Saturday, March 2, 2013

Book Review: The Misremembered Man, by Christina McKenna

If you want to know how to write a novel, read this book and pay attention. There are moments of brilliant writing, and the story itself is a well-crafted and tightly woven work masterfully done.

The story takes place in Ireland, and revolves around Jamie McCloone, a farmer who had been raised in an orphanage until the age of ten, and Lydia Devine, a school teacher who, even at forty-one, is subject to her demanding mother. 

In the orphanage Jamie was abused and tortured by the nuns. The children under their “care” were systematically beaten, starved, hired out as slaves, denied decent food, clothing, and warmth, and were otherwise abused. The sections of the story dealing with this are quite disturbing, and based on true events. The end result is that Jamie was deprived of that part of his childhood, suffers from depression, and on occasion entertains suicide. He has been left to live on his own by the death of his uncle.

Lydia had been raised by a Protestant pastor and his wife, with the result that she is sexually and socially repressed. She longs to be free of her mother and to have a husband.

Lydia and Jamie are both searching for a partner of the opposite sex. Lydia’s friend convinces her to place a personal ad in the paper (the story takes place in 1974, before the internet or cell phones). Jamie’s friends convince him to look in the paper for such an ad. He finds Lydia’s and writes to her. That’s all I’ll tell you about the plot. The story is told in three parallel threads. The present-day story of Jamie and Lydia, and occasional flashbacks to the orphanage.

More than the plot, though, the book is about the soul-crushing effect of organized religion, and the human spirit’s ability to overcome it if left free of it. It’s about how the horrors and repression that spring naturally from religion are thrust upon children with devastating effect.

My only criticism is that it was written in the omniscient voice, and that the end was somewhat rushed. We often hopped from one person’s thoughts to another within the same paragraph. Although this is not normally done today, it was not offensive.

It is a great read. Five stars.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Review: The Shining, by Stephen King

Although I wrote a novel that I call literary with elements of horror, I have never read a horror novel. So, I thought it high time. They say you should read in the genre in which you write, and it has been suggested to me that my novel, although horror by definition, had an issue with respect to the timing of the horror. I needed to find out how the master did it.

This book was first published in 1977, and made into a movie by Stanley Kubrik in 1980. The movie follows the plot pretty well, but the story varies substantially in many details. If you have to read this book for school, don’t rely on the movie to get you through.

I was surprised by the literary quality of the book. The writing here is excellent. There is subtlety, nuance, and metaphor. To a large extent it is a study of human nature and family life, exploring alcoholism and domestic violence, and the things that give rise to them.

For example, the main character, Jack Torrance, is an English teacher aspiring to be a writer, who has a problem with booze and anger. His father before him had a problem with booze and anger, and there is no doubt that such goes back innumerable generations. Jack has trouble keeping a job. In fact, the story opens with him at a job interview for a position as the winter caretaker of a large hotel in the Rockies. He has been fired from his job teaching at a private school, has little money, and a family to support.

Jack’s wife, Wendy, also had problems with her family. She and her mother don’t get a long, and her mother hates her husband. Actually, no one can blame her. As a protag, Jack is not all that likable.

Their son, Danny, whom they call “Doc,” has an imaginary friend he calls “Tony.” Tony tells Danny things. Such as where the trunk with his dad’s manuscripts are when it’s been misplaced, and that he should not go to the hotel for the winter. He shows Danny events of the future. This talent, we learn later, is “the shining.”

Jack gets the job at the hotel, which will be isolated and snowed in all winter. This is a worry for the management, as one of the previous caretakers lost it and killed his family. This doesn’t worry Jack, though, as he is working on a play, and needs the isolation.

When they show up to the hotel, they meet the cook, Mr. Hallorann,  who senses that Danny has “the shining.” He is able to tell the future and to read minds. He warns Danny never to go into room 217. He realizes that he and Danny can communicate through mental telepathy, and the tells Danny to send him a message if they need help.

Well, it doesn’t take anyone with the shining to know that the boy can’t keep away from room 217, and therein begin the problems.

The hotel, which is full of spirits, slowly takes over Jack’s mind, and King slowly builds the tension. Wendy is actually seeing the things, such as the elevator running by itself, hearing music and voices, confetti in the elevator, and so on. Jack is convinced by the hotel spirits that he needs to punish his wife and child “most harshly.” This he ultimately endeavors to do with a mallet for a game similar to croquet called “roque.” 

The book is masterfully written. The only thing that drags it down the hole of genre fiction is the fact that the evil is supernatural. If Jack had slowly gone insane without the aid of the evil forces occupying the hotel, even if the boy had some sort of ESP, the novel would have been literary. So, if only Jack could hear the music and see the confetti, or other apparitions, all of which Wendy sees as well, the story would have changed from one of ghosts to one of a man haunted by his own demons (to use a cliché). Demons such as his father’s drunkenness and brutality toward his mother, his own alcoholism, violent temper, and failure as a teacher and as a writer.

The point is that the writing is very good, and the structure and pace is literary. As mentioned above, it has metaphor. For example, in the course of repairing the roof, Jack finds a big wasp’s nest. The nest and its inhabitants becomes a metaphor for the hotel and the evil that occupies it.

One can also think of the isolation and the constantly howling wind to be a metaphor for Jack’s state of mind. As an alcoholic who has quit drinking, he is constantly hounded with the desire to have a drink, as well as the pressures of supporting a family and writing. He has isolated himself from his family due to his drinking and temper. The same things led him to be unable to keep a job. And he has a good case of writer’s block. 

At the beginning of this review I alluded to my own novel. Structurally, it is similar to The Shining. The horror is not thrown in your face early. It builds up over time, with hints of it coming now and then, intertwined with serious character development and back story. The real scary part does not come until well into the novel, over half way through. This is where the genre has been bent by King. 

If one looks for a definition of the horror genre, it is to the effect that it is designed primarily to scare the reader. Although The Shining has some frightening scenes, it clearly is not intended only to frighten. It is meant to explore character, and the relationships between people. How people are shaped by their parents. How people blame others for misfortunes brought on themselves by their own actions, although these action have predictable outcomes.

Not until the last quarter of the book do we realize through Wendy that what is going on in the hotel is not purely in Jack’s mind. This is the point that it moves from being a work in the literary genre to one in the horror genre. This turning point is very frightening, but it didn’t seem to me that the point to the book was to scare.

What I see is a talented writer who has been cast as a horror writer by ‘Salem’s Lot and Carrie, attempting to write something with literary merit, while at the same time sticking to the genre that made him famous. Consider how many of his books have been made into movies. He succeeded here in producing a work that should appeal to lovers of good literary novels, as well as to horror fans. Five stars.

P.S. Although I like the book and felt that it was well-written, as writer, I did not find it inspiring. Many times when I read something by authors such as Nick Cave or Cormac McCarthy, I am inspired by the writing. I found The Shining to be informative, in that it is a good example of character development, introduction of little details to help us understand the people and to give a sense of place, and how to pepper in back story. But while there were wonderful moments so far as the writing is concerned, it did not inspire me to write.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Book Review: Lionel Asbo, State of England, by Martin Amis

This is the first, and so far only, book by Martin Amis I’ve read.

Lionel Asbo is the story of a working-class Brit career criminal who wins 140 million pounds in the lottery, while in jail, off of a ticket he stole, and had his nephew fill out and mail in.

ASBO is a Brit acronym for “Anti-social Behavior Order,” a fact that is alluded to very briefly in the book, and would be lost on Americans. You can learn more about it here. Essentially, it’s meant to be a court order against behavior that is not necessary illegal, but which is (you might guess) anti-social. Such as drinking too much. It’s similar, I suppose, to our restraining orders, but more broad. I suspect they would be unconstitutional in the US.

The book is written from the point of view of Lionel, and his nephew Desmond (Des), who is half black (not scoring him any points in the social echelon into which he was born). The book opens with Des writing a letter to the Brit counterpart of Dear Abby, because he’s having sexual relations with his grandmother. His grandmother, though, had seven children by the time she was eighteen (starting when she was twelve, as did Desmond’s mom, now dead), so she is only thirty nine while this is going on. This age acceleration is a constant in the book, as Asbo himself is only twenty-one, and his mother (Des’s grandmother) ends up in a home with some mental disorder at the age of about forty-two. Lionel speaks about that age as though it were unbelievably ancient. This is all part of the irony or satire that Amis uses to poke fun at the cultural abyss that is working-class Brit (and US) society.

One of the elements adding tension in the book is the fact that Lionel has done great violence to those having relations with his mother, and Des would prefer to keep it secret.

The book is often funny, unless you’re like me, and consider the culture of the western world to be . . . I don’t know . . . shit. Here’s a guy who is trying (unsuccessfully) to make a career from stealing other people’s things. When we meet him, he’s in jail for receiving stolen goods. His cell mate is in for having a fat dog. The same man popped a ligament getting up from the couch after watching TV for eleven hours. Lionel tells him, “you’ve got to brush up on you ideas, mate.” (sic).

Although certainly funny moments, I watched in horror as this completely psycho-socio-pathic monster is thrust into the world of men by virtue of the fact that he won a vast sum of money from a stolen ticket. He is thrown out of two very swanky hotels in London, and ends up in a hotel that caters to rock stars and other vermin. So they are used to the suddenly rich low-brow. At least the rock star (arguably) has a talent for which there is high demand, warranting the large sums of money they have. Lionel, on the other hand, has done nothing. He has actually done less than nothing, because by all rights, he should be in the penitentiary for a long time. Live, even. He is a murderer and a parasite on society. Nevertheless, through no efforts of his own, he becomes rich and famous. This itself is a comment on popular culture (if the word “culture” can rightly be used).

In contrast, Des is very intelligent, goes to school, marries, gets a good job as a journalist, and starts a family. He is the only one who is not standing with his hand out to get some of his uncle Li’s money. In fact, all he wants from uncle Li is use of the room in their tiny flat, which Lionel uses to store stolen property, for their baby’s nursery. Uncle Li, of course, is so self-centered and sociopathic, that he refuses the request. He does pay the rent, but it has strings.

Buried in the story is Lionel’s sexual deviancy. For one, he prefers porn to actual women. “You know where you are with porn.” But when he becomes rich he is pursued by women. He has his DILFs and MILFs (divorcees I’d like to fuck, and moms I’d like to fuck, respectively). But it seems that he can’t have relations with them without beating them up. Bad. This will be his undoing. This may well be the part of the book that requires the most in-depth examination and analysis, but I’m not able to do it.

Amis is a Brit writer living in the US. The story and the language are very Brit. I don’t suppose he can help it. So, there are some Brit references (not the least of which is ASBO) that Americans will miss. You will generally understand the dialogue, but don’t expect to understand everything in the book.

I found the book to be entertaining and funny. But it’s also disturbing and difficult. There were times when I had to go back to see if I missed something, and there were times when I had to read a paragraph two or three times to figure out what he’s saying. There are a couple paragraphs that I had to give up on and move along. Although humorous and ironic in places, it’s not an easy read.

Did I like the book? Not really. I thought the premise was good, and that it had a lot of potential. I was hoping for an important literary work. And although it had moments that satisfied that, I found the language to be often uninteresting and nearly opaque. I never settled into a flow. I felt that reading it was uncomfortable. Not for its subject or message, which I'm in accordance with, but for the sometimes unclear way it was written.

Should you read it? Yeah, you probably should, for the same reason I read Atlas Shrugged: So you can talk about it at dinner parties.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

What is Literary Fiction?

When a person decides to become a writer, one of the things they have to do is decide what kind of writer they will be. That is, in what genre will they write. And pick you must. You must be able to tell a prospective agent what genre your novel is. (And whatever you do, don’t tell them that your great work defies genre. You will look like an amateur and a fool.) I’ve decided to write literary fiction. Why? Because that’s how I am and what I read. And as they say, always write what you know, and read widely in your chosen genre.

As easy as it sounds, though, it is not all that simple to choose the right genre for your book. But you really must know before you start; each genre has its own structure. Certain things are supposed to happen at certain times in a story, depending on its genre. Oh, you’re an artist, you say. You are not bound by these rules. It stifles your creativity. Wrong. Ignore the genre and its structure, and you will never publish.

There are two types of fiction: genre and literary. So, what makes a novel literary? There’re a lot of opinions about that, and a lot of disagreement. Some say that genre is plot-driven, and literary is character-driven. (Whatever that means) People who read genre expect an exciting plot, while literary fiction can explore character, and delve into philosophical questions. So, does literary fiction lack a plot? No.

Maybe literary fiction comes about with the use of fancy words and flowery language. No. Please. 

The cynical will say that literary fiction is fiction that doesn’t sell. Well, if that were true, why are we talking about it? Why are there hundreds of agents who represent literary fiction? Sure, it sells less than genre, but that’s okay. Pop music sells more than classical, but that doesn’t mean that pop is better. Most of it is pure, unadulterated crap. 

I believe that the only material difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is that in literary fiction there is a meaning under the surface. Maybe symbolism, metaphor, or irony. The story has subtlety and nuance. In horror, for example, the story is meant to scare you. What happens is what happens, and that’s it. There’s no hidden meaning. 

Ever take a lit class? I still remember one of my favorite teachers in high school, Mr. Kent, who taught a series of such classes, saying, “Yes, but what does it mean?” When you read a horror novel, or a romance novel, you are not sitting around afterward asking yourself what it means. It’s right there. They may have decent characters, and they must have a driving plot, but there’s no nuance. No deep philosophical meaning.

For example, when a guy is stuck to a door with a knife in a horror flick, it’s just a guy stuck to the door. In a literary work, it could represent the crucifixion of Christ.

Back to plot-driven and character-driven. Some people interpret this to mean that a literary novel has no plot. This is not true, and it cannot be true. A lot of new writers who fancy themselves to be literary authors, just write pretty words about things. They describe events in flowery language. “Purple prose.” But nothing is really happening in the story. It lacks plot. If nothing happens, then there is no story. So, even a literary novel must have a plot.

Consider the works of Cormac McCarthy. These are without a doubt literary works. I’ve read that he’s being considered for a Nobel Prize. It don’t get more literary than that. Yet his books are full of violence. They contain many horrible, bloody, and terrifying moments. But they are not genre. Why not? Why are they not “thrillers?” The reason is, there’s more to the novel than what you see on the surface. (By the way, if you want to know how to write, read his books. His prose is as lean as prose can be. You will learn from it.)

A literary fiction novel must have a plot. The main character must start at point A and go to point B, and be changed in some way. It must still have a story arc. A climax. Resolution. It doesn’t have to hit you in the face, and any decent writer will be able to do it without it being obvious, but it must be there. It’s not necessary for there to be violence, a shootout, or a chase, but there has to be conflict, even if within the character’s mind. Without conflict there is no story.

One question that has haunted me is whether literary fiction can have supernatural elements. Can a vampire novel be a literary novel with vampires in it? Or does the presence of vampires mean that it is not literary, but horror by definition. Certainly the writing of a horror novel can be quite literary. That’s why I’ve seen the term “literary horror” being tossed around. But I’m not sure it’s a bona fide genre. I’ve been told by a professional in the industry that the mere presence of ghouls in my story means that it’s horror. By definition. (And since it doesn’t follow the structure of the genre, is unpublishable).

After giving that question careful consideration, I’ve come to the conclusion that she’s right. Just as there’s no crying in baseball, there’re no ghouls in literary fiction.

Literary fiction can be violent, scary, funny, moving, just about anything you want, but not supernatural, unless it’s something imagined by the character.

So, what is a literary novel? 

  • A character-driven story (meaning it has a plot) that has meaning greater than the action on the surface
  • Grounded in realism. 
  • No supernatural or paranormal.
  • Clean writing, not flowery, no exaggerated gestures of facial expressions (“His mouth slowly curled into a half smile”)
  • Can be funny or scary

   What do you think?