Disruptive Juxtaposition

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Narration question

One of the very interesting things about David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is how little happens in the immediate scene. The vast majority of the novel's 1000 pages are given over to explaining what has been happening, or explaining the (exhaustively complex) pre-conditions that explain why what happens what happens. If you take Randy Lenz, for example, the squirreliest of Ennet House's residents and generally not one who's going to succeed with its anti-drug programs at all, let's take a look at what happens to him in the novel's immediate scene. Not much. I hope that it is not doing the novel or the character a great disservice to say that Lenz enters Ennet House, a halfway house in Enfield (Boston) MA, struggles with the protocols of starts taking walks, develops a habit of killing small mammals, which leads him one night to a house full of Canucks (Canadians are somewhat maligned throughout IJ; tensions with our neighbor to the north are high, for involved reasons), where he does something that's not nice at all and admittedly does set in motion of IJ's most high-pitched action sequences. But that's sort of, well, it. With Lenz, as with most of the characters, we read more about what they've done than we do about what they do.

I'm generalizing a tiny bit in hopes of making a point. Plotwise, IJ is so far and away one of the 20th century's most complex literary structures. The number of POVs and social spheres that we as readers are intimate with and privy to staggers. And let's go ahead and submit that, barnone, every sentence brims with linguistic attention and innovation. And, with each one of our Points of View (Marathe, Orin, Lenz, Mario Incandenza, and of course and most importantly Hal Incandenza and Don Gately), we receive in each section a compendium of facts about what's happening today in their day-at-a-time existences. But when you get down to brass tacks and look at the way the novel's attention's spread between the actually-happening now and the happened-back-then-but-trust-me-it's-informing-what-little-is-happening-in-the-actual-now, you can see that it's the latter style / approach that defines much of the novel's shape and content.

Again, don't get me wrong: there's a great deal happening in the novel's present. The novel's descriptions and accounts of what's happened previously, however, outweighs what's happening in the "now." This perception might be in error; if I had a scale and the time and the inclination to sacrifice my copy, I'd do a weigh-in. But it feels accurate. And it's therefore a mammoth testament to IJ's achievements that all of this exhaustive accounting never causes a reader to smack brow and say "What about what's happening with the X situation / Mrs. Y?"

This quality heartens the hell out of me. Good Ground as it stands is squarely on the IJ side of things in that a majority of the pages to date involve what's happened to its characters; what happens in the now is somewhat fleeting. At times I've worried about how "immediate" the actions taken would seem. But, and while this post isn't meant as an apologia, I'm beginning to think that such an approach of "past-heavy" narration in fiction need not necessarily lose anything in terms of immediacy, vividness, and being able to see the characters as they are, acting in the now.

Maybe this approach offputs the Joe / Josephina Q. Public. What do you think? Do you like your novels up front and pepping / zooming along? Do you mind being filled in? What if you're filled in in a peppy / zooming way?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Yesterday vs. today

Yesterday: Woke up way too early with ambitions to write my face off with pages for Good Ground. It didn't pan out. Lifted some weights, noodled around on the Internet. Tried at least three times to actually write, get into it. Didn't work. Before heading to the Big Top of Capitalism, I reread the suicide note. I have done wiser things. Listening to Grandaddy's Sumday on the 690 and just balling, which is strange, because while that record is not exactly sunny, neither is it the maudlin emotionally-overdone kind of schmaltz you'd think would inspire full-on gasping type crying. Labored for 8 hours. It's strange to be in public and be unable to stop yourself from having your emotional reactions. To interact with strangers who are paying just a hair too little attention to notice what's happening in your face.


Today: Woke up at a more standard hour. Typed out a sentence which popped into my head from nowhere; who knows if I'll use it. Started writing and got about 2500 words over the next 3 hrs. Went for a long run up Corporal Welch, past turned-over fields that will bear corn in a few months. Past the Boom Boom Mex Mex Taqueria, which is on the corner of Howlett Hill and Corporal Welch, in a squat white building with a sunken parking lot; it may've once been an antique shop or gas station with the gas pumps long since ripped out. Smells wonderful up there now. Here's hoping it has good eats. And past the Howlett Hill Presbyterian Church, which I believe has celebrated its sesquicentennial sometime in the last few years. Down the long hill of Munro Rd., back up to the house. Made a stellar sandwich. Cleaned up. Sat down. Here I am.


And what I realized via this competition between yesterday and today is that my writing amounts to a kind of shield. The pages I fill up are like shields that deflect the thoughts of this tragedy and thoughts of my own personal doubts and fears and worries, like, kerTWANG! As long as I've written something, these things kertwang away harmlessly. But if for some reason I haven't done a poem, haven't done some paragraphs, then I am effectively unarmored. At least one good friend will clutch his brow on reading this, for it might not be a very good way to go about things from the novel's / the poems' points of view. I've been trying for years now to be maximally prolific, and arguably this is to the detriment of the work and sometimes myself. But what I think I'm learning is that it's not just about the work: it's about me as well. Does anyone else experience this paradox? Wherein your mental health seems bound to something you must do, something that some people will tell you will suffer even if it might help you yourself out? I'm trying to parse this issue out. This inspiration vs. habit issue's been on my mind in one form or another since January 2000, when I decided I would write every day. And I'm still of the mindset that habit breeds inspiration. If I just waited for inspiration, I might never put words down again. Pisco Poet Liz H-F told her students that "there's no magical mystical moment" - poems / prose depend upon dogged, painful, habitual effort. Poems almost never spring Athena-like from your forehead (meaning you're Zeus). But what I know now that I didn't know 48 hrs. ago is that writing this novel, writing these poems, while not always easy, is, well, sort of saving me.


But then and plus, is it psychologically unadvisable to "shield" oneself away from the things that lay us low? Is this approach to dedicated artistic production tantamount to denial / issue avoidance? If it makes me happy, can it be that bad? I need to put on some music (not Sheryl Crow) and fix a beverage. I have that post-run constriction of the forehead. Not a headache, quite. But close.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Stanley Kunitz

I can't confirm it via any news source yet, but the grapevines indicate that Stanley Kunitz has passed away this Sunday morning. He was getting on 101 (!) years old, was one of the kindliest looking men you will ever espy in this world (see above), was a consummate gardener, and authored some top-notch free verse.

Yesterday a fellow in the music shop picked up some Wilson Pickett, and when I mentioned that he'd recently passed in January the fellow blanched as though struck: he hadn't known that the soul singer had passed, and seemed spooked that the whim to pick up a Pickett CD would strike him so offhandedly.

I received this poem of his in an email. It's textbook Kunitz: a subtle, conversational tone that doesn't seem cutting or even memorable until I come to the poem's end and find that several lines have lodged themselves in my mind. I suspect that lineation's one of his strong suits, but his diction is so plain and he sounds so utterly approachable that it's not immediately clear how well these poems succeed.

But what am I doing. Let's allow the man to speak for himself. After you toast your mothers today, toast Stanley. One more drink won't hurt.

Passing Through

Nobody in the widow's household
ever celebrated anniversaries.
In the secrecy of my room
I would not admit I cared
that my friends were given parties.
Before I left town for school
my birthday went up in smoke
in a fire at City Hall that gutted
the Department of Vital Statistics.
If it weren't for a census report
of a five-year-old White Male
sharing my mother's address
at the Green Street tenement in Worcester
I'd have no documentary proof
that I exist. You are the first,
my dear, to bully me
into these festive occasions.

Sometimes, you say, I wear
an abstracted look that drives you
up the wall, as though it signified
distress or disaffection.
Don't take it so to heart.
Maybe I enjoy not-being as much
as being who I am. Maybe
it's time for me to practice
growing old. The way I look
at it, I'm passing through a phase:
gradually I'm changing to a word.
Whatever you choose to claim
of me is always yours:
nothing is truly mine
except my name. I only
borrowed this dust.