Beer and Batuman

“I found myself remembering the day in kindergarten when the teachers showed us Dumbo, and I realized for the first time that all the kids in the class, even the bullies, rooted for Dumbo, against Dumbo’s tormentors. Invariably they laughed and cheered, both when Dumbo succeeded and when bad things happened to his enemies. But they’re you, I thought to myself. How did they not know? They didn’t know. It was astounding, an astounding truth. Everyone thought they were Dumbo.”
― Elif Batuman, The Idiot

The Idiot, by Elif Batuman

Oblique Strategy: You are an engineer

In my struggle to live life outwardly, I spotted an event on Facebook that looked interesting. There was going to be a Book Club discussion at The Wild Detectives in Bishop Arts. I love that place – named after a Roberto Bolaño novel – it has a carefully curated collection of books, coffee and beer. What else do you need? On the weekends, they turn the wifi off – so people will be forced to talk to each other.

What could be better than to meet in a place like that and talk about a book?

The selected tome was The Idiot by Elif Batuman. The book is a bildungsroman about a ninteen-year-old woman attending her first year at Harvard.

I only had a little over a week before the meeting so I set up a spreadsheet with the number of pages per day I had to read. I have a terrible confession to make. I had a nice heavy hardback copy and the Kindle version. I never picked up the physical book. The new Paperwhite is simply too good.

I’m sorry.

The book was very interesting. Terribly well-written, it was unique in that the protagonist, Selin, was the most passive main character I have ever read in a novel. She drifts along, only slightly buffeted by life. Reading about her, I had the image of a person sliding down a featureless sheet of ice, silently observing the scenery go by (in very great and subtle detail).

So my feelings on the novel were mixed. It was interesting in that this woman’s life in her freshman year was incredibly different than mine (in a bildungsroman you can’t help but compare the protagonists experiences to your own) – for example: sex, drugs, and rock and roll make no significant appearance in her life at all.

One interesting aspect of the novel is that it takes place at the very beginning of the internet age: Selin is confused at first by this email thing – until she embraces it and has the most significant relationship with a slow email conversation with someone she met in Russian class.

The Wild Detectives is way across town from my ‘hood and I fought through the traffic after work, arriving early enough for a preliminary beer (Texas Ale Project‘s Fire Ant Funeral – if you are interested).

I really enjoyed the discussion. We started talking about the cover (I never even noticed there was a rock on the cover). Talking about the email, someone brought up that it was like letter writing in the time of classic Russian Novels (like Dostoevsky’s own version of The Idiot) people would write letters to each other, the distance and time separating the two adding a surreal aspect to a relationship.

A very nice way to wile away an evening.

The next novel we will discuss is The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet. I bought a hardback copy at the bookstore – I’ll avoid temptation and not buy the Kindle version. We won’t meet until January, so I won’t need a spreadsheet to egg on the pages.


Daily Writing Tip 59 of 100, Beginning the Story Before the Beginning

For one hundred days, I’m going to post a writing tip each day. I have a whole bookshelf full of writing books and I want to do some reading and increased studying of this valuable resource. This will help me keep track of anything I’ve learned, and help motivate me to keep going. If anyone has a favorite tip of their own to add, contact me. I’d love to put it up here.

Today’s tip – Beginning the Story Before the Beginning

Source – How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N Frey

Where, then, do you start your narrative of consequential events involving worthy human characters? Usually, you begin just before the beginning.

This is not as contradictory as it sounds. If you look at a man’s life in its entirety, there will be high spots and low spots, good times and bad. You will select from that life one particular story to tell, say the time your subject got fired from Bromberg & Bromberg and went into business for himself. You choose this story to tell because it is, in your opinion, potentially the most dramatic, exciting, and fresh.

Where exactly would you begin to relate your narrative of events? The best place would probably be just before the firing. The firing itself marks the beginning of the story. But we can’t understand the impact of the firing unless we understand what the character’s situation was before he was fired. Is the firing a good thing or a bad thing for him? If it’s a horrible job and the character should leave it, the firing is a relief. If he needs the job desperately and the firing represents impending ruin, you have a totally different situation. Events can only be understood within the context of the character’s situation at the time the event occurs; therefore it’s important to the reader to know the status quo situation, which is the state of things at a particular time.

Despite the title of the book this is particularly good advice for Short Story Writers and it is stated in a particularly good way, “Begin right before the beginning.”

No backstory, no flashback, no prologue, no nuttin’ – find the upsetting incident and go back a few beats and start typing.

Easy peasy.

The Wasp Factory

“I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped. I already knew something was going to happen; the Factory told me.” – Iain Banks, The Wasp Factory, opening lines.

The Wasp Factory is the first novel by Iain Banks, published in 1984, and the minute I saw the opening sentences I knew I would read the whole book. He had plenty of time to think through the opening, and it is crackerjack. How can you not be irresistibly intrigued by a first person narrator (probably unreliable), “Sacrifice Poles,” an escaped brother (escaped from what?), and a “Factory” (capitalized) that foretells the future.

I had seen mentions of the book here and there – mostly associated with strings of adjectives such as: dark, disturbing, violent, disgusting, hard to read, gruesome, grotesque, unparalleled depravity, monstrous, shocking… and plenty more. Well, so far so good. Then I found it mentioned in a book titled 500 Essential Cult Books. That was enough for me to move it to the front of my to-be-read queue.

Always, when I read a first-person work of fiction, I like to start to work out how reliable the narrator is. In “The Wasp Factory” the protagonist, Frank Cauldhame, is surprisingly honest, reliable, and self-aware. Especially considering he is a sixteen year old serial killer (though he claims his days of killing human beings are over) eunuch, living on an isolated island with his father, trying to deal with life through an endless series of violent, cruel, and depraved rituals – a litany of horrific obsessive compulsive behaviors that, while nasty and disgusting, are the only defense that he has against the hopeless situation that he is trapped in.

As the book goes on Frank’s constructed mythology begins to make internal sense. His series of altars, rites, and symbolic defenses begins to come together as a terrible religion that he has developed in response to a hostile world. For me, one of the surprisingly disturbing sections was a relatively innocent night Frank spends drinking at a pub on the mainland with a friend of his. He drinks way too much and struggles through a horrible night of sickness and vulnerability. It serves as a reminder of how helpless he is once he ventures away from his carefully constructed bulwarks of ritual.

It is a first novel, however, and sometimes you can almost hear Iain Banks thinking, “Let’s see – how can I up the horror a little bit more, what to do next? What taboos can I break now? What will crawl out from under this next rock?” It’s a harrowing ride, but if you are willing to go along with it – there are rewards. Frank is an undeniably unforgettable character and one that you will be glad you met in fiction – because you certainly won’t want to meet him in real life.

Don’t invite him to your family picnic.

The novel picks up momentum, unveiling secret after mystery after shocking revelation. Frank’s brother is on his way home, his father is beginning to seriously unravel, and even the island itself seems about to unleash some final cataclysmic horror as the novel comes to a terrifying climax.

It is at this point that the novel did let me down a little bit. The promised Götterdämmerung never does arrive. Instead there is a “twist” ending – which, although it certainly isn’t expected and does explain more than a few mysteries – for me, it failed to really satisfy the promise of the earlier story. It left me flat – which is a shame, because the rest of the novel was really something – though I’m not sure exactly what.

If nothing else, The Wasp Factory is a unique and polarizing piece of literature. A lot of people have written about the book, with a lot of widely varied opinions. I spent way too much time surfing around looking at WordPress Blogs that discuss The Wasp Factory. Read through some of these – you might learn something.

Blog Reviews of The Wasp Factory

Ignatius J. Reilly

 When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.

—-Jonathan Swift

Ignatius J. Reilly

Ignatius J. Reilly

“My life is a rather grim one. One day I shall perhaps describe it to you in great detail.”

—- John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces

When Lee first decided to go to Tulane I became reinterested in everything New Orleans. I had always been interested… how can you not be? I had visited and worked there and in the surrounding swamps, and always thought of it as an amazingly unique city – the culture, location and architecture making it a special place – a city that will find a place in your heart if you have to courage to let it.

I have felt that way for decades, and still feel that way, stronger than ever – nothing has ever happened to change my mind.

So I started to read anything New Orleans that I could lay my hands on. There is a lot, by the way. One book I picked up right away – one that is often referred to as the quintessential New Orleans novel, is A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole.

The book has a sad and amazing publishing history. The author, a graduate of Tulane, wrote A Confederacy of Dunces after a stint in the army but could never convince a publisher of its merit. Partly due to his failure as a novelist he fought depression and paranoia and killed himself at the age of 31.

He would have been long forgotten except that his mother found a smeared carbon of the manuscript and started fighting to get publishers to look at it. She kept pestering author Walker Percy (who wrote The Moviegoer, another classic novel of New Orleans – I read it right before A Confederacy of Dunces) – then an instructor at Loyola University – until he read it, mostly to get her to leave him alone. He wrote:

“…the lady was persistent, and it somehow came to pass that she stood in my office handing me the hefty manuscript. There was no getting out of it; only one hope remained—that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther. Usually I can do just that. Indeed the first paragraph often suffices. My only fear was that this one might not be bad enough, or might be just good enough, so that I would have to keep reading.

In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally an incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good.”

The novel was published by LSU press eleven years after the author’s suicide and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

The book is a touching picaresque comedy – memorable for its outrageous and colorful characters. Of course, the city of New Orleans is a main character – possibly the most outrageous and colorful. The protagonist is Ignatius J. Reilly, a large lumpin monstrosity that is convinced, probably accurately, that he does not belong in the twentieth century. He stumbles through his beloved city (he has only left New Orleans once – on an abortive bus trip to Baton Rouge, which he remembers with horror) like a bull through a china shop, leaving a wake of confusion and consternation – somehow coming out alive and intact – though barely.

Ignatius J. Reilly is not easy to like. He is pompous, self-important, lazy, slovenly… pretty much an all-around loser. You can’t help but love him, though. He is all of us, really. We simply don’t have the courage to admit it.

At any rate, I read that there was a statue of Ignatius J. Reilly on Canal Street in New Orleans. In the opening scene of the novel he is standing on Canal underneath the clock outside the D.H. Holmes department store holding a sack and waiting for his mother. The store is long gone, but the building is occupied by the New Orleans Chateau Bourbon Hotel. They found and replaced the clock and put up a life-sized bronze statue under it.

I had to find the statue. It wasn’t hard. The Saint Charles streetcar let me off across Canal and there he was, stupid floppy hat and all. Thousands of people walk by every day on their way to work or around the corner to the attractions of Bourbon Street… not many notice him.

So I salute you Ignatius J. Reilly, forever wearing a bad hat, and worse fashion, standing there with your shopping bag, waiting for your mother to come out of an extinct department store. She will never show, but still, you look like you know things the rest of us will never dream about.

Under the Clock

Under the Clock

“I am at this moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century. When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip.”

—- John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces