What the writer does: Sherlock Holmes edition

Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result.

That’s Arthur Conan Doyle, from A Study in Scarlet, and it applies to what novelists do too: not just describe events, but put “events together in their minds” and see what happens as those events play out.

One reason I tend to argue against people who say they have no time or inclination for fiction is reality: in the form of nonfiction, even narrative nonfiction, it imposes limits on the imagination in a story (which may be one reason why so many people, especially those writing memoirs, are inclined to make shit up to make the story better). Fiction removes the reality constraint, and instead imagination imposes its own necessary and proper restraints on imagination.

At times fiction also pokes at the problems posed by reality, as in Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man. A chair is the pretext for a major fight between a married couple, and the man is describing a scene to his father-in-law:

“When she wouldn’t get out of the way, I set the bag down and took her by the shoulders. . . . Then . . . I don’t know. She must have tripped over the bag. I heard a crash, and when I turned she was there on the floor. She’d fallen into . . .”
He stops, unable to continue.
“The chair,” I say.
He stares at me through moist, confused eyes. “No, the stereo cabinet.”
“Oh, sorry,” I say. I my writing workshop I’d have explained to my students why, for symmetry, in had to be the chair.

In fiction symbols can align neatly as they so often don’t outside of fiction. The “train of events” runs smoothly or unsmoothly on the writer’s tracks, or on “their own inner consciousness.” Not always to an interesting end, but to an end that shows things nonfiction, whatever its virtues, often doesn’t.

UCLA’s Southland conference this weekend

Expect posting to be light in the immediate future: tomorrow I’m leaving for the Southland conference on “Institutions: History, Practice, Method” at UCLA to deliver ” ‘Starting Monday, I kill a duck a day until I get a budget:’ Campus Novels Bite the Hand that Feeds Them Through Satirizing Academic Culture” (the quote in the title is from Richard Russo’s Straight Man). The abstract for my essay is available here.

UCLA's Southland conference this weekend

Expect posting to be light in the immediate future: tomorrow I’m leaving for the Southland conference on “Institutions: History, Practice, Method” at UCLA to deliver ” ‘Starting Monday, I kill a duck a day until I get a budget:’ Campus Novels Bite the Hand that Feeds Them Through Satirizing Academic Culture” (the quote in the title is from Richard Russo’s Straight Man). The abstract for my essay is available here.

Blue Angel — Francine Prose

Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (2000) bears more than a little resemblance to Richard Russo’s Straight Man (1997), which isn’t bad—both are smart, funny novels that use English departments as a launching rather than end point to explore politics, society, and life. Bad novels become mired in their time and place; good novels transcend them by making a particular time and place a metaphor or microcosm for something bigger. Sure, it’s easy to mock academic (or business, or families, or any number of other social configurations) life, as structure can easily ossify and become stultifying, but using these structures as a base instead of destination helps transcend them, as both Blue Angel and Straight Man do. From similar beginnings, however, Blue Angel and Straight Man diverge based on their protagonists’ decisions, and in Blue Angel the choice eventually leads to a hilarious and astonishing Kafka-esque tribunal scene.

Blue Angel is based around two theoretical premises: the fundamental imbalance of knowledge between novelists teaching creative writing and know-it-all, under-literate students taking said classes. I feel confident making the second generalization because I was one of those students—now I’m not in the classes but am otherwise similar. The second premise involves sexual politics and power, or lack thereof—while it’s wrong, wrong, wrong for professors to sleep with students, Blue Angel implies that it’s not always the professor who has the power. In addition, a plot point involving the latent sexual tension in many relationships is irresistible as a device in novels where very little else is otherwise at stake. And what kind of tension is going on in Blue Angel? Is it gender, power, class, or something else? They intersect and morph, much like in The Bonfire of the Vanities, and Prose leaves the battle lines deliciously ambiguous. I can’t remember who said it, but I read that one way of propelling a novel is to get two people who shouldn’t sleep together to do so and then see what happens.

This used to be easier, when sex outside of marriage was completely taboo and divorce led to societal suicide and extreme social censure. Now you have to go a bit further. Marriage plots don’t work nearly as effectively when most people aren’t virgins when they marry and quickie, no-fault divorces mean that a bed decision can leave you back in the same fundamental position you once were six months after accidental nuptials. Ian McEwan exploits the cusp of this revolution in On Chesil Beach, but writers who set stories in contemporary times have to deal with contemporary mores. Prose does effectively through the hothouse atmosphere of an English Department, where Ted Swenson finds that he’s teaching “[…] every Tuesday afternoon, [when] Swenson’s job requires him to discuss someone’s tale of familial incest, fumbling teenage sex, some girl’s or boy’s first blow job, with the college’s most hypersensitive and unbalanced students, some of whom simply despise him for reasons he can only guess: he’s the teacher, and they’re not, or he looks like somebody’s father.”

Is Swenson trapped? If so, by what, or whom, except himself? It’s not obvious, and Swenson is aware of the dilemma: “But like convicts who love their shackles, nearly all [professors] chose not to escape” Blue Angel and Straight Man imply one can leave this vast, masturbatory game if you have sufficient ironic distance to survive, perhaps tempered with the unpleasant realization that you might be too weak, timid, or self-satisfied. The game is more serious and less serious than it appears, depending on the narrator’s mind at any time, and this is made more difficult when writing teachers aren’t performing the first part of their jobs and have reasons—in Swenson’s case, “[…] once more he’s [Swenson] siphoned all his creative juices into a brain-numbing chat with a student. He’s ruined the day for writing, and his punishment is to face yet another of the problems with not writing, which is: how to kill all that time.” The reality is that Swenson isn’t a writer: if he were, he wouldn’t complain about writing, he would simply be doing it. In an interview Robertson Davies discussed how he produced innumerable novels while working as a publisher and, later, while teaching. Swenson is, like many of his students, simply making excuses.

He’s also not so different from Ruby, his daughter, than he’d like to think, though she is underdeveloped and a mere figure. This might be intentional, as recriminations over her place haunt the conversations between Swenson and Sherrie; perhaps this strained distance is the norm for parents and their children rather than the exception. There are some other problems than the portrait of Ruby—for example, as so often happens in novels, the scenes involving computers are poorly done. Ruby also says, “The Women’s Studies Department had to threaten a class-action lawsuit before they’d even investigate.” This makes no sense, because there is class or group of people to file suit—only a single organization or entity. Granted, it could be the character’s mistake, but Blue Angel doesn’t show this to be the case. Elsewhere, however, Prose nails details, as when Angela Argo, the improbable temptress, takes a class in “Text Studies in Gender Warfare.” Blue Angel could recursively be an assigned text in such a class, given its minute reading of the bizarre sexual politics overlaid on the wider culture in tun overlaid on whatever biological human instinct hides under the veneer of modern discourse. References to churches, religion, and Jonathan Edwards peter out towards the end of Blue Angel, which is a shame because they offered a rich vein of allusions for a novel with more than a little secular sin and, it implies, mindless persecution instead of the high-minded search for justice and truth that the university is supposed to cultivate. Blue Angel is far deeper than its premise suggests, and its self-aware humor gives it enough heft to bite into a situation that could easily degenerate into silly farce.

More on the long-predicted demise of reading

* Steve Jobs thinks reading is dead; Timothy Egan disagrees. If it’s dying, would it just hurry up?

* In the same vein: a paean to the departed past where civilization dwells. The Wonderful Past, redux.

* Philippa Gregory watches a novel with no literary merit anyway and still gets the Hollywood treatment. Compare to Philip Pullman, whose books have literary merit.

* Terry Teachout quoting T.S. Eliot. Compare and contrast to Richard Russo in Straight Man: “Virtually everybody in the English department has a half-written novel squirreled away in a desk drawer. I know this to be a fact because before they all started filing grievances against me, I was asked to read them. Sad little vessels all. Scuffy the Tugboat, lost and scared on the open sea. All elegantly written, all with the same artistic goal—to evidence a superior disposition.”

Bridge of Sighs

Richard Russo said he’s been in Seattle to promote every one of his books, and I wish I’d been to previous talks, as his droll yet earnest comments at Elliott Bay went on for the perfect length of time—unlike Bridge of Sighs, a quality book made less so by its length. Around page 400 I was ready for the other cover. Still, it’s his third excellent book in a row, and one in which Russo said he identifies more with the protagonist than any of his other novels. That protagonist is Lou C. “Lucy” Lynch, one of the three main characters in a novel stuffed with as many minor characters as Tolstoy. I think Russo would be pleased with the comparison to Tolstoy, though Russo also has the advantage of being funny, though without easy one-liners I can quote without context.

The novel itself is largely about interpreting life. Russo said that he’s rapidly approaching 60—too rapidly, I heard him think—and the time when, according to him, any way you slice it, it’s half over. He says the central question becomes, “What has this been about and how did I get here?” That’s certainly the topic of Bridge of Sighs, a novel partially told by a man (mis?)remembering his childhood. The technique annoyed me as often as it interested me, and yet the annoyance helped build interest as I remembered with Lucy, whose childhood friend Robert Noonan is painting the bridge referenced in the title. It’s too obvious a metaphor for a writer as sophisticated as Russo, and it’s also been long used by Whitman and Hart Crane, though for Russo the metaphor is one that shifts with the characters who observe it, and by the end it has come to have enough meanings that perhaps it has shed all of them and simply is.

His characters—Lucy, his wife Sarah, and their somewhat-friend Robert Noonan–are everymen (and woman) set up as a continuum, with Lucy “hat[ing] the very idea of change,” Noonan being change incarnate, and Sarah the sensible woman between them who has antecedents in Victorian literature. Lucy is attempting to understand all three, including himself, while he is “trying to square the past as I remember it today.” Ah: the past, mentioned again, as you can’t help when discussing this book. What I liked most from Russo’s talk was a comment pertinent to the issues in Bridge of Sighs and one that I’ve implicitly realized and tried to incorporate in my life: if you go back far enough, you see how someone came to be the way they are. Russo said that in his work and life he asks “What’s the initial assumption?” Why do people go down the “stupid, hateful path,” or at least a path that seems stupid and hateful to outsiders. His forceful language struck me because most of the time he hedged his answers in response to the world’s ambiguity, but in this he didn’t, presumably because it is ingrained in his novels. The question he’s always trying to answer gives an impressive texture to Bridge of Sighs and his other novels, and in it he writes about people in a way similar to Robertson Davies; Davies summarizes how he fits with the English tradition of sympathy in part because he writes about people as people—”[…] their sorrows and their distresses are made sometimes more poignant by the fact that they don’t know why things are happening to them[,]” in an interview.

Russo’s asking “What’s the initial assumption?” also explains the characters in his novels, many of whom have failed in the conventional sense of acquiring money, power, prestige, social standing, and usually all four together—if you go far enough back, they have reasons for staying in places that Seattlites and other coastal city dwellers condescend to (imagine New Yorkers’ opinions of upstate, or of Maine). The question scales up, too: if you go back far enough, you might see how a city, state, country, or even world came to be the way it is. Call it the cellular automata of the individual. I heard elements of Davies in this too, as when he says in 1970, “[…] I am depressed by the readiness with which people attribute to the Russians, or the Chinese, the evil passions and tendencies that make them dangerous themselves, without any awareness of what they are doing.” Well spoken: and a reminder of what Kundera writes about concerning the internationalism of literature and the interconnectedness of life that too many overlook.

The reading continued in an ambling way, like the novel, and it helped me see the humor I’d missed in the first 140 pages. Hearing a scene in which a man’s married mistress breaks up with him, followed by a confrontation with the husband and non-friend, gave them the lunacy you can miss from just the text. Still, the novel had flaws that couldn’t be covered up from sound: the dialog sometimes meandered, but perhaps that is the nature of trying to thrash out causation and understand life. It ranges from interpersonal relations to the undercurrent of populist anger at decline of small-town life—although I’m not sure when, historically, small-town life was really healthy and wonderful, especially given books like Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street—combined with the fatalistic realization that not much can be done to reverse the slide. In this respect, small-town life functions as a metaphor for aging: things are changing, perhaps for the worst, but there’s only one way to go. For Lucy Lynch, moving isn’t an option, and I suspect it isn’t for Russo, either.

Bridge of Sighs is worth trying, and my complaints about its length are preempted by Lucy when he says, “If this narrative seems whimsical simply by virtue of its being untrue, all I can say is that it’s even more realistic than the truth […]” Well, maybe, but it seems whimsical mostly because it is often whimsical, like part of Russo’s discussion. I would’ve liked to ask Russo if he knows of or likes Robertson Davies, and whether my supposition about his work defending small towns and their inhabitants is accurate. But time ran out before we could go back and see his initial assumptions, so we are left with Russo’s novels and interviews. Despite the length of Bridge of Sighs, I will read his next one even if it’s 1,000 pages.


“My daughter likes television, too, and I suspect that her thought process has been corrupted by advertising. Like many Americans, she no longer understands the meaning of simple words. She sees nothing absurd about the assertion ‘you deserve a break today’ when it’s applied across the entire spectrum of society. She believes she’s worth the extra money she spends on her hair. Several of her friends have big houses. Doesn’t she deserve one too? Is she worth less than her friends?”

—Richard Russo, Straight Man

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