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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Paul Auster's "Invisible..." Taking My Time with a Jewel

Once again, the best writer pound-for-pound in the world delivers a jewel of a novel. While I have to admit "Invisible" is not for everyone, it is perhaps vintage Auster--the mature craftsman going back to the intricacies of prose that made him a literary fiction master. When I say that "Invisible" is not for everyone, I don't mean that only the "Austerites" of the world should be the only ones to read it, but not knowing the dimensions of Auster's previous works would prove a hindrance for someone trying to read him for the first time with "Invisible." I've made the suggestion on this blog again and again, that if one wants to start to read Paul Auster's work, one should stick to "The Music of Chance," "Leviathan," "Oracle Night," or "Moon Palace." Starting out with "Man in the Dark," or "Travels in the Scriptorium" won't do it for a beginner "Austerite."

"Invisible" is the type of novel that shocks and awes; that is to say, the twists and turns of the narrative (not a point A to point B format) makes the reader stop and re-read, trying to make sure of what exactly what it was that they've just read. As a long-time Auster fan, I've come to expect just about everything from the Brooklyn genius. When "Invisible" (a narrative told in four interlocking parts) turned to the protagonist's incestuous relationship with his sister, I realized that anyone else would have been turn off and disgusted. And this is where Paul Auster puts it all on the line. The artist needs (is obligated) to take risks in creating art; without those risks, the artist turns mundane and stale. I assume that there will be two types of interpretations, both of which, I believe, he took into account. First, the experienced literary fiction reader will understand the risks as an artistic "pushing of the envelope" to the very extreme of art. Secondly, the inexperienced literary fiction reader might consider the entire narrative obscene, and Auster as "just another dirty old man" distastefully showing the world what's on his mind. Again, it's difficult to understand the workings of an artist. I think Paul Auster took a great risk in writing so explicitly about the protagonist's relationship with his sister, but looking at it objectively, I have to say that Ars Gratia Artis carries the day in Auster's most powerful book yet.

Many people ask me about my obsession with Paul Auster's work. I have little to say to them other than only those who examine art deeply can be confounded when facing genius. If one doesn't take the time to appreciate everything to the maximum, whether it be Shostakovich's Complete Symphonies, Sylvia Plath Collected Poems, or Marcel Duchamp's theories of "Ready Made" art, one will miss the point altogether. Explain Shakespeare's works and how they evoke genius--there's a reason why Hamlet still resonates today. At any rate, I am not expecting generous or positive press for "Invisible" just as I didn't for "Travels in the Scriptorium," or "Man in the Dark." However, there's always a critic out there with the objective and sharp eye for quality literary fiction: "I don't think people read Auster because he's beautiful, although his spare, exact language has always reminded me of Mozart minus the emotional colors. He's a good read because he's confounding. Many writers are sure they've got the answers, but it's often more honest to admit there's no answer at all." This is from "The San Francisco Chronicle's" Laurel Maury.

I have nothing but praise for Paul Auster's work. I think he is the most generous writer today--generous in the sense that he has confidence in the reader and, as a result, he surrenders the narrative to the reader completely, without explanation, and the reader will make her own decision. Austerites everywhere are already waiting for the next masterpiece from the one and only American literary master.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich: A Walk Through the Gulag

The main criticism I get from teaching this book is that it deals too closely with action-related scenes, and not enough with what the literature of the oppressed really is about. Almost one third of the book is spent learning how to lay brick and mortar. I personally love the book, but it would be a disservice not to point out what others (my students) think is a wave of mundane details that deliver a pat rather than a literary punch. I am most interested in reading deeply into the existential structure of the novel. While there are very few passages to point out as support for an existential interpretation, the few that I found on this re-reading might go far to prove my point. One thing that I find fascinating about the novel is that despite the title "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," most of the time the protagonist is highlighted the narrator uses his last name, Shukhov. That in itself began my inclination to interpret this as an existential novel. What is it about the last name that promises more intimacy than the first/middle name featured in the title? Dehumanization? I rather think that the last name, being the element of trace into the past, genealogy, ancestry, etc., would be more self defining. I don't want to bog down with interpretative stretches, only these passages made me think of anti-Sartre commentary in some inordinate way: "If you suffer, it must not be for murder, theft, or sorcery, nor for infringing the rights of others. But if anyone suffers as a Christian, he should feel no disgrace, but confess that name to the honor of God." This passage comes across as masochistic if one reads it with the intention of proving that religion explains away one's suffering and gives meaning to our suffering itself. These workers are doing hard labor in -22 degrees cold weather, with only basic clothing. I would have to promote the idea that that suffering really has very little to do with God and the church doctrine. By breaking the law--either that of the state or the church--man puts himself in a sphere all of his own. What Nietzsche declared as taking one's destiny in one's own hands, leading to Ubermensch, (or in Dostoyevsky's view: I kill because I can.) is nothing more than another morality which can be as addictive and as damaging as the metaphysical embrace of the suffering. Another passage that recalls existential theory is that of Shukhov being patted down before they take the squad out to work that morning, "Shukhov was in regulation dress. Come on, paw me as hard as you like. There's nothing but my soul in my chest." This passage is reminiscent of Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning," when he says something to the effect of "We had nothing to lose but our ridiculous naked selves," as they were entering the Nazi Concentration Camp.

This is a stretch, and you must forgive me for making it, but "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" is very much in structure like Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" film. The tension builds and builds and builds, and then the story resolves itself in a split second twist of violence and self-made justice (read, own moral standard). The only reason I am making this point here is that in teaching this book for over 10 years, I always heard my students say something to the effect that the book drags and then all of a sudden, it ends. It's about 50-50 when it comes to whether they enjoyed reading it or not. Thankfully, it's a quick read... young people today do not have time for painful stories of suffering and despair. Little do they know.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

The Way of the Warrior and Its Relevancy

It's been a couple of years since I posted "The Aeneid, 4,000 and Time to Own Up" and with every problem I face today, it all seems more and more relevant. All of this pushes me to believe in The Way more than ever. It began 25 years ago, when I discovered for the first time a small volume of practical entries on how the warrior should behave. I was a young U.S. Marine, and direction was not something I had an abundance of (if I had any sense of direction back then, I wouldn't have joined). Then in 1995, while living in Japan, I immersed myself completely in the Way. The Way has been with me for that long, and the lessons I have learned from it echo in the walls of every single one of my life experiences today. In its most basic premises, the Way of the Warrior postulates the idea that when given a choice to live or die, death is the better option: "The Way of the Warrior is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one's aim is to die a dog's death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one's aim. We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin and dangerous line. To die without gaining one's aim is a dog's death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Warrior. If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling." I don't believe in the entire literal dictum of the Way, but the parts that I have highlighted here are constant in my life and have been for a long, long time. For as irrational as this passage sound, there's a sense of qualification to the statement. This is particularly seen in, "We all want to live," and "This is a thin and dangerous line." The anthologist (the entries are part of Japanese history and folklore and are, in large part, apocrypha), Yamamoto Tsunetomo is clear in telling that the Way is not for everyone.

Now, does the Way mean we live a morbid life, awaiting every day the certainty of death and in that way ruining our lives? Of course not. One must apply these principles in a series of metaphors and analogies, and only call on them in moments of desperation. It is in those crucial moments when the Way is most relevant: "The Way of the Warrior is in desperateness. Ten men or more cannot kill such a man. Common sense will not accomplish great things. Simply become insane and desperate. In the Way of the Warrior, if one uses discrimination, he will fall behind. One needs neither loyalty nor devotion, but simply to become desperate in the Way. Loyalty and devotion are of themselves within desperation." Again, the key is to interpret all of this in some way that it applies to life in metaphorical ways--to take it literally is suicide. By desperateness the author refers to the idea of not thinking how to proceed. If faced with such a crucial moment, it is better to clear one's mind of judgment and charge as in an act of madness. Again, the idea of desperateness comes clearly through here: "For a warrior, a single word is important no matter where he may be. By just one single word valor can be made apparent. In peaceful times words do not show valor. In trouble times, one knows that by a single word his strength or cowardice can be seen. This single word is the flower of one's heart. It is not something said simply with one's mouth."
This is the other critical part of living out the Way. In many ways, this is not different from Christianity. It is written that Judgment Day (or death) will come like a thief in the night. The Way explores the same principle by means of a code for living; a Ten Commandments, if you will (but instead of just ten, there are hundreds of little apocrypha).

There are by far too many of these kernels of truth I could post here, but it isn't necessary. The real way of experiencing the Way is somewhat archaic and at the same time absolutely present in today's world. Imagine going on patrol in one of the streets of any major city in Iraq and not knowing whether the next step you take will be your final. Or perhaps finding that the GPS equipment they gave you was not working properly and now you are in some obscure Taliban-infested ravine in Afghanistan and the only way out is to FIGHT your way out. The Way of the Warrior does not only apply to this type of situation. All of life is at its core.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Lost in Place

I've lost so much in the last month that it is nearly incomprehensible to me how I've managed. In the same token, I now have time to finish several of my projects that I have been ignoring for the better part of two years. I've finished another Moleskine notebook, and I continue to write every day a minimum of two hours. The diaries of Christopher Isherwood are driving me insane, really, in a good way. I knew starting off that the task of reading this massive volume was going to be a tough going, but after 580 pages, and as I am starting to see the end of the tunnel, I feel rather prematurely nostalgic about what I am going to miss from reading this book. First of all, Isherwood's voice--it comes clean and loud through all of his writing (even the most mundane entries). Also, there's a great deal of detail about addresses of places he frequented; I am now one of those who "Google Earth" every address I find in any of the books I am reading. It's a sickness, I tell you, researching this so obsessively. I still have 400 pages to go, but I may have to put it aside and read some short fiction. All of this non-fiction reading has given me a metaphorical headache. And to think that I had proposed for next year to read only biographies! I better rethink that, pronto.

I am taking a short detour to re-read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" because and simply because I want to. The weather has been terrible here for almost a month--cloudy and raining all of the time, with only sporadic cameo appearances by the sun that last less than 15 minutes. Solzhenitsyn's little masterpiece is as short as Isherwood's diaries are long, so I won't be away without an entry for as long as I have been lately.

I want to thank all of those who have sent me an electronic mail to wish me well. I have printed all (every single one) of those notes and I've placed them in a prominent place on my desk. Really, thank you from the bottom of my heart! I'll never forget all of your kindness.

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

The Power to Write: Exercises

"The Power to Write: A Writing Workshop in a Book" is an insightful volume for the person who wants to pick up a pen and start writing the moment the ink hits the paper. There are many--as I pointed out earlier--good things about this book. The exercises, however, are not one of them. The exercises appear vague and aimless at times. I am not saying this to sound mean or harsh, but things like, "Write a story that begins with a scene where you were feeling elated, but then something happened to make you sad, furious, or extremely frustrated" appear without point or reason, and may go a step farther to discourage the young writer with poor results. I completely understand the level of apprenticeship this book is supposed to address, but vague starting points always lead to vague endings, and in that sense this book suffers from an excess of exercises such as this one. There are some good ones, but then again, just one exercise after the aforementioned one, "Write a story that begins with a scene when you were so angry that you couldn't help expressing it in public, much to your great embarrassment later." Emotions are probably the hardest thing to convey in writing, especially since your readers depend so much on what you actually describe to attain the desired result. This points to another dilemma--why are writers like Dan Brown, and other popular ones, who are so successful do a dismal job at conveying emotion? I mean, take into consideration the fact that the reading level of such bestsellers is approximately in the sixth to seventh grade spectrum, and you find that the effort to convey real emotions in this type of book does in fact reach its intended audience.

Again, I am not trying to criticize without cause; I may be mean in other ways, but not that way. I will probably have another entry praising Ms. Adams' book, but until then, I am reluctant to pursue exercises like the above. The positive aspect of this book is that of placing importance on KEY PRINCIPLES of fiction writing. This part of the book is perhaps the most beneficial--a clear list-like plan to follow through and finish a draft of either a novel or a short story. The example stories for Key #5 and #6 were particularly discouraging to me. I, again, understand the aim of the book, but the fact that 1) when writing about emotion in characters Ms. Adams selects examples that go overboard with depicting emotions do not do the book justice. As a beginner, I feel these examples to be over-simplistic and leading me to try and imitate something that is not perhaps the best example possible. It isn't that Ms. Adams' book is not good, it is simply that is full of contradiction: great writing advice and poor examples and exercises.

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