Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell

I’ve just finished reading Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell and before that, I read its companion novel, Mr. Bridge. I realize now that this was out of order, since the former was published in 1959 and the latter a full ten years later in 1969. I don’t think it matters. They complement each other but can be read independently. Each is a domestic novel, set in the time between the great World Wars and concerning itself with the Bridge family—Mr. and Mrs., obviously—but also their three children and everyone else in their circle in Kansas City, past and present. Connell’s narrative style is straightforward and usually, emotionless; often, observations and remarks made by the supporting players shed light on the Bridges' character. The novels are separated into numbered, titled chapters. Each section offers a scene, really, a brief glimpse into the life of either the Mr. or Mrs., and these scenes build and build in support of what is basically a detailed character sketch. Here’s an example of a very short chapter from Mrs. Bridge, which gives a flavor of Connell’s style and also telling clues about the personalities of the Bridges. Also, it shows how we are made to see them through the lenses of others.
79 Psst!
Wherever they went they were promptly identified as American tourists. From every side street some young man would come gliding, a hand in his coat pocket, murmuring in broken English that he had a diamond ring for sale, a fountain pen, a Swiss watch.
“Psst! Hey, mister,” he would begin.
                “How on earth do they always know we’re Americans?” Mrs. Bridge inquired.
                It was not mysterious to Mr. Bridge, who, however, chose to reply bitterly, for the trip was costing twice what he had estimated, “Europeans can smell a dollar a mile away.”

This is one of the shorter chapters, but the longest is perhaps only three or four pages. Mr. Bridge’s temperament and prejudices, Mrs. Bridge’s naïveté, even a mental picture of the two making their way across Europe—so much condensed in so few words. Connell builds a book with these mental images, adding and adding until we are able to see the Bridges in full relief. They are wonderfully done. It reminded me of the portraits of Chuck Close, pixelated into tiny paintings. These novels are what would happen if you could watch Close’s process, adding one perfect image to another until the entire person comes into focus.
Evan S. Connell's writing career spanned fifty years and included work in several genres. His best-selling biography of Custer, Son of the Morning Star, earned critical acclaim and was adapted into a television miniseries in 1991. The Bridge novels were also the inspiration for the 1990 film Mr. and Mrs. Bridge starring Paul Newman. Connell passed away in January of this year; more biographical information can be found here.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Public Writer

When you think of authors who attained celebrity status before the explosion of communications and the internet, you think of people like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. The stories of their personal lives were relayed in newspapers and magazines and magnified at times by gossip and speculation. Their writing existed alongside these running biographies and it’s interesting to think about how one affected the other.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1978, Susan Sontag addressed the notion of the “public” writer:

JONATHAN COTT: For a lot of people who know your name and love your work, you have a special mystique. There are particularly a great number of women I know who admire you enormously.

SUSAN SONTAG: But what you call mystique used to be called reputation.

COTT: I think in your case it’s reputation and mystique, because you’re not a public celebrity who gossips in the media about whom you’re going out with.

SONTAG: Well, what serious writer ever did?

COTT: I could go through a list.

SONTAG: But those people have destroyed themselves as writers. I think it’s death to one’s work to do that. Surely the work of writers such as Hemingway or Truman Capote would be on a higher level if they hadn’t been public figures. There is a choice between the work and the life. It’s not just a question of whether you’re going to give interviews or talk about yourself; it’s a question of how much you live in society, in that vulgar sense of society, and of having a lot of silly times that seem glamorous to you and to other people.

Later, she adds:

SONTAG: The problem, however, is a little different in the twentieth century, since the opportunities are so much greater. Somebody once asked Picasso why he never traveled abroad. He went from Spain to Paris and then moved to the south of France, but he never went anywhere. And he said: I travel in my head. I do think there are those choices, and perhaps you don’t feel them so much when you’re young—and you probably shouldn’t—but later on, if you want to go beyond something that is simply good or promising to the real fulfillment and risk-taking of a big body of work, you have to stay home.

Authors, in general, are much more public now. As in times past, authors give interviews and speak at writing events. But they also maintain author websites and write blogs, and many interact regularly via social media channels. When I read Sontag’s thoughts about being public and traveling, they seem to have resonance, at least for me, with current online diversions. Because social media has always struck me as having implications with the notion of celebrity; it’s a sort of mini-celebrity, isn’t it, having followers and people to “like” you? There is true connection, I think, but sort of a false and misleading type too. And I wonder how all of it relates to writing, to reading. On a practical level, the time you spend being “public” takes away from the private task of writing. But does sharing your personal self (at least a portion you’ve approved for consumption) diminish your writing? This question is tied into the big news of the week, of course, and probably offers an explanation for JK Rowling’s desire to disassociate her recent novel from her public self.

Obviously, I maintain this blog and am moderately active on social media. I enjoy interacting with other writers and readers and have had some lovely experiences. None of it equals a true opinion about my writing. As a reader, I’ve had the opportunity to interact and in some cases, to meet other authors. And I have to say it has no effect on my opinion of their writing although it may complicate how I privately or publicly react to it. If you have chosen to have a public persona, do you think it adds to your readers’ experiences or takes something away? And as a reader, how does personal information about an author or even, interaction with that author, change your feelings when you read their work? Do you agree with Sontag, that “serious writers” should pretty much keep to themselves and stay home?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Assorted Fire Events by David Means

I’ve made a pact with myself this year, as I complete work on a collection of stories, to read more of the collections already out there and which, for some reason, I’ve mostly ignored until now. It’s been a gaping discrepancy in my reading, for certain, one I’m trying to remedy. And so I’m late to discovering David Means and his short fiction. I’ve just finished Assorted Fire Events, which first appeared in 2000 and garnered immediate attention and several awards.
Means has an evocative style, mostly straightforward in vocabulary and yet emoting the vast network that sometimes lies beneath what is said simply. He reminded me of one of my favorite writers, Kent Haruf, in this way. But they differ quite a bit too. Means’ sentences stretch and undulate and wrap around. Memory crops up, the world presses in, the characters often retreat within. The reader is led, always led, along the character’s path but also within the character’s heart. The surroundings are always important—buildings, the results of human effort, earth, weather—all the elements of our shared stage.
“Last thoughts don’t come easily, last thoughts rising above the shock and pain and the roar of blood to the eardrums and colors splashing behind eyelids, and ping of water dripping off the tunnel wall, the shuffled footfalls of the boys taking their leave, leaving him behind against the wall.”
This passage gives a flavor of the writing and honestly, I didn’t take very much time choosing it because everywhere in Means’ prose there are sensory details and human experience, all at once. He has a way of portraying the range of human thought in all its confusion and strange associations. In several stories, characters contemplate a life-changing event, or a regret, or a decision, while engaged in something seemingly non-related. Such as in Coitus, wherein a man is reminded of his deceased brother during moments of infidelity and he contemplates what has brought him to his actions. Because this is how life is, things often signify something no one else would understand and memories surface, uninvited.
You might say that Means gravitates towards the painful and even unsavory aspects of human existence and I will admit, there were sections I wish I had not read. The opening story, Railroad Incident, August 1995, details a brutal attack and is quite harrowing. In another, Sleeping Bear Lament, a man regrets inexplicably knocking out a classmate’s front teeth when he was in school. Moments of violence and tragedy. Moments of hopelessness and futility. Several of Means’ characters are indigent or alone; many are unhappy. And yet the overall effect wasn’t devastating; it just felt like wisdom and sometimes, truth.
Means is concerned with setting and I loved the way he worked with metaphor, such as two stories in which people were literally lost into the earth (one a result of bad land development practices, the other youthful carelessness) and others are left behind to contemplate the person, the memory, both gone through sands of time, both lost and reduced as we all must be. There is an ongoing examination of human industry, how it hurts and hinder and leaves many behind.
And I should talk about the title story, which is a listing of small vignettes, all relating to fire, some footnoted in an almost jocular way to remind us it is the author drawing the connection between them. As is the case with all stories, those we tell to others and the way we choose to tell them.
Assorted Fire Events is a bracing, powerful collection of stories and as often happens with brilliance, I can’t do it justice here. Anyone unconvinced about the literary worthiness and possibilities for short fiction can look no further than David Means’ writing. It’s all here. And now there’s a benefit to my late discovery—I can seek out his other collections, four in all, and catch up.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Perception Over Time

I was telling my daughter a story yesterday, something she’s heard before. It happened when I was a kid, around this time of year, after the 4th of July. A neighborhood friend and I took a cigarette inside the house, lit it on the stove and promptly dropped it onto the linoleum in the kitchen where it scorched a black, thin mark. I decided to tell my mom that we had lit a sparkler left over from the holiday. I figured she’d still be angry, but much less so than if she thought it was a cigarette.

But wait, my daughter says. I thought it was the other way around: you told her it was a cigarette when it was a sparkler. I think about this for a moment and the tiny twinge of hesitation I felt while telling the story makes sense. You’re right, I tell her. It was the other way.

And it got me thinking about a theme I return to again and again, in my mind and in fiction, the way each person’s perception differs from another, the way each of us can construe our own reality by the way we see and remember. This happens on an individual basis and collectively, when “histories” are recollected and reinforced within a group. And sometimes, this “truth” can change over time.

Why was I remembering my own story differently? I have to believe it’s because of cultural norms. When I was growing up, lots of lots of people smoked. Every house had an ashtray in the living room; people smoked in doctors’ offices, in stores, on airplanes. Basically, everywhere. Even though my mom wouldn't have been pleased that my friend and I were smoking, it wouldn’t have been that big of deal, not really. But bringing a hand-held firework into the house would have incurred her incredulous rage. Or so I thought. I decided the cigarette was a safer bet. I’d still get in trouble but not as much.

Thirty years have seen cigarettes, at least in California, become vilified and virtually outlawed. If you want to puff now, best that you head behind your place of business, into some alley if you can, and smoke back there. Most parents today would probably be much less horrified with the sparkler scenario. Personally, I wouldn’t be happy with either one, but would worry more about losing my house from the sparkler than the cigarette. But even that’s subjective because I’d wager many more homes have burned down from lit cigarettes than dropped sparklers.

This idea of perception and whether or not a true reality can ever be determined is endlessly interesting to me. It’s empowering, knowing that we can decide what to believe and it’s enslaving sometimes too, always perceiving through the lens of our own subconscious, beliefs and experience.

Sparkler or cigarette, what does it matter? Isn’t the story about a kid trying to avoid punishment? But as I grow older, it’s becoming about a lost time and place too and those details seem important because it was part of my childhood. It will be interesting to see, over time, if my daughter tells the story, what aspects of herself will be included and what will be altered or left out. I suppose if she remembers and tells the story at all, it will be a good thing.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka