Literature as conversation

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a review of new books that underscored more how writing is not a one-way monologue; it is a conversation. Sometimes that conversation is with ourselves. Sometimes it is with the past or future. Sometimes it is a conversation with other books – a response to another work, or art, or music, something which moved the writer to give back. And sometimes, as this NYTimes article makes clear, it is a conversation between two people intimately concerned with their connection through a common experience. In this case the experience is a young man’s methamphetamine addiction, and the conversation plays out through two books: one from the father, and one from the addict son.

“Enfant terrible” Robbe-Grillet dies

I just found out that Alaine Robbe-Grillet died on Monday. He was a favorite (they seem to be dropping like flies) and while I was hammering my head against graduate school I found his rules for a New Novel very compelling. Looking back on it now I realize that what I liked so much in his ruminations on the novel form was not that I wanted to write like him but that I wanted to write like me, and he was about breaking convention.
For him the key was that the word “novel” was originally applied to long writing in reference to its being “new.” It was a “new” form, a “novel” form; and in his and other French writers of the post-WWII period that “new” form was dead. He sought to revitalize it. His rules for a New Novel included removing the human element. I remember his essay in which he said his goal was to describe an apple in such a way that it didn’t matter whether it was seen by a character or not, that the description of a body on the floor should be removed of anything but its being. This makes for rather objective, and some would say cold, detached, writing. It’s also a helpful thing to keep in mind when watching French cinema. All those films where nothing seems to happen and people look at things? That’s Robbe-Grillet’s echo. He in fact became a film-maker, a successful one, and tried to accomplish in film what he did in literature: objectivity, removal of the human subjective clouds that stand between a thing and the viewer (or even the thing and the thing). The apple is only really an “apple” when it’s outside of anyone’s definition of what “Apple” is. Bit of a ramble, but that’s what reading his essays while buzzing on caffeine does to a guy.
A lot of people don’t like him. He’s cold. He can be confusing. But, that’s the point. He wants it to be a puzzle. It’s language, after all, and “meaning” is in how the words play off each other, not in how they reflect a genuine reality outside themselves. There is no “real” murder in his books, only the words that describe the murder. So he explores that exploration. He doesn’t limit his plot (if there is one) to a solution. He lets it unravel into more questions.
I haven’t read him in a while. The last time was probably five years ago. “The Erasers.” It was his first novel and started the trend to which he stuck so closely. It is the story of a series of murders in a small village. Or is it? Who’s investigating? Possibly the killer. It’s a giant circle filled with tiny loops of fantasy. It’s a who-done-it for people who don’t read who-done-its. I’ve another on my shelf, “In the Labyrinth,” which I’ll be getting to soon.

Panic at the Disco

I had one of my nightmares come true on Tuesday night. Google turned on me.
I’ve been transcribing a novel for several weeks. It’s slow going because I have to fit in time in the evenings, and I’m burdened by horrible (horrible (horrible!)) handwriting. Still, I manage a little bit every day, sometimes during lunch, mostly at night. To make my access to the typed work easier I’ve been using Google Documents. I’ve been able to type on any computer within reach and not worry about where the file is saved because it’s saved online. I’ve used Google Docs for several projects, mostly short stories, letters, and rough outlines. This was my first time working on a novel with it.
One of my favorite Google Docs features is “insert note.” It places a highlighted note into the body of the text, almost like putting a sticky-note onto a piece of paper, allowing me to add comments on my work, suggestions for changes or underscoring things I need to remember. In the document it looks like text with highlighting and a different format. Last night, after typing for about forty minutes, I became curious about how these comments would appear, if at all, in the exported document. Google Docs allows for export to several formats including WORD and OPEN OFFICE, which is where I planned to export to after all the typing was done. To see how it would look in Open Office I did a quick export. Within seconds I saw there was a problem.
In Open Office, the document ended several thousand words shy of where I was in the story. There were fifteen pages, but there should have been more. The text ended abruptly, in the middle of a word. It ended like this:

“… How high his son had gone he could not te”

That was it. The rest – kaput.
I tried exporting as a Word .doc. Same result. Maybe I could ‘copy’ the end and ‘paste’ it into the Open Office document? Yeah, I’ll do that and just work in OO from now on. Only one problem: the Open Office document won’t allow me to add anything beyond “te”. Huh? I try to paste again. No go. I try TYPING beyond the “te”. Nope. Nope? The Open Office document is somehow “locked” and won’t allow me to type past a specific spot. That spot is the ‘te’. Apparently, when your document has reached “te” there’s nothing else to say.
At this point I’m in full angry panic mode. I’ve got over eighteen thousand words typed into the Google Docs file and I can’t get past “te”. I have to get past “te”. I can’t send my agent “te”. I know! I’ll copy the ENTIRE document from Google Docs, and then I’ll paste it in a whole new Open Office document. That will do it.
Are you f()@%ing kidding me?
I send the document to myself from Google Docs as an e-mail (nice feature by the way). I copy and past from THAT.
Words like ‘d*()@&bag’ and ‘c*@%$()@%er’ fill the air over my head. My wife saunters in to see if I want to watch something on TV. TV? Is she crazy? She’s lost her f()@%ing mind. I’d call Bellvue if I wasn’t trying to break my computer by staring at it really, really hard.
One last shot. It will never work, but I have to do something, anything, before I end up driving over my computer with my car. I export the document from Google Docs as a Text file. Text file. Simple. Basic. Easy.
(Please God Please God Please God Please God Please God Please God Please God Please God)
It worked. The text file goes past ‘te’. ‘te’ doesn’t appear anywhere in it. I’m free of ‘te’. I open Open Office, start a new document, and paste the text file in. It works. I have a new file, with everything I’ve typed. Thank God.
(Side note to self: don’t use Google Docs. As my brother pointed out, you get what you pay for.)

Writers? We don’t need no stinkin’ writers.

threewayknockout.jpgThe writers strike has brought some bad, bad things to light. Please see “American Gladiators” and that FOX lie-detector-test show for examples. They are prime examples of what you get when you don’t have writers telling people what to say.
There are also examples of the writers strike forcing creativity and kicking ass. Such is the case with the I-(heart)-Huckabee smackdown that crossed channel boundaries. Conan, Stewart and Colbert pulled a Marx Brothers rabbit out of their writerless hats. Who doesn’t love poorly used stunt doubles and ice skates used as weapons? I know I do.
And if nothing else, the trio has provided me with my favorite new painting (see above). I’m going to get it blown up to six feet by 3 feet and hang it over my bed.

Voices from the Street by Philip K. Dick

VoicesFromTheStreet(1stEd).jpgThis isn’t one of PKD’s best. It’s a book he wrote in the 1950s, ahead of his pulp sci-fi, and while it deals with many of the same themes he explores in his speculative fiction it does it in a rather ham-handed way. Some of the scenes are straight out of B-movie dramas, women wringing their hands while the man stands threateningly above them. Others are very strong and are such surprises that they kept me reading. In short, this reads like an early novel of a man of ideas unsure of how to say what he feels compelled to say. PKD’s standard issues of disillusionment, isolation, and attempts to define humanity fill the book. If you look past some weak writing you’ll find an interesting literary exploration. It’s also surprisingly long for a PKD novel (nearly 300 pages in the hardcover, and their 300 tightly packed pages at that).
This review is also up at my Good Reads profile.

Iron Man

Not really related to my writing other than this: I think this movie is gonna rock, and when I see things that rock they invigorate me, get my juices flowing and make me want to write really cool shit. Just ask my wife. I made her watch this ad (it aired during the Super Bowl, Go Giants!) and hit rewind on the TiVo so many times that I’ll always remember that it aired one-hour-and-fourteen-minutes into the broadcast (1:14, 1:14, 1:14, 1:14, 1:14, 1:14). Now all I can think about is men in metal suits kicking ass, and it makes me want to write about them.
As a side note: big shout out to Jaye Wells for landing a sah-weet(!) three-book-deal (read about it in Publisher’s Weekly, second item down). Jaye’s a great writer, a better person, and I couldn’t be happier for her. The first book comes out in 2009, but I happen to know it’s worth the wait.