February 26, 2017
I’ve been meaning to write about a book I read last year, A Curious Land (University of Massachusetts Press, 2015; paperback, 2016), a volume of fiction by Susan Muaddi Darraj set in Tel al-Hilou, a Palestinian village near Ramallah. This task has lingered on my to-do list for a while, but a couple of recent developments have spurred me to it: the paranoid and mean-spirited attempts by the White House to cleanse the USA of immigrants, and the president’s openness to a Mideast “one-state solution,” a phrase I’ve never understood because a solution is supposed to solve something—and what in the world (even our distorted Twitterworld) would this one solve?
As American politics becomes curiouser and curiouser, it’s a good time to ground ourselves with some fine fiction. A Curious Land consists of connected short stories, a form Muaddi Darraj has made very much her own. Her previous book of fiction, The Inheritance of Exile, also made up of linked stories, focused on young Palestinian American women growing up in South Philly. (I wrote about it in July 2010.) The new book takes us to Palestine itself, tracing the lives of fairly ordinary people through several generations, across most of the twentieth century. A Curious Land won the Grace Paley Prize, the Arab American Book Award, and the American (no qualifier) Book Award, and yet I feel it’s underappreciated.
I should say, first of all, that I’m not interested in A Curious Land merely because liberals like me who believe in diversity love to promote books about foreign or minority cultures. In fact, my reading preferences tend toward old white folks, both those who are dead and those who might as well be. And when I see an author who represents “diversity” being lauded despite sloppy or sentimental writing, I get annoyed (as well as jealous). So, yes, I think Muaddi Darraj’s work can promote a better understanding of Palestinian communities—an understanding we sorely need at the moment—but I wouldn’t focus on it for that reason alone.
The most important reason to discuss A Curious Land is that Muaddi Darraj is an excellent writer, with a precise yet moving and poetic style, an eye attuned to nuances of feeling and an ability to create well-fleshed characters. I’ll quote a bit from the long final story, “Christmas in Palestine,” one of a few pieces in the book that venture far from Tel al-Hilou. Adlah, a young woman from the village, has gone to the USA to study, has married there and now (1998) is struggling to get pregnant, torturing herself with injections and suppositories prescribed by her fertility guru. She hasn’t returned home in a decade, even skipping her father’s funeral last year because of the baby-making routine. Now, though, she’s offered a chance to visit Tel al-Hilou as a translator for an archeological team, and she accepts, to her husband’s dismay. Shortly before she leaves comes this scene:
The 18th was their eight-year wedding anniversary, and they ate dinner at the small French place in Midtown where he’d proposed. It used to be their annual tradition, but they’d not dined there in some time, and Adlah could see that the décor was changed—new, sparkly chandeliers and long curtains, but she didn’t mention it to Ken. He was too angry, and had barely spoken to her on the drive over. He’d spent the last two weeks sulking, since she told him about the assignment. Strangely—and it scared her—she didn’t care. It was too tiring to muster up some indignation or mount a counter-argument. Now, as they sat and sipped their drinks—he had some Pinot Grigio and she sparkling water—he barely looked at her, just hunched over his menu.
“It’s almost like you’re not trying,” he said finally.
“I am.” She felt sick at how he was beginning. “In 45 minutes, I have to go to the bathroom for the 7 p.m. injection.”
“But this trip—you don’t need to do this.”
She didn’t answer, not sure how to explain it to him. For two years, her life had been consumed by this thing. Two years of solid failure. Everything on hold, don’t change the house, don’t buy new furniture, keep the same car. Their lives were frozen in place, awaiting a blue line on a white stick, the symbol of success. Her arms, her stomach were blue from needle marks. And when her father died eighteen months ago, she didn’t go because they’d just done an embryo transfer. It had made her sick, to grieve alone—here in New York, while everyone back home comforted each other. She’d consoled herself with the idea that, if it were a boy, she’d name him Muneer [after her father], and Ken agreed easily, trying to help her deal with the injustice of it. She’d even convinced herself that her father would bless her from heaven, and make things right, make that cycle “the one.” And, like a cruel prank, it hadn’t worked.
“I’m not leaving till after the transfer on Thursday.”
“Flying can’t be good—”
“There’s no proof of that.”
After their plates were slid onto their table and their drinks refreshed, when they’d eaten in near-silence, she ordered a glass of wine, her eyes locked on Ken, daring him to oppose it. He sighed and raised his glass, clinking it gently against hers. The stem looked so fragile, like an icicle in his large hands.
“Happy anniversary,” he said softly. “I love you,” he added, and the words stung her because he sighed as he spoke them, like it was an exertion of effort.
Tears sprang to her eyes, and without even taking a sip, she stood and picked up her purse.
“Well—what’s … what is it?”
“Seven o’clock. I’ll be right back.” She walked quickly to the restroom, sliding between tables of couples too engrossed in one another to notice her.
Though I might quibble with small stylistic points, such as the multiple uses of “barely” and “some” in the first paragraph and the fact that Adlah feels “sick” twice in a short span, I admire the quick flashes of emotion, the undertones of anger and frustration revealed in the way a person looks at a menu or gets up from the table. The story then takes Adlah “home” to Palestine, where Ken’s absence doesn’t automatically make her heart grow fonder. Her marriage is tested when she meets a handsome, wealthy, educated Palestinian who comes on to her, but the tale doesn’t turn out as expected; this author won’t settle for a simplistic, “one-state” answer to Adlah’s quandary.
Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays a role in these stories—how could it not?—Muaddi Darraj doesn’t stress political divisions, or religious ones for that matter, though the villagers are Christian in a Muslim and Jewish land. Rather, she’s interested in the everyday lives of her characters. Whatever the political situation, people have to live with it. They fall in and out of love, quarrel, engage in family feuds, leave the village and come back. They get sick or get well. They change as they age, or they fail to change. Characters we knew as young people show up in later stories as elders, as memories or as village legends. The links are important, but so are the breaks between stories; as one reviewer put it, the use of separate, connected pieces creates a “sense of contingency within the unfolding narratives. There are few definite endings or neat resolutions—or if there are, we hear about them tangentially, decades later, as an aside” (Sarah Irving, “Memory, Home and Belonging in ‘A Curious Land,’” The Electronic Intifada, June 13, 2016).
This effective use of the connected-story form is another reason I wanted to discuss A Curious Land. Other contemporary examples of linked stories include Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and Orla McAlinden’s The Accidental Wife, now a hit in Northern Ireland though mostly ignored in the USA. The form goes way back, of course; any English major will think of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. All of these books have a unity of place—centering on a small geographical area—and characters that reappear in multiple tales, allowing us different perspectives on their personalities and behavior. In all of them the links among the stories deepen and enrich the book’s impact. None, though, is as tightly structured as a traditional novel.
To me, and I suspect to many others as well, this looser form feels more appropriate for our era of fragmentation and uncertainty than a novel with a firm central plot intersected by one or more carefully angled subplots. Of course, the novel itself has always been an extremely flexible form, allowing for organizations as loose as that of Moby-Dick (clear main plot with hundreds of pages of non-narrative essays that do little to advance the story) and 2066, Roberto Bolaño’s mammoth posthumous work whose multiple plots and semi-random incidents seem to explode outward, sending tracers disappearing into space. Still, most readers who pick up a book called a “novel” will expect to find, in some sense, a unified arc of events, and writers facing the chaos of our world may be reluctant to offer that neatness.
Generally the linked-story approach has been well accepted by critics. Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz are two others who’ve won praise for it. Too often, though, publishers have been eager to label such efforts “novels in stories,” a promotional ploy that leads the reader to expect more cohesion and unity than actually exist. This marketing trend provoked novelist and editor William Giraldi to pen a stern diatribe against the so-called novel in stories (“The Mysterious Case of Novel-in-Stories,” The Rumpus, May 27, 2011):
Every story should rightly achieve its own destination, so a novel-in-stories ends up having several, whereas a novel can have only one. To say you’ve fashioned a novel from stories is to say you’ve fashioned an adult by standing one child on the shoulders of another.…
This cannot be stated enough: a novel is as different from a collection of stories as a truck is from a tricycle: they both have wheels, yes, and will get you where you need to be, though in decidedly dissimilar fashions and with dissimilar degrees of alacrity.
Giraldi agrees that part of the blame for “novels in stories” lies with publishers:
the concept was cooked up by the nonliterary minds in New York marketing who, on the one hand, wanted to sign young writers fresh from the M.F.A. mill and, on the other hand, didn’t want to wait for those young writers to learn how to write a novel.
He goes on to assign blame as well to Americans’ inability to appreciate the short story for its own merits, as “a form perfectly suited to modernity’s fundamentally Freudian method of accessing phenomena: in segments”—and a form, he also argues, that American writers have mastered far more than the novel.
I accept much of what he says. Yet, in this essay at least, he seems unwilling to grant that the connections among related stories can be valuable enough to make a whole greater than the sum of the parts. In a book like A Curious Land the stories interact with the same grace and subtlety as the panels of a Renaissance triptych. Each piece benefits from the others. Muaddi Darraj even throws in a little surprise at the end (hinted at on the cover) to loop the tales together.
Those who’ve read my own book The Shame of What We Are may suppose it falls into this category. I do see it as a novel, however: unlike most books of linked stories, it has a single protagonist, a single point of view and a steady chronological progression; moreover, the gaps between stories are used deliberately and strategically to reinforce the themes. When I had to label the book for publication, though, I felt the phrase “novel in stories” had been discredited by publishers’ dishonesty, so I chose “a novel in pieces,” a phrase I hoped would offer a clue about the content as well as the structure.
I consider the other books discussed here as something different, related stories that support each other but do not constitute a novel and should not be shoehorned into that category. It’s really an insult to the writers to pretend such works are novels or to talk as if they should be. The linked-story collection is a form in itself, and if we’re seeing a genuine trend toward it, perhaps we should come up with a catchier name. “Storvel” sounds like an eccentric wading bird, so my best suggestion at the moment is “story cycle” or “story sequence.”
Whatever we call it, A Curious Land is a fine exemplar, and if it serves a socially important purpose as well, all the more reason to read it.
Later note: On March 3, 2017, Michael Knight’s article in Publishers Weekly recommended “The 10 Best Interlinked Story Collections.” Though I hate top-ten lists, his is a good introduction to the form that he, too—despite having published such a collection himself—doesn’t know what to call.
December 13, 2016
The ambitious editors of Superstition Review have been assembling a massive collection of audio and video clips by their authors, and they invited me to add to it. Hence I’ve recorded a brief audio segment discussing my story “Ranger Ringo” that the magazine published in 2008. Originally I titled the clip “The Role of Memory in Autobiographical Fiction,” and it’s basically a guide to writing about your childhood when you can’t remember your childhood. Here are a couple of links that take you to the clip:
http://blog.superstitionreview.asu.edu/2016/12/13/authors-talk-sam-gridley/ (This includes the editor’s intro., a link to the original story, and a picture of my late dog Simon—who is obviously the best part of the enterprise.)
https://clyp.it/dutuwwzm (the audio clip only)
Please don’t tell Fergus (the guy grinning out at you from the top of this blog) about his predecessor. He thinks he’s an only child.
May 18, 2015
I thought people had given up noticing my novel The Shame of What We Are, but it’s found one new reader: Ken Dowell, who blogs at OffTheLeash.net. Dowell seems to think the portrait of the 1950s authentic: “Art Dennison and I did experience a lot of the same things,” he writes, “beginning with a patch on the right eye to keep the weaker left eye from losing interest.”
That patch may have been a metaphor in the novel—I don’t remember. In our current era, however good your eyesight, I think it’s best to squint. Or cover both eyes, which I’ll be doing tomorrow during my city’s primary elections.
Interestingly, of the several passages Dowell quotes from the book, one is about the political outlook of Art Dennison’s father: “People who liked [Adlai] Stevenson were Communists at heart, he said, or else fools, ‘the type that can’t find their own rear end when they are sitting on it.’” And Dowell comments, “His dad’s political views would have produced a knowing nod from my father.” Dowell also notes that the father is “generally pissed off” throughout the book.
I feel like the novel just got a knowing nod from someone who knows what to nod at. Guess I’ll have to stop being generally pissed off for a while.
February 2, 2012
“Henry James was drunk.”
So begins an entertaining literary mystery by Paula Marantz Cohen, What Alice Knew (Sourcebooks, 2010), set in 1888 London during the rampage of Jack the Ripper. Cohen’s animating conceit is that the baffled London police call in the famous American psychologist-philosopher William James for consultation. This puts William in the same city as his brother, the novelist Henry, and their sister Alice, a professional invalid, and the three collaborate in the investigation.
The notion of police employing a psychologist/spiritualist/weirdo is commonplace now, at least in fiction. On TV there’s the popular series The Mentalist, among others. In print, Caleb Carr’s 1994 mystery bestseller, The Alienist, sets up a team of a psychologist, a writer, and a secretary to investigate a serial killer in 1896 New York.
Cohen’s basic set-up is far from original, then. But her Jameses, as eccentric as they are famous, become as psychologically interesting as the killer they track. Alternating their points of view, Cohen allows each to contribute a unique perspective to the investigation. The style is fluid, and the dialogue sparkles. Minor characters like Oscar Wilde and John Singer Sargent step in to enhance the ambiance. Sly humor undercuts the characters’ pretenses, especially Henry’s; the poor chubby aesthete never quite recovers from that classic opening line.
After the recent speculation on the Jameses, Cohen could have made their own relationships as lurid as the Ripper’s slashings. It’s to her credit, I think, that she does NOT put William in bed with Alice, Henry with the male artists’ model, or Alice with her devoted live-in companion. Cohen’s Jameses flout Victorian convention only in their unconventional thinking, which in itself offers plenty of sizzle for this fine novel.
A few announcements to conclude this post:
- The second installment of my story “End of the Ride” is up at The Piker Press. In place of similar annoying advertisements for the third and fourth parts, I’ll direct anyone who’s interested to this link to a page that should list each section as it becomes available.
- My story “MG Repairs,” which came out in Carve Magazine in 2010, will be included in the magazine’s 2009–2010 Anthology. Why two years late? Because editor Matthew Limpede has a sensible approach to the absurd rush of our lives. Myself, I favor setting the clock back to 1993.
- My novel The Shame of What We Are is now available as an e-book from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Everybody who’s not reading it in paperback can now not read it on a screen as well. But they’ll be missing the wonderful illustrations by Tom Jackson, which come out surprisingly well in the e-book.
- “Wright has found a way to wed fragments of an iconic America to a luminously strange idiom, eerie as a tin whistle, which she uses to evoke the haunted quality of our carnal existence.” So said The New Yorker about poet C. D. Wright, who will be reading on February 2 at Villanova University’s Literary Festival. I love tin whistles. Complete info. about the festival, which will include William Kennedy and several other luminaries, is available here.
April 28, 2011
This weekend I’ll be visiting the Strawberry Festival at Peddlers Village in Lahaska, PA. Fran Grote and I will be hawking our novels at a table outside the Canterbury Tales Forever Bookstore, 10:00–1:00 on Saturday and 1:00–4:00 on Sunday. Come for the pie-eating contests, stay for the books. Note that Pennsylvanians will certainly be more refined than the Left Coasters in the picture. Feeding the authors is encouraged, but please do not throw pies.
December 18, 2010
Years ago, when I was reading a lot of Western writing—meaning books by authors of the American West, not genre “Westerns”—there was much talk about the importance of place in literature. This somewhat vague concept includes not just the physical attributes of a place but the meanings humans bring to the locale. American writers of the twentieth-century West became especially sensitive to place and its implications. Why? Several reasons come quickly to mind:
(1) Western writers shared a sense of outsiderness, feeling isolated from the supposed cultural centers of the East. For them, making place important was a form of self-assertion.
(2) Western landscapes are so dramatically different from those of the East—often harsh, dry, empty—that it seems they must intrude on a story, affecting the thoughts and emotions of the characters.
(3) Some Western experiences just don’t exist in the East. In Vermont you’ll never encounter a grizzly bear or a surfer, unless s/he’s on vacation.
(4) Because of Western geographic and climatic conditions, patterns of settlement differ. Could a suburban Connecticut tale, with neighbors right next door, be transplanted to a desert region of Arizona where you have to drive an hour to find a dentist?
(5) The West, being the new region, lacked the traditions of the East. It had little history, at least as far as Euro-American settlers from the East were concerned, and much of its real history was soon distorted into myth. Hence it was a locale, as Gertrude Stein remarked of Oakland, with no there there. Western writers focused on the sense of place in part because of the lack of human depth to their place.
(6) With open land for the taking, the West is where our migrants traditionally headed, and once there, they typically kept on moving. Even in the late twentieth century it was a territory where humans seemed more restless than mountain goats. Again, Western writers sensed what was missing, the deep rootedness that comes from staying in one spot for year after year, slowly changing with the neighbors, the growing tree in the backyard, the buildings that rise and fall, the succession of tragedies and comedies that give a place its character.
That last point resonates with me personally. My own family, like the Dennisons in my novel The Shame of What We Are, bounced around the East Coast until I was about eight, then skipped across the continent to southern California, where we continued bouncing and skipping. If that sun- and smog-blasted area could ever have felt like home to me, my family’s continuous uprooting made that impossible. The experience has been shared by many Americans, for whom dissatisfied wandering is a quintessential characteristic:
“Indifferent to, or contemptuous of, or afraid to commit ourselves to, our physical and social surroundings, always hopeful of something better, hooked on change, a lot of us have never stayed in one place long enough to learn it, or have learned it only to leave it.”
That’s Wallace Stegner in “The Sense of Place,” an essay included in his 1992 collection Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs. He also quotes Wendell Berry’s famous line, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”
These matters came to mind the other morning when, stumbling up the sidewalk on my way to work, I noticed a neighbor decorating her sidewalk tree. In our ultra-urban locale, holiday decorations tend to be muted. First off, if you put a Santa on your stoop, someone will steal him, which might bring a lawsuit by the elves for reckless endangerment of an icon. (Certainly the elves have powerful sway over the politicians and mega-lawyers downtown; there’s no other explanation for much of what happens here.) Second, since the houses are three stories high and joined to the neighbors’ in a block-long row, the notion of stringing bulbs or reindeer across the roofline is best left to a few crazy drunks or professional roofers. Even the people who bang on your door after a snowstorm and offer to shovel the sidewalk for $5 do not offer to hang Christmas lights.
So it was unusual that my neighbor—I’ll call her Martha—would be decking an outside tree, and her style of doing so seemed even less common: a three-foot cone of green boughs around the tree’s base. Insensitive as usual, I teased her that she was perverting nature by turning the poor maple upside down—bare at the top, pine-green at the bottom. Martha explained that she and her daughter had seen holiday decorations like this on a trip to Vienna, and they had agreed to do something similar at home. The daughter had taken photos as a reminder.
When I made it to the office and slurped my second cup of coffee, an appreciation of this slight interchange began to dawn on me, and it had to do with a slowly emerging sense of place. After the dozens of relocations of my early years, I’ve become firmly rooted in this neighborhood, so much that I don’t even like to leave for vacations. Though writer friends go away on “residencies” at “colonies” or “centers” in order to escape the daily mess and concentrate on their work, I’ve no interest in doing that. My only request is that someone get my daughter’s dog to stop barking at the empty sidewalk. (Shut UP, Alfie!)
Thus I could fit Martha’s behavior into its social and environmental context in a way not possible in my wandering early years, when I was always a tourist. I could smile about bringing a taste of aristocratic Vienna to working-class Fairmount, Philadelphia. More important, though, was the personal context, and that’s the crux of this tiny story.
Martha’s daughter, who had traveled to Vienna with her and taken the souvenir photos of the outdoor trees, died this past summer. A woman in her thirties with a young child. A mysterious stroke, then another, then a diagnosis of a cancer that had supposedly precipitated the strokes, then debilitating chemotherapy, then weeks of bedridden suffering, then another stroke that killed her.
Martha and her husband had been devastated by their daughter’s quick decline. Clearly the sidewalk tree, with its small tepee of greens and a ribbon near the top, was a memorial. Martha didn’t have to say that, and I didn’t remark on it. But I understood and appreciated, and she knew that I did, and this constituted a brief and very human moment in our cold winter season.
In its essence, the sense of place is about this sort of connectedness—to the environment, the society, the neighborhood, and most of all the people. Architects and planners have latched onto the concept, and there’s even a blog about it by Marilyn Finnemore. But I’m still not very good at connecting; distracted, hurried, impatient, I walked past Martha’s tree several more times before noticing it again.
My lifelong symptoms of displacement are widely shared by Americans, I suspect, even those who weren’t hauled from place to place as children, and I worry about what this means for our cultural future.
December 1, 2010
It’s not such a bad day usually, Saturday, and for some it’s even a sabbath,* but this coming one, December 4, will be smudged by the official launch of my novel, The Shame of What We Are. The publisher is planning a joint celebration with Sowilo Press, which is launching my friend Debra Leigh Scott’s marvelous collection Other Likely Stories. Everyone who occasionally reads a book is welcome to stop by.
Debra’s book picks up in the 1960s, where mine leaves off, and ends with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Together the two books portray a troublesome quarter-century in American life, when we engaged in a nuclear arms race; persecuted our own citizens; fought in mysterious places in Asia; assassinated political leaders; invented, perfected, and then (in my opinion) destroyed rock ’n’ roll—and, somewhere along the way, undermined the traditional nuclear family. How much connection was there between public misadventures and private confusion?
I’m told the party will feature live music appropriate to the time period. If it’s disco, I’ll be hiding under a table.
*Which reminds me: Hanukkah has just begun here on the East Coast. To all who celebrate it, or wish they did, have a joyful one.