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curiouscoverI’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.”

“I know.”

“Christ, Ken.”

“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.

Hugo van der Goes, THE PORTINARI ALTAR, late 1400s (from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Generally Pissed Off

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.

There’s a forthcoming novel I’m genuinely excited about.

(Stark revelation: People in the literary trades often pretend to be excited when they’re not. Imagine that! But in the above sentence I genuinely mean the word genuinely.)

I happened on the first chapter of this book almost two years ago, on the author’s website. I gave it the first-sentence test:

Once there was a girl who did everything wrong.

Hmm: Good premise, and the tone seems right. Serious, humorous and ironic at the same time. On, then, to the first few paragraphs:

Once there was a girl who did everything wrong. Take the time in 1963 when she took part in a wade-in to desegregate a public pool in Chester, Pennsylvania. She almost drowned. She had been the only white girl in the demonstration. When the crowd took the pool by storm, she flailed and sank, and she was pulled out by a lifeguard who forcibly detained her as her Negro comrades were loaded into vans. The police refused to arrest her. They said she should go home and learn to swim.

“Did she?” Tamara asked. She was sitting in the bathtub, with her knees drawn under her chin. The tub was ancient, and the faucet leaked enough to draw a dull brown line across the porcelain.

“Eventually,” Beth said. “Your daddy taught her.”

So it’s historical, including major political events and social conflicts. But it’s mainly personal, about human beings who “flail” and look ridiculous at times and have to interpret their misadventures for their children. Okay, I was hooked.

Waveland TitleNow that novel, Waveland by Simone Zelitch, has found its publisher, The Head and the Hand Press, and I’ve read the whole thing in galleys. It’s about a young white woman’s experiences during the Freedom Summer of 1964, and about her life afterward—working with the Movement, raising a biracial child conceived during that time, enduring the tragedies, breakups and breakdowns. It’s a complicated journey with many ups and downs and sideways slides.

As soon as Beth Fine arrives in Mississippi, she finds out how dull Freedom work can be: she’s assigned to shelve books and clean the floors. Eventually, though, she gets more involved in the field work, finds love and conflict in equal measure, and has her brushes with violence. When a gun under the bed is mentioned early in the book, you can be sure it will be fired at some point.

The novel jumps around in time, and scattered chapters give us three other points of view, widening our perspective on Freedom Summer, the Democratic convention of that year and the tensions pervading the Movement. Yet the book remains primarily Beth’s story. As it turns out, that phrase she uses to characterize herself, “the girl who did everything wrong,” is more than a joke about her social clumsiness and problems in judgment. She’s a person who can’t be dissuaded from doing what she feels must be done. She has a private sense—of justice, duty, love, whatever you want to call it—that impels her, and at key moments she can’t resist its demands even when her brain knows she’s courting disaster. At one point she quotes from Pascal: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” She’s stubborn, headstrong and often infuriating to the other characters. If we as readers fully engage with her, she should sometimes infuriate us too. Damn it, Beth, we want to yell, make the sensible choice! No such luck; she’s not going to listen, and that’s her virtue and her fault.

Simone Zelitch, as I discovered by reading her previous works, has a habit of writing provocative historical novels: The Confession of Jack Straw, about the English peasants’ revolt of 1381; Louisa, about two women who roughly reenact the biblical story of Ruth in post-Holocaust Europe and Israel; Moses in Sinai, about—well, the title explains it. Except for Louisa, released by Berkley, these were small-press books, as is the new one. They deserve a big-press readership.

In her next book after Waveland, an already completed novel called Judenstaat, Zelitch tackles an imaginary past—what might have happened after World War II if the Jewish state had been carved out of Germany rather than Palestine. This novel won her an NEA fellowship, and it has recently been signed by Tor/Forge, the Macmillan imprint known mostly for sci-fi and fantasy. It’ll be back to the big presses for this persistent, thought-stirring, hard-to-classify writer.

In the meantime, check out the girl who can’t do anything right. She’ll agitate and charm you in equal measure. If you want to order a copy before the official release date in May, The Head and the Hand Press is offering a prepublication deal.

IMG_0211On this snowy day in March, when my hometown Philadelphia is pretending to be Boston and Boston is pretending to be Baffin Island, I’m taking a break from shoveling two sidewalks (office and home) and inventing ways to torture the groundhog who predicted this weather.

Now would be a perfect time for reading a novel. Lately, though, I’ve been pondering the frequent reactions I get when I recommend a recent novel to friends or acquaintances.

Sometimes it’s a pained, put-upon look, as if I’d suggested they shovel the snow from my 100-foot driveway. (Strictly a metaphor; my driveway is only 6 feet.)

Sometimes it’s an unbelieving, disdainful grimace as if I’d offered tickets to a Justin Bieber concert.

Sometimes it’s even worse: a repulsed glare as if I’d dragged my friend to an expensive restaurant for a feast of earthworms, sycamore bark and raw mutton. (Metaphor again: Philly doesn’t boast such a restaurant—yet.)

The people I’m talking about are urbane, well-educated folk who must, at one time or other, have read a novel. Why does the idea repel them so much now? I’ve come up with several possible explanations.

  • Middlebrows like me, they need all their spare time for watching British costume dramas. Maybe, like me, they’re still trying to figure out why any eligible bachelors tolerate Mary Crawley.
  • Implying that a friend would read a book for fun is an insult, really. It’s like saying your haircut is so perfectly 1974.
  • Given the dire condition of the world, they may agree with Elena Ferrante’s character Franco Mari, a political activist who declares to his ex-girlfriend, “[T]his, objectively, is not the moment for writing novels” (from Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay).
  • They may see contemporary novels as gimmicky and trivial. Partly true.
  • They may see contemporary novels as wordy, opaque, unfocused and boring. Also partly true.
  • It’s a pain to read a lot of text on a phone, and what other way is there to read?
  • If the friend is male, he probably views novel-reading as beneath his serious manly dignity, like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice: “Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.”

Hmmm. …

You know, after all that, I’ve convinced myself it’s foolish to waste time on fiction. I think my companion has a better idea for a wintry afternoon.

Fergus_3-5-15b

ConeyIsland_frontcoverRGBCleaver Magazine has been ramping up its review section, and today there’s an excellent review of a book I love, We’ll Go to Coney Island, a novel in stories by Barbara Scheiber (Sowilo Press, 2014). The reviewer, Ashlee Paxton-Turner, is given plenty of space (more than 1,500 words) to discuss the work in detail, and she’s quite perceptive.

Early on, Paxton-Turner tells the remarkable story of the Walker Evans photo used on the cover. The book’s linked stories are loosely based on the author’s own family history, especially her mother, her charismatic and philandering father, and her stepmother. While she was writing the stories, she happened to see the Evans Coney Island photo in an article about an upcoming exhibition. Though the man in the picture has his back turned to the camera, Scheiber instantly recognized him: her father! with his mistress (later her stepmother)!

That’s a great background tale. The stories in the book itself are just as good, and the arrangement adds to their power. Chapters set in 1915–1916, when the main character Minna is a young girl, interweave with chapters from much later years, in which Minna becomes a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Here is Paxton-Turner’s take on the technique:

Scheiber uses the form to tell two parallel narratives—past and present—that taken separately are rather linear. Once she puts them together, the linearity is distorted. This creates emotional resonance: the past and its formative memories does not yield or relinquish its hold on the present; it continues to resurface, even when Minna, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is left in the barren room of a nursing home.

Right. The past informs the present and vice versa, as much as in any time-travel sci-fi novel.

One other note of interest: The author, a first-time novelist, is in her nineties. I take that to mean that for all of us who have been dull and unimaginative for decades, there is still hope.

The book cover above links to the Amazon page for the book. Here is the link to the Cleaver review.

The Ape Goes Live

January 5, 2015

A quick post to announce that my novel The Big Happiness is now available as an ebook in Kindle format, presumably readable on any device with a Kindle app. Here’s the link.

Cover of The Big HappinessThe novel features a brain-damaged alcoholic who calls herself Allison Wonderland, along with her eccentric, half-blind lover Leigh Berry, who speaks in his own semi-invented language. A “normal” friend of theirs, Connie Bowers, tries to guide them through their misadventures, while assorted other colorful and wacky types, including a giant imaginary ape, play supporting roles. (Note the ape peeking out at the bottom of the cover.)

The book is kind of about “disabilities,” in all senses of the word; kind of about spirituality; and kind of just crazy. I hope some readers enjoy it and none accuse me of exploiting innocent apes for commercial gain.

 

Drawing from Life

August 19, 2014

Robin Black’s novel Life Drawing is remarkable in many ways. So many reviewers have praised the book already that there’s no need to add to the chorus, but I want to note one element in particular.

A baLife Drawing by Robin Blackd thing happens in this book. A big, bad thing, with a clear victim and a clear perpetrator. But what makes the act unusual is that everyone is guilty in some sense. The victim bears some guilt. So do three other people who did not commit or encourage or sanction the bad thing but nevertheless helped move it toward fruition.

That strikes me as more true to life than we care to acknowledge on a daily basis. We may nod at the author’s wisdom, but in real life we prefer to get outraged. We like to draw hard lines between the innocent and the guilty, point our fingers at the bad guys and clamor for justice. For just a moment, think of how often we do this when discussing, say, Palestine, gun violence, political rebellions, multigenerational poverty, _____ [insert controversial subject of your choice].

Ms. Black’s one sin against realism in Life Drawing is that she allows her characters to recognize how much they have all contributed to the evil. In real life, we won’t admit any such thing.

If only we could be as smart as our best novelists …