I don’t like the Associated Writing Programs annual convention. You feel so small. It’s like trying to go on a date in a fluorescent-lit garage. It’s like walking around O’Hare Airport and brushing against the multitudes and not being recognized by anyone. I don’t think too many other writers like it either, for the same reason. But these conventions, I guess, are a necessary evil. I felt I had to go this year, because this event was held right here in LA and I could pick up some good books and go to some good talks. One of the highlights was seeing a tribute to John Rechy, the iconic gay novelist from the 1960s and ’70s. Very few people showed up! This was surprising. Maybe because he wrote most of his great books over forty years ago, the hot young things of today do not know him or care. He’s now 85 and looks and sounds great. Another highlight was hearing Alicia Ostriker read a prose piece (not sure if she’d call it a prose poem—I think it was) about childbirth in ’60s/early ’70s, which were still fairly unenlightened times. It was included in the anthology Far Out: Poems of the ’60s.
I bought three books (and a few journals I’ll discuss in another post). They are Swing State by Michael T. Fournier; I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life by Michael Czyzniejewski; and The End of Being Known by Michael Klein.
Swing State is a gripping tale of life in a contemporary New Hampshire small town. After about page 40 or 50 I couldn’t put it down. Fournier tells the story from the point of view of three young people; two are in high school and one is in his twenties, a vet from the war in Afghanistan. Each character’s narrative is told in a different way, with a distinctive voice. Zach is an overweight boy who lives in a dreamworld. He’s obsessed with and tormented by Dixon, a female bully fond of firecrackers. Roy occasionally encounters these two in the street and elsewhere, but doesn’t know them: he’s got enough problems of his own. He can barely get by. He has PTSD and shoots pool in his spare time. And he has nothing but spare time. All these characters are struggling and desperate. Fournier is even able to get the reader to sympathize with Dixon the bully during her monologues. We come to understand how she became a bully. She’s often beaten by her stepfather, just as Zach is often beaten by his single father. All the portraits are nuanced, subtle. And Swing State is an apt title because the fortunes of these three characters swing dramatically. Towards the middle, there’s hope. I wanted to believe things were getting better . . . I won’t give away how it all ends. Fournier’s plot is ingenious. Sometimes the book did have the tone and atmosphere of young adult fiction. It could probably have been marketed as such. But maybe not; maybe it’s too literary. I also would’ve liked to see a little more New Hampshire local color: descriptive passages, regional accents/colloquialisms. But read Swing State for the grim, masterfully constructed plot, and for Roy’s voice in particular:
Wasn’t sleeping. Heard noises. Weren’t there before. Or didn’t notice them. Maybe there before. But kept waking up. Sitting up in bed. Yelling. WHO’S THERE? Falling back asleep. Basic dream. Over and over. Standing with everyone. Heads into clouds. One after the other. Always woke up before it was his turn. But had to watch.
Michael Czyzniejewski’s I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life is an unusual collection of very short stories. The common theme: they are all, in one way or another, about breaking up, but never in a conventional way of typical romantic breakups. One of the most memorable pieces is the first, “A Change of Heart,” a perverse and deliciously sick version of O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi.” Czyzniejewski has an amazing imagination. Where do all these ideas come from? I’m curious about his process.
The short story is now a somewhat alien art to me. At one time, in the early ’90s, before I turned to poetry, nonfiction, criticism, and memoir, I did write short stories myself. The issue I have with them has to do with character. There’s a sketchiness, even a bloodlessness about most short story “characters.” This applies to the above-mentioned O. Henry story and Maupassant’s “The Necklace” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and Thomas Mann’s “Disorder and Early Sorrow” and Updike’s “Pigeon Feathers” and most other stories I can think of. And this is especially true of contemporary American work. The language, the situations, the atmosphere, the action, can all be brilliant; but when it comes to character, I always feel the reader is expected to, if you will, go potluck: supply his/her own characters (based on hazy mental stereotypes) to fill in what cannot be done in the confines of the story itself. Short story characters generally don’t have three-dimensionality. In Flannery O’Connor’s novels we also get fascinating characters—not in her stories, which may be admirable for other reasons (what we get are hints of potential characters). I recently read a whole issue of The Santa Monica Review. I saw good craft and ingenious turns of phrase. But no people with flesh on them, just the stock characters from the back of my mind that I recruited to bestow life on what I was reading.
Here I am going on a rant. In spite of the (for me) traditional constraints of the genre, the pieces in I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life are surprising, fun, sick, slick, diabolically clever, and very individual. Just listen to some of the titles: “Pregnant With Peanut Butter”; “The Last Time We Had Intercourse”; “You Had Me at Zoo”; “Night of the Scallop.” I like “When the Heroes Came to Town” most because 1) it’s like a poem and 2) it’s about a whole community, thus skirting the whole issue of individual character. It’s about a team of “heroes” who mysteriously appear in town and fix everything, make everything “right,” and then just as mysteriously depart. He begins:
The consensus, among many of us, was that we were unimpressed. Before the heroes, things weren’t that bad, and, depending on whom you asked, they were going pretty well. The county had just paid to have the throughway resurfaced, our boys had made it to the state semis, and business boomed at the tire factory up by the mall, which in turn, made business boom at the mall as well. Everyone felt confident about the economy, the kids were getting into good colleges, and if a town with prettier women existed, we hadn’t been there. . . . Which is why we scratched our heads when these heroes showed up, their jaws, their capes, their stoicism all in tow.
It’s the “we” that makes this so memorable. It’s the voice of a community, and it has character, insofar as a whole community could be said to have a character, a spirt. And it proceeds like a poem, in a vaguely sinister way. It has both the analytical, doggedly prosy style of Kafka and yet the potential to be a narrative poem. This subtle, quiet first-person-plural story—along with several other of Czyzniejewski’s creations in this book—could and should show the way to the short story of the future, which might consciously shed the tired “miniature novel” mode and develop an aesthetic that combines the best qualities of the essay and the prose poem.
And speaking of prose poetry, that is what Michael Klein’s memoir/essay collection The End of Being Known really is. This is a stunningly beautiful book, one that I will be rereading, often. Is it a memoir? a collection of essays? It’s neither and both. Klein writes about incest and abuse and being gay in New York in the ’70s. Every sentence, every paragraph is a work of art. After a while I got tired of underling passages, because I was underlining almost the whole book.
Many readers might have a hard time with Klein’s leisurely pace and idiosyncratic wording. This book can’t be read like a conventional novel. He’s dismissive of chronology. And he’s an uncomfortable writer to read. Many of the things he writes about, particularly his incestuous relationships, are grim in the way I’ve always felt French New Wave and Italian neorealist movies are grim: no sweeping Hollywood music, not much music at all, just gritty interiors and drab street scenes and drab people trying to cope. Hollywood is where we might want to be; these gritty mid-century European films are where we actually are. And it’s uncomfortable. Sometimes savagely uncomfortable. Here’s an example of Klein’s prose, from “A Wedding in the Sky”:
I loved a man named Richard. I told my parents. I moved away from one house into another house. If the family is a cult, the journey out of Brooklyn was leaving the cult for love life. I knew I wasn’t going to get the love kit down in Brooklyn. Thomas Wolf said only the dead know Brooklyn.
I’ll let Klein speak for himself and end with “Once, My Brother.” Its first paragraph:
Once my brother was in a hospital. He walked around in a paper crown after the nervous breakdown. The crown was made by a group of fellow crazies who gave it to him because he used to let them circle around his bed at night and jerk off on him. The dirty light in the public ward made my brother look old. I didn’t have a lot of family around at that point to go with me to visit him in the hospital. I was relegated to going with a cousin of my stepfather’s, who was at least as crazy as my brother was. Her name was Miriam, and she took medication, the residue of which painted the corners of her mouth with white powder. Toothpaste or drug? I never knew for sure. I was going to the crazy house with a crazy person.
And the essay ends:
I came home one night with a stranger from the park and my brother stormed into my room while I was sleeping. He screamed into my face, “You’re the devil. You’re the devil.” I told him to leave. He stormed down the stairs and left the building after shattering the plate glass in the front door and becoming the ex-mental patient, without a place to live. My brother had become the kind of New Yorker that has always lived here, but one that nobody knows. The kind of person (the future will make this happen more often) who pushes people in front of trains because they hear a voice that tells them to do that.