Avoiding Clichés by Confronting Them

Emily St. John Mandel dares the readers of Last Night in Montreal early on to drop her book that starts with so many recent literary clichés. But she keeps us dangling along to figure out why a young women can’t ever stay in one place with an unflinching examination of the stereotypical protagonist in most serious novels of late. Lilia at first runs into the story with a huge sign above her head reading stock Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is everything the sensitive, brooding Eli needs to jumpstart his crippling passive existence as a someday artist until we learn that this isn’t his journey; it’s hers. “She began to tell him a story in bed that night, a long story about deserts and aliases and driving away, motel pay phones and a blue Ford Valiant in the mountains” (25).

As alluring as the narrator, through Eli’s eyes, describes Lilia, “mind like a switchblade” (21), “four or five unevenly spaced freckles on her nose, like Lolita” (22), “sublimely abnormal” (24), I didn’t feel compelled to care for her until Mandel slowly unfolded Lilia’s conflict. It’s not just that she’s a runner, escaping the eyes of a private detective and bred for a nomadic existence, Lilia is a woman chasing after the missing part of her story. This furious pace leaves a trail of lovers/admirers behind as Michaela points out to Eli’s request to find Lilia, “‘You’d be amazed at how many people have said that in her lifetime”’ (227). And as heartless or destructive as this may seem she always remained up front with those drawn into her sphere of influence and is really the mark of someone driven by more than a desire to not be alone as Eli and Michaela share. That doesn’t necessarily create a character devoid of attachment. Lilia does want to settle down and be a part of life instead of passing through it. The attempted relationships on her trail to and in New York are evidence of that, but more so are the photographs she takes. “The pictures gave her a sense of continuity” (152). These moments of her life are important signposts along the way towards reaching that last destination on the Tiber River where “three lists fall from her hands: a list of names, ten pages, beginning and ending with Lilia; a list of places, nine pages, beginning and ending with the province of Quebec; a shorter list of words, of phrases, all Eli’s” (243).

Lilia had to gather up the setting and exposition that is the starting point of her map before she could trace out a course to the resolution she wanted to write.

I saw Lilia as Mandel wanted me to see her: someone “not missing,” someone who did “not want to be found,” someone who wished “to remain vanishing” (66) until the very end. That’s when the appealing but cliched “half mermaid, half girl” (33) became a compelling character. Something lacking in certain of my modern readings.

The Crying of Lot 49 Review

A welcome bit of inspired literature after reading two highly acclaimed yet disappointing novels over the last couple months. I may be biased or simply have a limited scope on what constitutes literature but when I approach a novel, poem, play, or the other written forms meant for more than simple entertainment purposes the expectation is to read something with excellent style and a graceful, expansive expression of a theme or connected themes throughout. In my short survey of more recent works of literature the style is very much present, but the themes seem to appear only in a select few.

I understand not everyone is a Shakespeare (or, with my definition of literature, a David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon) but there should be an apparent striving to reach these top players when contributing to the art. Otherwise the contributions become more noise distracting the public from gaining insight into something more than their own perceptions of reality and self. I read that Pynchon felt he failed in the writing of 49 and maybe he did in his vision of literature, but I feel he did accomplish a writer’s goal of making art.

Although 49 shares the major theme of communication with Infinite Jest they do so in a disparate enough way to enlighten different portions of the innumerable facets related to humanity’s arguably most important tool. And like its more contemporary, giant counterpart 49 consciously uses style to elevate theme. To narrow down the theme into a more approachable manner, it’s best to focus on how Pynchon explores the breaking down of communication.  From the beginning of the short novel when the protagonist Oedipa Maas (the character names are a whole other form of communication/identity break downs) receives a letter in the mail, Pynchon makes it clear that as much as the character and the reader expects concrete answers from words we won’t be getting them. On the flip side of this pessimistic view, I believe Pynchon pushes just as hard an optimistic belief in the hope that language, both spoken and written, can lead us to a happier state of being and freedom once we understand more fully the weaknesses and strengths in this most powerful tool. Take for example the abstract advice Oedipa’s psychiatrist imparts on her before his arrest that she should cherish all fantasies because they are what make us human. Although Dr. Hilarious’s (greatest psychiatrist name ever) words should be taken with caution it is the best answer Oedipa and the reader get. We should indulge in the fantasies our minds and others generate through the many forms of communication, whether it be novels, plays, songs, television, telekinesis, or very simply talking under the influence of various substances or none. Yet we need to delve into imagination with the understanding that language is a construct of man and will never fully encapsulate the abstract forms of nature/the world/existence and so on because it’s not about capturing the answers to these things but acting on and with the best of words can bring us. That’s what beautiful literature is for.

Creating and Completing Art

I just finished the first draft of my second book Nothing Will Come of Nothing and as I labored over the last 10,000 words or so I couldn’t not think of the extraordinary strong pressure to give up. So close and yet at no other moments did I feel like giving up until the end. ‘You gave it your best try,’ ‘You can come back to it later,’ or ‘Nobody will read it anyway so why bother finishing,’ I told myself. But why did all of this have to come at the end? Why not at the beginning when I was scribbling down the amazing themes and metaphors I would incorporate or in the very middle of typing it out at 5:30 in the morning when I should have been sleeping? I know the answer, but not completely in a way that I know it when it happens or have the will to overcome it when it slaps me in the face and leaves my brain in a blank daze.

Although these moments come harder than a slap in the face sometimes and are really like a jolt of electricity to your chest that freezes everything. In that state of helplessness I want to find the easiest course away from that block and that means carelessly falling on the whims of outside influences: CLICK TO SEE HOW THE RICH USE CREDIT CARDS, EVERYTHING IS NOT AWESOME WITH THE OSCARS (The Lego Movie was totally robbed), MOST BEAUTIFUL ABANDONED PLACES. But I know about these obstacles and should know how to shock myself out of their influence and move on. Most instances I don’t and then I see how much time has passed and the amount of work I could have completed in that time if I would just wake up out of the cardiac lull. Eventually my eyes peak open enough to get started again, but returning to that wide-eyed state where thoughts flow free and bright in their journey from mind to computer is long in coming especially towards the end of creating art.

So what is the knowledge that I’ve been teasing out as the fix that’s easier said than done? Well it’s complicated. The most modern form that I know of is in Gurdjieff’s teachings. He describes the process of starts and stops that accompany everything, and most importantly in creating something, as the Ray of Creation.



You’ll notice the eight symbols follow the law of an octave do, re, mi, fa, so, la, si, do. The information and knowledge isn’t solely Gurdjieff’s. It can be traced to Plato in book X of The Republic, the Pythagoreans, and many others. Now I don’t plan to explain all the parts and possibilities of using this understanding, only the one I had such a tremendous time getting through recently with the completion of my first draft. According to this, and I’ve felt it before not just in my writing, the most difficult point to ascend in this chain of creation is moving from si to the second do. Others see it too and try to word it poetically like ‘It’s always darkest before the dawn,’ but truly finding the strength of will to move past the dark or si stage into the dawn or do stage is soul wrenching. Everything works against you at this point and everything seems to need to fall into a beautiful order before you’re granted permission to move forward. And even with that permission there is work, actual, metaphysical back breaking work needed to step out in the sun with a complete manuscript that eagerly awaits your next step onto the octave to start again at the bottom with rewrites.



Infinite Jest Review/Soliloquizing (Of Course There’s Spoilers)

It took just under seven months to get through the tome that is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace or DFW as the hundreds of posters before me have shorthanded. Honestly, it really didn’t feel that long especially after the 300 to 400 page mark where story beats and my own understanding of the characters ratcheted up to a very quick pace. It is long and involves dedication to get through, but overall it is definitely not some highly encrypted vault waiting for only the most intellectual of the bunch to break into. DFW even addresses this in the book through Hugh Steeply’s discussion of his father becoming fixated on the television show M.A.S.H. Other examples abound of addiction, which is one of the major themes, but I believe it’s to highlight something bigger in that we all have the same capabilities inside us. Anyone could read this book and be just as hooked on the intricacies of relationships and the fictional universe supplied here as they can with Harry Potter, the Marvel cinematic and comic book worlds, or hundreds of other television shows out there. We enjoy escaping into mythic worlds where we can recount the first time Ron showed feelings of more than friendship towards Hermione, how the Phoenix and Jean Grey were really two separate beings, or why a shoelace touching a public men’s room floor is a good enough excuse for Jerry to throw out his shoes. Those outside worlds that we take and make our own are so enticing because they’re easy to understand and easy to consume. We got a firm grip on them and thus we have a firm grip on life, or do we? Like the best, DFW doesn’t give you an answer because there really isn’t one. The question is the important part.

Like the question of communication. This is probably the most attractive theme from Infinite Jest for me, the addicted reader, because it is so illusive but so damn important in stepping away from fiction and into reality. I am horrible about communicating out loud, much like the protagonist Hal, and it creates so much conflict in dealing with the outside world. But this is not about me, it’s about Hal. Infinite Jest is Hal’s story; something I suspected (and Robert H. Bell or William R. Kenan, Jr or William C. Dowling [professors that posted together? about Infinite Jest] also stated) about halfway through the book but didn’t confirm until the ending and then rereading of the opening episode in which a hospital worker looks down at him and says, “So yo then man what’s your story?” Which is also a great way of emulating or mirroring Hamlet’s final request of Horatio to tell the world/Fortinbras what has happened. I think I also need to mention Hamlet is my favorite Shakespeare play; similar themes of communication and such that I haven’t been able to run away from yet or ever. And there’s the silver lining that lends hope to both of these tragedies. The protagonists’ stories do get told and, we can surmise, heard. The mouthpiece of these stories may be unconventional at first glance, but upon closer examination (I sound like Freud from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in my head here) it is the most true expression of character.

Himself, the Mad Stork, the Sad Stork, Dr. James Orin Incandenza, Hal/Inc.’s father (more great hints at character’s inability to express one true self to others) film career surrounded around the use of multiple lenses, some he created himself, to make art house pictures. These multiple eyes into the film director’s vision encapsulates the physical book Infinite Jest and Hal’ story. The reader doesn’t get chapters, we get scenes told through multiple lenses directed by Hal. His voice carries through/morphs with/fixes/suppresses/submits to dozens of other character’s voices and points of views with the purpose of, again, telling Hal’s story. And this is the only way Hal can communicate his identity, by accepting and using the influences around him. At first it may sound depressing that Hal’s identity isn’t fully formed by his will, morals, and principles but – now we get to come full circle – no one is. All those other lenses/voices Hal uses to tell his story are not solely identified by the owners. Each of them has influences pushing and pulling at them to varying degrees invisibly. Hal is our protagonist because he has seen all the strings and now tugs back to make an entertainment filled with infinite jest.

Well that’s as much as my morning clarity will allow because there are so many more pieces that DFW uses to beautiful effect in a novel that will probably be another lens added to the distortion of seeing my true self.

P.S. I’m going to cheat and use this post as a review on Goodreads as well. Shocking!

Stanley Kubrick Approved Book Trailer

I’m not a Kubrick specialist but if I were to play the favorite director game he’d be my pick. There’s something about the way his films seem to be every bit a film. They speak through visuals and sounds instead of trite character exposition or unnecessary narrators that don’t believe the audience is perceptive enough to pick up on what’s currently going on in a scene: “So the next day I had detention. Which, thanks to recent budget cuts meant cleaning.” That’s a lot to put together for an American teenage audience when it’s already happening on screen. Directors better explain it just in case.

But I didn’t intend to make this a rant. I want to focus on how so much story can be told in one long, unbroken shot. In Lolita, Kubrick delivered a gorgeous take of Charlotte Haze’s death from the moment she reads Humbert’s diary to her outburst that sends her running into the street in front of an oncoming car. You never see the impact of car and woman, but the camera pulls back from the house to the street in a classic unbroken take where the sounds and developing visuals tell you everything that’s happened.

Am I going to come close to replicating that beautiful bit of cinematic language? Of course not, but I do plan on ripping off his technique in my book trailer to hopefully get across half of the emotive power that Kubrick can summon up. Now that I’ve put that down for the vast world of the internet to read or ignore, the bigger question is whether or not my trailer will even reach a fourth of its aspiring master? Once we see the wizard behind the curtain a good chunk of the magic is lost. My trailer will be just a sad limping homage to one of the masters, but I think I’m good with that because it sounds a lot better than another forgotten Ken Burns’ bunch of pictures as movie/book trailer.

“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

Imagination Vs. Reality

Uuuuuuhhhhhhh. This one feels extremely topical for me right now as my son watches the new Toy Story That Time Forgot again. But beyond Pixar’s amazingly tight storytelling (like TV poetry), I can’t not help think about one of the most difficult match ups in fiction the imagined world and the real world. I know it may sound a bit simple at first but when you really stare deeply into the forms of these two worlds it becomes a mess and headache to even come close to wrapping your head around possible answers or truths to go by.

So let’s try it anyway. The imagined world, kind of the easy one, is created by us and follows the rules we see fit even when the rules contradict one another.  And that’s the key. Everything bends and twists and re-shapes to take into account what we want in any given moment. We are God of the imagined world, but we’re not very good at it because it’s about what we want. That is the 99% dominant desire in the imagined space, a selfish one. So what is the purpose of such an inconsistent and vain vision of life? I think it’s to give us hope that changes can and will come. It also can give us perspective on our limitations when we actually take a moment to comprehend what we’re seeing isn’t really there. Ouch! I don’t know if I have the endurance to ponder and explain further on that world for now.

That means it’s time for the real world. A place that’s been here long before we were and will continue on perfectly fine without us. The rules are simple here; so simple that we forget them all the time even when they’re working so plainly in front of us or on us. We are the ones that bend and jump and hide from this world. We are the “wanton flies” hoping to stick around in God’s playground long enough to figure out one of those pesky simple rules and pass it on to our children so they can hold it in one hand and reach for another rule. Maybe they will be more than a pest in someone’s house. We have to learn those rules and keep to them or else they will break us. I can feel myself getting lost in the real world just through this paragraph.

What I want to finish on is how these two worlds dual in fiction writing. Most writing favors the imagined and most readers are drawn to this type as well which is completely fine and dandy because it is the easier of the two, the one that hurts less to get involved with. Less hurting means less friction, though. That’s why the real world pops up. Stories need a friction to create conflict and to move towards something worthwhile. Does that mean the balance of these two worlds in writing should be 50/50? I don’t know, but I do know the more I attempt (that’s all I can do now) to inject the real world the more difficult the writing becomes for me and I, fear, also for the readers. But don’t we secretly want to intellectualize those rules so that we gain a chance to use them? And wouldn’t more exposure to them lead to this? How much pain are we willing to take from the brutal, uncompromising real world when the imaginary is waiting to bend over backwards for us?

I need to stop ending with questions, but I’m really only at the stage of being able to ask them instead of answer them. No one’s left feedback or comments yet so please feel free to talk it up whomever might be out there reading this.

“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact.” Damn quotes again, saying it better than me.

Is a Tragedy Too Much for Readers Today?

I’ve been thinking again, which many times splits into something beautifully insightful or frustratingly crippling. Hopefully putting it down in the semi-permanent existence of the internet will lean the odds towards the former goal. “I don’t know what I think until I read what I say,” said someone with more success at reaching the beauty of thoughts than I’ve had. (I can’t help quoting others. They put words together so well).

So back to my ponderings, I think. It all started with another small bout of writers block that led to the question currently bouncing around in my head; do people want to read something sad? To further that question and to make my chain of thoughts more clear I moved next to ‘Why is it sad?’ I don’t want to make people cry although that would be a pretty good indicator that the writing has had an effect. But tears are so temporary and the effect I want my writing to have is much more. I want readers to come back to my work and find more with each visit until they’ve reached a point of permanency in being someone else because they encountered what I wrote. Lofty ambitions, I know.

Another question to add to the musings so far; will a tearjerker accomplish what I want? I want to strike at something true and through my perspective that means not holding back. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about trying to teach some moral lesson by damning characters for their fictional wrongdoings. It’s again about reaching and possibly glimpsing the awesome, the inspiring, the terrifying, the all. Am I reaching too far? Have I gained some deeper understanding here? Or am I stuck in the dirt staring up at the sky waiting for the answers?