my delight came from Cather’s quietly exquisite prose. Her descriptions of the natural world are masterful, although she does a pretty good job of making her characters and situations feel real and convincing, too.

Here is a sample from the narrator’s first impression of the prairie:

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

My Antonia’s episodic structure – the novel is a collage of stories – has a pleasantly proto-modernist flavor (without the tricky syntax). The novel made me wonder about its relationship to Cather’s own life. And in the end, it delivered a grand thematic and emotional wallop.

I warmly recommend it. Here are some details.

My Antonia – The Obligatory Plot Summary

Cather’s novel takes the form of a memoir written by James Quayle Burden, a childhood friend of Antonia’s four years her junior, who arrives in the Nebraska town of Black Hawk on the same day she does. Jim is an orphan from Virginia who has traveled west to be raised by his grandparents. Antonia has immigrated with her family to America from Bohemia (the present day Czech Republic).

For many years, their lives run parallel to each other. First, they are neighbors on country farms situated near each other on a prairie just beginning to be brought under cultivation. Later, they are neighbors in Black Hawk where Jim has moved with his grandparents and Antonia has been hired as a cook and housekeeper. They are separated when Jim leaves Black Hawk to attend university and then settles down to a job and a marriage in New York City. Twenty years later, at the end of the novel, Jim finally returns to Nebraska and seeks out Antonia.

Despite the title, My Antonia is primarily Jim’s story and Antonia and her family can disappear for pages and even chapters at a stretch. The novel finds the time to tell the stories of the hired men who work for Jim’s grandparents; to talk about other immigrant families besides Antonia’s, especially other young farm girls who are hired to work for households in Black Hawk; to describe the residents and observe the culture of the town; and to relate the details of Jim’s love affair with one of Antonia’s friends, Lena Lingard.

Is Jim Burden Willa Cather?

In general, I think it is a bad idea to make inferences about a writer’s life from her novels.

One of the great advantages of fiction is that it allows you to tell readers everything and nothing about yourself – to be wholly candid and entirely private at the same time. And Willa Cather seems to have valued her privacy, considering how many of her private letters and papers she destroyed before her death.

Nevertheless, Willa does make it hard to resist the temptation to equate her with Jim Burden in My Antonia, even though Cather almost certainly intended us to see her as the “I” that appears in the introduction.

Both Burden and Cather moved from Virginia to Nebraska when they were ten years old. Both attended the University of Nebraska (although Jim ultimately earns his degrees from Harvard). Both settled in New York City although their lives are possessed my memories of the prairie. Both write their books, the same book as it happens, in their forties.

Both also admire the same women: the strong, self-supporting, and independent immigrant hired girls who – with the exception of Antonia – never marry or have children.

This brings up the inevitable question of whether Cather was a lesbian and transposed herself into Jim’s character in order to write inconspicuously.

I’m an agnostic on the “Was Willa Cather a lesbian?” question (if that is actually the right question). That she sometimes dressed as a man and used the nickname “William” at university, and that she lived for nearly 40 years with the editor Edith Lewis, are generally known and rather indicative facts.

Whether Cather had sex with Edith or other women is, to the best of my knowledge, unknown and I believe it is equally unknown what Cather considered herself to be, sex or no sex. Cather’s opinion is the only valid one in the matter, of course, and she is beyond the means of telling.

Which leaves the questions of what My Antonia meant to Cather a tantalizing mystery which gives the novel, to me, some extra shimmers of meaning.

My Antonia – The Great America Novel?

This is the crown that Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has worn for decades but I wonder if he didn’t steal it from Cather.

For all their differences, both The Great Gatsby and My Antonia are books profoundly occupied with the past and how happiness resides there rather than the present. They both locate the past in the Midwest and the present in New York City. They are both occupied with a woman from the past, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Antonia in Cather’s novel. And they both derive their greatest emotional power by evoking the natural world of the new continent before it came to be corrupted by men and society.

In Gatsby, it is Nick Carraway dreaming on the last page of the novel of the “fresh, green breast of the new world” the Dutch sailors first saw when they arrived in America, and concluding, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

In My Antonia, this fresh world still exists during Jim and Antonia’s childhood, although it slowly disappears as they age.

Indeed, the great thematic arch of My Antonia is the parallel motion of Jim growing from child to adult, and moving from the natural world to the city. Jim spends his childhood on farms in Virginia and then the great unsettled prairie. As an adolescent, he moves into a small country town. As a young man, he goes the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and then Harvard in Boston. As an adult, he settles, marries, and works in New York City.

There Jim finds a world of money and machines, work and relationships as unsatisfactory as Fitzgerald’s characters found it. The difference is that for Jim his old life isn’t utterly irretrievable.

In the last line of the novel he tells us, speaking of himself and Antonia, “Whatever we have missed, we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.”

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What is the purpose of literature?“What is the purpose of literature?” I have my own answers to this question. But I decided it would be more interesting to ask you for yours.

So I gave the WP survey function a whirl. I’ve tried to be comprehensive in my choices and I set the parameters to allow you to choose as many answers as you like.

However, I know my answers are subjective and incomplete. Which is where the “other” box or the comments section comes in handy. I’ll be keen to see what you say!

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I may just be a middle-aged Jane Austen fanboy – but Austen keeps earning my admiration novel after novel, and she’s done it again with Emma.

Since chances are good you already know the book, I’m going to skip the review and serve up random observations. I reveal much of the plot and all of the surprises in Emma, however. So, spoiler alert. Here goes:

Emma is a Comedy

The proper response to this observation is – I realize – “Duh”. But it’s also a remarkable fact because Austen’s other books are romantic dramas (except for Northanger Abbey, which is a parody of Gothic novels).

One of the qualities I admire in Austen is that she rarely writes the same book twice, even though her novels share so many themes and situations.

For example, Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price are about as different as two characters can be, and their novels are very different in tone, pacing, and plot. But Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park are both major achievements.

In Emma, Austen gives us a third variation which I think is easily the equal of these novels – and it’s a comedy. How many writers succeed in more than one style?

Emma is a Comedy … with a Conscience

Really, this is just ridiculously difficult to pull off and Austen makes it look easy.

The problem with comedy is that it is almost always based on pain. But you can’t laugh at a character and empathize with her at the same time.

To deal with this problem, writers usually locate their stories in a “comic” world that is largely free of consequences and death OR they reduce, deny, ignore or attack the humanity of their characters.

Austen does neither. Emma Woodhouse is a comic figure, and some of her foolish mistakes are funny, but it is Emma’s good intentions and the deep shame, regret, embarrassment, and pain she feels at her mistakes that make her more than a figure of fun.

And Emma is not alone, of course. Miss Bates is even more of a comic figure. In fact, there may be no greater clown anywhere in Austen’s work, and yet Miss Bates is treated with respect. When Emma insults Miss Bates during the excursion to Box Hill, Mr. Knightley rides to Miss Bates’ defense (“It was badly done indeed!”) and Emma weeps almost all the way home.

This is not comedy that produces belly laughs. It is delicate comedy, designed to make you smile, and possessing a grace and lightness that in its total effect is indistinguishable from wisdom.

Indeed, could we say the definition of wisdom is moral seriousness combined with laughter?

Emma’s only equal in this category I know is Shakespeare’s As You Like It. That’s pretty good company.

Everyone is Mistaken about Love

What a brilliant, delightful, simple conceit around which to construct a novel. Everyone is wrong about everyone else’s feelings, basically all the time. And yet it turns out happy.

Here’s a list of mistakes about love in Emma:

• Emma thinks Mr. Elton loves Harriet Smith

• Mr. Elton thinks Emma loves him

• Emma thinks Mr. Dixon loves Jane Fairfax

• Mrs. Weston thinks Mr. Knightley loves Jane Fairfax

• Emma thinks Frank Churchill loves her

• Mr. Weston, Mrs. Weston, and Mr. Knightley think Emma loves Frank Churchill

• Emma thinks Mr. Knightley loves Harriet Smith

This list doesn’t include Emma’s serial mistakes with Harriet Smith, which are persuading Harriet to fall out of love with Robert Martin; persuading Harriet to fall in love with Mr. Elton; and persuading Harriet to fall in love with Mr. Knightley while thinking she was persuading Harriet to fall in love with Frank Churchill.

It also doesn’t include the biggest mistake of all: no one realizes that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are in love.

Emma is the Snob on Top

As I said, I admire Austen for rarely writing the same book twice. Emma is unique in Austen’s work as a comedy. It’s also unique because its major characters sit on top of the novel’s social order.

In Sense and SensibilityPride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, the main characters are all marginalized or dispossessed in their societies or families, and generally opposed by those who rank higher or think more highly of themselves.

In the novel, Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley are the rulers of their set. Emma is aware of her social position, guards it carefully, and is jealous when it is infringed. (For example, part of the offense Emma takes at Mr. Elton’s marriage proposal is his presumption that he was Emma’s social equal … an heiress of 30,000 pounds!)

Mr. Knightley is less particular than Emma about the niceties of his status, but he wields his power with the same sense of entitlement. Mr. Knightley has perfect confidence in his judgment of every situation, and rarely yields to the opinions of other people. He does not give offense wantonly, but he doesn’t worry about offending Mrs. Elton when she presumes to guide his choices or the Westons when he speaks poorly of Frank Churchill.

This is significant because Emma and Knightley would be the villains in other Austen novels. By all rights, Harriet Smith and Robert Martin should resent Emma’s interference in their lives, the way Elizabeth Bennet resents Lady Catherine’s in hers.

But Harriet is very sweet, and not all that bright, and she seems to feel Emma’s hugely mistaken good intentions more than she notices Emma’s mistakes. As for Robert Martin, we don’t know. In the end, he got the woman he loved, and as practical man of good sense, apparently content with his station, perhaps he decided the rest didn’t matter.

From drama to comedy, and from villain to hero, these are two reasons to admire Emma. And now I think I’m done with Jane Austen for a time. On to the next author!

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Recently, I suggested that fiction writers avoid love scenes in their books. (The post is called The Trouble with Sex in Novels.) The reason I offered this advice is because I believe sex scenes are difficult to write well, but easy to write poorly, if you want them to be sexy.

One thing that makes sex scenes hard to write in English is most of our sex words are either clinical or vulgar. For example, in the realm of anatomy, we have these clinical words:

• Genitals

• Penis

• Testicles

• Labia

• Clitoris

• Vagina

The vulgar words for anatomy are … well, just you never mind if you can’t come up with some yourself. There are plenty. For male anatomy, the vulgar terms tend toward the exaggerated or the humorous; for women’s bodies, unfortunately, the derogatory predominates.

Whether the term is clinical or vulgar, most sex words in English expresses the language’s discomfort with sexuality by placing it an emotional distance, either by intellectualizing sex through the use of scientific terms, or by making fun of sex through humorous nick-names, or by insulting it with offensive phrases.

None of these qualities make it easier to write sex sexy, although they are a treasure-trove bonanza if you are into emotional complexity, tension, and ambivalence (otherwise called “messing with your readers”).

As Anglo-Saxons know, the French handle these matters much better, and it is a French word – “le sexe” rendered into English as simply “sex” – that I find handy when I can’t write my way around the problem entirely.

In French, “le sexe” is a word for the genitals of both men and women, for sexuality, for the physical, psychological, and social characteristics of gender, but not for the act of sex itself, at least according to my Petit Robert (that’s a dictionary not a nickname for well just you never mind), which I have to admit was published in 1970.

So, perhaps my definition is quaintly out of date, but I still like it. It’s straightforward, applies equally to men and women, and encompasses qualities of personality and culture as well as sexuality. Which is, in other words, the way I like to think about the matter.

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Persuasion is half a major Jane Austen novel, spoiled by death. The book starts splendidly, with Austen in full command of her peerless champagne and acid prose style, and serving up reasonably fresh variations on familiar characters and themes, including …

• The oppressive fools preoccupied with social position

• The charming scoundrel who first half-catches the heroines’ fancy

• The problematic suitor eventually revealed as Mr. Right

• The hard reckonings between love and money forced by the entailed estate

Best of all, Persuasion  features an intelligent, interesting heroine in Anne Elliot whose diffidence – like that of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park – creates compositional challenges for Austen by putting at the center of the novel a character who does not naturally command the center of the stage, and drive the plot, the way Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, and Emma Woodhouse all do, in their very different ways.

And yet, Austen handles the first half of Persuasion  beautifully. She keeps the drama low-key and the pacing steady. The story rises naturally from the characters and incidents. And each complication is managed with a light expert hand. As I read, I kept saying, “Wow, Austen is really on her game.”

And then, at what should have been the middle of the novel, Persuasion  slams into two enormous blocks of exposition, comes to a dead stop, and ends.

Exposition is an important tool for novelists and Austen knows how to use it, often at the beginning of a novel, where she is establishing the premise, and at the end, where she is tidying up loose ends and letting us know what happens to the characters after the major action is over.

The problem with the exposition is Persuasion is that it doesn’t supplement the action of the story. Instead, the exposition replaces the action of the story.

In the first instance, Austen dismisses the charming scoundrel through an endless discussion between Anne Elliot and an invalid friend, to whom the scoundrel just happened to have confessed every insulting opinion he ever held toward Anne’s family while he was also busy driving her friend’s husband to bankruptcy and early death.

So informed of the scoundrel’s scoundrelness, Anne Elliot drops him from her thoughts, and his role in the novel is done.

In the second instance, soon after the first, Austen contrives to have Anne Elliot overheard in a conversation about love by the problematic Mr. Right, who immediately sends a letter explaining himself, and re-proposing marriage, which Anne accepts, and which pretty much brings the novel to a close.

It was hard for me to think that a writer with Austen’s talent and experience could suddenly turn into such a duffer halfway through a book. Then my wife reminded me that Persuasion was published after Austen’s death.

Austen began writing Persuasion  in late 1815 and completed it in August 1816. In early 1816, she fell ill with a disease which progressively weakened her until she died in July 1817.

Someone with a better knowledge of Jane Austen’s life than me will have to say whether we can know if Austen felt she was racing death in 1816, although it is a pleasingly theatrical idea.

But we do know she was feeling the effects of poor health, which I think is a good explanation for the problems in Persuasion. I also find it a moving one.

All novels are deeply personal documents, even when the novelist reveals little or nothing about herself in the work, because of the intensity of energy required to write them.

That Persuasion was flawed by the final drama of Austen’s life gives the ending a power the words themselves don’t quite achieve.

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