1, A font face captures Franz Kafka's handwriting, which turns out be rather pretty in a Kafkaesque sort of way.
2. Tablet Magazine interviews eternal Fug Tuli Kupferberg and points us to his excellent YouTube Channel. I love the audience participation in this little-known literary facts video, in which Tuli reveals that T. S. Eliot was Jewish, that Walt Whitman was heterosexual, that Homer's Iliad was actually written by a guy named Iliad, and that when Dylan Thomas drank himself to death his drink of choice was strawberry milkshakes. All true.
Florida author and blogger Bill Ectric is one of my very favorites among the indie writers I've met here on Literary Kicks. He and I first bonded many years ago over our mutual regard for Henry David Thoreau, and he made a big showing in our 2004 collection Action Poetry. His playful intellect and sweetly philosophical frame of mind make him more interesting, in my opinion, that most of the mainstream authors crowding our bookstores these days, though his work does not fit neatly into any category (is it comedy? speculative fiction? boys adventure? Nobody knows for sure).
Tamper is Bill Ectric's most cohesive novel so far. It opens in a small town in a past golden age, as two boys take pictures in the pitch blackness of an old abandoned church with a clunky ancient 35mm camera and ponder the mysterious orbs that bloom in the resulting photographs. What do you see when you take pictures in the dark? That's the kind of question that absorbs the mind of a writer like Bill Ectric. Tamper evolves into a classic good-time mystery/adventure that explores the legend of Amazing Stories writer Richard Shaver, and somehow ends with a printed diagram of a folded-paper fortune teller, the kind I remember playing with as a kid. Ambiguity? Sure. I decided to ask Bill five questions about his new novel, and the results are below.
Levi: I've been enjoying your work for a while now, but your new novel Tamper appears to be your most ambitious and focused work to date. Can you talk about your evolution as a writer, and why you wrote this particular book at this particular time?
Bill: I’ve been writing Tamper off and on for almost three years. I started having crystal-clear dreams and visions when I stopped drinking three years ago. Looking back, it seems like I placed my writing life "on hold" upon joining the Navy in the seventies, and only picked it up again years later when I discovered Literary Kicks in the nineties. While writing Tamper, I got in touch with feelings of awe, wonder, fear, and enchantment that I hadn't felt since childhood.
More to the point is why I was able to finish writing this particular book at this particular time. It’s because of the numerous books I’ve read and studied, which equipped me with the tools I needed for the novel I wanted to write. Just to name a few: The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera, who talks about the "dazzlement" of discovering hidden truths in one’s own writing (thanks to Jamelah Earle for bringing Kundera to my attention), and books by writers I identified with because their childhood memories seemed as magical as mine, like Swann’s Way by Proust and Dr. Sax by Kerouac.
Philip K. Dick's novel VALIS used the concept of an "influencing machine" -- a term coined by psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk to describe a common trait among schizophrenics who think that some type of machine is trying to control them. Which is what many people theorize was happening to Richard Shaver, the pulp science fiction writer, who claimed that the stuff he wrote in Amazing Stories magazine was true! The question in VALIS, of course, is whether or not the main character is crazy, or is a satellite in outer space beaming signals to his brain, or is God speaking to him, or is the satellite and God one in the same? And does it make any difference?
Levi: Tamper seems to deal with the paranormal, and yet is highly grounded in real life. Do you seriously believe in supernatural influences in our life, or are you just screwing around with the theme and having fun?
Bill: I seriously believe that magic and science are both flowing wide-open at the same time, like two parallel river currents that converge briefly at points. When we really tune in to it, we see that it’s the same river, but if you look too close, it diverges again.
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Back in the 1600s, if you said “some day men will fashion a small moon from the Earth’s metallic elements and hurl it into the heavens, giving us power to direct thoughts from our brains to our fingertips and out to people miles away” there would have been cries of, “Witchcraft!” but I’m simply describing satellites and cell phones. When I say it like that, it sounds like I’m leaning more toward science, but I should add that there have been times when my mother could sense that a family member was having some kind of problem or illness, which turned out to be true, and sometimes it was downright uncanny! Or, maybe you’ve heard about the well-documented out-of-body experience of Pam Reynolds, who nearly died in surgery in 1991. Like in many near-death experiences, she said she looked down at her own body on the operating table, surrounded by the medical team, but the fascinating part is, she described several things that she couldn’t possibly have known unless her astral experience was real!
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve read countless books on unexplained mysteries -- all the supposedly documented stuff about ghosts, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, spontaneous human combustion, the devil’'s footprints in Devon, the Bell Witch, and so on. But what a lot of people don’t get is that I am fascinated in equal measure by the stories themselves and in the mechanics of documentation. This goes to my interest in meta-fiction, which includes devices of writing as part of the story, like the poem and footnotes in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the books within books of VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, or the complete text of Aylett’s Lint.
I sometimes find unintended humor in the way paranormal investigators use some facts and omit others. Take the Bell Witch legend. There is a house in Adams, Tennessee where in 1817 a man named John Bell and his family experienced poltergeist activity. The word spread until even General Andrew Jackson heard about it. This part is true. Jackson, his wife, and some friends actually traveled by covered wagon to Adams, Tennessee to spend the night in the Bell house. By all accounts, nobody got much sleep that night. People were pinched and slapped in the dark, covers got pulled off of beds, weird noises were heard. Andrew Jackson is widely quoted as saying, "I would rather fight the British than to deal with the Bell Witch!" But what he actually said was, "I saw nothing, but I heard enough to convince me that I would rather fight the British than to deal with this torment they call the Bell Witch!" I tried, in Tamper, to capture some of the humorous aspect of paranormal documentation. To convey the fun of it.
Levi: Does the fictional town of Hansburg, Virginia correspond to a real place? Can you talk about the places in this book and what they mean to you in real life?
Bill: Oh, for sure, I based Hansburg very much on the town in Virginia where I was born and raised, called Christiansburg. It started as a settlement called “Hans Meadow” in the 1700s. Later, they changed the name to Christiansburg. A small, idyllic town like in the old television shows, Leave It To Beaver or Andy Griffith or that Twilight Zone episode where Gig Young tries to revisit his childhood. Seventy-five percent of everything in Tamper really happened, but of course, I embellished parts of it. The treasure hunt, the layout of the streets, the bag of bones, Main Street, the woods, racing sleds and bicycles downhill, are all based in reality.
Besides the events in my hometown, some of the other stuff is based on real experience too. For example, I really did sit on a beach under the night stars in Spain, with some friends, looking out at the Rock of Gibralter, listening to "Four Cornered Room" by WAR on a small, battery operated cassette tape player, and it seemed almost transcendental at the time.
Levi: How do you plan to market and sell this novel? Do you enjoy being an indie writer, and do you have advice for other indie writers?
Bill: I would prefer that a major publisher picked up my book and promoted it to the masses. There is one thing I like about being an indie, which is the realization that just because a book is supposedly finished, that doesn’t mean I can’t go back and fix things. I learned by trial and error on my first two books, and I used to stress out, thinking, "What if I release a book that’s not good enough?" I either put the book out too soon and grieved over the errors, or toiled endlessly for perfection. Partly, it was not being able to afford a second edition with some of those high-priced, so-called self-publishing companies. So, I founded Surtsey Publishing, and I use CreateSpace for print-on-demand, and it’s no longer a problem. Obviously, I have to draw the line somewhere with revisions. At some point, you have to let it go. I don’t foresee any revisions on Tamper -- it’s nearly perfect. But I’m going to combine the short stories from my first two books, Time Adjusters and Space Savers, into one volume, re-release them on Surtsey with some killer revisions! Anyone who has already purchased one of those books will get a chance to buy the new edition at the greatly reduced price, or maybe even get a free copy for a limited time. I haven’t worked out the details yet. But anyone interested in reading Tamper need not worry -- it’s not going to change.
As for marketing, there’s been a lot of talk lately, mainly from Cory Doctorow, about making books available online for free. Doctorow says that making his books available free online has not hurt his book sales. I’m not quite that adventurous yet, so I’m going to make the first three chapters of Tamper available on the internet.
I’ve got two book signings lined up here in Jacksonville, Florida so far, where I’ll read excerpts from the book and talk about it.
I plan to use blog ads to target the various types of readers who I believe the novel will appeal to. These include, on one hand, the pulp science fiction fans and the Forteans, folks who know that Richard Shaver was an actual writer for Amazing Stories Magazine in the 1940s. People who like offbeat historical fiction. My first draft had Richard Shaver as one of the central characters, in the manner that James Morrow includes Ben Franklin as a character in his novel The Last Witchfinder, but I wasn’t sure how far I should go, so I invented Olsen Archer, a friend and colleague of Shaver, to fill out the plot. I also think Tamper will appeal to those who enjoy dark psychological excursions into the locked desk of Henry James, as well as enlightening psychological expositions from the open lectern of his brother, William James. And books about the intersection of mysticism and science, like Deciphering the Cosmic Number by Arthur I. Miller (thanks to Jessa Crispin for recommending that one on her blog).
Levi: Many blogs such as Largehearted Boy and Paper Cuts ask writers what music they listened to while they wrote their latest books. Instead, I'd like to ask you a better question: what foods did you eat while you wrote this book?
Bill: I fell in love with olive oil and feta cheese about three years ago. I went for weeks at a time eating nothing but a big salad every day, with all kinds of fresh vegetables, topped with olive oil, vinegar, and feta cheese, and later in the evening, drinking many cups of black coffee, staying up all night. But from time to time, maybe to compensate for the lack of booze, I went on binges in which I ate big bowls of cereal with milk, bananas, raisins, peanut butter, and ice cream piled on it. I seem to be one of those all-or-nothing people. I won’t even go into the prescription drugs I eat.
For more about Ectric's novel go here, or check out Bill's website.
Choosing favorite books is a daunting task for anyone who reads enough to have several favorites, and comparing them in order to decide which one is the true Favorite Book is a ridiculous task: they're all so different. I love Pride and Prejudice and I love On the Road, but I can't really find a comparison point between them, other than the fact that each is a series of words printed on pages and bound together in book form. So, when I'm asked what my favorite book is (and I do get asked), I usually go with something like "Oh, I have so many! This one is my favorite, and so is this one, and I can't forget about this one, and have you read this?" It's impossible. And yet, whenever I do this, I am keenly aware of two things:
1. It's a cop out.
2. Holding one book as a favorite above all the rest is not actually going to hurt the other books' feelings.
So I'm just going to come right out with it: my favorite book of all time is The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. There.
I understand why people give up on it and declare it unreadable, and think it is an impenetrable wall of modernist "Oooh, I'm in your thoughts" blabbity blah, but the truth is that it's not as difficult as it seems and the stuff you think you're not understanding at first starts to make sense as you move through the novel. Perhaps that's cold comfort for anybody who has tried to make it through the first section with Benjy and his bright shapes and Caddy smelling like trees, but it gets easier as it moves along.
The novel consists of four sections, each written from a different perspective, yet all of them come together brilliantly to tell the story of the Compson family: how things fall apart, and how life keeps moving on anyway. It’s almost audacious, the way life keeps doing that, moving on right in the face of our tragedies, as we watch everything that was supposed to be slip away. The book’s title comes from Shakespeare, Macbeth 5:5, ll. 22-31:
Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Macbeth speaks these lines right after learning of his wife's death, when he's at the point of knowing that all his villainy has been for naught. The Compson family's story is different, of course, yet these lines resonate across the family's decline from greatness, across the expectations of how things should have been yet aren't, and all of it is distilled across the life of Benjy, the idiot, the book's beginning and end, who is unable to express himself except by wailing and crying.
At its core, the novel is about Caddy, the rebellious daughter, and the way she affects the lives of the others in her family by conceiving a child out of wedlock and attempting to cover it up with a hasty marriage to another man (which backfires). The key moment in the book is when Caddy, with muddy drawers, climbs a tree to look in a window and see the death of Damuddy, the grandmother, while her brothers stay on the ground looking up at her. It’s a moment that’s ripe with symbolism and its implications affect each of the boys -- Benjy, Quentin, Jason -- who tell their stories (and hers) in turn. Even if she's the catalyst, she doesn't get her own voice in the novel; everything she said and did is filtered through the thoughts and memories and remarks of others, and as a result, her picture emerges, but never truly comes into focus. Yet if we look back at Shakespeare for just a minute, the line that seems to sum her up the most is, "And all our yesterdays have lighted fools/ The way to dusty death." Of Caddy’s story, Faulkner said, “I tried first to tell it with one brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section One. I tried it with another brother, and that wasn’t enough. That was Section Two. I tried the third brother, because Caddy was still to me too beautiful and too moving to reduce her to telling what was going on, that it would be more passionate to see her through somebody else’s eyes, I thought. And that failed and I tried myself -- the fourth section -- to tell what happened, and I still failed.”
What an astoundingly beautiful series of failures. Though of course I’m not sure I agree that Faulkner failed -- writing so often feels like not being able to say what you want to say anyhow -- the cumulative effect of these sections is that the story of the Compson family’s decline comes through in fits and starts, fragments of thoughts and memories, comments and perceptions. That’s how stories tend to happen and get passed on. It all ends up feeling very organic somehow.
When we read, we tend to expect certain things out of a narrative, especially that it moves forward and we can follow its events -- this happened and then this and then this -- but with this novel, Faulkner dashes this expectation right from the beginning. Books are supposed to have expository moments, and we're supposed to be able to read and look around the world of the narrative and have a general idea where (and when) things are and what's happening, but the opening section of The Sound and the Fury (the most difficult section and the place where people are most likely to give up) does not do this. April Seventh, 1928 is told from the perspective of Benjy, who is, as the back cover of my copy of the book puts it, a "manchild." He doesn't talk and his brain doesn't think in a linear way, so in the space of a few sentences, it's possible to slip from the present action to sometime years and years in the past, without any sort of warning at all. Add on top of this the fact that Benjy experiences the world in details and not in the larger picture expository way that characters in novels often do (which allows readers to situate themselves within the world of the narrative) and what ends up happening is that it's hard to know what's going on at all. It's frustrating because it doesn't follow any sort of rules, and we're left scrambling to keep up (or tossing the book across the room in a fit of irritation). I understand this frustration, and I understand the impulse to want to untangle all the knots of language and lay them out in straight, easy-to-follow threads, but I also know that Benjy's section of the novel is written the way it is exactly on purpose and it's less important to figure everything out than it is to pick up on the details that Benjy hands us. We'll need those details later.
While most of the book takes place on different days in the same week in April, 1928, the second section dips into the past. It's written from the perspective of Quentin on the last day of his life, June Second, 1910. After making it through Benjy's section, you might expect a reprieve, and you get one, to a degree. It's not the most easy reading in the world, but there is a definite chain of events here, and though Quentin also deals in frequent flashbacks, at least his are easier to spot, since his present is clearly at Harvard and his past is clearly in Mississippi. Through Quentin's memories, the pieces of Caddy's story start falling into place; the images we saw as we remembered along with Benjy begin to fit into context. This one section of this one novel may in fact be the finest distillation of many of the themes that show up in Faulkner's other work. We have the big ones: race, class, gender, and the South that was and will never be again, the South that may have just been a daydream in the first place, all of it coming through poor, tortured Quentin whose thoughts are as thick and strangling as the heavy scent of honeysuckle that torments him.
In comparison to the first two sections of the novel, the back half of The Sound and the Fury is easy like Sunday morning. As soon as you get to "Once a bitch always a bitch, what I say," you know you're in the clear. Oh sure, you still have to deal with Jason's section (April Sixth, 1928), which is long and full of seething anger and kind of whiny to be honest, but it's also got some of that humor that Faulkner does so well, the kind that makes you wonder if you're supposed to think something is funny. (I honestly don't know if it's funny in places or if there's just something wrong with me.) And finally, April Eighth, 1928 is written in the third person. It follows Dilsey, the Compson family's servant, as she works in the house and takes Benjy to church. She's the one who cooks the meals and has mostly raised the children, and she seems to be suffering from arthritis, yet she continues working hard, climbing slowly and painfully up and down the stairs in the family home while the family seems to remain clueless. It also follows Jason as he deals with Caddy's daughter (also named Quentin) as she carries on her mother's legacy and pushes it further, signaling a deeper shift away from the way things were. The Sound and the Fury is always referred to as a tragedy, and it is one, but the ending always feels hopeful to me. It takes place on Easter Sunday, a day that's all about living again, and as the book winds to a close, life just keeps happening.
In the end, The Sound and the Fury is a beautiful book not just because the writing will blow your mind if you let it (provided you're the kind of person to love a book solely on the grounds of the writer's use of language, and if you are, you're my kind of person), but because it is about human beings. It's not all cold intellect and verbal manipulation, and it's not just an empty pile of dazzling, frustrating, confounding words. It's a book about life written from inside people's heads, not only capturing the how of thought, but also giving us the why. It's because of this that the book is touching and funny and sad and gorgeous, easily deserving its place as one of the greatest achievements in American literature. It's unfortunate that it gets dismissed as being unreadable because parts of it are difficult; it's got heart, man, and that is why it is worth the love.
1. Okay, so I flip-flopped on the Kindle. I still dislike the high price, the DRM policy and the secrecy about sales numbers, but on the other hand Amazon appears to be showing conviction, focus and flexibility in the way they are evolving the product. Also, a few months ago I wrote that I've never seen anyone reading a Kindle on a train, but I have recently seen two people doing so. This says a lot. I remain mixed in my feelings about the product, but it's clear that the Kindle is here to stay, and this is probably a good thing.
Following the lead of several other literary bloggers, I've now made this website available for Kindle subscription. I don't own a Kindle myself, so I can't even check out how it works, but if any Kindle owners out there can check it out, please tell me what you see!
2. More technological developments: here's Slate on the semantically-charged new knowledge engine Wolfram Alpha, supposedly a challenger to Google: "If only it worked ..."
3. There are a lot of intense debates revolving around the triple satellites of e-books, blogs and Twitter, all of it possibly leading to same grand conflagration (or, more likely, not) during next weekend's Book Expo 2009 in New York City. Till we all meet there, Kassia Krozser is tracking various debates involving electronic publishing.
4. Allison Glock flaunts her silly prejudices in a Poetry Foundation article about blogs. Based on her piece, I'm betting she's never actually seen a blog.
Instead of fostering actual connection, blogs inevitably activate our baser human instincts—narcissism, vanity, schadenfreude. They offer the petty, cheap thrill of perceived superiority or released vitriol. How easy it is to tap tap tap your indignation and post, post, post into the universe, where it will velcro to the indignation of others, all fusing into a smug, sticky mess and not much else in the end. You know those dinners at chain restaurants, where they pile the plate with three kinds of pasta and five sauces and endless breadsticks and shrimp and steak and bacon bits all topped in fresh grated cheese? Blogs are like that: loads of crap that fill you up. With crap.
5. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman is one of my favorite plays. It's now running in New Haven with an African-American cast, featuring Charles S. Dutton as Willy Loman.
6. Jamelah tells me: "Paste Magazine is a really really good publication and it would be sad if it went under".
7. The New York Public Library is facing deep budget cuts and asking for a show of support. Let's keep those lions well-fed.
8. A Michigan high school bans Toni Morrison's novel Song of Solomon.
9. Flannery O'Connor in Atlantic Monthly.
10. Arthur Conan Doyle and spiritualism. And here's what Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law are doing with Sherlock Holmes.
11. A glance at a surprisingly healthy publishing industry in India.
12. I didn't realize Britian's legendary publishing firm Faber and Faber was only 80 years old.
13. John O'Hara's wonderful novel Appointment in Samarra gets some appreciation from Lydia Kiesling at The Millions.
14. Another form of Action Poetry: Yoko Ono is arranging Twitter haiku.
1. Some Internet memes are meant to last more than a day or two. Like everybody else, I watched the moving Susan Boyle performance on YouTube earlier this week, and then I watched it again and again. What makes this so special? The quality of her singing alone doesn't account for the craze (and maybe that's why there's already a backlash brewing). What makes the performance so magical, I think, is the transformation we are allowed to witness. Before Susan Boyle sings, she appears dowdy, foolish, out of place. Then the music starts, her spine straightens and she becomes a different person, beautiful, elegant, confident, before our eyes.
Screw the backlash; I plan to watch this video at least ten more times. And thinking about Susan Boyle's televised metamorphosis makes me realize how often the appeal of music has to do with the excitement of transformation. With that in mind, here are a few more recent notes on music, literary and otherwise.
2. Inspired by an apparent nod from Bob Dylan, I've now begun reading Southern writer Larry Brown, who I'd previously only occasionally read about on a blog. I couldn't find the short story collection Big Bad Love in my local Borders, but I did find a novel called Dirty Work and it's excellent. It's very easy to imagine why Dylan would like this writer (the highly literary singer has also been reading and talking about Barack Obama's book).
3. I get many review copies of books in the mail, and not nearly as many CDs. A publicist for the Decemberists sent me their new CD Hazards of Love because it was supposed to have lots of literary content. After several intrigued listenings, I still can't quite make out the story (which seems to involve a rake's progress and a twisted love affair) but I love the music. It reminds me of nothing so much as vintage Jethro Tull -- dynamic, lilting and appealingly histrionic -- with a touch of late-period David Bowie, and I sure as hell do mean that as a compliment. Check it out for yourself.
4. There's nothing wrong with Neil Young's new automotive-inspired CD Fork in the Road either. Shades of Rust Never Sleeps, except now it's an ecologically-minded LincVolt rather than a sedan that's being delivered.
5. The new Jadakiss record includes "What If", a sequel to his great track "Why" that features a guest verse by Nas. I wouldn't mind two or three more verses, but Jadakiss has never been one to wear out his welcome.
6. He got erased from history in the otherwise good film Cadillac Records, but late great Chess recording artist Bo Diddley has another distinction: Malia and Sasha Obama's dog is named after him.
7. Xeni Jardin points to the always transformative Patti Smith on Easter Sunday.
8. An archived Ramones performance from Steve Wozniak's 1982 California bash the US Festival.
9. A new David Lynch video meditates upon Moby.
10. A four-year-old kid channeling Keith Moon.
11. A bunch of girls jumping rope.
If not one of these various offerings manages to transform you, I don't know what to say.
The photo above is me, reading Brad Gooch's biography of Flannery O'Connor (appropriately titled Flannery), and my yawning dog. She's a tough critic. Anyway, I've been a fan of Flannery O'Connor since I first read her story "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" back when I was in high school, and as I got older and read more of her work, my appreciation of her grew. In fact, on my personal list of Date Book-Talk Gone Wrong is the following snippet:
Him: What kind of books do you like?
Me: A lot of different kinds. I just read a short story by Flannery O'Connor this morning, actually. Do you like Flannery O'Connor?
Him: Oh, that Irish guy? He's really good.
In close proximity to primordial Florida swamps, branch-shrouded canopy roads, and Kafkaesque state capital intrigues, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer are Tallahassee’s greatest unnatural resource.
Ann is the fiction editor of Weird Tales Magazine, its continuing mission to publish brilliantly strange original material unavailable anywhere else. Jeff is on the cutting edge of the “New Weird,” infusing literary proficiency back into gothic fantasy and sci-fi with such novels as Veniss Underground, City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek, and most recently, Finch.
The industry is buzzing about chick-lit again. I don't know much about this whole phenomenon, except in a strange way I do, because I was raised on chick-lit. As a kid in the 1970s, the first grownup books I read (and really enjoyed) were the racy, funny and wise novels that my grandmother, my mother and my older sister left lying around the house. These books had a big influence on me, and I wonder if the chick-lit of today could possibly be as good.
This is not one of my favorite movies in the world.
I know I'm about two years late to the trashing party for this movie, so I don't think I should bother going into much detail. The fact that this film is a disappointment is not news. I'm not sure if I have any original complaints to add, but maybe I can at least vent a little of my personal fury by making a couple of points about this film:
First, the performances were as bad as everybody told me they would be. Nicole Kidman and Jude Law didn't come across as actors so much as dress-up dolls reading lines from a script. Renee Zellweiger managed to have some fun with the role of Ruby, but beyond that every performer was stiff and artificial. I was particularly disappointed in Donald Sutherland, who was supposed to be playing Ada's father, Monroe, but was instead apparently playing Martin Sheen playing Robert E. Lee playing Monroe. Ever hear of method acting, Sutherland? What the hell is your motivation?
I just read Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier for the second time. I'm convinced this book stands very tall amongst all books recently published, and I would eagerly put money down that it will be considered a true literary classic by future generations.
One reason this opinion may seem surprising to some is that Cold Mountain was a #1 bestseller, and contains many elements of "genre fiction": a steamy love story, a picturesque travelogue, a few morose battle scenes from the Civil War. The book was even subjected to the indignity of having Nicole Kidman and Jude Law dress up as its characters in a big Hollywood film (I have not seen this film yet, and I've been warned to just steer clear). There are echoes of Melville and Kerouac, but the book is clearly not the type of thing I usually go wild over. There's nothing postmodern or alternative about it ... and yet the fact remains that you could stack twenty DeLillo and Bukowski novels into a skyscraper and I'd still choose this book over the whole stack.
Okay, I'll admit it. I like this book a lot, and the second reading blew me away even more than the first. I've been accustomed to saying Raymond Carver is the greatest living writer (which is supposed to be funny since Raymond Carver died of cancer in 1988), but the next time somebody asks me this question -- who knows, I may just spit out Charles Frazier's name. Here are the reasons why:
First, his talent for characterization leaves me awestruck. When I write fiction, I struggle to never create boring, stereotypical characters. This can be an uphill battle, but apparently not for Frazier. He simply turns out one vivid, complex portrait after another. A near-feral teenage girl with a prodigal gift for farming; a thoroughly immoral preacher who loses a wrestling match to a catfish; a witchy goat lady; a drunk who builds his own fiddle; a retarded boy who follows the fiddler around. Who are these people and how did they get so real?
Second, the book's simple "country-style" narrative structure conceals some deft touches. I can pinpoint the exact moment when Cold Mountain won me over. It's around page 58, when a preacher (not the incompetent one mentioned above, but the noble and high-minded father of the book's heroine) leaves the big city of Charleston to take up the call in an abandoned parish in the mountains, and has to adjust to a much less sophisticated clientele:
"The houses were dark inside, even on a bright day. Those with shutters kept them pulled to. Those with curtains kept them drawn ... Monroe would rattle on at great length, introducing himself and explaining his view of the church's mission and talking theology and urging attendance at prayer meetings and services. All the while the men would sit in straight chairs looking at the fire. Many of them went unshod and they stuck their feet out before them with no shame whatsoever. For all you could tell by their bearing. They looked at the fire and said not a word and moved not one muscle in their faces as response to anything Monroe said."
We think we know where the author is going with this, but two pages later we are suddenly exposed to the other side of the story, and discover that the mountain folks, far from being quietly resistant to their new preacher, are actively engaged in hilarity at his expense, playing tricks on him and whispering behind his back. They don't like his superior attitude, and they're insulted by his use of the term "mission", since they themselves have contributed to charitable organizations that send Christian missions to Asia and Africa, and do not appreciate being thought of as requiring missionairies themselves.
This is the kind of feat few writers are capable of. Skateboarders call it a "360", and it's no less impressive in a novel taking place in 1864 North Carolina. The preacher and his neighbors eventually come to good terms, and the compassion and warmth the author presents in these scenes point to the moral and political message of the entire book. North Carolina was not highly committed to the Civil War, and the folks in this book are simply victims of the war in every sense. Caught between a slave-holding South and an industrial North, the people of the mountains are simply trampled. Their homes are invaded and overrun, their economies are destroyed, and anarchy rules the land. They can't defend themselves, but they can retain their pride, and more than anything else that's the message this book teaches.
You've probably noticed that I like this book. I should mention again that I haven't seen the movie yet, but I have rented the DVD, so I may post some opinions on it shortly.