Soul Classic

We were the idealized couple and you, you were in awe, enthralled and enraged by our perfection. We had it all, I suppose – the afternoon sex, the guava tree in the kitchen, the art school teaching positions. We didn’t understand or care to know the struggle of those destitute of love. On Mondays I would sleep in while Regina let out the cat and practiced yoga on the balcony. I think she liked to show off for the neighbor across the way, or the itinerants on the corner, and I liked that.

I didn’t care about the novel you were writing, your feat of technical prose. I didn’t care that my mother had cancer and jumped into an oncoming train. There were few things to care about besides money. We all had strange names and attended pretentious literary events where graduate students read balefully miserable poetry on the metaphysics of cardigan sweaters. Or birds, always baleful wild birds in flight. We didn’t know anything but pretended to have read Lolita and The Catcher in the Rye and In Search of Lost Time and some of us had indeed read those masterpieces, not to mention Ulysses. But no one mentioned Ulysses or Bolaño and we sat in the back, rapturously devouring every word, every enjambed line.

When you finally finished the novel, an epistolary romance in the style of Dostoyevsky’s Poor Folk, none of us had any idea of what to do. We thought the canon would take care of you, like the free market. The book didn’t sell well but certain subcultures adopted is as the new anti-machismo, so we were satisfied, though none of us even knew what machismo meant. Some believed in you. Others thought of it as mental masturbation, narcissism, the crypto-mythological bullshit of modern art.

When you slit your wrists, some of us quoted Esenin and Mayakovsky while others preferred to pretend they didn’t know you. Still others alleged they were with you in the final moments.

No one knew where you had come from. You appeared like the parable where Christ rides a horse into the mountains to seek enlightenment. We were the mountains but you found no enlightenment. We assumed you were bitter and moved off, on the way to other readings, other coffee shops, other downtown lofts. You had always sat in the back, taking notes when you should have been socializing and arguing about Proust with the rest of us.

None of it made sense, not the warm water or the sharp blade. You’d been living in the studio then, scraping by on a modicum of respect and tips, writing by night. I didn’t care. I wanted to keep having sex whenever I damn well pleased. One of the boys offered you his couch and there you stayed after the money ran out.

Regina had soul in spite of everything. You told her no one asked you your name. You liked the anonymity. You told her about soul classics. “A soul classic,” you said, “captures the imagination of the lovelorn man or woman desperate for some hope of redemption through romance.” What did that mean? we wondered. We really wondered about that one, about what a man born thirty years after the advent of soul knew about soul classics. What could kids born fifty years after The Beatles performed in New York know about The Beatles? Shit, everyone knew something. The cancer had spread to her stomach and lungs and she couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t always able to breathe.

We tried not to think about it too much. We played soul classics at your funeral, and though there was some disagreement (some thought Joy Division would have been more apropos), everything turned out alright. We were alright. We were alright.

I tried to forget about finding you squared in the tub, the water tinged a surprisingly mellow red. No one asked about us and that’s just as well.

Canada

I’m in the process of figuring out whether I can apply to Concordia University’s English MA (with creative writing focus) so that I can get Canadian residency upon graduation. I found out two days ago that Quebec is offering residency + a fast track to Canadian citizenship for any student who graduates from a Québécois university. I totally would not mind moving to Montreal if it meant I could live my life with much more freedom and dignity.

I just sent an email to one of the assistants at the English department to find out if I should apply by the April 1st deadline (without fellowship offers) and then possibly defer for a year, or if I should apply in December (with fellowship offers). I also have no idea if they even accept nonfiction candidates, but it seems as if they might not. I don’t have a 35 page fiction portfolio and I doubt I could churn one out in the two weeks I would have to submit my work to professors for letters of recommendation.

If it turns out I should apply right now, then I will be traveling to Berkeley for a couple of days to get transcripts and speak to professors (i.e. beg for letters). I don’t think Concordia would be very happy with two-year-old letters of recommendation.

I love Montreal. I love Canada. I’m tired of sitting around, wasting my life, while some bureaucracy shuffles through the motions of attempting immigration reform and ultimately falls flat on its back.

If I apply in April and somehow manage to figure out financial stuff, I could be out of here by September.

There are many things to think about, such as whether I want to leave the United States and never return, but for now, I’m more concerned with logistics.

Kazuo Ishiguro – “Never Let Me Go”


“She said they revealed your soul.”
“Did someone think we didn’t have souls?”
“I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end, it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how I think it is with us. […] But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.

I’m at a loss as to why Kazuo Ishiguro is not being read in English classes, at least not in any classes I’ve ever taken. He won the Booker Prize in 1989 for “The Remains of the Day,” which was later adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins. Three of his other novels, including “Never Let Me Go,” have been shortlisted for the Booker. It might be that he has a Japanese name (though he has actually lived in Britain since the age of 5) and, like Murakami, is deemed inaccessible or irrelevant by many American readers. Someone recently had this to say about an article featuring Ishiguro (the article was about how to write novels):

“Kazuo Ishiguro was interviewed. I want to start reading him. No, not because reading Murakami is becoming passé! Stupidtrendbookwhores. Anyways, he writes his first draft by hand. Bad ass.”

It is sad that people are comparing Ishiguro and Murakami by virtue of their being Japanese. That’s like saying you should read Atwood instead of reading Munro (you know, since they’re both Canadian). Anyway, Ishiguro and Murakami have entirely different subject matters and styles, so there’s no comparison. For me, Ishiguro is the better writer, mostly because of the subtle ways in which he translates meaning and develops plot, kind of like Atwood.

“Never Let Me Go” is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. It nearly beats out “Disgrace” as one of my favorites this year. Strangely enough, “Never Let Me Go” is on TIME Magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Novels of All Time, but “Disgrace” isn’t. I can’t quite understand that, but oh well.

What is “Never Let Me Go” about? I can’t tell you. The premise is so tied to the plot that the back cover, which attempts to disguise the novel, literally gives you the barest of threads:

“From Booker Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro comes a devastating new novel of innocence, knowledge, and loss.

As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules – and teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were.

Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life, and for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them so special – and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together. Suspenseful, moving, beautifully atmospheric, Never Let Me Go is another classic by the author of The Remains of the Day.”

Does that really tell you anything? No.

The novel is set in late 1990s England, though through flashbacks, Ishiguro moves the narration anywhere between the 60s and present time. The story is a coming of age saga revolving around three different kids: Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy (the narrator). Kathy is a thirty one year old carer who takes care of donors. Don’t ask me to explain that one. She and Ruth and Tommy grew up at Hailsham, and the novel is separated into three parts: part one deals with their early years at Hailsham, part two moves us closer to the present, with their departure into the real world, and part three brings us to the present time, where all three are reunited for a brief moment.

To be absolutely blunt, “Never Let Me Go” is a dystopian novel, firmly balanced on the shoulders of Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and Orwell’s “1984.” At its heart, the novel questions what it means to be human and how we should live our lives. It is also a love story and a mystery with no ultimate revelation. If I were to give a major spoiler, I would say it is most like one of Jodi Picoult’s novels, but for the literary, intelligent reader.

Ishiguro’s talent is letting the reader know what his narrator and the rest of the characters don’t. We are simultaneously told and not told, just like the students, what is going on. Before we are halfway through the novel, before one of the minor characters reveals the nature of the students’ special nature, the reader already knows. The only question, then, is how will the characters find out, and what happens afterwards? Ishiguro is a master of subtlety, and it shows clearly at the end, when all the small clues illuminate the larger picture of what it means to be alive and to create and to love and to really live.

I think part one and part three are superb. Part two becomes tiring due to Ishiguro’s use of flashback and having the narrator announce that something is important and then explaining it. You have to read through this part in order to get to the heartbreaking and agonizing conclusion. And what a conclusion it is, what an absolutely despairing outlook on the reality of what we choose to do for other people.

A measure of a good writer is the title he or she chooses for the work. In this respect, Ishiguro, much like Atwood, has struck gold. The title plays to all aspects of the novel: the love story, the dystopia, the mystery.

If you also look at the cover, you’ll see a spoiler (sort of). The cover was designed by Jamie Keenan, who’s done some great work.

This is one of the few novels that has made me cry. These characters try to live their lives and ultimately do live them, but to what purpose? Theirs are not the kinds of lives you would wish to live.

Final note: I could spoil this novel with one word, but I won’t. Don’t read Amazon reviews for this novel, because you will lose a major part of what it is about, the fear and tension of not knowing what happens next.

Adjectives I would use to describe this novel: devastating, elegiac, hopeful, heartbreaking

I changed my mind

Sort of. I just wanted to write about Murakami some more. I finished “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World” today and I highly recommend it. I think it’s his best novel. It combines noir, speculative science fiction, and mythology, managing to transcend all of them. It also manages to tell two entirely different stories in one book, alternating chapters set between the Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World.

The premise is rather interesting: in the Hard-Boiled Wonderland chapters, a nameless narrator who shuffles data with his mind is embroiled in a war of information between the System and the Factory. There’s a brilliant scientist, subterranean laboratories, INKlings (creatures who live in the sewers underneath Tokyo), and a librarian.

In The End of the World chapters, a nameless narrator is living in a walled Town from which no one ever leaves. He is charged with reading the dreams of skulls in an old library. He is also forced to cut off his shadow, which lives outside the town as it plans an escape. There is a librarian here as well, and unicorns.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that this novel is once again concerned with reality, identity, and the dreamscape. It is more concretely philosophical while being entirely gripping through its employ of science fiction.

I want to say that the ending is a wonderful subversion of Western literary standards. The novel is also, of course, concerned with Western culture and references everything from JG Ballard and Casablanca to Bob Dylan. It reminds me of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and “Midnight’s Children” through its use of oblique references, half of which the average reader (and I, even as an Americanized reader) didn’t quite catch.

I haven’t felt such strong emotions since reading Disgrace, and while I don’t wish to compare the two, I feel like Murakami has achieved something equally forceful here, albeit by a different route.

The most important question posed by Murakami is the idea of the self and the function of the mind in the creation of that self. In a small way, the novel is also about the idea of free will, and the choice to live a life of self-awareness.

Junot Diaz reinvigorates literary fiction

I picked up Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” today, after waiting to read it for at least six months. Let me tell you right now that it was worth the wait. After Murakami’s “..Wind-Up..” I felt lost for what to read next. I needed something accessible yet literary. I tried Sedaris, but his collection was disappointing. I tried Faulkner, but I’m not ready for his style of stream-of-consciousness right now.

Diaz is spectacular for several reasons. The first, and in my opinion the most important, is that the writing is confident. I’m going to spoil the novel a bit for you and say that the narrator is not the author, though at first it seems like he is. I can’t tell you who the narrator is, but the asides (in footnotes), are amazing. This novel reads like an encyclopedia for nerds. What’s most interesting is that the narrator sympathizes with Oscar, and like Oscar, is a nerd in his/her own right. There’s a wonderfully compassionate tone to the writing, even when it describes Oscar’s trials and tribulations as the fat loser. It’s a beautiful meditation on what it means to be both an immigrant and an outcast.

The second reason I like this novel is the constant references to what the narrator calls “the Genres,” aka geek culture. For anyone who was ever slightly unpopular, uncool, or flat out lonely in the early years of school, this novel strikes a chord.

The third reason is that throughout all this, Diaz manages to instill the work with a focus on the political and historical aspects of immigrant life, especially that of Dominican immigrants.

The fourth and most obvious reason is that the title is superb.

There’s so much unbridled energy throughout this work that it made me want to go home and write. The novel instills confidence. It reminds me of reading Nabokov, though reading Nabokov never instills confidence.

If I were to describe this novel in one word, that word would be “raucous.”

I got about a third of the way through today. I’ll write more after I finish in the next couple of days.

You can’t fail if you don’t try

So I’m trying. Here are a few literary contests I’ll be submitting work to in the next few months. I’ll probably be adding on to this post later. I found these on the deadlines section of Poets and Writers, here. They’re arranged by reading fees and deadline:

No Reading Fee Contests:

The New Esquire Fiction Contest

No reading fee – submissions of 4,000 words or less based on these pre-selected titles:

1. “Twenty-Ten”
2. “An Insurrection”
3. “Never, Ever Bring This Up Again” (this reminds me of DFW’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”)

Deadline: August 1st

Memoir (and) Memoir in prose and poetry contest

No reading fee, online submission system – 10,000 word limit or 5 poems

Deadline: August 15th

Contests with Reading Fees:

Literal Latte Short Short Story contest

$10 reading fee for up to 3 pieces, $15 for 6 – paper submissions only. 2,000 word limit.

Deadline: June 30th postmark

Narrative Spring 2009 Story Contest

$20 reading fee – 15,000 word limit for fiction/nonfiction

Deadline: July 31st

Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize

$20 per piece reading fee – paper submissions only. 10,000 word limit.

Deadline: September 1st

Literal Latte Personal Essay contest

$10 reading fee for one piece, $15 for two – paper submissions only. 6,000 world limit.

Deadline: September 15th postmark

The Globalization of Fiction

I just read an interview with Jess Row on the ploughshares blog, and here was his answer to the following question:

Who are some of your all-time favorite writers? Some emerging writers that are catching your attention?

My all-time favorites list: John Banville, Nadine Gordimer, John Berger, Michael Ondaatje, Gina Berriault, Charles Baxter, John Edgar Wideman, Robert Stone, J.M. Coetzee, Paul West. As far as young writers go in this country, I think there’s a real impatience, across the board, with strict distinctions between “realism” and “avant-garde”; you see that in the new fabulists, like Karen Russell, Kelly Link, and Judy Budnitz, for example. There’s also a lot of new interest in regional particularity and in rural or at least non-urban life, sometimes with a gothic or fantastic edge: David Means, Ander Monson, Peter Markus, Jason Brown, Lewis Robinson, Charles D’Ambrosio. And then there’s the enormous ongoing globalization of American fiction, as the definition of who is American and what constitutes “American experience” changes. A novel like The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao would not have been possible ten years ago, and yet now to many of my undergraduate students it has defined the possibilities of fiction for the future. The distinction between “immigrant” fiction or “multicultural” fiction and the normative, white-male, canonical tradition is beginning to disappear. There’s a huge amount of vitality in contemporary fiction, and I think mainstream publishing is just barely keeping up with it.”

I’m particularly interested in Row’s statement that a globalization of fiction has been taking place in the US. I think that’s been going on for almost a decade, if not longer. He takes the words out of my mouth: “as the definition of who is American and what constitutes “American experiences” changes.” We really need more of this.

That’s pretty much what I have been dealing with in my work, from the very beginning, although I didn’t realize it for a while. Here’s why: I am Russian, though I live in the US, because I was born in Russia, but the question is, if I’ve lived here for more than half of my life, am I now American? If I speak perfect English with a Californian accent and no one can tell I’m Russian, am I Russian? I am not a US citizen, not even a permanent resident, so am I Russian? I speak Russian, I read Russian, I can write Russian, am I Russian?

Most people don’t think so. When I tell them I’m Russian, it’s like an additional layer that they must put over their idea of my Americanism. I want to be seen as Russian more than being seen as an American, instead of the other way around.

I’m hoping this globalization helps me and other people out in terms of creating some sort of niche in the readership, in which the specificity of our topic creates interest. This means nothing in the way of publishing in literary magazines, but as a good example, Paul Yoon’s recently published short story collection “Once the Shore,” is set on a South Korean island. Coincidence?

Jess Row mentioned Junot Diaz’ “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” but I’d like to throw out some others: Lahiri’s “The Namesake” and “Interpreter of Maladies,” Smith’s “White Teeth,” Shteyngart’s “Absurdistan.” In fact, Granta’s list of Best Young Novelists Under 35 has five people (six if we include a guy who was born in Chicago but raised in Bangkok) who were born in other countries but moved to the US. That’s almost a third. Of those five (or six again), two are Russian, including Shteyngart. Coincidentally, or not, Jess Row is also on Granta’s list.

I’ve probably said this before, but since when is English the preferred language for communication? Aleksandar Hemon is being compared to Conrad and Nabokov, which is kind of ridiculous. If you’re going to be a great writer, you’ll be a great writer no matter what language you write in. My argument is easily proven: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Nabokov himself (who successfully wrote works of genius in Russian long before he translated them into English, and before he started writing later works of genius in English). I don’t understand this fascination with people who learned English and then wrote great works in it. Ok, cool, that means I’ll eventually be famous too, because I learned Russian first (kind of cheating here, I learned the Russian alphabet first in all my learning sessions with my dad, who then immediately followed with the English alphabet), and then wrote in English. Of course, I’m assuming I’ll write some amazing stuff. Whatever.

In summary: I’m not American. This is a good thing for my future. The preferential treatment of works in English annoys me. I should write in Russian and then translate if necessary.