Read All About It!

Tom Rachman knows the newspaper business, knows it as it was and as it is. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, he’s worked as an editor for the International Herald Tribune in Paris and has been a foreign correspondent in Rome for the Associated Press. What we can’t tell from his resume, but can from his excellent first novel, is that he knows the circumstances and desperation of life in its various classes and ages.

The Imperfectionist is a cleverly interwoven series of vignettes about various people who at various times have held various positions of importance at an international paper based in Rome. Italicized sections of no more than two or three pages linking sections divide these vignettes following the brief history of the paper as it and its principals flow and ebb.  You might think of it as stories inside a story.

The longer stories follow individuals through the frustrations of their work and personal lives. A washed-up stringer in Paris struggles against his fate. An obituary writer, upset at his position in the paper and challenged at home, sets up a self-assured rival and hurdles over him.  An obsessive copy editor pursues an old lover and keeps her job despite herself. The editor-in-chief discovers her husband is having an affair and starts one with an old lover who is an official in Berlusconi’s circle only to discover that the shortcomings that doomed their relationship the first time around are still existent. A newcomer to journalism is comically manipulated by an old hand. A fired copy editor gets sweet revenge on the person who fired him in bed. Titles right out of the headlines define each of these made-for-reality TV situations.

The interweaving comes as the stories’ characters professional lives intermingle. The man the obsessive copy editor chases is the man having an affair with the editor-in chief. No one wants to be the Puzzle-Wuzzle editor and everyone denies it though it’s the feature along with the obits and culture section, that allows the paper to survive. Bean counting becomes more and more important to the paper even as individual actions have more consequences.

The most knotting is strung from the laces of Cyrus Ott and the paper’s co-founder Leo Marsh and Betty Lieb. One can not help but think of the Los Angeles Times and the Chandler family as the paper passes through generations,  from interested and competent to uncaring hands. It seems founded on a lark and finally lost in the importance of profit. As times change, the management refuses to start an online edition and  cost-cutting measures that have doomed newspapers the world over are committed for the best and worst of reasons. But the story of Cyrus and Betty and Leo is center to everything, adding a hint of mystery to its proceedings. Exactly why did this paper exist? As with many ventures in which capital is a second consideration, the answer is familiar. It was done for love.

Rachman’s understanding of the business translates into the circumstances that control his characters’ lives. The effect of deadlines on performance, both at work and at home, weigh on the writers. Copy editors don’t just correct proofs, they “deface” them.  The editor-in-chief announces at a media conference that, “news will survive, and quality coverage will earn a premium” (it’s 2004). “Actually, I can probably tell you we won’t be publishing in the same way [in fifty years], that we’ll be innovating the, just as we are now.” She claims that “radical changes are under way” and that the paper’s circulation is increasing. Of course, none of it is true.

Like any good journalist, Rachman has a way of making his sentences count. He describes one spouse in a tight, single phrase. “Nigel, an attorney at rest since they left D.C. more than two years earlier, thrives on this life: reading nonsense on the Internet, buying high-end groceries, decrying the Bush administration at dinner, wearing his role of househusband as the badge of progressive politics.” His characters, in their complaints, don’t seem to realize their privilege of living, and living well, in Rome.

At end, Rachman follows all of his characters into the future, tying up this collection of short tales in a way that makes the story whole. In a sense, it’s reassuring that their lives go on as the thing that brought them together dies. There’s an image tied to its closing, a brutal, revengeful act that underscores the imperfections of the book’s title. Like the very best journalists, Rachman finds a symbol of his telling to close his story. In it, we find sympathy where none had previously existed. —Cabbage Rabbit

Stories Of the Times

The New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” short story issue has generated lots of comment, much of it in the why-wasn’t-so-and-so included? category, some of it in the why-wasn’t-I included? category, the best of it in the (sorta) latter category and self-deprecating in a satiric way. And, of course, there was some that made no sense at all.

While we loved and marveled at most of the stories — okay, we saw Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Here We Aren’t, So Quickly” as a gimmick built on two pronouns and  misleading in its intent to impart double meaning (and we love Foer’s novels) — we couldn’t help notice that none of them addressed the day’s biggest issue: the economic downturn and its effect on the lives of everyday, let alone well-off Americans. Sure, Salvatore Scibona’s “The Kid” gives us an American soldier who orphans his foreign-born  child after an ill-advised marriage. And ZZ Packer’s “Dayward”  uses Reconstruction-era black children to suggest modern-day lessons. There’s certainly poverty and displacement there. But where are the stories of a struggling middle-class? Where are the stories of homes lost, incomes destroyed, the frustrations of futile job searching, the loss of love and respect and the psychology of imposed failure? Where are this generation’s Steinbecks, Orwells, Algrens, Zolas, Lewises, Faulkners? Are we so afraid of class distinction in this country, of making someone who’s still comfortably positioned uncomfortable, that we can’t even acknowledge what’s going on right before our very eyes?

Almost all of these tales are about difficulties in relationships. Nothing is more damaging to relationship stability than economic failure and displacement. Can the most common story of our time also be the most ignored?

It’s true that this New Yorker issue included only eight of the 20 stories. We’ll be looking closely through the others for a contemporary realism that deals with more than the frustrations of party anxiety among the Hollywood wannabe set or the professional-class’ social climbing and the Porsche mechanics they left behind. Great literature, literature that changes culture and political direction, has always portrayed the struggles of common people in difficult times. The characters –and subjects — in the contemporary stories here may be what we’ve come to accept as common people. But there is no sense of what the greatest recession since the depression  is doing –specifically and in detail — to their lives. Certainly there are writers out there adressing these subjects (and no, I’m not one of them…shame). Where are the publishers with the guts to get them in print?–Cabbage Rabbit

First Lines of the 20 Under 40

There’s been much blog ado over The New Yorker‘s “Summer Fiction: 20 Under 40.” Check out the gnashing here, here and here (we promise to complain more in a later post). However the writers learned their craft, they learned to write first sentences well. In fact, we found the lead sentence to be the best part of most of the stories. Clue to craft: Those with the least interesting first sentences tended to be the least interesting stories. As a service to our readers, we’ve taken the first sentence of each of the eight stories and put them together in no particular order, to make a free-association poem of a quality no more dubious than the stories themselves.–Cabbage Rabbit

Max had a name for what had happened to his son: the Accident.

The boy and his twin brother grew up on the streets of Northside,

down in the little choke valley, befouled by industry,

between university hill to the southeast and the neighborhood to the north,

College Hill, which had no college, despite its name,

only modest white houses hinting at the white suburbs to come.

The boy wore a black parka, a matching ski cap, bluejeans, and sneakers;

he appeared to be five years old; and he was weeping.

He hadn’t heard from Kate Lotvelt in two weeks. Early yet, the morning clouds,

the color of silver fox,

and Lazarus was running. Lucky diary! Undeserving diary!

People say no one reads anymore, but I find that’s not the case.

A To Not Quite Z

Rereading Douglas Coupland’s  Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture reminded this baby boomer how important and, in its way, groundbreaking the book was when published in 1991. Not that it received much attention, despite its title,  at release. No major reviews in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker or The Los Angeles Times (somebody please prove me wrong about this). Only culture critic Robin Abcarian of the LA Times seemed to catch on and then, months behind the book’s release, only in light of his second novel.

The book was different even in its design. It’s use of margin slogans and illustrations separated it from the previous generation of literature. Also in the margins were the defining terms of the times, such as  “MCJOB: A low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who never held one.” And “NUTRITIONAL SLUMMING: Food whose enjoyment stems not from flavor but from a complex mixture of class connotations, nostalgia signals, and packaging semiotics.” Even its off-beat size (8″x9″) made it stand out.

But writers, particularly those interested in marketing, were quick to catch on to the idea of Generation X that prior to the novel had been the province of punk rock and those unable to find a suitable label for any generation of teens that came after (and sometimes including) the boomers.

Coupland defines the subject generation  not quite a third of the way into the book when Andrew tells the story of his working at a “teenybopper magazine” in Japan and seeing the alienation of its same-age generation, those for whom the prevailing culture, as one of his Japanese colleagues puts it, “murder my ambition.”

“…shin jin rui — that’s what the Japanese newspapers call people like those kids in their twenties at the office —  new human beings. It’s hard to explain. We have the same group over here and it’s just as large, but it doesn’t have a name — an X generation — purposefully hiding itself. There’s more space over here [in the U.S.] to hide in — to get lost in — to use as camouflage. You’re not allowed to disappear in Japan.”

This disappearing act is less related to generation than to class (see “McJobs” and “Nutritional Slumming” above). Near the end of the book, Andrew sees this invisibility being shared by his entire family. He’s lit hundreds (“maybe thousands”) of candles in the family living room for the holiday celebration. The effect is revelatory, “the normally dreary living room covered with a molten living cake-icing of white fire, all surfaces devoured in flame — a dazzling fleeting empire of ideal light.” But once the candles are snuffed, life reverts to normal. And that’s when the true revelation rises.

“But I get this feeling —

“It is a feeling that our emotions, while wonderful, are transpiring in a vacuum, and I think it boils down to the fact that we’re middle class.

“You see, when you’re middle class, you have to live with the fact that history will ignore you. You have to live with the fact that history can never champion your causes and that history will never feel sorry for you. It is the price that is paid for day-to-day comfort and silence. And because of this price, all happiness es are sterile; all sadnesses go unpitied.”

While Coupland is credited with painting the alienation of a certain generation, he’s also defined it for all contemporary generations, a definition that speaks to class struggle and middle-class envy leading to unfullfillment. Some of this class consciousness exists in  Generation A but its alienation is a separation more from nature and emotional experience caused by a dependence on technology, much of it pharmacological. Telling stories is central to both books but there’s a difference. The stories in A are all about plot. In X, they’re all about character. In X, Coupland explains story-telling in terms of “the letter inside us,” an idea he credits to Rilke, and that “only if we are true to ourselves, may we be allowed to read it before we die.” He also uses Rilke to define the separation from reality felt by the alienated, a theme that pervades both books.

Coupland’s excellent first novel, badly misunderstood when it first came out (by this dumb bunny,  too)  spawned a curse of generational considerations, mostly on the negative side of opportunity and abundance, that we can’t seem to escape. Film critic A.O. Scott bemoaned (enough whining!) this curse in a piece that references Sam Lipsyte’s timely book The Ask. Scott suggests that Generation X –those slackers — are having a mid-life crisis.  But what they’re going through — what most of us are going through — is more like Coupland’s middle-class invisibility. How can you be someone, at any age,  when no one can see you? Generation A is not only less of a novel for its failure to make the label stick (“Generation A” comes from an address given by Kurt Vonnegut at Syracuse University in 1994) but also for making its five central characters circumstantial celebrities, something that will never happen to X‘s Andy, Claire and Dag, midlife crisis or not.   —Cabbage Rabbit

Storied Generation

Storytelling has mysterious, unmeasurable power and storytellers have expended a lot of that power trying to explain it to us. Let me try. Hearing a story is a way of organizing the brain and stimulating thought. Formulating a story is an exercise in ordering thought, making associations and generally “thinking through” scenarios and intellectual questions. You want to understand or explain something? Make a story of it.

There’s a fear that this power may be lost, like an animal gone extinct, in the age of texts, tweets and abbreviated cursing (WTF?). Or maybe, as Douglas Coupland suggests in his latest novel Generation A, the rediscovery of storytelling by a generation that’s been cheated of it will give it a badly needed refreshing.

Coupland saddled himself with generational themes back in 1991 when he gave us Generation X: Tales For An Accelerated Culture, the story of  three, post-baby boomers trying to make sense of their lives and the culture at large through storytelling (“Either our lives become stories , or there’s just no way to get through them,” declares its female lead). In ten novels since (and we admit to reading only two of the others), he’s wrestled with the monster he created — generational lit — and the particular generation which he’s credited with naming (his own). If anything, his characters, including Tyler Johnson from Shampoo Nation, are seeking escape from generational labeling; that attached to their own and that which has been inflicted on them by their baby-boomer, ’60s indulgent forebears. Generation A is also about escaping the times but in more peculiar circumstances.

A‘s times are the near future when bees, those pesky little pollinators that give us everything from fruit and honey to opium, have mysteriously gone extinct. Or so the story goes. It’s also a time where the world is relatively happy, thanks to a drug known as Solon, which seems to negate the measurement of time. The result is that prisoners don’t seem to mind prison, depressives don’t mind depression and the merely disgruntled can get through life without the grunting. Doing the drug is akin to reading Finnegan’s Wake. Shades of Soma! The whole world is hooked.

Then, on one momentous day, five people roughly the same age and in different parts of the world are stung. The five are commandeered by quasi-governmental-corporate authorities and held in captivity where they are fed Jell-O. Upon release, they seek each other, gathering on an island off the Newfounland coast, aided by a mysterious, seemingly sympathetic benefactor. Let the stories begin.

Our bee-stung heroes discover their importance as the stories unwind. Once they  get going its easy to see where they will head, minus a surprising capper. Cue the Jell-O.

Other reviewers have denigrated the stories told in the novel’s telling (they’re all offset by smaller typeface, titles and authors though that’s apparent from the narrative). But this bunny thinks that the stories aren’t that bad, even entertaining at the times they take sudden spins and plunges.  We think Coupland intended to give us a view to the current state of the short-story and novelist’s craft: this one’s Yann Martel, this one T.C. Boyle, here’s  Carver and Murakami, even Alice Munro.  Coupland’s reason for this — neither parody nor praise  — seems unclear (and may disprove our tidy little theory). But Coupland makes clear the magic and importance of storytelling even as he warns against its loss. Nothing could be more generational.

The book, divided into narratives about and from the five stingees,  is of two speeds, the downhill all in the first half, the slow crawl up to conclusion all in the second when the stories are told. Most of Coupland’s themes — alienation, corporate greed, loss of the natural world — are revealed and dissected early which makes the resolution somewhat anti-climatic. But the framing of the whole, done so cleverly and without malice towards even the malicious, is a mark for inventive and engaging storytelling. Coupland is a master of bringing the now and new to his stories — as one writer has said, his work is so current it seems slightly ahead of the present — but he also astute enough to tie in the relevant past. Referring to the group of five as “Wonka” children sets them both of their generation and apart. This kind of cultural pollination makes his story flower.–Cabbage Rabbit

Tricks of the Short Story Trade

Short story writers are most like magicians, plying their craft with illusion and misdirection. Both want their audiences to believe what they present, to think it as real. They don’t want them to notice or even think about what goes on to make the magic.

Which makes Thomas Lynch a magical story writer. The poet and essayist’s first book of fiction is deep and convincing, full of mystery and wonder. Even when writing from a female point of view, Lynch makes us see what he wants us to see and, more importantly, feel what he wants us to feel. If there’s a trick to what he does it’s to make us think  that writing is no trick at all.

The characters here–a man taking his father’s ashes in a Thermos to be dispersed,  another man who befriends a young girl after her father’s death only to see her murdered, a casket salesman remembering his three wives, a widow attracted to a younger woman–spend their time in the present considering their past. It’s as if they haunt their own lives. The central figure in the novella “Apparition,” a former minister who, after divorce, writes a self-help best seller entitled Good Riddance, comes to an anti-realization after considering all the realizations he’s experienced.  The divorce gave him new life. It came as a kind of death.

A somber air, like that of a funeral home, resides over everything here. This is a book of cancers, hemorrhages and shot-gun blasts. Lynch’s day-job, if you can call being a mortician a day job, gives him insight into a certain trade–remember that casket salesman?–as well as a hard view of life’s mysteries. If his characters seem like ghosts it’s because so many spirits move through their lives. Sadness is so widely held that it becomes something matter-of-fact.

Fishing and hunting, with a nod to Hemingway, become symbols of mens’ understanding and relationship to each other as well as a metaphor of death. The story “Catch and Release” is a snap shot of high-end outdoors men escaping their lives in the woods and streams. The woods and streams are full of such men, all looking to take something. Its narrator recalls catching his first fish and the awful choice it presents: “Kill it, eat it, show his mother. Let it go.” The release of his father’s ashes, in an unexpected way, only extends the metaphor (for an excellent father-son-fishing relationship memoir see John McPhee’s “The Patch” in the February 8, 2010 edition of The New Yorker).

The only story in which in which the smoke and mirrors don’t completely hide Lynch’s masterful sleight-of-hand is the one that most closely mirrors Lynch’s experience. “Bloodsport” goes into great detail of the pathologist’s and mortician’s art, so much so that it feels as if Lynch is manipulating us. “Stuffing the open cranium with cotton, fitting the skullcap back in place and easing the scalp back over the skull…” It’s all part of the process of embalming, laying out the dead, the funeral and all part of “the larger concept of a death in the family,” making it more of a “manageable prospect.” It’s as if Lynch has pulled back the wizard’s curtain and revealed a corpse.

Matinee de Septembre” also exposes  Lynch’s craft but in another way. He writes in the person of a 40-year-old woman, the widow of a respected older poet, and his character is a male fantasy of what a 40-year-old woman should be: “she had the bosom of a woman half her age. She looked in good in no bra or a Wonderbra, pantsuits or little black dresses, vintage lingerie or plaid pajamas.” Of course, she finds something more attractive, younger, and this person, also a woman, becomes an object of imagination and fixation, another step toward an end.

The longer Lynch’s stories, the better.  The novella “Apparition” takes its time and the telling is done so well we want it to go on. Lynch makes his character’s evolution so believable that we agree with it every step of the way, even at end when he concludes that all those former conclusions may have been misguided. This is true throughout the book. Lynch’s experience as a poet gives his writing musical tones and he exploits the sound of language unabashedly. “Primrose, Maple, hemlock, Helen…” the casket salesman thinks as he walks. The narrator of “Apparition” considers how far he’s come: “the little clapboard manse on Cory Street behind the church to this three-story palace with its towers and turrents, bay windows and balconies, its dozen cut-brick chimneys…” Lynch also has a good ear for the topical and trendy thinking. “Some divorces, like some marriages,  are made in heaven,” writes the lead in “Apparition” in one of his self-help books. The wealthy widow of “Matinee” thinks the first-class section of her flight hold “Bigger seats for bigger asses….big, fat balding asses whose wives only traveled with them for the shopping ops, the change of scenery and the chance of meeting someone really interesting.” It’s moments like these, when Lych’s characters see the illusions that they themselves accept as reality, that makes reading him a magical experience.–Cabbage Rabbit

Having It Both Ways

In his New York Times review of Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, Todd Pruzan explains how Raymond Carver “advanced a literary genre with ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’  The movement wasn’t dirty realism or minimalism, but ‘vaguely titled fiction’: stories concealing their intensity and anxiety behind titles full of pronouns and ennui, signifying nothing much about their narratives.”  As examples, he cites Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, Lorrie Moore’s People Like That Are the Only People Here and Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.

Meloy actually goes Pruzan and Carver one (or two or three) better.  She not only borrows Carver’s technique (or was it Gordon Lish’s?) for titling her book  (the story titles are more to the point),  she mirrors his simple narratives and working class  protagonists. At times, her stories reminded me of  Annie Proulx, Richard Ford (who wrote a blurb for her book) , even Joyce Carol Oates.

Indeed, the book’s first tale of a gimpy, modern- day cowboy who falls in love with a young, traveling  attorney seemed like something Proulx might have done and done better. It immediately set me to thinking. Do MFA programs –Meloy took hers at UCIrvine, a school which produced Michael Chabon, Alice Sebold and, back somewhat, Richard Ford–teach imitation disguised as learning by example? There’s nothing wrong with learning from other writers. But how do you avoid sounding like them?

The second story, an abrupt coming of age for a 15-year-old girl triggered by an aggressive older man and her father’s compliance, all with the added tension (and metaphor) of firearms, was artfully disturbing but still came across as an Oates-meets-Ford story. At that point we put the book down.

That was a mistake. Picking it up again, we found Meloy master of her own voice in the remaining nine stories. They’re simply told and suggest all the complications and moral questions that salt even the blandest lives. Nor, as we feared, was she exclusively a Montana regional author (she was born and raised in Helena but now lives in L.A.). Her stories take us to working class  Connecticut in the 1970s and upper class Argentina.  There’s intrigue in the strange mystery of  intercom pranks in “Lovely Rita” and wise, generational contrasts of romance and reality between a grade school student  and her mother in “Nine.”

Meloy’s craft comes from her matter-of-fact voice, as easy and gentle as a soft rain, even if a storm is lurking in the distance. Disease and death pay quick and lasting visits, fidelity is challenged and even children aren’t quite sure what to make of their lives even as they seem routine. She infrequently spices dialogue with terrible insight, masked as down-home homily: “the whole soul mates idea,” explains one woman, ” is really most useful when you’re stealing someone’s husband. It’s not so good when someone might be stealing yours.”

What Meloy does best is inject a benign tension into her stories, tension that starts passively enough and builds into a sort of personal horror. In the last story, “O Tannenbaum,” which does take place in Montana, the fears and resentment between two couples, one traveling home with their daughter after cutting a Christmas tree, the other stranded in the snow, grows as Meloy reveals their reflected and assumed histories.As she does in many of the stories, the author employs a child, not only to show what is at risk, but to heighten the fearful and innocent qualities of action.

One other Carver comparison: Meloy seems so comfortable telling her stories from a working class perspective, one has to wonder if the details come from experience or research. If it’s the later, she’s done a great job (she’s reportedly now working on a novel set in post-war London). As author Dagoberto Gilb pointed out, Carver wrote about working class anti-heroes from his experience as a hard-scrabble graduate student, then applied the principles of struggle to the working class characters. Maybe we should be wondering what Meloy’s student days were like?–Cabbage Rabbit

Note: Why is it that in their book jacket blurbs, author’s are so reticent to note their education? Maybe they don’t want their craft to be thought of as manufactured? We discovered Meloy’s MFA school in a Wikipedia article, not necessarily a source the Rabbit likes to quote unconfirmed. We could not confirm it anywhere on her web site  and, as noted, it’s missing from her bio on the book’s jacket.  More Google searching to follow…