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

Texhnolyze

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To call Texhnolyze one of the most predictable stories is an understatement. The only expectation it defied was the exepctation to be worthwhile. Other than that, this is your typical artsy anime. It beats you over the head with how artsy it is, using techniques that distinguishes it from mainstream anime. None of these techniques distinguishes it from the many ‘artistic’ stories out there. It often looks like an immature, more angsty little brother of Blade Runner or Eraserhead.

Is there a more redundant way to inform your audience that your story is serious by having grey colours and serious characters? Nolan used the same technique in Inception and made a complete fool of himself. He was so focused on being serious that hsi dreams looked like Michael Bay directed them.

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The anime doesn’t follow an idea of its own. The directors behind it watched a bunch of art house films, noticed the lack of dialogue in Blade Runner and decided that this is the reason it got the acclaim.

Being serious isn’t going to make me take your story seriously. Halfway through the series and all the characters still act the same. They all present the same variation of the stoic, apathetic characters. Some are less stoic than others, but that’s like saying there’s a major difference between New York Hardcore and Beatdown Hardcore. They more similar than they are different.

After 20 episodes, the 100th shot of Ichise’s indifferent, emotionless face is hilarious. It reeks of trying too hard. Is the life of people in harsh environments like this? Did the Jews in the Holocaust or the fighters in Sudan had time to just stare off into the distant with a stoic face?

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Think of any photograph of a war-torned or poverty-stricked place. Do the people have the privilege of being stoic? No. These photographs are harrowing because they’re full of pain and suffering. These are people who want life and struggle to survive, to find some kind of joy in it. Stories from Holocaust survivors are full of these moments. They’re not stoic but swinging from one extreme painful moment to a small relief of happiness.

The only place that actually is monotonous is your office job and suburban job. Texhnolyze is full of angst, the kind your suburuban dad gets after 20 years in the same job. It’s your boring monotonous pessimism you hear from a teenager when every day is exactly the same.

Actually, comparing this to teen angst is a compliment. Teen angst is an existensial storm of ups and downs, like that Nine Inch Nails album. It can be silly but it’s exciting. Texhnolyze is macho angst. It’s the same thing that fuels Game of Thrones and Cormac McCarthy novels. The old macho fantasy of men in suits not expressing emotions is a big hit now and is often confused with depth. The only surprise is that Texhnolyze doesn’t have graphic sexual abuse (Although we do get a sexy doctor).

You cannot horrify the audience by constantly showing suffering. Humans adapt. When feel something too much we get used to it and our perspective changes. Texhnolyze has the same emotional tone throughout the series.

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Bleakness and grimdarkness cannot be leading tones. They’re too narrow. You can use them in certain scenes but unless you’re doing something especially unusual there’s nothing there. You need to contrast it with something. People don’t suffer because they don’t have something. People suffer because they don’t have something that they want.

There are plenty of tragic and dark works out there, but they’re effective because they’re aware suffering doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You don’t have to show a moment of joy. Just showing it can exist in your world is enough. I only have to skim over Serial Experiments Lain to find a shot of girls laughing in bright colors. This is enough to inform me that in the world of Lain, people can be happy.

Some moments have potential to offer contrast, but the mood suffocates it. A sex scene is in dark colors and full of dread. We see a party, but there breaks Hal’s heart. It is a flat line, which means it’s both shallow and dead.

If Texhnolyze found a unique way to express the grimdark cliche, I would have forgiven it. If it would have gone full retard in the Techno-Industrial depart it would be a little fun. While the soundtrack is nice, the scenery never reminded me of Front Line Assembly. The decay gets more focus than the mechanical nature. The focus is on the mood, rather on something that will create the mood. This is no City of Rapture.

The most radical switch from this mood is the action scenes. The anime joins BTOOOM! and Deadman Wonderland by bathing in blood and faces distorting in pain. The show already established a cold, stoic tone. When these scenes kick in, the violence isn’t harrowing. The scenes don’t reveal any pain because we were already beaten the head with pain before. So all they do is take the suffering one step further, showing it more explicitly. Someone should’ve told them that what makes pictures from the Holocaust or Unit 731 harrowing is because we know these are real people. The people in Texhnolyze aren’t real.

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There’s a revealing interview with the creators. They said these action scenes were a response to the Shounen Jump style violence, where characters walk away bleeding. The creators wanted to express ‘pain’. If they had any understanding of action films, they would have known they are not about pain. Action anime is about aestheticized violence, about making violence look really cool.

Asking what the creators wanted to communicate, they said they don’t have any idea. They admit things changed as they series went along and that’s it. He hoped that the viewer would feel some kind of empathy or that they will think ‘this might mean this’. Does that sound like a work which involved deep thought?

I did not want the creator to analyze his own work. Still, I expected them to have some kind of direction. Lynch saying he sees absurditiy and weirdness all around him is enough to give you some idea what his films try to express.

If Texhnolyze was a mess of ideas it would still be amusing. If it jumped off from one idea to the next it would at least be there. Not knowing what it’s about, instead, makes for an anime that never builds towards anything. The tone never changes, since they never know what it was about in the beginning so they had no foundation to build upon. It ends with a big battle and an antagonist who’s a rip-off on Fallout‘s The Master only without the charisma, humor and the depth.

I engaged in a long debate with hopes of finding value. While the person raised a lot of valid points and there is something here about the nature of existence and ‘being human’, it’s not conveyed. I engaged in that debate while watching the last episodes. They’re an improvement and the above-ground is a great idea, but the stoic mood and boring violence overpowered any depth there could have been. You don’t cover depth and ideas with a boring story. Your cover needs to serve the ideas, not obscure them.

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Some also told me the characters are not the point, but if this is about humanity they must be the point. You cannot have a story about human nature or existence without characters. Existence and stories don’t exist outside of characters. You can have a story without many things. You can have a story that’s just an inner monologue, but without characters the only thing you can write about is asteroids hitting planets and blowing shit up. That’s just a Michael Bay story without women.

Perhaps I’m an idiot. Perhaps there is something deeper beneath the 100 shots of apathetic and ultra macho faces. Perhaps everyone just jumps on the bandwagon of grimdark and think that if the anime has a serious tone, then we must take it seriously. I’ve experienced plenty of strange and ‘artistic’ stories. Most of them were weird enough to be interesting for a while even if they failed. Texhnolyze is a predictably artsy anime that can’t escape its trap. Even if it says something about existence or optimism, in the end it wants too much to be serious and everything is dead.

1.5 stoic faces out of 5

Markus Zusak – The Book Thief

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Do we need another Holocaust story?

The Holocaust was horrible. I doubt anyone will argue otherwise. Even those who claim it was nothing special are redundant. No massacre was as systematic and well-organized as this. The Holocaust comes with built-in emotional appeals, so you can’t blame me for being skeptic about The Book Thief. The fact that it’s for Young Adults, became popular and is narrated by Death makes everything worse. It looks like something that aims for the heart strings. It will manipulate you with tragedy and then give you some easy answer.

Only it’s not what happens. This is more like Fault in Our Stars. It’s a novel that feels like the result of harrowing research. Zusak writes like he’s trying to cope with believing that the Age of Social Catastrophe really happened. It’s not about a Holocaust. It’s about trying to come to terms with how reality shifted since WWII.

It was a nightmare. The Nazis, Pol Pot, the Russian Communism, the War – it sounds like an extinction event. It must’ve shook everyone. How does civilization continue from such a devastating event?

Zusak creates a character whose own story could somehow encompass this mess. His protagonist isn’t a Jew or a slave in the Gulag. This would make his book too specific. She’s also not a person from the highest echelon of society, for whom death was a complete shocker. Liesel is somewhere in the middle. She knows what death is and she knows what happiness is. She doesn’t know what so much death is.

Zusak wants to prod into what grief is. He’s trying to come to terms with it and while the story doesn’t rely on ass-pulled happy endings, it’s less dark than Green’s famous novel about cancer. People die and bad stuff happens, but Zusak’s attempts at staying optimism aren’t convincing. They sound like denial of tragedy rather than confronting it.

Hans’ character is the worst bit. He’s like Atticus, remaining moral and good-willing no matter how terrible things are. We don’t get a reason why he’s like this. He’s an angelic figure at reads more like Zusak convincing himself that there were good Germans,

You don’t need Jew-loving Germans to make us sympathize with them. A bolder move would be to show us the German who either bought into Nazism, or just cared only about his own skin. This would be harder to do, but more insightful. Zusak already chose to tell the story about Germans and not Jews, for a change. Despite all their power, the Nazis were the losers and their story wasn’t heard. The novel reminds us that there was more in that time period besides dying Jews and the assholes who ran the camps.

Hans is better than Atticus, though. Around the middle Zusak lets him fall like he should. In fact, Zusak puts a lot of characters through breakdowns and allows each to have his own way of coping. He doesn’t manage to create a convincing enough psychology. His characters are too quirky. They stick to their quirks rather than reveal new things about their personality. Still, he gives each of them their own way of coping. It’s hard to write a convincing psychology, but an honest attempt gives extra points.

He also avoids the trope of showing a happy life that’s followed by a tragedy. That’s easy to do. Zusak’s Himmel Street isn’t a happy world of quirky people who are happy despite being poor. It’s a world of ups and downs, childish fights, hunger and friendship. It’s often disconnected from the big story of WWII but isn’t that the point? While war goes on, people are trying to live as usual.

It’s also interesting to see a 21st century view of war applied to WWII. There are no heroes and villains in this war. It’s just people doing their job. People are afraid of bombs, but don’t care much who they’re fighting against. War is ugly, regardless of which side you on. Thankfully, Zusak doesn’t take the leap to conclude there’s a grand conspiracy at works. He avoids ranting about fat white men smoking cigars, planning to bomb children for their own amusement.

His take on Hitler though, is a mess. He obscures his view in a children’s book. It’s either a cop-out or a clever way of saying how childish it is to paint Hitler as some senseless bad guy. There are some philosophizing about words, but they don’t lead to anywhere. Books are pretty important, words have power but is war the result of the failure of words? Or can war be caused by and solved by words? Zusak knows that portraying the Nazis as hating books is a straw man. Mein Kampf is their Bible. Where does he draw the line? He raises questions but never explores them enough to help me come to answer of my own. It’s just there.

While the idea of Death narrating the story is pretty cool, it’s also not used to its advantage. Death’s tone is interesting. Current Western society (and a lot of cultures in general) despise death and view it as the most terrible thing. Check the panic around the idea that everyone has the right to die. Death’s tone is not cruel but almost detached. It’s a sad inevitability that we must accept.

There’s not much insight beyond this. Death is a psychopomp, but not much else. It’s not even a new spin. The problem is that death is presented as this general thing. There are various causes of death and we treat each of them differently. It would be better if Zusak used this to make Death more complex. Suicide, war, old age – we react differently to those deaths. Digimon Tamers gave us an original spin by personoficating suicide specifically. Zusak had a chance to portray all kinds of deaths, but instead it’s monolithic.

The stylized prose also doesn’t always work. Zusak knows what he wants. He’s trying to be poetic by creating a rhythm and separaitng paragraphs. His descriptions are sensual and not precise. Cliches still attack him. The weather is always mentioned, which is such a redundant technique that it doesn’t matter how much purpose it has. The poetic style also often leads to more telling than showing. While there are interesting reactions to disaster, in general the characters don’t have enough to do. We’re being told about them, and they end up more quirky than humane.

It would’ve worked if Zusak was more determined what kind of book this was. If the whole thing was supposed to be pseudo-poetic all the way, then the occasional ‘manipulative’ moment could be excused. If your whole story is one large poem, everything will probably be exaggarated and an angelic figure like Hans would be easier to swallow. Too often the poetic stylings cover up the characters instead of revealing them.

It’s an interesting enough book that doesn’t justify the hype, but doesn’t deserve to be lumped as another brain-dead best seller. It resorts to failed tricks as much as it has original ideas. It reads more like an interesting experiment by a writer who has a great book in him, rather than a hack who can only pull the heart strings. Hopefully, the sales will make Zusak take his craft more seriously.

3 stolen books out of 5

Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Is this novel really about Black people?

Can a Black person write a novel whose novel about a character who happens to be dark-skinned, and make it about things other than the Experience of Living as an African-American? It’s pretty racist to expect every book written by a Black to be about this. They have more in their life than just being dark-skinned. Women can also write about things that are not Being a Woman.

I’m not American, so I may have missed the part where it revealed truths about the African-American Experience. Then again, I didn’t miss it in that Chinua Achebe novel. What drives the story, the grand theme that connects it is love.

People often ask what is love (no references to the song please). The novel is an examination of that idea. It’s not an easy question. A Jewish proverb claims that not disciplining your son equals hate. It’s often a defense of hitting your kids.

Nanny thinks that mere survival is enough for happiness. She’s the mom who pushes her son to make sure he’ll have enough money to survive, which she defines as ‘rich’. The problem is, humans often need some sort of reason to survive. There are also other ways to survive other than being rich.

Some think love is protection. Yet protection can often slip into prevention. We all know these protective parents who think keeping their children away from things is good parenting. Then their kids reach their 20’s with depression and having no idea where to go. Joe Starks had good intentions. He did love and tried hard to make Janie happy, yet how could she happy if she’s being kept away from life?

This examination ends with Tea Cake. Tea Cake is a character whose role often feels like wish-fulfillment. He’s almost an ideal. There’s a wifebeating thing going on, but it’s addressed and then pushed away. Whether it’s pushed away because they didn’t take it seriously back then, or because Zora forgives Tea Cake is unclear. He doesn’t have a major flaw, but the pushing away goes in Janie’s head. She pushes it away because she was raised in a society where women are second class and she can’t think in any other way.

Janie is a little better. This is where Zora resembles other feminist writers. Then again, race is a pseudoscientific idea while sex is biological, so it’ll be harder to escape it. Janie isn’t a 3rd-waver who travelled back in time. She wants the ordinary dreams of loving husband who’ll define her world.

You can’t expect her to want anything else since that’s all she knows. What Zora recognizes is that you can still give this character an agency. Janie’s life may revolve around husbands, but she never gives up on looking for the husband that suits her. There’s a reason behind every action she does, even if she realizes it was wrong.

This adds some realism, but Zora doesn’t do enough with it. When Tea Cake appears, all development stops. The romance scenes are well-written but the only conclusion is a tragedy that comes out of nowhere. Too many realist authors add a surprising disaster for the climax. Something is happening, but it’s disconnected from what the story is about. Since Zora doesn’t deal with the randomness of tragedy, the climax only exists to be climatic.

It’s weird to see Zora descends into this cliche. Up until then she’s a talented author. The dialect prose takes some time to get used to, but it’s not used to obscure the dialogue. She manages to give different characters their own speech patterns. The men’s ‘I love you’ monologues are dead-on. Every time a character explains themselves, even when they’re obviously wrong their dialogue makes it clear they see themselves in the right. No one comes off as a caricature.

Zora’s prose is also pretty. It’s poetic, but precise. Her description of the disaster are a highlight. The disaster may have been pointless, but the scene is powerful enough because Zora’s description focuses on how it feels like, rather than give a shopping list of what happens. All her descriptions rely on pointing out the unique details that define a scene. The prose also has a great rhythm. The title comes from a paragraph in the novel, not a poem. If this is supposed to be an influence from the oral tradition, it’s more convincing than Chinua Achebe’s novel.

It’s an enjoyable novel. It’s well-written and realistic enough. Zora avoids the main pitfalls of realism – structurless events and dull characters most of the way. Her poetic prose is pretty and helps to emphasize the reality, rather than exaggerate it too much. She fails in conclusing her ideas, and only her good prose carries the ending. It’s good, but not very remarkable.

3 eyes on God out of 5

Bernard Malamud – The Assisstant

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Bernard Malamud wrote a classic. He must have wrote one. There are too many good things in The Assistant. At its best, it’s a novel that gets why novels work. It’s a story primarily driven by the characters that still has a plot, instead of just a string of bad mornings. Malamud gets close to every character, and just when you think he wrote a villain he pulls back the mask to show us it’s a human.

He just had to spend so much time on inner monologues instead of showing.

If the novel was written by Raymond Carver, it’d be brilliant. Malamud writes the same kind of story Carver writes, but he fixes Carveer’s weakness. Despite being responsible for some of the best prose, Carver occasionally failed at plotting. Malamud manages to get the same intimacy of Carver’s writing while having a sequence of events that lead to a conclusion, instead of just a really nice closing sentence.

Malamud also knows that a plot shouldn’t be a series of hoops for the characters to jump through. Every event that helps push it forward has something to do with the characters. Malamud puts these events to challenge his character’s worldviews and see how they react to them. He even took the ‘dramatic death’ and found a way for it to merge with the story. He doesn’t pull them out of his sleeve whenever he’s worried that ‘nothing happens’.

It’s so good that it just emphasizes how useless these monologues are. Frank Alpine’s repetitive behavior of sin and redemption is clear enough. There are enough events to illustrate this. They make some of the best moments of the book. Malamud nails what it’s like to be a person so driven by good intentions. Frank wants to be, above all, a good person. He may try to achieve that by helping others, but in the end it’s a self-centered worldview. Whether you want to be a powerful or a good person, you are still the focus.

Alpine’s biggest mistakes are whenever he completely succumbs to this selfishness. He does plenty of less-than-worshipful things. Since he’s so focused on being a good person, he thinks that by trying enough he could get away with stealing and stalking. He doesn’t. If your aim in life is to be a good person by helping others, you’ll never be. The center of this worldview is still you.

Like Carver, Malamud also has the talent of describing the dull. The people in this story are ordinary working class people. They’re poor, but it’s a dull poverity. They will never go through enough to become gangsta rappers. Whenever Malamud tells what’s going on in an ordinary day at the grocery, he writes a perfect description of the emotional state. These are people who are living in the monotony that doesn’t get better. They have little, but they still have too much to lose in order to throw at themselves at something.

With such a talent, why are there so many pages inside the character’s head?

Maybe Malamud needed to pad the novel. Maybe he didn’t want this to be a novella. He could have at least padded with dialogues, or more scenes at the grocery. All the monologues about redemption and love just tell us what we already know. Since they’re not written in first-person and the language can’t help us the understand the characters any better, he just beats ideas to the ground that he really doesn’t have to.

There’s a good story and some lessons to learn from The Assistant. It’s a good novel, but it reads more like a talented author operating just in first gear. If you already went over Selby and Carver and need more, read this. If not, get to Carver quickly.

3 milk bottles out of 5