Monday, May 3, 2021

"Balloons" in the New Yorker Comes Across as Trivial

 Thomas McGuane  has a style of writing that makes his May 3. 2021 New Yorker short story a pleasure to read, but "Balloons" is unfortunately a rather trivial piece of work. In the usual New Yorker author interview, McGuane talks about how he began writing the story without knowing how it would end, but thanks to a dream, something came to mind. Too bad.

Sex, in the familiar triangular configuration, serves as the framework for a  rather simple-minded plot: a man depicted as a bore and a buffoon in his seemingly successful prime degenerates into a pathetic mess when his unfaithful life leaves him.  But guess what?  He ultimately has the last laugh on his predator -- a man who views himself as on a considerably higher plane.

An unexpected development -- the subject of the dream -- serves to give the story a twist, but it could have been used to much better advantage.  

There is an early signal that trouble looms ahead in the form of a discussion among the three characters about a mugging. The bore insists that a victim has every right to retaliate. That's about the only topic we learn as to what McGuane's characters might think about, together or separately. They are, shall we say, rather uninteresting.

In particular, just what the women might have to offer, other than sex, is a complete mystery. She's depicted as a woman characterized by "her contempt for everyone who was not interested in her looks."

Hmm.  Isn't that what intelligent woman complain about?  That they are objectified by the male (or even another female) gaze? In this story, the unnamed woman is apparently distressed if she is not.

Well, character development, in this story at any rate, is not McGuane's strong point and in the afore-mentioned author interview, he actually seems proud of it. Ok, for some readers that may be a plus.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

An Example of What I Would Consider a Literary Clanger

 A "clanger" is defined as a conspicuous blunder, and what follows is an example of what I would consider, perhaps unfairly, a literary clanger -- a sentence or phrase that just seems wrong.

The April 27, 2021 email from Literary Hub offered, among other things, an excerpt from a recent novel called Nives by Sacha Naspini. It was translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford and perhaps that is part of the problem.

In a nutshell, based on the excerpt, it appears to be the story of a farmer's wife who becomes a widow when her husband dies unexpectedly in rather disgusting circumstances. She doesn't get along well with her daughter's family and declines an offer to be taken in, insisting on remaining on the farm despite feeling overwhelmed by it's requisites. 

So far, so good, but then came the clanger.

"She soon realized that solitude changed everything about life in the countryside. Each hour passed like a slow-motion smack in the teeth with a shovel; her usual chores took an abnormal turn."

Each hour passed like a slow-motion smack in the teeth with a shovel?  That sentence jumped out at me as so improbable an image that it was all I was left thinking about when I finished the excerpt.

It surely doesn't work as a metaphor -- far too extreme (someone being hit in the teeth with a shovel once an hour -- and continuing on?  I don't think so.).  But I suppose it could be viewed not as that familiar device, but rather as hyperbole -- excessive exaggeration to make a point.

If so, it's unnecessary. Naspini's depiction of the woman's life in the wake of her husband's death doesn't leave any room for doubt. This is a troubled existence. There is no need to ram the notion home with overkill.

So ... that sentence didn't work for me. Perhaps you feel differently.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Incorporation of Ideas in Fiction

 The latest email from Literary Hub offers an excerpt from Fiona Mozley's novel "Hot Stew," which is described as all about wealth, inheritance, gender and power.  Well, except for gender, that sounds a bit like "The Forsyte Saga," by John Galsworthy, published in 1922. 

But what interested me about the excerpt was Ms Mozley's decision to include a couple of provocative ideas in the middle of an episode of tangled personal relationships.

The first is sociopolitical in nature: whether private charity is good for society or simply serves to preserve for a longer time than might otherwise be the case income inequalities.

In the except, a man named Bastian asks a woman named Glenda how a woman named Laura was doing:

“She’s well. She hates her job though.” “Where does she work?”

“At some kind of charity. They treat her like shit but are constantly going on about how grateful she should be for working in such a friendly environment, and how they’re doing a really good thing by paying her a salary rather than getting her to give her time for free. She wants to leave as soon as she can.”

“What does she want to do?”

“I don’t think she’s fussy. I think in an ideal world she’d be working for some great political campaign with someone amazing she really believes in. But how on earth is she going to find one of those? And, you know, how many people actually get to do a job they like?”

“But isn’t working for a charity a bit like that? I mean, isn’t she already working for a good cause.”

Glenda looked at him as if he’d just vomited.

“Not really,” she explained quietly, as if so embarrassed by what he had just said she didn’t want anyone at the neighboring tables to hear her set him right. “Charity is inherently reactionary, isn’t it? It puts the onus on individuals rather than the collective. It relies on certain individuals having large amounts of disposable income. I think Laura would rather pursue political solutions to the world’s problems rather than charitable ones.”

“Oh right,” Bastian replied.

So there's an idea readers can stop and think about if they wish, or possibly just dismiss Glenda as perhaps an old student lefty who never got over the utopian ideology that tends to go with it.

The second idea is related to the growing acceptance, in some corners of society at any rate, of something along the lines of gender fluidity -- the notion that people naturally have aspects of masculinity and femininity and can slip back and forth between them -- and/or to the notion that stereotyping by outward display is out of date,

Here, the character identified as Bastian, is watching his current live-in partner, a woman named Rebecca, get dressed:

Bastian thinks that tights are strange and he tells Rebecca as much. Then he says, “Isn’t it weird that men and women wear different clothes.”

“Weird how?”

“Just strange. Like, it’s one of those things that you become so used to, you don’t ever think to question it, but then sometimes, for instance, just now watching you put on those tights, you realize it’s kind of bizarre.”

“You could say that about anything,” Rebecca replies. It is sometimes difficult to read her expression and tell whether she finds something humorous or exasperating. On this occasion, he suspects both. “Would you like to wear women’s clothes, Bastian?”

“Not especially. They seem kind of uncomfortable. Especially tights. It’s just that it’s strange that I’m not allowed to. Or, rather, I am allowed to, but it would be perceived as a dramatic statement about my identity when actually, when you think about it, why should anyone care?”

“How radical of you.” This time, she is making fun of him, but he thinks it’s in a friendly way. She goes back to the kitchen and Bastian hears her pour some coffee from the cafetière into her thermos flask and screw on the lid.

Well, there was a story in a local paper the other day about seven-year-old triplets wanting to petition Costco, the warehouse store, not to separate girls and boys clothes.

Women, have, of course, long appropriated menswear. Fashion designers have tried on many occasions to push men the other way -- without success. But perhaps such notions will become more acceptable than in the past.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

The Literary Value of Taylor Swift's Teenage Love Trilogy

 This is another look at songwriting from a literary point of view, in the wake of Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize for literature a few years back, and this time around, a recent Taylor Swift trilogy, or song cycle, is under consideration.

One of the first things any writer of fiction has to decide upon is point of view, or POV as it is called. From whose perspective will the story be told and why?  Early novelists (and many since) tended to use an all-seeing narrator -- a sort of god-like figure, often unidentified -- who knows everything and tells readers what they need to know about every character and everything that happens and why.  This makes for a clear and often convincing tale and if one is reading simply for pleasure, one that is also very satisfying.

But it is far from what life is like -- what we don't know often overwhelms what we do, with any degree of certainty at least -- which brings me to Taylor Swifts songs "Cardigan," "August" and "Betty" from her recent "Folklore" album.  Nate Jones, of, has a good take on the trio, which you can read by clicking that link.

In this case, Swift employs three different POVs to take a look at what apparently happened with respect to a rather sappy teenage love triangle one summer, but a problem with what filmmakers would call "continuity" muddies the result -- a distinct minus from a literary point of view.

Taking the songs in the order in which they appear in the album, "Cardigan" is sung from the POV of Betty, a woman apparently now well out of her teens who seems to think of herself as left behind in the fashion of an old sweater, still comfortable but otherwise probably pretty drab after having been forgotten and left for some time under a bed. She's obsessing over her failed teenage romance with a boy called Jimmy who she believes was stupid to lose her as a result of a fling with another girl.  But did he?  We'll come back to that -- and this is where the problem if continuity may arise.

Moving backwards in time, "August," is the next song and the POV is that of an unnamed younger woman griping about the fact that Jimmy didn't really care for her when they had a summer romance, or more likely from Jimmy's POV, and extended hook up. Interestingly, she initiated what one might call the "situationship," picking Jimmy up off a street with a command to get in her car. She doesn't sound like much of a prize on that basis so perhaps Jimmy wasn't as dumb as he appears in the last song of the trio. When Jimmy calls it quits, she complains  "you were never mine" and mopes around waiting for a call that never comes. 

"Betty" is told from Jimmy's POV back when the incidents in question took place -- a breakup with Betty at a school dance when they were 17, his subsequent summer fling which Betty hears about from a friend or acquaintance named Inez and Jimmy's apparently unsuccessful attempt to get back together with Betty,

Jimmy first pleads innocence on the notion that people at 17 know nothing, but then goes on to blame everyone he can think of, including himself. He's clearly the sort of person for whom whatever happens, there is always some excuse (if he was to blame it was because he couldn't be expected at that age to know better).

Jimmy comes across as such a lightweight that Swift could be accused of misandry.

Now comes the continuity problem. In "Cardigan," Betty references events that took place in "downtown bars" and on the "High Line," a park in New York City. These seem distinctly unrelated to that high school dance at age 17 and Jimmy's summer romance that was clearly immediately thereafter in what appears to be a suburban setting.

In the Vulture review referenced above, Nate Jones (commendably in my view) mulls that one over and comes down in favor of artistic license -- as opposed to the possibility than Betty and Jimmy did get back together again after than problematic summer, only to discover as the years went by, the relationship still didn't work. Listeners can decide for themselves or, more likely, simply bathe in the musical moods of the three different songs. 

But the issue here is literature and that brings me back to POV.  Ms Swift gets good marks for deciding to zero in on an event from three different points of view -- a form of triangulation -- but at the end of the day, I don't think she made good use of the device. All three of the characters seem to be thinking almost entirely of themselves (what else is new?) and as a result, readers fail to gain much additional insight into what happened and why.

Thus, this falls short of Nobel Prize fodder.

I took a look at these songs because New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica listed "Betty" as one of the best pop songs of 2020. 

Friday, April 9, 2021

"Lost Yesterday" Has a Problem When it Comes to Literature

 Here's the second in a little series on looking at popular song lyrics as a form of literature.

"Lost Yesterday" by the Australian music project called "Tame Impala," listed as one of the 20 best pop tunes of 2020 by New York Times music critic Jon Pareles, is about the pluses and minus of nostalgia, a good literary topic on the face of it.

But the lyrics have something of a clanger in them, taking this song out of contention when it comes to any prizes along the lines of the one Bob Dylan famously received.

To wit:

And you're gonna have to let it go someday
You've been diggin' it up like Groundhog Day

Those lines rhyme, but that's about all one can say for them.  While literature is replete with similies -- figures of speech that compare one thing with another, generally so as to shed additional light on the first of the two, using the words "like" or "as" to point out the connection, Kevin Parker of "Tame Impala" hasn't got it anywhere near right with this one.

"diggin' it up like Groundhog Day" is presumably a shortened form of something akin to "diggin' it up like one does on Ground Day" or "diggin' it up like what happens on Groundhog Day" or something along those lines. No problem with the short form: I'll grant Mr. Parker some artistic license on that.

But, and this is a big but, Groundhog Day (capitalized) is a day recognized as such on Feb. 2 in the U.S. and Canada and it is not known for digging of any description.  Rather on that day, a groundhog emerges from a burrow where he or she has been sleeping through the winter -- a hole dug months earlier -- and looks around to see if he or she has cast a shadow.  If so, the animal traditionally concludes winter will last for another six weeks and retreats. If, on the other hand, the day is cloudy and there is no shadow, Spring will arrive soon.

As such, the lyrics don't work -- as literature at any rate.  But who knows, perhaps Mr. Pareles of the NYT  believes 2020 -- the first year of the pandemic -- was strange in so many ways that Mr. Parker somehow got it right. Count me out on that one. I vote for sending Mr. Parker  back to the drafting board.

"Johnny" More a Socio-Political Statement Than Literature

 Since Bob Dylan was awarded a Nobel Prize for literature, I suppose it behooves us to look more closely at the lyrics of songs.

At the end of last year, the New York Times identified "Johnny," by Sarah Jarosz as one of the best pop songs of 2020.  Ms Jarosz, to the accompaniment of "a luminous web of guitars and a mandolin sings with compassion about thwarted expectations."

Thwarted by whom or what?

Listeners are presented with a presumably elderly man sitting on a porch drinking what he thinks could be his last glass of red wine, reflecting upon what appears to be a disappointing life.

How could a boy from a little bay town
Grow up to be a man, fly the whole world round
Then end back up on the same damn ground he started

And later:

But you might not get what you pay for
You know that nothing’s for sure
And an open heart looks a lot like the wilderness

While this is perhaps all too emblematic of the lives of many Americans in recent decades as "the dream" has apparently faded, and particularly for those with less education, the lyrics are a little disappointing from a literary perspective. 

Johnny feels his life has come to nothing because, after touring the world, he is back where he started with little to show for it.  Who knows? For all too many people,  Ms Jarosz may have hit the nail on the head with that sentiment, and NYT music critic Jon Pareles seems to agree. Perhaps that helps to explain, among other things, the "Make America Great" phenomena and the Capitol Riot. 

From a literary perspective, this is too facile, however.  As a character, Johnny is uninteresting. He has failed to understand that the voyage is as important as the destination and even more importantly, that the idea of circularity can be critical to one's understanding of the world. While one might arrive back where one started, it is with different viewpoints as a result of experience.  This notion is critical to Dante's "Commedia," for instance.

Johnny is also characterized by the notion that life is something one purchases and "you might not get what you pay for." It doesn't require self-reflection, and lacking any sense of commitment, it's no wonder that for Johnny, "an open heart looks a lot like a wilderness." 

At the end of the day, this song works better as a socio-political statement than as literature. Ms Jarosz has simply taken the easy way out.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

"Separation:" Where Readers Need to Fill In The Blanks

The latest New Yorker short story was written by a member of the magazine's staff and it's a piece where readers who find it of interest need to fill in a lot of blanks.

There is a genre of fiction known as the fragmented novel and "Separation," by Claire Sestanovich, might be viewed as a fragmented short story. It has that aspect, according to the writer in the usual New Yorker author interview, is because it's all about coherence, or the lack of it, in life. Things that are separated or don't connect well can be incoherent.

In "Separation," readers are told a few things about the chief protagonist -- a woman named Kate -- such as at the very beginning, that she had "unkempt" pubic hair after skinny dipping in a reservoir. Later, another not particularly interesting or surprising detail of her nether regions is revealed.  Other than that, one has no idea what she looks like, where she comes from, her family background, the state of her education, her religion or lack of same and so forth and so on. Well, one must keep one's character-development priorities straight.

The other main characters are also sketches at best. 

In addition, motivation is for the most part absent except, perhaps, when Kate has a month-long affair with a man whose large face is almost ugly. "But he was tall and tanned and his voice was so softly beautiful that Kate let herself assume it was full of the same grief as hers."

That's presumably the grief of losing a spouse (which he hasn't), but Kate apparently felt it unnecessary to make any inquires. Her concerns are about herself except perhaps with respect to her first marriage, which appears to have been as much about compassion as it was about love, given the sketchy depiction of her spouse. He has long-term eczema and is basically blind when not wearing huge glasses. The only other thing one finds about about him is that soon after marriage he comes down with a terminal condition of one sort or another and dies.

Kate experiences separation as a result: from just about everything because she responds to this development by leaving town -- as she does again later after separation from her ill-advised married lover -- an affair that appears, among other things, to have been a conflict of interest for a teacher whatever the man's marital status. Readers with children of their own might think that, but if so, they will have to fill in those blanks as well because that aspect of the affair is apparently of no concern to Ms Sestanovich,

While separation is an essential part of life -- Kate helps young children learn to cope with this when they first experience day care or school -- it can also be a source of incoherence, leading to a life that doesn't really make sense.

In due course, Kate meets a man in a bar, about whom readers are told almost nothing, and has what appears to be a conventional marriage -- outwardly. Inwardly, Kate can't get over the separation from her first husband and she tucks the remnants of that life into labeled boxes in the attic, hoping her daughter -- an only child from the second marriage -- will find them and presumably learn that her mother isn't who she thinks she is. Separation and incoherence, one might say.

That aspect of Kate seems again to suggest she is a modern woman -- probably a type Ms Sestanovich knows well and my even identify with: "It's all about me."

Even though Leah, Kate's daughter, doesn't find the box, she's clearly experienced a sense of separation from her mother through other means. There is an (unexplained, of course) incident involving blood and a cut and a bathtub and when it comes time for Leah to leave home, she moves all the way across the country for no identifiable reason. But when readers discover she's only interested in talking to her father on the phone, one can surmise why and fill in yet another blank.

As for style, once again, as has been the case with a number of recent New Yorker short stores, this piece is not particularly "writerly." That seems to have gone out of fashion. If Ms Sestanovich attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop or some other literary MFA-type program, it doesn't show. Here again, readers can fill in the blanks.
A few years ago, I wrote a brief post on a related topic, since deleted.  It was the following:
"And anyhow, whether reading one or trying to compose one, novels are terrain for discontinuities, sometimes violent ones."
Rachel Kushner, author of "The Flamethrowers," explaining the nature of her home office in Los Angeles, a large, but cozy room that she says has lately become "porous to certain brutalities."