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Notes from a Crusty Seeker

Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

This is bawdy, spontaneous, poetic writing.

Eugene Henderson, an overblown, twice-married, millionaire pig farmer and violin player is having an existential crisis.

I want, I want, I want, I want, I want!

This is the geshrei that drives fifty-five-year-old Henderson into and through a spiritual quest in Africa. He doesn’t know what he wants, just that “everybody is working, making, digging, bulldozing, trucking, loading, and so on . . .” until it is a form of madness. (I think he would be right at home in our time when value is quantified by how many “likes” we’ve accrued.)

Henderson the Rain King is a quest as complicated as any Haruki Murakami tale, but the protagonist is a bloated, bungling American—a man with “the Midas touch in reverse.” In Africa, his first stop is a village of people whose beloved cattle are dying of thirst because the water reserve is occupied by frogs. On one hand, Henderson wants to rescue everybody; on the other, he longs to be rescued:

This was a beautiful, strange, special place, and I was moved by it. I believed the queen could straighten me out if she wanted to; as if, any minute now, she might open her hand and show me the thing, the source, the germ—the cipher. The mystery, you know. I was absolutely convinced she must have it. The earth is a huge ball which nothing holds up in space except its own motion and magnetism, and we conscious things who occupy it believe we have to move too, in our own space. We can’t allow ourselves to lie down and not do our share and imitate the greater entity. You see, this is our attitude. But now look at Willatale, the Bittah [highly evolved] woman; she had given up such notions, there was no anxious care in her, and she was sustained. Why, nothing bad happened! On the contrary, it all seemed good! Look how happy she was, grinning with her flat nose and gap teeth, the mother-of-pearl eye and the good eye, and look at her white head! It comforted me just to see her, and I felt that I might learn to be sustained too if I followed her example. (74)

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Best Funny Books about Difficult Women

After publishing The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, a funny novel about a 4'11", 237 pound woman with a habit of lying, burgling, and incinerating houses--a woman desperate to be seen and accepted for her talent and inner beauty--I became a little desperate to read funny novels about other difficult women. There are not a lot of them. But here's what I found.  Read More 

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National Novel Writing Month is Here! (And so is Stoner!)

Two Quickie Topics:

1. In honor of National Novel Writing Month, I'm addressing the craft of writing in a blog at Black Lawrence Press. Writing a novel is a healing process for the writer, but the subsequent existence of a novel is potentially healing for readers who are willing to experience the discomfort of having their flaws poked--which The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, the subject of the blog, has been known to do. If this subject interests you, I hope you'll click the link.







2. Also on the subject of craft: I just received my 50th anniversary hardcover edition of Stoner, which I mention in my list of recommended books in the aforementioned Black Lawrence Press blog. (It is currently 30% off at NYRB)

The hardcover doesn't have a dust jacket, but it does have a paper sleeve with praise from stellar people, and at the top, under the title and author's name, it says "The International Best Seller."

I mention this because this edition includes letters from John Williams to his agent in which he seems to foretell the luminous future of this book, despite massive discouragement. These letters are so wonderful because they give you a feeling for John Williams, the man. How clear, savvy, and aware he was of exactly what he had created—with almost no validation:


From his agent, Marie Rodell
Now, from a business point of view: I may be totally wrong, but I don't see this as a novel with a high potential sale. Its technique of almost unrelieved narrative is out of fashion, and its theme to the average reader could well be depressing. . . .

From John Williams
I suspect that I agree with you about the commercial possibilities; but I also suspect that the novel may surprise us in this respect. . . . The only thing I'm sure of is it that it's a good novel; in time it may even be thought of as a substantially good one. A great deal more is going on in the novel than appears on the surface, and its technique is a great deal more "revolutionary" than it appears to be. Despite this, it is, I think available to the ordinary reader; or at least I hope it is. One afternoon a few weeks ago, I walked in on my typist (a junior history major, and pretty average, I'm afraid) while she was finishing typing chapter 15, and discovered great huge tears coursing down her cheeks. I shall love her forever.


I shall love John Williams forever. If you are interested in the craft of writing, he is the master.

 






 

 

 



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Apostroph'itis: An Editor's Primal Scream

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Haruki Murakami's KAFKA ON THE SHORE

I'm interested in the grotesque—so interested I devoted a whole book, The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg, to a grotesque character. I was impelled to do this because I believe what Zelda embodies—fear, craving to be known, envy, desires that overwhelm her—is what we all, every one of us ego-driven humans, most try to hide. My feeling is that if we can acknowledge these things inside us, even laugh at them—engendering compassion for our human condition—we can grow into the best of us. My epigraphs for the book (and there is a whole page of them) focus on "exile." Why? Because I believe either not knowing these grotesque parts of ourselves or knowing but hating them puts us in a state of exile from who we really are.

An earlier blog on Flannery O'Connor's work gives O'Connor's take on the power of writing the grotesque: ". . . you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."

The following review of Haruki Murakami's wonderful book offers a different definition of grotesque—one that makes even more sense to me. Read More 

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Original Voice: Jeffrey Euginedes, Amanda Filipacchi, Bradley Somer


About a year ago I attended a Jeffrey Euginedes lecture on the subject of writer's voice (Columbia University School of the Arts, Heyman Center for the Humanities Creative Writing Lecture series). If you have about an hour, by all means listen; it's rich. [He stops reading and turns loose, funny, and charming during the Q&A which starts around 40:00. (My questions are at 52:58—about the nature of the personal "starter yeast" that brought him to commit years of life to researching Middlesex. His wonderful answers involve Latin class, Ovid's Metamorphosis, whether men or women enjoy sex more, and having a hopeless existence.)]{POSTSCRIPT: THIS VIDEO HAS BEEN PRIVATIZED. I'M SO SORRY. BELIEVE ME, IT IS WONDERFUL}

I start reading a lot of books and nothing makes me abandon them faster than a generic voice; to my eyes and inner ear, it's like fingers with no fingerprints. Not only is something off, but there is no feeling of surprise for me when I hit that kind of writing; no pulse. And the majority of books fall into this category. Why? Probably for the same reason so few of us generally and regularly express who we really are from our deepest essence. Which makes me all the more grateful when I land on a writer with a voice like no other—as unique as their fingerprints, so resonant with pulse that the words vibrate off the page and throughout my physical/spiritual system. I recently discovered two such writers: Amanda Filipacchi and Bradley Somer. Here are my reviews of their magnificent new novels: Read More 
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Taking Dead Mom to BookExpo America

It all started at BookExpo America (BEA) 2013, arguably the largest book publishing convention in the U.S., so it seemed fitting that I asked my mother, Edna Robinson, whose debut novel, The Trouble with the Truth, found a copacetic agent there, to accompany me to BEA 2015. The fact that she has been dead since 1990 is inconsequential.

"Mom," I said, "things have changed since 1958 when you wrote your coming-of-age book about a lost but funny girl named Lucresse in the 1930s, (called by Booklist, 'a gem of a book') [No, of course I didn’t really say all this, but I’m trying to make this conversation both comprehensible and appealing!] You thought getting a word processor in 1989, a year before you skedaddled, was wild. Just wait till you see what’s going on now!"

Edna Robinson: "I can hardly contain myself. Are you really going to wear those shoes?"  Read More 

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My Dogged Life

For a nine-pound Maltese, Rosie had a big life. For her first two years, it was her job to keep my sick mother company and refuse to be paper trained.

"You have to say 'No!' like a bark," I’d tell my mother. "Use a deep, sharp voice."

"No!" barked my mother, but still Rosie urinated on the carpet.

She learned to sit for a treat and to run under the bed on command whenever the visiting nurses came. "Heel" and "stay" where not really relevant.

"She's not happy," my mother would say when she phoned. "Can you bring Daisy over to play?"

Rosie lived for our visits, and she and Daisy would play for ten hours straight, and, although she adored my mother, Rosie would beg to go with us when Daisy and I left.

When my mother died, it was Rosie’s job to take care of me. "I can't," I'd moan at the whole mess of life and death, and, cuddled in my lap, Rosie would lick away my tears.
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I Could Use the Help of Flannery O'Connor … But I Have Issues

I've had this Signet paperback (pub. 1964) on my bookshelf for decades. I'd read parts of it many years ago, and, in a minute, I'll get to why I recently decided to read the whole book.

The anthology is in three parts: a novel (Wise Blood), a collection of short stories and a novella ("A Good Man Is Hard to Find"), and another novel (The Violent Bear It Away). Since I couldn't remember what I'd previously read, I went from back to front in the hope of sampling the new material first.

Part 3. I was brought up with no religion and in some ways I think that has sensitized me to fundamentalism in many forms—not only religious, but political (including progressive fundamentalism). Fundamentalism is characterized by somebody's absolute certainty that their belief is the only true one and anybody who does not agree is wrong, misguided, an idiot. In The Violent Bear It Away, O'Connor painfully evokes the feeling of being torn to bits by warring sides, of being a confused and helpless angry child without the wherewithal to deal with this level of extremes. O'Connor was Christian and deals with Christian fundamentalism, but the pain transcends the particular story. Reading through all the Scriptural references was a slog for me, since this is not my natural territory, but ultimately I found myself riveted by the basic human drama: a child torn apart by warring adults, and everybody is nuts. I can relate … Unless I completely missed the point and the great-uncle prophet who creates a murdering boy prophet is supposed to be sane. This was the most difficult (unenjoyable) section of the anthology—not easy reading. Read More 

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The Truth about The Trouble with the Truth

It was February 2013. I’d been freelance book editing since losing my magazine job—on a day christened “Bloody Wednesday” in New York publishing—just before Christmas in 2008. Freelancing is a feast-or-famine deal, and I’d had close to a month of famine when a little voice in my head whispered, “It’s time. Pull Mom’s manuscript out of the closet.”

In 1957, when I was six, my mother, Edna Robinson, had written a short story called “The Trouble with the Truth.” After it was published in the 1959 edition of the New World Writing book series, selected as one of the “most exciting and original” stories of its time by editors who had previously introduced the work of Samuel Beckett and Jack Kerouac, Edna’s intensity became impenetrable. I remember watching her burrowed in her study typing. Why was she so mad, I wondered.

She wasn’t mad. As a writer, I now understand the intensity. She was working her story into a novel of the same title. And when that novel was optioned by Harper & Row—and then dropped simply because it was about a single father with two peculiar children in the 1920s and ’30s, and To Kill a Mockingbird had occupied that territory, I believe something in my mother died.  Read More 

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The Music of Language: 1930s, '40s, '50s . . .

I became vividly aware of the musical sounds of language, specific to past decades, when I was editing my late mother's novel, The Trouble with the Truth. My mother, Edna Robinson, was born in 1921, and the novel takes place largely in the 1930s and early '40s. However it is written from a perspective in the late 1950s. This could pose a problem musically. We all know the sound of the 1930s and '40s from black-and-white Hollywood movies. Staccato and matter-of-fact-sounding. The 1950s, on the other hand, is softer—think Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Like the 1930s and '40s, the '50s have a patriarchal beat, for lack of a better way to express it. Father did know best and that was not questioned. Edna solved the problem of differing decades' music logically—the narrative was good literary writing of any era, and dialogue was perfect pitch for the 1930s–40s.

As an editor, you live in the head of a writer, and I became so involved in the life and sounds of those three decades that I wanted to read other work of the time. For several months, I've been reading the master of the short story, John Cheever—his Pulitzer-prize-winning anthology The Stories of John Cheever. Talk about perfect pitch!

For a while I wondered if the music of those decades, 1930s–1950s, had an influence on what people accepted as normal. Both Edna Robinson and Cheever accepted as inevitable the pain and confusion and heartbreak of human life. Not like today where we seek help, actively try to transform, meditate, or complain on social media. Read More 
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Creatures of a Day

Renowned existential therapist and one of the most distinguished and popular authors writing about psychotherapy, Irvin D. Yalom took the title of his new book, Creatures of a Day: And Other Tales of Psychotherapy (Basic Books, February 24, 2015) from Meditations, the private scribblings of second-century Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius on how best to live:

All of us are creatures of a day; the rememberer and the remembered alike. All is ephemeral—both memory and the object of memory. The time is at hand when you will have forgotten everything; and the time is at hand when all will have forgotten you. Always reflect that soon you will be no one, and nowhere.

Recently I was stunned to hear public radio's Radiolab show The Bitter End about the dramatic difference in doctors' and lay peoples' wishes for medical interventions in order to be kept alive no matter how badly injured they are. After my mother died on a respirator—having neglected to (or chosen not to) transfer her living will from one doctor to another—I did my own living will. However, until hearing the Radiolab piece, I was not fully aware of the torture (something akin to waterboarding and being raped) of being put on a respirator, and now I feel even more strongly about my living will. I have no death wish, but, since death is inevitable, I'm curious: I want to know from people who are dying whatever they want to share: how they feel, what they want—any wisdom they might offer. Yalom's book is a font of that wisdom. Read More 

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Me and My Electra Complex

Mom & me at my 30th birthday party

“I’m sorry, but I don’t feel strongly enough about your mother’s book to do a blurb for it,” writes my author friend.

You’d think I’d feel disappointed. I’d given my friend two new books: a copy of my just-released novel (The Last Will & Testament of Zelda McFigg) at my book launch party and an advance reading copy of my mother, Edna Robinson’s, novel (The Trouble with the Truth), written in 1957, edited and doctored by me in 2013, and due out in February 2015 as the debut novel from Infinite Words, a new imprint of Simon & Schuster founded by best-selling author/publisher Zane! My mother is dead and I own the rights to her novel, so it’s my book. I’d suggested that my author friend might actually prefer my mother’s book to Zelda McFigg because the writing style is more similar to hers, but I was wrong; she raved about Zelda McFigg and offered an unsolicited blurb, but she turned down The Trouble with the Truth.

My first uncensored reaction to this rejection: I win! My friend likes my book better than Mom’s. Yippee! Read More 

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Monk with a Camera: The Life and Journey of Nicholas Vreeland

I am sitting in the Good Stuff Diner on West 14th Street across from Nicky Vreeland, a maroon-robed Buddhist monk with deep smile lines. A gifted photographer with an exquisite W Magazine-sponsored exhibit at ABC Carpet & Home to benefit the Tibet Center, Vreeland has mentioned that he finds harmony in his pictures. “Did that train you for life as a monk?” I ask.

“I think that recognizing that [finding harmony is] what I’m doing is something that has happened recently,” he says thoughtfully. “I used to feel that there was some essential quality that I was searching for in composing my photographs, and I’ve come to realize that it’s not a question of there being something there that I have to find. It’s a question of a relationship between the subject, the object, the elements within the frame of the subject, and that I, as the photographer, in my placement and my feeling about the situation, am an integral part of the creation of this harmonious whole. Where you place that lens—the height, the angle, the settings—is an integral part of what you capture. Where I place myself determines my shot. All of these things change everything!” Read More 

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Creativity and Depression: Signe Baumane’s Balancing Act

I interviewed the magnificent artist/animator Signe Baumane for RewireMe.com. Here’s the beginning of the article:

Is it possible to have a tolerable relationship with chronic depression? How does a Latvian artist and animator, working in New York with no funding, realize a unique, noncommercial stop-motion, hand-drawn “funny movie about madness and depression” (in both English and Latvian) and have that movie receive enough worldwide enthusiasm to end up as Latvia’s entry in the best foreign-language category for the Oscars? And how does this artist/animator, who was once diagnosed with schizophrenia—modified to bipolar disorder after her parents paid Latvian psychiatrists a bribe—function and create at such a high level without medication? Read More 

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