Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Kiara Brinkman on the Voice of the Child

I've been struggling with a piece for some time--well, years actually--that features an eleven-year-old boy as its first-person protagonist. The reason the piece has been a struggle is that, while I feel it succeeds in conveying an engaging story while remaining true to the young protagonist's voice and mannerisms, it doesn't go to the level it needs to in reaching outside the definitively small world inhabited by the innocent. The best young-protagonist stories, of course, succeed wildly at this, and I've recently discovered a book that serves as an excellent example: Kiara Brinkman's gripping and heartbreaking debut novel, Up High in the Trees. The authenticity and consistency with which Brinkman inhabits the voice of eight-year-old Sebby Lane is remarkable in and of itself. But even more remarkable, this vulnerable and damaged protagonist takes us into truly profound adult realms while retaining every shred of his essential innocence. At the Booksmith on Monday night, Brinkman read a passage that included the following. The voice is Sebby's, and he is staying with his father at his family's summerhouse on the lake. He has just taken a precious picture of his mother, a spirited and playful bohemian who has tragically died young, and ridden his bike to the pier with the picture in his pocket.
I leave the bike and walk down the pier with the picture of Mother in my secret pocket. The white paint on the pier is peeling off and underneath the wood is old. I don't like how the peeling paint looks like fish scales flaking off. Too many fish scales. I want to stop and touch where the paint is peeling but I don't. I know what to do.

At the end of the pier, I take the picture of Mother out of my pocket. I kiss Mother's forehead and look at her laughing face for a long time.

Then I drop the picture into the water and watch it float. I wait for it to start sinking. It's supposed to sink down the way Mother's pink soap bird sank down when she dropped it in the water, but the picture keeps floating. I lie on my stomach and reach down. I touch the water with just one finger to test how it feels. The cold feels like burning and growing, like it's making my finger stretch out bigger and bigger. Then with my whole hand, I push the picture of Mother under. I hold the picture down and look at Mother's face underwater. Her face flickers like a light, on and off. I pull my hand out and it feels heavy, like it's not mine. Mother's picture stays underwater.

I stand up with my hand hanging down heaving and I watch the picture underwater. I'm waiting for Mother's picture to make me jump. The Mother's face flickers dark and I jump in to save her.

Through Sebby's observations (“Too many fish scales....”), we feel the world's imperfection and degradation. Through his actions (“I kiss Mother's forehead and look at her laughing face for a long time....I drop the picture into the water...”), we touch the love not just of the child, but of the mother, too. Through his sensations (“The cold feels like burning and growing,...”), we know his vulnerabilities and limitations, and also our own. The mood of the story is at once magical and mercilessly real, and through it all, the voice never wavers.

I asked Brinkman about this during the Q&A after the reading, pointing out that this inhabiting of the child’s voice is something she does amazingly well, and asking her where this comes from, if there are influences, or study or research that she does, or if it's just natural (this time, I think, actually verbalizing the threat to slit my wrists on that last one). In response, she pointed us to two influences. First, she said one of the books she read and re-read when she was young was Joyce’s The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, the early chapters in particular. Her general praise for Joyce reminded me immediately of “The Sisters” and “Araby” in Dubliners, and “The Drunkard,” all of which feature young protagonists facing new and daunting realities in a cruel world. Second, Brinkman credited the Polish writer Bruno Schulz, of whom she said she was an avid reader. She said that though she doesn't write anything like Schulz, his ability to express the larger story through his young characters was one of the things she really loved about his work. At the autograph table, Andrew Sean Greer seconded this recommendation, and I scurried off to grab a copy of the Penguin Classics edition of Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories, which has a Foreword by Jonathan Safran Foer.

All in all, an excellent set of pointers and jogs to the memory to get me back to my struggling eleven-year-old...reading group beware!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Halcyon Days in California...but Whither Obama?

I'm kind of a pussy. In fact, it's not all that unusual to find me in tears in front of a soft drink commercial. So you can imagine what these past two days have been like, with dozens of touching and triumphant stories like this one (MP3 download) streaming out of my car radio. As same-sex couples in California enter into legal marriages by the thousands, even straight, married, almost-middle-aged white guys like me are feeling the joy.

But in these halcyon days, when Californians are crashing through a historic civil rights barricade and neglected generations of Americans are finally enjoying the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of community-sanctioned marriages, the question I find myself asking is, "Where is Barack Obama?" A pivotal moment in American political history, with national and perhaps international significance, occurring in Northern California, the place that powered Obama's meteoric rise, and the nominee has yet to comment? It's a head-scratcher.

Gavin Newsom, San Francisco's defiantly progressive mayor (and, in my optimistic opinion, a future President of the United States), seems to agree. Shortly after officiating at the historic wedding of Phyllis Lyon, 83, and Del Martin, 87, Newsom commented on Obama's conspicuous absence. Noting that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has opposed a state constitutional amendment that would once again ban same-sex marriage, and that Obama has so far been mute on the subject, Newsom said, "Contrast that, a Republican governor of California coming out against it, and then a Democratic nominee for president not sure, that's not a great sign." Public radio correspondent Scott Shafer, who filed the report, said that "Newsom, who originally supported Hillary Clinton, has endorsed Obama, but he says unless Obama comes out strongly against the [constitutional amendment], he'll wonder about the Illinois senator's authenticity as a new kind of leader."

Looking more closely at Obama's long-held and consistently stated position on the issue, you can almost see why he would stay away from California right now. According to the Pew Forum on Religion in Political Life, Obama's position on same-sex marriage can be encapsulated as follows:

Obama says that he personally believes that "marriage is between a man and a woman" but also says that "equality is a moral imperative" for gay and lesbian Americans. He advocates the complete repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) because "federal law should not discriminate in any way against gay and lesbian couples, which is precisely what DOMA does." He supports granting civil unions for gay couples, and in 2006 he opposed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. In March 2007, Obama initially avoided answering questions about a controversial statement by a U.S. general that "homosexual acts" are "immoral," but Obama later told CNN's Larry King, "I don't think that homosexuals are immoral any more than I think heterosexuals are immoral."

But if he opposes a same-sex marriage amendment to the U.S. Constitution, why not the constitution of the most populous state in the union? What's more, there's a train going down the tracks here, and Obama isn't exactly sitting in the dining car. He may be trying to keep a firm grip on the handrail in the vestibule, but for me, that's just a downright dirty shame. And it's a shame not because I think it will cost him votes (in fact, regrettably, it will probably preserve him some), or because it tarnishes his standing as a true progressive, but because I think he's wrong on this one. And I think history will prove that out as the millenial generation grows into a powerful voting bloc and the battle for gay and lesbian rights becomes the latest long-deserved victory in America's ongoing human rights struggle.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Andrew Sean Greer on Transport and Grandmothers

Fred Leebron, one of my favorite writing teachers at Queens University of Charlotte, talks sometimes about the idea of transport in fiction writing. Now I often don’t know what the hell Fred is talking about, but I love him anyway because his passion for the craft is infectious. As for this transport thing, you may know very well what it is, and if so, good on ya, but I’ve had to struggle with it a bit—until now.

In Andrew Sean Greer’s novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli, I have discovered an author who masterfully and relentlessly transports us through time, space, emotion, and consciousness while at the same time keeping us firmly anchored in the story, and more specifically, in the scene, the interaction, the emotion he wants us to see and feel. He keeps us right where he wants us, but takes us everywhere at the same time.

Being the incorrigible suck-up that I am, I told Greer this (well, not all of it, but the gist of it anyway) when he appeared at Booksmith in the Haight last Thursday night. The following is an excerpt from the reading he did that night, which was from his new novel, The Story of a Marriage. The setting is San Francisco, 1953, and in this scene, the first-person protagonist, Pearl Cook, is in the backyard chatting with Buzz, an old army buddy of her husband, Holland. Pearl and Holland have a son they call Sonny, who is sickly, and a dog named Lyle. Buzz is helping Pearl hang out the laundry, and he has just called her attention to his nose, which has obviously been broken before.

I nodded. “It’s a beauty.”

“Thank you.”

“How did you get it?”


The sun flashed across the billowing sheets. I blinked, turned toward Buzz, and saw him raising a hand to his face just as the sunlight stained him white all along his arm.

“Holland hit you?”

Buzz just cocked his head and watched me. Holland never raised his voice except at the radio, never hit a thing except the couch pillows before he sat down, grinning, with his cigarette. But once, of course, he’d been a different man, a man trained to shoot other men during the war, who drank, who sang with soldiers and hit a friend across the nose.

At last I asked, “Was it over a woman?”

He handed me a pair of trousers. “Yes.”

I pulled out the trouser dryer and began to stretch the pants onto it. “Tell me.”

“Pearlie,” he said. “We were born at a bad time.”

“I don’t know what you mean. It’s a fine time.”

I didn’t know what he meant by “we.” I couldn’t imagine what might bind me together with a man like Buzz, as likable as he was. I couldn’t draw any kind of line around the two of us.

“You’re proud of your house. You have a nice touch.”

“It belongs to Holland’s family.”

“It can’t be cheap,” he said to me. “I mean Sonny being sick and all.”

“Holland’s aunts help out. With the bills, the braces, it is a lot. It keeps me inside a good deal, I tell you, taking care of him,” I said without thinking. “Of course it’s no trouble,” I added hastily.

“Now what would you do if you had all the money you needed?”

I had no answer to that. It was a thoughtless question to ask a poor woman with a sick son, something only a rich man would ask. Like wondering aloud to a freshly brokenhearted girl: “What if it turns out he loved you after all?” It was something I had never allowed myself to think about. What would I have done? I’d have moved my family away from a house like that, with glaring neighbors, and stains on the basement walls from the ocean creeping in, with crickets sifting in under the doorsills with the sand…to Egypt, to Mali, to some fantasy destination I only knew from books. My God, I’d have flown to Mars with Holland and Sonny and never come back. That was the only answer I could think of. A woman like me, I couldn’t afford to name my real desires. I couldn’t even afford to know them.

All I said was, “I’ve got everything I need. I’m happy.”

“I know, but just imagine…where would you live?”

“This house is better than anything my parents had.”

“But just say…an apartment high above the city? A cliff over an ocean, with a view from your bed? Five hundred acres with a fence all around?”

“What would I do with five hundred acres?” I said without thinking.

Then he looked right at me, not a shy man at all, and I think for a moment I understood.

I stood there, staring at him, with the metal dryer contraption in my hand and the damp trousers over my arm. The sun came in full and lit the world from top to bottom; you could almost hear the jasmine reaching up for it. Then we heard the sound of Holland’s car returning and Buzz turned away.

In a moment, Holland shouted “Hey there!” from the house. I heard a bicycle bell, and Sonny heading down the hall in pursuit of love.

And Buzz said nothing else, touching his nose as if touching the memory of pain. He was half to the sun, and the shadow of his ruined hand fell across his long face in the form of another, younger hand cradling his cheek. The wind burrowed into his hair like a living creature. I didn’t say a word to him as he went inside, just continued stretching the trousers in the sun to dry. And down I went—into the green deep, flecked with gold and draped with waving plants, endless, bottomless—and forgot what I had glimpsed. I was a careful woman, a good gardener, and I pruned away the doubt. But you know the heart: every night, it grows a thorn.

So after this reading, and after I mustered the cojones to raise my hand, I mentioned this idea of transport to Greer and told him his work had helped me to better understand what it meant. I pointed out that in the excerpt he had just read, we were taken to the war, where two friends had an altercation, to the couch, where Holland grins and whacks the pillows, to Mali, to Egypt, to Mars, to the hallway of the house, forward and backward in time, and through a huge range of emotions, but we were never taken out of that tense, powerful, revealing moment between Pearl and Buzz. I then asked him about the process: I asked if the story just came out of him that way (not mentioning that if he had answered “yes” to that, I would have hunted down a straight razor and slit my wrists), or if he focused on a particular dimension of the story for a time and then did multiple passes, interleaving the various dimensions into the final, complete whole…or what?

His answer, in essence, was that a story like this one, which is essentially about a housewife who rarely leaves her house, needs a broader dimension to hold the reader’s interest. He said he feels it’s his responsibility to give the reader that broader dimension, so when he revises, when he is adding metaphors to color in the lines, he looks to do it in a way that broadens the reach of the story—taking the reader, for instance, out of the backyard and all the way to Mars. In this particular case, the book is only 198 pages, so he said he felt that these wider glances and forays have added meat to the book, making it a more satisfying read in the end.

I know that I, for one, intend to find out for myself.

Greer on His Grandmothers – and Strong Women Everywhere

As mentioned above, The Story of a Marriage is a first-person tale narrated by a protagonist who is a housewife in San Francisco in 1953. In response to a question about his use of the first person, Greer explained that he used it because wanted to deeply explore the feelings of women who had strong personalities, but were constrained by the customs and social mores of the time. This idea grew out of his experiences with and memories of his own grandmothers, both of whom were strong women who must have had to live with these kinds of constraints. He told the story of one grandmother who, when she died, left behind a bottle of Vodka hidden in the flour canister, $5,000 in bills wrapped in tinfoil, a handgun hidden in the freezer, and a box of correspondence she had written—apparently without the family’s knowledge, or at least without it becoming general knowledge in the family—to every president who had sat during her adult life.

Not sure if it was the same grandmother, but he told another story that had to do with the time he came out as a gay man to his grandmother. (“Not her favorite subject,” he said.) Shortly after he had done this, the Atlanta Olympics were about to start, not far from his grandmother’s home in Greenville County, South Carolina. Learning that Greenville County had just passed a resolution declaring homosexuality "incompatible with the standards to which this community subscribes," Greer’s grandmother wrote a letter to the Olympic Committee protesting the fact that the Olympic torch was about to be run through the county. She pointed out that Olympic rules specified that the torch could not be run through any area that had laws violating basic human rights. The Olympic Committee took action, and the torch was shrouded in a van as it passed through Greenville County. (True story. Check it out: http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2003/10/05/in_south_episcopal_schism_pondered/)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Broken Silence

A reminiscence on Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio...

The headlines in Ohio’s small-town papers spoke of a democracy on the brink of chaos: “Democrats Say Effort Being Made to Steal the Election” (Portsmouth Daily Times); “Final Result of Election Still Hangs in the Balance” (Xenia Daily Gazette); “Talk of Election Being Thrown into the Hands of Congress” (Butler County Democrat). We read these headlines and remember the battle for Ohio, 2004, when George W. Bush lost in the cities but won by more than 149,000 votes in small towns, thus ensuring his victory in the national election. It was the latest microcosm of a polarized America: white against black, religious against secular, urban against rural, and a near-stalemate that (again) exposed the deep chasm between red-voting towns and blue-voting cities.

However, these headlines are not from 2004; they are from 1916, the year Woodrow Wilson edged Charles Evans Hughes by just 3% of the votes, and the year Sherwood Anderson began publishing the series of stories that eventually became his masterwork, Winesburg, Ohio.

In 1916, as in 2004, America was at war, and the party that had gotten the country into war had also won re-election. Anderson was living at the time in what he described as “a cheap room in a Chicago rooming house,” and from there, he gave the world one of its earliest truly candid views of the realities of small-town American life. A week after the 1916 election, Anderson wrote to Waldo Frank, his friend and editor, “It is my own idea that when these studies are published in book form, they will suggest the real environment out of which present-day American youth is coming.” Clearly, he knew what he was doing. But he never could have known how relevant his characters’ joys, passions, anxieties, and abasements would still be among the social and political chasms of the early 21st century.

In a 1984 Harper’s essay, John Updike astutely writes that the Winesburg stories portray characters who “…walk otherwise isolated toward some inexpressible denouement of private revelation.” He continues:
Inexpressiveness, indeed, is what is above all expressed: the characters, often, talk only to George Willard [the central protagonist], and then only once; their attempts to talk with one another tend to culminate in a comedy of tongue-tied silence.
Indeed, Anderson’s characters repeatedly come to the brink of intimacy, only to founder under their own inhibitions. In “Adventure,” Alice Hindman’s pent-up sexual desires erupt in a mad, naked dash into the rainy night that ends in silence and shame. In “The Strength of God” and “The Teacher,” the passions of another young woman, Kate Swift, are stunted as she ends up exposed, naked and kneeling on her bed in prayer. And in “Mother” and “Death,” Elizabeth Willard, George’s mother, desperate for her son to escape Winesburg, is unable to speak her heart to him and ends up dying in silence.

Men, too, both old and young, fail to find expression. Wing Biddlebaum, in “Hands,” churns under the silence of an accused (and perhaps guilty) child molester. In “The Philosopher,” Doctor Parcival, who is haunted by memories of his early years, seeks comfort in writing but fails at it, and in the end begs George Willard, “…perhaps you will be able to write the book that I may never get written.” And Seth Richmond, in “The Thinker,” has intelligence, ambition, and determination, but no facility for words. He rails against the useless talk of others, saying in the end, “I’ll do something, get into some kind of work where talk don’t count….I just want to work and keep quiet.”

From these portrayals of small-town reticence in the 1890s, fast-forward fifty years: The country wins decisively in two world wars and parlays those victories into military and economic dominance. Fast-forward twenty more years, and in the cities, a mood of self-examination takes hold, and in the South, a thirst for justice. Cultural upheaval and movement toward racial, economic, and sexual equality rise up, and yet hundreds of Winesburgs still cling to their silence. It is then that a new wave of charismatics arrives to incite them. Jerry Falwell transforms the “silent majority” into the self-dubbed Moral Majority. Christianity becomes big business as megachurches move in alongside big box stores. And the media replaces the steady and informative voices of Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, and John Chancellor with the more lucrative cable news shout-fests of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.

And the real citizens all over the land who are portrayed so faithfully in Winesburg, Ohio are given a voice that waves its fists at TV screens and speaks loudly at the polls.

But Anderson’s lessons, we know, are broader and more essential: Life is strange, he shows us; life is brutal, life will slash at your emotions, and though the scabs will peel, the scars left behind will serve as constant reminders. And through it all, the town itself will always be a force: it is a refuge to some, a prison to others, but to most, it is both. For those like George Willard and his creator, who choose to leave, the small town nonetheless stays with them. It is indelible and precious. And whether we vote blue or red, whether we are part of a Winesburg world or just curious readers looking in, a return trip to Winesburg, Ohio in this momentous time offers us a real chance at greater understanding.