Novel 6, Windfall

The sixth novel in my selection of 100 novels is Windfall by James Magnuson. I picked this novel up last week after hearing Magnuson, director of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, speak about the pros and cons of creative writing programs.

I enjoyed Magnuson’s talk a great deal, because I’ve been interested in returning to school to get an MFA. He dissolved some of the myths I’d believed about getting into such a program: An MFA doesn’t ensure a teaching job afterward (something I would like to do–teach creative writing); it doesn’t ensure publication or necessarily powerful contacts in the publishing/writing world.

But I believe it could improve writing. My writing at least. Magnuson talked about how good writing teachers can help a writer do things like see holes in his fiction, how to approach it and make a fix of it.

I did feel encouraged by the talk. Last year I applied and was rejected by the writing program at Texas State University-San Marcos (aka Southwest Texas State University). I was hurt by this rejection. Not only was I turned down by my alma mater, but I began to think of myself as an untalented hack. I took the rejection personally.

But Magnuson noted this stat: This year there are five slots open at the Michener Center; there are more than 500 applicants to the program. He said not to take rejection personally. Writing and rejection go hand in hand.

He also told an anecdote about a reading he went to. When the reading was over he went up to the writer to tell her how much he enjoyed the reading and how moving her writing was. She said, "But you rejected me."

So, I’ll keep trying. I may also look into low residency programs and into short workshops as well.

Anyhow, here is an Austin Chronicle piece on Magnuson and Windfall.

A bit more on the Garden

Hemingway biographer Kenneth Lynn writes that the original manuscript of The Garden of Eden was 1,000 pages long.  Apparently Hemingway wrote it in 6 months in 1946 after having a premonition he would die within a year. From Lynn’s description, the manuscript was a mess, incoherent in places, repetitive in others. So, Tom Jenks trimmed it down to the point that was puplished as a 247-page book in hardback. Lynn refers to Jenks’ editing as "brilliant," and I wonder how much of the original manuscript had backstory, if any of it did. Hemingway wrote in longhand. I wonder what the original manuscript looked like. Can you imagine a thousand handwritten pages in a month? I’d love to see the original. I wonder where it’s kept. Probably at the JFK collection. Though it might be at the Ransom Center at UT in Austin.

The Garden of Eden

Finished reading The Garden of Eden this morning. As its title suggests, the story is sort of a parallel to the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. An idyllic setting with a married couple, David and Catherine Bourne, whose honeymoon on the coasts of France and Spain becomes interrupted by temptation (although temptation may be too strong of a word, given the male protagonist’s passivity), which eventually dissolves the marriage. The temptation, it turns out, is that traditional green-eyed monster, jealousy.

David and Catherine begin their idyll peacefully enough. Then it slowly dissolves as Catherine begins an experiment in sexual persona, first by cutting her hair short like David’s and referring to herself as a boy. She takes her persona into the bedroom. Further into the novel she introduces another woman into the picture, Marita. Hemingway makes vague references to erotic experience between the women, but does have a sexual relationship develop between David and Marita.

Of all the male leads in Hemingway, David might be the strangest. Like most, he has been damaged emotionally in the past–which as a writer he attempts to deal with during the progress of the novel–he isn’t damaged physically, as is Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, and like most male leads he doesn’t seem to be able to cope with this emotional damage, except in Bourne’s case through writing. Like other Hemingway heroes, he follows the code–he has one thing in his life that he is devoted to, and he opts to be the best at it he can be, and to hell with everything else. At the point the novel opens, he is a somewhat successful novelist, about to get started on his next book. But, David seems to be the most passive of Hemingway’s males.

And that’s where the trouble begins: Catherine introduces her new sexual persona into their honeymoon idyll; David passively accepts this role, as long as it doesn’t interfere with his writing. When he begins to spend time apart from Catherine, though, she becomes increasingly needy of his attention. At about this time, she introduces Marita into the relationship.

David begins to become involved with Marita. Catherine tries to avoid jealously, but eventually it outs itself as David begins to pay more and more attention to Marita, and she makes a transference of the emotion to an attack on his writing. She eventually burns all of his manuscripts. This action dissolves the marriage and David falls in love with Marita, who is a passive though sensual woman that encourages David’s writing.

David seems to be a passive-aggressive personality. He passively accepts Catherine’s new sexual persona, only to aggressively try to demolish it by pursuing Marita, to the point where the marriage dissolves. He never questions Catherine’s change, and yet, since the narrative voice is his, he seems to perceive that change as the beginnings of a mental breakdown on Catherine’s part. All the while, he accepts Marita’s decision to join into a menage a trois.

Within the course of the novel, none of the characters truly undergo a change, or nothing that we can noticeably trust. Catherine undergoes the most noticeable change, and has to make a separate peace with her decision to bring Marita into the relationship by leaving altogether, which will eventually dissolve her and David’s marriage, thus, presumably allowing David and Marita to marry. However, we can’t trust the possibility she may be experiencing a mental breakdown, because we only see what David perceives, and he progressively begins to turn away from his wife, becoming dissatisfied and then outraged by her behavior when it destroys his work.

The characters just seem to drift together and then apart, rearranging their lives in the end, much as Lost Generation might. Which may be a fault of Hemingway’s minimalism: character analysis is almost always at a minimum, as he operates on his own "iceberg theory" of writing, sort of the "show don’t tell" dictum every fiction writer gets taught carried to its highest measure.

As a reader, I don’t necessarily like to be told everything about a character; however, in such a novel as The Garden of Eden, in which so many unusual (for Hemingway at least) characters and states of mind appear, some character analysis seems necessary. Is Catherine crazy or is she acting on something she’s desired? Is the psychological wound that David carries the whole reason he seems so passive? Why does Marita become involved with the couple? I think the book could’ve been stronger with some contemplation of these questions, and perhaps lengthened by a hundred pages or so.

Novel 5, The Garden of Eden

The fifth selection in my 100-novel reading project is The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway. Periodically over the past few years I’ve been reading Hemingway’s collected works. (Hemingway and Camus are big influences to me when I first started taking literature seriously and writing seriously.) Until Scribner’s released True at First Light, on the anniversary of what would have been Hemingway’s 100th birthday, in 1999, The Garden of Eden was the last of Hemingway’s posthumously published books. It was published in 1986, the year I graduated high school, and was very much ignored by me then (science fiction and the great pulp novels of Robert E. Howard–a fellow Texan–were the books fascinating me then.) The book was edited by Tom Jenks, a professional editor, with whom I had a very superficial editorial relationship with when I submitted a short story manuscript for a free reading. He provides editorial services for writers. He had a lot of positive things to say about my manuscript when we talked over the phone. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to afford his prices, but someday I hope to be able to afford them, and see if I get a quality line-by-line edit of my fiction. I suspect I would. His online magazine can be found here.

The novel itself isn’t necessarily one of Hemingway’s strongest. My favorite is his first The Sun Also Rises, but Eden is in some parts beautifully written, as only Hemingway could have written. It’s also one of his stranger books, a tale of two newlyweds, David and Catherine Bourne, on their honeymoon on the coast of France. It explores sexual identity and pits the couple in a menage a trois. Strange territory for tough-guy Hemingway to explore.

Novels into Film, Wonder Boys

Wednesday night I finished reading Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon. It’s the third time I’ve read the novel, and I decided to reread it this time as both part of my 100-novel reading project and because I watched the DVD of the film a few weekends ago and wanted to see how the novel and film matched up.

From previous viewings and readings I think the Scott Rudin/Curtis Hanson produced film did great justice to translating the novel on screen. Casting Michael Douglas in the lead role of protagonist Grady Tripp is perfect. Actually, as far as casting goes–the cast includes Frances McDormand, Katie Holmes, Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr.–I think it’s one of the better casting jobs done in a film drawn from a secondary source.

Set at a small liberal arts college in Pittsburgh, the novel and film concern themselves with a group of writers and editors over a three-day weekend. The leader of the student writers, Professor Grady Tripp, is a novelist suffering not from writer’s block but writer’s diarrhea, as he’s seeking an ending to his 2000-plus page novel "Wonder Boys."  Tripp is a stoned-out, closing in on washed-up, philanderer as well, involved with the school’s chancellor, Sara Gaskell.  When Tripp’s editor, the sometimes gay Terry Crabtree, comes to town for the school’s Wordfest and to have a looksee at Tripp’s uncompleted novel, the story becomes a comic romp that unveils not only Tripp’s problem–essentially an inability to make choices–but also unveils several of the student writers’ true selves. 

While both film and novel offer a comic tale, on my recent viewing and rereading, I think the novel is stronger in its characterizations of chief characters. Of course, this may be true for any novel translated to film– the characterizations have to be condensed in the film for the film to work and maintain audience interest.

After reading the novel this time, one character of note in the film is weak on characterization– James Leer–in the film played by Maguire. Leer, as Chabon (or more accurately Tripp) characterizes him, is "a goddamn spook." Leers spookiness comes out in the film; he’s a phantom in the beginning, lurking in the shadows, always on the outside, leering (if you will) in windows, watching his fellow student writers live life. He becomes Tripp’s problem. He may be a talented, though not yet fully developed writer, who is ridiculed by his classmates, but as Tripp discovers, Leer also has what seems to be a problem with discerning fact and fiction.

Leer has invented a life, several different versions of himself, in order, at least as the film seems to direct us, to hide from being gay. He is outed eventually by Crabtree.  I think this is where the film seems to weaken, since it focuses more on Leer’s budding homosexuality. (Chabon revisits the theme of young men discovering their homosexuality in his Pulitzer prize-winning Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.)

While Leer’s homosexuality is a pivotal concern in Chabon’s novel, what makes Leer capitvating not only for the reader, but for Tripp himself, who serves as the novel’s narrator, is trying to discover who Leer really is behind the fictive mask he’s created for himself. The mystery of his character is never really fully revealed, but that seems to be one of Chabon’s points: We can never really get to know a person fully, and as Tripp discovers, he (Tripp) has only in middle age come to start seeing himself clearly as his own literary persona dissolves, while his third marriage is dissolving and while his lover reveals that she is pregnant by him.

In the film, Tripp is the lead character, so it’s him that the film wants the audience to focus on. So that’s probably why such an interesting character as James Leer gets somewhat filed away in a film.

Still, both the film and novel have again captivated me. And the soundtrack to the film isn’t bad either. It features Bob Dylan’s Oscar winning song "Things have Changed," as well as various other artists including Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison.

Remnick Interviewed

David Reminck, editor of the New Yorker, gives an interview here that largely deals with how the New Yorker seems to survive at a time when other magazines and newspapers seem to be struggling. Other publications have cut back on indepth content, and have resorted to flashier, breezier pieces for the most part. The New Yorker, on the other hand, keeps up the tradition of longer articles and keeping in content such as fiction and poetry. It has a million or more readers, in this supposed age of "the death of reading."  One bit Reminick notes is that as long as his writers produce accurate stories, they have more authority with the piece; they write to their own style, and style does draw a reader in (not to argue that content isn’t necessary).

As far as newspapers go, I think many would be better off if their writers were allowed to show their style, rather than conforming so much to the bland voice of the Associated Press. Working in the newspaper biz, even on a small scale, I find myself hardpressed to read a bland wire story, even on a serious subject. And it’s hard to find good feature writers like Rick Bragg (though he got caught in the backlash of the Blair scandal at the New York Times) with an individual voice. Although, if you read his stories in the collection Somebody Told Me you’ll notice slips into the AP voice, that make even the best of his stories somewhat bland, and makes me wonder how much a copyeditor changed the info to fit to the Times style guide?