20 March 2011

Getting Full

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:52 pm

Continuing on Reality Hunger

238.  The contemporary vogue of not tucking in your shirttail (which I dutifully follow): a purposeful confusion of the realms.

I started this vogue decades ago.

242.  Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any.

This quote comes from Andrew O’Hehir’s 2005 “lyric essay” on Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Here’s the quote in context:

“Most of the response to this book is not in fact a response to the book but to the life situation that occasioned it, and perhaps to the fact that it exists at all. A cynical, and not entirely wrongheaded, thing to say here is that our culture is obsessed with “real” events because we hardly experience any, and that the private deaths of Didion’s husband and daughter, along with her own private suffering, are in danger of being transformed by endless publicity into spectacles or pseudo-events. There’s more to it than that…”

253.  People like you are in what we call the reality-based community. You believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality (judiciously, as you will) we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors, and you — all of you — will be left to just study what we do.

I first read this quote (from one of GWBush’s aides) when I googled “hyperstition.” In Shields’  context, the implication is that creators of fictional realities are neocons. Seriously?

318.  Resolution and conclusion are inherent in a plot-driven narrative.

Why “inherent,” rather than “traditional” or “expected”?

321.  Story seems to say that everything happens for a reason, and I want to say, No it doesn’t.

The preceding sentence is a short-short story authored by David Shields.

322. If I’m reading a book and it seems truly interesting, I tend to start reading back to front in order not to be  too deeply under the sway of progress.

Admit it: you just want to skip to the end to see how it turns out.

324.  The absence of a plot leaves the reader free to think about other things.

So does the absence of a book.

325.  Plots are for dead people.

This quote comes from a short story written by Lorrie Moore.

347.  I love literature, but not because I love stories per se. I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting. It’s not clear to me what such narratives are supposedly revealing about the human condition. I’m drawn to literature instead as a form of thinking, consciousness, wisdom-seeking. I like work that’s focused not only page by page but line by line on what the writer really cares about rather than hoping that what the writer cares about will somehow mysteriously creep through the cracks of narrative, which is the way I experience most stories and novels.

To a considerable extent I share what seems to be Shields’s central complaint about fiction. A lot of fiction writers really do seem to care about the stories they’re writing, for the story’s own sake. I rarely read that sort of novel, though I will watch the movie. Novels in which the author uses story and characters serve as props for elaborating his big ideas? I’m with Shields: boring, contrived. But why should I be expected to care more about reality-based prose, be it fiction or essay or poetry? Mostly what’s needed is good writing, not a particular kind of writing.

361.  You don’t need a story. The question is: How long do you not need a story?

If you don’t need a story, don’t write a story. If the need arises, why is it better to hold out against this need for as long as you can?

371.  Nonfiction, qua label, is nothing more or less than a very flexible (easily breakable) frame that allows you to pull the thing away from narrative and toward contemplation, which is all I’ve ever wanted.

Why not contemplate the narrative?

376.  The merit of style exists precisely in that it delivers the greatest number of ideas in the fewest number of words.

Blah blah blah… This quote comes from somebody named Shklovsky, who according to Wikipedia wrote Theory of Prose in 1925. Wikipedia offers this quote from the book: “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar’, to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.” So first he wants to condense style, and now he wants to prolong it? I guess you have to read his book to know what he wants when.



  1. Yes, there’s ‘more to it than that’, but thanks for putting up that about the ‘lyric essay’ on ‘year of magical thinking’.

    There’s a certain sense in which ‘year of magical thinking’ is her weakest book, and I’m sure she knows it. She probably even did it just because she wasn’t suicidal, along the same lines of when she said she went on the book tour for many months (she started readings here in fall, 2005, and I heard two of those) because ‘well, that was the only way I could get through it’. Shortly after the book tour, she was approached to do the play version that starred Vanessa Redgrave, I think it ran some 6 months or so. Unpleasant coincidences occurred some 2 years after its closing (it had a limited run, because even though Redgrave is this ‘large-scale’ type, that’s hard to do a tragedy monologue 8 times a week, although it may have been 6, given the exhaustion; it was well-attended, but didn’t receive rave reviews or Tony nominations of importance, and is Didion’s only play–I didn’t read the play version nor see it, didn’t want to, wasn’t quite interested in that sensation, which sounded a bit claustrophobic): In early 2010, Redgrave lost her daughter Natasha, brother Corin, and sister Lynn the ‘Georgy Girl’ gal, but that’s beside the point.

    There’s ‘more to it’ because, even if you believe ‘people experience very few live events’ (that sounds like the usual PoMo crock to me), this was a surprise best-seller even given Didion’s name. If she hadn’t had all that prior achievement, which brought great literary fame, it wouldn’t have sold like that. Because it’s not her usual ‘personal experience of a circumstance or situation’ which is also seen as ‘outside her’, it’s really more about her even than her husband or daughter. It’s even more autobiographical than my cine-musique and now ‘theater-musique’- ‘dance-musique’ works (btw, there really was a change into the more tangible objects in this new book, away from the vaporous nature of cinema, and to prove it, there is one very long passage in the second chapter in which cine-musique is revisited in the 2009 trip to Los Angeles, where I was attacked by the vicious trolls, having unfortunately been given the use of the owner’s computer (little could have been more idiotic for my happiness than accepting this privilege, although the events of the days that then followed the worst of those exchanges are the only reason we excised a much weaker version about Kim Novak in ‘Strangers When We Meet’, and somewhat flaccid meditations on the Malibu Colony, and replaced it with this, based on two sojourns of mine in Beverly Hills.

    Her fantastic journalism essays for NYReview of Books, as the review of the Starr Referral, and the various religious conspiracies against Clinton which led to a bipartisan ‘political class’ aren’t about her at all, of course, but as far back as the essays I mentioned the other day about Sacramento, and even the 2003 ‘Where I Was From’, with this fierce section about the total fall into the abyss of all of Lakewood’s MacDonnell Douglas worker, is a ‘lot about her’. But ‘Magical Thinking’ then, is because, if she was going to write anything, she would have to write that, and she’d obviously earned the right.

    The ‘that’s not all there is to it’ is because this is at least vast numbers of people actually reading and learning something about grief that affects literally everybody, and by someone who knows how to ‘bully-pulpit-write’, and Joan does know how to do it. I think there’s something now by Joyce Carol Oates about her own experience with grief, reviewed by Julian Barnes in the NYReview of Books, but it was a pay article, and the little intro told little; I’m going to find other reviews, although Oates has never had a strong individual powerful style for me (I read one very good novel, but it wasn’t better than very good.)

    So that yes, people do like to ‘vicariously grieve’, but I guess the ‘that’s not all there is to it’ as that it took some labour to read it, and is also–since Didion is a minor celebrity, after all only a writer, that is a positive step beyond all that wailing that went on after Princess Diana’s death. I also recall the weirdness of these 60 + plus ladies shown by Peter Jennings on ABC just after 9/11, as they wailed outside Buckingham Palace. It was the same kind of strange ‘grief’ as the Diana thing.

    ‘Magical Thinking’ came about 2 years after her previous volume ‘Where I Was From’, which is more about California, and I think a much better book. But I do remember that she mentions in that one about the pioneers (her ancestors were in the Donner Party that managed to split off and get out of the worst messes before the cannibalism started, although I don’t have the facts down on that), and when someone’s husband or wife or child was lost, there was ‘no time to grieve’, that grief was a luxury. She wouldn’t have forgotten that she’d just said that, even though you can hardly imagine a more elaborate grief; on the other hand, that is a serious subject, and does get rid of those obnoxious things that people plant in your head about ‘how to grieve’. My brother idiotically told me that ‘you couldn’t even grieve over our mother’s death’, surely one of the most hostile and stupid things anyone has ever said to me, since I simply didn’t burst into tears in front of the guests who came to our house like he did (although it’s not stupider than other things HE said to me. I did like when he wrote me about 15 years ago ‘Remember how much you used to like me as a child?’ God, what an asshole thing to say; I withheld comment on that, since it was so obvious he wanted me to say ‘Yes, and you’ve pointed out beautifully that I do not now’.

    It’s a curious phenomenon the way NYReview of Books really got her going late in her career on these long essays about Washington and politics in general. Her research is always consummate, and when she is talking about the evangelical churches, she has forced herself to read all their magazines, just as she forced herself to read the Complete Works of Newt Gingrich (can you imagine anything more horrible?). But that’s why, when she wrote that Bob Woodward wrote ‘political pornography’, people might not agree, but she’s got a point: He bragged about making ‘two trips to Los Angeles’ to see for himself about something, and she pointed this out, of course, more or less ‘wow. Two trips from D.C. to L.A. to work on your book…’ I fully agree.

    But it’s that her talent, even though many aren’t fans (her deep love of ‘place’ and hatred of ‘placelessness’ is one of the things for which I hold her in such high regard, I’m sure, that’s why she’d tell Woodward he was amateurish), that accompanied her fame that is impressive, and that’s my guess about what ‘there’s more to it than that’ might mean, even if that’s not what he was thinking about when he wrote about it. But what I was trying to say is that these articles on politics written 10-15 years ago seemed much more colourless when I read them at the time; by now, they seem like some of her most ultimate achievements, in that she has fully wedded form and content in a uniquely high style. She wrote, for example, a piece for NYReview (not in any of the published book collections of essays) called ‘Varieties of Madness’, and one of the pieces she was reviewing was the ‘Unabomber Manifesto’ (she does get all the best gigs, it seems, that and the ‘Starr Referral’, as if they were books). Discussing it, she says that Ted Kaczynski finds himself ‘in that most desolate of lakes, the colloquial voice’, which cracked me up. She has a nerve to write like that, but at least it’s not like Toni Bentley’s swollen purple prose as she documents her middle-age fixation on sodomy. And that they let Bentley write in NYReview is, I think, sickening; I don’t know the nature of her political connections in the various literary circuits, although she does know all the dancers. But these horrible monstrous things she writes are somehow allowed in both NYReview and NYTimes Book Review, which is sometimes good.

    Glad you’re surviving the ‘rule books’.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 22 March 2011 @ 8:28 pm

    • Just to add to that was that she has never written another novel after the 1996 ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’, which I think was her best, although her ‘heavy-weight-ness’ is probably more as an essayist than novelist. I doubt she’ll write another one, and that title certainly does even seem prophetic. It’s such a beautifully-written novel, though, that I did read it three times, and never re-read ‘Magical Thinking’. Much of the reaction (even at NYReview) to that book was hype. I don’t think she pays much attention to that, and did appear in late 2008 on a NYReview podcast just after Obama’s election, in which she was very contrary, however wise, and very old and worn-looking.


      Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 22 March 2011 @ 8:41 pm

      • http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/apr/07/sorrow-there-no-remedy/

        No, they’ve now put the Barnes/Carol Oates thing all the way on there, it definitely wasn’t available without subscription a day or two ago. I’ll read it tomorrow. I’ve liked a couple of Barnes’s things from the 90s, but they haven’t stayed with me that strongly, except for that marvelous description in ‘Flaubert’s Parrot’ of the ‘young phenomenon’, the sheep with 5 legs and some strange unicorn-horn on its head, as I recall (I may not have it exactly right, but Christian and I really got into that, and I called him ‘my young phenomenon’ for awhile.)


        Comment by idnyc — 22 March 2011 @ 9:12 pm

  2. I’m reminded again that I should get the White Album or some other of Didion’s books from the library. I’m getting close to finishing Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven, which features some of the attributes/flaws highlighted by the manifestoist as reasons why fiction is dead. Mulisch sets up characters in situations that allow him to present short essays on various topics, framing them in the form of conversations. At one point Mulisch actually has one of his characters reflect on the implausibility of his own dialogue, saying something like “I wonder why I keep making these long speeches instead of talking like ordinary humans do.” Still, the book has kept my interest through 600+ pages — maybe the Reality Hunger manifesto is giving me a new lease on fiction-reading based on sheer contrariness.

    Joyce Carol Oates — I read one of her novels, found it well-crafted and entertaining without much substance. I somehow thought she was Southern, even though I knew she was Roman Catholic — that sort of gothic thing I suppose. I’m not sure I ever grieved over my own mother’s death, although I do dream about her with some frequency. She died twelve years ago, and by then I kept in touch maybe weekly by telephone and visited once or twice a year. We got along fine, and when I was a child I confided in her, but by the time she died she seemed more like an old friend whose importance to my life, while profound for some time, had gradually diminished. After she died I spent about a week with my father and, while we reminisced some, we seemed to spend most of our time together in resolving the practicalities. It is possible that I’m more hard-hearted than most. When I was in high school my mother went into the hospital for a week or more with a potentially fatal condition, but I don’t recall worrying much about her, or even about myself if she were to die.

    I would have no interest in writing essays about my own grieving, whether I grieve intensely enough, and so on. Would I channel a fictional character through a grieving episode? Maybe, although I have a sense it wouldn’t be particularly tear-jerking — more likely odd, or sort of funny.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 March 2011 @ 1:21 am

    • Fascinating what you say about your mother being ‘an old friend whose importance to your life had diminished’. We’re just all different, otherwise I’d think my rather different response was because I was a bachelor, but my siblings were also pretty emotional, and also a year later when my father also died. You have in this formulation one of the reasons the family is both weak and strong: It’s powerful and magnetic for awhile, then loses it’s ‘character’. Interesting that your response to your mother’s death is a little like my response to my brother, although he’s still alive. As the oldest son, he thinks that, in the old traditional sense, he has become sort of a ‘patriarch’ to the extended family, which still exists in the American South just as it does in Italy and Greece. This has, however, made him something of a laughingstock, esp. when he’s written form letters warning people to ‘observe safe sex’ and referring to himself as ‘a Father’.

      I don’t think you are interested in Joan Didion at all, frankly. You have said ‘you’ve reminded me about the White Album’ several times over the last few years. That’s cool. If you do pick up something, it ought not to be that by now, because ‘The White Album’ is dated unless you want a means and lens through which to view Los Angeles in ways it no longer advertises itself (that’s why ‘secret motel’ was so extraordinary until this year’s visit, at which point it had become ‘family-friendly’ and will probably go out of business. It was a near-miracle that it lasted this long in a form kept from the 60s. Most things in that category are in the more explicitly ‘down-and-out’ formats. This was mellow and a touch sleazy, but was always kept spotless anyway and had that beautiful garden, which is not what the people came for.

      So that you’d do better to take a look at the 2000 collection ‘Political Fictions’, which might interest you on the growth of an articulated political class through the impeachment proceedings to a greater degree than had even existed before (some of the quotes of Cokie Roberts alone, as Didion ridicules her screaming on a Sunday talk show ‘and an INTERN!!!’ are very funny), and the chronicling of people like Olasky and the books by and about Bush’s ‘compassionate conservatism’. There’s no point in pretending that just because Bush was removed finally that he didn’t cause a profound imprint.

      But I’d recommend ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’, because this is kind of semi-noir, and one which makes more sense to the contemporary age, full of Ak-47s and faked passports, instead of slumming-angel shamuses in the more ‘classic noir’ of the 40s and 50s. By now, it would all have to do with weapons sales and terrorism and some CIA, DeLillo puts this sort of thing in novels and has done a good bit toward the end of ‘Underworld’ and also in ‘Cosmopolis’, although the latter is lesser. But ‘The Last Thing He Wanted’ is interesting because it’s sort of semi-genre but written by someone who’s novels are always thought to be literary fiction, as with ‘Play It As It Lays’, which was a big sensation in its day. That wouldn’t interest you, but ‘Last Thing’ might. In a sense, it’s a conventional page-turner, but has details that most genre-fiction writers wouldn’t have thought up. Whether you’d find these interesting I don’t know–the emphasis was on the proliferation of conspiracy in the Caribbean, and there are unexpected oddments like how one island nearby would differ completely insofar as it wouldn’t be ‘contaminated’ by the conspiracy totally running another, and that’s the arbitrary nature that starts the wonderment going. Why it?


      Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 23 March 2011 @ 10:13 am

  3. I reserved both Political Fictions and White Album from the library.

    Anne’s family is more like your own. When her grandfather was still alive I used to listen to his stories even though everyone else in the family had long before gotten sick of them. Many of her family members live on adjacent farms, most of the rest live nearby. Even if they go away to school they come back. Her family has been there forever of course — DAR. My family’s stay in the USA has been much shorter, and they came here to work in mills and mines and so on, so there are ties neither to extended generations nor to Tara. My extended family? I have no siblings; every few years I get in touch with one cousin and one uncle, but that’s it. I phoned my mother’s sister at her apartment in Hawaii about a month before she died. She was a real character, and she and I used to goof off together when I was little, but before that last phone call I don’t think I’d spoken with her or written her since my wedding. I also visited one of my father’s brothers, the one who lived with us when I was a kid, at the nursing home about a week before he died. The preceding year my father had remarried and his three brothers had all attended the wedding — it was the first time they’d all been together in forty years.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 March 2011 @ 12:41 pm

    • At the risk of being called ‘sentimental’, I have to say that’s all very moving, and kind of you to tell me this.

      And yes! You finally did reserve them. I can hardly wait to discuss them with you. I think you will love the way she read the all these super-right evangelical magazines in one of the essays, while pretending not to hold her nose. Because I know from old 60s essays, that she abhors these people–she wasn’t even that fond of the hippies she had to live with to write the long essay ‘Slouching Toward Bethleham’ in Haight-Ashbury in 1965. And admits to having had to take dexedrine mainlined with gin every night to get through the horror of having to literally live with the hippies.

      You don’t seem like an ‘only child’ by the stereotypes at all. So much for stereotypes: While I think they are very often true, they just aren’t always. Your tolerance for people and many different kinds is something I don’t usually associate with ‘only child(s)’. My one close friend here who is an only child is a literal recluse even though has a couple of million in savings, doesn’t spend any of it, won’t buy a computer, and goes to my branch of the NYPL to watch movies on those old home screens, because ‘it’s like being in high school’. She never really recovered when she had to retire some years ago, and was one of those people who really loved to go to work every day; without it, she doesn’t know what to do with herself.


      Comment by idnyc — 23 March 2011 @ 12:57 pm

    • I just read the Barnes review of the Oates memoir. Toward the end, he obliquely points out the one uninteresting thing about this, except for her die-hard fans: Fine that she got married, and even very soon afterwards, but not really a universal story of grief thereby. Which doesn’t mean I don’t think Oates grieved (I’m not very interested in her work, and don’t know her personally, so her particular autobio of any kind is not something I’m going to take time for), but that it is for a much more limited readership–although she’s written scores of novels and probably does have a wide following. I hadn’t known Barnes was writing about the Didion book when I linked this last night. Since it was long-drawn out and went into a play form (the book didn’t include the daughter’s death, which occurred well after the book was finished), it had caught a lot of readers that haven’t ever read another Didion book. I doubt that that will be true of the Oates book, and the quick re-marriage will probably rule out many that are not purely interested in anything Oates writes. I’ll primarily be interested in how this does sell.

      Something about doing the exact same thing that Didion had done a few years ago in terms of ‘every day in the following year’ is not very persuasive either, as she obviously thought she could get away with something everybody who would even consider this book would know. Barnes is pretty gentle, though, and does say she’s not always successful, but is good on the ‘rage’ parts, and the fact of the repetition, and ‘it’s like that’, not ‘original’, etc.


      Comment by idnyc — 23 March 2011 @ 6:40 pm

      • I think I know what bothers me about choosing the exact same ‘days of the first year after death of a spouse’. Barnes thinks it’s normal to do this, and probably a lot of people think in that ‘form’, as it were, that being the first year. But I would definitely think Oates purposely did it as a kind of follow-up to Didion’s, and in that sense it’s interesting, but clearly, because of her own choices, wouldn’t work as a story or study of ‘pure grief’, focussed only on those dead or dying in one’s immediate family. This is immediately countered in the matter of the very quick courtship and marriage. So it then is still an effective kind of book precisely because it obviously is meant to be ‘another famous female writer’s experience after losing her husband’. That has its own honesty, because you can then place one over the other and see how varied grief can be. Oates may know that her version won’t work quite as well as a less alloyed version (the new husband really does produce a dissonance that I think will turn the outsider or non-fan off), but Barnes has a point that ‘both are playing to their strengths’–although that’s hardly a surprise if they’re even going to write anything at all, and would be automatic.

        There’s one very funny moment when Didion is speaking to a doctor (I can’t remember if it’s a psychologist or not) some months after her husband has died and she’s still having to tend to her daughter, who lasts another year and a half, with continuing complications and surgical procedures, etc. She just says to him “You know, I just can’t see the up side to any of this”.


        Comment by idnyc — 23 March 2011 @ 7:25 pm

  4. I just picked up the two Didion books from the library, but I have to finish the long Mulisch novel before I take much of a look at them.


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 March 2011 @ 2:42 pm

  5. And I’ve had ‘The Discovery of Heaven’ out for some weeks now, not having started it yet. Everything seems peculiarly frozen or stopped-up somehow, and it’s still very wintry here in terms of temperatures. I definitely want to read the Mulisch, but early spring is probably a lot like labour pains must be, although not that bad–‘getting too full’ it sometimes feel these days. I could live without it, and long for a sense of something much sparser.


    Comment by idnyc — 24 March 2011 @ 6:12 pm

  6. Describing this Reality Hunger book to someone yesterday, someone who laments that the personal essay form has been lost to all but a select elite readership, I proposed that the blogs are the place where this form proliferates. I don’t mean my own posts, which tend either toward the nonverbal (movie screengrabs) or the impersonal and direct summary of others’ work. I’m referring to those bloggers who craft their online prose carefully, aesthetically, personally — as memoirists, as critics, as theorists, as essayists. Not all of it is good of course, but that’s not the immediate point. Selecting the best ones, editing them, and compiling them into book form: is it necessary for the author to conceal such a book’s sordid past in order for it to be received in society?


    Comment by ktismatics — 13 April 2011 @ 4:51 am

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