The Vicious Circle

Been working on some short fiction and an essay about dreams. Looking forward to finishing both and getting through 2666. I’m a little over a third of the way through, and like I said before, it is an amazing novel.

It’s funny how much you learn as a writer from reading great writers. I think I’ve learned more about style in the last six months than I did in workshop. I saw someone in a Goodreads book review mention how sentences don’t really matter in novels, and I think that’s pretty true. When you have thousands of sentences, each one really doesn’t matter much. I mean, if your sentences are terrible ala Elizabeth Wurtzel, then yeah, you need to work on that. But if you’ve got the sentences under control, writing a novel, from that technical standpoint, is pretty simple. At least for Bolaño!

Have to get to sleep so I can get up early-ish and go to the beach with Hang.

Books of my life

There have been few books that have truly impacted me. Sure, there are the usual suspects like “Beloved,” “Heart of Darkness,” and “Lolita;” those are books everyone seems to love and quote from endlessly, but my list is much shorter. I guess I will start in chronological order, with the earliest first. I’ll also separate the list into Fiction/Nonfiction/Poetry.

Fiction

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez (first read ~1999)

In all honesty, I need to reread this novel. I think I read it at least ten years ago, if not more, and I can hardly remember it. What I do remember is Marquez’ use of magical realism, which I believe to be one of the finest literary modes in use. Magical realism has come to define the way I view writing, and in some ways, the way I view living as well. Marquez was the first writer to challenge and inspire me. Reading this novel was like being taken into a room and battered with ideas for 468 pages.

Blindness – Jose Saramago (first read 2002)

I read this novel six times. I was a senior in high school and Blindness was assigned by our AP Lit teacher. After I read this, my friend B and I had to do a project discussing Saramago’s work through the lens of formalism. For some reason, we wrote our paper in six hours, the day before we were supposed to present it. We ended up getting a D. We had a good laugh about that recently. The novel itself astonished me for its inventive structure and the cast of characters Saramago employs. There’s not much to say about it in terms of plot, except for the fact that everyone in the world suddenly goes blind, with the exception of a woman. Characters are known by descriptive apellations (the doctor, the doctor’s wife, the girl with dark glasses). Some of the most visceral scenes take place in a mental asylum, inside which the blind have been quarantined. The novel is an examination of social breakdown and a possible allegory for the human condition. The ending will prove whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. I think this novel influenced me most of all through Saramago’s style, which mimics blindness and defies standard literary conventions by avoiding dialogic quotation marks and proper sentence structure.

Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov (first read 2008)

One of my picks for the top ten novels of the 20th century, Nabokov’s Pale Fire is absolutely worth the time spent arduously trying to get through the first half of the book. If you know Nabokov’s style, the novel is full of laughs. Everything is a joke played on the reader. I for one, love this, because it drives me to figure out what is going on. This novel is a perfect example of fantastic structure and slow plot reveals. Kinbote, the “narrator,” if I may call him that, is farcical to the extreme. His notes on specific lines (the novel purports to be an analysis of a poem) become flat-out digressions which have little or nothing to do with the lines they are referencing. I read Pale Fire the night of the final for my Nabokov class, in about six hours. Hell of a ride.

Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee (first read 2009)

Simply stated, this is the best novel I have ever read. Focusing on justice/animal rights/rape/post-apartheid South Africa, Coetzee manages to show one man’s fall from relative grace and his struggle for redemption. This novel is an exercise in understanding and accepting futility. I want to say that, once again, the ending will prove whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. This is one of the fastest reads you’ll likely encounter, because Coetzee’s language is pared down to almost nothing.

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood (first read 2009)

I’ve already talked about this book at length, so I’ll just say that Atwood is a genius and leave it at that.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – Haruki Murakami (first read 2009)

In my opinion, this is Murakami’s best novel. A mixture of science fiction, hardboiled noir, romance, and philosophy, Murakami will make you question the meaning of your life. There’s also an amazing statement on immortality, which is encompassed within an eternal subdivision of time.

Nonfiction

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers (first read 2004)

What else did you think would be on this list? Eggers’ memoir gave me hope for being a writer. I think I unconsciously try to emulate his bold style. With the exception of the MTV scenes, this memoir is incredible. It’s both an examination of Eggers’ life after the death of his parents, and an ironic statement on the art of self-referential writing.

Poetry

Autobiography of Red – Anne Carson (first read 2004)

This is an updated retelling of the myth of Geryon, a monster slain by Herakles as part of his Ten Labors. This doesn’t really qualify as a pure work of poetry, because it is a novel in verse. It puts Geryon into the modern day body of a young man who falls in love with Herakles, but is later betrayed by him. Geryon loves photography and has red wings and travels to Argentina and sits in cafes watching tango dancers. Highly recommended.

Surfer girl, surfer girl

Love random allusions to old Beach Boys’ songs. Nevertheless, this isn’t about the Beach Boys.

Since I’ve never really been the type to ask people out in person, I’ve always been rather interested in online dating. Sure, there’s a stigma against it, but if you find someone great, it’s hard to judge whether meeting them in person would have been a better alternative. We use the internet every day, so why not put it to use in another potentially productive way?

Anyway, I’ve used craigslist for a while, for everything, and there are some decent people posting ads there. Sadly, most of the ads posted now are spam, so it makes it hard to find legitimate postings. It’s funny, because as a guy, my chances of getting a reply from anyone are something close to 1 in 30, for two reasons: women get something like 200 messages in 24 hours, while men of the same potential caliber may get 5, and then of course, people always want a picture.

There’s the horrible tendency to make lists on craigslist, and it is hateful. If you don’t fit someone’s list of qualities, which for women is exactly the same – at least 6ft tall, tattoos, etc. – then you’re pretty much fucked, but that’s if you even get past the part where they look at your photo or bother to open your email.

I like craigslist because once in a while there will be a really cool ad that catches me by surprise and exhibits some sort of individual quality. I swear, every ad has the same bunch of interests, which include “staying out and also staying in.” That’s the best fucking cliche I’ve ever seen. Who doesn’t like to stay out or stay in? When there’s a good, ad, it’s really good. It’s like reading someone’s facial expression.

I like craigslist and other sites because it’s easy to just send someone an email and not have to worry about being rejected in person. I know, it would be better if I went out and met someone and had the nerve to talk to them, but I’m not that kind of person. I have met some great people online. One was my ex, two were people I dated, others are current friends, etc.

To get to the subject of the post: I emailed someone and also posted a satirical ad (because I was angry with all the listing going on) that was a huge list of the most vapid shit I’ve encountered. I actually got a response from the person I emailed, and responses from the ad I posted. Strangely enough, two of the responses were from girls who spoke Russian, which is kind of cool. I’m not usually interested in girls who are Russian or speak Russian because I sometimes feel intimidated by them because my Russian isn’t exceptionally good. It’s also weird to meet them and to wonder which language you should speak to them in. Then again, I dated a Russian girl with whom I was able to speak in both languages, and it was awesome because we could talk in Russian around English speakers and not have to worry about being overheard.

One of the girls is planning to move to LA, and we’ve had these wonderful email exchanges about Russian literature and surfing and whatnot, and she’s tall, which I find really endearing, seeing as the last girl I dated was 4’11”, and this girl is 6 feet tall. I can’t tell you how annoying it sometimes was to date the really short girl.

So, surfer girl seems like a connection worth having. She actually knows who Bulgakov is! I can’t tell you how amazed I am.

Now that I’ve gone and embarrassed myself, the next post won’t be so interesting.

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.