Wednesday, December 9, 2009


A recent Facebook status update "finished Middlemarch" generated so much response in the comments that I could barely get a word in edgewise, which made me grateful I still have recourse to a blog.

I started Middlemarch mostly because Barry Owen wouldn't shut up about how great it was, and while Barry gives me frequently occasion to cite Emily Dickinson's observation that transport is not urged, this urged experience was in fact transporting. At least for the first few hundred pages, and again for the last hundred and change, leaving four or five hundred pages in the middle, a forced march if there ever was one. My paperback, after a week of rain in the Tennessee woods, began to enact the degradation of my interest, to the point that I was carrying the book around in two pieces and then in dozens, and by the time I got to New York I was leaving behind me in subway cars and cafes a Hanselesque trail of Victorian fiction, most of which I didn't expect to miss.

The Facebook thread saw people shouting out their favorite characters and this made me feel inadequate, because I had to think about it. The most popular choice and obvious candidate was the heroine, Dorothea, because she sacrifices a fortune for love (a development that will come as a genuine surprise to anyone who has never read a work of fiction), but she is a less obvious candidate because she is possibly the most perfectly moral Christian to ever lay a sincere claim on a reader's sympathy. Her religious faith and personal uprightness manifest themselves in perverse ways, so she earns plausibility as an eccentric; but I found myself too conscious of the fact that I was being asked to sympathize with a woman with a spotless soul, and every reader has her limits.

Dorothea reminds me of Milton's Jesus, poor schmuck, who winds up having the poem stolen out from under him by the far more entertaining fictional presence of Satan. In Middlemarch, much of the first two books (of eight) captivated me, but none of the characters or their fates really did until late in the book when Bulstrode, the Christian prig with a dirty secret of financial impropriety, is exposed and disgraced and his wife confronts him:

It was eight o'clock in the evening before the door opened and his wife entered. He dared not look up at her. He sat with his eyes bent down, and as she went towards him she thought he looked smaller - he seemed so withered and shrunken. A movement of new compassion and old tenderness went through her like a great wave, and putting one hand on his which rested on the arm of the chair, and the other on his shoulder, she said, solemnly but kindly -

"Look up, Nicholas."

He raised his eyes with a little start and looked at her half amazed for a moment: her pale face, her changed, mourning dress, the trembling about her mouth, all said, "I know"; and her hands and eyes rested gently on him. He burst out crying and they cried together, she sitting at his side. They could not yet speak to each other of the shame which she was bearing with him, or of the acts which had brought it down on them. His confession was silent, and her promise of faithfulness was silent. Open-minded as she was, she nevertheless shrank from the words which would have expressed their mutual consciousness as she would have shrunk from flakes of fire. She could not say, "How much is only slander and false suspicion?" and he did not say, "I am innocent."

Thumbing though the novel, it began to suspect that I wasn't always alone in my impatience with the life of the saint. Earlier in the book, the narrator insists on her own sympathy for the novel's first ogre, Dorothea's much older first husband, the dour and studious Reverend Edward Casaubon:

One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea -- but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect. In spite of the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James, Mr. Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us. [...]

He had not had much foretaste of happiness in his previous life. To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying. His experience was of that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity, and fears most of all that it should be known: it was that proud narrow sensitiveness which has not mass enough to spare for transformation into sympathy, and quivers thread-like in small currents of self-preoccupation or at best of an egoistic scrupulosity. [...] For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self -- never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted. Becoming a dean or even a bishop would make little difference, I fear, to Mr. Casaubon's uneasiness. Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.

Sexism may explain my impulse to always think of Eliot in terms of bridging Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf, but in my favorite passages I'm always conscious of that lineage. It has to do with the always shifting balance between satirical mordancy and affection. The narrator admonishes herself for neglecting Casaubon's point of view, his humanity, and then confesses her pity for him, which is an admonishment to us - for a weird, modern moment we are the target of her affectionate satire. Both of these maneuvers, to me, are twice as compelling as anything she attempts in the story of her 19th century St. Theresa.

So the novel's only characters I could deeply care about were its scoundrels in their undoings - Bulstrode primarily, and Casaubon, also exquisitely spoiled Rosamond in her protracted and fierce confrontation with the realities of her marriage, and most of the payoff comes in the final stretch. What makes the first few hundred pages so effervescent are the lighter barbs aimed at these denizens of the provinces:

Celia coloured, and looked very grave. "I think, dear, we are wanting in respect to mamma's memory, to put them by and take no notice of them. And," she added, after hesitating a little, with a rising sob of mortification, "necklaces are quite usual now; and Madame Poincon, who was stricter in some things even than you are, used to wear ornaments. And Christians generally - surely there are women in heaven now who wore jewels." Celia was conscious of some mental strength when she really applied herself to argument.

Here is the womb of Virginia Woolf's feminism:

A man's mind - what there is of it - has always the advantage of being masculine - as the smallest birch-tree is of a higher kind than the most soaring palm - and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality. Sir James might not have originated this estimate; but a kind Providence furnishes the limpest personality with a little gum or starch in the form of tradition.

And in Mrs. Waule's inheritance anxiety, the resonance of the opening line of Pride and Prejudice:

...there remained as the nethermost sediment in her mental shallows a persuasion that her brother Peter Featherstone could never leave his chief property away from his blood-relations: - else, why had the Almighty carried off his two wives both childless, after he had gained so much by manganese and things, turning up when nobody expected it? - and why was there a Lowick parish church, and the Waules and Powderells all sitting in the same pew for generations, and the Featherstone pew next to them, if, the Sunday after her brother Peter's death, everybody was to know that the property was gone out of the family? The human mind has at no period accepted a moral chaos; and so preposterous a result was not strictly conceivable. But we are frightened at much that is not strictly conceivable.

One last favorite line with special pertinence to the unpublished novelist's criticism of Eliot:

...very little achievement is required in order to pity another man's shortcomings.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Paris diary post-mortem 1: DONE

So much to catch up on. The diary died, maybe you noticed. After a three-week resurrection of the computer, it re-died. This morning I finished my book ("finished" is an absurd exaggeration). Lots of other stuff! Let me confine this diary entry to whatever it is that I did to my novel by taking it to the local Office Depot for printing and binding twenty minutes ago.

First of all I should say that, while this is a speculative judgment - I haven't read the book, personally - I can confidently proclaim it the third draft of a masterpiece. The only question is whether it's the third of three drafts, which should see the book published in 2010, or of nineteen, in which case I'll just combine the book party and my 80th birthday celebration (it's coming up!). Only time and, my railings against critical feedback notwithstanding, the opinion of one or more literary agents, editors, and other cruel readers will tell.

The third draft was written by printing out the morbidly obese second draft, opening up a new Word document, and composing the new draft entirely from scratch. The idea was that if, as Virginia Woolf observed regarding Orlando's struggle to write, the cardinal labor of composition is excision, it would be much easier to spend my hours making positive choices (
include this) rather than negative ones (delete this piece of shit scene that I frankly can't believe you had the unfathomable mediocrity to write in the first place).

As far as excision goes, the experiment worked. The second draft weighed in at 340,000 words, about three times longer than a debut novel is permitted to be, and the third draft is just over half that, about 177,000 words. In the revision of the third draft I'll cut another 77,000 words and Random House will have no choice but to shell out a million-dollar advance.

And that will be publishing industry highway robbery! The other night I was out with American book professionals / enthusiasts and we were talking about how badly most books end. Take Anna Karenina - please! I said matter-of-factly that my novel had a fabulous ending - I was going to write it that week - and was taken aback when everyone laughed. I am not being funny.
If a Tolstoy ending is Jack Benny, mine is Jascha Heifetz.

Conservative predictions: the novel will win prizes. It will be sold in supermarket display racks, airports, Costco. I don't want to sound grandiose but I seriously think they might sell it at Wal Mart. The Pope will issue a fatwah against me; Oprah will offer to be my bodyguard. It's that good! Or will be on the 19th draft. It has everything! Love, death, survival, survival guilt,
sex, gender euphoria, spectacle, violence, marijuana, compost. Miracles, resurrections, immolations, DEA helicopters. Literally tons of ganja. Candy-flipping, Janacek, Celexa, twins, Dilaudid, Christianity, black acid, paganism, BuSpar, Macon GA, Xanax, Beverly Hills, Sudafed, Boonville, crystal meth, Radical Faeries. It has not one but two languages of its own making, not one but two prophets for post-capitalist America. It has readability, charm, irresistibility. It's never maudlin, but you will cry; it's often cheap, and you will laugh. Michelle Obama will read passages aloud to Barack, but only after they've put the girls to bed. The Church will never recover.

It's an important book. I get these anxiety attacks about finishing, like what if I don't live that long? The other day I was walking in front of the Gare du Nord when a gaggle of French soldiers came out dressed in machine guns and extra rounds. I scurried away from them down the Rue de Dunkerque, thinking
I must avoid guns until after the novel is finished.

Because as sincere as I am in all this love for and pride in the novel, I am haunted by a few things. One is a quote I hope someone will help me source, in the comments, something along the lines of, "To love what one has written is to love it a little too much." Another is the 2nd draft. When I finished it after 7 weeks at the MacDowell Colony, in December 2006, I don't believe I proclaimed it a masterpiece, but I felt pretty good about it. Now the shame that burns my skin when I read the second draft curdles milk in the refrigerator on the other side of this huge studio. I hope to incinerate that draft it in the fire pit in the courtyard as part of James's going-away party Saturday, and meanwhile I found a nice use for selected pages when I finally got so annoyed by the mysterious inch-and-a-half holes drilled through the beams in my studio that I did this:

I'm still waiting for that advance, my laptop is still dead, and your contributions are still tax-deductible.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Paris Days 40, 41, 42 - badness, feedback, Anna Karenina

I would like to let this badness / feedback thread die, not least because it has inspired some of the worst writing in this whole diary, but it will not die. The subject is apparently evergreen. I just finished
Anna Karenina and popped a bottle of bubbly to mark the occasion - I'm drinking it out of my Eiffel Tower flutes. Anyone who hasn't read the novel or who hasn't read it recently will think I'm a mean guy, celebrating with cheap champagne in kitschy glasses after the poor woman throws herself under the train. But in fact that happened days ago. To follow this up Tolstoy gives us a coda, 50 pages long, most of which depicts his striving, stressed out, ultra-sincere, good-hearted, hitherto nonbeliever Kostya Levin in the throes of spiritual ecstasy as he casts off all his "sheer intellectual fraud" (by which I think we are meant to understand his study of science and philosophy) and embraces Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Tolstoy pulls a similar maneuver to close out War & Peace, getting you all jacked up on battle and history and romance and then beating the life out of you in the second epilogue with an interminable disquisition on historiography. Spare me your beliefs, bitch!

I have written that I would not like any feedback on finished work, and that I
should not want any feedback on work in progress. At the same time, I would like to offer some to Tolstoy. I would like to go back in time and beg him, plead with him, pay him off to get him to leave out this numbing awful ending about Levin's spiritual awakening / delusioning, and to make Levin's wife, around whom so very much of this novel revolves, less of a neuraesthenic drama queen princess (although technically that's pretty much what she is) and to repair any number of other glaring faults that mar this book that Nabokov and a number of other reasonably smart people have deemed the greatest novel ever written. Allan writes in the comments to the second feedback diary:
I'm totally in agreement that feedback is not of much use as a critical tool. What feedback would you give Messiaen on an unfinished work? What would you say that could make the piece better for him?
A few things, actually. After Christopher Taylor performed the Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus in Davis a couple of months ago, he did a Q&A and I asked him if, after all these years of performing the 2-hour suite, of learning it and living with it, there were any things about the music that he had come to think of as its faults. He gave a very elegant and I think honest answer, that if you're going to play the piece convincingly you must allow yourself to be convinced by it. But as swept away as I was and remain by the Vingt Regards, and specifically by Taylor's interpretation, I remember thinking during one of the big movements toward the end, as Messiaen was working up all the power of Yaweh, Jesus and the angels combined into some gigantic geometric construction pushing its way up and down and in and out and bigger and bigger - not again. I remember thinking, this was effective when you did it 45 minutes ago in the 6th piece, but you can't make me go up the same spatial-cyclical-musical staircase twice in the space of an hour. It's like Albert Fuller said in an Apparition clip that I had to cut: "Honey the shock wears off!" At the very least it's an argument against playing all 20 pieces in the same program, but I experienced it as one of my first understandings of Messiaen's limitation, the first time I saw that he had a bag of tricks and it was not infinite, that even he, the most daring and original and resourceful composer in the whole friggin conservatory, was capable of running out of ideas.

This segue doubles back upside down, because the real relevance of Messiaen to this depressing experience of Tolstoy's badness is not that they are both flawed, but the way in which Messiaen, as a Christian artist, is so much better. Or perhaps that's too easy and the difference is more in the capacity of music to transcend the theological divide while words tumble into it - the point I want to make is that the sheer alienation and actual revulsion I felt at the last 50 pages of
Anna Karenina, in which Tolstoy seemed to throw his fiction to the rails in the service of his religious faith, was such a stark ugly contrast to the way I experience my composer Jesus freaks, in which I forgive them every dogma, every intolerance, every delusion, to the point that I am seriously considering having tattooed on my body the concluding measures of the 6th of the Vingt Regards, a piece of whose title Par Lui Tout A Été Fait I believe not a single syllable. I suppose this is why I went off the deep end when I discovered Messiaen, because it was the first time I'd found a way to experience the power of religious feeling through art without having all my aesthetic receptors cauterized by cliché-ridden drivel like the following passage from AK:
But he had only to forget the artificial train of reasoning, and to turn from real life to what had satisfied him so long as he kept to the given chain of argument, for the whole artificial edifice to tumble down like a house of cards, and it became evident that the edifice had been constructed of those same words transposed and regardless of something in life more important than reason.
(Apologies to Tolstoy and everyone reading this if the badness of the representative passage is due solely to Rosemary Edmonds' translation.) So yes, I have some feedback on finished work for the Greatest Novelist Ever who wrote the Greatest Novel Ever Written: I just hated it. And not just the last 50 pages - the last three or four hundred, a whole novel's worth. I hope I read it again when I'm an old man and regret writing these words. Maybe by then I'll be a Jesus freak too.

I had a rip-roaring conclusion connecting all of the above to recent bad sex, but it's one in the morning so that will have to wait.

Moses said man cannot live on bread alone, but he didn't know about the bakery up the street from the monastery. Buy me a couple of baguettes.

Labels: , , , , ,

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Paris Day 27 - badness part 1

I've been preoccupied for the last several days with the idea of badness, and so much of my own work and that of others I've encountered recently has been relevant to this theme that what I have to say won't fit into a single diary entry. Hence the title, which has an especially nice ring to it on my Facebook status (Paul Festa is badness part 1).

I had reason to think about badness on Monday, the day I woke up to snow and spent the rainy afternoon working at Au Train de Vie. There I was, sitting in this warm, perfectly comfortable French brasserie, periodically putting down sentences in the novel and otherwise watching waves of commuters make their way through the rain to and from the station. I was enjoying everything about this experience, especially my bouncy upholstered train car seat and even the challenge of the work, and most pertinently the mere fact that I was doing my work here, in Paris, in the Jerusalem of my creative spirit. Right in the middle of one of these self-satisified space-outs, the song changed on the radio and Frankie Goes to Hollywood began singing Relax.

I remember liking this song when I was fifteen years old. It was dirty, which was good in and of itself, but it was also the gayest thing I had ever heard through the mass media, and this seemed like progress. So I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Relax, but the soft spot had gone all rotten on Monday because all I could hear, listening to this song in the city of Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, Olivier Messiaen and Jacques Brel, for that matter, was its howling badness, the sex joke stripped of its humor and its shock value by a quarter century of repetition, the violence
(when you wanna sucka to it) done to language, the ferocious banality of the music itself and the sound effects and the whole, awful, depressing package forced down our collective global cultural throat for - I repeat - a quarter of a century.

So, much like when anyone tells you to relax, the song had the opposite effect on me and I became agitated thinking about badness, primarily about the tragedy of our species' cultural future being determined by a free market whose most heavily weighted decision-making shares are controlled by American thirteen-year-old gay boys and their girlfriends. In what other realm of global consequence would we be so careless in entrusting authority, except perhaps the world's most powerful military over the last eight years? Yes, the song in question is English but somehow I just know that it is the fault of my motherland that I was subjected to it in a brasserie overlooking the train tracks to the Gare de l'Est, and while I've always known that American cultural imperialism was an irrefutable fact of life and lamented it, on Monday I understood that it was a tragedy, and I became angry about it, and because there's nothing I can do to influence what gets played on the radio I became deeply concerned, or more deeply concerned than usual, about the moral consequences of my own badness.

So much of what I do is bad. Remember how I said I would read through the diary Feb. 1, beginning to end? Never did it - I'm too afraid of all the badness that's nested in these daily dispatches, starved as they are for revision and that cardinal labor of composition, excision. Those rejection letters I could make residential high-rises out of? Most of them, obviously, were the consequence of how many artistic deaf-mutes sit on selection and admissions committees, but several of them certainly the result of my own badness. And then there are the several hundred thousand words that I have written into this novel and then deleted - novels worth of badness, thrown onto the compost heap to rot with all the novels before this one that I've abandoned, and with that part of my heart that could once listen to Frankie Goes to Hollywood without mourning the death of culture or France or the human spirit.

I wrote before how the work I'm doing now, the actual writing, is excruciatingly difficult but the time flies beneath it - a three-hour morning vanishes like a small fraction of the time. The labored extraction of these sentences from my brain - maybe it's like brain surgery. These teams of surgeons are bent over the patient for six, seven, twelve hours, and when it's through, have those hours passed as they would had the surgeons been on a Stairmaster or reading press releases in a cubicle? However else the work is painful, I am not bored, I am hypnotized by the spectacle of this novel unspooling, not unlike the way Matt couldn't bear to take his eyes off Afterward despite well-founded fears that its badness would continue unrelieved all the way through to the end.

What if the novel is just as bad as that movie, or, to tease the imagination to outer limits, what if it is actually in some ways worse? I value the experience of bad art, not because I enjoy chortling over someone else's mediocrity - I really don't - but because it is so instructive. I once read a John Grisham novel and it was a dismal exercise to get through and one of the most valuable in my self-education as a writer, because after 350 pages of having him bash me over the head with an idea before making an incision in my arm and pumping it into my bloodstream and then burying me in a coffin stuffed full of the idea with a subterranean sound system blaring it for all eternity before he repeated it one more time, just in case I missed it - after 350 pages of this literary bludgeoning I became significantly more sensitive to my own capacity to do exactly the same thing.

It is so close to us, the badness we make, that we cannot see it without a radical perspectival shift, or a hideous reflection glimpsed in someone else's work. The other day, seeing grotesquely bad things in Afterwards, I became convinced my novel was bad in many of the same ways - even now, after editing it mindful of the lesson gleaned at such cost from Grisham and his irredeemable badness. This is why I wanted to flee the theater - the idea that I would inflict such pain on a reader as this film was inflicting on me was almost more than I could entertain outside of a padded cell. I resolved, if nothing else, to be bad in a different way. The bludgeon I use on my reader, I resolved, will be pink, with green fleurs de lys imprinted on it, glitter-glued, LED lights flashing up and down the handle. Don't you get it? The bludgeon is the subject. (Note to Corporate - shave some zeros off his advance). Here - look at the notebook I'm writing this in:

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Paris Day 20 - John Updike

It was turning into another one of those never-set-foot-out-of-the-monastery days so I performed an intervention and took a walk down my street. I didn't realize it had its very own Arc de Triomphe (the Porte St. Martin) or that it leads straight to the Beaubourg but both of those things are true. All the Parisian stores have sales right now, and, in a deft representation of what I can afford to buy even during sale season, all the mannequins are stripped naked. The dirtiest thing I have seen so far in Paris is the storefront pictured above with the one clothed male model - so very L'Histoire d'O.

I also passed this theater where Grease is playing. Wouldn't it be delish to see Grease in Paris, in French? Unfortunately, in addition to being short on euros and hours, I don't have any marijuana, so I'm going to skip it. Those of you in the Bay Area should check out the sing-along Grease that Peaches Christ and Heklina are doing at the Bridge Theater Valentine's Day. I wish I could be there but I have a hot date that night in Paris with my partner of six and a half years (no not James, unfortunately - the novel).

I haven't had writer's block since getting to Paris but I've now spent an hour avoiding saying something about the death of John Updike. I haven't read a lot of his novels but what I've read, the Rabbit tetralogy, I've read many times, which means I've turned several thousand pages of Updike. I have no way of knowing how much of an influence he was on me, though I often think Rabbit taught me what little I know about how to write. The one thing he wrote that really pissed me off - his notorious review of Andrew Hollinghurst's novel The Spell that managed to dismiss the whole enterprise of gay fiction -
Novels about heterosexual partnering, however frivolous and reducible to increments of selfishness, social accident, foolish estimations, and inflamed physical detail, do involve the perpetuation of the species and the ancient sacralized structures of the family.
- set me spluttering with pre-post-gay outrage for months before it set the course of my fiction efforts from then on, from my abandoned novel The Breeders to the present novel with its profusion of pregnancy.

Even at his most lyrical, Updike wielded authority in every sentence of those four monumental books - to say he wrote like God is not as figurative as it sounds. Four passages come to mind tonight - random memories from books I haven't looked at in many years, but each characterized by a command of the kinetic so uncanny it makes
Updike's death hard to believe: his videorealistic description of the pinball game, Nelson smashing up the cars in the lot, Rabbit at Rest's terrifying recapitulation, out on the Sunfish, of the tetralogy's formative trauma.

The fourth passage, which opens Rabbit Redux, I read over and over again when I first encountered it, and was happy to find online: summer the granite curbs starred with mica and the row houses differentiated by speckled bastard sidings and the hopeful small porches with their jigsaw brackets and gray milk-bottle boxes and the sooty ginkgo trees and the baking curbside cars wince beneath a brilliance like a frozen explosion. The city, attempting to revive its dying downtown, has torn away blocks of buildings to create parking lots, so that a desolate openness, weedy and rubbled, spills through the once-packed streets, exposing church facades never seen from a distance and generating new perspectives of rear entryways and half-alleys, and intensifying the cruel breadth of the light.
When people complain about Updike, specifically about the Rabbit novels, I think they're complaining about the unyielding quality of that light. Nothing got past it, because nothing got past him, and that is why John Updike wrote like God.

Labels: , , , ,

Friday, January 23, 2009

Paris Day 16 - pep talk

Like many writers, I have a blown-glass ego - inflated, empty and extremely fragile. Like many schizophrenics, I talk to myself. Today I was walking the streets and stairways of Belleville talking a blue streak, and it was a really lovely conversation, important I think, worth writing down. The subject is an old standby, a genre even - the pep talk. It comes in handy when you are spending six hours out of the day reading really terrible work that you've spent years of your creative life producing. You can't afford a therapist, a life coach, or an MFA program, and your friends and family deserve better, so you talk yourself through it. You buck yourself up. You say, look, Paul, so what if Part III sucks - you'll fix it. Have confidence in yourself. Look at all you've accomplished. Look at what you did with the film, the challenges you surmounted, the setbacks you endured, the discouragement you weathered, the interviews you didn't get and the rejection letters you did, the aesthetic and intellectual prospects you attained in spite of it all. Look how you started from nothing - no funding, no credentials, no equipment, no experience or training, no permission, no nothing - and look at where the film has gone and where it's taken you, from America's finest audience film festivals that nobody's ever heard of to its grandest cathedrals and concert halls, from the side of a barn in Tennessee to the Library of Congress and now to Paris - Paris! - the city that created Messiaen, the city that Messiaen conquered and shaped. Think of it! That le Mairie de Paris, le city itself, the Jerusalem of your creative spirit, has honored your work, has invited you here, has given you its imprimatur and confidence and studio and stipend, its material support and civic blessing - and at this point, exactly at this point, having reached the acme of my pep talk, I stepped directly in a pile of dog shit.

Sleeping on problems in the novel is one way of solving them - caffeine is another good weapon - what worked today was my slightly malodorous walk around Belleville. I was heading toward the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, but there were chains on the gate - a woman pushing a stroller explained they closed it because of the high winds (they don't and really can't do this in San Francisco and every once in a while some bicyclist gets her head bashed in by a falling branch). So I wandered for an hour, stopping only to take pictures of the odd building - the ones I like best look like they should be eaten -

- picking up some just absolutely filthy-disgusting props for La Creation du Monde, pink and baby blue teddy-bear capped Christmas ornaments the size of grapefruits that are hanging above the Eiffel Tower champagne flutes - and the other thing I stopped for was to write down these solutions that kept presenting themselves around every corner.

Toward the end of my walk I stopped at the Petit Balcon Cafe on Libya Street, where I ordered an espresso, got out my notebook, and prepared to jot down a deluge of notes. But once my feet stopped, so did the ideas. Joyce Carol Oates once wrote something to the effect that when her knees gave out, she was going to have to find another line of work. Tonight I settled for the remains of my latest tajine concoction, about an hour hypnotized in front of Sherry Vine's friend list on Facebook (will I ever have 2101 Facebook friends, and, if so, will that stop the hurt?), and hanging those Christmas ornaments above the champagne flutes. I should probably wash my shoe before I go to bed.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Paris Days 10 and 11 - eulogy, pornophony, brunch

You're actually allowed to take non-flash pictures at the Paris Opera, but I saved my camera for intermission

I started yesterday’s writing session with three hours of darkness left to the morning, and was happy in the second hour to stumble on an idea for a radical plot twist at the end of the novel. It's an outrageous cliché to compare this experience to angling, and not for no reason - there's the tug on the line, the realization, not instantaneous but very fast, that you’ve snagged a big one, then the racing heart, the leap to action, the panicky thrill in knowing that your skill in the next minutes will determine whether you end the day with glory and a feast or a broken strand of monofilament. I typed as fast as my fingers would move to get the idea down, racing to keep up with implications and variations, and I didn’t slow down until the scene – a funeral oration and burial – became so vivid that I had to divert some energy in order to observe it, to acknowledge the real orations and burials that overlay this one like transparencies but also to recognize the superiority of this one to all the others, the excellence and fearlessness with which these characters had just proved themselves capable of grieving. As the mother’s role in all this revealed itself, the pathos of the whole thing began to register with an actually frightening velocity until the pressure on my sinuses couldn’t be contained and I did something I have never done in thirty years of writing — I burst into tears.

One option after an experience like this is to pop a bottle of champagne and call it a day, but as the sun wouldn’t be up for another two hours and I have no alcohol of any kind in the studio, this was impractical. So I kept working, going over the scene, filling it out, playing with the contours of the oration, and finally coming to the conclusion that a scene this elemental must have been written already by a great and famous writer and I was destined to be laughed at for an act of naked plagiarism. The sun rose, I ate Weetabix. I fed novel notes to the recycling box under my desk, took care of some errands online, worked on La Création du Monde, put in another couple of hours on the novel. At a certain point I realized I hadn’t left the studio all day, so I took a walk around the public garden behind the monastery and snapped a few pictures, came back up here in time for a quick dinner – eggplant tajine, slightly burned - before hopping on my bike to meet friends at the Bastille Opera House for opening night of Lady Macbeth de Mzensk.

Midway to the Bastille, I heard what sounded like a rubber bullet being fired near my feet – some combination of shwing! and thpwawt! – and sure enough, that tumor that had materialized on my rear tire on the ride from Oresto was gone and I was riding on my rim. So I locked up the bike, hoofed it the rest of the way to the opera house and met up with my friends Frank Browning and his lover. That’s using the term “friends” somewhat loosely, or at least prospectively, since before reconnoitering at the box office I hadn’t met these guys except through email introduction and through my having read Frank’s book The Culture of Desire: Paradox and Perversity in Gay Lives Today when it came out 15 years ago.

Lady Macbeth, of which I’ve never seen or heard one iota despite being a Shostakovich fan, was absolutely amazing. The music veered into Wagner and occasionally Weill but always came back to snap that signature Shostakovich rat trap of trombones and squealing woodwinds around your heart – thrilling, thrilling music! The drama was squalid, and the music matched it, more than earning the opera its immortal epithet from the New York Sun - “pornophony.” Parts of it actually put Messiaen to shame in terms of music that just sounds like fucking. Lots of bare boobs bouncing around onstage on the fluorescent-lit minimalist stage. Spoiler alert for anyone who might see this production (Netherlands Opera): at the point when Katerina’s guilt starts to cost her sleep, the dead, clad in brown body stockings, start walking in slow motion up the walls on either side of the stage. As far as I’m concerned, whoever came up with that bit of stagecraft (Martin Kusej?) one-upped Shakespeare. When I realized what I was seeing (the lighting made it pretty subtle) my whole body broke out in goosebumps – my jaw literally dropped – and I would have burst into tears of aesthetic bliss if I had not already gotten that out of my system earlier in the day.

Through all four hours of four acts, several interludes, and a long intermission, I was preoccupied by the thought of how the audience – which filled every seat of the house, with hordes of Parisians turned away at the box office – was going to reward soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek for the heroic and superhuman performance she was delivering. The answer turned out to be probably the loudest, longest and most satisfying roar I have ever heard in a theater. Many hundreds of people shouted and hollered for this woman and it sounded like thousands – it was, despite fierce competition, the most exciting choral singing of the night. If Westbroek isn’t the toast of the town for the run of the opera, there is no champagne in Paris.

Today was a bit more subdued and I didn't cry once. I met my Welsh friend Lucian – he spends part of his time in San Francisco – on Rue Montorgueil, where we shopped for brunch (the whole thing is one of Paris’s best open-air markets, especially on a Sunday) and then ate back at his place. Amazing food – what do we do to our eggs in the US? Have we invented a special technology to remove their color and flavor? Lucian and I opted for the bakery with the ten-person queue, and as a result ate the second-best almond croissants I’ve ever had (the grand prize goes to the time I got them right out of the oven at Delessio’s on Market Street in San Francisco), one of the best baguettes and a very good fougasse (better: the old Phoenix Bakery which used to be in Hopland and then moved to Willits before vanishing, as Phoenixes will). I cracked up the cheesemongers when I asked the difference between mouton and brebis. Americans are so cute.

Labels: , , , , ,

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Novel checklist #1: Messud on Trevor

In order to obtain a good review from Clair Messud, please be prepared to answer the following questions.

I don't know if this is a series, but I'll call it #1 just in case. These are 53 questions for me to mull with respect to my novel. The questions are adapted from Clair Messud's Feb. 14, 2008, review, titled "Signs of Struggle," of William Trevor's recent short-story collection Cheating at Canasta.

1. Is it complex?
2. Is it fragile?
3. Does it breathe?
4. Is it strong?
5. Is it memorable?
6. Is it haunting?
7. Is it capable of irony?
8. Of melancholy tenderness?
9. Does it exercise apparently brutal restraint?
10. Is it capable of being contrived?
11. Of being melodramatic?
12. Is it lyrical?
13. Does it embark on broad, apparently undirected swathes of life?
14. Does it convey a line of emotion, or the arc of a relationship, moment, or strand of human existence?
15. Does it have cracking lines?
16. Does it resolve, like music, into a chord – major or minor, depending on the section – that seeks to distill the significance of what has come before?
17. Is this unabashedly moral fiction?
18. Is it subtle, even at times deliberately oblique?
19. Does it have clarifying closing paragraphs that can take the form of a nod to the future?
20. Does its clarification involve an illumination of the self, or of the world, or of the past? Or all of these?
21. Are lives described with subtlety and deftness? And are they both familiar and unique?
22. Does it have all-changing but ineffable moments?
23. Do its life-shattering revelations require elucidation on the part of the author?
24. Is the novel’s darkness, as well as its risk of stereotype, tempered, even transformed, by the narrator’s understanding of the antihero’s death?
25. Are its epiphanies tidy?
26. Does it indulge in and transcend melodrama? Are these transcendences always fully achieved?
27. Are its human choices accurate?
28. Does it make gentling, faintly sentimental gestures without which it would be a novel of Beckettian bleakness?
29. Are its economy and restraint remarkable? (Are they existent?) And do they impart to the novel the quality, almost, of a Christian parable? Do they involve a manipulation of stereotype and sentiment?
30. Does it deftly and truly convey the banality and insouciance of childhood wrongdoing, the capricious state of semi-innocence in which the narrator is at once aware and not aware of wrongdoing’s consequences?
31. Will any reader recognize his youthful self in the young narrator’s dangerous flippancy?
32. Does it display mastery of free indirect style, osmotically imbuing the reader with the narrator’s (and the antihero’s) consciousness through syntax and diction?
33. In articulating awareness of lifelong penance, is it exceptionally beautiful rhythmically in its tone and in its sad import?
34. Do the sentences reverberate like bars of glorious, melancholy music?
35. Is it struggling with a deeply human – and simultaneously God-like – impulse to ease the burden of its characters? Or to ennoble them, even if in so doing it blurs the outlines of what is, by allowing instead what might be? Does it want us to see the flaws of its creations while it grants them a measure of grace?
36. Does it leave ‘em to lie where Jesus flang ‘em?
37. Do closing lines reverberate back through the story, not closing down and specifying its import?
38. Does it reveal shame to be an honorable state?
39. Does it have need of guile or alteration of moral instruction?
40. By rendering small and perhaps futile gestures, does it evoke a complex melancholy and the transcendence of melancholy that are the opposite of smallness and futility?
41. Does it grant grace upon its characters without willing it on them?
42. Is it frank and uncompromising; does it reveal a cold eye?
43. Is it lyric, rather than narrative, living in a moment?
44. Do we find greater cynicism and human failure ironically in a victim, having expected it in a victimizer?
45. Does the story sweep, bird-like, though various points of view before settling upon the narrator’s shoulder?
46. Do months flash by between words?
47. Are significant events given their due proportion of time?
48. Is the novel structurally and technically ambitious and slightly strange?
49. Is its artifice so artful that neither manipulation nor contrivance can be discerned?
50. Is there a fable-like quality, a sense that events take place out of time, or in some unspecified time that is neither now nor very long ago?
51. Does the novel know its characters intimately? And its own writerly tendencies?
52. Does it have marvelous observations, and is its literary contrivance rather persistently showing?
53. Does it push, sometimes awkwardly, for its characters’ redemption? Or at least for their moral worth? And is that an exhilarating sign of struggle, of life itself?

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Fiction to look forward to

My first stab at blogging came in the year leading up to my 30th birthday. Determined to publish something by the time I turned 30, I launched, a site for daily writing. The term blog didn't have the ubiquity it suffers from today, but I felt D&P really wasn't one - "this isn't going to be one of those Web diaries" is how I think I phrased it in an initial posting. The idea, modeled after the Daily Themes course in daily writing I took at Yale with Wayne Koestenbaum, was to write every day. It could be fiction, poetry, essay, diary, mock news - anything, as long as it was at least 300 words. It was a good exercise and out of 366 postings there were ten or so I wound up liking. I've posted them here.

Back then it wasn't so terribly competitive to get an audience if you wrote and posted something on a daily basis, and one of the very nicest things about D&P was the people I met doing it. One D&P reader was Cooley Windsor, who was at the time a writing resident at the Headlands Center for the Arts. He invited me to read there with him, and so D&P had its closing ceremonies, on my 30th birthday, in that august and splendid setting.

Cooley's short story collection Visit Me in California, coming out in August, just got this review in Publishers Weekly (emphasis added):
Visit Me in California: Stories
Cooley Windsor. Northwestern Univ./Triquarterly, $16.95 (130p) ISBN 978-0-8101-2496-7

San Francisco poet Windsor's punchy, edgy briefs find his characters often caught in Homeric and Old Testament entanglements. “The Last Israelite in the Sea” imagines a protagonist running after Moses after the Red Sea miraculously parts, feeling rapturous but also terrified, barefoot and unable to swim, that he won't make it to shore. “The Art of War” finds various Homeric characters in painfully human situations, such as Paris, steeped in pornography as a youth and unable to consummate his desire for Helen because her beauty only underscores his imperfections, or Achilles, accidentally shot by a farm boy in the chest rather than in the heel. Some selections have a poignant memoiristic feel, as in the elegiac “I'll Be You,” in which the friend of a dying gay man in San Francisco has to make choice that places him between his friend and his friend's caring Tulsa mother. Windsor's stories possess the startling, memorable quality of the brightest fiction. (Aug.)

Labels: , ,

Saturday, August 11, 2007

day of the blog

an angry Wyoming mob

Jentel Artist Residency Program
Banner, WY

I spent the first three and a half weeks here writing as though I had a publisher and a deadline--you know, money at stake. I took the novel and the comments of my pitiless writer's group (in last night's dream Barry called the last draft "morally bankrupt"), the notes I'd fed into a tape recorder on my drive out here, the dark suspicions I've harbored about the work but never faced, and I brought all this knowledge and self-loathing to bear on a pack of 4x6 note cards, each of which became a chapter outline for the third draft. These three days of work, among the unhappiest of my creative life, propelled the subsequent 21 days of difficult but fluent labor, which have resulted in 80 pages (40,000 words) of a brand new draft, typed into a new Word document, that I hope I don't flatter myself to think are almost readable.

I almost made it to the end of Part I (of IV), but twenty-three days of writing seven hours a day, with one day off in the middle, have slowed my output to a stingy, viscous drip. I may not be done with Part I, but I'm done with the novel, at least for this residency. Confronted with the attractions of the Wyoming landscape, the Jentel movie collection and library, and my four congenial colleagues here, who are all winding down their work too, I have decided that I will spend the day blogging.

Having blogged early, with the year-long site for daily writing (launched on my birthday in May, 1999), I've gotten some encouragement to blog seriously now that so many are doing it for so much money. I've been sorely tempted to follow this advice, having enjoyed D&P so much and being so long unemployed, short on money and loath to squeeze myself back into the cubicles of industry. But when I'm going full-tilt on the novel, I can't even write in my diary. I certainly don't have the mental capacity or motivation to blog, even half-heartedly. Blogging and fiction are mutually exclusive, and only someone with much more effectively delineated mental cubicles than I could pull it off.

Blogging is about immediacy and impulse, throwing it away, shouting outrage into tunnels and hoping angry mobs come stampeding out of them. Fiction is about writing it, loving it, rereading and hating it, revising it, then throwing it out and starting it over. I've tried to harness the energy of the blog for the purposes of fiction, having it out with my sadistic writer's group in blog format, also churning out rhapsodies of vocabulary enrichment. But I cannot write fiction and blog seriously. So today, when I will not write fiction, I will blog.

Labels: , , , , ,