My Writing

Thursday, August 26, 2010

"Trout Fishing in America," "The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster," and "In Watermelon Sugar" by Richard Brautigan

I bought this book that collects together two novels and one poem collection by Richard Brautigan. I liked it. The first thing I liked was the cover of Trout Fishing in America (I liked the covers of the other two books as well, which are reproduced inside). I have thought in the past that it would be cool if authors put photos of themselves or something from their real life on the covers of their books. Trout Fishing in America's cover has a photo of Brautigan with a woman in front of a statue of Benjamin Franklin.

I found Trout Fishing in America consistently amusing. Occasionally the humor felt silly in an unfunny way, but mostly it was witty and made me think the writing was deceptively casual. The style often seems simple or conversational, but the turns in logic and the way he ends paragraphs or startled me with a sentence or mysteriously closed out his often very short chapters was very interesting and satisfying to me. Also intriguing to me was the way Brautigan uses Trout Fishing in America as an all-purpose proper noun and theme. There's a character named Trout Fishing in America Shorty, and something to do with trout fishing is included in nearly every chapter. The repetition and the creative use of the phrase and concept suggested to me a novel-long building of an abstract notion through concrete people and things. The chapters are as creative and linguistically precise as a great collection of poems, and the recurrent notion of fishing, of an American pastime as fluid metaphor, seemed effective to me.

All three of these books are creative and feel lived-in, made me think Brautigan lived a fun life, but that is especially true of the poetry collection, The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. These poems are very short and very charming, in my opinion. The book and many of the poems are dedicated to a "Miss Marcia Pacaud of Montreal, Canada." I like that. There are sexual poems, poems about sadness that didn't make me feel sad, joyful musical poems, poems with real-life people as protagonists (there's a series of poems with Baudelaire doing various things that I liked a lot). I really enjoyed this book a lot. Brautigan seems like he'd be fun to hang out with.

I liked In Watermelon Sugar as well, but it seemed slightly more belabored than the others. Rather than flitting from poem to poem or coming at a theme from fresh angles every page or so, this book seems to have something closer to a "proper novelistic form" with a story and more explicitly developed themes. It seemed very creative and charming to me, like the others, but I thought it a dragged a bit, despite its short chapters, and hammered home its points a bit more. In this book there are several recurrent words used as themes---this time it's watermelon sugar, iDEATH, and inBOIL. A group of characters hang in and around a place called iDEATH, and many of their household items and clothes are made from watermelon sugar. There's a backstory about tigers and a falling out with a character called inBOIL. The falling out seems to be over one's attitude toward iDEATH, or perhaps simply death. I enjoyed the story, but I like Brautigan best when he is free to wander wherever his whim, because his mind seems as sharp as it is funny as it is joyful even in sadness.

"listening to The Mamas and The Papas

singing a song about breaking
somebody's heart and digging it!

I think I'll get up
and dance around the room.

Here I go!"

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

"The Voice Imitator" by Thomas Bernhard

I liked this book. It made me laugh a lot. There are 104 stories in it, each no more than a page long, some as short as a sentence or two. They are anecdotes drawn from newspaper reports, stories people told Bernhard, and his own experience. Each is like a fable or a joke. I actually laughed my ass off on a regular basis while reading this book. I highly recommend it. I read the Kenneth J. Northcott translation.

Thomas Bernhard had an incurable lung disease, tuberculosis, throughout most of his life. Perhaps relatedly, this book is consistently morbid and its humor is very dark. But no matter how brutal the satire in these stories, or how misanthropic, I never felt alienated from the author. I felt like he was encouraging me to laugh at how ridiculous everything can be, from politics to academia to the idiosyncrasies of people's behavior, and above all, the randomness of life and death.

Many of the stories had titles that seemed deadpan or like sarcastic commentaries on the text of the story. For example, a story called "Inner Compulsion" is about these firemen who pull away the safety blanket and run away at the exact moment a suicidal man, who has been threatening for hours to jump to his death, actually jumps to his death; the firemen defend themselves in court by saying they acted "out of a sudden inner compulsion." This is also an example of another thing Bernhard does often in the book, which is to italicize certain phrases, presumably for sarcastic emphasis. He also uses the phrase "in the nature of things" very often, which I interpreted as being sarcastically formal as well as an implied philosophical commentary---this is how things are, horrible shit happens constantly and one's best intentions are oftentimes for naught. Also, everyone dies, sooner or later.

"In June of last year, a Tyrolean was arraigned on a charge of murdering a schoolchild from Imst and was sentenced to life imprisonment. [...] The Tyrolean had murdered the schoolchild from Imst with a so-called mason's mallet."

"The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Volume I (1909-1939)"

Two years ago, I bought every William Carlos Williams book they had at some store. I have been slowly reading through this first volume of "The Collected Poems" since then, reading most of it while living in Lakeview in 2009-10. Today I finished it. The book contains 6 previously published long works/collections plus the uncollected poems from each time period, all presented chronologically.

My favorites sections of the book were "Spring and All" and "The Descent of Winter," both of which mix prose with poetry, and both of which present Williams' philosophical ideas re poetry and art in general. If I had to summarize Williams' position, I'd say he believes that art relies upon the imagination, and that by renewing language one can recreate the world, as opposed to merely describing the world.

I tended to like his later works more than this earlier ones. Many of my favorite individual poems were love poems. I felt dissatisfied or bored re many of his "nature imagery" poems, although there were exceptions, such as "Birds and Flowers" ("Nothing is lost! [...] Though the eye turns inward, the mind / has spread its embrace---in / a wind that / roughs the stiff petals--- / More! the particular flower is / blossoming..."). There were long stretches in the book where I didn't care for any of the poems.

I am interested in reading more of his later work at some point. Paterson and a book containing Pictures from Brueghel, The Desert Music, and Journey to Love are on my bookshelf.

"Good Christ what is
a poet---if any

a man
whose words will
their way
home---being actual
having the form
of motion"

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Bed" by Tao Lin

I liked this book. I had previously read all of Tao's books except for this one and his first poetry collection, you are a little bit happier than i am (still have yet to read that one). Bed has a much different prose style than a lot of Tao's writing, especially his more recent writing. There are long sentences in Bed with many clauses; there are---to allow for lists or multiple embedded clauses---semicolons; and he includes a lot of similes and metaphors.

The nine stories in Bed seem to feature mostly sad characters, many of whom are going through periods in their lives when they are unsure of the future/what they are doing/what they will ever do. I liked some stories more than others, but all of the stories impressed me in terms of conventional notions of execution in the short story form (careful and often creative word choice, interesting characters, presentation and development of themes), and I liked how the stories seemed to present the characters' emotions in a forthright way.

My favorite stories in the collection, which I really loved, were "Love is a Thing on Sale for More Money Than There Exists," "Three-Day Cruise," "Love is the Indifferent God of the Religion in which Universe is Church," and "Sasquatch." The first is the story of a relationship, and I was very interested to find that elements of Richard Yates, Tao's most recent book, can be found in this, the first story in his first book. The arguments the couples have, re timeliness, consideration, weight gain, as well as the notion of lying in a relationship, are present in both works.

"Three-Day Cruise" is a story about a family. I really liked the characterization of the family members, and I thought it had a very effective opening and ending. This story has all of the elements I love in Tao's work: a strangeness, a diversity of tone, philosophical ideas, and parts that made me feel emotional.

"Love is the Indifferent God of the Religion in which Universe is Church" is the kind of story I will have to read several more times to feel like I better understand it. It is about two brothers, the older brother's girlfriend, and a mysterious little girl named Michelle who go to the same Japanese restaurant three times in 48 hours. I feel like I could write a long essay on just this story. It has very interesting and curious characters; there are a lot of metaphors and philosophical ideas in it; the ending is ambiguous.

"Sasquatch," the last story, is possibly my single favorite (it's either that or "Three-Day Cruise"), and for me it was a very satisfying end to the collection. It is about a girl who works at Denny's, her emotions, and her relationship with her father. It is very beautiful, I feel.

"Though she'd begun to get a little fat that winter, it was in February, around when her father found a toy poodle (sitting there, in the side yard, watchful and expectant as a person), and adopted it, that a weightlessness entered into Chelsea's blood---an inside ventilation, like a bacteria of ghosts---and it was sometime in the fall, before her 23rd birthday, that her heart, her small and weary core, neglected now for years, vanished a little, from the center out, took on the strange and hollowed heaviness of a weakly inflated balloon."

"The Fermata" by Nicholson Baker

I liked this book. I was interested in reading Nicholson Baker because of Zachary German's positive reviews of his books. The narrator in The Fermata is a man who can stop time at will and can then interact with the frozen people/things however he wants for as long as he wants. He has many names for this phenomenon, among them the Fold and the Fermata, which refers to the held note in musical notation. Mostly he uses the Fold to satisfy his sexual curiosity by taking women's clothes off. Sometimes he tries to seduce women, using the Fold as an unusual advantage. Some chapters in the book are the texts of erotica that he writes in hopes that one woman or any woman will read it and become aroused.

I like the idea of the Fermata. I like that Baker identifies it as coming from within the narrator and then does not explain or justify its existence any further. Baker's writing caused me to think about how one's desires for intimacy or freedom might manifest as sexual thoughts. Baker's prose style seemed carefully controlled but also conversational, which was appealing to me, and I enjoyed the narrator's personality.

The books with first-person narration that I have loved (The Catcher in the Rye, Beckett's trilogy, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, et al.) were particularly enjoyable for me because I felt drawn into the voice of the book and through that drawn into the character or perhaps the author. It feels like an interesting new friend is telling me a long story.

"But sometimes when I'm recording detailed notes as I remove a woman's clothes ('left bra strap fallen' or 'panties inside out and worked partway into asscrack') so that I will be sure to replace everything perfectly, just as it was, I feel a gurgle of Arlette's joyful who-gives-a-fuckness working in me, and I want to strip the entire city of Boston and mound all the clothes together in the middle of Washington Square and dance on top of them screaming, 'We're totally fucking naked, we're totally fucking naked!'---or failing that (since sudden widespread big-city nudity could lead to rapes and other unforeseen turbulence), I might want to strip everyone in an idyllic small town like Northampton and see how they would adjust to it."

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Hunger" by Knut Hamsun

I liked this book a lot. I read it because I know it is one of Tao Lin's favorite books, or that it was a "seminal read" for him, and also because I knew it was supposed to have paved the way for a lot of the big Modernist writers. Also, I idly paged through it at Half-Price Books when I was back in Milwaukee with my friend Bill, and I liked the prose. I read the Robert Bly translation.

What's striking to me about this book is that the subject matter, the situation of the first-person narrator, is very depressing, and yet the narrator seems joyful in a way, or playful. The book is about a struggling writer walking around Christiania, Norway starving. He seems kind of self-denying or self-destructive, depending on your viewpoint, because he turns down food a few times and gives away money that he receives. As the book goes on, he starts to have outbursts and to act strangely. It becomes increasingly possible that he might starve to death or go crazy. Yet there is always something matter-of-fact about the prose; the narrator, and by extension the author, never adds melodrama or extraneous commentary or moralizing to the actions and thoughts of the narrator. I liked that.

There is also a romantic interlude, if you like, or a part with a woman he meets, and I won't ruin it. I mention it because I like when there's some kind of romantic something to a book, not necessarily romantic in a conventional way, I like it when the narrator feels something for someone else in a book, especially if it feels natural and uncontrived or innocent or cute in a way. Like, for example, in Chilly Scenes of Winter by Ann Beattie, the protagonist longs for this married woman ("the one who got way") the whole book, and that really kept me intrigued and wondering what would happen with them, especially because his thoughts about her were presented in a very realistic way, in my opinion (I also highly recommend Chilly Scenes of Winter---it's very funny and not nearly as depressing as Hunger).

I think I will keep these reviews, if one can call them that, short, for the most part, so here I end: the book puts you inside someone's head during a desperate time, but the narrator and the prose are not desperate, they are appealingly, plainly alive.

"All at once I snapped my fingers a couple of times and laughed. Hellfire and damnation! I suddenly imagined I had discovered a new word! I sat up in bed, and said: It is not in the language, I have discovered it---Kuboaa. It has letters just like a real word, by sweet Jesus, man, you have discovered a word!...Kuboaa...of tremendous linguistic significance.

The word stood out clearly in front of me in the dark."