Thomas Ligotti – Grimscribe

 

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Note that I read this collection immediately after Songs of a Dead Dreamer since they were bundled together. It’s possible that many of the negatives come from reading 440 big pages of Ligotti prose. Then again, I survived a longer book with prose more purple and the result was a novel so fantastic, I think it’s required reading for anyone who wants to understand existence and other big ideas.

Ligotti has an odd problem with prose. Generally authors who rely on prose to deliver good fiction do it because their stories are short on content. They need an interesting frames for the story, since ordinary prose will just end up dull. Worse, some of them don’t have any events at all. DeLillo is a good example of this problem. His later work has fantastic prose that goes nowhere.

Ligotti has the potential to become a prose-centric writer, filling pages with beautiful, atmospheric words that only have aesthetic value. Yet the stories demand something else. This brand of horror is both unique and deep. Horror exists in the whole fabric of existence. Anywhere the characters look there is something frightening and hidden.

It’s still effective since it’s rooted in actual philosophy. Just like the previosu collection, these stories express the pessimistic being and what it’s like. What idiots call ‘clinical depression’ is actually seeing the darkness of the world. If you’ve been diagnosed as ‘depressed’, it’s possible your reality is closer to what Ligotti protrays here – unstable, hostile, not really caring about you and beyond your control. The idea of clinical depression is just a way for us to hide from these horrors and pretend they don’t exist.

Some will find this darkness suffocating, but he still has enough set-pieces to explore these darkness. While the running motif is hostile things unseen and generally everything being a mess, it comes in different forms. The last story breaks away from the protagonist-centric narrative and lets a collective ‘we’ to tell the story, creating a sense of suffocating horror that affects everyone. Other stories deal with abandoned places (“The Night School”) and others with forbidden information (“Nethescurial”). Diving the book into sections is a smart idea, since it shows the distinction between these stories. Since horror for Ligotti is everywhere, he has to show it in various places.

Where he fails is that the prose is too monotone. Very few stories deviate from the general mood of depression ‘n’ horror. “The Cocoons” is a short, punchy story where for a change Ligotti slips a joke or two. Taking his style to the direction of absurd and black humor, the result is quite great both as a joke and a narrative. If only he would let himself laugh a bit more. I share his pessimistic views, but nothing wrong with a few chuckles. Elsewhere “Nethescurial”‘s journal of research is a different structure and the closing stories uses the plurarl-first-person narrative that gives it a more engulfing mood.

Other than that, the prose is the same across the stories. It only changes whether the descriptions are more gothic or slightly more personal, but it’s not enough. Worse, this prose is very purple and beautiful. It becomes the center of the story and overpowers the set-pieces. That may be fine when you deal with ever-shifting realities that work like hallucinations, but without variety of tones we keep seeing the same hallucinations

I often forgot the name of the story I was reading and didn’t notice how many stories were behind me. Paragraphs blurred together into one big mess of beautiful, horrifying reality. At some point it become self-parodic not becuase it degenerated in quality but because my head was bludgeoned with this prose. You can only read sentences about how everything looked like human organs and that there are things in the shadows before you get tired. Separate the stories from the collection and I’m sure they’ll be great. Read them together and they get blurred like the reality inside them. I don’t want to think what “Last Feast” would read like if it were in the middle.

Such reliance on prose that dominates the book, suffocates everything and leaves nothing but itself means it has to be good. Else, the collection will fall apart. Thankfully it’s just as distinctive as the previous collection, if not better. In the previous collection the prose sometimes meandered to generic territory. It had a unique tone that overlayed standard prose. Here, Ligotti goes full-on dark psychedelia. Often it reads like creepy poetry and makes you wonder why he doesn’t try his hand at it, since you can craft great pieces out of here. Quotables lines are everywhere and anyone who needs lyrics for his depressed kind-of Gothic Country should find enough lines here.

In retrospect, there were many highlights and the stories are more sprawling and developed. “The Last Feast” is the best story here, mainly because its story involves more concrete material rather than hallucination-esque visions. It also dives headfirst into Ligotti’s antinatalism. “The Cocoons” offers a bit of much needed humor and is his personal attack on the profession of medicine. While it’s not an in-depth critique (unlike “The Last Feast”), its purpose was to be pulpy and punchy anyway. “The Dreaming in Nortown” is the scariest of the bunch. Most stories here feature some kind of power balance, even if the powerful side is just a supernatural force. In that story there is really no order, just following an insane man in his trip through town that eventually leads nowhere.

It’s still an excellent collection and anyone who understands horror must read this. Someday I’ll re-read it without Songs being fresh in my mind and maybe the highlights, the little details and something deeper will rise. Ligotti remains a fantastic prose stylist who understands his genre and has a unique voice. Even at his worst there is something to learn here.

3.5 shadows out of 5

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Ernest Hemingway – Men Without Women

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Hemingway is a fascinating character. Many tell stories, but Hemingway lived in an epic poem. He traveled the worlds, participated in wars, hunted, fished, went through four marriages only to commit suicide. If I needed source material for an epic tragedy, I wouldn’t need to look further. I wouldn’t even need to add themes – masculinity, romance and war are constant themes in Hemingway’s life. This fascinating Hemingway is the only good thing about Men Without Women.

Nowadays, Hemingway’s prose reads more like a parody of realism. He didn’t understand the purpose of it. When he talks about his Iceberg Theory, he talks about hiding things from the reader. Yet holding back information isn’t good storytelling. It’s how cheap thrillers keep us hooked by hinting that if we invest more time, a revelation will come. The purpose of minimalism is to reveal using few words.

Carver came years later and saw it through. When you read Carver, you don’t need to dig deep to find buried ideas. Rather, Carver’s bare prose makes everything float up to the surface. If something is hidden or implied, it means that the mere fact of it being hidden is important. At the end of “One More Thing”, Carver tells us the man doesn’t know what to say. That’s enough to show us how confused, how broken that man is. If Hemingway wrote that story, it would end with “The Man said.”, as if not telling the reader what he said is somehow more profound than showing the man is at loss for words.

These aren’t stories of beginnings, middles and conclusions. They’re snapshots of life, which is fine. “In Another Country” is a story that goes nowhere, but it’s so lifelike. That story must be close to him since it deals with war wounds. He’s not worried about being obvious there, but just let the images stand on their own. In it, there are machines that are supposed to cure body problems. Despite being the first of their kind, there are images of before-and-after. It’s not a complex image and perhaps not a very subtle one, but it’s more powerful than anything here.

“Hills Like White Elephants”, perhaps the most famous story here both shows where the style works and where it generally fails. It’s routinely praised for only implying it’s about abortion instead of saying it, but what’s the point? If you insert the word ‘abortion’ there, would it change the story drastically? Often that word dies to appear on the page, especially if you read an analysis of it. Hemingway writes it while struggling not to mention it for fear of being obvious. It’s like a band who stumbles upon a great melody, but repeats it only once in fear of being ‘poppy’ or ‘mainstream’.

This isn’t being concerned with literary quality, but with literary image. A story that aims for critically-approved traits like subtlety and depth misses the whole point. Even if you do switch the word ‘operation’ with ‘abortion’, the story would remain excellent. It’s really about a couple who reached a stumbling block in their relationship and don’t know where to go. There’s a reason they spend the whole story in a train station.

If you found his dialogue stiff and repetitive before, it’s even more so here. Some stories have sections like a broken record. “The Killers”, an otherwise excellent expression of fear of organized crime, has at least a page worth of unnecessary dialogue. Whenever Hemingway slips into this, you can feel him dying to say something but too afraid of ruining his image. He’s not completely awful in his style of omission. He said he left out the whole Chicago thing from the story and that’s a wise decision since namedropping the city wouldn’t add anything. Organized crime is scary regardless of where you’re at, but killers who repeat the same words ad nausam just don’t make sense.

Across his books, Hemingway’s flaws are as repetitive as the dialogue. Yet I keep reading because there’s something beating here. Discovering Hemingway lead an epic life isn’t surprising once you read a few pieces of prose by him. There’s distress, a desire for more, an obsession with concepts that fuels great people. It’s also not surprising Hemingway killed himself. Literature was an outlet for his troubles, but he couldn’t let it out.

Again, his Iceberg Theory stabs him in the back. Being a stereotypical man means bottling up your emotions and going fishing. Men are supposed to be tough and invulnerable. A vulnerable man can’t protect your children, after all. The stories try to dig into these masculine troubles, but end up conforming to stereotypes instead of breaking them.

The troubles are distinctly masculine. Violence and heartbreak often plague our characters. The violence is either for glory or for survival. As for women, their role is to provide a respite from this life. Perhaps that’s why the man in “Hills Like White Elephants” is so vague, anxious both to make the abortion and telling her she should choose. He’s afraid of losing her because if she’s gone, all he will have left is bullfighting and war. There’s glory in bullfighting and connection when you’re at war with your buddies, but these things can also be your downfall. Then again, in Hemingway’s stories women can also be the downfall.

Downfall is always around the corner, but the sense of dread which the characters feel never surfaces. Hemingway wants to imply so much that the stories feel like a person opening up about his break-up, only to shut up once he talks about the real reason. You, as a listener, is being teased and your curiosity isn’t satisfied. The person who needs a good talk is too afraid to speak, so he doesn’t get any help. The best stories here are “In Another Country” and “Now I Lay Me”. Hemingway lets himself go in these. There’s a bit more telling, but the emotional punch of them is powerful. Both can slot nicely into a Carver collection without a change in quality. The worst story is “The Undefeated”, where Hemingway flexes his jargon and ruins what could’ve been a beautiful story.

Don’t read Hemingway to say you’re reading the canon. Read Hemingway because you’re interested in his personality. None of his books that I’ve read are truly great (I’m yet to reach Bell though) but they each expand on his unique personality. If you find Hemingway an interesting enough person, read this. It’s not good, but like anything else he wrote it’s an essential piece of the puzzle.

2.5 men out of 5 women

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 – Wilderness Tips

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At its worst, Wilderness Tips suffers from Atwood’s most common flaw. Although she’s blessed with intelligence that never gets in the way of her stories, there is always a little too much distance between the reader and the characters. That’s an odd complaint, considering the book’s genre. Compare it to Raymond Carver, and Atwood has better characters yet doesn’t create as much sympathy.

It’s odd. It should be the opposite. The close look at people in all their glorious flaws should make us feel closer to them. Atwood isn’t shy of the first person narrative. Yet it’s the same case with every Atwood book – its emotional impact is always a little low compared to the intellectual side of things. Then again, there are some brilliant stories here and it’s a prime example of how realist fiction should be done. So Atwood couldn’t get around her tiny flaw here, but it doesn’t matter when everything else is so brilliant.

Short story collections can be hard to review. They’re not music albums. They’re often written over a long span of times. They tend to contain experiments and snippets. For many authors, short story collections are B-Sides & Rarities – odd pieces of prose that are interesting for the die-hard fan, but don’t go anywhere and don’t really ‘conclude’.

The latter part is important. Even if you’re a great short story writer, why are all of these stories packed together? In music albums, you often have an overarching sound connecting it all. Great albums also have good sequencing, with songs sounding better in their place in the tracklist. Wilderness Tips isn’t so good that it starts with a bangs and concludes, but it’s a masterwork of a genre. That alone is enough to make it feel like a complete work, instead of just assorted prose for the diehards.

‘Realism’ is an annoying word to use when discussing fiction. It’s also necessary, which makes it more annoying. No one actually has any access to what reality is. It’s the Map and Territory situation. You perceive parts of reality, but never all of it. So how can humans write something ‘realistic’ when they only perceive a very tiny part of reality? Keep in mind that fiction deals with the most unstable aspect with reality – humans, their relationship and how they experience the world.

Some opt for a dry, ‘nothing ever happens’ style to inform the reader it’s realistic. That’s basically a cop-out for people who aren’t imaginative enough or too insecure. The ideal technique for realistic fiction is to steal stories directly from reality itself, and always be aware every story has as many sides as it has characters. I don’t know how many of these stories are based on true cases, but Atwood’s portrayal of relationships has always been brilliant. Here, she’s in top form.

I wish I had Atwood to help with me with relationships. She never slides into strawmen or caricatures. Her men and women aren’t heroes and villains, but flawed people. Sometimes their flaws make them easy to manipulate or abuse. Sometimes their flaws lead them to abuse or be terrible to others. With great understanding comes great pessimism, though. All over these stories is disenchantment and cynicism towards the idea of romance and sexuality.

It’s not so much that Atwood is a rowdy feminist out to castrate men. Women can a lot of flak too. Many of them are attracted to married men and work on starting an affair. The crucial thing Atwood focuses on is that every relationship has two participants. It’s never one person doing things to the other. Affairs aren’t just sluts seducing innocent men, or men being pigs. Both sides choose to do it.

Some relationships are abusive, though. Some people are assholes and only them are to blame for what they do to others. In these stories we see what pessimism is truly like. The assholes are never evil caricatures, rapists in the dark or hot young gaslighters. It’s easy to understand why they do it and that includes the backstabber in “Uncles”. What’s more horrifying than the act itself is their humanity. Atwood knows evil people don’t come from outerspace, kill people for the fuck of it and get blasted by dudes with sixpacks. What drove them to that behavior can also drive her or me or you or anyone of us.

The best story here is perhaps the aforementioned “Uncles”. While Atwood’s feminism and exploration of women’s position in society isn’t huge here – women are the main characters mainly because Atwood is a woman – that story explores it brilliantly. Again, it’s about showing the two sides of things. This time it’s about the relationship with a beautiful, perfect person who’s used to approval. I’ve met those. Women who are pretty can have it very easy in life, especially if they develop a few skills. Their good looks already means people are nicer to them.

People are jealous of you when you’re successful. The jealousy is even harsher when your luck is obvious. Everyone is successful mostly because of luck, but the Beautiful People’s type of luck is so obvious it’s excruciating. We also all know that our love for the Beautiful People is what gives them their success. We’re to blame. One way to deal with jealousy is to demonize the successful, disregard their successes or assume their feelings aren’t worthwhile. They’re so successful, so who cares if we humiliate them? It mirrors things I’ve seen in real life.

There’s also enough variety in tone and prose style to prevent this from becoming variations on a style. The hard realism and theme of relationships allow Atwood to experiment with story structures and styles without causing any disconnection between the stories. It’s the most versatile I’ve seen Atwood yet. Some stories have a more poetic, somber tone to them. Others like “Hairball” have jumpy prose that’s unlike anything she’s written. Sometimes she apes Carver completely with hard, dry prose. The tone is always appropriate for the stories, too. This variety helps to reinforce the realism. People experience reality differently. If all your stories are written in the same way, you’re too narrow for reality.

Wilderness Tips is an excellent short story collection. The only flaw is the slightly disappointing closer (“Hack Wednesday”) and the distance Atwood can’t rid of. Still, at its best this is how realist fiction should be. The events are exciting. There’s always a feeling of uneasiness and unstability which define reality. People are flawed human beings, sometimes weak or evil or talented but they’re always human. The stories also conclude more than they just end hanging in the middle of things. No one writes prose like Carver, but this is where I’ll direct people if they want to understand realist fiction.

3.5 tips 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