Reviews & Recommendations

20 Writers Under the Age of 40

In case you missed it, I wanted to make note of the fact that The New Yorker recently published their Summer Fiction Issue, in this case the “20 Under 40” issue.

The issue includes short fiction by the likes of Nicole Krauss, Jonathan Safron Foer, Joshua Ferris, ZZ Packer, Daniel Alarcon, and others. Pick it up from newsstands if you get a chance.

But while you’re at it, head over to the New Yorker’s website and check out a series of questionnaires they have with each of these writers. They ask about influences, doubt, what makes a good story, and what their futures hold. Many of who will be interested, and glad I’m sure, to know that both Safron Foer and Krauss are working on new novels, and Krauss, in fact, has a new one forthcoming this Autumn.

Here are a few of my favorite responses to the question “what, in your opinion, makes a piece of fiction work?”:

– From Krauss:
“Its ability to remind us of ourselves, of who we are in our essence, and at the same instant to deliver a revelation.”

– From Joshua Ferris
“Its own insistence upon being reread.”

– From David Bezmozgis
“The best way I can articulate it is to say that a piece of fiction—or really any work of art—has to have at its core some kind of irretrievable loss. There are an infinite number of irretrievable losses—we experience new ones every day. The form of the story, through its language and tone, must then honor that loss without drifting into parody on one side or melodrama on the other—with melodrama being the lesser crime.”

– From Salvatore Scibona
“Word choice. The ability of the book to exceed its premise. The impression of a complete, invented world. Control of the instrument (language). Faith in the unconscious. The ability, as Joan Didion says, “to love and to remain indifferent.”

– From Yiyun Li
“I don’t know. This is an unanswerable question for me.”

– From Rivka Galchen
“Productive confusion. Surprise. Some blood. A little parsley.”

Highly recommend these interviews. They’re a great read, even providing a small clue into the involved and often confused psyches of writers. Some more successful than others.

Also. If you get a chance I recommend taking a look at a blog called, Leslie’s Writing Exercises, which I discovered because the proprietor over there, the not-surprisingly named Leslie, commented on a post here. She has a great post on mistakes beginning writers tend to make. Check it.

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Reviews & Recommendations

Book of the Week: Too Much Happiness by Alice Munroe

SUMMARY:
Ten superb new stories by one of our most beloved and admired writers – the winner of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize.

In the first story a young wife and mother receives release from the unbearable pain of losing her three children from a most surprising source. In another, a young woman, in the aftermath of an unusual and humiliating seduction, reacts in a clever if less-than-admirable fashion. Other stories uncover the “deep-holes” in a marriage, the unsuspected cruelty of children, and how a boy’s disfigured face provides both the good things in his life and the bad. And in the long title story, we accompany Sophia Kovalevsky – a late-nineteenth-century Russian emigre’ and mathematician – on a winter journey that takes her from the Riviera, where she visits her lovers, to Paris, Germany, Denmark, where she has a fateful meeting with a local doctor, and finally to Sweden, where she teaches at the only university in Europe willing to employ a female mathematician.

With clarity and ease, Alice Munro once again renders complex, difficult events and emotions into stories that shed light on the unpredictable ways in which mean and women accomodate and often transcend what happens in their lives.

“Too Much Happiness” is a compelling, provocative – even daring – collection.
(from the book’s flap)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAID:
“Munro’s latest collection is satisfyingly true to form and demonstrates why she continues to garner laurels (such as this year’s Man Booker International Prize). Through carefully crafted situations, Munro breathes arresting life into her characters, their relationships and their traumas. In Wenlock Edge, a college student in London, Ontario, acquires a curious roommate in Nina, who tricks the narrator into a revealing dinner date with Nina’s paramour, the significantly older Mr. Purvis. Child’s Play, a dark story about children’s capacity for cruelty and the longevity of their secrets, introduces two summer camp friends, Marlene and Charlene, who form a pact against the slightly disturbing Verna, whose family used to share Marlene’s duplex. The title, and final, story, the collection’s longest and most ambitious, takes the reader to 19th-century Europe to meet Sophia Kovalevski, a talented mathematician and novelist who grapples with the politics of the age and the consequences of success. While this story lacks some of the effortlessness found in Munro’s finest work, the collection delivers what she’s renowned for: poignancy, flesh and blood characters and a style nothing short of elegant.”
– Publisher’s Weekly, Starred Review

“I was writing a good essay,” reflects the naive student who narrates “Wenlock Edge.” “I would probably get an A. I would go on writing essays and getting A’s because that was what I could do. The people who awarded scholarships, who built universities and libraries, would continue to dribble out money so that I could do it.” Then she concludes: “But that was not what mattered. That was not going to keep you from damage.”

And she is right. Writing good essays is not going to keep you from damage. Nor is writing good stories, no matter how safely settled one may be inside the gates of literature — or, for that matter, inside any other fantasy. Faced with such a world one might well wonder: How are we to live? That is the question Munro has asked throughout her career, and continues to address in this remarkable new book.”
– Troy Jollimore, The LA Times

“Alice Munro— queen of Canadian letters and winner of 2009’s Man Booker International Prize for her body of work — returns with Too Much Happiness, a collection of 10 new stories. At 78, Munro can still teach younger writers how to write marvelously muscular short fiction. These stories have more plot and energy than most novels.”
– Deirdre Donahue, USA TODAY

“A new work by Alice Munro is always cause for celebration, and this collection of stories is no exception. These stories are like smooth, fast rivers on the surface, hiding a deep turbulence. Each cool and intelligent voice lures me deep into the tale, but never fails to deal a swift jerk and embed a hook deep and permanent.”
— Karen M. Frank, Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, VT (via indiebound)

“Munro said in her acceptance speech for the Man Booker International Prize, which she was awarded earlier this year, cementing the wide acclaim she now commands, that she is interested not in happy endings but in “meaning… resonance, some strange beauty on the shimmer of the sea”. This remarkable collection certainly captures that – and more of a sense of happiness than might at first seem possible.”
-Lorna Bradbury, The Telegraph

AN EXCERPT:
Read an excerpt here.

THE AUTHOR:

Alice Munro grew up in Wingham, Ontario, and attended the University of Western Ontario. She has published eleven previous books.During her distinguished career she has been the recipient of many awards and prizes, including the W.H. Smith Prize, the National Book Circle Critics Award, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, the Lannan Literary Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and the Rea Award for the Short Story. In Canada, she has won the Governor General’s Award, the Giller Prize, the Trillium Book Award, and the Libris Award.Alice Munro and her husband divide their time between Clinton, Ontario, and Comox, British Columbia.

You can read customer reviews and purchase a copy here.

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Reviews & Recommendations

Storytelling Through Music; Exhibit: Josh Ritter

“While the audience may not be in the room with a novelist, they still demand the same kind of attention as they do from the performance of a song. They ask that you give them your full attention, that you are generous with your time and that you don’t over stay your welcome. They give you their trust, and if they can tell your efforts have been for the right reasons, they’ll give you the room for whatever flights of imagination you’re willing to take them on.”
– Josh Ritter, on how songwriting is like writing a novel or story.

Josh Ritter has been known for a while for his story-based folk songs, so it should come as no great surprise that his first novel, “Bright’s Passage,” will be released sometime during the summer of next year. Apparently, the novel came about as the natural extension of the songwriting for So Runs the World Away, his most recent album – and one I highly recommend.

Of course, folk music has long been influenced by, and been a product of, great storytelling. From the earliest days that Americans played music around campfires and on banjos, up to the days of Guthrie, Cash, Dylan and beyond, it is a genre birthed by good yarns and tall tales, stories of the rough and tumble and the down-and-out. And Josh Ritter, a longtime student of folk art himself, is on the verge of securing his own place within the pantheon of those greats. Like other folk artists who created a lasting place for themselves, Ritter has done so through his mesmerizing stories and spot-on, know-it-all, literary references, through his ability to turn a phrase and create a character.

From lovers in bomb shelters to adventure seeking cowboys (and now resurrected mummies who fall in love with archeologists), his stories have always been just a little out of the ordinary, as one would expect from a songwriter who cites the likes of Flannery O’Connor, Phillip Roth, Stephen King, and Daphne Du Maurier as his greatest influences. But through them, and certainly like them, Ritter has always managed to capture something deeper than just entertainment or humor or romance, or even something catchy and whimsical. His stories are full of mysterious worlds that, despite being firmly locked within the flesh and blood world we all live in, seem unreal, as if haunted by ghosts – which they actually sometimes are. Like a great fantasy story or a beautifully haunting epic poem, they draw the listener/reader in, and away, and appeal to every listeners base, but powerful, desire for adventure and quest.

His songs are often about journeys, even when they are love songs, and they are always about longing, about some deeply sought after yet always elusive thing. Often they end with that longing hanging in the air like pollen, not quite met, for character or listener alike.

And, like the best storytellers, he is not didactic, instead simply revealing the finer points of his characters and plots without any kind of extemporaneous explanation. As they say, he shows instead of telling.

Consider the following haunting tracks from So Runs the World Away.

ANOTHER NEW WORLD:

The leading light of the age all wondered amongst
themselves what I would do next
After all that I’d found in my travels around
the world was there anything else left?
“Gentlemen”, I said, “I’ve studied the maps”
“And if what I’m thinking is right”
“There’s another new world at the top of the world”
“For whoever can break through the ice”

I looked round the room in that way I once had
and I saw that they wanted belief
So I said “All I’ve got are my guts and my God”
then I paused,”and the Annabelle Lee”
Oh the Annabelle Lee, I saw their eyes shine
the most beautiful ship in the sea
My Nina, My Pinta, My Santa Maria
My beautiful Annabelle Lee

That spring we set sail as the crows waved from shore
and on board the crew waved their hats
But I never had family just the Annabelle Lee
so I didn’t have cause to look back
I just set the course north and I studied the charts
and toward dark I drifted toward sleep
and I dreamed of the fine deep harbor I’d find
past the ice for my Annabelle Lee

After that it got colder the world got quiet
it was never quite day or quite night
And the sea turned the color of sky turned the color
of sea turned the color of ice
‘Til at last all around us was fastness
one vast glassy desert of arsenic white
And the waves that once lifted us
sifted instead into drifts against Annabelle’s sides

The crew gathered closer at first for the comfort
but each morning would bring a new set
of the tracks in the snow leading over the edge
of the world ’til I was the only one left
After that it gets cloudy but it feels like I lay there
for days maybe for months
But Annabelle held me the two of us happy
just to think back on all we had done

We talked of the other worlds we’d discover
as she gave up her body to me
And as I chopped up her mainsail for timber
I told her of all that we still had to see
As the frost turned her moorings to nine-tail
and the wind lashed her sides in the cold
I burned her to keep me alive every night
in the lover’s embrace of her hold

I won’t call it rescue what brought me here back to
the old world to drink and decline
And to pretend that the search for another new world
was well-worth the burning of mine
But sometimes at night in my dreams comes the singing
of some known tropical bird
And I smile in my sleep thinking Annabelle Lee
has finally made it to another new world

FOLK BLOODBATH

Louis Collins took a trip out west
And when he returned little Delia’d gone to rest
The angels laid her away
Louis said to Delia, That’s the sad thing with life
People always leaving just as other folks arrive
The angels laid her away
When the people heard that Delia was dead
All them gentlemen they dressed in red
The angels laid her away

The angels laid her away
Laid her six feet under the clay
The angels laid her away

Louis went downtown for a new suit of clothes
Gonna dress up for Delia like a fine red rose
The angels laid him away
He brought a ten-gallon stetson it was oxblood red
Then Stackalee shot Louis in the back of the head
The angels laid him away
Stackalee said to Louis, Oh now, don’t you grieve
I’m sending you to Delia you won’t ever have to leave
The angels laid him away

The angels laid him away
Laid him six feet under the clay
The angels laid him away

The judge was a mean one, his name was Hangin’ Billy Lyons
He said, You’ve always been a bad man, Stack, you’re gonna hang this time
The angels laid him away
And the jailer said to Stackalee,What’s the problem with you?
Oh, jailer, Louis Collins ghost brought Delia’s with him too
The angels laid him away

The angels laid him away
Laid him six feet under the clay
The angels laid him away

They buried little Delia in the churchyard deep
Louis Collins at her head, Stackalee at her feet
The angels laid them away
And out of Delia’s bed came briars, out of Louis’ bed a rose
And out of Stackalee’s came Stackalee’s cold lonely little ghost
The angels laid them away
And I’m looking over rooftops and I’m hoping that it ain’t true
That the same God looked out for them looks out for me and you
The angels laid them away

—-

What are your favorite examples of Josh Ritter’s storytelling and/or your favorite of his lyrics?

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Reviews & Recommendations

Book of the Week: Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

MY THOUGHTS:
Dan Chaon, author of the well received “You Remind Me Of Me” and an award winning book of short stories called “Among the Missing”, has written what Jonathan Franzen called, “the essential identity-theft novel,” a mysterious and mesmerizing story about three different young adults running away from their troubled, haunted pasts and into the vast uncertainty of modern adulthood, into the potential and possibility there. Lucy Lattimore is a recent high school graduate who runs away to Nebraska with her charming young history teacher, George, and his maserati and promises. Meanwhile, Miles Cheshire, an employee at a mail order magic shop, is in search of his long lost twin brother, Hayden, for whom he finds himself dropping everything again and again. And Ryan Schuyler is a college dropout with a flair for the dramatic and a newly discovered secret that causes him to rethink not only his current circumstances but his very existence.

In “Await Your Reply”, Chaon weaves these three story lines into a remarkable, tense, thriller of a story that “[showcases] his characters’ individuality by threading subtle connections between and among them with effortless finesse, all the while invoking the complexities of what’s real and what’s fake” (Publisher’s Weekly). Like most stories, “Await Your Reply” is about what it means to be an individual, but more than that it is about what it means to be a human being along with other human beings, what it means and why it’s important to interact and appreciate the relationships one has; it’s about honesty and truth and how love and companionship is impossible without both.

It packs a wallop of a surprise ending – and, in fact, gets better and better as the pages fly despite it remarkable opening – but is unassuming both in how it presents that ending and in how it presents the journey there. As the book’s dust jacket rightly advertises, it “is a literary masterwork with the momentum of a thriller, an unforgettable novel in which pasts are invented and reinvented and the future is both seductively uncharted and perilously unmoored.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAID:
— “I haven’t had as much sheer fun reading a novel in years. Chaon’s characters are always so beautifully drawn that they hold your attention even when they’re just sitting and thinking. In this breathtaking book, they do that and a whole lot more.”
– Ann Packer, author of “The Dive from Clausen’s Pier”

— “This is a stunning and beautiful book. I must have read its final pages half a dozen times, just letting what lay packed and coiled within them settle into me. Out of pure loss, Chaon has created real magnificence. “Await Your Reply” attains a kind of blurry, bloodstained perfection.”
Peter Straub, author “A Dark Matter”

— “The brilliant Dan Chaon has done it again. Both a genre-bending whodunit and a profound meditation on identity, Await Your Reply left me breathless with admiration. The pages turn themselves.”
– Justin Cronin, author of “The Summer Guest”

— “So breathtaking… that the reader practically feels compelled to start the novel anew, just to discover the cues that he’s missed along the way.”
– Kirkus Reviews

— “By Page 200, I was… completely hooked — a credit both to ­Chaon’s intricate and suspenseful plotting and to some of the most paranoid material to hit American literature since Don DeLillo’s “White Noise.”
– Lucinda Rosenfel, The New York Times Sunday Book Review

–“Mr. Chaon succeeds in both creating suspense and making it pay off, but “Await Your Reply” also does something even better. Like the finest of his storytelling heroes, Mr. Chaon manages to bridge the gap between literary and pulp fiction with a clever, insinuating book equally satisfying to fans of either genre.”
-Janet Maslin, NY Times
AN EXCERPT:

Chapter One

We are on our way to the hospital, Ryan’s father says.
Listen to me, Son:
You are not going to bleed to death.

Ryan is still aware enough that his father’s words come in through the edges, like sunlight on the borders of a window shade. His eyes are shut tight and his body is shaking and he is trying to hold up his left arm, to keep it elevated. We are on our way to the hospital, his father says, and Ryan’s teeth are chattering, he clenches and unclenches them, and a series of wavering colored lights—greens, indigos—plays along the surface of his closed eyelids.

On the seat beside him, in between him and his father, Ryan’s severed hand is resting on a bed of ice in an eight-quart Styrofoam cooler.

The hand weighs less than a pound. The nails are trimmed and there are calluses on the tips of the fingers from guitar playing. The skin is now bluish in color.

This is about three a.m. on a Thursday morning in May in rural Michigan. Ryan doesn’t have any idea how far away the hospital might be but he repeats with his father we are on the way to the hospital we are on the way to the hospital and he wants to believe so badly that it’s true, that it’s not just one of those things that you tell people to keep them calm. But he’s not sure. Gazing out all he can see is the night trees leaning over the road, the car pursuing its pool of headlight, and darkness, no towns, no buildings ahead, darkness, road, moon.

THE AUTHOR:

Dan Chaon is the acclaimed author of “Among the Missing,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and “You Remind Me of Me,” which was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. Chaon’s fiction has appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, and The O’Henry Prize Stories. He has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in Fiction, and he was recipient of the 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Chaon lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and teaches at Oberlin College, where he is the Pauline M. Delaney Professor of Creative Writing.

“Await Your Reply” was published by Ballantine Books, New York, New York, 2009.

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Reviews & Recommendations, The Modern Times

What’s Being Said: Considering the LOST Finale

If you’ve been anywhere near my Facebook page lately you probably noticed that I’ve been mesmerized all week by Sunday’s LOST finale. In my opinion, it was a fantastic blend of mystery, drama, nostalgia, and general, all around LOST-yness. If nothing else, it was the most interesting few hours of television I have ever seen and has been rattling around my somewhat confused but completely exhilarated brain since about 11:30 p.m. ET Sunday night.

Apparently I’m not the only one.

The debate/discussion has been raging fast and furious since then and, as expected, responses have been varied and wildly emotional. That’s as it should be, how it always has been. LOST is a show that, since it’s pilot episode aired in 2004, has itself varied wildly within the collective consciousness of the American viewing public, caught somewhere between opinion that it’s a near perfect example of diverse, postmodernist pop culture and the belief that’s its an unwieldy behemoth of narrative condescension. LOST is confusing, mysterious, full of unmet promise and unanswered questions – and that seems to be why people love it as much as it is why people hate it. But it is also full of characters who feel like friends; struggles that, despite their fantastical nature, hit close to home; and storytelling that captures the imagination and the heart alike.

Concerning the finale, the most common complaints seem to be the following:

– So it was all for nothing? None of it mattered? Screw Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, those bums!
– What about Walt? What about those dead mothers? What about the polar bear? Screw Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, those bums! Screw Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, those bums!
– So what happened with the a-bomb?
– So did Jack have a son or not?
– Who died when now?
– Were they dead the whole time or not?
– What was the deal with Eloise Hawking and other such “annoying plot devices?”
– What were the “rules” and where did they come from?
– And, of course, what the heck was up with the sideways world and why the island on the bottom of the ocean?

These questions, and many others, are answered (or at least valiant attempts were made to answer them) in the following articles, and blog post retrospectives. Obviously, this is a very small sample size; if you have found others please post them in the comments section.

Mike Hale from the NY Times says that the show cleverly “removed the possibility that they were dead all along” and he writes:

And on the other hand: the ending was also elegiac and beautiful, with its stately pace, its elegant cross-cutting between Jack’s death on the island and his awakening in the present, its long shot of the cast arrayed in the church pews like passengers in an airplane. The actors seemed relaxed and genuinely happy, and Matthew Fox, as Jack, underplayed nicely (in a scene where shot after shot was ripe for overacting). The final image of Jack’s eye closing, a reversal of the show’s opening moment six seasons ago, was just right.


— Marc Peyser from Newsweek
writes this:

Once I got over pondering the fates of the individual characters and focused on them collectively, I fixated on the show’s really metamessage. I actually think that the shared journey of the characters—of the collective life they made on the island—is a metaphor for the show itself. In our fractured culture, Lost may arguably be the last mass entertainment to cross genre lines and draw together a group of disparate people. Sci-fi folks, religious-minded people (notice all the different religious symbols in the stained-glass window at the end?), fans of spectacle (the plane crash was nothing it not a blockbuster-movie moment), Web fanatics and old-fashioned TV viewers—the most amazing thing about Lost is the way it managed to draw all these people together into a common discussion, and one about the weightiest of topics. When Jack’s father tells him that the time he spent with the Oceanic passengers was the best of his life, I could hear him talking to the viewers, too, who spent so much time picking and prodding and pondering what was happening and why. Call me crazy, but any television show that gets people talking about the meaning of life—even the meaning of the life of a smoke monster—is a rare commodity these days. I might even say it is an island of thoughtfulness. And now it’s gone.

Meanwhile, Kristin Dos Santos, from E! Online, delves into many of the show’s most mysterious questions in a series of thought provoking, entertaining videos. She too believes there were alive the whole time.

Over at Christianity Today, Chris Seay, author of The Gospel According to Lost, was less than thrilled with the show’s ending, but had this to say:

If we all follow the example of Jesus and leave behind the 99 sheep (in Sunday school class) and pursue the one that is lost (in bars, gyms, streets), we might discover the same kind of transformation experienced by Jack Shephard. This is our calling.

“Live Together, Die Alone” is not a slogan to rally the redeemed. It is a call to the broken in need of redemption.

And at the Hot Air Green Room, Doctor Zero calls the LOST finale a “betrayal.”

In a wonderful blog post Jeff Keuss interprets LOST through the lens of Augustine and St. Paul. He wrote:

Because LOST is a memory bound up in love and longing that signaled for millions of people that as ridiculous as life on the island was, the reality of the life we live day to day was just as insane and far-fetched if it was devoid of love. It is the material thing that signals something beyond itself and triggers the deeper nostalgia for something more. For without love and the eternal light by which to see, hear, touch and taste that love by, this life – whether in a flash back, flash forward, or alternate reality – would not be worth living whether we battled commuter traffic or a vengeful smoke monster, punched a time clock or punched in a sequence of numbers every 108 minutes. For in the end, it is about Desmond finding Penny, about Charlie finding Claire, Jack and Christian embracing, Sun and Jin finding each other, and it is about living together in the light of love rather than dying alone. Perhaps this is something Ben is still pondering on that bench.

And finally, Jeff Jensen from EW.com, considers the finale in a tour de force of a blog post in which he considers the role that Desmond played in the final season and the way in which he and Ben Linus might have something in common. He writes:

Desmond wasn’t an Oceanic 815 castaway. Why was he tasked with the work of their Sideways world enlightenment? Because Desmond was the person technically responsible for the defining experience of their lives: crashing on The Island. If Desmond didn’t leave the Hatch to chase after Kelvin, if he hadn’t given into his rage and killed that man on the rocks, he wouldn’t have missed his button-pushing shift, and the plane wouldn’t have crashed. The rejoinder that it was Jacob who pulled the castaways to The Island doesn’t cosmically absolve Desmond of his actions. You always have a choice. And Desmond chose not to push the button. The consequence: crash. Last season, Lost cited the book The Little Prince that includes the great line ”You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” The word ”tame” in this context means ”to create ties.” Desmond created the tie that bound the castaway spiritual clan. So he became responsible for them. Forever.

– – – –

That’s all for now but please post any conversations, threads, or articles you found interesting or helpful. For the most part, I have actually found the discussion a bit over the top, with emotional responses too often prevailing. Many critics are dismissing the show altogether, a reaction I consider ridiculous considering the themes and characters the show developed (and forced us to consider) even if you think the plot itself falls flat. Claims that it failed on account of kitsch, considerations of eternal life, or talking dead are foolish. On the other hand, while I did say that the finale made for some of the most interesting TV I have seen, that doesn’t mean I consider LOST the best TV show of the decade (Friday Night Lights or Mad Men would probably hold the top spot for me).

But it certainly has been mesmerizing.

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Reviews & Recommendations, The Modern Times

My Interpretation of the LOST Finale

I was going to write a lengthy review-style blog about last night’s LOST finale, but found myself, despite my satisfaction with how the show ended, still confused about key points. I’ll get to that soon, and hopefully you can help me resolve them. Like many of you, those questions and confusion pertain the nature of the out-of-time sideways world (which I’m not sure is sideways at all). However, I’ve decided to simply jot down some notes about what I think certain things mean and how they effect the story and characters.

– Ultimately, the masterminds behind LOST provided viewers with a happy ending, albeit an unexpected one. Consider: the island dwellers essentially completed everything they set out to do at the beginning of the finale. They defeated the evil Locke/MIB/smoke monster. They saved the island. And many of the show’s primary characters make it off the island alive, off to new lives and future experiences. That they ultimately die doesn’t change that. All stories, all journeys, all lives, end in death. There is no escaping that, and so it is no tragedy that these lives ended as they did. In fact, it was beautiful, and meaningful, and full of great hope that they were able to enter into their afterlife together, a community of flawed but changed individuals whose relationships with each other helped them grow.

– The implication clearly is that after Jack’s sacrifice (and on-island death) the story goes on. That, for some unspecified number of years, life continued on the island with Hurley and Ben as protectors (hence Hurley’s “you were a great number 2” comment, followed by Ben’s “and you were a great number one.”) And Miles, Kate, Claire, Alpert, Lapidus, and Sawyer really did make it off the island, as suggested by the airplane that Jack sees fly over his head before he closes his eyes and passes away. I love that there is both resolution and mystery in this implication, it’s truly wonderful storytelling. It offers the suggestion but leaves plenty for the imagination.

– I don’t know this for sure, but I think that the reason Ben can’t “let go” at the end and join the others is that he is first going to have to become one of the “whisperers” on the island, like Michael before him, characters both whose past sins will haunt them into the afterlife. For them the island seems to indeed serve as a purgatory (which the writers have continually said the island is not for the rest of the Oceanic survivors).

My favorite line of the finale: Hurley: “this would all be sweet if weren’t about to die.” We should have caught on then!

The “sideways world” certainly remains a bit of a mystery. But I think that one of the keys to understanding it was given by Christian when he tells Jack that “there is no now here.” The sideways reality, if indeed it is sideways at all, is outside of time. It’s not a product or time at all and thus it neither functions nor behaves like it would were it confined to the restrictions of time. It is simply a part of eternity and so it doesn’t matter whether it happens at the same time as the on-island events, as Jack’s bleeding seems to imply, or whether it happens later. It happens, and it matters, just like the events on the island happen and matter. But when they happen doesn’t matter. Christian tells Jack that all of them are dead, some died before him and others much later. Boone, Shannon, Charlie, Juliet, Sayid, Locke, Sun, and Jin obviously died before him. But Sawyer, Kate, Claire, Aaron, and the others died after him; when, we don’t know, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. They died after the on-island adventure occurred, after the “most important” time in their lives happened, and what is important is that they ultimately were able to be together in their after life, that they were able to rejoin the community of people whose friendship and love changed them for eternity. Much like the Christian hope.

A “sideways world” theory: Is it possible that the afterlife we saw at the end of the episode was only Jack’s version? I don’t think so, but what do you think?

– It does seem, however, that “sideways” seems to be some kind of preparation ground, some gathering place before the after life. Not a purgatory per se, but an opportunity to make amends for past mistakes and refurbish some broken relationships. I need to think more on what it means. I have a whole season of key scenes to re-watch and reconsider, which was presumably one of the writers’ goals.

– I think we need to forget about Walt-related answers. The producers had the problem of a kid who was aging too quickly to remain an active member of the cast and they were, it seems, forced to make some concessions. We would do well to remember that, since TV is such a unique medium, especially this TV show, the storytellers were forced to operate around restrictions that filmmakers or fiction writers can avoid.

– That said, I read a report (which I subsequently can’t find again) that revealed that show runners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindeloff will provide some answers about key, unanswered questions on the forthcoming DVD. That will help tie up some loose ends I’m sure.

A few key visual metaphors I LOVED: The angels on the either side of the door that Christian opens at the end, allowing the white light to fill the church. Also, Jack stretched out crucifix style in the bamboo patch, a Christlike sacrifice for his friends. And, of course, the obvious one – the eye closing at the end.

Jack is the key. Consider this portion of a review from USA Today:

So in some ways the 2½-hour finale was two journeys, both centered on Jack, each illustrating the themes of individual redemption and group responsibility. On our world, he saved the island, handed the guardian job to Hurley, and died. (For the record, Kate, Sawyer, Claire, Miles, Richard, Lapidus and Desmond eventually left the island; Hurley and Ben stayed.) In the other world, the post-life purgatory where “now” does not exist, he was the final piece that reunited the characters and allowed all to leave — a reawakening of memories, theirs and ours, any fan had to cherish.

LOST was ultimately a show about people, as Lindelof suggested in the pre-finale retrospective. It’s flawed people changing, interacting, growing, struggling, loving, living, dying, failing and succeeding. We are all lost it says, and we are. And we are all in need of other people, of community. And no, there are no do-overs, it’s not true that nothing is irreversible, but in the end every action we take, everything we do, matters. All of it, the good and the bad, the regrettable and beautiful alike. And, when the show faded to black a final time, we knew that Jack had found his purpose and Kate her peace; that Hurley finally was able to accept himself for who he was and that Sayid could learn to forgive himself; that Claire would be able to protect her child and that the flame of Sun and Jin’s relationship would not burn out.

It’s been said that LOST is full of sloppy storytelling, and that was true from time to time. But not last night. It was full of crowd pleasing references to past episodes and seasons, and tied the oddly circular narrative of the show up in a nice (if predictable) way. For all of the hysteria that is sure is to ensure in the next few days, the show’s fans should have plenty of nostalgia to celebrate. But more than that, it did a marvelous job of re-instilling the key themes and ideas that made the show what it was.

– Writers Lindeloff and Cuse have said they were not interested in making a show that took the easy way out (and they sure weren’t lying). They said that they wanted to produce a finale that would help the show be long remembered, discussed, and thought about, full of big ideas and difficult themes, and in that they succeeded. LOST is perhaps the most unique television series in history, and there will never be another show like it. Viewers should be grateful for the experience, even if they came to it late, as I did.

What were your impressions and interpretations?

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The Creative Process

A Great Shining Forth: Yearning and Epiphany

In a 2008 article for The Writer Magazine author and teacher Robert Olen Butler wrote an article entitled “The Driving Force Behind Plot.” In it he argued that “one way to understand plot is that it represents the dynamics of desire.” He says that the great stories and novels, the best characters and problems, are driven ultimately by yearning. In many cases, he claims, yearning is the difference between success and failure in a narrative.

This seems obvious. But Butler makes a nice – and important – distinction: “Instead of: I want a man, a woman, wealth, power, or to solve a mystery or to drive a stake through a vampire’s heart, a literary desire is on the order of: I yearn for self, I yearn for an identity, I yearn for a place in the universe, I yearn to connect to the other.”

If this is the case, if Butler is right, than everything else in a story or novel should fall into place in subservience to the creation of yearning, the depiction of yearning, the meaning behind yearning, that which is yearned for, and what that yearning means. The why of that yearning. Or, perhaps more properly put, all the elements of the story should help make that yearning rightly and necessarily felt by the characters – and even by the readers.

Philosophically this sounds great, but it also sounds much easier said than done.

One of the ways that Butler says this can be accomplished is via what he refers to as the “epiphany” of the story, “epiphany” here being a term he appropriates from James Joyce (who of course himself appropriated it from the Church).

This is what Butler writes:

“An epiphany literally means “a shining forth.” [Joyce] brought that concept to bear on the moment in a work of art when something shines forth in its essence… What I would suggest is that there are two epiphanies in any good work of fiction… The first epiphany comes very near the beginning, where the sensual details accumulate around a moment in which the deepest yearning of the main character shines forth.”

This idea, and especially this quote, has been stuck in my mess of a head as I’ve been writing my current short story, a story about a young boy who finds something that he thinks is the most amazing treasure in the world – something that really only a small boy could love in that way. But he is also a boy who longs to have ownership over something, most anything. This is his chance and when he faces the possibility of losing it he…. well, one day maybe you can read it. Maybe.

But I’ve realized that in order for my story to work then this thing the boy finds, this thing and everything else in the story, must reflect his desire, his yearning, to have something for his own. All of his interactions, his thoughts, his movements, even the settings as much as possible, must relate to the reader how important this is to him. How it means the world to him. It must mean everything.

So as I’ve been thinking this over I’ve been paying attention to ways that great writers and filmmakers – really any kind of story-teller – present this epiphany, especially early on in their stories. Some are more subtle than others.

One of my favorites is found in the opening of Denis Johnson’s mesmerizing, troubling, brilliant, humbling novel Tree of Smoke, a great sprawling epic about Vietnam (well, taking place during and around it anyway).

It’s 1963, the day after Kennedy was killed, and Seaman Bill Houston is 18 and not sure what to make of the Philippines. Barely sober from the night before and carrying a .22 caliber-rifle, Houston is hunting for a wild boar in the jungle of Grande Island while the sounds of the late morning have him “all terrifically on edge…and if he stopped dead he could he could also the pulse snickering in the heat of his flesh, and the creak of sweat in his ears.”

He props his rifle against a banana tree and takes stock of the situation, of the area, keeping an eye out for his prey. Then:

” …something moving from one tree to another caught [his] eye. He kept his vision on the spot where he’d seen it among the branches of a rubber tree, putting his hand out for the rifle without altering the direction of his gaze. It moved again. Now he saw that it was some sort of monkey… Not precisely a wild boar, but it presented itself as something to be looked at, clinging by its left hand and both feet to the tree’s trunk and digging at the the thin rind with an air of tiny, exasperated haste. [He] took the monkey’s meager back under the rifle’s sight. He raised the barrel a few degrees and took the monkey’s head in the sight. Without really thinking about anything at all, he squeezed the trigger.

The monkey flattened itself out against the tree, spreading its arms and legs enthusiastically, and then, reaching around with both hands as if trying to scratchits back, it tumbled down to the ground. Seaman Houston was terrified to witness ifs convulsions there. It hoisted itslef, pushing off the ground with one arm, and sat back against the tree trunk with its legs spread out before it, like somebody resting from a difficult job of labor.”

Johnson describes over the next paragraph the response that Houston has to what he has just done, and how the poor creature dies in his arms, its little heart shutting down right there while he watches it bleed. Go here and read pages 3-5 to get the passage in it’s entirety.

Of course, this is rather an unpleasant opening to the novel. But it sets the stage brilliantly, and does so with more than some incisive action. There is yearning here, desire, longing. This is metaphor. This is epiphany. This is a great shining forth.

What are some authors or stories or films (or whatever) that you can think of that do this well, that set their stage by presenting some Epiphany?

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