Tuesday, 27 May 2014

A narrative trick, a real Calamity

Full title: In Calamity's Wake
Author: Natalee Caple
Genre: Fiction, novel
Attributes: 240p, hard cover
Publisher: Bloomsbury (2013)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

In Calamity’s Wake is, narratively speaking, very simple. ‘Straightforward’ is a better word to define it. It tells the story of a daughter in search for a mother she had never known. The protagonist leaves from point A and arrives at point B after having experienced the customary complications that give stories flesh and bone. At point B, she fulfils the wish expressed in the beginning (i.e. she finds her mother), and so, the book comes full circle and the initial target is attained.
Because of this manifest simplicity, it often feels as though the author had taken Vladimir Propp’s narrative theory of characters and actions and used it as a blueprint for her own novel. Characters here are, really, types. There is Miette – Propp’s Hero; and Martha Canary, also known as Calamity Jane (understand the title now?), Miette’s mother, real person recorded in the history of the Wild West – oscillating between the functions of False Hero and Princess (a character sought for throughout the narrative, and who turns out to be different from what she seemed to be in the beginning). Then there is a Dispatcher (Miette’s adoptive father who, on his death bed, makes her promise to start the journey that sets the novel off). There are numerous Donors and Helpers as well. The book is full of them.
In her almost picaresque adventures through the dry, inhospitable Western-American Badlands of the late nineteenth century, which form the setting of the novel, Miette encounters people who have known her mother in one way or other. They move freely in a décor that resembles Alexandro Jorodovsky’s desiccated landscapes in El Topo. The number of minor characters is quite impressive. Many of them pop in and out of the story swiftly, without sufficient time to grow to the size of note-worthy personages. These characters function like nodes in the narrative; they are halting places, where the reader is encouraged to rest and remember the protagonist’s purpose. Every such character gives Miette another jolt forward, and so the story builds and builds.

The real Calamity Jane, in 1895
Source: Wikipedia
When these additional elements are singled out, the story is discovered to be linear. It comprises two major treads: alternating chapters focused on the two figures mentioned above (mother and daughter), as well as some one-off chapters where digressional situations are described in order to add more flesh to the main thread. Of the two major plotlines, the one occupied by Miette (told in the first person singular) is the one carrying most of the weight; it is through the story of the search for the lost mother that the novel builds up, one narrative unit at a time. The parts where Calamity Jane is the prominent figure (told in the third person) serve almost exclusively as characterization. Here, it is as if we are invited to scale the worth of the protagonist’s target. Calamity, a character who also, like her daughter, moves often from one place to another, is a show-woman. She poses for souvenir photographs, has roles in popular theater shows, shoots guns to entertainment audiences – and, on a personal level, loves and loses, drinks too much, supports the Indian’s cause, is soft underneath the tough surface of her appearance. This accumulation of character features and traits of personality serves, undoubtedly, to outline her as the aim of the protagonist’s wanderings. She is the reason why everything in the novel is happening. She is the actual motive, the raison d’être, the organizing principle. She also serves a more practical purpose: she makes sure the story doesn't lean on one side, where Miette is, and where most of the episodes are told through verbs of action. Calamity Jane, a narrative trick in the skin of a historical figure packaged as a character.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The sculpted novel

Full title: Tree of Codes
Author: Jonathan Safran Foer
Genre: Fiction; novel
Attributes: 285p, hard cover
Publisher: Visual Editions (2010)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Everything in this book hinges on technique. Jonathan Safran Foer, who once said he wanted to write a book that read like a sculpture (to be palpable, to give the reader a tactile experience as well as an intellectual one) produced, with Tree of Codes, one such object that transgresses the materiality of publishing. The volume is compelling primarily because of its design. The text is literally sculpted into the body of a rectangular object provided with pages and covers; in other words, into something we traditionally call ‘a printed book.’ Tree of Codes is, indeed, a book – nobody would say it was anything else. But by using a cut-out technique which must have given the printers some serious headaches, Safran Foer proposes something else: he proposes a literal cutting not only through the texture of an object but also through the texture of a text.

Source: Visual Editions
In essence, Tree of Codes is a parasitic volume living upon a previously written collection of short stories by the Jewish short story writer, Bruno Schultz. To Safran Foer, Schultz is a frequent topic of discussion. He has even written a foreword to The Street of Crocodiles, which is the basis of the book discussed here.
Due to the ‘carving’ technique, which leaves out very few words on a page (empty pages, with only a rim around, to frame the space where text could have been, are common) language starts on a surprising journey, based on sharp imagery and metaphors that cut to the core of the literary gesture displayed here in the form of an experiment in rewriting.
The story resulting from Safran Foer’s exercise is centred on a family tableau, where the father reigns in a ghost-like manner. (Hamlet? Why not?) The subject is not new to the author. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the book turned into a film where Tom Hanks plays the role of the lost father, dwells in a similar region. In Tree of Codes too, the father figure appears to be lost and sought after by a narrator with a penchant for strong memories, mostly visual, mostly evocative.
"My father's face [...] dissolved into a stillness, a sad expression, sadder than human feeling."
Not to mention that Bruno Schulz too spoke of the father figure as central: as central as a regret; central even to his narrator’s experience of (can you guess?) a book. As in the chapter that opens The Sanatorium of the Sign of the Hourglass.

And so, Tree of Codes turns out to be a book that reads in an hour, but hovers in the mind for a much longer time. It is multi-layered, restless, clever, and demands constant reconsideration of the very experience of reading.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Making poetry, like making love

Full title: Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth
Author: Alice Walker
Genre: Poetry
Attributes: 256 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Random House (2003)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

The poems in this volume are not only visually evocative; they are also narrative. They tell stories with a special kind of passion that sings odes to the cohorts of humanity. Sometimes, this narrative inclination brings magical realism to the page. As in, for instance, “They Made Love”:
“They made love
On the altar
Of the church
In which
She received
First Communion.
It was the middle
Of the night
An old
Almost blind
Best friend of
Her ancient
To drive
It’s in the way things get arranged – in the coincidences that suture the fabric of an event like this – that the magic of poetry (of making poetry, like making love) surfaces ceremoniously and is laid on the ground, on the world.
The volume is organized thematically, but the poetic order of things dictates a constant mingling of topics and themes: cocktails of poetry served at a wedding-like banquet. There are poems of war and poems of love, poems of domesticity, poems in which flowers bloom in houses and the houses breathe with almost human lungs; then there are poems about the earth and poems about the sky, poems about spiritual experience and about drug-induced happiness. But also sad poems: poems without tears but with heavy, heavy souls.

Alice Walker
Source: The New Zealand Herald
In the brief preface to the volume, Alice Walker speaks of “visions of how humans might live peacefully and more lovingly upon the earth.” And so her poems are themselves peaceful. They feel soft. And I say ‘feel’ because they do have a tactile quality to them. As in the touching of a body:
“The softness of your belly
My hand;
Your back
Warms me.”
As in this. Alice Walker’s poems too are serene. They follow the curves of the slim lines, always aligned at the centre of the page, so that the stanzas can look more voluptuous. They are sensual, these poems, in the sense of causing in the reader a feeling (that special feeling) for the reading of poetry.
And so, among houses that are not locations, populated by flowers that are no plants, even the idea of war changes. The war poems in the collection are sad – like all war poems. They do not celebrate the heroism of the killer but the innocence of the victim. But they do so by turning the very idea of innocence upon the killer, to discover in him (with equal innocence) relics of humanity.
“Thousands of feet
Below you
There is a small
Running from
Your bombs.
If he were
To show up
At your mother’s
On a green
Sea island
Off the coast
Of Georgia
He’d be invited
For dinner.
Now, driven,
You have shattered
His bones.”
Then war, again: the end of reason, the beginning of nonsense, itself discussed in very gentle tones. But tones that hurt all the more because of it.
"Though War speaks
Every language
It never knows
What to say
To frogs.”
The volume is bound together by this constant return to the organic ties between human-made things (disastrous or beautiful, as they may be) and the earth. Like the boy under the feet of the bomber, like the frogs in the pond crushed by the huge tires of war machinery, like love brought to the level of an altar and made sacred by it. A long celebration of things human, a long compassion for the things gone wrong.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

A near-vampire in a mass of would-be zombies

Full title: Bullfighting
Author: Roddy Doyle
Genre: Fiction, short stories
Attributes: 224 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Viking Adult(2011)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Most stories in this collection are written in the tone and with the narrative intentions embraced by Roddy Doyle since the beginnings of his writing career. They are about the vagaries of working-class life in Irish urban settings, where people are often overwhelmed by solitude, where relationships are very mono-dimensional, and where the social course of events is worth as much as a stroll downtown or the reception of terrible news.
As can be concluded from his other works as well, Doyle’s characters are compulsive speakers. Even when they have nothing to say, they try to say it counterfeiting effortlessness, the way one would run a handycam through a crowd. Politics, health, immigration, marriage – all revolve around this incessant need of the characters to speak, which in essence is a need to repress their fear of action. This compulsive chatter is doubtless related to the existential problems most of these fictional people are facing. If I were to choose the worst thing that’s happening to them, I would have to highlight the plague of aging: “getting older, slower, tired, bored, useless.”
Pressing as it may seem, this theme suffers from repetitiveness. Almost every story in Bullfighting has a character (at least) who looks back upon life with nostalgic frowns. Thirteen narratives, thirteen sad stories about inevitable things; so inevitable, they’re hardly sad (no chance at tragedy!); or narratively interesting, for that matter.
It’s precisely because of this repetitiveness that a story such as “Blood” stands out, refreshing in its unique oddity.  A character who doesn’t exactly quit the pattern of Doyle’s other characters in the collection (an anonymous Dubliner who hasn’t even developed a taste for Bram Stoker, by whose memorial house he walks almost every day), turns out to be a visceral bloodsucker, in the most literal sense of the word:
“Nevertheless, he wanted to drink blood.
The badly was recent, and dreadful. The itch, the urge, the leaking tongue – it was absolutely dreadful.
He wasn’t sure when it had started. He was, though – he knew when he’d become aware.
– How d’you want your steak?
– Raw.”

(c) Jason Wilson
Read “Blood” alone and you get a different picture about Roddy Doyle. Here, the narrative is surprising; in the rest of the collection, it is predictable. Here, the protagonist finds regenerative virtues in his odd habit; in the rest of the collection, the characters are implacably muted by destiny. Here, there’s life sucked out of death; in the rest of the collection, death hovers over everything like a matron checking up on her fatalities and fining them – resigned.
“Blood” stood out well enough to make Neil Gaiman place it in the opening of his collection, Stories, published in 2011, the same year Bullfighting appeared in print.