Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

You might call Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers a historical novel. It is and it isn’t. If it is a historical novel, it’s a postmodern one. But no, it’s not a postmodern novel, either. In truth, it’s an oddity. In tone and mood and the almost disconnected way the narrative is related, it puts me more in mind of Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist than anything else. It’s something to do with the picaresque nature and, more importantly, the lack of realism which distils every now and again into outright fantasy. What it creeates is something akin to a dream world, not wholly unrealistic but not quite rooted in our reality. Nathanael West might be a better comparison, or James Purdy.

The Sisters Brothers are a pair of hired assassins in Oregon in 1851. The year and the Western setting have drawn inevitable comparisons with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian but, apart from the casual (and neutrally related) violence the two novels have little in common. The narrator is Eli Sisters, a man who, initially, seems simple but is gradually revealed as the story progresses (to us, though not necessarily to himself) as increasingly complex. His brother Charlie, on the other hand, is initially shown to be a thug, easily the more violent and less moral of the pair and, until the denouement, that is how he remains. If Westerns are traditionally stories of travel and movement (usually westward), then The Sisters Brothers certainly fulfils that criterion, but the movement here is psychological rather than physical. So it isn’t quite a Western either, and in that the McCarthy comparison might be more usefully made with The Crossing or All the Pretty Horses. As with those novels, The Sisters Brothers is more than anything a novel about character.

The first thing to say about the novel is that it is very funny, in a decidedly black fashion. The second thing to say is that it is not, nor is it intended to be, realistic. Jane Smiley, in a surprisingly weak review of the novel for The Guardian, seems not to understand this. She suggests:

A reader looking for meticulous depiction of Oregon and California in 1851, however, will have to look elsewhere. Eli barely gives the landscape a glance, and people met along the way are simple figures in his moral drama.
This really is a crassly reductive way of reading a novel, seemingly suggesting that a realist approach is the only true way. It’s as though the twentieth century, and modernism and post-modernism never existed. For a novelist, of all people, to make such an absurd comment is particularly regrettable. Smiley then goes on:
Nor does Eli have any larger philosophical or sociohistorical insights to offer. His narrative style is flat and literal, which is perhaps supposed to be the hilarious part.
This statement isn’t just regrettable, it’s remarkable. It’s as though several generations of English literature, from Tristram Shandy onwards, have ceased to exist. The idea that the narrator must be the one to offer the philosophical or sociohistorical insights is simply naïve. Has Smiley never heard of the unreliable narrator? Has she never reckoned on what is revealed through not being spoken? Has she never heard the expression “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings”?

Eli may not have any larger insights to make (although, actually, I would refute this, too) but the novel assuredly does. Consider the ending. The closure. The change. Both characters develop. In the case of Eli, the narrator, there is a finely drawn and gradually revealed revelation that, for him, the life of the assassin is worthless and immoral. Charlie, of course, is a tougher case, and his catalyst for revelation comes, appropriately enough, not through his own conviction but through an accident – which is, alongside murder, one of the occupational hazards of the assassin. But, make no mistake, he does change. The Sisters Brothers change. Their mindless life of violence and casual cruelty winds to an end.

And nowhere in this is there any crude “revelatory” moment when a character suddenly sees the light. Fiction is full of such moments, the notion of the epiphany. In reality such light-bulb flashes of realisation never happen. Life doesn’t conveniently stop to allow you to have a Condor moment of self-reflective consideration. What happens is that an individual’s feelings begin to shift imperceptibly, changing in increments so that the destination of each peristaltic pulse seems indistinguishible from the previous but finally one finds that the end-point, the revelation, is far removed from where they began. This is what happens with Eli. This is what happens in The Sisters Brothers. Anyone who reads Eli’s intentionally flat narrative in an equally flat way will not realise that. Anyone who recognises the flatness for what it is, and makes the effort to comprehend the hidden story, will find much to engage. This, after all, is what good fiction is meant to do.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Jim Long

It's not often you note the obituary of a character in a novel, but in this case it is possible.

James William (Jim) Long has died in Knoxville, aged 81.

As a young man, Jim was a friend of a certain Cormac McCarthy, and he is immortalised in McCarthy's masterpiece, Suttree, as J-Bone. It seems that the real experiences of McCarthy, Long et al were every bit as wild as those of Sut and J-Bone.

In recent years, Jim was a patient guide to many McCarthy scholars who dropped by present-day Knoxville to witness for themselves the various locations of scenes in the novel. I never met him, but by all accounts he was a good and entertaining man. And, in his case, his memory will truly live on, every time a reader picks up a copy of Suttree and chuckles over their misadventures.


Before his death, Jim Long was visited by Jack Neely, a highly respected local journalist from Knoxville who has written extensively in the past on Cormac McCarthy's Knoxville connections. In the interview, Jim talks about Charlie McCarthy, as Cormac then was, and the old days. It's a wonderful interview. McCarthy is reported as saying that Suttree wouldn't exist with Jim.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Never judge a book by its cover, the old dictum goes. How true, how true. When I was at school, one of the books we were supposed to read was Cannery Row but I never did. The copies we had in school had a dreary cover featuring an almost derelict-looking street, devoid of life. The blurb on the back talked of the difficult lives of the residents of Cannery Row and the poverty and deprivation. It sounded the most dismal, boring story imaginable and I resolved to have nothing to do with it. Being something of a smartarse at school I had a habit of doing this, refusing to study the texts that were taught in class and instead answering questions on things I read on my own. And so Cannery Row passed me by. What a pity! I loved this novel, and I know my teenage self would have loved it even more.

Cannery Row is about community. It is about the ways that communities combine and relate, their impulses and resonances, the underlying tensions and, above all, connections that make them cohesive units. As ever, the best way to understand a concept is to study not a perfect example of it, but a flawed one. And community in Cannery Row is certainly flawed, only it is flawed in a triumphant way: what appears, on the surface, to be a valueless and self-serving society is shown to be invested with a deeper quality of comradeship. Such comradeship seldom presents itself in solid, positive ways, however, and the lives of Mack and the boys in Cannery Row are, indeed, troubled and troublesome, but at least their intentions, if easily deflected, are nonetheless honourable. The community these men represent is a microcosm of the rest of us – chaotic, often selfish, sometimes violent, naïve, misguided, reckless and ruthless but, beneath it all, a community that is decent.

Now, of course, anyone celebrating the underlying decency of ordinary folks is liable to be accused of being sentimental. And, indeed, sentimentality is an accusation that has hung over Steinbeck for seventy years and more. In Cannery Row, he certainly forces the reader to consider sympathetically people who would not normally receive such positive consideration – bums and drunks and whores – but to suggest, as some critics do, that this is somehow a flaw can only be described as curmudgeonly. Sure, Steinbeck presents these people in a positive light, but he doesn’t gloss over their faults: Mack, in particular, remains a character you would rather experience in a novel than have for a friend in real life, no matter how sympathetically Steinbeck treats him. Readers can discern the true nature of characters more subtly than many critics recognise. Sentimentality need not be a flaw and an instrinsic sense of hope for mankind is not a weakness.

The two most important characters in Cannery Row are also the most interesting. Doc and Mack represent opposing impulses – the former a reflective seeker of knowledge and the latter an impulsive and reactive thirster for experience. The reason I am sure my teenage self would have loved this novel is that I identify strongly with both men. How can you simultaneously identify with characters who are at opposing psychological poles, you may ask. But it is possible, and it points to the greatness of this novel: Doc and Mack, ostensibly so dissimilar, are in essence possessed of the same spirit. It may be stretching their characterisation too far to suggest they are representative of the Apollonian and Dionysian in us – Doc, in particular, is not purely Apollonian in outlook – but there is a general sense that Mack represents what Doc could become if he were to lose his self-control, while Doc’s innate decency is resident also in Mack, albeit deeply submerged, as evidenced by his attempts to put on a party for his friend. The two are yin and yang: through the combination of their characters we can see the good and bad in all of us, high and low, altruistic and selfish, contained and violent. Thought of as a single character, Mack/Doc encapsulates the entire focus of the novel. Community works because we are of necessity co-conspirators within it: this cannot be denied.

What is most notable about Cannery Row, though, is its humour. This is a genuinely and consistently funny book. The Row’s cast of reprobates forms a glorious congregation of the feckless and their scheming and planning and concomitant failures are presented in a wonderful series of adventures. From first to last Cannery Row bristles with life and verve. Mack and the boys and Doc and Lee Chong and the Palace Flophouse and Grill will linger long in the memory. Don’t judge a book by its cover. And don’t judge a person by his outward appearance. There is much, much more to us than that, as the great John Steinbeck repeatedly shows us.

Monday, September 03, 2012

How to write - Alan Garner style

Here's Alan Garner on how to write, from an article in the Guardian in which he is asked questions by Guardian readers (including yours truly):
Every word has to beg for its life. Adverbs and adjectives are born guilty until proved innocent. When something is "finished", I cut it back, and continue until what is said can be said in no fewer words. This leads to clarity and impact, and also to an extra dramatic effect when the rule is broken and the words appear to run riot. They don't. They're on a strong leash.
Perfect advice.

Writing dramatic scenes - Cannery Row

There’s a lesson about creative writing that Hunter S. Thompson never managed to learn: some things cannot be described. Some events are so momentous or extraordinary or strange that description can only ever be an anti-climax. Unless you are there, the telling can only be a pale imitation of the actual. Thompson failed to learn this over and over and over and over in his tedious catalogue of abuse, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Scenes of drunken debauchery cannot adequately be described and you had to be there for it to be funny.

To understand this, and to understand how to approach the description of such scenes, turn instead to a real writer, John Steinbeck. Steinbeck understood writing craft. He understood that if something is built up to heroic heights, no description is ever going to succeed: the anticipation will always outdo what the writer could convey in words.

Cannery Row essentially builds up, over the course of the whole novel, to the final party at Doc’s. The first party is a disaster. The second, planned with the best of intentions, will also, almost certainly, be a disaster. Mack and the boys have the capacity for destruction built into their DNA; things always go wrong around them; violence is never far from the surface.

So, having spent the whole novel building up to a cataclysmic party, how can Steinbeck make it work? He writes it the only way it possibly can work, by understating it completely. Instead of presenting the action directly, after the fight with the tuna boat boys, which is told directly, Steinbeck slips back into summary mode for the remainder of the party:

The enemy was driven half-way up the lot when the sirens sounded. Doc's birthday party had barely time to get inside the laboratory and wedge the broken door closed and turn out the lights before the police car cruised up. The cops didn't find anything. But the party was sitting in the dark giggling happily and drinking wine. The shift changed at the Bear Flag. The fresh contingent raged in full of hell. And then the party really got going. The cops came back, looked in, clicked their tongues and joined it. Mack and the boys used the squad car to go to Jimmy Brucia's for more wine and Jimmy came back with them. You could hear the roar of the party from end to end of Cannery Row. The party had all the best qualities of a riot and a night on the barricades. The crew from the San Pedro tuna boat crept humbly back and joined the party. They were embraced and admired. A woman five blocks away called the police to complain about the noise and couldn't get anyone. The cops reported their own car stolen and found it later on the beach. Doc sitting cross-legged on the table smiled and tapped his fingers gently on his knee. Mack and Phyllis Mae were doing Indian wrestling on the floor. And the cool bay wind blew in through the broken windows. It was then that someone lighted the twenty-five-foot string of firecrackers.
This is brilliant. It still conveys the anarchy of the party but the distance the author establishes by reporting it in this way gives it a strength that direct narrative would have failed to convey.