Saturday, February 28, 2004
The late days of the book tour have involved more driving and less flying (which is a relief), and that has meant more time for listening and less for reading, and with that the interesting alchemy of finishing up two books at the same time.

First, I read Brian Hall's I Should be Extremely Happy in your Company, about Lewis and Clark, which I liked a great deal (4 stars). Hall's is a remarkable book--he does something in it that seems like it should be straightforward, but in the experience of reading comes to feel radical, experimental even, and I think he pulls it off. The book is composed of different voices--Lewis's, Clark's, Sacagawea's and her husband Charbonneau's, and, briefly, Washington Irving's. There is no straightforward exposition, no clear action. Instead, the book is composed entirely through reaction, response and reflection--the same event layered over from different perspectives and because each voice has its own spellings for names, or different expressions for the same phenomena, the work of reading it creates sets of small mysteries that demand working through--where are we in time? Are the sun-men indians or white men? And the work of this layering creates an confusing, but rich narrative that draws us away from the action and into the interior of the characters. It took a while to give myself over to it as I read--wanting (and expecting) a clear narrative and forced to backtrack and unravel and puzzle over while the sweep of the grand adventure went past. In fact that may be the most radical experiment in the novel--that Hall never lets the story rest on the great adventure of the expedition, but always keeps it swirled up in reaction--Lewis puzzling over how to write about the feeling of finding the series of falls at the head of the Missouri, rather than seeing and reacting. In this I Should has more in common with a book like The Hours than it does an adventure with depths, like Cold Mountain. This is a daring act, and the imaginative richness to carry their characters out into sensibility, and then language is dazzling (I found sacagawea's language very successful in this regard; Charbonneau's less successful). I think in taking a "big" story and turning away from it so vigorously into character Hall's book is surprising and delightful.

One other seemingly obvious, but very radical thing Hall does is that he presents the whole vulgar underside of being human in striaghtforward language and without blinking--shitting, fucking, veneral disease, cocks and cunts in a way that manages not to shock despite its steady presence, which is true to our experience and certainly to that of Lewis and Clark, but usually utterly absent--certainly in adventure literature and in most writing in general. At one of my readings, a woman said she kept wondering how my characters went to the bathroom when it was so cold all the time and I confessed that I had very little idea--it being so seldom mentioned in all of the literature I had read.

Second, I listened to Cold Mountain(4.5 stars), a book I had been avoiding for a while both because my book got lumped with it (as about Civil War deserters), and because its incredible success made me wary. On both fronts I was profoundly humbled--I think it is a tremendous book--rich and beautifully written and full in a way that makes me feel the poverty of my own understandings and experiences. I nearly stopped listening to it half-way through, but I had a long stretch of driving coming up and didn't want to turn away from it for so long, and had found Frazier's voice a wonderful complement to the language. Frazier's book is not sophisticated in the way Hall's is, and lacks its nuance. In its place it has a baroque complexity built up in the old-fashioned way--through compelling (and not overwhelming) detail, language that draws heavily (and believably) on locutions not our own, and through the interleaved stories of the major and minor characters (Veasey's, the Goat Woman's, Stobrod's). The stories are rich and varied and brutal and nuanced. Some other readers have found the book too freighted with symbolism, or leaning too hard on the Odyssey, but I did not. Cold Mountain deserves the praise that has been heaped on it (and that, from my contrarian and curmudgeonly heart, is high and humble praise).

Reading books like these brings to light the insufficiency of my own tools for writing--the paucity of my vocabulary, the halting steps of my imagination, my impatience with research, the unevenness of my attentions. I read back through a short story I wrote in college to see if it was worth rescuing and found in the comments of my professor much good advice that I wish I had drawn into the writing of The Rope Eater. And in those thoughts I saw the distance to new good writing, to actually coming to finish another novel that I thought was good--and at the same time being inspired by seeing such successful books--and I saw the arc, vanishing into years (two years? hopefully less than 6?), of the work with no clear vision of what it would yield, only the hope that the investment of that time would bear the fruits I am ambitious for. It is an odd process, to mute the internal judgment enough to allow the growth that work will bring--the vision not of the final object but, more simply, that the work of pursuing it will develop the vision as it brings the capability to realize it. This is a faint whispering around which to build a life and yet it doesn't ever fade into quiet--and thank god for that.


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