Friday, May 3, 2013

Kurt Vonnegut on Writing (Three Quotes)

“Every scene, every dialogue should advance the narrative and then if possible there should be a surprise ending.” (about the most important aspect of the craft of fiction)

“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” (one of Vonnegut’s rules for fictional composition)

“The obvious alternative [to writing to please a small group of supporters] is, of course, something to please the AtlanticHarpers, or the New Yorker. To do this would be to turn out something after the fashion of somebody-or-other, and I might be able to do it. I say might. It amounts to signing on with any of a dozen schools born ten, twenty, thirty years ago. The kicks are based largely on having passed off a creditable counterfeit. And, of course, if you appear in the Atlantic or Harpers or the New Yorker, by God you must be a writer, because everybody says so. This is poor competition for the fat checks from the slicks. For want of anything more tempting, I’ll stick with money.” (taken from a letter that Vonnegut wrote in 1951)

(from Look at the Birdie, Delacorte Press, 2009)

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Beholder (Six Shorts, 6/6)

The last story of the Six Shorts anthology, which I started to discuss a few days ago, is called “The Beholder,” by Ali Smith.

My enthusiasm has been waning in post after post, and it won’t pick up today. It won’t drop to its lowest level, either.

The main character in “The Beholder” is also its narrator: a woman who goes to the doctor because she is having trouble breathing. The doctor checks her out, and then asks about her life. Fine, she says. And after a moment’s thought: “well, my dad died and my siblings went mad and we’ve all stopped speaking to each other and my ex-partner is suing me for half the value of everything I own and I got made redundant and about a month ago my next door neighbour bought a drum kit, but other than that, just, you know, the usual.”

So things aren’t peachy. She is given an antidepressant, but tosses the bottle of pills aside when she reads that one of the side effects is depression.

She moves on with her life until something appears near her collarbone: something “woody, dark browny greeny, sort of circular, ridged a bit like bark, about the size of a two pence piece.” She goes back to the doctor. She is referred to several consultants at different clinics: “Oncology Ontology Dermatology Neurology Urology Etymology Impology Expology Infomology Mentholology Ornithology and Apology.”

Do note what happened after “Urology.” That pretty much captures the rest of the story. A serious problem, which soon becomes imbued in fantasy, is treated half seriously, half not. The result is weird.

The spot begins to grow. It spreads out through her body and then grows branches and leaves. She has to prune it. We’re pretty sure it’s a literalized metaphor, and at one point we get a full-bodied description of what’s at stake: “I warn them about the thorns. I treat myself with care. I guard against pets and frost damage. I am careful with roots. I know they need depth and darkness, and any shit that comes my way I know exactly what do with. I’m composed when it comes to compost.” Composed. Ready for shit. We get it.

So it’s something akin to magical realism. The thing is that it doesn’t take itself seriously, which produced a strange brew for me. (I can only speak for my own taste buds here.) It was something like magical cynicism, or whimsical realism, or magical sentimentalism. Or something. The story came to a close, without getting me too involved in the life of the narrator.

And with it went the anthology. It’s worth it, as I said, as a portrait of contemporary fiction, not all of which takes my breath away. So it goes.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Bug (Six Shorts, 5/6)

As we come to the fifth story in the Six Stories anthology, it may have become apparent that my enthusiasm for these short stories has traced a parabola. It peaked with Sarah Hall's “Evie,” and it now continues its downward motion with one that has a wobbly title: “Call It ‘The Bug’ Because I Have No Time to Think of a Better Title,” by Toby Litt.

Right off the bat, the title strikes me as overkill. There’s also the fact that the story is made up of a single paragraph. It is freckled with remarks packed inside parentheses: everything from short explanations (“in 2000”, “in London”) to adverbs tacked after a verb (“gradually, subtly,” “convincingly, gradually”) to metaliterary comments (this comes from the narrator directly: “Of course, this isn’t my usual reasoned view – but at the moment I cant, I just can’t”).

Please take note of sentence one, which pretty much sets the pace for the rest of the story: “If my mother weren’t dying of ovarian cancer, and I hadn’t come home to be around my father, I might have written a story something like part of the following (Choose Your Own Adventure, please): A young woman, Ela, travels by great glass elevator to one of the geostationary spaceports encircling the toxic Earth.” We hear snippets of the narrator’s mother, while we are also presented the half-formed sci-fi tale about Ela.

It’s not my cup of tea. I’d rather have the story about Ela, perhaps laced with descriptions so inexplicably grim to warrant suspicions about the reliability of the narrator. But that’s just my preference. If you like this kind of gurgling, free-for-all stories, you’ll probably enjoy “Call It ‘The Bug’ Because I Have No Time to Think of a Better Title.”