Writing space

Inspired by BlogLily, I took a picture of where I write. Unlike some, I haven’t cleaned up, so you’re seeing my desk au natural. Just to the left of my PowerBook is a stack of six books waiting to be written about and a few recent copies of The New Yorker, which further add to the chaos.


While at Kate’s, I also noticed her typewriter post and sent her this e-mail (edited slightly):

I’m a bit younger than you and so do not remember a time without computers, and while I love the convenience of computers I also like the thrack-thrack-thrack typewriter noises and the key sensation. Some computer keyboards offered a similar tactile experience: the old-school IBM Model M and Apple Extended Keyboard II.

Both these have been replaced by soft-key keyboards, although independent companies have resurrected the older style. On the Windows side a Kentucky company sells the Customizer, and on the Mac side a Canadian company sells the Matias Tactile Pro. Like you, I also use a PowerBook, and I bought one of the (original) Tactile Pros and love it. The keyboard is ludicrously expensive, to be sure, and the noise annoys others if they have to share the same space, but it comes as close as you can get to the typewriter.

You can see the white Tactile Pro at the bottom of my desk.

EDIT: Things have changed since this was posted—see the new setup here.

About Alice

Calvin Trillin discussed his new book About Alice on January 31, although the book is almost identical to a magazine article published in The New Yorker last March. I read both and didn’t immediately detect any of the differences in the book. It is probably the most moving piece of short nonfiction I’ve read, and dealt honestly and cleanly with a subject that could easily have descended in sentimentality, and would have in lesser hands but never did in his. The large crowd came because of that, and when I say large I mean it: I arrived just before Trillin started speaking and had to wedge myself between some bookcases toward the back of the reading area at the University Book Store.

Instead of jumping right into About Alice, Trillin first read some other pieces where she played a starring role; before he discussed Alice as she passed he discussed Alice as she lived, but the questions focused on his new book. I started. In About Alice, Trillin says that he met Alice when she was engaged—well, apparently just a few weeks from being married—so I asked if he’d still knew the guy or if he knew whether the guy’s reaction to About Alice. His answer—all one word of it—made the crowd crack up: “No.” But the crowd was already in a good mood, and I wonder how many standup comedians have so appreciative a group.

Some of their goodwill must have come from the way Trillin mixed genuine feeling with humor, since the latter is so often bound up with cynicism or cruel irony. Hearing something different is startling, and from About Alice and other books one can hear and feel how Trillin feels about Alice. I could even hear it in his discussion, and this is a greater accomplishment than it seems because Trillin talks almost in a monotone and relies primarily on words for his delivery.

A few people asked questions that seemed like they were out of advice columns lite; one woman asked about whether Trillin found closure and the like, as though his writing is just a version of therapy, while another asked how Trillin “transubstantiates” everyday experience into writing. In other words, he was asking how to be funny. Trillin was patient with them, as I guess authors have to be, though he did seem to poke a little bit and gently at some questions—after all, he makes humor out of life. It was very much worth hearing him—even if it meant being stuck between bookcases.

The Sea

It is not clear what we should take from The Sea, John Banville’s brooding novel about an old man looking over his life, its early parts, and his early awakening. He apparently did not use well whatever knowledge he gained through his early loves, at least based on his sometimes harsh assessment of his daughter’s life. I say harsh because his voice and tone are tinged with disappointment, but his views are not expressed harshly because he understands his daughter and why she made the choices she did, but because he recognizes his own failures in her.

Parts sing, but they cannot carry the whole, as even when they do sing they also lose the melody:

She is in my memory her own avatar. Which is the more real, the woman reclining on the grassy bank of my recollections, or the strew of dust and dried marrow that is all the earth retains of her? No doubt for others elsewhere she persists, a moving figure in the waxworks of memory, but their version will be different from mine, and from each other’s. Thus in the minds of the many does the one ramify and disperse. It does not last, it cannot, it is not immortality. We carry the dead with us only until we die too, and then it is we who are borne along for a little while, and then our bearers in their turn drop, and so on into the unimaginable generations. I remember Anna, our daughter Claire will remember Anna and remember me, then Claire will be gone and there will be those who remember her but not us, and that will be our final dissolution. True, there will be something of us that will remain, a fading photograph, a lock of hair, a few fingerprints, […] yet none of this will be us, what we are and were, but only the dust of the dead.

Morbid, but accurate, even if two things ring false: the “grassy bank of my recollection” is a ridiculous metaphor because there is nothing about recollections that imply a grassy bank or anything like it, and also the word “ramify”, which, though I know what it means, stuck out as a word used more because it sounds literary in an intimidating and exclusive fashion than because it is appropriate. Here it distracts from the narrative—demonstrating why it is so seldom used.

Oh, and aside from the writing, it would also be nice if The Sea were at least a little bit funny. It’s hard to be ceaselessly grim about someone who, despite being bent by regret—and possibly criminal alliteration—lived reasonably well. Do we have a right to demand heroic events and achievements? Obviously not, but it’s hard to see tragedy through Banville’s novel, though that seems his target.

I wonder if the current big deal European literature obsession with the past is actually a large trend or just most obvious in Booker winners. I’m tempted to make facile generalizations on the basis of a small subset of prize-winning works that most of the U.K. probably hasn’t read and probably hasn’t even heard of, but I’ll avoid that in favor of raising the question and then not exploring the answers to it.

At least one novel I have read, however, takes what The Sea aims for and hits the mark. Contrast it with Ian McEwan’s Atonement, a much better book dealing with similar themes but told from the perspectives of people living their lives, and the former shrivels away. Atonement deserves its big prize, as its metaphors do not strain and its language does not ascend to heights before falling off them because it’s too heavily encumbered.

Martin Amis in Seattle

Martin Amis spoke at Town Hall in Seattle on January 26 about his new book, House of Meetings. The talk itself was much smoother than the novel, as the book’s structure confused rather than enlightened. Where and when was the action taking place? How did it link together with each event? If House of Meetings becomes a classic—an unlikely but possible scenario—someone will no doubt rearrange it chronologically in an attempt to see more of it.

Despite the book’s faults, Amis was an excellent reader: a strong voice that didn’t overwhelm and a cadence that seemed appropriate to the work and questions. He had an odd habit of sometimes skipping words or sentences, and I’m not sure why he did, unless it was to amuse himself or slightly confuse the audience. Several times he also replaced words in ways that substantially changed meaning—for example, he once used “black” in place of “slave,” when the latter referred to a character in the Gulag.

Two people asked ridiculous questions: one whether Amis would ever write about the United States, the other about Amis’ “creative process.” The first has the sense to be embarrassed when Amis answered that he had lived in the U.S., set part of at least two novels in it and all of at least two more.

The best line came when he described life: “You’re starring in a very crude, irresponsible, and, above all, low budget, horror film.”
It’s very funny but also serious and apt, like many of his novels. At this point and at several others I had the sense of deep waters churning, but that I could not perceive their depths. Another perceptive comment was on the modern novel, when he suggested that when a writer finds a difficulty, the writer name the difficulty itself. Seems like an unfortunate trick if you leave the dilemma in the text.

After the reading when Amis signed my books, he mentioned that he has a 20-year-old son named Jacob; I should have asked if his son was going to take over the family pub—a reference to Money, in which Martin Amis the character comments on whether he inherited the writing business—but wasn’t quick enough on my feet. Whether he would’ve laughed or wanted to garrote me I don’t know.

I did arrive having read only half the novel, and as I continued I felt somehow let down. There are sentences and even paragraphs of beauty amid the wasteland. What is this slight novel trying to say? Perhaps that the world itself is fragmentary, and all the moreso when the state turns against its people and intentionally tries to rip all social connections apart. Amis is appropriate hard on the Russia of Stalin’s era while simultaneously realizing that today’s Russia under Putin is merely following the rhythm that even Stalin did not start.Clearly Amis also saw much of Dostoevsky, and some of the humor in House of Meeting he sees going back to that author—whose only virtue, according to Amis, is that he’s a genius, and not precisely as a writer. It was a point I would have liked to follow up, but couldn’t, and in Amis’ novel I can see those perfect few sentences that are imperfectly developed into a larger idea that would help round out the characters: “‘Closure’: ech, if I so much as whisper it or mouth it I feel myself transformed into a white-coated, fat-necked peanut in a mall-style consulting room. Closure is a greasy little word which, moreover, describes a nonexistent condition.” (Italics in original.) It’s an appropriate rebuke to the unfortunate confessional aspects of Western culture, which embraces the possibility of something that isn’t always there.Given all this, the lavish praise in blurbs for House of Meetings somewhat puzzles me: the characters, save for the protagonist, are absent, and they seem victims of history. All of my comments may be violating one of John Updike’s rules about book reviewing: do not criticize the author for what he has not attempted to do. Is difficulty in reading a requirement for literary praise? It rings hollow. There is House of Meetings, the text itself, which I finished and for which I feel nothing, like a woman who I know, intellectually, that I should find attractive and yet don’t. Money was disgusting and amazing; House of Meetings leaves the faint taste of a life twisted by the state and, sadly, a reader twisted by the author. I wish it were otherwise.

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