Bearing Witness: Writer Bob Shacochis

tiger, mask

Haiti market (photo: Kent MacElwee, Creative Commons license)

The seed of Bob Shacochis’s second novel was planted during an encounter with a woman in a bar in Haiti. She asked whether he knew a voodoo priest because she had lost her soul. Shacochis is interviewed in the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Glimmer Train. His novels are Swimming in the Volcano (a finalist for the 1993 National Book Award) and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, published in 2013 and a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Possibly you know him for five years of “Dining In” columns for GQ. Now he also teaches at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Shacochis grew up “in a very politicized world inside the (Washington) Beltway,” which must have confined his spirit like a too-tight corset, because what he most liked to read as a boy were National Geographic and books about traveling to different countries around the world. He says his writing remains an amalgam of “a kid’s curiosity about the outside world, and then the inside world of power and humanity and fallibility.” Whether America declines in power and influence or rises to new levels, literature needs to document its progress, and his books attempt to accomplish this feat. As he said in an NPR interview, he wants “to make Americans have a more visceral feeling about how America impacts everybody in the world.” A role of fiction is, thus, to bear witness to the exercise of power.

At the same time, he says, the nation’s myths need to be updated and made relevant to new generations facing what seems to be an endless cycle of vengeance and wars. The myths that shape us—like the myths of the Glorious Revolution, of the American West, of The Right Stuff astronauts, of the Silicon Valley pioneers—can be recast through fiction. Says Shacochis, “in order to have an engaged experience with our culture in the years ahead, writers need to be able to move throughout and chronicle the spectrum of art, and politics, and history.” It goes without saying that he is a strong believer in context; as context changes, myths evolve. He quotes his fellow author Jim Harrison as saying, “There are no old myths. There are just new people.”

The central theme of Swimming in the Volcano, he says, is an attempt to answer the question, “where does hate begin?” and its epigraph is a quote from Charles Newman: “Forgiveness is based on the fact that there is no adequate form of revenge.” The Woman Who Lost Her Soul starts with a different question, “where does hate end?” The principal character is initially not particularly likeable, but Shacochis hopes he’s succeeded in the daunting task of enabling his character to change enough that readers, by the end of the book, forgive her and let hate go. To do that, his story crosses continents and generations. (Read an excerpt here).

It’s interesting to contemplate what Shacochis’s approach to teaching might be, because, when asked whether writing his first novel taught him something that helped in writing the second, 20 years later, Shacochis said, “the thing that writing one novel teaches you is that writing a novel is a long haul and a lot of work.” The interviewer tried again, asking whether his books of short stories prepared him for writing his first novel, and Shacochis gave his most curmudgeonly reply of the interview: “I don’t think they taught me a damn thing, just like having an affair doesn’t teach you about marriage.”

****Wise Blood

Brad Dourif, Wise Blood, Preacher

Brad Dourif in John Huston’s Wise Blood

By Flannery O’Connor – It’s daunting to try to add something substantive to the voluminous commentary written and discussed about this first entry in Flannery O’Connor’s remarkable canon. But yet, every good book demands careful attention of its readers. And every reading is the chance to make new discoveries and find new insights, at least for oneself.

My reading group tackled this one yesterday. While the novel didn’t have any characters with whom we could identify (or maybe even much like), the fact that it stimulated a lively hour-and-a-half discussion was strong testimony as to its depth. Almost every member of the group sought out additional resources, online lectures, background on O’Connor, critical appraisals, and the like. One of our group watched the well-regarded John Huston movie version and said it helped her understanding a lot and makes the humor clear (nice review of it here)!(trailer)

O’Connor wrote the book over a five-year period ending in the early 1950’s, and we speculated how it would have been perceived in that era, given that it is still fairly opaque today, when experimental and unconventional fiction and characters are much more common. The characters in this book are like trains on a confusion of separate tracks, occasionally crossing, but fundamentally heading to their own destination, pursuing their own ends.

My reading group is a mix. Some have lived in the South, some grew up or have lived in other countries, and they had varying exposures to religiosity, though the religious leanings of the principal character, Hazel Motes, are unique to him. He’s a self-styled preacher for the Church Without Christ (of which he was the originator and sole member). The notions of penance and redemption are fundamental to the story, even if Motes pursues them in a herky-jerky, self-destructive fashion.

I went back to Sally Fitzgerald’s collection of O’Connor’s letters to find what the author herself said about what she intended with this book. Writing about a rather confusing review, “the last part [of which was] about the impiety & lack of love in the book & all that,” she wrote, “It seems to me the form of love in it is penance, as good a form as any other under Mr. Motes circumstances.”

This book is a classic of Southern Gothic writing, and I especially appreciate how she dealt with the question of the book’s “sources.” She wrote, “I have one of those food-chopper brains that nothing comes out the way it went in.” Which is why, sixty years later, it can be still be pulled apart, discussed, and new insights discovered.

Little Women Dream Cast

Little Women, Alcott

(photo: Karen Cox, Creative Commons license)

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, originally published in two volumes almost 150 years ago—and readable here (if “your” copy got lost)—has been a staple of schoolgirl reading ever since. “Like every other girl who ever read Louisa May Alcott’s novel, I wanted to be Jo: creative, strong-minded and independent,” says NPR’s Lynn Neary, going on to wonder whether Jo sets too high a standard. (And I ask, what are standards for, if not to be aspirational?)

Adult re-readers may want to reexamine their assumptions about this work and may find darker commentary underlying the surface action. “Little Women is brutal, a ferocious wolf dressed up in the curly white sermons and sentimental homilies of children’s stories, says Deborah Weisgall in The American Prospect, and its larger themes of thwarted ambition, not fitting in, and family rivalries make it “an enduring model for women’s stories, but it is rarely considered literature itself. It should be.”

The archetypical sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy and their travails during the Civil War were based largely on Alcott’s life with three sisters. Almost inevitably, Hollywood has produced five movies, including two silent films of the March sisters’ story. News that a new version of the film is in the works has prompted speculation about which actors might play the leads, and “dream casts” have been proposed by both Entertainment Weekly and the website Book Riot, which proposes an especially bold choice for Professor Bhaer, the portly German who ends up marrying you-know-who (and would finally make that outcome rather palatable).

In 1933, the sisters were played by Frances Dee (Meg), Katharine Hepburn (perfect as Jo), Jane Parker (Beth), and Joan Bennett (Amy), with neighbor and love interest Laurence, called Laurie, played by Douglass Montgomery. The 1949 cast—a real dream cast—included Janet Leigh (Meg), June Allyson (Jo), Beth Margaret O’Brien (Beth), and Elizabeth Taylor (Amy). Peter Lawford played Laurie. Most recently, in 1994 (trailer), Trini Alvarado (Meg), Winona Ryder (Jo), Claire Danes (Beth), Kirsten Dunst (Amy), and Christian Bale (Laurie) led the cast.

For generations, young readers have been heartbroken—me included—that conniving Amy, not wonderful Jo, ends up with Laurie. Fan fiction has finally provided the sought-after happy ending. FanFiction.net has a sizable Little Women fandom, and the fic I glanced at was totally PG, though I did not review all 316 entries. Here’s a sweet one. Pretend you’re twelve years old again and swoon.

**Chum

cocktail

(photo: wikipedia.org)

By Jeff Somers – By the time I finished this 2013 book I felt like I had a very bad hangover and my tongue had been used as an ashtray. Practically nothing seems to hold this group of nine friends together except drinking and smoking, and the quantity of alcohol consumed explains many of the difficulties they encounter.

Written in the stripped-down modern style, the book is unencumbered by information about jobs, personal histories, and life outside the interactions among various pairings of these friends. With alternate chapters told by different members of this seriously dysfunctional group, the book starts with a hilarious wedding scene in which first the bride, then the groom, lock themselves in the venue bathroom, refusing to come out and carry on with the proceedings. Subsequent chapters skip backward and forward in time to before the wedding and some months after. Nevertheless, Somers guides the reader well, and I was never confused about when events took place or who narrated them.

Much of the narrative focuses on two characters—bad boy Tom and good guy Henry—as much of the plot focuses on the trials of the newly married or to-be married couple, Bick and Mary. The book is full of snarky dialog that’s at first amusing, as in this conversation between Tom and Henry on the wedding day. . Henry speaks first:

“How long you give them?” I asked.
Tom sat forward immediately, as if he’d been thinking about the very subject. “Well, let’s be logical. Bick drinks, and Mary doesn’t like it when he does. Mary drinks but doesn’t think she has a problem, when she very obviously does. Mary is jealous and controlling. On the other hand, Bick is snide and weak, while Mare is easily annoyed and shallow.”
“Be fair,” I admonished, “They’re both shallow.”
“Fine. Put all that together, and I don’t give them a day over seventy years. Eighty years, tops.”

Ultimately, though, the constant put-downs are just sad. As I neared the end, I started to wonder whether Tom and Henry are actually two sides of the same person and could think of only one scene where that wouldn’t work. Both were described as present in scenes, just as multiple sides of other characters’ personalities were present, waiting to break out—usually after a couple of cocktails.

While the novel starts strong and with good humor, the excessive alcohol use, which damaged existing relationships and prevented the strengthening of new ones was, in the end, a downer. Back-of-the-book copy calls it “the story of love, liquor, and death.” That would be one actual death and the death of friendship too.

Somers writes a popular series of futuristic violence featuring his character Avery Cates, and Amazon readers who liked this book tended to be fans of that series. I am still puzzling over this reader comment: “Ultimately I felt disappointed that what was revealed was more or less the point of the whole book.”

Wolf Halls

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

(photo: Vicki Weisfeld)

A lot of Wolf Hall for one weekend–the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version on stage at the Winter Garden Theatre on Saturday, and on Sunday, the first episode of the BBC’s 6-part television version. Author Hilary Mantel, who won the Man Booker Prize for both Wolf Hall and part II of her Tudor trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies (on stage later this spring), edited and reportedly likes both rather similar versions.

Having enjoyed these books, I felt well prepared for their intricate power politics, not to mention the confusing English naming conventions, in which the Duke of Norfolk is sometimes called “Norfolk” and sometimes by his given name, Thomas Howard (all anyone needs to know is that in any Henry VIII story, Norfolk is never a good guy). But the theater audience was on the ball, got the jokes, followed the plot, and enjoyed the show terrifically. I know I did. Of course, Mantel’s narratives (combined, almost 950 pages) were stripped down for both stage and tv, yet the essentials powerfully remained.

On stage, the leads were Ben Miles as Thomas Cromwell, Nathaniel Parker (Henry VIII), and Lydia Leonard (Anne Boleyn). Miles’s Cromwell comes on slowly, but strongly. After his mentor Cardinal Wolsey is exiled, he finds a place at Henry’s court by following the advice “Stand in his light until he can’t help but notice you.” But Cromwell is the son of a blacksmith, and the nobility never let him forget it.

He makes himself indispensable at every turn, particularly when it comes to the King’s Great Matter: having his 24-year marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled so that he is free to marry Anne Boleyn—partly out of lust and partly in the quest for a male heir. Here’s where the politics get dicey. England and Catherine are Catholic, and the Pope won’t agree to ending the marriage. Henry’s rupture with Rome over this issue led to formation of the Church of England, with him at its head. The split occurred in the intellectual context of the Protestant Reformation, supported by Anne. For some, this was heresy, and heretics risked burning.

Catherine won’t agree to an annulment, in large part because it would make her daughter Mary a bastard. Anne presses for her daughter Elizabeth to head the line of succession. Eventually, Henry tires of Anne’s badgering and . . . oh, wait. That’s Bring Up the Bodies, coming to theaters later this spring and to tv later in the series.

Meanwhile, in the television version, accomplished actor Mark Rylance is Cromwell, skinny Damian Lewis, wearing a hugely padded costume, is Henry VIII, and Claire Foy is Anne Boleyn. In only an hour, the seeds of the controversy are laid, and we haven’t heard much from Catherine, Henry, and Anne yet. Rylance, too, is a taciturn Cromwell, though you have the impression he misses nothing.

In the theatrical version, the costumes are lush, but the set was beyond minimal, no time for shifting setting in the fast-paced scene-changes. Yet I didn’t feel deprived. This minimalism allowed the drama to dominate. Switching to the tv version, it’s obvious how much time is spent walking from room to room and place to place when sets are involved. Both versions: time well spent.

**The Paying Guests

London townhouse

(photo: Zoe Rimmer, creative commons license)

By Sarah Waters, read by Juliet Stevenson. Usually I enjoy being read to, but this is a book that might have been a better experience in the print version. NPR’s Julia Keller called it a “bewitching” tale of a young woman who falls in love with a married person, with all the well-known probability of a bad ending which that act entails. It didn’t bewitch me, alas. (It didn’t help that some of the reviews I read contained significant spoilers.)

It’s 1922 London, and to make ends meet, Frances Wray and her mother must take in lodgers—“paying guests”—after the family’s father died and both sons were killed in the Great War, leaving the two women with little more than a big house. Their constant petty economies dampen Frances’s spirits, and the young couple of a slightly lower class that moves in upstairs alternately energizes and mystifies her.

Says Keller, “Waters is a master of the slow build,” and I would second that, so much so that it isn’t until the book is nearly half-over and after some dark foreshadowing that the story picks up any steam (and it does get tastefully steamy, never fear). Subsequently, the consequences of a dramatic act of desperation begins to suffocate Frances in significant moral dilemmas, but, ultimately, the story unravels too slowly its last third or so.

If I’d been reading this, rather than listening to it, I could have whipped past some of its more lugubrious and repetitive dialog, along the lines of “Oh, Frances, what will we do?” No doubt this is a matter of personal taste, but I would have preferred some more doing in the book’s 21.5 hours (576 pages) and a little less wondering about it.

*****The International: A Novel of Belfast

hotel bar, barman

(photo: shankar s, creative commons license)

“If I had known history was to be written that Sunday in the International Hotel I might have made an effort to get out of bed before teatime,” writes Daniel Hamilton, an 18-year-old Belfast bartender and narrator of Glenn Patterson’s novel The International. The history he refers to is the meeting to launch the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), an organization formed to focus attention on discrimination against Northern Ireland’s mostly Catholic nationalist minority. We call the succeeding three decades of violence and despair The Troubles, and The International “is the best book about the Troubles ever written,” according to Irish author and Booker-Prize-winner Anne Enright.

Funny thing is, there’s almost no overt violence in this book, apart from the fact it’s set in a busy bar with lots of coming and going and football on the telly and political shenanigans where money changes hands and gay men and straight women hoping to meet someone and people who should have stopped drinking hours before ordering another and weddings upstairs in the hotel, at one of which the clergyman plays an accordion. In other words, enough latent violence in reserve to keep the average semi-sober person on his toes.

The principal action of the novel takes place during on Saturday evening, January 28, 1967, the night before the big meeting, larded with Danny Hamilton’s memories of other times and barroom encounters. His minutely observed portrayal of everyday life as seen from behind the bar is heartbreaking when, with the lens of hindsight, the reader knows how soon it will all be gone, sucked into a slowly unwinding catastrophe of bombs and gunfire.

Patterson’s writing style reflects the unadorned—and often wryly humorous—worldview of his young narrator, yet see how precisely he captures the sense of a departing wedding guest:

“You look like you enjoyed yourself,” I said.
He sucked air through his pursed lips and held a hand to his heart as though to say that any more enjoyment would have killed him.
“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?” I said.
“Great people,” he said and the hand on his heart became his word of honour. “Not a bit of side to a one of them.”

The novel’s only violence of the kind that would become all-too-familiar happened somewhat before the book begins, when four Catholic barmen from The International were shot leaving another bar, late at night. One died, creating the opening that Daniel filled.

The quote at the top of this piece opens the book, and these words about the barmen who died, Peter Ward, also age 18, help close it:

I can’t tell you much else about him, except that those who knew him thought the world of him. He is, I realise, an absence in this story. I wish it were not so, but guns do that, create holes which no amount of words can fill.

The Author

Princeton University, through the Fund for Irish Studies, brought Belfast author Glenn Patterson to campus last week. He talked about how his writing emphasizes history and politics and his deep sense of place. And, he said that “when history looks back at our present, it will see that what we thought we were at and what we were at, really, were entirely different.” This theme is borne out in a postscript to The International, where Patterson recounts going back to newspaper archives from 1967 to see what they’d made of the NICRA’s formation, and the answer was “scarcely nothing.” In that gap, the novel grew.

Charming, disarming, Patterson told stories and read from several works, include four of the five short literary interludes he was commissioned to write for Philip Hammond’s “Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic,” which premiered April 14, 2012, the 100th anniversary of the night the ship—built in Belfast—sank. I regret I couldn’t find them online to share with you; they were extraordinary.

It still being (barely) March, the month of St. Patrick’s Day, also see: Glenn Patterson’s top 10 books about Belfast.

Capturing the Thrills

security cameras, street corner

(photo: takomabibelot, creative commons license)

Among the workshops at the Liberty States Fiction Writers’ annual conference last weekend were two directed specifically to writers—and readers—of thrillers, led by highly-rated author Melinda Leigh and featuring Dan Mayland (espionage) and Ben Lieberman (financial thrillers). The first was on “Technical Difficulties”—and the three experts described how the ubiquity of cell phones (especially their GPS capabilities), public and private security cameras, and increasingly sophisticated facial recognition software make it harder and harder for urban bad-guys to evade discovery. (Here’s an example of the many websites and articles focused on defeating facial recognition technology.) While security and cell phone cameras were key to finding the Boston Marathon bombers, they are a black hole for story ideas, if authors want to write an accurate and believable modern-day thriller or crime story.

Similarly, a photo posted on social media may well have embedded geotags that reveal where it was taken—at the crime scene, at the perpetrator’s home, at his/her favorite hangout. This explains, I think, why so many mysteries are set in past decades—even centuries—or in small towns, where such capabilities don’t impose plotting impossibilities for their creators. I’ve had to let a protagonist’s phone battery run out, for example—imperfect, maybe, but we’ve all done it.

Understanding how such technology works, in order to construct a plausible 2015 plot requires research, and, like many authors, I’ve confessed to really loving the research I do for my books. These presenters’ second workshop—“The Thrill of Thrillers”—discussed restraining the impulse to put all that research in the actual book. Technothrillers (of the Tom Clancy/Frederick Forsyth/Michael Crichton variety, to which I am addicted ) are an exception. Too much background research slows readers down, and when they’re skipping over as much as they’re reading, face it, the thrill is gone!

Another advantage of leaving any type of too-detailed information out is, of course, that the reader can imagine a technology (likewise torture) that is more vivid, scary, or powerful (or gruesome) than the author can. You need just enough to jump-start their own creativity.

A side issue: I noticed how Amazon’s author pages for Leigh, Mayland, and Lieberman provide “Customers also bought books by . . .” information, and there is almost 100% gender concordance between the authors’ gender and that of the other authors customers reportedly purchased. Is that true? I like books by men AND women, if they are well done, and most other readers I know are the same. So, do these lists reflect real reader preferences, or just Amazon’s marketing assumption? Signed, Wondering . . . See this related post.

****The Last Island

dolphin

(photo: wikimedia)

By David Hogan – I can’t remember what circuitous path of weblinks took me to David Hogan’s website, but it looked interesting enough that I ordered his book. Unlike a best-seller or a famous author about whose work the reader starts with a set of assumptions, I knew nada about Hogan or his work.

I feel well rewarded for my curiosity. The story’s narrator is a former Boston fire fighter, attempting to escape a past tragedy, who takes up a bartending job on a remote Greek island and moves to a weatherbeaten one-room shack in an even more isolated cove on the island, near another shack inhabited by the elusive Kerryn. It’s some while before he even sees her, and then skimming magically over the water of the cove in the moonlight.

The island’s small population, which makes its living by fishing, is torn by factions. One group is using new nets that ultimately will destroy the fishing industry and give the islanders no choice but to embrace development and tourism, and the other group wants to keep the community’s simpler, traditional life. The secondary characters who take sides in this conflict are portrayed both convincingly and entertainingly.

It turns out Kerryn is an animal rights activist who has befriended a dolphin, whom she calls Yukon, who symbolizes all that will be lost if development proceeds. The dolphin becomes as much a character and a player as many of the people. The conflicts that ensue are intimate and devastating.

Hogan calls The Last Island “a universal tale of escape, love and redemption.” A screenwriter, his writing is smooth and compelling in this appealing novel.

** Boy, Snow, Bird

mirror, image

(painting: “Image” by Lou Hedge)

By Helen Oyeyemi—It’s hard to know what to say about this much-praised novel. It has many elements: two narrators, a passel of symbols drawn from fairy tales (mirrors, rats, evil stepmothers—and mothers), various themes, an epistolary section. Yet, somehow, the book doesn’t cohere into a whole. It’s as if we had all the ingredients, but didn’t end up with the cake.

Many key characters are pretending to be something they are not, so that all the readers assumptions must periodically be reexamined, as Truths emerge. They defend their choices to build a life on lies, and lies—or thoughts about them—are another theme. Boy (who is a girl) is talking about her boyfriend Charlie here: “For my part I was always a little disturbed by him because I’d never heard him tell a lie. That was horrifying to me, like living in a house with every door and window wide open all day long.”

For my part too few of those doors and windows were open in this novel, which kept me from understanding key aspects of the characters’ relationships. While a novel that explains everything is pretty boring, this one tipped the balance too far in the other direction. New York Times reviewer Porochista Khakpour called the novel “gloriously unsettling” and Oyeyemi “a writer of rather enchanting horror stories.” Certainly, horrifying circumstances led the characters to adopt their various pretenses, and while their assumption of false identities may have made a kind of sense in the 1930s and 1940s when they made that choice, what is the continuing relevance to the 21st century reader? Or is there any?

A friend recently remarked that a novel should not be analyzed to death, that the point of it isn’t to dissect, but to enjoy it on a visceral, emotional level. I can think of novels that aren’t fully clear (any of Flannery O’Connor’s writing, for example) that are emotionally powerful. For me, this one never quite connected.