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.

Whoa

I didn’t realize it had been nearly a week since I last posted. It’s not that I don’t have time to write, it’s that I’m spending too much time doing other things, so the blog was put on the backburner for a short time. I’m going to San Francisco tomorrow, then leaving for Detroit on Thursday. I will try to write more, but I will be in Detroit for six or seven weeks, so it’s hard to judge how much free time I will have. I guess it depends on whether or not I’ll be working six day weeks and if I will have access to a computer.

Finished 2666 about four days ago. Amazing novel. I’m still processing it. In the meantime, a couple of book recommendations: Wells Tower’s “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” is a pretty good collection of short stories. I wouldn’t say it’s amazing, but it does keep on making me laugh, so I recommend that you pick it up. Alice Munro’s “Too Much Happiness,” her new short story collection, is exquisite. Or at least the first story, “Dimensions,” is horrifying and heartbreaking and amazing. That’s all I’ve had time to read out of that collection, but if it’s any indication of the quality of the rest of the collection, it will be amazing. Pick up both of those for a marvelous contrast between voices and styles. Literally.

Hemingway

I’ve been reading Hemingway again, the short stories in particular. When I was a kid, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was one of my favorite novels. I must have read it three or four times before I finally moved on. I’m not sure why I stopped reading Hemingway. I read “A Farewell to Arms” but wasn’t as taken with it as I was with “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and that ended my interest. In high school, I read some sort of writing book in which he was cited. His advice was to cut down the sentence to nothing. I kind of wish I knew which textbook it was that we read. I distinctly remember it being in an AP Language and Literature class during my junior year, but I could be mistaken.

For some reason, his advice stayed with me. I suppose this was mostly because I had loved “For Whom the Bell Tolls” so much, and revered him for a time.

The story that stays with me now is “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” as well as “Hills Like White Elephants,” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” In each of these stories, there’s a wonderful sense of tension that is not necessarily resolved. I think Hemingway’s talent is letting the story end without making it end. So many modern stories have an ending instead of being open ended, which takes something away. You can’t often really say what Hemingway’s stories are about, which is what makes him so great to read.

Happy holidays.

Literary Fiction

52 Faces suggested that she doesn’t like “literary fiction” and hates literary magazines and short stories, as well as MFA writing. I have to say that in some respects, I disagree. While I may not be impressed with this year’s StorySouth Million Writers Award nominees, largely because all of these stories are pretty boring, even if they are good, I think there are some amazing short stories out there. As for the StorySouth selections, I don’t see the point of several of them, such as Steinur Bell’s “The Whale Hunter,” and Nadia Bulkin’s (a very Russian name) “Intertropical Convergence Zone.” After finishing these two, I didn’t feel inspired or interested in what I just read. In contrast, reading Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” is a constant reminder of the power of the short story. In 4 pages, he creates something incredible. Nabokov also creates something amazing in “That in Aleppo Once…”.

To address the issue of MFA writing: it’s been said by many people, so I don’t recall whom I’m quoting, that people who get an MFA end up publishing stories that are structurally sound, but boring. They’re all the same. That may be true, but there are writers who have completed their MFAs who are amazing. John Irving is one of them. Michael Chabon is another. Maybe they are exceptions, because there are many many writers out there who have MFA degrees and are struggling to publish, or are published but not renowned. These people may be the ones who are talked about as structurally sound but boring. I don’t know. All I know is that I applied to MFA programs so that I could meet other writers and write for 2 years. I didn’t apply to MFA programs for the degree or the prestige (I mean the cachet one gets in the teaching industry from graduating from a place like Iowa).

Yes, most of the fiction I’ve read in literary magazines lately has been dull.