My review of Philip Roth’s new novel The Humbling has been posted over at Identity Theory. Roth has written several of the best books I’ve ever read, and I revere him for his mastery of the art of fiction. But unfortunately, The Humbling leaves a lot to be desired.
Posts Tagged 'fiction'
Tags: Books, fiction, my reviews, Philip Roth, reviews, The Humbling
Tags: Amélie Nothomb, Books, fiction, my reviews, Tokyo Fiancée
Rain Taxi has published my review of Amélie Nothomb’s Tokyo Fiancée as a part of its Spring 2009 Online Edition.
Tags: A Mercy, Books, fiction, Toni Morrison
When Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993, she was 62 years old—no spring chicken, but still a writer with a long career ahead of her. After receiving the Nobel, Morrison experienced literary deification, and in the sixteen long years since, she has been routinely accorded the same kind of reverence ordinarily reserved for long-dead writers whose canonical position is beyond dispute. Most critical discussion of her fiction now takes an assumption of greatness as its starting point. When a new Toni Morrison novel arrives, the question for reviewers and scholars is never, “Is it good?”—its quality is a given. Rather, the task is to fit the new work into the context of Morrison’s previous accomplishments and of great literature more broadly. Morrison, in short, has been canonized alive.
Given this fact, Morrison no doubt makes a tempting target for critics in search of an exalted literary reputation to deflate—the harder they come, the harder they fall. But actual attempts at Morrison takedowns are quite rare. The reason? Part of it might be her status as a beloved living legend within American literature. More fundamentally, though, I think it’s simply that her books are fully worthy of the extraordinary acclaim they’ve received. Also, despite having completed an apotheosis at such an early age, Morrison has never rested on her laurels. Her new novel, A Mercy, published late in 2008, is yet another worthy entry to an astoundingly rich body of work.
In the novel, Morrison interweaves the stories and voices of several characters—a slave girl; an Anglo-Dutch trader; his wife; and their orphaned Native American servant, among others—who are attempting to forge lives for themselves in the New World in the 1680s. At 167 pages, the novel is slim and dense, finding room for several involving storylines while also making nuanced, intelligent, and morally powerful arguments about the nature of freedom and bondage, the formation of the American character, and the American relationship to the land. All the while, Morrison’s language is intoxicating in its sounds and rhythms, routinely achieving beautifully poetic effects without sacrificing story or sense.
Here’s one brief illustrative passage, in which Jakob, the trader, ponders making a move to Barbados in the hope of achieving greater fortune and success:
Right, he thought, looking at a sky vulgar with stars. The silver that glittered there was not at all unreachable. And that wide swath of cream pouring through the stars was his for the tasting.
What I love about this passage is not only its surface gorgeousness, but also the ways in which Morrison uses it to breathe new life into an old, overfamiliar metaphor. This is far from the first time that the stars have been used as a metaphor for hope; the conceit is so familiar that it found its way into Disney movies generations ago, and even then it was far from fresh. But here Morrison does something remarkable: the stars become “cream” for “the tasting,” and Jakob’s hope becomes an embodied hunger, rather than an abstract gaze heavenward. This idea forges a connection with the metaphor’s ancient heart, reconnecting the dots between the hungry, restless, unsettled feeling in Jakob’s gut and the milky splash of stars above. At the same time, Morrison quietly achieves some distance from Jakob’s perspective, noting the vulgarity of the stars, and thus calling into question both the ethics of his hopes and the fact that he has no real reason to believe that he might succeed. And so Morrison also uncovers another aspect of the metaphor that contemporary readers rarely give any thought: the idea of the heavens as existing on an altogether different scale than human hopes, and the idea that the stars reveal just how small a man who wishes upon them can be.
Earlier on the same page, Morrison achieves a very different, and startling effect, using a far more novel metaphor. Jakob has suffered the deaths of several young children, and when he finds his way to the seashore in a contemplative, hopeful mood, this is how Morrison describes it:
He gazed at the occasional dapple of starlight on the water, then bent down and placed his hands in it. Sand moved under his palms; infant waves died above his wrists, soaking the cuffs of his sleeves.
The vast possibilities of the ocean (and of the New World for which he has crossed it) reach Jakob only in the form of “infant waves” dying in his hands. It’s a grim, startling passage, and one made all the more sad by the fact that Jakob seems scarcely aware of the fragility of his hopes, and even less aware of how the life he dreams of forging for himself might ruin the lives and hopes of those under his power.
Morrison is also capable of imbuing her writing with intense and beautifully evoked sensuality. Here’s a passage coming only a few pages later, from the point of view of Florens, a slave who has fallen for a free black blacksmith:
There will never be enough time to look how you move. Your arm goes up to strike iron. You drop to one knee. You bend. You stop to pour water first on the iron then down your throat. Before you know I am in the world I am already kill by you. My mouth is open, my legs go softly and the heart is stretching to break.
Passages like these defeat my critical faculties completely—all I can do is sit back and admire them. Morrison is an engrossing storyteller and a prose stylist of the first order, and she writes with both great sensitivity and thunderous moral authority. I know this is news to precisely no one, but here I’ll say it again: Toni Morrison is a great writer, and she has fully earned her early induction into the canon.
Tags: Books, critical reception of women writers, Elaine Showalter, fiction, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, Roberto Bolaño, women writers
In the Guardian, AJ Flood points to a Slate article by Katha Pollitt about A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter’s big new critical/historical survey of the lives, work, and reception of American women writers. I’ve just recently begun reading Showalter’s book, so I won’t comment on it here. But, like Flood, I was struck by one particular passage in Pollitt’s piece about Showalter’s book:
Many women writers have complained that fiction by women is undervalued because we undervalue the domestic and the personal as opposed to big manly subjects like war and whaling. It’s an important point, but I think there’s something deeper going on. In fact, there are men who write about intimate life and women who take on big public subjects. More different than the books themselves is the gendered framing of how we read them. Nobody says Henry James is a less ambitious writer because he wrote The Portrait of a Lady and not The Portrait of a Sea Captain. If The Corrections had been written by Janet Franzen, would it have been seen not as a bid for the Great American Novel trophy, but as a very good domestic novel with some futuristic flourishes that didn’t quite come off? If the most prolific serious American writer was John Carroll Oates, would critics be so disturbed by the violence in his fiction?
This is a very sharp observation on Pollitt’s part. I’ve long been bothered by the way many critics tend to dismiss (or simply fail to notice) the grand (even awe-inspiring) scope of Joyce Carol Oates’s literary ambition, and I don’t doubt that gender plays at least some role in this. Oates is routinely bashed for being prolific, rather than admired for her vast range and phenomenal energy—whereas Philip Roth’s late-career burst of productivity has been widely hailed as a renaissance, and has cemented his place in the American literary canon.
Further, I think Pollitt is right on to point to the violence in Oates’s work as another potential source of the problem—it’s not very ladylike, after all, for a writer to devote so many pages to seriously elucidating a red-meat, manly theme like the role that violence plays in shaping American lives, identities, relationships, and culture (which is in fact one of the major preoccupations of Oates’s fiction). But in contrast, few critics blinked at the horrific violence that is the central concern of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. (In a side note, I also find it fascinating that no one has taken Bolaño to task for writing from what I think can only be understood as a feminist perspective on the nature and causes of violence against women. It is clearly men who are responsible for the violence in 2666, and Bolaño strongly suggests that the many female victims in the book would have been less vulnerable if it hadn’t been for the fact that both the (male) murderers and the (male-dominated) state failed to take women seriously as individuals with rights and ethical stature; because the deaths of women (and especially poor women) are seen as not especially significant, it becomes that much easier for men to kill them. I wonder what the reception would have been if 2666 had been written by a woman—would critics have objected to the uncompromising stridency of the author’s feminist perspective?)
I suspect it’s not only the violence in Oates’s work that strikes some critics as unseemly, but also her absolute fearlessness about confronting dark events and emotions with both honesty and empathy. The result is sometimes unsettling in its intimacy, and also exhausting in its raw, searing energy. These are qualities that are often praised in male writers, but perhaps Oates’s gender leads some readers to dismiss the great intensity of her work as mere feminine emotionalism run amok. Never mind the serious intellectual (and especially philosophical) heft of much of her work—better to keep her safely in her place as just another sentimental scribbling woman.
As for Janet Franzen: again, I think Pollitt is right on here. The Corrections is far from a bad novel, but it is very difficult to imagine that the same book would have been seen as so earth-shatteringly important if it had been written by a woman. Yet, even before the infamous Oprah incident, Franzen’s book enjoyed an astounding amount of critical attention—I bought it on the day of its release (placing a real strain on my post-college part-time bookstore clerk’s wages) expecting something akin to the next Moby Dick, given all the wild, unadulterated praise the novel had received—but instead I found it to be nothing more than yet another solid but unexceptional contemporary novel, and certainly nothing to get all worked up about. I’ve experience similar disappointments when reading the work of a number of other recent literary “it” boys—some of them write good books, and some write bad ones, but there have been very few (like Bolaño) whose work actually lives up to all the hype.
At the very least, critics could start creating similar buzz and excitement over books by a few women writers every now and again. A handful of women writers of sterling, well-established reputations (Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison) tend to be treated with great seriousness and respect by critics—but very, very few seem to be given the kind of breathless and rapturous reception that mediocre (or worse) books by Franzen, Safran Foer, and their ilk enjoy on a routine basis. It is all too rare to read a review like the one that The New York Times ran on Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, which recognizes the boldness, ambition, and importance of a new novel by a younger woman, and treats the book in much the same way a critic would consider the work of a man like Franzen. But you’ll never guess who wrote that particular review. All right, I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t John Carroll Oates.
Tags: Adriana Hunter, Books, Eldorado, fiction, immigration, Laurent Gaude
In Eldorado, the latest novel from the acclaimed French writer Laurent Gaudé (translated into English by Adriana Hunter, and published by MacAdam/Cage in 2008), a Sicilian naval captain and a Sudanese emigrant take parallel (and perilous) journeys through Europe and Africa. Gaudé’s book reads as a raw and fast-moving tale of suspense, and also examines the tangled ethics of immigration with powerful moral clarity. Eldorado is extremely unsubtle and sometimes even outright melodramatic, but also gripping, forceful, and memorable.
Salvatore Piracci, Gaudé’s Italian captain, has made a career of tracking down the imperiled boats of would-be immigrants and bringing the (relatively) lucky survivors into custody. But after hearing the story of an immigrant woman whose child died after the men she paid to take them to Europe instead abandoned them at sea, Salvatore is deeply shaken, and begins to doubt that he has been doing the right thing. Later, another immigrant who Salvatore has rescued from a stormy sea pleads with Salvatore for his freedom, and begs him not to turn him in to the Italian authorities (who will certainly send him right back home). Salvatore refuses because it is what he is expected to do, and because it is what he has always done in the past. “You can change my life,” the immigrant points out to him in desperation—and Salvatore knows that the immigrant is right, and comes to understand that he not only has the power to let the immigrant go, but also an ethical obligation to do so. All the same, he abandons the immigrant to the authorities. Soon after, however, he realizes that his career as a naval captain is over, because he can no longer devote himself in good conscience to his work.
Of Salvatore’s realization, Gaudé writes, “The guardian of the citadel was growing weary while its assailants were younger every time. And they were beautiful, lit up by the hope in their eyes.” Salvatore has grown tired of his duties, which he has come to see as both unethical and ultimately pointless. And when he thinks of the incredible power of the desire that has driven the immigrants toward Europe, he realizes that there is nothing at all that he wants for himself with comparable strength. His his life has no driving force, and he has no dreams, and he in fact has been crushing the dreams and hopes of others without any real consideration of the ethical implications of his actions.
With Eldorado Gaudé poses a series of piercing, provocative questions about the ethical responsibilities of individuals in the context of deeply immoral authorities and systems. If laws and authorities require unethical behavior, or at least cause unethical outcomes, should an individual rebel against those laws and authorities? If an individual does not act, and lets authority have its way, is that individual ethically culpable? Is violence ever justified in the service of ends that are indisputably just? Should those people (or perhaps even cultures) who have no dreams make way for others who do?
Whatever the answers, Gaudé suggests that these kinds of conflicts will inevitably continue to arise. Sulemain, the young Sudanese man who is the novel’s other major character, simply will not be deterred in his efforts to reach European shores. “The world’s too big for my feet,” he reflects, “but I will carry on.” As long as people hunger for better lives, the dream of Eldorado will always beckon, and people like Salvatore will have to make decisions about where they stand.
Tags: Abdourahman A. Waberi, Books, fiction, In the United States of Africa, my reviews, PopMatters
My review of Abdourahman A. Waberi’s In the United States of Africa appears today on PopMatters. In Waberi’s novel, Africa is the center of the world’s economic, political, and cultural power, while Paris is impoverished and Swiss refugees flee their war-torn land. It’s a clever premise—and one that might have quickly worn thin if Waberi weren’t such a gifted stylist. His writing is lush and beautiful, as well as very funny, and that’s what makes In the United States of Africa a success.
Tags: Books, David Foster Wallace, fiction, T.D. Max
D.T. Max has written a fascinating and very lengthy biographical-critical essay on David Foster Wallace for The New Yorker. In the piece, Max draws on interviews, personal letters, and Wallace’s published work in order to create a portrait of Wallace as a writer and as a sufferer of mental illness. The essay also includes extensive discussion of The Pale King, an unfinished novel that Foster had been working on for the better part of a decade. The New Yorker also has an excerpt from the unfinished work.
Max’s essay makes for grim reading on the whole, but it is also full of insight about Wallace’s writing process and about his ideas about the aesthetics and purpose of fiction. In the following passage, Max writes about Foster’s desire to craft “morally passionate fiction”:
The sadness over Wallace’s death was also connected to a feeling that, for all his outpouring of words, he died with his work incomplete. Wallace, at least, never felt that he had hit his target. His goal had been to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. “Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” he once said. Good writing should help readers to “become less alone inside.” Wallace’s desire to write “morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,” as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky, presented him with a number of problems. For one thing, he did not feel comfortable with any of the dominant literary styles. He could not be a realist. The approach was “too familiar and anesthetic,” he once explained. Anything comforting put him on guard. “It seems important to find ways of reminding ourselves that most ‘familiarity’ is meditated and delusive,” he said in a long 1991 interview with Larry McCaffery, an English professor at San Diego State. The default for Wallace would have been irony—the prevailing tone of his generation. But, as Wallace saw it, irony could critique but it couldn’t nourish or redeem. He told McCaffery, “Look, man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is?”
So Wallace’s project required him to invent a language and a stance of his own. “I want to author things that both restructure worlds and make living people feel stuff,” he wrote to his editor Michael Pietsch while he was working on his second novel, “Infinite Jest,” which Little, Brown published in 1996. He knew that such proclamations made him seem a holy fool.
Though it was the flashy, ironic, and metafictional qualities of Wallace’s work that initially caught my attention back when I was an eager undergraduate reader in the process of forming my literary tastes, it was the moral qualities of his fiction, I think, that led me to devour all of Infinite Jest‘s thousand-plus pages in the midst of an extremely busy academic term. Wallace’s fiction dazzles on the surface due to his great mental and verbal agility, but it is his sincere moral seriousness that truly makes his writing exceptional.
Tags: Books, cultural value of literature, fiction, Tom Perrotta
As far as contemporary fiction writers go, Tom Perrotta is extremely famous. He’s written several bestselling novels, more than one of which (Election, Little Children) have been made into popular and critically-acclaimed Hollywood movies. Given his considerable success, you might imagine that Perrotta would probably have a cheery take on the role played by books in contemporary culture.
But, not so: in a Big Think video, he espouses a decidedly pessimistic view on the cultural future of fiction. A generation from now, Perrotta predicts, the fanbase for fiction might closely resemble today’s audience for poetry—a tiny subculture with very few members who aren’t practitioners themselves. To back up his argument, Perrotta points to the heavy cultural weight thrown around by some poets in the sixties, and notes that no poet today has been able to capture the same kind of popular attention. He also talks intelligently about the recent Horace Engdahl kerfuffle (in which a Nobel judge trashed the insularity of American literary audiences).
Although it makes me sad to say it, I think Perrotta’s probably right. I also appreciate the matter-of-fact tone he brings to this video: he’s not offering an anguished lamentation over the fate of the book so much as giving a clear-eyed view of matters as they stand. Anyway, you can watch the video here.
Tags: Al Roosten, art and politics, Books, fiction, George Saunders, New Yorker fiction, short stories, The New Yorker, writing and politics
From an interview with Nina Siegal, here’s what George Saunders has to say about the relationship between politics and art:
I am pretty far left but trying to cultivate a healthy disgust for hypocrites and liars of both political stripes. I think our country is better than our government would make people believe. I think the role of art is to continually complicate our views and move them along the continuum from conceptual knowledge toward specificity. Our current problems, seem to me, have all to do with people in power who believe in their own ideas too much, ideas that were too much formed in the lab and not enough on the street. So we took those naive, bookish, messianic ideas and mistook them for truth, and now are reaping the harvest. I don’t like the demonizing of Bush et al—it’s too easy and won’t help us not repeat all of this. The only thing that will help is going deep (in kindness and true curiosity) and trying to really understand how the world looks to them—people like Rumsfeld etc wake up in the morning feeling very energized at the good they’re going to do during the day. So this is where art comes in: It’s the one way we can become Other long enough to understand that Other doesn’t really exist—we have it all inside us, and can therefore understand, and can therefore transform.
I think this attitude is exactly what makes Saunders such a potent satirist. For all the barbed, bitter humor and comic exaggerations in his stories, Saunders at the same time operates from a position of fundamental empathy for his characters. He doesn’t assume that some of his characters will be good and others will be evil; instead, he understands that most people believe themselves to be acting ethically most of the time, and attempts to understand why people often make unethical choices anyway, and how they justify their behavior in their own minds. (For a fresh example of this, turn to his recent story in the New Yorker, “Al Roosten”, in which the title character’s behavior is often less than laudable, even if he doesn’t see it that way.)
Many artists feel there’s no room for politics in art, but I think the real problem is that many people who make art on political subjects come in without the ability to separate the clarity of their political convictions from the fundamental murkiness of minds and hearts of human beings. It’s fine to imbue a work of art with a particular political point of view. What you can’t do, however, is reduce the full complexity of a person into the one-dimensional simplicity of a political idea.
Tags: Barack Obama, Curtis Sittenfeld, fiction, novellas, Obama's inauguration
Slate is serializing a new novella by Curtis Sittenfeld on the theme of Barack Obama’s inauguration. The novella, titled “All Along, This Was What Was Supposed To Happen,” tells the story of a Philadelphia woman and her aunt traveling to Washington for the inauguration. The first part ran yesterday; the second, today, with three more forthcoming.
Sittenfeld had a big hit a few years ago with her first novel, Prep, and her new book, American Wife, a thinly fictionalized novel about Laura Bush, has been getting a lot of attention. I’m eager to read it, and in the meantime I’m enjoying the novella on Slate. I like Sittenfeld’s boldness and ambition, and I admire her ability to use straightforward, casually elegant prose in order to bring characters to life on the page.
Tags: Books, fiction, fugitives in fiction, Gil Adamson, novels, Peter Carey
Say you’re a writer, and you’ve decided to produce a novel about a sympathetic character on the run from the law. You’re not planning on winning readers over through the novelty of your premise; you know it’s a well-worn, commonplace plotline, one that any reader will find familiar. Instead, you’re hoping that the suspense inherent in a storyline involving a character in flight will grab and the attention of your readers and draw them into the book. But once the audience is hooked, what then? You have to find some way to fill the several hundred pages between the moment when the fugitive hits the road and the point at which the chase comes to an end.
One obvious strategy is to make the threat of capture constant throughout the novel, so that the suspense is perpetual and inescapable. But from the perspective of an audience, this can be exhausting and ultimately boring: the first car chase is bound to hold an audience much more rapt than the fifth. Also, perpetual suspense doesn’t leave much room to pursue whatever thematic or character ends a writer might have in mind: the focus is always on moving things along and bringing the next plot twist, near miss, or tense encounter to the page.
In 2008, the acclaimed Australian writer Peter Carey and the Canadian debut novelist Gil Adamson each published books about characters fleeing the authorities. Neither book relies much at all on generating suspense by placing characters in imminent danger of capture. Instead, Carey attempts to keep the reader interested by manipulating his story’s timeline and selectively withholding information, and Adamson takes an episodic approach, introducing a series of loosely connected characters and events while the protagonist hides from her pursuers. Though both writers attempt to do something unusual and fresh with an overfamiliar plotline, neither book is entirely successful.
Adamson’s The Outlander (not to be confused with the similarly-titled Diana Gabaldon bestseller) opens with a young woman, known at first only as “the widow,” as she flees her pursuers across the Canadian west at the turn of the Twentieth Century. The widow has murdered her unfaithful and unkind husband, and as a result she’s wanted by the authorities, and also by her husband’s brothers, who intend to bring her to justice or else kill her in the attempt. In the novel’s opening pages, Adamson establishes an appealing setting and a character who is at once sympathetic and (fascinatingly) guilty. She had my empathy and attention at the start, and I was eager to see how the widow’s story would play out against the grand backdrop of the Canadian west. But once the widow puts some distance between herself and her pursuers, The Outlander quickly loses energy and then descends into a series of largely unbelievable episodes involving insufferably quirky characters. The widow has an affair with a rugged mountain man who might as well have come straight from a spaghetti western; she meets reticent Indians and hard-living horse thieves; she befriends an irascible dwarf and a quiet Italian giant; and she lives with a preacher who goads his parishioners into fistfights as a key as a key part of his sermonizing. Adamson squanders the considerable promise of her novel’s setting, protagonist, and premise by indulging in these kinds of caricatures at great length. The resolution of the central story involving the widow’s flight from her brothers-in-law in the end comes off like an afterthought: her pursuers are easily thwarted, and the widow finds a new love and life without really dealing with any of the problems that sent her on the run in the first place.
Most of Peter Carey’s His Illegal Self also takes place while its protagonists—the young son of a sixties radical and a woman who he believes to be his mother—hide out in a remote place. This time, the setting is Australia, where the two flee after a complex series of events render the woman a fugitive suspected of kidnapping. His Illegal Self succeeds as an exploration of the ugly, violent fallout from the compromised idealism of the sixties, and also as a fascinating exploration of the relationship between power and privilege. The boy is a son of a leftist terrorist, but also the scion of a wealthy and powerful family; his caretaker/abductor comes from a much more modest background, and has worked hard for years in an attempt to secure a place for herself as a professor in the elite halls of the Ivy League. The whims of the powerful destroy in an instant the life she’s built for herself, leaving her a fugitive and a refugee, and suggesting strongly that the revolutions of the sixties, for all their import, still fell well short of being able to dislodge or decenter the power of the privileged. The novel also serves as a meditation on the nature of motherhood, and on the responsibilities that come with having great power over the life another human being.
That said, I was extremely frustrated by the way Carey chose to structure his book. His Illegal Self frequently moves back and forth in time, and Carey uses these timeshifts primarily as a means to withhold information from the reader in order to build suspense. Fragmenting and reordering the timeline makes it possible for Carey to conceal plot points and background information about his characters and events. This technique worked insofar as it had me turning pages early in the book, eager to find out exactly what was going on and what the motivations of the characters might be. But soon enough it became clear that the suspense was entirely artificial: that Carey was simply choosing not to share with the reader all kinds of things that the characters knew about or had experienced. In the end, I felt manipulated: there was no reason for Carey to keep that information to himself other than to string the reader along. The suspense didn’t emerge naturally from the situation, characters, and plot, but instead from self-conscious authorial artifice.
Another, simpler example of this same technique employed in another context: on an episode of Mad Men (which is generally an exceptionally well-written show), a character in a moment of crisis removes an item from a locked desk drawer, his expression burdened and serious, as if he’s contemplating drastic action. The camera does not reveal exactly what it is that he removes from the drawer, but the intention of the shot is to make the viewer suspect that it might be a gun. In a later scene, the true nature of the item is exposed: it’s not a gun at all, and it becomes clear that the whole purpose of the previous scene was to artificially manipulate the viewer’s expectations. Rather than relying on the considerable inherent suspense of the situation—involving a character fearing that his life is about to become unraveled due to revelations about his past—the show instead plays a cheap trick, toying with viewers instead of trusting them. Carey’s manipulation of time and perspective causes the same problem in His Illegal Self: it suggests that he doesn’t think readers will be sufficiently engaged in his story and characters unless he uses structural tricks in order to create artificial sources of suspense.
Tags: Anne Enright, Books, fiction, short stories, Yesterday's Weather
Yesterday’s Weather collects nearly twenty years of short stories (including many that have not previously been available for American audiences) by Booker-winner Anne Enright into a single volume. In a brief introduction to the book, Enright notes that she’s chosen to present the stories in reverse chronological order—a wise move, as it turns out, because her more recent stories are vastly superior to the work she was publishing in the late eighties and early nineties. Old and new alike, her stories offer emotionally intense character studies wrapped in dense, funny, sensuous, and tightly-coiled prose. But while many of the earlier stories read as little more than tedious exercises in structure or heavy-handed extensions of dubious metaphors (a woman through handbags in “(She Owns) Every Thing,” a bingo player who sees the world through numbers in “Luck Be a Lady,” etc.), Enright’s newer work adds an invaluable new element: real, substantial insight into the way real people actually think and feel, coupled with an ability to bring those thoughts and emotions to life on the page. In “Honey,” a woman on a business trip debates having an affair with a coworker, but finds herself instead stunned and opened up to the world by an encounter with bees in a garden. Her restless, uncertain desire feels true to life, and when she turns him down, it’s because she realizes that her desire has nothing to do with him at all: “It was like she could fuck anything: the Killarney lakes and the sky that ran over them, the posh hotels with wafflecloth robes, and the pink scent of a rose that showed grey in the darkness, and the whole lovely month of May.” In “Here’s To Love,” an older woman struggles to understand why she loves her husband, and ultimately decides that the question doesn’t matter nearly as much to her as it might to the old boyfriend who she meets in Paris. The opening paragraph of “The Cruise,” made me laugh out loud, but when I re-read it (immediately after reaching the story’s end), it took on an entirely different meaning: a good joke transformed into a moving meditation on death, and on what we can hope to get out of life before we die.
In an introduction to the volume, Enright herself identifies what has made the difference between her old stories and her new ones:
It is odd, but only to me, to read of the bitterness that exists between female friends, when my own girlfriends are so generous and important to me. These stories are not written by the person who has lived my life and made the best of it, they are written by people I might have been but decided against….I discovered, when I started to look at them again, that I had forgotten the content of some of these pieces. What I remembered, with great clarity, was their shape….What I seem to be saying—a little to my own surprise—is that a person may change, but the writer endures.
Enright’s earlier stories feel like formal exercises, because that’s essentially what they were: the work of a talented younger writer who was better than competent, but who simply didn’t yet have the kind of lived experience that she can now draw on in order to infuse her stories with real wisdom and insight.
Tags: 2666, Books, fiction, Marcela Valdes, Roberto Bolaño
In a long and fascinating article in The Nation, Marcela Valdes provides a great deal of valuable and fascinating information on how Roberto Bolaño was able to present such a vivid and detailed account of the murders in Ciudad Juarez in 2666. According to Valdes, Bolaño corresponded extensively with a journalist who played a significant role in breaking the story behind the murders—and Bolaño rewarded him for his assistance by making him a character in the novel (though the journalist himself was less than thrilled to receive the tribute). Valdes also offers a well-informed and nuanced review of 2666 in the context of the real events in Ciudad Juarez, as well as many details about Bolaño’s process in working on the novel over a period of several years.
Tags: 2666, book reviews, Books, fiction, Roberto Bolaño, Sarah Kerr
The New York Review of Books is presently running critic Sarah Kerr’s “The Triumph of Roberto Bolaño,” a terrific long-form review of 2666. In the review Kerr makes many incisive observations, but I was struck by this one in particular, in which she discusses the book’s fourth section, “The Part About the Murders”:
Fascinatingly, the United States appears as a part of characters’ remembered visits; a Mexican-American sheriff from Arizona crosses over to find out what happened to a blue-collar woman from his town. But the United States’s relationship to the drug trade and the history of the assembly plants are not explored directly or at length. Instead of belaboring the obvious, Bolaño seems to have chosen the challenge of representing something pervasive.
I think Kerr’s right on here: for Bolaño, the murders in Santa Teresa are made possible in part by the failure of anyone there to see the world in front of them for what it is. The violence in the book is less individual than cultural; it’s part of the air the characters breathe. In 2666, Bolaño takes a much broader view than the individual residents of Santa Teresa possibly could, in an attempt, as Kerr puts it, to reveal and “represent” the cultural, economic, political, social, and historical forces and ideas that pervade their lives. Most readers will already know about the details—about the horrors of the drug trade and the injustices of the maquiladoras. What Bolaño wants to show us is bigger than specifics—though it also includes them. He seeks to identify the ways in which grand-scale historical and cultural circumstances shape the lives and fates of individuals, and often in ways that those individuals cannot understand or imagine.
Tags: A Better Angel, Books, Chris Adrian, fiction, short stories
Note: Chris Adrian’s A Better Angel has been selected as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2008 by the New York Times. Below is an essay that I wrote to submit to the Virginia Quarterly Review‘s Young Reviewers contest—an unsuccessful entry, probably at least in part because it ended up feeling more like a lit crit paper than a review. In any case: I have mixed feelings about A Better Angel, but I do think Adrian is a writer to watch, and his first novel, Gob’s Grief, is extraordinary. In the essay below, I take a look at A Better Angel with an emphasis on Adrian’s explorations of ideas about death and the soul.
Death-dealing hazards abound in Chris Adrian’s fiction, lying low the parents, siblings, and lovers of his characters with an actuarially improbable regularity. His most recent book, the short story collection A Better Angel, has a body count worthy of a Hollywood action flick. In “High Speeds,” a substitute teacher mourning her brother forms a bond with a nine-year-old student whose father has died in a plane crash. Both central characters in “Why Antichrist?” have also lost their fathers—one to cancer, and the other to the terrorist attacks on September 11. Disconsolate over the course of her life in the years since the death of a childhood friend, the narrator of “The Sum of Our Parts” flings herself from atop a parking structure. Dead brothers haunt the minds of the central characters in both “The Hero of Chikamauga” and “Stab”—and in the latter story, Adrian throws in a lately orphaned neighbor girl for good measure.
Death so dominates the lives and consciousnesses of Adrian’s characters that they often come across as less than fully human. There is something robotic about their sorrow; it’s as if mourning were the sole task that they have been programmed to perform. Adrian is a practicing physician, but he treats the characters in his stories more like anonymous subjects in a medical study: he is interested in their suffering only insofar as it might help him come to an improved academic understanding of death and grief. His approach as a writer is rational, philosophical, and abstract—and thus less concerned with the construction of psychologically realistic portraits of mourning characters than with exploring the meaning of death.
Unusually for either a fiction writer or a doctor, Adrian is also a divinity student at Harvard University. He fills his stories not only with corpses and their mourners, but also with prophetic visions, demonic possessions, and guardian angels. In one story, the Antichrist even makes an appearance. But, for all their Christian allusions and overtones, Adrian’s stories are more supernatural than overtly religious. He certainly offers scant evidence of any kind of faith—his suffering characters do not find any kind of peace or closure through their interactions with the divine. Most, in fact, end up sick, injured, insane, or worse.
Adrian then, is a doctor who writes stories about people who cannot be healed, and a divinity student who seems to doubt the power of religion to soothe troubled souls. Instead of offering assurances, he uses his fiction to pose big, old-fashioned, and largely unanswerable questions. What happens when we die? What does it mean for the body to fail? What happens to the conscious mind after the death of the body? Are the dead truly lost to the living forever? Adrian’s central concern is not healing, but rather the relationship between the body and the soul.
He gives that particular subject a thorough and sustained examination in “The Sum of Our Parts,” in which Beatrice, a patient awaiting a kidney transplant, has achieved a strange and incomplete separation from her corporeal self. “That part of her that was not her broken body” has become detached, and has gained the power to see into the minds of the members of the hospital staff. Adrian won’t spell out exactly what this part of Beatrice might be—whether he intends it to be her mind, her spirit, her soul, or something else entirely. But he does tell us that Beatrice continues to feel a connection to her body: whenever she attempts to leave the grounds of the hospital, her physical self invariably draws her back.
For a quasi-disembodied soul, Beatrice pays extraordinary attention to the physicality of the members of the hospital staff who are involved with her treatment. Looking into the mind of a nursing assistant named Frank, Beatrice gleans that he detests one coworker for having a “mousy” face, and meanwhile worries that his own arms might look “thin and weak” in his scrubs. A pathology lab worker named Bonnie ponders a coworker’s unusually prominent ears, and wonders if they might have shaped his personality. Several characters spend moments of reverie recalling the physical comforts of holding their loved ones, and also imagining what it might be like to touch or even inhabit the bodies of their coworkers. Adrian’s point is clear: our bodies determine who we are, and the division between our physical selves and our conscious selves cannot be neatly or easily drawn.
All the same, Adrian avoids taking a definitive stance on the question of whether or not the soul expires along with the body. In an unnerving scene near the story’s end, Beatrice coolly witnesses her own organs being harvested and prepared for donation. She begins to feel the loosening of her physical self’s hold on her consciousness, until she finally floats free. But there the story abruptly ends, leaving no way for a reader to judge whether Beatrice might have been bound for heaven or for oblivion.
For Adrian, medicine runs up against a wall of incomprehension when it comes to describing the lived experience of death, grief, illness, and suffering. This is why he won’t tell us what happens to Beatrice’s spirit after her body dies; and it’s also why the stories in A Better Angel so frequently move into the realm of the supernatural. Adrian is in no way skeptical of medical knowledge, or of reason’s power to make the world more comprehensible. But he knows that no pill or miracle surgical technique will ever cure human beings of their irrational and untenable belief that they must continue to exist even after their bodies die.
Death makes Adrian’s characters thoroughly unreasonable. They lose all perspective, clinging to counterfactual and often outright insane ideas in a desperate attempt to be rid of their grief. In “Stab,” Calvin, an eight-year-old boy who has lost his twin to cancer, begins sneaking out at night to accompany a neighbor girl as she captures and kills small animals. The girl—whom Adrian unfortunately names Molly Pitcher, severely disrupting an otherwise straightforward and serious tone—is an orphan whose parents were both killed in a car crash. Molly commits her acts of violence because she has come to believe that her parents will somehow be brought back to life by the blood of her victims. But her animal sacrifices bring no real dividends; in the end, Molly’s violence leaves a trail of bodies, none of which are resurrected.
Blood sacrifice also plays a significant role in the “The Changeling,” which tells the story of an otherwise-ordinary nine-year-old boy who suddenly begins to speak in the voices of the victims of September 11. When Carl’s father intentionally burns himself on the stove or slams his finger in a drawer, the spectacle of his self-inflicted pain causes the voices in the boy’s head to momentarily retreat. Realizing this, Carl’s father begins to inflict increasingly serious injuries upon himself, thereby succeeding in at least temporarily propitiating the angry ghosts who possess his son. But only temporarily—even when Carl’s father chops off his own hand with an ax, we have no real assurance that the demons have been driven from Carl for good. Carl has come to embody the incomprehensible pain engendered by the loss of so many lives in the terrorist attacks of September 11—and there is nothing that his father can do to bring about an end to suffering on that scale. “I don’t know what’s worse, or harder to believe,” Adrian wonders through the voice of Carl’s father: “that a little boy could be fucked-up enough to harbor the sort of sadness and rage that the entity presents us with every day, or that thousands of souls could be fused by a firebomb into a restless collection of spirits that hungers for a justice it can only define in terms of punishment.” Either way, Carl is lost to his father forever.
This is the conclusion that Adrian reaches again and again in A Better Angel: that no kind of medicine, psychology, reason, religion, violence, or blood sacrifice will relieve the deep and unending pain of personal loss. Mourning grips Adrian’s characters so thoroughly that it possesses them, becoming part of their bodies and taking full control of their minds and lives. Much as Beatrice’s wandering soul can stray only so far from its physical counterpart, none of Adrian’s characters can hope to be rid of their grief; t has become part of them. Nothing short of death will end their suffering.
A doctor is expected to heal the body, and restless souls are alleged to find comfort in the divine. But Adrian—the doctor and divinity student—populates his stories with the untreatable dead and characters who suffer grief beyond all consolation. “A Better Angel,” the title story of his collection, is about a drug-addicted doctor who lacks faith in his ability to cure illness. “I make my living praising the health of well children,” he notes while explaining his choice of a medical specialty. “I love babies and I love ketamine, and that’s really why I became a pediatrician, not because I hate illness, or really ever wanted to make anybody better, or ever convinced myself that I could.” He cheated his way through med school, and remains in the profession largely because it offers him easy access to the drugs that feed his addiction. He feels an acute and highly specific kind of shame because of his failure as a doctor. “If I were a tree surgeon or a schoolteacher or a truffle-snuffler, or even a plain old junkie, then sickness would just be sickness, just something to be borne and not something I was supposed to be able to defeat.”
The narrator has been regularly visited by a guardian angel since childhood. This angel strongly disapproves of his self-destructive behavior—when he takes a hit, she “stretches and shakes her wings,” becoming larger and uglier in order to make her displeasure clear. All the same, she believes that he has the power within him to do great things—including curing his father, who has received a diagnosis of terminal cancer. “Put out your hand,” the angel implores him. “Touch him, and make him well.” Instead, the narrator trades doses of painkillers with his father and then watches him die through a drug-altered haze. He places his hands on his father only after “his face was cold and his open eyes already had the look of spoiling grapes”—too late to heal him, regardless of whether he’d ever possessed the power to do so. “I want a better angel,” he tells his father. “That’s all I need.” If there is such a thing as divine guidance, it has utterly failed the living, who remain impotent and terrified in the face of death.
Adrian’s characters struggle against grief and death, and always fail. All the same, several of them maintain a pathetic hope that the outcome might in their case be different. In “Stab,” Molly imagines that her acts of violence can resurrect her parents, and Caleb believes that he can talk to his dead twin while looking in the mirror. The characters in “High Speeds” try to outrun their mourning by driving fast and reciting Emily Dickinson poems about death; and in “The Changeling,” Carl’s father tries to exorcise the demons of September 11 by doing grievous injury to himself. Not one of these strategies is ultimately successful—but Adrian’s characters continue to try, and suffer terrible disappointment when their efforts come to nothing.
In “The Vision of Peter Damien,” a rural 19th-century town is stricken with a mysterious illness, which leaves many of its residents bedridden, feverish, and prone to prophesying about flaming towers and people falling through the air. Although the evidence points toward this being a vision of doom, the local minister, Reverend Wallop, insists that the town’s strange plague must have an upside: “It doesn’t happen for nothing—we are not transported so fantastically for no reason. The vision is a challenge and its meaning is a cure.” But in this story—as in all of Adrian’s stories—supernatural “transportation” does not lead to any kind of cure. The town’s affliction is in truth a vision of the future horrors of September 11, 2001; no positive outcome is possible for anyone involved.
One character in A Better Angel does cease to harbor such outlandish expectations: Beatrice, the quasi-disembodied soul of “The Sum of Our Parts,” who has so little hope that she sincerely desires to die. At one point, Beatrice recalls a childhood friend who, believing that he could fly, jumped from the roof of his parents’ house and plunged to his death. Adrian writes that Beatrice “would always think of him as the beginning of a long arc of sadness, as the person who taught her that there’s no such thing as a boy who can fly.” Unlike Adrian’s other characters, Beatrice is at peace with her loss. She doesn’t kill herself out of grief for her dead friend, but rather out of the sense of disappointment that she feels after having accepted the inevitability and permanence of death. It’s hardly encouraging that the only character who comes to any kind of closure in A Better Angel kills herself shortly thereafter. In Chris Adrian’s world, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
For all the obsessive analytical attention Adrian pays to death in his stories, he offers very little in the way of substantive insight into its nature. Not surprisingly, he cannot tell us what it means to die, or what happens to our consciousness after death. But Adrian does succeed in his effort to capture the anguish felt by his characters as they struggle against inevitable death and the permanence of their loss. Adrian’s stories express a desperate wish to believe that a divine act or a miracle of modern medicine might actually remove the barrier between the living and the dead. At the same time, Adrian the physician and rationalist knows how unlikely it is that anything of the sort could ever come to pass. Taken together, the stories in A Better Angel construct a compelling narrative about the deep and tormenting disappointment that comes with the loss of faith.
Tags: academic novels, American west, Books, Butcher's Crossing, fiction, John Williams (novelist), nature writing, Stoner, westerns
I’d never heard of the American writer John Williams until I stumbled across copies of the recent NYRB Classics reissues of his novels Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner on a display table in a Minneapolis bookstore. Although Williams won the National Book Award for Augustus, a novel of ancient Rome, in 1973, he has since faded into obscurity, and his other books have long been out of print. This is a real shame; Butcher’s Crossing and Stoner are both tremendous novels, and on their strength alone I’d confidently place Williams in the company of America’s best novelists.
Butcher’s Crossing (1960) is an engrossing and breathtakingly beautiful western about buffalo skinners in the dying days of the old American West. Sentence to sentence, the book’s primary concern is detailing the day-to-day activities of the buffalo hunting expedition, and then later, the efforts of the expedition’s members to survive a winter while trapped in an isolated valley in the Rockies. But Butcher’s Crossing also contains a compelling coming-of-age narrative, tracing young Will Andrews’ transformation from a naive Easterner with romantic ideas about the Wild West into a man with a much deeper understanding of the world and his place in it.
As Butcher’s Crossing opens, Will considers himself an Emersonian transcendentalist, and expects that the vast wildness of the West will possess the power to move him to some kind of altered and higher state of consciousness. But after experiencing the harsh, dangerous, violent, and utterly indifferent beauty of nature in the unsettled reaches of Colorado, Andrews comes to understand that nature is in not something to be transcended, and that humans have only a very small place in it. The natural world is in fact indifferent to humans—far less malice can be found in its various life-threatening assaults on the members of Andrews’ expedition than in the indiscriminate and excessive slaughter that Andrews and his companions bring down upon the defenseless buffalo of the valley. The natural world resists all personification, philosophizing, and understanding: it is irreducibly itself, entirely apart from whatever sense humans might attempt to make of it.
Butcher’s Crossing also contains a critique of the myths of the American West. In the novel, the idea that even the roughest and hardiest of American adventurers might be capable of in any way taming or conquering the wildness of the West is treated as a vain fiction. Williams holds up the whole of human ambition against the vastness of the natural world, and finds it insignificant in scale by comparison. When the expedition returns from the mountains, they find Butcher’s Crossing well on its way to becoming a ghost town: the bottom has fallen out of the market for buffalo skins, and so the place has lost both its purpose and its primary source of prosperity. Meanwhile, the natural world waits with complete indifference to wipe the remnants of Butcher’s Crossing from the surface of the earth.
On its surface, Stoner (1965), the second John Williams book reissued by NYRB Classics, could hardly be more different from Butcher’s Crossing: it’s an academic novel about a Midwestern English professor of no particular distinction. After growing up poor and ignorant on a Missouri dirt farm, William Stoner begins a course of study in agriculture at the University of Missouri. His parents expect him to return to the farm upon graduation, in the hope that the new and unfamiliar science that he will learn there might help the family claw its way above the barest subsistence living. But then Stoner falls in love with literature and the life of the mind, and decides to stay in Missouri to pursue a graduate degree, and then later to make a career as an English professor. For several decades, Stoner endures a disastrous, loveless marriage and the slings and arrows of petty departmental politics, all the while finding some solace in his teaching and (most of all) in his private reading. He has one brief and passionate affair, and also makes a an emotional connection with his loving but distant daughter, but he primarily lives within his own mind. Eventually he succumbs to cancer, having never left Missouri or risen above the rank of assistant professor.
Upon his deathbead, Stoner reflects:
He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance. And what else? he thought. What else?
What did you expect? he asked himself.
For Williams, Stoner may be a mediocrity, but he is no failure: he has been a learner, a teacher, and (at least briefly) a lover, and no human can truly expect much more out of life. The book’s tragic weight comes from a sense that the heart longs for more than it can ever truly have, while meanwhile the “assaulting” trivialities of day-to-day existence diminish even what what little love and satisfaction people do manage to find in their lives. The life of the mind can bring great pleasure, but never the transcendent wisdom to which every reader and learner aspires; and love brings joy and meaning above all else, but it is also fragile and vulnerable.
Stoner shows its age a bit more than Butcher’s Crossing; its female characters, in particular, are thinly drawn and unconvincing, and also reflect the dominant ideas about gender roles of its time. Stoner’s wife, Edith, is a one-dimensional hysteric, and though Williams seems to recognize that her condition is rooted in her housebound and circumscribed life, he does little to acknowledge Stoner’s role in keeping her confined and unhappy. He does, however, regard Edith’s fate as having its own tragic dimension, and laments the social and cultural “trivialities” that prevented the two of them from finding a way to connect with one another. But this insight remains a long way from a feminist understanding of all that Edith has suffered on Stoner’s account.
This criticism aside, Stoner remains an uncommonly moving, thoughtful, and memorable book—one that deserves a much broader audience. But, given the themes of Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing, I doubt that Williams would himself lament his own obscurity. Though Stoner dies while clutching a copy of his only published book, it isn’t a gesture of ego or vanity, but instead of wonder and awe:
It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there.
Tags: Books, Charlie Jane Anders, fiction, literary fiction, literary fiction as genre, Michael Chabon, science fiction
Science fiction blogger Charlie Jane Anders has literary fiction’s number. In a “rant” on the blog io9 (link via GalleyCat), Anders expresses some doubts as to whether science fiction stands to gain anything significant through its increasing literary respectability. It’s all well and good that literary writers like Michael Chabon have brought positive attention to science fiction of late, and have thereby introduced some literary-minded readers to the pleasures of the genre. But literary respectability, Anders argues, no longer equals mainstream cultural importance, nor offers any kind of guarantee of quality. Though some literary writers do become minor cultural stars, most will never gain the attention of anyone outside of the tiny subculture of little magazines and their dedicated readers. Science fiction writers face similar circumstances, only in a different subculture: for every Neal Stephenson or J.K. Rowling, there are numerous other writers whose works are highly valued only among the small but passionate community of science fiction readers.
Literary fiction, Anders argues, is nothing more (or less) than another genre, just like science fiction. Some literary writers are good at what they do, and others are bad, but none can really claim to be doing anything than writing under the influence of the aesthetic standards and strictures of a genre with its own rules and expectations.
In the post, Anders contrasts literary fiction and science fiction in order to highlight the genre characteristics of each. On prose style, for example:
Most science fiction stories and novels use language as a tool to get the story across. They’re usually written serviceably, but not sparklingly. There are usually way too many adverbs, too many passive sentences, and too much use of the verb “to be.” In literary writing, by contrast, there’s an obsession with prose style. Every sentence must dapple, like sunlight through a baboon’s toes in the jungle.
Some people prefer lapidary literary language; others have a taste for lean and functional prose, even if it does sometimes sacrifice elegance in favor of moving the story along at a rapid clip. Either way, it’s a matter of aesthetics—and what claim could literary fiction possibly have to inherent aesthetic superiority?
I love literary fiction myself, and I fully embrace its aesthetics. But I think Anders is absolutely right here: the subculture of literary fiction is very small (and getting smaller by the day), and definitely isn’t at the center of the world. Like it or not, the true center is probably something more like American Idol and Monday Night Football. This isn’t to say that literary writers (or for that matter, science fiction writers) aren’t producing great work, or that literary work isn’t important. But it isn’t important to everyone, and lots of people have perfectly valid reasons for finding other modes of creative expression more to their liking.
Tags: Ang Lee, Annie Proulx, Books, Brokeback Mountain, fan fiction, fiction, Movies, short stories
Most authors are thrilled for the attention and sales that a major movie adaptation will bring, and Hollywood has been kinder to Annie Proulx than to most. But as it turns out, the film adaptation of her short story “Brokeback Mountain” has recently been bringing her a particular kind of attention that she’d much rather do without. The Guardian is reporting that since the film’s release, Proulx has been bombarded by letters and emails from fans containing pornographic rewrites of her story. Apparently many of the writers have even gone so far as to tell her that they sincerely believe that they’re improving on the original, on the grounds that it had an insufficient amount of explicit gay cowboy sex for their tastes. In the article, Proulx sounds perturbed—though also much more good-humored about her unsolicited (and unwanted) emulators than J.K. Rowling, who recently went after a fan who compiled a Harry Potter encyclopedia without her permission, and succeeded in shutting his project down.
In case you’re curious: Maud Newton links to a related Guardian piece which offers some choice selections from ten “Brokeback”-related fanfic opuses, all of which are available on the web, and no doubt very juicy.