Sunday, April 19, 2009

Interview with Maud Newton

Many of your reviews have emphasized the brutality and deprivation of the characters’ lives, and rightly so, but what is even more extraordinary about The Book of Night Women, to me at least, is the tormented romance that drives the last third of the story. Two characters fall into a twisted and passionate affair that sometimes seems like love, but never really can be. The relationship is at least as gripping as what happens between Mr. Rochester and Jane Eyre but fundamentally doomed. Was it difficult to write?

Oh my god it was the hardest thing I’ve ever written in my life. I remember calling friends shouting, “I just wrote a love scene! All they do is kiss!” to which they would respond, “. . . and are they then dismembered?” and I’d go, “No, after that they dance!” It was hard. I resisted it for as long as I could because I didn’t believe in it at first, and even when I did, I couldn’t figure out how to write it. Not until Irish novelist Colum McCann gave me permission by giving me the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten from a writer: Risk Sentimentality.

There’s a belief that sex is the hardest thing for a literary novelist but I disagree: love is. We’re so scared of descending into mush that I think we end up with a just-as-bad opposite, love stories devoid of any emotional quality. But love can work in so many ways without having to resort to that word. Someone once scared me by saying that love isn’t saying “I love you” but calling to say “did you eat?” (And then proceeded to ask me this for the next 6 months). My point being that, in this novel at least, relationships come not through words, but gestures like the overseer wanting to cuddle. Or rubbing his belly and hollering about her cooking, or teaching her how to dance or ride a horse — things reserved for white women.

Read the rest here:

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

On Joss

My film snob friends hate when in any their given flights of utter film snobbery I point out that TV had been whipping celluloid’s ass for years, at least from 1995-2005. And while they get testy enough when I deploy my argument, they are outraged when I present my evidence. That would be one TV show in particular, the only show I can remember that often left me breathless and in wonder, or put another way, the only show that without fail had at least once instant each episode that had me saying I wish I wrote that. Not The Sopranos, or Six Feet Under, or Law and Order, or even The West Wing, but Buffy the Vampire Slayer. By Joss Whedon.

Joss Whedon. I’m still trying to figure out how he does it. While misguided telesnobs who gushed at mopeshows like Felicity or watched The West Wing because it made them feel intelligent for watching it, snickered at a show named Buffy, I was witness to the finest tale spinner in America do his work. I initially resisted the show myself; half remembering the vapid movie it came from, but gave it a chance because, like everybody else who watched the WB, I loved watching pretty people go through all kinds of distress. I even stayed around as the show floundered a bit until it hit upon its breathless stride (that would be the third season, people).
There’s nothing I can say about Buffy The Vampire Slayer that Time Magazine hasn't said already, except that I’m sure that its mix of fun and fright, camp and tragedy, butt kicking fun and overwhelming sadness, probably affected each fan in its own individual way. Add to that an overall dread that was damn near existential for what many still dismissed as a filmed comic.

Buffy was about a super-powered blonde babe that killed vampires and kicked major ass. You could have watched it on those terms alone and still be watching one of the smartest shows on TV. But Whedon wouldn’t be Whedon had he not defied his own stereotype. He never uses bloodsuckers or life drainers to show that, The Matrix would have like, so rocked if it had like vampires and stuff (Blade, Underworld), nor does he use them because he really wants to write about man-man love (Lestat), nor does he wants teenage girls to slip a chastity belt under that skirt from TJ Maxx (Twilight). Whedon uses the fantastical almost as a trick, a ruse to get to the emotional core of the lonely American teenager, whose life is neither Theo Huxtable good nor Holden Caulfield bad, but better and worse at once. More often then not, they are force-fed maturity, not from parents that either over or under raise them but from life forces that our seemingly invincible parents cannot control, whether it’s the Goddess Glorificus or something more shocking, like a sudden same sex crush. Buffy’s boldness came from suggesting that they were one and the same thing or at least troubling allegories standing in place for each other. And unlike My So Called life, but like many teenagers in the real world, Buffy didn’t have time to make an epic tragedy out of her whining and moping because whether it was her choice or not, she had shit to do.

Because of it fantastical premise, Buffy had no choice but to get to gut truths. When her mother died, not through Vampire bite or demon life force drainage, but a massive brain hemorrhage the shock came from the thoroughly plausible. The show yanked itself into reality before the audience did, showing us that we were the ones in a fantasyland, thinking death worked on our terms. It was a hard lesson for Buffy but it felt like a harder lesson for us, a reminder that death was an indiscriminate monster that struck anybody at will and any time. It took those you love at random and there was not a single thing you could do about it. Here was a TV show that locked in an hour what we’d prefer to never do in life. Witness the shock and dismay over Natasha Richardson’s sudden death.

But I mention death because, weirdly enough it’s not the monsters and demons or gamma rays, or his characters’ tendency to slip into song that makes Whedon great but death, or rather grief. Even his lightest moments seem to hint at shades of grey on the horizon. I’m talking about Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog the most fun I’ve had in years on a TV show not named Burn Notice. If you still watch an actual TV set, you’ve probably missed it, so you’re missing the several things that Whedon does very well.

Dr. Horrible, like The Brain (in Pinky and the Brain) is a monomaniac mad scientist hell bent on taking over the world. But wait! He’s not mad around the edges, just a horribly lonely fan boy wishing somebody would love him back for once, that girl at the Laundromat in particular. Horrible is an archetype to be sure, and not an original one, but Whedon has a way with the sociopathic loser, a way with engendering them with so much pathos, that you almost root for them even if they are, well despicable. He’s had practice: perhaps Buffy’s greatest creation was eurotrash vampire Spike, a villain in the first few seasons, a hero in the last few, a brutal bloodsucker who feared he had a heart long before cosmic forces gave him one. But I digress. Once you get past Dr. Horrible’s near constant sing-alongs, all as inexplicable as they are irresistible, (And why should you get past them anyway? It boggles the mind that Broadway hasn’t snapped him up yet), just as you are about to dismiss them as another deployment of kitsch, the show slays with heart. Just as you're about to be overwhelmed by sentiment the scene punctures itself with ribald humour or more often overwhelming tragedy. He may be the best Dickensian that we’ve got.

Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog is clearly ridiculous, if for no other reason than the real world is right there sharing the same screen space. People are getting on with their lives and Dr. Horrible and Captain Hammer may be inhabiting a world purely of their own deluded making. It’s also clearly buoyed by the web’s lack of restrictions. Even the buff (in his mind) Captain Hammer, knows his name is a penis joke; except it’s about his penis and he’s sure he has the last laugh. Dr. Horrible turns out to be one that truly loves the damsel in laundry distress, while Captain Horrible is the horrible poon hound. But wait! Captain Hammer is just a dick. Dr. Horrible is a genuine sociopath. Credit Whedon for not making even simple characters simplistic. Whedon knew what he was doing casting the impossible not to love, Neil Patrick Harris in the title role. He can sing too.

Dr. Horrible VS. Captain Hammer. It’s a showdown of minor proportions, fated from the get-go. Whedon laces the torment with the best show tunes not in Spring Awakening. But Whedon cut his teeth writing about young American erotic torment— with apropos soundtrack, so this is almost hackwork for the likes of him. Then the damsel dies. From Dr. Horrible’s stun-now-set-to-kill ray gun. Fired not by him of course but by Captain Hammer trying to kill the Horrible one. Either way the damage is done and we’re led to another Whedon specialty: taking the basically innocent person down his or her own heart of darkness. You’re horrified and choked up at the same time, especially when you realize as I do often, that Whedon is really the only writer that can do this. How does he bring such affecting tenderness out of sometimes despicable people? How exactly does he counter balance comedy and sadness and why does he trust us to go along with both at the same time in the same show? And why can’t Judd Apatow or whoever writes Supernatural get better at this?

Granted I am a fanboy and a nerd. So much of a nerd that I can still tell you what happened in issue 339 of Thor (Beta-Ray Bill, bitches!). If Freaks and Geeks turned you off or you’re not wetting yourself over the Star Trek trailer, then this may not be the TV show for you. Even if you are ready for the best show tunes that you don’t have to be gay to love, you might still watch it the way everybody in New York listened to Scissor Sister’s debut: in secret, on headphones. Or you may shut it out altogether. Your loss. The most wondrous show on television is happening and your life is so much the poorer if it’s happening without you. I still wish I wrote books the way Whedon writes TV. If for nothing else, then for this: Everything you hate about yourself before you see an episode of any Whedon show (thought the jury’s still out on The Dollhouse) turns into everything you love about yourself after.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Bigots On My Bookshelf

“Her racial attitudes were uncharitable at best, and they showed up in her work.” It’s just a sentence but nothing has disturbed me more all week. It was in the Janet Maslin’s review of Flannery, Brad Gooch’s biography of Southern storyteller, Flannery O’Connor (NY Times, February 22, 2009). Even before I read her short stories or Wiseblood, I loved the idea of O’Connor; another writer from the south who even though writing about a specific region of America unfamiliar to most Americans, nailed a universal condition that the post colonial West Indian, The post Stalin Russian and the post (if you were lucky) dictatorship Latin American could all identify with. Had any other 20th century author so flirted with 19th century Gothic and still managed such a profoundly contemporary worldview? And yet here I was, seriously considering getting rid of her books.

It’s an old argument but not a tired one. What should a black reader do if he finds out that one of his favourite authors was racist? I made that question specific, because it’s too easy to weaken the idea by broadening it with something like, “what if an author/poet/artist/ musician turned out to have done something or believe in something that was anti you? What if he hated Jews? Indians? What if he used to hit women? Do we forget the artist and look at the art? After all, isn’t the reverse just another way that we read writers and not books? These questions are all valid, but who feels it knows it and it’s easy to dismiss a writer’s bigotry (alleged or no) when you’re not the one being bigoted against. It’s easy to look past a homophobic genius like Dylan Thomas if you’re not a homosexual.

It was easy to erase any trace of Jack London from my house after I heard his remarks about Jack Johnson. I had my doubts about Faulkner until I came upon him addressing those very doubts, in Ebony Magazine no less. O’Connor would be hard to ditch, but the world of literature is just too vast, too top heavy with brilliance for me not to find another heroine, and Nadine Gordimer is better any way. But as I said before, who feels it knows it. I wonder if I’m a hypocrite. Sure my shelves are free of Jack London because he might have hated blacks, but I have 7 novels from Knut Hamsun, a Norwegian writer so in love with the Nazi Party that he gave Joseph Goebbels his own Nobel medal. By ditching O’Connor and keeping Hamsun I become a hypocrite. Or at the very least I render near everything in the previous two paragraphs moot.

How do I justify Hamsun? Is prejudice only prejudice when it affects people like me? What do I tell my Jewish friends when/if they find Hamsun in my house? Turns out that it’s not so easy hating haters after all, especially when another NY Times review of Brad Gooch’s biography leads right into a review of my book, a factor that may have contributed to heightened interest in my own work. I wish this were easier. And I wish people would stop bandying about the love the art, hate the artist mantra and if such a thing weren’t intellectually dishonest. Sure we can appreciate the work of the despicable as long as their despicable acts do not affect us. My being expected to tolerate or even like Flannery O’Connor, or any other racist on the grounds of aesthetic excellence may be admirable in theory but it’s as ludicrous in practice as a Jewish person writing about the structural brilliance of Albert Speer. The problem with this of course is that if you start exhuming the dead and brilliant for their grievous character flaws, you’re going to find yourself neck deep in a lot of bones. Should I stop wearing Allure Homme because Coco Chanel was a Nazi Collaborator? It’s not long before you become appointed judge and jury of all, even if the court is in your own mind. We also end up cheating art. Once an artist, or writer or even dancer creates something it’s not really theirs anymore. I don’t have to stop reading O’Connor, because Wiseblood is no longer her book, nor can she control who reads and how he chooses to read it. Bruce Springsteen can’t control right wing nuts who fist-pump to Born in the USA anymore than Jack London could stop me from casting a black child in white fang. Art is ours even when we do not want it and it that sense it almost doesn’t matter who made it.

A black woman loving Wiseblood in spite of Flannery O’Connor is a better person than O’Connor ever was. In some ways the art lover is more crucial than the artist. The lover of art or literature by embracing art embraces the very best of that person, something that more often than not, the artist doesn’t deserve. It’s doesn’t mean that we should rewrite Leni Riefenstahl as Isak Denisen, but it does mean giving her books on Africa the acclaim they deserve. Besides, a world without A Good Man is Hard To Find is one I’d rather not live in.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Penguin Guest Blog: From Tuesday

On Writing about Atrocity.
I don’t always agree with Michiko Kakutani, but I think she nails exactly what goes wrong when writers tackle the unthinkable, in today’s review of Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones, the Nazi novel that was a sensation in France, given its first person narrative of an unrepentant Officer:

Indeed, the nearly 1,000-page-long novel reads as if the memoirs of the Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss had been rewritten by a bad imitator of Genet and de Sade, or by the warped narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho,” after repeated viewings of “The Night Porter” and “The Damned.”

Whereas the philosopher Theodor Adorno warned, not long after the war, of the dangers of making art out of the Holocaust (“through aesthetic principles or stylization,” he contended, “the unimaginable ordeal” is “transfigured and stripped of some of its horror and with this, injustice is already done to the victims”), whereas George Steiner once wrote of Auschwitz that “in the presence of certain realities art is trivial or impertinent,” we have now reached the point where a 900-plus page portrait of a psychopathic Nazi, dwelling in histrionic detail on the barbarities of the camps, should be acclaimed by Le Monde as “a staggering triumph.”

The biggest problem faced by the writer of atrocity is his own talent, that his highest aesthetic value becomes his lowest weakness. By transforming atrocity into art, atrocity is no longer atrocious. There are two ways this can happen: by not dwelling enough on the horror, or dwelling way too much. The former allows the reader either through the beauty (or vagueness) of the prose to sidestep any punishment for being a voyeur. The latter runs the risk of turning into pornography, atrocity smut that numbs instead of outrages.

Of course having just published a novel about an atrocity, I worry about mixing art and horror myself; not just how successful I was but was exactly does that success mean. Does even calling a novel about the holocaust a success result in a kind of glibness? Art taking the place of fact, so much so that people run the risk of looking at the holocaust through Stephen Spielberg’s incredibly artful lenses, and not the actual event? Life is Beautiful has aged horribly because of this very thing, Roberto Benigni turning a concentration camp into a world of wonder, despite having a slight justification for it (in the story, at least).

What happens when a beautiful technique captures horror? VS Naipaul, in his perceptive and damning Middle Passage, once said that a Jamaican slum was a place of such unremitting ugliness that one could never take a photograph of it because the beauty of the photographic process lies to you about how ugly everything is. I saw this in my former job as a location scout: foreign photographers jumping at the chance to shoot in the ghetto, not because they wanted to capture poverty, but because rusted zinc gave such a wonderful brick red colour.

I’m in a reading group about violence and one of the crucial issues we have to tackle is the very existence of such a group. If this study has no plan for concrete action, some form of sacrificial giving to a cause that betters us all, aren’t we just making our own torture porn? We run the risk of reducing violence to a mere aesthetic or intellectual experience, that way a Photograph’s beauty can rob a tragedy of its horror. The only artist I know who may have fully figured this out, balancing beauty and tragedy in a way the highlights the tragedy of the subject, while saving beauty for the dignity of the victim was the gifted photographer Dan Eldon. Of course he paid for his commitment to truth in art with his life.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I'm Penguin's Guest Blogger for the Week!

Monday's Blog:

I’m thinking about getting into some trouble tonight. The fate of all authors might hang in the balance. I’m reading “Revenge of the Nerds” a funny and bittersweet article in the March/April Issue of Poets and Writers; about how today’s (meaning my) generation of writers can be such wusses sometimes. How we lack the sturm und drang of the mighty men and women of the past; writers that doth bestride the world like colossuses or Colossi, if we want to get technical. Or at least get trashed and laid an awful lot. Writers seemed even more fascinating since they were rarely as Dorian grey hot as rock stars but were even more drunken and disorderly.

But Amy Shearn, who wrote the article, has a point. I think. Most of the writers interviewed said that they were simply too busy writing to get on with any debauchery. Others said that unlike their forebears, they couldn’t depend on writing alone for a living so had to teach in places where scandals weren’t looked upon with “you remember when” nostalgia (No this doesn’t mean you, Bennington). Are we just wimpier? When Norman Mailer traded barbs with Gore Vidal, you knew that sooner or later somebody was going to punch somebody. Compare that to our own recent feuds, like Dale Peck Vs Rick Moody, which came across like two nerds trying to pull out their battered copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide to slap each other with it.

Maybe Byron wasn’t so Byroneqsue, but you’ve got to wonder if on seeing what my generation of writers looked like, that he wouldn’t have become a rock star or wrestler instead. When did we get so nerdy? I have an excuse I think, me being a nerd of some sort since childhood, but so was James Joyce, whose glasses were far thicker than mine. Is it just that we are dweebs or that we write dweeby books as well? I'd be the first to say that we’re pretty awful navel gazers, with the added problem of not having a life to gaze at. I’d like to agree that we may be too busy writing, but here I am writing this blog so clearly I have some spare time. But I’m saddened when Charles Baxter says “writer are no longer gods; everybody knows that.”

Sometimes I think I was born two generations too late. Granted had I been born then I would not have been a writer. I’m also not convinced that the lionizing of writers is such a good thing since it created the culture where we know the writer but not the book, sort of like George Clooney being famous, but nobody being able to name five of his works. I wonder if other writers do what I do: look at how the literary badasses of the media age sacrificed their own work in the bargain. I wonder if they take that as a lesson. But there are times that I wonder if I should go have some illicit sex, say something outrageous or just reach for something a little more banal, like a raging coke habit. Or maybe I should get a wife just to shoot or stab her. Or drink myself to death. I try to say that all this would mean I write less, but I write lees than I want to now, and these reprobates of literary past also got an enormous amount of great work done.

Granted the media eventually chewed up Mailer and spat him out, no matter how much he refused to be a tasty dish. And I’m not sure writers ever wanted to be celebrities, certainly not Updike or Roth. As for the badasses of yore, I’m not sure they were being bad for the camera or the newspaper column, even back in their heyday. But something about me misses that era as if I lived through it. Maybe it’s because that when the writers seemed bigger than life the books seemed bigger than life as well.

Friday, February 13, 2009

On Erotica, or Lo and Behold, The Virginal Ho

Strange things happen when people write in the dark, stranger still when they, without being asked shed light on it. Couple years ago I wrote a blog on Spacebreak Sex, on the curious absence of sex scenes from literary fiction and the overall consensus that maybe that was because we sucked at it. Of course I now hesitate to claim such a thing now that I’ve actually written a couple of them, involving two consenting humans at that, and I wouldn’t have even thought about it enough to write a blog, but recently it came to my attention that somebody was looking for me, with the hope of me writing an erotic story for a collection.

Of course I have no problem with writing about sex (my apologies if you thought this was a PG13 blog). The more whams, bam and slams in fiction the better quite frankly. I don’t see why G. Carbrera Infante and Roberto Bolano should have all the fun; after all they are both quite dead. So no, I have no problem whatsoever with sex in fiction. But I do have a problem with erotica.
Erotica’s purpose cannot help but be dubious: for one, it sets out to spark desire on a mass level; something as fraught with disaster as trying the same seduction on two different people. The idea of one kind of story, or one kind of set up or even one or two kinds of sex that would turn on millions is not only ludicrous, but also kind of creepy. But I’m not one to turn down honest paying work, and besides, this is what pseudonyms are for. And some of that stuff is actually good, well the gay stuff anyway. The straight stuff that I “researched” came across as oddly unsexual, even anti-sex, and they all had a sort of artistic line that was disturbingly similar. It took my awhile to figure out what was wrong with erotic fiction.

None of these writers are having sex.

It’s a curious phenomenon, the virginal ho. The literary smut hound that somehow never comes across as ever having sex. Not satisfied with my suspicion I dug deeper and came upon a site that shall remain nameless. I’ve spent some time in a newsroom so I knew what to do: checked the bio before I read the story. Here was one:

…Bald, old guy writes erotic tales when he's not building his model railway.

I don’t know about you, but that got me hot. A typical paragraph went like this:

"Damn you John, you're being cruel."
"And you're loving it." His hand went to his cock again; he wouldn't have to wait much longer surely.
He bent and kissed her pretty ass, nipped the soft flesh and thought how much he loved this sweet creature.

"Oh no!" she whispered and he heard the trickling sound.

What preceded was a rather disturbing sadomasochistic fantasy, but disturbing only in the sense that it read like the work of someone who had not had sex before. And probably should not since he may cause grievous damage to another human. In another story by a different but male author, the male character, with one hand in the Bangkok whore’s (is there any other?) cunt (his word not mine) and the other in her anus, she still manages to have a pretty lucid discussion about countries of origin, national identity and nostalgia. Worse was the in-between sex narration, where the writer got into quasi-metaphysical mumbo jumbo just to prove to the reader that he’s read wikipedia and was not some hairy palm redneck typing with his free hand.

The thing about erotica for the most part is that for all the action, it betrays very little understanding of female and male bodies. The man’s penis is always hard and dripping pre-cum, the woman’s vagina is always throbbing and dripping whatever, and it’s never a vagina, but a cunt or twat. One becomes nostalgic for a simple pussy. I wonder how these women think, what with their twats throbbing at the mere sight of a male bicep. So we have dicks dripping, twats throbbing, breasts heaving, clitorises undulating (!), lips licking, tongues flicking, cocks straining in their pants. The cock is always super long so that it needs two tongues to lick it and the vagina manages to be super tight yet super deep at the same time. And if the evocative passages are horrible, the evaluative ones, where the writer gets into the character’s mind are much worse. Step into the remains of an exploded orgasm and you slip on lines like these:

“It's all fake, of course. All this. A construction. A replica of love. Play-acting on an exotic stage. A Hollywood movie. And like all movies, we pay our fare, and for a short while we allow ourselves to be subsumed by another reality. In the warm comforting cinematic darkness, we become part of a world more vivid than the one we live in.”

And here I was cussing creative writing students because they’re far too in love with Raymond Carver. For a genre of such transgression, erotica can be frustratingly conservative, or at least lock step. There’s no new territory being opened or any clever retelling of the old. Maybe cleverness is asking too much, but whom, after reading these stories goes on to actual sex? With another person? Consensual? Not only are these writer not fucking, worse, they’re not reading. Susanna Moore’s In The Cut, Nic Kelman’s Girls, Adam Thirwell’s Politics, Allan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library and Andre Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name all manage scenes both hot and brilliant, scenes that could teach these writers what happens when one body touches another. But the tragic flaw of this fiction is what grips all mediocre fiction; a lack of reading, a basic unintelligence about literature that perhaps they felt they had no need for since their thrills were below the belt.

Except that it isn’t. Erotica isn’t actual sex, so it has to seduce the brain first. Instead I kept coming across writing like the kind I sometimes see in workshops, by writers trying to shock or titillate but with no experience of either. Other times it’s the taking on of a transgression that they have neither the intelligence nor daring to handle. This leads more often than not to fiction that’s accidentally disturbing, or at least bothersome enough to make you wonder just where did that last missing child end up.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Mr. President...

I know I should be over it by now, but it blows my mind that HE is our new president.