Sunday, December 28, 2014

literary conventions and language deconstructed

A few authors of contemporary literary fiction have used unconventional styles or non-grammatical constructions in writing novels, and it poses questions about the pros and cons of doing this.  A classic example may be Joyce's "Ulysses," with its stream-of-consciousness narration, which has its delights, but makes for difficult reading over the lengthy work.  Another classic example can be found in Cormac McCarthy's writing, including "All the Pretty Horses." No quotation marks enclose any of McCarthy's dialogue.  It did not seem at all distracting or confusing, and it could be said that it produced a cleaner, less busy-looking text.  Such an approach might need a closer editing by the author, however, to avoid any ambiguities for the reader.

Gathering swell of fertile bud
catches whisper of Memento Mori:
Remember (you have to) die,
and hastens to loose unripe seed
A more complex questioning arises where an author chooses to use non-grammatical constructions, as in a recent novel, "A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing," by Eimear McBride."  In a review by Fintan O'Toole in the NY Review of Books (Nov. 20, 2014), he characterizes the book as a feminist novel. He draws on a statement made by McBride that since men had already written everything, there was, for the female novelist, "only one small plot left to tell: the terra incognito of herself, as she knew herself to be, not as men had imagined her."

In McBride's book, the thematic structure portrays a female narrator (she remains unnamed throughout the book) who, in the words of O'Toole, "cannot build a self because the foundations of her childhood have been undermined by sexual exploitation.  The central event is the rape of the narrator as a needy, rebellious thirteen-year-old by the uncle who takes advantage of her as-yet indistinct desires. It is an event she is compelled to repeat again and again in crude encounters with strangers and with the uncle who abused her."

It seems there is a lot of subjective psychology used in the review, and the book, to see the girl's actions as self-punishment ("horrible can be a good act of contrition"), but let's go on to the grammatical construction that is so unique to McBride.  In a passage quoted in the review, the girl tests any power she may have over the uncle by forcing him to replay the original rape:

So he hits til I fall over.  Crushing under.  Hits again.  He hits til something's click and the blood begins to run.  Jesus he says.  I feel sick.  But I'm rush with feeling.  Wide and.  He thinks he's bad when he fucks me now.  And so he is.  I'm better though.  In fact I am almost best.

 The cognitive and grammatical form certainly elicit anguish, despair, and revulsion in the reader, but aside from questions about how reliable a state of mind might exist in the narrator, can such form sustain a memorable reading experience over some 227 pages? Evidently it did for O'Toole.  "McBride is not playing with form, she is playing with what has yet to be fully formed: language caught in its moment of transition between thought and articulation...The brilliance of the book is that this linguistic strategy exactly parallels the struggle of the narrator, who is also trying to come into being."

I shall read the book through mostly because I'd like to better assess the overall effect of McBride's writing strategy, but I would not be pleased to find to the end an unrelieved construction of the victim mentality.  Some captivating literature has included works of protagonist as victim, though they seem to show more hope and energy of the protagonist, if not some native intelligence, in trying to find a personal salvation or epiphany.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Art as a literary device in fiction

Bronze of "David," by Verrocchio
Our May 31, 2014 blog discussion included a concept of "ekphrasis," a term referenced by writer Stephanie Coyne DeGhett as a "literary representation of visual art."  DeGhett explored, among other things, the ways that accomplished writers, including Oscar Wilde, Steven Millhauser, Stanley Elkin, and A. S. Byatt, have incorporated actual works of art as focal points in their works of fiction; i.e., in Byatt's Matisse stories.  

There are many ways that visual art might point the way to creating interest and satisfaction in literary constructs, and it has been a topic in several past postings. In this post let's explore how some creative energies that seem evident in a particular work of visual art might prove useful in drawing out a main character's own emotional space, and in a most natural manner.  

I've chosen an example from my recent YA novel, "Leaving Major Tela," about a young woman, Caitlin, reared by a strict, army officer mom, and given an opportunity to find her independence while having to temporarily live with her divorced dad:

The pot fumes were most fragrant near a long, glassed-in porch at one side of the house, and they wandered through the doorway there.  Stopping next to an elephant-leaf palm tree growing in a redwood tub, they lit their cigarettes and listened-in on the conversation.  A dozen boys and girls were there, some sitting on wooden Adirondack lounge chairs; others straddled on straight-back chairs brought out from the dining room.  They passed around the last tokes of a dying roach, held by a metal clip at the end.
“When is he going to get here?” someone named Jay groused.  “This roach is hereby pronounced dead.”
“Product’s been a little tight lately,” his friend said.  “Wouldn’t surprise me if he asked for a price jump on this run.”
“Yeah.”  Jay looked over at the newcomers.  “What kind of junk are you two smoking?”
“Regular old tobacco-stuffed coffin nails, sorry,” Luka said.
“Come over here, and let’s get a look at you,” Jay said.  “Do I know you?”
The two girls walked over to where he sat in a propped-up lounge chair.  “We’ve met before,” Luka said.  “You came to a showing at my mother’s art gallery a few months ago.  We talked, remember?”
“Oh yeah, got it; you were the chick passing around the finger food and champagne. You know, that artist really sucked.  Did you sell any of his stuff?”
“My mom said he had the third biggest opening night sales of any artist she’d handled over the last two years.”
He scowled and turned to Caitlin.  “Were you there, too?  Did you see all that welded brass rod and polished aluminum tube crap?  Do you like that sort of sculpture?”
“Well, I didn’t see the exhibit, but no, it’s not my favorite sculpture.”
“Oh yeah--what is?”
Caitlin studied him.  He could have been twenty or so, a tangle of dark hair, long angular face, nice mouth.  He was so edgy though, and he had her on shaky ground about sculpture.  “Well, I haven’t seen all that much sculpture, just in Art Appreciation, but I often think of Verrocchio’s ‘David,’ and—“
He interrupted.  “Verrocchio’s?  You don’t mean Michelangelo’s?”
“No, I’ve seen Michelangelo’s too, but it’s so muscular, almost too perfect a male body.  Verrocchio’s was this slender, bushy-haired boy dressed in a sort of kilt, holding a sword, standing relaxed and with Goliath’s severed head lying between his feet.  Even just the screen image projected a whole room full of qi.”
“The severed head must have done it for you.  What the hell is qi?”
“Oh, well, you can think of it as his inner energy.”
“Hey, Jay, he’s here,” his friend said.  “Grab your money belt and let’s go.  He’s dealing in the kitchen.”

Caitlin and her friend, Luka, are at a neighborhood party, gathering material on student use of recreational drugs for their school newspaper article.  Caitlin's brief meeting and discussion with the new character, Jay, presented an opportunity to explore a number of his personality traits, and suggest possibilities for a relationship with Caitlin.  The statue of David, by Verrocchio, shows Jay having a sensitive nature--he sometimes attends art shows--and knows something about art.  He affects a macho attitude toward this powerful sculpture, but also seems impressed by Caitlin's response to it.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

looking at second-person point-of-view

There are not many stories written in second-person point of view, at least not many that are well-known.  In books on writing, a handful of examples are given that are often repeated among the discussions, but from time to time a new use of the mode will be undertaken by a fresh, contemporary fiction writer.

A very good example of second-person writing (and an excellent work of fiction) is given in a recent short story, "The Rhett Butlers," by Katherine Heiny (The Atlantic, Oct. 2014).  Second-person writing is sometimes described as simply substituting 'you' for ' I ' in what would otherwise be first-person writing.  That's largely true, but just that exchange can have a major effect on how the reader responds to a story.  Moreover, there are many other nuances that also can be called into play with the second-person technique.  Let's just shorten the terminology to POV-2, and for first-person writing, POV-1, etc., for our following discussion.

Heiny's story is about a seventeen-year old girl student who becomes involved with her 40-yr. old history teacher.  It's a story that would probably most often be attempted in POV-1, but how reliable might the girl character be in revealing her motivations and emotional state when she herself might be expected to prevaricate about such things.  By using POV-2 we might be able to challenge her views, and allow her some sidestepping or irony in revealing her motivations. The POV-2 can also be useful in having the second-person narrator reveal some backstory or exposition that might seem unnatural or forced if left to the girl to furnish to the reader.  It will be useful to examine a few excerpts from the story to show the style and nuances that Heiny employs.  Here is one of the early paragraphs that will help set up the story as well as show the POV-2 style she so deftly uses:

YOU AND MR. EAGLETON are becoming regulars at the Starlite Motel.  The first time you stayed in the car while Mr. Eagleton checked in, but now you go in with him to see what name he uses when he signs the register.  He always chooses characters from your favorite novels: Mr. and Mrs. Gatsby, Mr. and Mrs. Caulfield, Mr. and Mrs. Finch, Mr. and Mrs. Twist.  This idea seems very romantic to you, even though you would never change your name, and certainly not to Eagleton.
The woman behind the counter seems to like Mr. and Mrs. Butler best.  "Ah, the Rhett Butlers," she says every time.  "Welcome back."
She is a large, motherly woman, who looks a lot like Mrs. Harrison, the womanwho drives the Children's Bookmobile.  She always has the TV on, and always on a channel showing Wheel of Fortune.  She's unbelievably good--you once saw her guess "Apocalypse Now" just from the letter C.
 This woman makes you feel a lot better.  Nothing bad can happen to you here. 

Notice how the narrator can fill in the reader on the prior frequency of visits, and show an equanimity of the girl, as well as her naivete, and other background things that would have been a lot more awkward in first-person exposition.  

Here is a slightly later paragraph that also illustrates the nuanced values of POV-2:

MARCY TELLS HER PARENTS that she's sleeping at your home.  This way she can stay out past her curfew or even all night.  She's going over to Jeff Lipencott's house; his parents are out of town.
 You agree.  Of course you do--think of all the times Marcy has covered for you.  You sit in the TV room, wearing sweats and your glasses and eating cold Pop-Tarts.  You wish only the very best for Marcy, but you feel forlorn picturing her at Jeff Lippencott's, maybe lying in his parent's bed, leading a real life.
Marcy knocks on the window a little after 11.  You open it and she steps over the window ledge, shaking little diamonds of cold rain from her hair, and says, "Oh my God, he's such an asshole!  He spent the whole time doing hand stands with his friends, and I didn't know anyone and wound up helping his little sister weave pot holders."
 This story should make you feel lots better.  It should make you happy to be you again.  But it doesn't.

The choice of POV-2 for this story seemed so right.  Check out the full story in The Atlantic.  You owe it to your career.  Another interesting story in POV-2, a novel actually, Chris Lynch's, "Freewill," a Printz Honor Award book.  Lynch has a long list of good YA titles, and is such a fine writer that it was inevitable he'd take up the challenge to write an intriguing POV-2 classic.  Read this one, too.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

writing the generational saga

Irish curragh secured onshore at Tory Island
Glossing the new book releases and early reviews, and finding a novel that gathers up far-flung place settings of nostalgic relevance to me, loaded with topics of special interest, and all in one tidy package, seemed like an invitation to further self-discovery.  No Country, by Kalyan Ray, jumped out as promising.  The novel is a family generational saga spanning about 150 years, beginning with the mid-nineteenth century famine years in colonial Ireland, and moving to India in the years of the British Raj, before independence from England, and finally to North America--Canada and the United States.

Over that great a span of time, there are more than a few generations to deal with.  Throw in a complicating roster of intermarriage and trying to track family lines, and the average reader may feel challenged to fully appreciate the sweeping themes of a family's struggles, reversals, and successes, always at risk of being truncated into obscurity with the potential failure of any one generation.  The book is only moderately long; nonetheless, Ray moves his characters through a number of epochal historic events: the famine that destroyed perhaps a quarter of the Irish population; the pestilent voyages of coffin ships that finished off a similar number fleeing the famine to North America; the years of pre-independence revolution and terror in India faced by an Irishman who fled there, and later by his Anglo-Indian descendants; and ultimately, their immigration to the New World and the tough decades following, with the  inner tempering and annealing of spirit demanded for life in a new, industrial age unfolding there.

I enjoyed getting Ray's slant on some of the topics I felt somewhat familiar with, like the Great Hunger, An Gorta Mor.  My Irish grandparents were born shortly after the worst of those years. and left when they reached their twenties.  One can be disheartened reading about the callousness and politics that exacerbated The Great Hunger.  And be no less shocked by the callousness and politics practiced by the authorities in attempting to smother the gathering storm of Indian rebellion against colonial rule by Britain.  Ray uses the deliberate massacre of an unarmed civilian population at Jallianwala bagh to stunning effect.  One has to remember we also had our own My Lai during the Vietnam war, lest we think modern humanity has relegated all such events to the past.

One of the topics I had been interested in was Ray's take on the life of Anglo-Indian residents living in India, which was his own life growing up there.  I had worked in Pakistan (once northern India) as an engineer on a dam and had come in contact with a number of workers from the nearby mountains who stood out from their compatriots as fair-skinned, light-haired, Anglo types.  I often thought of the large number of soldiers in the British Raj Army who had been recruited from Ireland.  On holiday trips through the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan I sometimes stopped to inspect the British Raj regimental crests chiseled into the sandstone along the Pass.  Some of these seemed old enough to have been the crests of units that had participated in the British-Afghan Wars of the nineteenth century.  Whole Raj armies had been swallowed up in Afghanistan, and I wondered how many of the present day Anglo-Indian, or perhaps more precisely, Hiberno-Indian, were descendants of those soldiers who fell there.

A reader can be repulsed reading of the oppressive use of police and intelligence services, paid or coerced informers, and repressive laws, in the dying period of the Raj, and in pre-independence Ireland, designed to contain perceived threats of public dissent to political and economic interests.  That is perhaps not much different than what is practiced in many places today.

I think one difficulty with the structure of No Country is a blurring sweep of characters as the story moves through the generations.  There's not much space to become acquainted with each character.  The main progenitor, Padraig, both biological and adoptive to the cascading line of descendants, is aptly revealed in the beginning as a young man in Ireland, as well as is his best friend, Brendan. When Padraig is compelled to flee to India, the situation of Brendan and Padraig's daughter, Maeve, becomes desperate in the famine, and when there is no news of Padraig for over a year, they board one of the coffin ships for North America.  We get to know young Maeve fairly well on the voyage, and it's an endearing characterization.  After a harrowing ordeal they reach Canada, and that's about the last of expansive characterizations for any of the successive generations.

Another concern from a writer's viewpoint might be the introduction of startling coincidental material into an already ambitious plot.  One of the young woman protagonists travels to New York to seek the young man she had known in Canada, and becomes employed in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory there, the locale of a historic fire tragedy.  It was a dramatic episode in the telling, but it seems not entirely organic to the story thread.  Another coincidental element was a chance crossing of paths with a psychopathic character when a Padraig-descendant's family purchases their home from the psychopath's family, which led to diabolical consequences.

All in all, No Country is an engrossing read and is well recommended.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

writing historical fiction without invoking too much history

My current novel-in-progress will fit a loosely defined literary genre of historical fiction.  That is, it will be fiction artistically grounded in a period of American history--an era in the mid-1870s--when an organized labor movement began its contest with the laissez-faire business interests of the period.  The story moves through the violent birth and tragic demise of the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish immigrant mine workers who struck back at the railroad magnates who owned the mines and the lives of the mineworkers.  The railroad owners, often called the 'robber-barons' in American history, also owned the justice system of Pennsylvania at the time, a state where the deep underground anthracite coal mines were fueling American industry.  After the robber barons crushed an early attempt by the miners to form a labor union, they embarked on a campaign to exterminate a continued, violent resistance of the Mollies to the desperate wages and deplorable working conditions in the mines.

 The Young Molly Maguires was conceived as a YA novel,  and looks at the lives of several teen-aged boys and a girl, the sons and a daughter of Molly families in a local mine patch of the Pennsylvania mountains.  I'd done a fair amount of reading as a boy about Irish immigrant life, and whatever I could find about the Mollies.  In those days without the internet and its search engines there wasn't much, but enough to whet the appetite of a boy for reading about avengers of impossible causes.  There was even a Sherlock Holmes story that revolved around the existence of the Mollies.  A lot of the early stuff portrayed the Mollies as a totally villainous band of outlaws, and the newspapers of the times described them as worse than the secret society of Thugs in India, robbers and assassins devoted to the goddess, Kali.  Heady stuff, but that sort of press coverage effectively distracted readers from sympathetic concern for the desperate attempts of workers to wrest a living wage from the robber barons.

More objective and factual information about the working conditions and lives of the mineworkers became available from newspaper articles and essays written by labor union leaders following the failed efforts of the earlier union organizers.  By then, the Mollies were finished, and the immigrant waves had shifted to new arrivals from Eastern Europe.  Labor conditions were still very harsh, but they were beginning to improve as union organizing grew nationwide.  The most thorough and engaging documentary book I have read on the time of the Mollies was written by Kevin Kenny, a professor of history, titled, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, and published in 1998.  For general coal mining lore, I have been a geotechnical engineer and have worked in underground coal mines.  I did some research on the older equipment and techniques, and by 2000, I was ready to begin a first draft of my Mollies novel.

I thought it was an important point for me to keep in mind, relative to all such intriguing old and new data sources, to use only as much historical data as might enhance the 'fictional dream' (as in The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner) for my novel.  There is a recent Writer's Chronicle essay (Sep. 2014) by Debra Spark, Raiding the Larder--Research in Fact-Based Fiction, which addresses the point.  Among the ideas Spark discusses is... when it comes to fiction, information is only interesting because it is part of the story, because it has an emotional or narrative reason for being, and, Indeed all the research for authenticity can get in your way...and not just because it's a time suck.  Colum McCann distinguishes between what is true--or perhaps what is actual--and what is honest in fiction. SimilarlySparks quotes the author Jim Shepard... you're after a "passable illusion," not the truth.  This is fiction, after all.  It's a lie.  You're just trying to make it convincing."  And, discussing author Lily King's use of research for her anthropology-based novel (Euphoria)... the important thing isn't the information but (quoting King) "how you get your imagination to play with all that information."

I have a final draft of my Mollies novel about ready for review.  I've considered the possibility of submitting it through the traditional publishing route, but I'm getting old and do not relish wading through that long and often disparaging process.  Alternately, I had a thoroughly satisfying experience with self-publishing my first YA novel with Amazon, and I might go that route again with this one.  If there are any professional book reviewers (newspapers, YA book clubs) among readers of this blog who might offer a no-cost review with permission to cite (I'm hoping for a cover blurb), I would be pleased to hear from you through the 'comments' link below.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"Leaving Major Tela," introductory Chapter 1

Like a book, someone, somewhere, might be
interested in it if they knew it was available, and where?
There has been much discussion in this blog over the past seven or eight years about concepts and guidelines for writing fiction that were collected from academic studies, years of reading essays by published writers, reviews by literary critics, and interviews or biographies of favorite writers.  As I read new fiction, the acquired palette and toolbox of writing often hovers in my thoughts as I pause to reflect on the twists and turns a story has taken, where it may be going, and how well the author has crafted his art thus far.  Am I locked in yet to where I must find out how this tale ends?  Or, am I now close to bailing out on the author?  It's a terrible disappointment when I decide to abandon a book, and I usually feel a bit guilty.

Since I live in a remote, rural location, the books I select to read are often the result of reading book reviews in email feeds from online sources, or hearing brief radio reviews of books and their authors.  There is only one bookstore within a 35 mile radius to peruse the shelves and make any selections.

Since independent bookstores are a dwindling species these days, even in cities, and considering that chances of my getting regional/national reviews are pretty limited, I thought I'd use this month's post to feature chapter one of my recent YA novel, "Leaving Major Tela," and invite comments from any of my readers who might care to comment.  I think the first chapter sets up the story well enough that the usual bookflap description meant to attract the casual shopper isn't really needed.  A link to the description, the chance to read additional chapters, and opportunity to purchase is given in the blog sidebar on the top right side.   I hope you might find the story interesting and would appreciate any comments.  See the comments link at the bottom of the blog.


They stood at the edge of a wide lawn of brilliant green fescue flanked on three sides by walls of kudzu-draped sycamores.  A diminutive, dark-haired woman wearing battle fatigues and a major’s insignia spoke to a girl standing at least a head taller than she.  “You have often asked to spend a year with your father and I’ve always turned down that request.  Now I have little choice.”
“I didn’t ask for it to be like this,” Caitlin said.
“Yes,” Tela replied, momentarily breaking eye contact and glancing away.  “But I never thought it would be my karma to return to the land of my birth in a foreign army. ”
“So, that’s not any sort of betrayal; you grew up in this country.”
“And loyal to it, always, though I think I might still be viewed by many here as an alien.”
“I think I am, too.  Especially after you exiled me back there for a year.”
A flicker of emotion tugged at the corner of Tela’s mouth.  Her composure was less certain when she resumed speaking,  “So, we return to that catastrophe before we part.  I can only repeat, much was expected of a first child, but to have my own daughter become so combative and disobedient after I had to send your father away—I was astonished.  Then, when you dishonored yourself, there was no other way.  You knew that.”
“Did I?”  Caitlin was agitated and swept the air with her hand.  “You were supposed to be the strong, unshakable one.  My father had his faults, the drinking maybe, but you could have turned that around.  You just couldn’t tolerate any stupid weakness in him or in me.  Maybe we weren’t the only failures around here.”
Tela’s hand shot from her side in a blur.  Caitlin staggered back with the force of the slap.  It took minutes of shallow breathing and a silent brimming over of tears before she could regain composure.
“I’ve had to take total responsibility for this family almost from the beginning,” Tela said.  “That, and being your mother, allows me--binds me--to deal with failures, lapses in honorable character, and in judgment.  Whether your father’s, yours, Kevin’s, Samantha’s, or my own.  My seventeen-year-old daughter does not now have, nor ever shall have, a station in life to presume censuring her mother as a failure.  Do you understand?”
It was hard to get anything out or to yield.  But what could she do? Paused in autopilot now, she read the tensions and stresses in her mother’s features and posture.  A thousand karate lessons with her had alerted Caitlin to her mother’s qi when it was ready to explode and from where the attack might spring.  Now she spotted the slight tremor of Tela’s hand that she’d missed before but she had already made her decision.
“Understood, yes, got it,” she said, hurriedly.
Tela gave herself a few seconds to calm down.  Such an openly hostile confrontation with Caitlin was rare.  Her daughter’s body language had even shown a contained attack reflex.  She was always so obvious to read.  Perhaps she’d never become a top martial arts competitor.
“If we can now lay your rebelliousness to rest, we might get on with the matter at hand,” Tela said.  “You know the drill best and what I expect.”  Her eyes locked with Caitlin's.  "You will be in charge and accountable for yourself and your siblings while I'm away."
Caitlin caught her breath.  "Everyone?  Kevin, too?  I’m only a year older than him.  I shouldn't have to be held accountable for him," she said.  Her voice trembled, "I was even a year younger than he is now when you made me responsible for my own mistake."  Her face reddened.  Why did she have to keep bringing it up?  It had to be some sort of demented parting shot at her mother for that open wound.
Tela's brows arched.  "I thought we’d finished with that?  It’s been more than a year since you’ve come home and you never once asked to discuss your so-called exile in all that time. Now you wish to assert I acted too harshly?"
"Being shipped off to live with strange relatives on the other side of the world, not knowing when or if I'd be allowed to come home again?  Yes, I thought it a bit harsh."
Tela drew out the silence before replying.  "The vulnerability of a girl is much greater than a boy in such matters," she said, "and the best remedies for her mistakes come down on the side of being harsh.  Nonetheless, whatever the response I chose, I'm disappointed you nurtured it as a wound over all this time.  It demonstrates a certain weakness."
Caitlin's shoulders sagged.  Fine, all right, the past was done and over and tomorrow would begin a whole new world.
“Go back to the house and get Kevin and Samantha out here, so we can finish our discussions before joining your father for dinner.”

The three siblings lined up facing Tela.  Caitlin, the lightest in complexion, slight, with choppy hair of madrone red; Kevin, 16, an inch or two taller than Caitlin, thin, with long, black hair; and Samantha, 13, the closest to Tela’s dusky complexion, and with long, burnished brown hair. 
Tela stepped forward and pushed at Kevin’s slouch till he straightened. 
“I’ll make this as short as possible," Tela said, standing back from them. "While I am away, you will accept Caitlin’s directions in all important matters.  You may assume she will consult with me when necessary."
"Oh no, why must I clear anything with her?” Kevin said.  “You're sending us to live with father and he can tell us what we should or shouldn't do—can't you just talk things over with him when that’s needed?"
Tela stiffened.  "Did I ask for advice on setting protocol for our situation?"  She waited.  Kevin held back and his jaw muscles twitched.  Tela shook her head and moved a few steps to the side to stand before her youngest daughter, Samantha—Sam—a taller edition of her mother, a single, thick braided pigtail reaching to her waist, shoulders back and standing to attention, whatever it took.
Tela bent close to examine a small, enameled pin on the girl's blazer.
Sam seemed pleased: "Track, 440m relay in last month's academy meeting," she said.
"So, I don't recall you telling me about this—but it appears to be for second place?"
Sam hesitated and when she spoke a little of her enthusiasm had wilted. "Our team took second but I ran anchor and I was fast enough to make up more than half the winner's lead.  Just a little longer and I'd have nailed her for sure and we might have won."
Tela stiffened.  "A relay," she said.  "Second.  And you were proud of doing your personal best but your efforts went for naught?"
"Well, second, but what could I do about that?"
"That? Nothing, of course, but learn from it.  Be aware of your team's abilities and shortcomings for future contests.  Encourage better training and improvement, and if it doesn't happen, move on.  Don't tolerate mediocrity, strive to win, and don't be satisfied with less."
Tela stood to the center again and surveyed her glum rank of warriors.  “I have a deep sense of foreboding for what the future may bring for us,” she said.  “I am going to try to stay on top of things and see that you fulfill your karma with the warrior ethic of your forebears.  Nothing less will do.  We can go back to the house now and join your father for dinner and a farewell.”

A wizened old man in a white turban and uniform jacket entered the room pushing a cart.  Tela signaled everyone to sit.  The children waited until their parents took chairs at each end of the table.  The old man set out wheat chapattis, rice, curry, and pakoras, and filled the cups with a milky, sweet tea.
Cyrus—Cy—was a lean, tall man with a long, ruddy face and a shaggy mop of wiry, reddish hair, rather like bronze wool.  "I suspect our school won’t measure up to the level of your academy," he said, ignoring the bowls of food being passed about.
Tela shrugged, "They can seek advanced placement classes and do some additional studies after school. The academy provided them a schedule of targeted learning."
"Caitlin is already in her senior year," Cy said, elbows propped on the table as he tore at a chapatti. "Complicates her situation.  She should be applying for college scholarships, right?"
"Hardly.  She’s already been granted a full scholarship in the cadet program at the Military Institute," Tela said.
Cy’s murmur was almost inaudible, "Oh, our dear Alma Mater."  He ladled curry onto his plate and used a piece of chapatti to mop it up.  "Well, you loved it and the school did have its charms.  I suppose it was the active duty part afterward that failed to impress me,” he said.
“Apparently the marriage part did, too,” Tela said, wrapping her fingers around the smooth-sided tea cup.”
“Well, I did struggle to make the military our shared career afterward, whatever you thought, but that life just wasn't for me.  And it might not be for…" he stopped.  Maybe he'd gone too far.
Tela pushed her cup away and clasped her hands on the tabletop.  "Exactly what was the life for you, Cy?  I never could quite make that out.  Military life too severe?  Social outlets a bit limited?  Money not enough?"
The children stopped eating and stared at their plates.  A painful, distant battle had resurfaced.
"Check all the above, I guess, for a kid raised on a hardscrabble tobacco farm," Cy said.  "Granted, you had a rough hoe of it as a kid, too, but maybe you figured you owed the Institute more than the minimum active duty commitment afterward."
"They offered a noble career for a lifetime—for both of us.  You degraded your promise with drinking," Tela said.
Cy leaned back in the chair, arms folded on his chest. Uncompromising slip of a woman, probably plowed a mountainside with a sharpened stick when she was a girl, somehow got the idea she was an heir to a warrior ethic.  She was partly right about his burnout, though; too much drinking had undone him.
Caitlin put down her fork, moved a water glass, adjusted her plate, and addressed her father.  "Well, our career counselor has been talking to me about applying to a couple of other universities, too."  She shot a wary look at Tela.  "In literature, yes, literature and poetry, a major, and she particularly mentioned Eastern literature.  Thought I might do well in that field."
All attention was on her.  Kevin huffed and rolled his eyes.  Tela sat rigidly, hands opened and pressed flat to the table.  Cy smiled, "Why not Celtic literature?"
Caitlin's face reddened.  "Well, we had discussed stories I'd written in my creative writing class, about the Kalash culture and fighting off foreign invaders—the Scythians, Alexander the Great, the Mughal armies.  All the epics mother had told us about.  But you never spoke much about Celtic history.  Well, there were the laments of lost battles against the English that you sang."  Her face flushed.  He’d been plastered on all those nights. 
Tela pushed back her chair and stood, tossed her napkin onto the table, and said, "Caitlin will enter the cadet officer program at the Institute when she graduates.  If she wishes to pursue minors in literature and history, whether they be Kalash, Celtic, Jewish, or any other, I think the Institute will accommodate her."  She turned and left the room. 

They started out early in the morning, Cy driving, Kevin seated beside him, Caitlin and Sam in the rear.  Halfway across North Carolina a late summer squall lashed the car with rain.  Kevin and Sam passed a travelers’ chess game between the front and rear, with the miniature pieces pressed into peg holes on the board.  Sam stared at the board in her lap, flummoxed at the desperate situation she was in.  Seeing Kevin absorbed in looking out the rain-streaked window in front, she nudged Caitlin and pointed to the game board.  Caitlin studied it, nodded, pointed out a preferred move, and with a finger traced a strategy for the following moves. 
"Why would you want to help her cheat like that?"  Kevin said.  He’d turned around and was watching.
"It’s not cheating," Caitlin said.  "It's just—tutoring.  Is there some rule against that?"
"You know what the major would say, right?  It was cheating."
"Well, Sam is young enough to be allowed some leeway."
"But that isn’t how we were taught.  You’ve reminded me how you weren't much older when you broke the major’s rules about cheating.  A bit more serious than our little chess game but your penalty definitely shocked me.  I knew she had higher standards for you but I sure tried to be a little more careful about my own failings after that.  Even if I wasn’t always so successful."
Caitlin’s eyes got filmy and she leaned back on the seat, head turned away, hands crossed in her lap.  She said, "we never really talked much about that time, you and I, Kevin, about the real reason I got sent away.  I was so embarrassed and I couldn’t discuss it with you.  It was so much less painful to let you believe it was just something like, Caitlin has become defiant so we’re just going to ship her off to improve her karma with family and ancestors for a while."
"I knew what it was all about," Kevin said.  "We went to the same school, remember?"
"Why didn't anyone ever tell me what happened?" Sam said.
"What did you know, Kevin?" Caitlin said.
"That you were involved, really involved, with that senior, Joel Kensie, and the major wanted it checked, and quick."
"Did you also know I'd gotten pregnant?"
Sam dropped the chessboard case to the floor, spilling the loose pieces.  Kevin groaned and turned away without answering.  Rain sluiced across the windshield and the wipers slapped back and forth. 
Cy heard and watched his daughter's face in the rear-view mirror.  "We never talked much about that time," he said.  "You, your mother, and I.  I didn't know how to deal with it.  Maybe we need to talk more now, just you and I?" he said.
"No, father, you and I can't ever talk about that," Caitlin said.  "It's past."

Friday, June 27, 2014

more thoughts on independent publishing platforms for books

Several earlier posts discussed independent self-publishing platforms (ISP) for both e-books and printed books.  My experience with Amazon in producing a Kindle edition and a print edition of a YA novel (the print edition with CreateSpace, an Amazon-owned company) was a very satisfying experience, and did not cost me anything.  Special support services (formatting, editing, cover design)were available for a fee, but are not necessary for most authors with average skills.

However, after creating and making the book available through an ISP company, the role of marketing the book seems to be left more or less to the author.  A wide gamut of on-line vendors, like Amazon Books, Google Books, Barnes & Noble, and others, can be selected to list the book and collect an agreed royalty amount on any sales; however, there may be very little effort by those vendors to find and direct readers to the book.  This had been one of the valuable services provided by traditional publishing companies.  Besides being gatekeepers of which books can be published, the traditional companies would generally send out copies of the finished book to their lists of nationwide book reviewers and media columnists to help generate an awareness and demand for the book.  They might also arrange book tours (one has to smile to think of them trying to get J. D. Salinger to do a book tour).  To some extent, the ISP author can do some of this work by searching  for independent or organizational reviewers on the Internet, and providing them with the necessary digital or print copies of the book.  Some reviews might be provided free, and others by prestigious organizations can cost up to a couple of hundred dollars.  The author has better prospects to enlist a reviewer if the book is newly published or has been published within the last two or three months.  Consequently, one can see from all this that it would be most effective if the ISP author had some sort of plan, and/or arrangements made, before he ever clicks on the 'publish' button with the ISP.

Some of the positives and drawbacks of the ISP option for an author are illustrated in an interview with author John Edgar Wideman, reported by Sejal Shah in The Writer's Chronicle of May/Summer 2014.  Wideman has a son, Danny, who worked for an ISP, named Lulu, and decided to publish a book titled Briefs with them.
Briefs was an experiment.  It got all the reviews you could want, under the circumstances.  And also because Danny worked there I got a lot of services that if you self-published in Lulu, you'd have to pay for.  For example, the expensive business of sending books to reviewers.  My self-published electronic book was treated a bit like the old way that my hard copy books had been.  A publicity service sent books to the media and tried to get me interviews.  A publicity person promoted and followed the book's progress.  Books were made available in conventional hard copy format, so that was cheating in a way.  The results don't tell a lot about self-publishing or electronic publishing per se.  My conclusion after the whole thing was that even with the extras I got, a self-publishing venture was premature.  It still is premature, for a person of my status, used to having a certain kind of attention.  You're taking a real leap of faith and financially, you're giving up, in my case, what might be a substantial advance. 
Not being on bookstore shelves killed Briefs.  Someone browsing in that nice bookstore not going to see Briefs.  A bookstore has to pay for copies of Briefs, and then they own the copies, can't return them.  The other thing is the Times refused to review Briefs, because it was self-published ...They did run a story about the manner in which Briefs was published, but it was not a review.  Almost all the articles about the book were not reviews; they were general interest pieces about the publishing industry.  That meant no reviews of the book, and at the same time no one was going to trip over the book in a bookstore.  So why would anyone buy it?  Where would they find it?  As far as merchandising strategy, Briefs fell into very predictable cracks.  I was disappointed, but I'd do it again.  I liked the adventure; I liked working with Danny; and I learned a hell of a lot.
 As might be concluded from the foregoing discussions and interview excerpt, ISP is a works in progress.  There are pluses and minuses in it for most authors, but the business model of the traditional publisher has contemporary issues that need to be addressed, also.  One thinks of the music recording industry, which had a business model that served them handsomely for many years and did well for a relatively small number of artists, too.  However, the internet opened up possibilities for many more artists that had been shut out by the traditional gatekeepers' system,  and brought with it upheavals to the business model that are still ongoing.  Now, the book publishing model's turn may have come.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

ekphrasis, the literary representation of visual art, vs. applied art tools in fiction

Revealing a Concept, in Painting or Fiction
Several of the past blogs in gaelwriter have discussed concepts of enriching literary fiction by keeping in mind design principles used by visual artists to heighten the aesthetic appeal of their own creations.   For example, Alex Powers, in his book, Painting People in Watercolor--a design approach, states:
The design principles are the organizing aesthetic ideas that guide your use of elements in a painting.  They are
1. dominance (emphasis, focal point)
2. movement (rhythm, direction, gesture, transmission)
3. variety (contrast, conflict, tension)
4. unity (harmony, balance)
 These four principles seem pretty good for enhancing the aesthetics of reading pleasure in a literary fiction work, too, don't they?  A writer may have little difficulty in envisioning the counterpart of each of these principles for a literary work; i.e., referencing to the same item numbers: 1) major conflict, 2) plot or story structure, 3) sub-plots and resolutions, 4) major resolution or denouement.

Next, the nine important design elements described by Powers that comprise tools for a visual artist in executing a successful painting are listed below, followed by typical application modes, in parentheses. Immediately after the visual art application modes, a few equivalent application modes for fiction writers have been suggested (in a brown font) within a second set of parentheses.
1. shape (pattern, form, mass, object, subject matter) (plot, place)
2. value (light and dark, tone, tint) (characters, moral/ethical issues)
3. space (the illusion of three-dimensional depth and two-dimensional flatness) (multi-faceted characters, situational ethics, environmental)
4. edges (blurred and sharp, lost and found) (certainty, ambiguity)
5. color temperature (warm and cold) (emotion, environment)
6. texture (surface variation) (sophistication, coarseness)
7. line (drawing) (language, syntax)
8. color hue (red, yellow, etc., local and arbitrary) (dialect, colloquial)
9. color intensity (brightness) (tonal quality of speech)
  The main objective of our discussion concerns learning what are some key principles, together with examples of their applications, for producing successful works of art.  The idea being that the most universal experience of what the public has considered to be great art may incorporate these same principles, whether the art be visual or written.

Revisiting this topic was prompted after reading a recent article in The Writer's Chronicle (May/Summer, 2014), titled Paintings in Fiction--Ten Lessons from the Masters of Ekphrasis, by Stephanie Coyne DeGhett.  First, ekphrasis is a term referenced by DeGhett as a "literary representation of visual art."  Her article is not, for the most part, about using the principles and tools of the artist to conceive an original piece of fiction as we have been discussing in this blog. De Ghett explores the ways that accomplished writers, including Oscar Wilde, Steven Millhauser, Stanley Elkin, and A. S. Byatt, have incorporated actual works of art as focal points in their works of fiction.  A well-known painting influences and motivates the fictional characters in each of those writers' stories.  I've read A. S. Byatt's The Matisse Stories which employ the ekphrasis approach; I liked some of the stories, but the direct allusions sometimes appeared a little forced.

The ekphrasis approach seems too derivative of the original act of creation, the painting itself.  It is a little too much like the creative writing workshop assignment of taking a newspaper story, or some topical subject, and writing a story based on the referenced material. The germ of the idea is not organic to the writer's compulsion for exploring his own deeply intuitive material.  The former may provide good writing experience, but is less likely to produce an original work of literary art. The same for basing the story on the actual painting. 

Although our blog has been exploring the most effective principles and tools of distinguished visual artists that might be brought to bear on writing our own stories, perhaps the enterprise is doomed.  From DeGhett's article we read the following.
In an essay about literary ekphrasis, Paola Spinozzi quotes Leonardo da Vinci from his Treatise on Painting:
 Your pen will be worn out before you can fully describe what the painter can represent forthwith by the aid of his science.  And your tongue will be parched with thirst and your body will be overcome by sleep and hunger before you can show with words what a painter can show you in an instant.

Yes, but...

Sunday, April 27, 2014

still life and bread crumbs--working with universal themes

Still life and bread crumbs, by Anna Quindlen, is a recent novel that moves at a comfortable pace, fully engaging the reader with characters whose lives seem to follow a script of diminished expectations, which we recognize from our own experience of the world, but the characters seem unique enough to maybe prove us wrong.  At the same time, we might feel it would not be very literary if the writer allowed things to finish up too nicely, with our admired protagonist still on her feet unbowed by all the challenges, but if she doesn't exactly win, surely she must show some true grit.  The so-called Hollywood ending.  Think Rocky and on through Rocky-4.  Unfortunately, we also have dark premonitions from reading the classics, think Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, that everything is just going to turn out horribly.  And yet, when done well, with a feeling of genuineness in plot turns and attention to intelligent language, it could turn out to be fine, and the reader might feel a little bit ennobled by the time spent with these characters.  What actually does happen?

In Still Life... Rebecca had been a renown photographer in the art world and her work had been featured in galleries and covered by art critics nationwide.   The title of the book is taken from one of her most famous photographs.  However, her career has lately been in decline, she is now 60 yrs. old, and her agent hasn't been selling many of her photographs.  With her income falling off, and the financial burdens of paying expenses for her mother in a care facility, while also attempting to help her son, Peter, a recent college graduate, she's beginning to become worried about solvency.  Divorced from her philandering, Oxford-educated, professor husband since Peter was a boy, she needs to cut her living expenses--by renting out the expensive New York City apartment she owns and moving to a less expensive setting.  Like this rustic rented cabin in rural upstate New York.  The new place has been badly misrepresented to her and is quite primitive, but Rebecca is determined to see it through, at least for a while.

Like many such locales, it has its share of characters and they are mildly interesting.  The gruff roofer, Jim, who helps her keep her house intact, becomes a fairly well-developed character and an interesting counterpoint to Rebecca's character.  In addition to his trade, he's a volunteer environmental worker as well as a subsistence hunter--a unique combo, perhaps.  Jim also has a bi-polar younger sister whom he is trying to help as she copes in survival mode at her trailer home nearby in the woods.  A key turnaround experience for Rebecca occurs on her daily walks in the forest, where she begins to find strange little sites, each exhibiting crude wood crosses, accompanied by some small object, like a doll, or an athletic trophy, and she artfully records each of these sites on film.  The mystery is eventually revealed, and the photo collection becomes a key to her reentry to her profession.  Her relationship to Jim goes through several wrenching turns--he is sixteen years younger--but always the relationship seems so well done by the writer.

The author taps into a number of universal themes in constructing this story:  

  • A decline in professional recognition of a story character, whether in arts, business, or academia (usually in that order of severity) as she ages.
  • The challenges to physical and mental well-being of a story character displaced into a very altered environment.
  • An Autumn-Spring romantic relationship of two story characters.
  • A social class hurdle existing between attracted story characters.
That comprises a formidable list, and so Quindlen is able to tap into the psyches of a great many readers with it, and she does it very well.  

Monday, March 31, 2014

e-publishing fiction

Crowd-sourcing an iOS publishing venture
Back in January 2009 I published a blog with the title Cellphone Novelists, discussing the new development of authors in Japan using cellphones to write and publish serial novels, some while commuting to work on the bullet train, and occasional total word counts up to and above 100,000 words.

 A similar development had gotten underway in Canada in 2006 when two tech entrepreneurs started Wattpad, a new website service envisioning a mobile reading app and hosting, initially, about 17000 public domain books. However, until the introduction of the iPhone and the Kindle, the Wattpad venture struggled to gain any momentum.   Thereafter, writers began to post original works with the app and it took off (Article by David Streitfeld, NY Times, 3/24/2014; quotes in this blog are from the NYTimes article).  "This is writing re-imagined for a mobile world, where attention is fragmentary," mused the reporter.  "Almost all our writers serialize their content," Allen Lau, Wattpad's chief executive said.  "Two thousand words is roughly 10 minutes of reading.  That makes the story more digestible, something you can do when standing in line."

The Wattpad app allows for reader comments, and for some authors these involve huge numbers, generally complimentary, since the author can moderate comments before they are published and can use the delete button to eliminate any brutish trolls.  For a conscientious author trying to keep up with responding to comments by fans, the task can be staggering.  One author reports 14000 unread messages pending in her Wattpad inbox.

One of the most popular Wattpad authors is Ali Novak, a 22-year old Wisconsin writer who has serialized four mobile novels.  Ms. Novak has been forced to limit her own involvement with her fans, some of whom apparently would like her to read samples of their work:
I am no longer taking reading/interview/trailer/cover requests, so all related messages will be ignored.  Sorry, but I just don't have the time.
A pullback that is quite understandable.  Ms. Novak's biggest hit, My Life With the Walter Boys--about a girl who moves in with a family of 12 sons--was published this month by Sourcebooks in revised and edited form as a paperback.  Ms. Novack reflects:
Since I was little, I've been obsessed with reading and collecting books.  I always dreamed of seeing my book in Barnes & Noble and picking it off the shelf and holding it in my hands.  That's one thing I could never do with Wattpad. 
Yes, there's something magical about hefting that physical, material thing that you've imbued with something of your own imagination, and to know it will continue to sit safely on your bookshelf even if your computer becomes obsolete, or the internet implodes into a black hole.

My recent e-book publication
Nonetheless, some accomplished authors have begun to publish exclusive e-book offerings. These authors have already made their mark in the traditional hard-copy publishing world, and include writers like Stephen King, and Neil Gaiman; consequently, I have been intrigued by the development.  Anyone who has gone down the road of submitting countless query letters with catchy hooks, brilliantly honed synopses or summaries, and sample pages, to literary agents or traditional publishing houses, whom these days may or may not even choose to acknowledge your submittal, might perhaps view the e-publishing opportunities as a liberating development.  The traditional gate keepers may have been displaced.

Of course, perhaps only a portion of what is e-published may have true literary quality, but the voting audience is much larger now, and one can hope that the good books will just as readily rise to the top.  I like the e-publishing idea and decided to give the experience a try with my most recent coming-of-age fiction, Leaving Major Tela.  It is already up in Kindle format at Amazon.  Click on the link in 'My Publications' at the top right corner of my blog for a visit to the Amazon page and a look inside the book.  I'll have a paperback edition ready at the same location shortly.

Friday, February 28, 2014

stories shaped to the visual arts divine proportion

Using divine proportion and its interior spiral to give
shape and focus for a visual work of art 
This is about the shape of a story.  It is not about choosing any specific formulaic approach to creating a fiction story, though there are some genres where the reading fraternity fully anticipates and looks forward to a story which hews close to a traditional formula, i.e., in romance novels.  In such cases the formula has been extensively tested over time in the market place, and is known to give its readers the enjoyment they seek.  Nothing wrong with such structured, formulaic writing, though it may diminish your chances of winning some coveted literary awards.

Screenwriting for a movie is thought to be somewhat formulaic, also.  A friend at a graduate creative writing program did some research into the structure of screenwriting works, to see whether he might uncover some useful techniques for writing young people's literature (Motion Picture Story Structure Techniques in Middle Grade Novels--a thesis, by C. Entwistle, Vermont College, 1999).  Generally, he found a consistent 120-page, three-act structure, with the inciting incident early in act one, the bleakest moment in latter part of act two, and the battle or climax in latter part of act three.  Each act rises to a point of crisis, the main character passes through a series of conflicts, and ultimately overcomes the major conflict.  Not surprising that it is a formula that works for a large global audience--some suspense, frightening moments, victories written both small and large,  and life returns to something worth living.

Now let's move away from the more formulaic ways of shaping a story and toward the more intuitive.  We've discussed in some past issues of this blog some affinities between the aesthetic processes of shaping and writing an interesting story and the shaping and design of an interesting painting, i.e., Hills Like White Elephants and other paintings, Aug. 27, 2009.  Some additional thoughts on the aesthetic and intuitive process involved in the shaping of another form of creative writing is given by the poet, Leslie Ullman, in her essay A Spiral Walk Through the Golden Mean, in The Writer's Chronicle, Oct/Nov 2013.

The Golden Mean, or Golden Rectangle, is also known as Divine Proportion in artist circles.  Divine Proportion involves a ratio of 1:1.618, or approximately 3:5, "said to form the most visually satisfying of all rectangles," and which can be related to "complex designs by Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and the builders of the Parthenon, as well as works by modern masters such as Le Corbusier and Mondrian," as stated by Ullman.

For example, our sketch of a model, above, was scanned into a computer and was slightly cropped from its original 3:5 golden rectangle.   A logarithmic spiral was generated on the computer monitor and was digitally drawn onto the sketch.  The spiral cuts across the corners of square grid lines superimposed on the sketch such that it bisected the adjacent 90-deg. segments of the grid lines at the golden rectangle's 3:5 ratio for the two lengths.  The resulting spiral begins in a broad curve at the outer margin of the sketch, and gradually tightens to a small tight loop just below the model's left breast.  The exercise suggests that the painter's natural focal point for light and dark value contrasts, lost and found edges, and perhaps color highlights, can be most effective when directed toward this area.

The fiction writer's analogy might have the spiral starting off with gradual introduction of characters and defining the conflict, then a gradual tightening of the conflict situation, and ultimately into the focus of dramatic conflict resolution at the end of the spiral.

Does the concept have much utility for getting that powerful literary story written? Can we inherently recognize the most beautiful proportions and path of a powerful work of fiction, effectively simulating the golden rectangle and its interior spiral? Michelangelo and Da Vinci might well have perfected this feel and intuition in their paintings.  Perhaps it is something we can think about, and possibly develop our own feel for the shape and path of beauty in fiction writing.

Friday, January 31, 2014

wishing for sympathetic characters and without all the dissonance

The county library waiting list for a new novel, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, was almost up to 300 when I checked its availability online.  I was late in seeing a book review in the NY Times, or hearing one on National Public Radio, my two usual sources, and these early reviews for the book had been good.  Luckily, I noticed one of the library branches had a large-type edition, and the hold list for it was much shorter.  With my eyesight not as good as it once was, and with the standard font size edition clocking in at over 800 pages, I requested the large type book, which was over 1200 pages long!  The thought of holding a book that heavy each evening makes one think that a Kindle might not be such a bad thing.

After the Bookmobile dropped off my new treasure I settled in for some pleasurable evenings of reading.  At first the story seemed to have promise.  Scenes of a slightly selfish boy (think of This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff) and his art-loving mother, struggling to get by living in New York City, and their hurried visit one day to the art museum, which culminates in a terrorist bombing of the museum and death of the mother.  A compelling plot, so far.  Gradually, though, some overwrought language makes itself noticeable, in the form of catchy metaphors and weird similes which don't really elucidate anyone's feelings or situations, but which might make for some memorable rhythms in a rap tune.  I'm sometimes too quick to make negative judgements so I pressed on with my reading.  

After his mother's death the boy is given temporary refuge from the Children's Protective Society as the ward of a schoolmate's family, upperclass socialites.  Things look promising, but his deadbeat father, who'd abandoned his family years before, shows up with a druggie girlfriend and assumes custody of his son.  Dad and girlfriend take the son back with them to Las Vegas and a weirdly sterile world of McMansions, spacious buildings lingering in various states of arrested development since the bursting of the sub-prime mortgage bubble.  One of them is their rented home.  Dad is pursuing some sort of numerical scheme to defeat the odds at the gambling casinos, and doing well at it for a while--until he isn't.  Meanwhile, the boy hooks up with a streetwise, multi-lingual Russian kid, who introduces him to an astonishing assortment of pills and opiates.  They rarely seem to go to school, and their biggest problem is keeping food in the house, and the pizza bakery refuses to deliver out to this wasteland.

The father is killed, either a suicide or murdered when he is unable to pay his gambling debts.  The boy returns to New York, and pursues a brief, unrequited love for a girl his age who had lost her guardian in the same terrorist bombing at the museum.  The promising girl character disappears into the custody of an Aunt, to be raised in Europe.  A weird plot turn.  Flash forward, and the boy is a young man.  He is a success in the antiques business through highly dishonest dealings, and is still a heavy consumer of illegal drugs.

All things considered, the overwrought, bombastic language, unsatisfying plot turns, and shallow personality of the main character, defeated my attempts to stay engaged after I'd finished about two-thirds of the book.  I thought perhaps I'd been somehow unfair and very unkind to the author, but after reading a similarly critical review by Francine Proust in the NY Review of Books (Jan. 9, 2014) I have to conclude there really are big problems with the book.
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