Laura Weiss – Leftovers

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This book is angry. Weiss fires off a lot of bullets from a variety of weapons to plenty of targets. Often, the targets contradict each other. Both strict parenting and loose parenting are getting the blowtorch. The education system is mocked in its treatment of violence. Hot popular guys and ugly lonely creeps get the crosshairs. It’s like a literary equivalent of a Slipknot song. Perhaps when parents complain that teens don’t read enough, they should realize what’s their favorite music and act accordingly.

Then again, anger in music and anger in literature are two different things. Music can be senselessly angry. Music isn’t intellectually stimulating. It’s not a presentation of ideas, arguments, conclusions and proof. Music works as emotional release. Slipknot tell you more about what being angry feels like. Literature is an intellectual experience, not sensory. A lot of anger may be affecting, but it can lead to a shallow work. Weiss’ book isn’t completely shallow. It does more good than bad, contains more shades of grey than black’n’white, yet her failure tells us exactly what’s good and what’s bad about anger.

Anger is a good thing. We know when we’re angry that something is wrong, like how the pain from a wound tells us it exists. Anger also drives us to act. It stimulates and awakens your body. I doubt many changes in the world would’ve happened if it wasn’t for anger. So it’s a great thing Weiss is angry and such anger can drive young people to things. It sure did cause Weiss’ heroes to act. Anger also makes us lose empathy for others, though. While Weiss is aware of it, she’s just as guilty.

Something about anger narrows our focus. Depression can connect people or put a wall between them, but anger gets people hostile. Either you’re angry with someone about the same problem, or you’re against them. As an author, you must not fall to this lack of empathy. You created these characters, gave them personalities, backstories, wants and ordered them how to act. If you never bother to understand why they are the way they are, you set up strawman. It’s worse than that, since how can we solve a moral problem if we don’t understand why people do it?

‘Empathy’ doesn’t equal ‘justification’. You can understand why someone does what they do without agreeing. It means you can imagine yourself doing it. That’s why villains that we understand are more horrifying than those we don’t. I can understand why Ian Watkins committed his crimes. I can understand why, in such a position of power with charisma and a busy life I may push my sexuality towards these places. By understanding this, I can also avoid commiting his crimes if I am in a similar situation.

All of Weiss targets lean closer to comically evil than deep portraits. The topics she address are relevant and varied, but all we can understand is why someone would be angry at that. Blair’s mother is a neatfreak who cares so much about appearances she neglects everything else. Weiss tries not to make her too evil, but she lacks a moment of vulnerability, a moment that shows her us reasonable. Sometimes Weiss gets too close to making her sociopathic. She constantly ignores her daughter’s feelings with some hints that she deosn’t mind if Blair has horrible sex with douchebags if it advances her career. Now, if she was supposed to be a ridiculous career freak then fine. Weiss can’t get enough into her character to either make us understand why they’re extreme, or show us their other side.

The hostile world here is also one-dimensional. Often authors who portray a hostile world fail because of a self-centered view. They show how the world is hostile to their characters, but not much how others are a victim to it. It’s important since if your idea is that the world is a cold, unwelcoming place – which is true – then it’s like this for everyone. The situations in Leftovers are mostly us-against-the-world cases. Shy, socially inept guys are rarely present. Ardith’s parents are just alcoholics. The only pain we see is the main character’s, and that’s not a good excuse. Other characters have plenty of lines.

Where the pessimistic worldview does win Weiss victories is in her main character. Oddly, the flaws in the book are the exact flaws the two heroines suffer from. Their flaws were deliberate, too. The big, tell-everything prose says so. The same lack of empathy that made Weiss to write weak antagonists is also the downfall of the heroines. It’s also the best part of the book, the moment where she truly shocks the audience. In truth, the Ardith and Blair don’t commit a crime but only nudge pieces to take revenge. Nevertheless, they used someone’s pain for their own gratification and it’s not glossed over. It’s the one instance of hostility that we can understand, and that makes it more powerful than any description about how Ardith’s brother is an asshole.

The writing is precise, catchy and expressive. It’s also not subtle, which leave you feeling empty at the end. Most of the events don’t have much meaning but build up to the great sin. Still, the climax is powerful enough. Why shower it with explanations? It shows how difficult it is to do a confessional style right. Even when writing in a confessional style, it’s not just what’s being written that’s important. Holden isn’t defined by what he says, but also what he lingers on. The writing doesn’t give any new insight and Weiss doesn’t try. She has some skill, but it’s more like a hardcore band who breaks for a beautiful chorus of 30 seconds at the end of a show. The problem is Weiss doesn’t believe enough in her skill to write without explaining.

Still, it’s a decent book more concerned with exploring teenagers and their messy life, rather than offering a comfortable fantasy. It’s neither propaganda about how the world is actually beautiful nor how teenagers are misunderstood heroes. Perhaps Weiss has a great YA novel in her, because Leftovers shows she can capable of complex thought. It just shows she can do it, not that she does it.

2.5 leftovers out of 5

Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

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How do short stories work? How does any story work? Stories are a series of events connected by a theme, time and circumstances. They lead into one another and eventually conclude. Every ending is a beginning, of course. The end of a relationship is the beginning of a life as a single. Still, we live with these beginnings and endings – we draw lines between childhood and adulthood, day and night and Mondays and Sundays.

If you want to aim for realism, you need to remember this bias when writing stories. Beginnings and endings are what give stories meaning and we tell a story because it means something. It can be funny, it can show something about love but you never tell a story just to tell a story. Carver’s stories have some kind of a beginning, but no real endings. Sometimes they end with a punch, sometimes with the implication something terrible is about to happen. Concrete endings are rare, yet these stories still work.

Is this poetry, or is this literature? What’s the boundry between them?

Carver’s stories work because he puts the purpose way ahead of structure. His purpose isn’t clear-cut, which makes it all the more impressive when his stories work. There is no specific situation Carver wants to explore, no guideline that connects the stories. A lot of drinking happens and love is a big deal, but that’s because love is a big deal in general.

He tries to tap into life’s energy. If this sounds overly-sentimental, it’s because it’s hard to talk about the stories in any other way. How he achieves such emotional resonance is still unclear. Characters might as well not exist and stories rarely end or begin. It must be because of the unique structure of the book.

Few stories here stand on their own. Even the best one requires prior experience with his style before enjoying them. In fact, even as an experienced reader in minimalism and in Carver (I actually read this a long time ago in its original version – Beginners) it took me time to get into it. The style is so minimalist, so sparse that it’s shocking at first. We’re used to maximalist literature. Every beginner writer who gave me their stories to review has overflowing language.

We look for the grandness. We look for the symbol or the sentence that repeats itself, or characers talking about who they are. Carver creates Everymen by letting the situation speak for itself. In one story, everyone lives in Alburquerque but are all from somewhere else. In another, a man puts his whole house – couch and TV and kitchen – outside. In another, a couple fights violently over a baby.

Each of these small tidbits are rife to analyze. Just by telling you what happens I imitated a whole story, and do we really need more of it? A couple fighting violently over a baby is a great illustration of a fallen relationship. The baby is a product of both parents, yet the two parties want it for themselves. The baby couldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the other. Relationships need room for selflessness, for caring about the other. One of the last line feels like Carver summing up every fallen relationship:

“He felt the baby slipping out of his ands and he pulled back very hard.”

Is this how we should react when love comes down? Should we pull back towards ourselves stronger and stronger at something that can only exists thanks to co-operation?

Self-insert characters are often criticized as lazy. That’s true, but there is a time and place for them. Sometimes the situation is the main character. The objects moving carry the meaning, not the personality. It’s true this has been used for escapsim – Harem anime create a situation many guys would like to escape to. Carver doesn’t create comfortable situations.

His situations are soaked in pain, but more than anything confusion. It’s as if by expressing the events in the most blunt way possible, he hopes he could make sense of the human condition. As evidenced by the last two stories (who gain a lot of their power by their position), Carver didn’t even come close to a solution.

These stories are a journey through a land that’s not really barren. People exaggerate when they describe Carver’s stories as ‘people drinking and talking’. He’s more concerned with the absurdity of life. That’s why a lot of these stories involve weird situations that feel odd in this collection. When was the last time a person with no hands asked to photograph your house? Life is strange – any attempt to capture realism by removing odd events results in bland monotony. Since strange events are confusing, many authors write about them with colorful language and your dull feel-good ending. “Viewfinder”, in different hands, would’ve been distorted into how ‘it all depends on your perspective! snap out of your depression!’. In Carver’s hands, he lets the interaction stand on their own. The loneliness is obviously there, and that makes their connection all the more engrossing and life-affirming.

‘Empathy’ is another word that suits Carver’s style. His style is so warm, so intimate. You can pop this book in the middle and it wouldn’t feel any different than starting from the beginning. The stories like a collection of aimless anecdotes friends tell each other into the night, just to have something to talk to. Like your friends’ anecdotes, the stories ramble and swerve into unnecessary territories before snapping back to the main topic. This isn’t sloppy writing but a deliberate attempt to capture the warmth of sharing stories.

Although Carver has been hailed as a master of minimalism, it didn’t actually come from him. Gordon Lish, the editor. The original manuscript wasn’t as minimalistic, although Lish clearly saw the potential there. The attraction to these stories is in the how intimate they feel. Even when Carver starts writing in bigger paragraphs, this would remain the defining feature of his work.

It’s as sparse as a Joy Division record, but don’t read Carver for the minimalist macho bullshit. This isn’t about covering up an iceberg like Hemingway. He does the opposite. By writing about the stories just as they are, he mines them for every sip of emotion there is. A lot of great authors gave us insight into the human mind/condition/experience, but none feel so intimate as Carver.

4 talking about love out of 5

Margaret Atwood – Moral Disorder

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I’m not sure how to react this. This shouldn’t happen. Moral Disorder is part of a literary movement that’s close to me. Stories about the daily lives of people grab me like no other. I can forgive many flaws – lack of characters, lack of narrative structure – if the events are vivid enough.

Something about this literature is so lifelike. The grandmaster, Raymond Carver, didn’t have in-depth psychology and his stories rarely concludd. Yet his prose felt so intimate. He made you feel like you’re attached at the hip to these characters. I always held that the best authors have good prose by default. They can write anything and it will be a pleasure to read.

Atwood belongs to that line of authors, but that’s pure skill. This is why Moral Disorder isn’t as good as a random Raymond Carver story, although it’s close. Her prose is easy to read, focused and hardly rambles. She lacks a sense of style, though. Give her a good story – Alias Grace – and she tells it masterfully. When the prose needs to do more than just relay the events she’s in trouble.

It’s no surprise, then, that the best stories are the most eventful. The stories at the farm, especially the one involving butchering animals are the most fun. The events are interesting by themselves. Atwood is creative enough to imagine weird happenings with farm animals. All she has to do is relay them with her precise prose and you get the title story – a strong candidate for one of Atwood’s best pieces of writing.

Other great stories include The Headless Horseman and My Last Duchess. In these stories Atwood trumps Carver. Carver was a master of prose, but he was less good at imagining events. His prose breathed life into the mundane, but whenever he stretched himself he felt clumsy (That story about a headache always felt off). Atwood has a brimming imagination. Her events are never mundane. Rather, she mines the oddness of life – the last Halloween, a school project involving analyzing a poem. There’s something so lifelike in the teenagers’ conversation about the poem. The teenager’s complaint about the uselessness of it is the sort of thing I heard from my friends, too. Atwood recognizes the literary retarded without shaming them.

These stories also showcase Atwood’s main flaw, and that is characters. A common problem in realistic fiction is the removal of weirdness, but reality is weird. Atwood understands reality is full of weird events, but she forgets people are weird, too. The young sister is one of the few characters that are actually characters. Most of the time, what drives the characters is so basic it’s not important.

The stories are meant to be inter-connected. In order to connect these stories, though, we need to recognize that th characters appear again and again. It’s only seeing the name of Tig a few times that made me notice this. Until then, it felt like all characters were archetypical Everymen.

Atwood’s conflicts are believable, but not insightful. She has enough imagination to create a marriage that’s on a slow, peaceful divorce that gets uglier as it goes on. She doesn’t have the psychological insight to bring this relationship to life. The effort is there – Oona is almost a living, breathing character but not really. Instead of being something unique, she’s just a successful woman that hides a lot of secrets and can’t make it on her own.

Her character sketches are too generalized and not specific. The closest she comes to making a unique character is in Nell’s mom. The last story gives us some cues to who she is – her refusal to hear stories without happy endings, for example. Too bad that story also tries to expand on sideline characters with a sort of self-awareness that’s clever, but in the end doesn’t lead to much.

The worst offender is the main character. I’m a writer myself and I can somehow forgive that. Why is writing main characters so difficult? Why can we imagine odd sideline characters with quirks, yet our main characters always end up as observers? On the Headless Horseman, she brings the main character to life with her attitude towards youth, Halloween and all that stuff. In that story our protagonist reacts and makes decisions. In all the rest, she mostly observes.

Since her role in these story is mostly active – she’s the character that connects these stories – this observant behavior takes the life out of the stories. Nell is given a role that’s not suited her. The stories are about her, her experience with Tig and at the farm. If these stories were an assortment of tales about weird people Nell meets, then that flaw wouldn’t be so offensive. Even then, though, we’d need something about Nell. She’d need to connect all these tales. Moral Disorder is, however, about her but sadly she’s not very interesting. Atwood can imagine odd happenings, but not main characters.

Overall though, this is still worth picking up. Atwood is still excellent at relaying events in plain language. If she can’t mine life out of hr characters, at least the set-pieces are memorable enough. Atwood’s prose is also good enough on its own. It doesn’t have wide appeal, but if you enjoyed Atwood before or you like dirty, hard realism there’s plenty to enjoy here. At worst, read the title story or The Headless Horseman.

3 butchered farm animals out of 5

Saul Bellow – Seize the Day

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It’s amazing how much you can say in so few words. It’s not even a case of huge paragraphs and a small font. You can read Seize the Day in a few hours, but it covers more topics and points of view than a regular novel. It also feels epic, even though all that happens is that a person talks to his father, checks the market and notices a funeral.

Bellow uses the same starting point as Herzog. His main character is a person who hit rock bottom and is worried that there is a hole there. It’s about being stuck in a terrible situation and being anxious about how worse it can get. The situation is more realistic and troubling this time. It’s no longer the case of a wealthy man who has time to get into trouble. Wilhelm can’t afford it.

It’s an examination of the money-hungry world and its two sides. People who love money make for useful shallow villains that create plot, but here they take a different role. Bellow looks what the ideas beneath just loving money.

We get the two common promises of wealth. Dr. Adler represents wealth via hard work and skills. Despite what your parents say, a degree in medicine isn’t enough to get cash flowing. Dr. Tamkin is the other side, the promise of quick money without a lot of work. Just buy some commodities, sell them later and hope that the changes in the market will be in your favour.

Why do we want all that money anyway? Wilhelm is like many of the middle class who were born into enough wealth. They don’t know the instinct for survival since they never faced the threat of hunger. The main thing they end up searching for is love, fame, quick money that will keep their idle lifestyle and ‘seizing the day’.

There is truth to both sides. Wilhelm fails because he doesn’t take the good parts of the two but the bad. He has the love of money and the reckless attitude, but he doesn’t have the ability to work or to enjoy the present for what he is. His hotel has a pool and a massage parlor, but he doesn’t use them. He thinks he can seize the day and get money from it, but it doesn’t work. You get money so it’ll be easier to seize the day.

Dr. Adler worked hard to gain his position. Being a doctor is agonizing work and after all the time you spend with patients, you will grow to be more dismissive of people who work less hard. This dismissive nature can also spin out of control.

Wilhelm might be lazy and misguided, but Adler is so sure of his ways that he thinks beating him over the head with it will solve his problem. He doesn’t see any other solution besides working hard. It’s a miracle cure for him. Welhelm doesn’t actually want his father to take care of all his funds. He just wants a little affection.

In Tamkin’s world, success is measured not only by how much money you have but how quickly you can get it. It’s all about taking risks, living in the now and so on. The flaw in this, is that what they actually do is not to enjoy the present. They gamble so they could enjoy the money in the future. Buying and selling commodities, at least for Wilhelm, isn’t enjoyable in and of itself.

Even his wife doesn’t have the little bit of kindness to divorce him. She wants money and nothing else. She expects to get it while she’ll simply ‘raise her kids’ despite the fact they can handle a little on their own. Wherever Wilhelm turns, it’s all about money.

Saul Bellow doesn’t write off money completely. You can’t expect to live off society’s kindness. Bellow’s critique against the mindset is that it’s so caught up in so-called ‘survival’, money is so important that they can’t see anything else. Human civilization wasn’t built only by people who could hunt.

His attack in how this society doesn’t give people a chance. Wilhelm isn’t chained to his past mistakes just psychologically. The fallout from his marriage is still after him. He does try to shake it off, but Bellow doesn’t show us whether it worked out or not. Like anything else, putting away our mistakes and moving on is a gamble.

The problem rests not just with the money-hungry society but Wilhelm himself – he’s tied to some his mistakes psychologically, he goes after scam artists although no one points a gun to his head. It’s hard to know where we draw line. If Bellow attempted to do it, he could quickly degenerate into caricatures. What makes this book so convincing and so realistic is that everyone is criticized and understood. We’re not told whether Adler or Tamkin or Margaret are evil assholes who oppress poor Wilhelm. We’re merely shown their sides of things.

You can’t come up with an easy to this conflict and Bellow doesn’t even try to. The only message in the ending seems a cliched one – appreciate your life because someday you will die – but it’s an insightful way of saying it. Some of our problems are our fault and some are our environment’s, but we have to ‘seize the day’ and still enjoy it.

Bellow’s writing is far more focused here. It’s the rambling style again, but it doesn’t feel like a collection of excerpts from essays. There are inner monologues which still feel awkward – Bellow should’ve just wrote this in first-person – but this time they’re tied more strongly to the themes and ideas. They are either Wilhelm’s various thoughts about the characters and how he perceives them, or they are about the Money Society and other such concepts. There’s more of the former, thankfully. The latter still feels like leftovers from an essay collection.

There’s a blurb on the cover that describes Bellow’s writing as ‘energetic’. That’s a very good descriptor. The novella has a brisk pace to it. It reads like an epic story condensed. Compared to other novellas I’ve read, it doesn’t have the contemplative atmosphere. It’s hard for me to describe how Bellow achieves this (Tamkin’s dialogues are the best examples. He rants endlessly like a salesman) but it fits. Everything is urgent on this novel.

He also avoids the main problem of any realist authors. His characters feel real because of the traits he gives them. He achieves his realism by giving him distinct descriptions, worldviews and dialogue. Even Rubin, who appears briefly in the beginning feels more developed than those in Hemingway’s novels. He always wears pretty clothes although he’s behind the counter and no one sees him. Bellow could’ve skipped telling us what this means, because it’s a unique enough detail that can tell us all kinds of things about who this person is.

It’s a tight, foucsed novella with a purpose that I think I haven’t found yet. I came up with some things but I’m sure it’s not enough. Bellow is a man of big ideas and strong writing, and here his ideas are more apparent. It’s not buried under essays, unlike Herzog. Its short length will also make it friendly for re-reading. The occasional rambling style is a problem, and this can’t escape the “this is very literary, so pay attention” trap. This trap can confuse the reader more than help transmit the ideas. Still, I hope to return to this someday and find more.

3.5 stock market crashes out of 5

Jonathan Franzen – The Corrections

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There are three novels fighting for dominaton here. Two of them can have a conversation, while the third one just stands there. There’s an intimate, expansive novel of character exploration, sort of like Atonement. There’s a satirical novel where characters represent stereotypes and Franzen fools around with them. Then there’s one of those ‘hysterical realism’ novels, where the author piles on the details and goes off the deep end. He doesn’t go further enough to make it fantasy, but the weird section in Eastern Europe is far less realistic than that Planescape video game.

Perhaps if Franzen connected these three elements, I could have forgiven the swings of quality. Even if he didn’t connect the first and second novels, there’s enough common ground between them to make it feel they belong together. The third novel sticks out sorely.

Near the end of the book, we get outtakes from a DBC Pierre novel. Franzen hinted it would come to this at the beginning, but dropping it for 300 pages felt like it was because he knew it was hopeless. The decision to start the whole thing is consistent with the character making it, but not with the mood of the novel. Alarm bells dropped the bass when he made that decision, and I could see him turning from a live-action actor to a cartoon.

We’re only given the climax of this arc, which is good. There is something funny and amusing about the idea of putting a country at the stock market, but Franzen establishes himself as a person who writes about characters, not about society’s workings. The climax just shows us the result of this fiasco, which is a dragged out action scene that you could find on any Mystery novel.

This failure doesn’t seem so bad as what comes before it. The idea was doomed from the first line, anyway. Seeing that it’s not that bad is actually fun. It’s the biography of Denise that comes before where Franzen drops the ball at what he does best. Like a lot of male authors, he thinks that females see a random guy, decide they’re attracted to him, and immidiatley have sex. I don’t think that Friend Zone would have been such a big thing if this were real. This is an important part of Denise’s story, and that it makes it worse.

It can’t be anything else other than Franzen’s sex fantasy. It’s the one part he writes like a teenager too busy reading GameSpot to read The Red Pill. Whenever Franzen deals to other topics where he could make a clown out of himself, like lesbian sex or a bladder out of control, he maintains his dignity. The few lesbians scene here are completely different. They make sense for the characters. They don’t just land on them. We see the progress towards sex. When they do get into bed, it’s mostly to show us the dynamic of the relationship.

When Franzen goes scatological, he also displays a maturity so rare you forget we’re dealing with shit and piss. Whenever Alfred loses control of his bladder, the focus is not that there’s piss and that it’s dirty, but how it affects the characters’ lives. Franzen writes it not as the punchline to a joke or as material to captute the attention after so many boring pages, but as a natural part of life.

The best display of Franzen’s skills is at the last 100 pages. The Eastern Europe thing is over, and the arc with the Axon corporation which is gibberish is also done with. Franzen gets all his main characters in one room, and he shines. He jumps from satire to intimacy sometimes jarringly, but he hits the mark at both. His characters feel human and real. They’re messed up and pretty awful to each other, but they each function out of a coherent philosophy. He makes fun both of Enid’s refusal to get back in reality, but gives us plenty of moments to feel compassion for her. Alfred is at once a close-minded douchebag, and a person who just wants to be left alone. Gary is at once responsible, active, and hard working. He’s also sometimes completely blind to other people’s feelings.

If only The Corrections focused on this for all its length. Maybe Franzen should have just chopped half the book and chucked it. The long digression to explain to us all about the economy and Axon corporations and stock market stock market stock market are gibberish. That part could’ve been written in ancient Rapa Nui langauge, and the last 100 pages would still be just as meaningful.

It may have something to do with Franzen’s weak prose. He’s better at creating characters than McEwan, but his writing is much weaker. McEwan always writes like every line is full of meaning, even when the line ends as a gigantic non-sequiter. Franzen’s prose is dull and bumbles like a gorilla in a glassware shop. It’s not too bad when he has the content, but when he tries to write like what people hate about Thomas Pynchon and William Gass, you think maybe they should sue him for defamation.

The Correction is another typical canonical novel. There are brilliant parts, particularly at the end and the beginning. There are awful parts, especially the whole middle. How much it was worth, I’m not sure. The last pages were brilliant, but it took me a long time to burn through the middle. The last time I took such a break in reading was when I read the Game of Thrones series. Now that’s an awful book. This one is much better.

3 deranged families out of 5