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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Norman Mailer: The Spooky Art -- Thoughts on Writing

Norman Mailer was a controversial figure in American letters from the moment he burst into the scene with "The Naked and the Dead."  The rollercoaster ride of instant fame and the literary scene almost did him in as soon as he had arrived at the pinnacle of the New York literary olympus.  One has to let that sink in... this is the same man who survived island hopping in the South Pacific during World War II and saw ferocious action as an infantryman.  Biographically speaking, Mailer grew up middle class, went to Harvard and "put in his time" as a craftsman learning the arduous path of the writer's life.  Fast-forward to 2003, and the cantankerous, loud and outspoken Mailer has become a quick-witted elder statesman of letters, a mellowed grandfatherly figure intent on looking back with an objective eye and speaking from the heart.

"The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing" is not the typical book aimed at the promising writer (or even the writer wannabe who speaks of the craft but does little writing), it is rather an open and objective few at Mailer's work and the struggles to define the highly elusive elements of writing such as "style" and "narrative voice."  The book reads with many previously published interviews and written pieces by Mailer with the author's own running commentary.  Divided into sections, the section on "Craft" appears as the most instructive, with the chapter on "Style" finally opening the door into a concrete definition of the writing process and finding one's own voice.  What the writer does is over-romanticized ad nauseum, so coming to writing that is so clear and void of the usual cliches is refreshing as it is instructive.  One of the best passages from "Craft" draws from the introspective power to clarify the obscure:   "Someone who has never tried fiction will hardly be quick to understand that in the study, a writer often does feel God-like.  There one sits, ensconced in judgment on other people' lives.  Yet contemplate the person on the chair: He or she could be hungover and full of the small shames of what was done yesterday or ten years ago.  Those flashes of old fiascos wait like ghosts even appear and ask to be laid to rest.  Consciously or unconsciously, writers must fashion a new peace with the past every day they attempt to write.  They must rise above despising themselves.  If they cannot, they will probably lose the sanction to render judgment of others.... then later in "Real Life versus Plot Life, Mailer appears like a prophet.  In speaking about the limitations of seeing your characters as victims, he seems to be predicting why today's literature is filled with victimhood, a social phenomenon today in the United States that seems to dictate "if you haven't been victimized, you haven't arrived:"  "I'd say try not to think of your characters as victims.  That sort of classification narrows them.  In reality, very few victims ever see themselves exclusively as victims, and when they do, their spirit turns stale.  There is a certain sort of self-pitying victim one wishes to walk away from, and they can be even worse in a book.  Unless one is Dickens."  I wonder what Mailer would say today about the abundance of these types of novels, and how it might be a reflection of the changing moods in America... or is it just a marketing ploy researched and supported by data in many of the publishing houses of today?

Mailer examines the transmission of real life events into literature taking as an example the tragic events of 9/11.  He explains with detail the amount of care a writer must take in filtering what happened into what happened with a vague twist, the effort of not letting all of the proverbial cats out of the bag.  "Certain events, if they are dramatic or fundamental to us, remain afterward like crystals in our psyche.  Those experiences should be preserved rather than written down.  They are too special, too intense, too concentrated to be used head-on.  Whereas if you project your imagination through the crystal, you can end up with an imaginative extrapolation of the original events.  Later, coming from another angle, you may obtain another scenario equally good and altogether different from the same crystal.  It is there to serve as a continuing source so long as you don't use it up by a direct account of what you felt....  Interestingly, I believe Mailer (who lived hard just like his literary idol a generation before him) is the only writer who has really gotten into the real Hemingway psyche.  What I mean by the real Hemingway psyche is the examination of Hemingway's life and work with an objective eye, not with political or academic hog-washing blurs.  Like all of the writers from his generation, Mailer learned a great deal from Hemingway, but he also suffered from a love-hate relationship with the Nobel laureate and did not lean one way or too much the other when being critical of the master.  "I think Hemingway got into trouble because he had to feel equal to his heroes.  It became an enormous demand.  He could not allow a character in his books to be braver then he was in his private life.  It's a beautiful demand, and there's honor in forcing oneself to adhere to such a code, but it does cut down on the work you can get out.  While it's legitimate to write about a man who's braver than yourself, it is better to recognize him quickly as such.  I believe I could put a heavyweight champion of the world into a novel and make him convincing, even enter his mind without having to be the best old fighter-writer around.  I would look to use one of another of the few crystals I possess that are related to extraordinary effort....  Hemingway's death was a cautionary to me.  His suicide as wounding as if one's own parent had taken his life.... Hemingway was a great cautioning influence on all of us.  One learned not to live on one's airs, and to do one's best to avoid many nights when--thanks to Scott Fitzgerald's work--one know it was three o'clock in the morning.... Hemingway committed suicide working on airs.  He took the literary world much too seriously.  His death is there now as a lesson to the rest of us: Don't get involved at too deep a level or it will kill you and--pure Hemingway--it will kill you for the silliest reasons: for vanity, or because feuds are beginning to etch your liver with the acids of frustration."  Writing a little later, Mailer seems to evoke many of his experiences in combat with a thin-veiled allegoric sense of image:  "Well, few of us dare death.  Most of us voyage out a part of the way into our jungle and come back filled with pride at what we dared and shame at what we avoided, and because we are men of the middle and shame is an emotion no man of the middle can bear for too long, we act like novelists, which is to say that we are full of spleen, small gossip, hatred for the success of our enemies, envy at the fortunes of our friends, ideologues of a style of fiction which is uniquely the best (and is invariably our own style), and so there is a tendency for us to approach the books of our contemporaries like a defense attorney walking up to a key witness for the prosecution.  At worst, the average good novelist reads the work of his fellow racketeers with one underlying tension--find the flaw, find where the other guy cheated."

A few years ago, I read and reviewed "The Deer Park" on this blog.  The book was a painful experience, difficult to believe much less read and interpret.  Back then (as today) my fear was always that I had missed something important about the book.  A small amount of research yielded a sea of bad reviews which, at first glance, seem to have confirmed my view.  Reading "The Spooky Art," and most particularly the chapter on the re-write of the draft of "The Deer Park," I came away with a sense of having been unfair to Mailer.  But how is one to know, as a reader, the backstage difficulties of the writing process?  We cannot do anything other than try to be impartial.  The writer/reader relationship remains the mystery it will always be.

Mailer is insightful in his criticism of "The Last Tango in Paris," and offers a view of how the written is translated into the visual, and the complexities of mixing the written, the improvised and the actor/writer/improviser.  I have never watch this film, but I know enough about the controversy it caused.  Mailer is the perfect judge of seeing without eyes the factor of improvisation and how it doomed the film while augmenting Marlon Brando's genius.  He argues that the box office success of the film in America was a consequence of its sordid, vulgar and perverse elements.  He judges this without being a prude, but rather putting it on the public/consumer.  Why go watch a film in which Marlon Brando the actor plays the part of a character through which he is improvising the line if the only purpose of going to see the film is to try and discern which part of the perversity is Brando playing the character being perverse?  Does it reflect on the thousands upon thousands of suburban women who rushed to the theater to watch Brando engage in anal sex with a much younger actress (or was it Brando playing the part of a character who possesses those sexual preferences, or was it just simply "Brando being Brando?").  See the difficulty of improvisation, the written and the art?

Mailer comments on the limitations of art in general.  He writes extensively about graffiti  and avant garde art and the ability of visual artists to go beyond what writers achieve on the page.  He concludes, "But we are at the possible end of civilization, and tribal impulses start up across the world.  The descending line of the isolated artist goes down from Michelangelo all the way to Chris Burden, who is finally more comfortable to us than the writers of graffiti.  For Burden is the last insult from the hippie children of the middle class to the bourgeois art-patron who is their spiritual parent, but graffiti speaks of a new civilization where barbarism is stirring at the roots."  

I think Norman Mailer had gone full-circle by the time he died in 2007.  Shortly after his death, I found "On God: An Uncommon Conversation" and found it to be a sensible book, not a dogmatic or archaic discourse on the metaphysical.  Just like in "The Spooky Art," Mailer doesn't theorize... he doesn't need to.  I am planning now on tackling his longer works (The Executioner's Song and Harlot's Ghost).  Before I do this, I have to write on my perverse habit of taking "literary detours."  With this I mean the habit of drawing up a reading list for the year and then injecting books in-between those listed.  I know some people who detest reading lists because they come to see it as dictating a task, reading as a duty to finish or complete a check out list.  I find this comparable to what Mailer writes about in "The Spooky Art" because one must never find the process too dictating.  I draw my own list and I am the impartial manager who injects a player into the line-up and keeps his opponent guessing.  It's all art, and I suspect Mailer would approve.

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Monday, June 02, 2014

Overloading the Senses: "The Piano Tuner" by Daniel Mason

I have only written one negative critical review since I started this blog in 2006.  The other one is about Norman Mailer's "The Deer Park," and it is about to get a "re-review" based on the insight I have gained from the book I am presently reading, "The Spooky Art."  In it, Mailer explains difficulties about the work I was completely unaware of when I read and wrote the review.  The difficulties dealt with the publishing world and its demands (plus Mailer's own problems with editing and addiction), and I am sure that Mason's book probably encountered some of the same obstacles.  I'm not saying Mailer's book wasn't bad, but "The Deer Park" really does deserve a reevaluation based on what I've read.  Unless I come across some details about "The Piano Tuner" that will help me change my mind about the book, I suspect this review will stand as is.  I will keep it as short as possible.

What strikes the reader first about the style of the book is the obvious and overwhelming overuse of language designed to stimulate the senses.  When done correctly, this can be a treat to the reader, but in the case of this book, it began to wear down the senses almost as soon as it began.  The bold is mine for emphasis.

"In the fleeting seconds of final memory, the image that will become Burma is the sun and a woman's parasol.  He has wondered which visions would remain--the Salween's coursing coffee flow after a storm, the predawn palisades of fishing nets, the glow of ground turmeric, the weep of jungle vines.  For months the images trembled in the back of his eyes, at times flaming and fading away like candles, at times fighting to be seen, thrust forward like the goods of jostling bazaar merchants.  Or at times simply passing, blurred freight wagons in a traveling circus, each one a story that challenged credibility; not for any fault of plot, but because Nature could not permit such a condensation of color without theft and vacuum in the remaining parts of the world.
     Yet above these visions, the sun rises searing, pouring over them like a gleaming white paint.  The Bedin-saya, who interpret dreams in shaded, scented corners of the markets, told him a tale that the sun that rose in Burma was different from the sun that rose in the rest of the world.  He only needed to look at the sky to know this.  To see how it washed the roads, filling the cracks and shadows, destroying perspective and texture.  To see how it burned, flickered, flamed, the edge of the horizon like a daguerreotype on fire, overexposed and edges curving.  How it turned liquid the sky; the banyan trees, the thick air, his breath, throat, and his blood.  How the mirages invaded from distant roads to twist his hands.  How his skin peeled and cracked."

The plot consists of a piano tuner contracted by the British Army to travel to Burma and tune the piano of an eccentric British army surgeon.  The time period is 1886, but the observations and reactions of the protagonist ring false based on his political and personal opinions.   He is well fleshed out, but his overly-liberal views on politics and culture make him flat and unrealistic.  He belongs to the middle class in Victorian England, a man of modest means with a wife and a small piano tuning practice.  His outrage and indignation at the imperial ambitions of England at that time ring false.  I am sure there were exceptions to the rule, but historically one would tie this type of worldview to the intelligentsia (ironically the same class that depended the most on England's conquests), and not to the proud "common" man in service of Her Majesty the Queen.

The journey to Burma is far too long in terms of narrative length.  During the journey, the reader is introduced to "The Man with One Story," a story-within-the story that falls victim to being overly eccentric.  A man stands on the deck of the ship for many, many trips.  He is blind and supposedly, once approached by the other passengers for a common greeting (good evening, good morning, or anything of the sort), he launches into a story that he tells exactly the same way (word by word) again and again.  The use of ultra-sensory language and mirage-visions, etc. appears pointless and overdone.  I suspect that the mesmerizing, blurry, dream-like narrative of "The Man with One Story" has something to do with the ending of the novel and how the protagonist "sees" his own demise, but I lack as a reader when it comes to this type of "do-it-yourself" connections.

It was difficult to understand the perspective about the "mission" the protagonist had been assigned because most of the "mission" was cryptic even to himself.  I suspect this was another element of the style that was designed to make the reader turn the page.  The army surgeon becomes an enigma from the very start, and, because of this, he turns into a "pest" throughout the narrative.  The mystery factor about the doctor, and the protagonist's inquiry and curiosity only leads to disappointment once the good doctor is introduced.  The build up did not satisfactorily reach the climax and the protagonist's mix of frustration and admiration about the enigmatic doctor doesn't make up for it.  The reader never really fully understands the motivation of the plot until... wait, the doctor was a spy, a traitor, his concubine nothing more than a seducer working for the Russians, and don't you know... the book ends in a dream-like stupor of exhaustion and sensory overload.

It's not hard to criticize a book, really, but if one has a heart and knows of the difficulties behind this type of work (fiction writing) the criticism most likely will leave a bad taste in one's critical mouth.  Like I said before, the "ins and outs" of the publishing world can be demanding to the point of absolute frustration.  Part of me wants to believe the integrity of the creative process, but this book also shines a light on the market demands of the literary business.  It feels as if an editor might have recognized the overuse of the sensory in the style of the book, but went ahead with it because "how could something so exotic as a sensory tour de force Victorian era trip to Burma not sell" to a particular demographic deeply embedded in the book club world?  It's hard not to be a cynic when so much money is involved in this process.  But still, I always feel like the onus is on me... I missed something... I failed to see the connection, the artistry and the real meaning of it all.

"The Piano Tuner" was disappointing in many ways.  My main criticism for this book was the endless waves of literary sensory overload.  I think the book has many merits in terms of plot, if you can overlook the constant inclination to compare the narrative to "Heart of Darkness" and the film "The Piano."

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