Donavan’s Brain

a.k.a. Catch & Release or Notes of an American Idler by Donavan Hall (@theangler)

Sunday, 1 November 2015

For the next month I will be participating in National Novel Writing Month along with a few of my writing buddies, Russ Kremer (@Netizen06) of Crenellated Flotsam fame being one of them. (Hey, Russ!) One member of my writing group is a noveling newbie and wants to remain hidden in a mysterious cloud of anonymity. (Hey, Anonymous!)

I won’t pretend that any of you care that I’ll be writing a draft of a brand new novel this month. Like the world needs me to write another novel! But in case you check this space and wonder what I’m up to, well, I’m hard at work on the novel which I’m calling The End of Days.

This morning, I got off to an excellent start. The book certainly didn’t start like I thought it would, but that’s all part of the fun, seeing how the kid turns out when she comes into the world.

So there’s not going to be any blogging during the month of November, not by me at any rate. I might have some time to post a few tweets. If you want to find out how things are developing, then follow my Twitter feed. Also, if you are writing a novel this November and want to connect, send me a tweet @theangler. If not, that’s alright too.

See you in December.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

We progress through an intensifying of the power generated by the physical satisfaction of natural man, whose two worst enemies are apathy and delirium; the apathy which spreads outward from the mechanical life, the delirium which results from the violent methods we use to escape. —from The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly, p. 34

I started reading The Abortion by Richard Brautigan which really is about a couple who go to Tijuana to obtain a medical procedure to end a pregnancy. But the book starts with a description of a library of the 99%. The library of failed books. Books contributed by their authors to be collected with other unpublishable books, books that the capitalist publishing world has no use for. As I read, I thought about the Underground Library in the draft of my choose-your-own-adventure version of Into the Labyrinth. This library was run by a group of volunteer librarians and they acted as the guardians of unwanted literature, of books that publishers had no use for, or through the lack of ambition of their authors never found a champion in the publishing world. A catalog of unpublished (unpublishable) literature. What is endearing about the collection of books in Brautigan’s novel is that the paper offerings are not at all literary. The works brought to the library are the products of the common person writing about what interests them the most, a reflection of the genuine obsessions of a human being not saddled with the responsibility of producing something to be subjected to the judgement of others.

Also I found a nice article archived on the brautigan pages called “Why Richard Brautigan Should Be the Patron Saint of ‘zines” by Erik Miller which talks about Brautigan’s novel The Abortion and the underground books described therein.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Flying cars?

Reading In Watermelon Sugar by Brautigan. Allison Green, in her book, didn’t write about Brautigan’s process, about how he went about his work, but I imagine that he had his daily routine. Perhaps not a page count, but (possibly) each day he would write the next short chapter. He might spend an hour or so doodling in his notebook, combining words, testing out arrangements that had never been attempted before, trying to find what is original. Then from these notes, he’d type up what he encountered in his imagination, what discoveries he made on the page. The invention of a daily quantum. Stories like a string of beads handing on a thread. What is the method of Brautigan? Each writer finds his own way forward.

What seems true about In Watermelon Sugar is that Brautigan, or the unnamed narrator, is present. He is aware of what’s in front of him. While the effect of the narration is dreamlike, the stuff that makes up the dream is the stuff of daily life, sensory data.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Tomorrow is the day when Marty and Doc Brown arrive in the future in Back to the Future II. Which means that tomorrow when I wake up there will be flying cars.

Last night, I finished reading Allison Green’s The Ghosts Who Travel With Me, a kind of travelogue / diary / memoir riffing off Green’s lifetime of reading Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan. I read Trout Fishing in America at the beginning of September and decided that if there was a book that existed which I could read a hundred times, it was Trout Fishing in America. What I envied / admired most about Brautigan’s writing was his lyricism. His attention is on the language, the sentences, the sound of the words. He writes musically and with a musical brain. For the longest time I’ve had a copy of Brautigan’s other book, Watermelon Sugar, on my shelf. Time to read it.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

In the aftermath of the US loss to Mexico at the Rose Bowl last Saturday and their follow-up performance, coming up short against Costa Rica, Klinsmann’s stock is falling and the American soccer fan could use a dose of hope.

Perhaps this sense of lost hope prompted some soul searching and the asking of deep questions like: am I living the life I chose to live or someone else’s that just happens to look like me? and, where does all the time go when it’s not around here? Giving expression to such existential examination leads to blogs whose subject is a record of successive obsessions.

As you’ll have no doubt noticed, my obsessions are diverse and varied, not confined to the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard, but extending to popular culture institutions like the long-running British TV show Doctor Who. A stint at the garage for an emergency tire replacement afforded me the free time to read in-depth about the artificiality of the Whoniverse.

And in last week’s episode of Doctor Who, “Before the Flood,” the write chose to name the bad guy after a legendary figure: the Fisher King.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Finished reading the first volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novel which began with a brief section titled “Eliminating All the Traces.” These few pages at the beginning of this long novel set the stage. Lila, at the age of sixty-six, has disappeared without a trace, literally removing every artifact which would have signaled that she had, at one time, existed. Lenù, the narrator, sets out to thwart her friend’s plan by writing the story of Lila’s life. Thus begins My Brilliant Friend.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Still trying to work out the difference between this blog and my Diary. Perhaps here, I should be brief and stick to the facts.

The USA will be taking the field against Mexico in the Rose Bowl later this evening. Even though I will watch from a distance, from the comfort of my couch on Long Island, I’m tempted to send my doubt, that other Donavan, to the Rose Bowl to cover this spectacle. I sent Donavan to the USA-Mexico match played at the Alamodome earlier this year. Dos a cero!

Contents. What did I do this last week? I pursued “the reward of art” which is intoxication. Or perhaps I could have just had a beer.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Thinking aloud. Going back and reading over what I’ve written in the last couple of weeks for this blog has led me to wonder if these entries are more properly part of my Diary. Then what is the blog for? As I added more text to this unfolding web called The Complete Angler I thought I should come up with some way of charting or keeping track of the growth of this subterranean rhizome. This morning alone, I’ve added text to the various branches and if I continue, even I will lose track of what I’ve posted here. The blog then becomes a kind of table of contents. What would a blog entry which is also an entry in a table of contents look like? Why not just call it the Table of Contents? Which is what (Dis)contents was supposed to be.

Contents. In “the sporting life,” the author contemplates Christina’s foot and a photograph of Sylvia Plath holding her infant son Nicholas Hughes. Ben Lerner and Karl Ove Knausgaard each propose “a theory of the novel.” In the Sandbox I reveal “the origin of the Spanish Leap.” And in “A Quantum of Text” I compare one of David Markson’s novels with a 1970s car chase film.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Yesterday, before resuming work on my current work-in-progress, The Spanish Leap, I thought it would be worth my time trying to sketch out what’s going to happen in this last section of the book. Basically, instead of just winging it and hoping for the best, I figured that concocting a simple plot might help hold this soup of narrative together.

Coming up with plots isn’t difficult. A plot is just a skeleton on which to hang the flesh of story. Deciding on the particulars can seem a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. So when I was dreaming up what kind of mess my characters were getting themselves into, I took whatever came to mind first. The setup was this: my characters have climbed a large hill, Montjuic, in Barcelona and found a large mansion. Leonora suggests they knock on the door to see if anyone is home. Then what?

In early July, I walked up that hill with my son. He wanted to ride the cable car. At the top of the hill is a fancy hotel, a snack bar, and restaurant. When we got to the top of the hill, I snapped a few pictures, but my son decided that riding the cable car didn’t look so fun now that we were this high up. I didn’t argue.

That was the germ of the setup in my story. My son and I did not go up to the hotel and knock on the door. But I was curious what would happen if that palatial structure was somebody’s residence and what might happen if we knocked on the door only to find that we were expected for dinner.

The plot for this final part of my Barcelona novel revolves around the dinner party and the mysterious host who is throwing the party. My narrator and Leonora meet a curious young man who believes that the dinner party is not going to be a pleasant experience. Later, when my characters meet the other prospective dinner guests, they begin to see why this dinner party might prove to be dangerous. The house, the host, and the dinner party are a puzzle, a kind of trap from which my characters have to escape.

Once I’d mapped out the rules of engagement and some of the necessary scenes, I could then return to the moment Leonora knocks on the door of the mansion.

Later yesterday afternoon while Alice and I were walking the dog, I explained why I thought I should couple my narratives with some simple plot. In my last book, The Architect, or Fear of Falling, I allowed the narrative to develop around the question of the identity of the Architect and what the Architect might want from the narrator. The climax involved a plane crash and a gun battle at the airport. But these events were just elements inserted into an otherwise mundane story. The “action elements” were inserted as a contrast to the predominately meditative narration of the main character.

When I started writing The Spanish Leap, the story felt like a continuation of the previous book. It’s the same narrator, but now he’s traveled to Barcelona instead of San Antonio. And here my narrator is again wandering around and things are happening. But why are these things happening? Are these events leading to anything? It was this question which led me to design a simple plot for the last third of the book.

As we walked along letting Daisy sniff the roadside, I told Alice about how I’d become disillusioned with writing strongly plotted novels. Every time I outlined a plot ahead of time, I would get bored with the story. I could only keep my interest if I didn’t know what was going to happen. And not knowing what was going to happen often led me to write books where one damn thing followed by another. This actually works in short bursts. Take César Aira’s books. He can write by the seat of his pants and cook up all these fanciful dishes which explode and then get tidied up in 110 pages. For The Architect and the first two-thirds of The Spanish Leap, I’ve been relying on Aira’s method of the constant flight forward. While I think the method is working, what I’d like to do is experiment with stretching the skin of the constant flight forward over the scaffolding of a basic plot where the characters are presented with a problem which they have to solve to reach the resolution. That combination might just be what the doctor ordered.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Bloveling. This morning, rather than beginning work straight away on my current work-in-progress, The Spanish Leap, I descended into my study to make some notes. Last night, I chanced across a passage in Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave that sparked an idea about how to map out the plot of my Eden Quartet. While making those notes, I thought I should take a moment and see if I couldn’t post this week’s blog entries. I’ve fallen behind in actually posting the written entries to the site because my current plan is to integrate this blog, Donavan’s Brain, with the rest of my textual web and making these links requires a lot of editorial work.

Several years ago, when I started writing Red Neck the framework was that “I” (the narrator) was writing a blovel, that is a blog-novel, a novel posted in installments on a blog. The blog was (is!) called Donavan’s Brain. If memory serves me, I think I did post some of the installments to this blog, but producing an actual blovel wasn’t really my goal. Red Neck is about a character writing a blovel, so the blovel itself was something of an implied fictional construct.

As I was adding in links from this blog to the larger unfolding text curated under the banner of The Complete Angler I was led to portions of Red Neck and I rediscovered what I’d written about blovels and bloveling. Why had I been so reluctant to post (publish?) the text of Red Neck to my web site? I suppose I still held onto some notion that a traditional / conventional small press would want to publish my work in a way that was recognized as legitimate. However, I’m wondering if “the future” will be puzzled by this notion of conventional print publishing. Why would an author need a publisher? Why not just post the work to the World Wide Web and let it be read by anyone who cares to? Will “the future” be as squeamish about self-publication as those of us who still write with one foot in the twentieth century?

One of the reasons I’ve returned to putting what I’ve written on this web site is that I’m guessing “the future” won’t care if my works were first published by a traditional publishing house or appeared here. Or maybe I’ve stopped believe that there will a future and I’m going boldly in that dark night.

Friday, 25 September 2015

My Struggle. For the last month I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about time travel. Also, reading books where time travel is part of the reality of the fiction. Perhaps the reason I’ve been thinking about time travel so much is that if I was able to travel in time, then, in principle, I’d be able to control time. At the moment, time just keeps on marching into the future at sixty seconds per minute. In order to “accomplish my goals” I need a certain amount of free time. I used to get my free time in the morning before the rest of the world wakes up. But lately (maybe because I’m getting older?) my body’s been indulging in a full eight hours of sleep rather than letting me get by with the usual six.

Ten years ago, it seemed that I had more free time than I do now. What’s odd is that it feels like I’m doing less. I know that for the longest time my motto was “slow down, do less” but I didn’t mean “write less, read less.” The whole point of slowing down and doing less was so that I could write more, read more.

When Alice and I walked the dog together this morning, I shared these concerns with her. She said that she wanted to spend the evening reading. I’m on board with that, I said. Last night, I hardly had any time to read at all. “You baked a cake,” she said.

Yes, baking cakes is important. But isn’t reading and writing books just as important? Who says that man cannot live by fiction alone? Let the self-proclaimed literati eat cake!

This struggle to find the time to write comes at a moment in my writing life when I feel I finally know what I’m doing. I know what I’m working on and how to go about my business. No longer do I suffer from what Dr Pasavento called “completion anxiety.” No, I’ve become quite good at finishing the books I start.

Another problem is that even though I do have moments of free time, often when those free moments come, I’m too physically or mentally tired to write. Because my paid work requires sustained mental effort (I’m thinking all day long about complex subjects which often involve mathematics at a level far beyond the comprehension of most mortals), coming home in the evening with the expectation of being creative and productive is not realistic. The evenings are for baking cakes and watching soccer.

I am a morning person by default. Even though I’ve just woken up, that is the time of the day when my mind is nimble and alert and most ready to perform its amazing imaginative feats. It’s in those early morning hours when the world is quiet and the sun hasn’t yet come up over the horizon that I can travel freely without ever leaving my writing desk.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Last night I stopped by Callahan’s for a half-liter for Secret Engine / RPAB Pils and I was pleased to see Franz, or should I say, the Franz. He hasn’t been stopping in at the old watering hole as often as in the past and so I was happy to have the opportunity to catch up with him. When I asked him what he’d been doing with himself, Franz said he’d been traveling. I went to China, Japan, and Singapore, he said. I asked him if it was for business or pleasure. A little of both, he said.

I bought the next round and I mentioned to him that I was still keeping up with Russ and that Russ and I had decided to do National Novel Writing Month together. The Franz’s eyes got wider and he began to chew his lower lip. NaNo? he asked. You guys are going NaNo again? Sure, for old time’s sake, I said. You know me, I never miss an opportunity to spend a month speed typing.

Then we dropped in reminiscence mode. The Franz talked about the three years (a decade ago) that he, Russ, and I did NaNo together. That was so much fun, he said. I’d love to do it again, but I’m way to too busy. You should, I said. I can’t, he said. We’ll handicap you a few thousand words. Or maybe we work as a team to write a total of 150K words. You do what you can and Russ and I will do the rest. We’ll give you whatever you need to make your 50K.

The Franz nodded and stroked his beard. Clearly, he found the idea tempting. I think about it, he said.

We kept on talking about this and that. Eventually, we drained our respective half-liter glasses, shook hands and went our separate ways. As I walked home from Callahan’s I wondered what I was going to write in November. What sort of novel would it be? If Russ and now perhaps even the Franz were going to be typing along with me and pledging to trade novels in December, then I would definitely have to write something fresh and new.

Last summer, I made a few notes about a story set in Camden, Maine. Alice, Patrick, and I rented a house in Camden for a few weeks. The house we stayed in was amazing. It belonged to a retired school teacher and so was full of books. There was even a wooden writing desk in the front room where I could sit and work each morning. Camden seemed like the perfect setting for a novel: a picturesque little harbor village. I imagined a forty-something math professor and his dog passing a quiet summer in Camden. My old literature prof, E.C. Curtsinger, said that if you want your readers to sympathize with the character in your novel, then the character should have to suffer some kind of loss. Immediately, I thought maybe the math prof’s wife had recently passed after some kind of illness. The situation made me uncomfortable since there’s some irrational part of me which is superstitious about the things I do to my characters. I felt bad for this hypothetical, fictional math prof. I hadn’t even written a single word of his story and I was already feeling guilty over killing off his wife. What sort of writer are you? I asked myself. Squeamish?

While wandering around Camden, I imagined my math prof and his dog. I saw him making the acquaintance of woman. The dog would smooth the way for the meeting somehow. The math prof and this solitary female would become friends. Then what? I didn’t want to write a boring unbelievable romance about a man meeting a random woman. Not that I didn’t want my math prof to have some fun, or to have some relief from suffering from the loss of his wife. The whole chance meeting with the woman in Camden seemed too predictable. What if the woman turned out to be a blood-sucking, fish-form (some kind of vampire-mermaid) that crept from the cold Atlantic to claim unsuspecting victims? I doodled some notes and shelved the idea.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Daleks, Nazis, Mein Kampf. When I was 15, I started reading the series of Doctor Who novelizations published by Pinnacle. (I think there were only ten or at most a dozen titles in the series. They were an American publication of the Target series which later became available in full in the US.) One of the books was Terry Nation’s The Genesis of the Daleks. That particular serial was one of my favorites and when I read the novelization (penned by Terrance Dicks, of course), I started to think about Doctor Who not only in its visual form, but as existing as a text to be read. My father always teased me (gently) about my fanaticism for Doctor Who. I desperately wanted my father to like Doctor Who, but he wasn’t into “sci-fi” he said. When I started reading the novelizations, I wondered if the books, the fact that they existed, might somehow legitimize Doctor Who in my father’s estimation. If Doctor Who was more than a TV show, if it was also literature, then would it not be a subject worthy of serious contemplation?

In order to convince my bookish father that Doctor Who was worthy of my devotion and possibly a subject that might interest him, I wrote an essay / review of The Genesis of the Daleks, which was published in one of the many Doctor Who fanzines. A copy of this bit of juvenilia may still exist somewhere in a box, but the actual text of that essay isn’t important. The point is that I took as my subject for the review the question of the morality of genocide and murder in the context of war. In that story, an evil mastermind, Davros, has created a race of tank-encased mutant soldiers whose only desire is to kill. Davros was the chief scientist of the race of Kaleds who were locked in a perpetual war of attrition against their enemies, the Thals. Davros does not look like the other Kaleds; he looks as if he should have died years ago, but he’s being kept alive by technology and machines even as his body appears to be in an advanced state of decay. Somehow Davros is the leader of a group of elite Kaleds led by a Nyder. Nyder and the other elites are patterned after the Nazi SS. And so Davros himself stands in as Hilter figure. The parallels between Davros, Hitler, the Kaled elites, Nazi SS, are underscored by all the talk of racial purity and how the Thals are degenerate “mutos.”

The climax of the story comes when the Doctor is in a position to destroy the Daleks. The incubation room for the Dalek hatchery is lined with explosives and wired for detonation. All the Doctor has to do it touch the two wires together and he would completely destroy the Daleks before they were unleashed on the universe. While this situation plays on a classic time-travel paradox, the moral question is clear: is genocide allowed under certain circumstances? Is genocide ever justified? In the Doctor’s speech prior to making his decision about whether to commit genocide or not… rather than describing it, I’ll quote it here:

The Doctor : “If someone who knew the future, pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives... could you then kill that child?”

Sarah Jane Smith : “We're talking about the Daleks. The most evil creatures ever invented. You must destroy them. You must complete your mission for the Time Lords!”

The Doctor : “Do I have the right? Simply touch one wire against the other and that’s it. The Daleks cease to exist. Hundreds of millions of people, thousands of generations can live without fear... in peace, and never even know the word ‘Dalek’.”

Sarah Jane Smith : “Then why wait? If it was a disease or some sort of bacteria you were destroying, you wouldn’t hesitate.”

The Doctor : “But if I kill. Wipe out a whole intelligent life form, then I become like them. I’d be no better than the Daleks.”

—from the BBC’s Doctor Who Episode Guide

The Doctor decides in the next moment that he cannot justify genocide under any circumstances. Some acts are so morally reprehensible that to perform them, even for the best of reasons, is wrong. The parallels in the real world are obvious, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fire bombing of countless other cities by conventional means, the Holocaust, the ethnic-cleansing campaigns in the Balkan wars, the Israeli effort to wipe out the Palestinians… the list goes on and on.

During “The Magician’s Apprentice” a clip of the Doctor’s speech on Skaro becomes the central question of the drama: does the Doctor have the moral right to go back to a point in time when Davros was a boy and kill him? The question of why a time-traveler just doesn’t pop back in time and kill Hitler has come up many times in the history of the series. And here we are again, facing the same question.

I don’t recall how I concluded the essay I wrote thirty years ago about the Doctor’s moral choice and what his example teaches us about how to behave, but I know I wanted to convince my father that Doctor Who wasn’t just a silly, sci-fi TV show; it was more than that, something capable of moral instruction, something that showed us how to be good. The Doctor’s central question since the beginning of last season was “Am I a good man?” Perhaps we’ll find out in the next episode just how good a man the Doctor is now.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Last night, we gathered in the front room where the TV is and put on the premiere episode of series 9 of Doctor Who, “The Magician’s Apprentice.” When the Doctor emerged from the cloud of smoke wearing Ray-Bans with a strapped on faux-Stratocaster, I just had to laugh. I laughed so hard that tears started streaming down my face. I haven’t laughed like that in ages and it felt so good to laugh. I wanted to laugh and this silly show gave me and excuse and a moment of pleasure.

After series 8 ended and after the annual Christmas special was broadcast, I took a little break from the show. I didn’t watch any reruns. I didn’t read any Doctor Who Magazine, didn’t even check the Doctor Who news website. This silence, or time of retreat (a period of meditation), wasn’t a result of any disappointment in the show and how it was going, but just a necessary step in the process of keeping my fannish enthusiasm fresh. I really don’t see how these uber-fans manage to keep up their unremitting attention on the show all year ‘round. Actually, now that I write that sentence, I do understand. I remember when I was 15 years old and the only thing that mattered, really mattered to me, was Doctor Who. Perspective comes with age, I suppose. Thirty years later, my life is full of other things that really do matter to me, and the televised adventures of a certain Time Lord from Gallifrey are a welcome relief from the relentless ordinariness of the daily cycle.

On Friday, I listened to an episode of the Reality Bomb podcast. One of the hosts said that he’d had a rough month, that he’d been going through a particularly dark time in his life (or something along those lines). He didn’t go into any details, but he did say that the antidote to his suffering was watching one of the classical Doctor Who serials, “The Sunmakers.” (I remember well that story and its humor and social commentary.) The podcast host said that it was the humor of the episode that gave him relief. The antics of the Doctor were an excuse to laugh and laughter is good for the soul.

Now that Doctor Who is back on the screen with new episodes, I’m looking forward to the next three months leading up to the Christmas special. I can count on 46 minutes of relief and entertainment each Sunday evening.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Last Wednesday, we (my family and I) went to the 3D theatrical showing of “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven”, the two episodes which comprised the series 8 finale for Doctor Who. After the screening of the episodes (edited together into a feature length film that worked seamlessly), there was a special screening of a prequel for series 9. The prequel was shot at Caerphilly Castle in Wales. A few years ago, we traveled to Wales for the Doctor Who tour of Cardiff which took us to many of the locations used for filming the series. After the tour of Cardiff, Alice, Patrick, and I spent an afternoon at Caerphilly. That castle has been used many times as a location for Doctor Who. Somehow, the fact that I have real experience and memories of Caerphilly (and other locations around Cardiff) imparts a feeling of being connected to the show. I might have thought that seeing real world locations in an otherwise fictional story would jar me out of a sense of being caught up, or fooled, by the fiction. But in reality, the opposite is the case: because I know these locations, have visited them, my sense of the world of the Doctor, his companions, his adventures, is expanded and solidified. The show becomes more real.

Last night, the first episode of series 9, “The Magician’s Apprentice”, was aired on TV. This evening, we have friends coming over, fellow Whovians, and we will all watch the series premiere together. For the past week or so, I’ve been re-watching the episodes of series 8 and a few select episodes from earlier in the series. This is by way of preparing for the new series which will be running for the next twelve weeks.

To cultivate my present interest in Doctor Who as a spectacle and an example of a never-ending story, I’ll write down a few thoughts that have occurred to me about the show over the past few years and add them to Lost Time.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

The ongoing soccer drama, while it’s excellent material for my much-imagined book on youth soccer, has been consuming most of my mental energy during the last week. Still, the creative wheels are turning, submerged ideas bubble to the surface of consciousness, and I’m obliged to make notes.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Last night, I was talking with my mother and I told her about the drama on the soccer field. “Soccer is always a drama,” I said half-joking. Actually, things have been pretty quiet with my youth team for the past year. I have a good group of parents and some very nice boys. We get along and have fun which is the most important thing. I’m doing my bit to show them how to love the game. But last Sunday, a situation which has long been brewing (and I’m not talking about beer here) finally boiled over and spilled out onto the wick. Now there’s a lot of smoke coming off the burner and alarms are going off. I can’t write about the details on my blog, but “It will go in the novel,” I said to my mother. She said, “Usually, it’s the victors who write the history books.” To which I replied, “This novel will be no history book; it’s high comedy.” Of course, the Board of Directors of my club are not amused at the moment, but I’m hoping that when the smoke clears, we can all sit down and have a pint of beer together and tell the story of the day I…

(to be continued)

Sunday, 13 September 2015

This last week, I got an email from, the official web site of National Novel Writing Month, a worthy event in which I was once very active. My first attempt at writing a novel of at least 50K words during the month of November was in 2004. That draft eventually became Lost in the Ruins which is part of my big novel, Recovering Eden. That year I had a number of writing “buddies”. That’s how I met Russ Kremer. He was writing Big Train Show that year. In December, Russ and I and a few other buddies exchanged novels and read each other’s efforts. The drafts were certainly rough, but the process of writing as part of a group and knowing that you’d have a reader at the end of that exercise was not only fun, it gave some meaning to the ordeal. The following year, 2005, I wanted to try something different, something that wasn’t narrated in the first person. The result was The Weighting Game, the story of an overweight physicist who gets a teaching job at a fundamentalist Christian Bible school. I think that might have been the year that Russ wrote The Reader’s Emporium, a novel I very much enjoyed reading for its voice and humor. In 2005 I flew to Los Angeles for a conference. Russ was living in LA at the time, so he and I and, Franz, another of our writing buddies, met for dinner at a restaurant downtown. I flew to LA one more time in 2010 (I think) and Russ and I arranged to have dinner again and talk about the writing life.

If I start writing about each of years I participated in National Novel Writing Month and all the books I wrote over the years during the month of November this post would be 50K words. So I’ll see if I can list the titles of my November novels from memory.

  1. Originally “Catherine”, now Lost in the Ruins
  2. The Weighting Game
  3. The Trace Agency
  4. Crash Course
  5. Wasted
  6. Recovering Eden
  7. Without a Trace
  8. “Eden Quartet” (drafts for other parts of Recovering Eden)
  9. Red Neck
  10. “Eden Quartet” (more drafts for Recovering Eden)
  11. Lost Souls

The intent of NaNoWriMo is for participants to write a new and complete novel during the 30 days of November. For the last few years, I’ve been using November as a month of typing (including rewriting), a way of clearing out my system, and for catching up.

This year my plan was to return to the notebooks I wrote last summer and turn those into a novel. (I write by hand with a pen into paper notebooks, then I work from those handwritten notebooks to make a typewritten draft.) But yesterday, I had a moment of doubt about whether I should do this or not.

Russ and I keep in electronic contact, so I’d sent him a message sometime last week asking if he was going to do NaNo this year. Originally, it seemed that he was going to sit this one out, but then yesterday, I got a message from him saying that he was in, he’d do NaNo this year. So what we worked out was that we’d do NaNo together, then exchange our novels in December, “just like the good old days of a decade ago.” Two old guys trying to recapture the fun of the past? Perhaps, but what’s wrong with that?

What changed for me and my thinking about what I would write this coming November was now I would have a reader. I would be sending whatever I wrote to Russ, so I thought I should do more than just rewrite some stuff from last year’s notebooks.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Embarrassing omissions. Yesterday, during our regular afternoon coffee break, I admitted to Johan (who recently read Cat’s Cradle because I’d recommended it) that I had just read Slaughterhouse Five. You mean you’ve just reread it, said Johan clarifying. No, I said. I’ve just read it for the first time. Johan stared in disbelief. I’ve owned the book for about twenty years. I picked it up at a secondhand book store in New Orleans along with Slapstick, Player Piano, God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, and Wampeters, Foma and Granfallons. And that’s also when I might have picked up Cat’s Cradle, a book I read in grad school while baby-sitting a sick dilution refrigerator. (Boy, I could have used some Ice-9 then.)

My impulse was to let Johan believe that I’d read Slaughterhouse Five already so as to allow him to maintain the illusion that I’ve read everything. Isn’t that what the true reader wants? To have read everything? Or is it just the vanity of the reader to want to be thought of as having read everything? (Why collect books if you’re just going to have to get rid of them later in life? I remember when Fr Amos retired and he gave away his library just to be rid of the burden of it.)

When Alice reported to me the other day after balancing the checkbook that I’ve already spent over three thousand dollars on books this year, she suggested that I start making better use of the public library. Three thousand dollars! You’re kidding me, I said. Sadly, no.

So last night during a torrential rain storm we drove to the library where I checked out A History of Bombing by Sven Lindqvist, The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly, and The Rebirth of Nature by Rupert Sheldrake. The reason I’m even looking at Sheldrake’s book is that in an interview some years ago with Michael Silverblatt, W.G. Sebald name-checked Sheldrake as a decent writer of prose. When I looked up Sheldrake, a biologist, on the web, I wasn’t inspired. He’s definitely operating outside the limits of what we think of a “normal science.” But that’s no reason not to read him. Especially if he writes well.

Labyrinths. When I opened A History of Bombing I was thrilled to see instructions for “how to read this book” which started with the line: “This book is a labyrinth with twenty-two entrances and no exit.”

Recently, I’ve adopted a similar concept for this web site. Instead of the four entry points that I’ve provided on the main page for the last decade, I’ve expanded the entry points to sixteen, a nice four by four grid. (Ultimately, I’d like a four by four cube, for a total of sixty-four entry points, but let’s see how sixteen goes first.)

Excited by the labyrinthine structure of Lindqvist’s book, I dove in at one of the twenty-two entry points, “Hiroshima”, and began reading. (The reason for that specific choice is that I traveled to Hiroshima in 2002 and stood at the location of the hypocenter and ever since have felt a connection to that place.) Why the peculiar arrangement? I wondered. Why not just have twenty-two chapters? Why all the page flipping? Is it just a gimmick? The reason I’m asking is because I’d like to understand the benefits of the structure for the reader and the writer.

Fragments and quotations. The various entry points for The Complete Angler are like the covers of notebooks in which I am gathering fragments and quotations. The notebooks are also convolutes, in the spirit of Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project. Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave is a collection of fragments and quotes. What Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing does with its links and signs is to help guide the reader in their wandering. Follow the signs and you won’t miss anything. Randomly flipping through The Arcades Project or The Unquiet Grave leads to a loss of a sense of purpose or progress through the material. I tried reading William T. Vollmann’s Imperial in this wandering, random way simply because the book is so long that I despaired of ever getting through it if I tried to read it from beginning to end. Lindqvist says there are no exits from his book. The book, therefore, is structured as a loop. When you get to the last numbered fragment, you are directed back to section 10. And so it keeps going.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Amanda Katz reviewed Valeria Luiselli’s new novel, The Story of My Teeth for Slate. Complete with a reference to Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus.

Terry Pitts reviewed The Illogic of Kassel on his blog Vertigo.

On World Soccer Talk, Kartik Krishnaiyer analyzes the issues which underlie the NASL’s complaint to US Soccer about how Division 1 soccer is defined in America.

The fourth volume in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel came out on the first of the month. The Guardian books podcast had a very nice discussion of Ferrante and her fat, quartered novel which inspired me to return to the book as soon as possible. Meanwhile, there’s a fresh review in the TLS that I’m putting on my list of extracurricular reading. But I should read the piece that appeared in the most recent n+1.

For Reading Out Loud. Sometimes I’m ashamed by what I have not yet read. There are just so many books in the world and more coming all the time. How can a slow reader keep up with all of them? I used to listen to a lot of audiobooks. That was during my time in research when there was a lot of idle time waiting for dewars to cool down or on those days when I would have to sit for hours at the lab bench staring through a microscope at wires smaller than a human hair. Listening to books helped pass the time. Since I left research, I earn my living by reading and digesting the scientific literature. Given that I have to actually understand the papers I read, I can’t listen to audiobooks while I “work.” So the reading I do is largely with my eyeballs staring at ink on paper and sometimes e-ink on a digital screen. And I read just about as slowly with my eyeballs as those narrators in audiobooks read. I read slowly for two reasons: one, the kind of books I read deserve a close reading, and two, I love the sound of words, so I tend to read aloud in my head. (I’ve heard there are people who read without imagining the sound of the word and sometimes I force myself to do this if there’s something I need to read quickly.) I grew up in a household where reading aloud was part of our daily ritual. My guess is that the practice of reading aloud in my family began several generations ago when we were farmers. Each morning the family would gather for breakfast after the early morning chores were done and one of the heads of the household would read from the “Quarterly.” For me the word “quarterly” was synonymous with daily prayer and biblical study. The Quarterly was the collected Bible readings, commentaries, and prayers for that quarter of the church year and published by the church and mailed to all the parishioners for their home devotional use. In my time, we always had a church and a preacher on Sunday (because the preacher was either my dad or my grandpa), but I imagine that the Quarterly got its start at a time when getting to church on Sunday wasn’t so easy because of the travel required or if there was a church building at a nearby town there wasn’t always a preacher, so the Quarterly was a way of people to do home church. As I mentioned, both my father and grandfather were preachers so reading the Quarterly at the daily family breakfast was quite literally observed religiously. My father, as I got older, expanded the morning reading to include not just Bible and biblical-related reading to including fiction. The first book I remember him reading to me aloud (outside of picture books when I was even younger), what I mean is the first actual novel he read to me was C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. He read the whole Space Trilogy to me then we plowed our way through the Chronicles of Narnia. In one year I think my father read to me the complete works of C.S. Lewis, including his novel, Till We Have Faces. From Lewis we moved on to other novels. When I was in the seventh grade, I remember my father reading Tess of D’Ubervilles out loud to me and my mother. That experience left a strong impression on me. And I’ve returned to the book many times over the years to reread it on my own.

(That’s how essays go. What I thought I was going to write about was admitting that I only just recently read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five even though I’ve owned a copy of the book for twenty years and have six of his other novels and enjoyed them thoroughly. Perhaps I’ll try again tomorrow to write about that.)

The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence. Obvious thought this should be, how few writers will admit it, or having drawn the conclusion, will be prepared to lay aside the piece of iridescent mediocrity on which they have embarked! Writers always hope that their next book is going to be their best, and will not acknowledge that they are prevented by their present way of life from ever creating anything different.

—from The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly

Contrast with...

Everything I’ve ever written, including this book, has seemed to me at one point or another, something I probably ought to abandon. Even the best things I’ve written have seemed to me at some point very unlikely to be worth the effort I had already put into them. But I know I have to push through. Sometimes when I get to the other end it still won’t be that great, but at least I will have finished it. For me, it’s more important to keep the discipline of finishing things than to be assured at every moment that it‘s worth doing.

—Tobias Wolff

Friday, 21 August 2015

The reading life. With the beautiful summer weather here on Long Island, we’ve set ourselves up an illuminated reading pavilion in the yard where we can recline and read late into the night surrounded by the sounds of nature and enjoying the cool evening zephyrs wafting in off the Sound. Alice was laughing at me the other night because I had a pile of about ten books next to my hammock. “How are you going to read all those books in one night?” Hope springs eternal.

While I can’t read everything at once, I can dip into the deep literary ocean and wade about on the shore turning over seashells to see what lies hidden below. Some times I return to familiar watering holes. Like the other night, I want to write a few more lines about odradeks so I reread Vila-Matas’ chapter “Labyrinth of Odradeks” in A Brief History of Portable Literature. V-M expands the mythology of Odradek by turning these curious objects into dark occupants who possesses the writer the way a spirit or demon would. The writer holds within himself his odradek, and under certain circumstances the odradek may manifest itself and take on physical form. One writer’s odradek was his own double who was a sword swallower. Another’s was a slip of ribbon with a pin through it. These odradeks in V-M’s world have become figures of the occult associated with Aleister Crowley himself. I know almost nothing about Crowley other than his favorite American city was New Orleans.

Gained in translation. Wondering why most of the books I read are translated from other languages. It couldn’t be because there are no great English language authors. Turns out there are plenty. On my recent flight to Barcelona I read the introduction to a new translation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. The author makes a good case for why a book should be translated each generation or so just to keep the language and ideas fresh. The same job of translation could be done on works written in English long ago. Modern writers taking on these old texts and rendering them into the modern idiom to make them more accessible. Not a dumbing down, but an adding in, an enrichment.

Time travel. Waiting for the appearance of a time traveler. The people of earth are waiting for the appearance of the time traveler. For generations they have geared everything in society to the eventual creation of a time machine that will bring back a piece of technology that will save the world from certain destruction. (See Kairos-Chronos “The Experiment”)

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

An ‘odradek’ of Ampurdán. I wish I could claim such a familiarity with the works of Franz Kafka that when I encountered reference in Vila-Matas’ A Brief History of Portable Literature to the strange objects known as odradeks I would have said, Ah ha! A Kafkaesque reference. Of course, V-M instructs his talented reader in the true origins of the mysterious odradek which in his story display amazing powers, and act as familiar spirits to the writers of portable literature. Vila-Matas himself possesses an odradek which was made for him “a year ago” by Jordi Llovet, so he reports in his Café Perec column in El País.

The work odradek comes to us via Vila-Matas from a story by Kafka, “The Cares of a Family Man” (a translation and commentary by Anya Meksin are available on The Kafka Project). Odradek in Kafka’s story, even though it is made up of inanimate things (a spool, bits of string, a piece of wood cut into the shape of star) it can move and speak; and when it laughs, “it sounds rather like the rusting of fallen leaves.”

In his article, V-M says that the word odradek may have been borrowed from a brand of motorcycle circulating in Prague at the time. He also mentions that the Prague-born writer Johannes Urzidil, in an article, “Von Odkolek zu Odradek,” perhaps jokingly, connected the word odradek with a baker, a man named Odkolek, who apparently was known to the Kafka family.

The family man in Kafka story is concerned about Odradek and that the strange object will going on about its business lurking in stairwells long after the family man is dead and buried. Odradek cannot die because it is not (technically) alive. The family man speculates, “Anything that dies has had some kind of aim in life, some kind of activity, which has worn out; but that does not apply to Odradek… He does no harm to anyone that one can see; but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.”

Procured a copy of the Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector today from The Community Bookstore in Park Slope. Preparing for the event on the 27th hosted by Porochista Khakpour at WORD Brooklyn.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Katherine Silver’s translation of César Aira’s Dinner will be published by New Directions and appears on 6 October 2015.

SF short story? A writer is invited to travel to Ecuador and ply his trade for a time in Yachay City of Knowledge.

If Joyce wrote Ulysses today, Leo Bloom would never return home.

Scott Esposito interviewed Enrique Vila-Matas for the Paris Review about his novel Never Any End to Paris.

Larry Rohter reviewed Clarice Lispector’s The Complete Stories for the New York Times. The Complete Stories was recently published by New Directions.

This from LitHub: “Charles Bukowski’s Rules for Writing.” On Writing by Charles Bukowski (his ghost?) will be published later this month by Ecco.

Vila-Matas in China. The Shanghai Book Fair runs from Tuesday 18 August to the 25th.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Café Perec apparently is the name of Enrique Vila-Matas’ regular column in El País. Curious about the name, I found a short piece by Vila-Matas called “Café Perec” which identifies it as an actual Parisian café with the much less interesting real world name, Café Tabac. It’s in the Place Saint-Sulpice, the place which Georges Perec selected as the subject for his work, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.

There are many things in place Saint-Sulpice; for instance: a district council building, a financial building, a police station, three cafés, one of which sells tobacco and stamps, a movie theater, a church on which Le Vau, Gittard, Oppenord, Servandoni, and Chalgrin have all worked, and which is dedicated to a chaplain of Clotaire II, who was bishop of Bourges from 624 to 644 and whom we celebrate on 17 January, a publisher, a funeral parlor, a travel agency, a bus stop, a tailor, a hotel, a fountain decorated with the statues of four great Christian orators (Bossuet, Fénelon, Fléchier, and Masillon), a newsstand, a seller of pious objects, a parking lot, a beauty parlour, and many other things as well.

My intention in the pages that follow is to describe the rest instead: that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars and clouds.

—from An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris by Georges Perec

Tweets as a literary art form. From the twitter novel (twovel?) to… David Markson. A new book by Tao Lin (@tao_lin) and Mira Gonzalez (@miragonz), Selected Tweets from Hobart. Both were interviewed by Sheila Heti for The Believer as part of a series called “What Would Twitter Do?” (The link is to Mira Gonzalez’s interview. Links to the other interviews are at the bottom of the post.)

Valerie Miles reviewed Enrique Vila-Matas’ The Illogic of Kassel and A Brief History of Portable Literature for the New York Times. Valerie Miles’ translation of V-M’s Because She Never Asked will be published by New Directions Pearls and appears in November 2015.

The thrill of being someone else, playful insouciance and literary high jinks, engaging the ghosts of artists past as if they were contemporaries in a continuing metafictional conversation — these essential elements thread throughout Mr. Vila-Matas’s body of work, creating an atlas of episodes in the life of a peripatetic writer.

—from “Review: Enrique Vila-Matas Plots His Own Awakening in ‘The Illogic of Kassel’” by Valerie Miles in the New York Times, 12 August 2015

Scott Esposito interviewed Don Bartlett for the Paris Review about his translation of Knausgaard’s gigantic novel, My Struggle.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

What’s above is “inside the whale.”

…books, once they are written, have no need of their authors. If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t. There are plenty of examples. I very much love those mysterious volumes, both ancient and modern, that have no definite author but have had and continue to have an intense life of their own. They seem to me a sort of nighttime miracle, like the gifts of the Befana, which I waited for as a child. I went to bed in great excitement and in the morning I woke up and the gifts were there, but no one had seen the Befana. True miracles are the ones whose makers will never be known; they are the very small miracles of the secret spirits of the home or the great miracles that leave us truly astonished. I still have this childish wish for marvels, large or small, I still believe in them.

—from ‘“Promotion is expensive”: Elena Ferrante on anonymity’ posted by the London Review Bookshop.

I know well the happiness of being a nobody, who is at the same time someone who is writing.

What’s below is “outside the whale.”

Apparently, it wasn’t me who pioneered the field of fictional journalism.

Café Perec: “Diez grandes que no lee nadie” by Enrique Vila-Mats is a response to an essay by Stephen Sparks, “Ten Great Writers Nobody Reads” which appeared on LitHub on 24 June 2015. Sparks’ essay begins with the comforting words: “No one will read your book.”

What to do with the unpublished, unpublishable novel that sits in the bottom drawer of your desk collecting dust: leave it there. Although, I admit that I’m just a little sad that I’ll never get to read Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s Slaughter at Suez (which at first looked to me like Slaughter at Suarez, as in Luis…).

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The European leagues are beginning their 2015-2016 seasons, but even before the first kick all the major storylines are already written. But the fact that the broad narratives are predictable (for example, Bayern Munich will most assuredly win the Bundesliga title again this year) doesn’t appear to bother very many supporters.

The late Marxist writer Daniel Bensaïd is said to have admired Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow.

Shortly before he died of liver failure in July 2003, Roberto Bolaño remarked that he would have preferred to be a detective rather than a writer: “I would have liked to be a homicide detective, much more than a writer. Of that I’m absolutely sure. A string of homicides. Someone who could go back alone, at night, to the scene of the crime, and not be afraid of ghosts.”

The case of Bolaño’s isolation for years in Blanes reminds me of those books Elias Canetti talks about in THE HUMAN PROVINCE, books we have at our side many years without reading, books we don’t leave behind but take with us from one city to another, from one country to another, carefully packaged up, even though there isn’t much space; we’ll have a flick through on taking them out of the case, perhaps; yet we studiously avoid reading any phrase in its entirety. Later, years down the line, the moment comes in which suddenly, as if compelled by an order from on high, we can’t help but reach for one of these books and read it straight through, cover to cover; this book then serves as a revelation. At that moment we know why we’ve paid it such close attention. It had to live so long by our side; it had to travel; it had to take up space; it had to be a burden, and now the purpose of its journey is revealed; now it lifts its veil; now it sheds light on the years it lived silently by our side.

— from “Writers from the Old Day” by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by J.S. Tennant for THE WHITE REVIEW

Jorge Semprún was interviewed by Lila Azam Zanganeh for the Paris Review’s The Art of Fiction series, No. 192.

After years of resistance, I’ve finally decided to give Finnegans Wake a go. In addition to my Oxford edition, I’m exploring the Glosses of Finnegans Wake, a kind of annotated hypertext exploratorium.