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On Tuesday, February 11, novelist and journalist Daniel Alarcón read from his most recent novel, At Night We Walk in Circles. The event was co-sponsored by Mrs. Dalloway’s Bookstore in Berkeley and the Center for Latin American Studies at UC Berkeley, where Alarcón is currently Scholar in Residence. He is also a Fellow at the Center for Investigative Journalism.
Alarcón began by telling us that this novel had taken him seven years to write and that the first version was boring. Taking a break from the writing, he pitched a story to Harper’s magazine (which I assume is this amazing essay: All Politics is Local: Election Night in Peru’s Largest Prison), and took off for Peru where he was able to live in Lurigancho, the prison. Immersion journalism, he said, often leaves writers with a lot of extra material, and some of that fueled At Night We Walk In Circles. The identity of the novel’s narrator remains a mystery until the last quarter of the novel. Alarcón said that like readers, he did not exactly know who this narrator would be, and the discovery was one of the pleasures of writing the book. The novel tells many stories at once, and Alarcón commented that a novel can’t survive without two parallel tracks of narrative. Otherwise it has no momentum, the problem with the draft he scrapped, which he described as “a sleeping cat.”
After the reading, Alarcón responded to questions, one of which was about why he wrote in English instead of Spanish. He said writing a novel has so many layers that adding Spanish would have been a complex one that he did not want to wrestle with, referring to the language of Borges and García Márquez. Alarcón moved from Peru to the United States with his family when he was three. He does speak Spanish, and Radio Ambulante, his radio program which he described as being like This American Life, is conducted in Spanish. A young woman who identified herself as Peruvian-American told Alarcón she had come across one of his essays (The Writing Life–a column in the Washington Post) and that she really identified with it. She asked if he planned to write more about himself. His answer was no. But he also likened himself to the narrator of this most recent novel: someone who is always asking questions and who has been to all of the locations in the novel. Though he does not name the city, he confirmed that it is Lima, his birthplace and a city he “has a spiritual need to understand.” So, in a way, he is writing about himself.
I’m a big fan of Alarcón’s short fiction and look forward to reading his new novel (must admit to struggling a bit with Lost City Radio). If Daniel Alarcón is taking requests, I would love to see a collection of his journalism. His nonfiction is some of the best around.
I spent a fair amount of yesterday, the last day of 2013, finishing Pynchon’s latest novel. 477 pages that I picked up and put down, enjoyed and resented, renewed three times at my local library.
My Pynchon belt now has three notches: The Crying of Lot 49; Vineland (my favorite); Bleeding Edge. I’ve delved into V., Gravity’s Rainbow, and Mason and Dixon. I would say haven’t we all, but I don’t know, have we? do people really still read Pynchon? try to read Pynchon? Are my rube roots showing? (Real questions.)
New Year: time for a bit of reflection/nostalgia. I discovered Pynchon via my older sister’s (Kath’s) bookshelf–the one she maintained at home while she was in college. She finished a book for a class. She deposited a book at home. I was a junior in high school–pretty sure I wasn’t smart enough to go to college (most of my teachers would have agreed)–quite sure I wasn’t as smart as my sister, salutatorian of her 1969 Roswell High School class (long before the days of multiple valedictorians). I’d like to talk to her about this novel (though she was losing her sight and suffering from a bit of dementia before she died on New Year’s Day, 2012). Maxine, the protagonist of the novel made me think a lot about a young Kath who was into programming in the early 70s. She and her husband and I all lived in Albuquerque where Bill Gates and Paul Allen would found Microsoft in 1975. Over backgammon games, while we cooked and ate, The Grateful Dead and Bowie providing background music, talk of computers filled the air.
The 40 years that have passed between now and then play some role in the novel. And this is where I got bogged down while reading. I guess we’d call what Pynchon does “riffing” (a word I’ve used maybe five times in my life). In any case this riffing almost always takes me out of the novel. In speaking of a character who has gone to D.C., Pynchon says something like “D.C. now” as Martha and the Vandellas call it. After a pile-up of stuff like that, I stop reading, close the book, put it down. Just “Walk away, Renée” as The Left Banke would say and now I’m pissed because I’m doing a Pynchon. Is this good? Am I just being manipulated? Why doesn’t someone edit the man? (real question)
I didn’t read any lengthy reviews of Bleeding Edge before deciding to read it. But last night I googled “reviews of Bleeding Edge,” and the two that popped up first are (of course) by Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon.
In his review, Pynchonopolis, Lethem does some riffing as he discusses Pynchon’s, uh, riffing, but also addresses the issue of whether or not we all, in fact, do know how to read Pynchon: “But wait. I’m acting as if we all know what it is to read Pynchon. In fact none of us do, for figuring out what it is like to read Pynchon is what it is like to read Pynchon. You’re never done with it. He’ll employ a string of citations to real and imaginary Bette Davis movies, say, or riffs on basketball, much as Pollock uses a color on a panoramic canvas or Coltrane a note in a solo: incessantly, arrestingly, yet seemingly without cumulative purpose. Instead, they’re threads for teasing at, or being teased by. Try Bette Davis, who often played good/bad twins or sisters: she resonates — uh, maybe? — with Pynchon’s Poe-like attraction to characters split into sinister mirrored doubles.”
Lethem represents the process of reading Pynchon as a kind of test. If I don’t know all this stuff, can I understand the novel? If I can’t understand the novel, should I read it anyway? If so, why? If not, why not?
The review is Lethem’s essay question response: yes, read it, but don’t be surprised if you’re not smart enough to figure it all out (to be fair, he does point out that the numerous threads of the “mystery” of the novel never really come together). He ends on a cutsie reference to Pynchon’s age and what the young author might riff up next. “In summary: Despite the lack of personal information supplied about the author, it’s plain, from the sweep and chortle of his sentences, from the irascible outbreaks of horniness, from the pinpoint rage at popular hypocrisy and cant, that young Pynchon is a writer of boundless promise, sure to give us a long shelf of entrancing and charismatic novels. I believe he has a masterpiece or three in him. I look forward to seeing what he’ll do next.”
In The Crying of September 11, Chabon suggests that “Bleeding Edge has been written, in part, as a response to the Pynchonization of consensus reality, a transformation that became irrefutable with the rise of the World Wide Web, with its name like that of a global crime syndicate out of some half-parodic James Coburn spy caper and its infinite interlinks a perfect metaphor for paranoia itself.”
I read these reviews the way a student might turn to SparkNotes. I wanted to know if I’d gotten it. I guess I did. I like essay reviews as much for what they reveal about the person writing them as for what they might tell me about a book. But I also like straight-up reviews: is the book good, bad, worth buying, worth reading, etc.
And for that reason, I like Talitha Stevenson’s review in the Guardian because she approaches the novel as an outsider, as a reader who is not American. While I think she has a rather narrow view of what it means to be American, I nonetheless appreciate the approach, largely because she refuses to take the test that Chabon and Lethem want to get the A+ on. She’s not trying to prove that she knows all the references; she’s writing as a reader.
“Though it’s hard to believe Pynchon has any interest in non-American readers, most of us have seen enough about America on film to know what he’s getting at when he refers to ‘The Yupper West Side’ of New York. (Even so, it’s worth noting that such provincial references if they were made in regard to London, or Berlin, would be found meaningless by an American audience and therefore unpublishable.) But there are times when the lexicon and signifiers have a mean-girl exclusivity. When Maxine comments on the lavishness of a Halloween party, her friend Vyrva scoffs: ‘This? Next to the Alley a couple years ago? The average startup party? This is a footnote, my dear. Commentary.’”
And she asks the question about Pynchon that nags at me:
“When March Kelleher, the leftwing, paranoid blogger in Bleeding Edge, invites the heroine, Maxine Tarnow, to recall ‘what Susan Sontag always sez’, Maxine responds: ‘I like the streak, I’m keeping it?’ But March – the novel’s voice of misguided sincerity – persists, correcting her: ‘If there’s a sensibility you really want to talk about, and not just exhibit it yourself, you need ‘a deep sympathy modified by contempt’.” Sontag’s idea strikes at the heart of what Thomas Pynchon has undertaken in Bleeding Edge. It prompts a question relevant to him and to all contemporary artists, from writers to directors to choreographers: if the present day is atomised, paranoid, infantile, obsessive, can a work of art capture this without taking on these attributes itself?”
While I had very mixed feelings about Bleeding Edge, I did finish it, and I am not the kind of reader who feels dutiful about finishing a book that I don’t like. I don’t think I could really recommend it, but I do feel like I want to give Gravity’s Rainbow another shot.
And that kind of pisses me off. Damn you, Pynchon! And happy new year!
In preparing to teach CW 110–an advanced nonfiction writing class I teach at UC Berkeley–I glanced over an old syllabus and decided I needed to change it in large part because since I last taught the class three years ago, I’ve begun to use a lot more digital media. And as much as I love Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, I didn’t want to use that book again (I’ve used it every time I’ve taught the class since I created it in 1998!). I’d recently purchased Dinty W. Moore’s Flash Nonfiction but wasn’t sure I wanted to require it as a text for the course. I began poking around on Brevity, thinking that students would enjoy many of the wonderful, very short essays published there. I not only found the essays I wanted to begin the semester with and bookmarked them in the class group on Diigo, but I also found the first assignment: Essay Contest Mystery and Memory.
As much as they eventually enjoy it, students at Berkeley often resist the narrative assignment. Most of them haven’t written narrative since the early years of high school, unless you count the restrictive, formulaic (by design) personal statements they write when they apply to college and grad school. But they’ve read plenty of them and can talk about their favorites and what they’ve learned from reading them, how certain images have stayed with them, how the voices of some writers still resonate with them. We talk about why narratives are so often assigned for them to read but seldom elicited from them as pieces of writing, a topic I spoke about in a recent panel for the American Cultures program at Berkeley– Justice Stories, Resistance Stories and Just Good Stories: Narrative and storytelling as critical pedagogy where I argued for a place at the University for our students’ stories.
Accustomed to reading the stories of important people with important stories, students don’t readily see the significance of their own. Until they begin writing them and reading their classmates’ drafts. At the end of the second draft session, I asked each student to choose a very short passage–no more than two sentences or so–from their draft partner’s essay to read aloud, without comment, to not even say why they had chosen the passage. Just read the title, the author’s name, the passage. As students read aloud, they gasped. The language was stunning, the experiences poignant, moving, humorous. When they heard even these brief excerpts of their own writing in someone else’s voice, their story came alive for them in a new way. More than one student commented that she wanted to read everyone’s narrative.
So they are blogging their narratives along with a brief reflective essay on the experience of writing the narrative. Students who submitted their essays to the Brevity contest will post them later, once a winner has been announced. Though I’m turning mine in late (the deadline was the 14th), I have finally posted it: 1979 almost ’80.
When we were talking about the assignment on the first day or so of class–before they had begun to write–one student expressed his concern that writing his story, sharing it with others, might reduce its significance to him as a special, valued moment in his life. I asked him to reserve judgment on that until after he had written it. As we moved through the draft stages and talked about the process of writing narrative, students spoke frequently about how they understood their stories in a different light as they wrote and revised them, how in writing the narrative, they understood things they hadn’t even thought about before putting the experience into words. They learned something about themselves from the experience.
Several years ago a young man who had taken the advanced writing class–a student who had struggled with his narrative, come to many office hours to look at drafts, avoided the writing–dropped in to my office hours to talk. A medical student at UCSF, he wanted to tell me the story of applying to medical school. He had interviewed at every school he wanted to attend, and that year he was the only Berkeley student to be accepted by all. He knew many of the other Berkeley students had better grades, more impressive internships and research positions. But he knew that during the interviews they were uncomfortable, wanted to impress, didn’t know what to emphasize as they responded to questions. What was different about him? His theory: he had learned to tell his story.
I teach a variety of writing classes at UC Berkeley–two that fulfill the University’s Reading and Composition Requirement, an intermediate and an advanced writing class. The intermediate class–CW 105: Finding Your Voice with Others–is one in which students read current articles–academic and journalism–as well as a little theory–Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, David Post, Lawrence Lessig, Sherry Turkle, Anne Wysocki, etc–about new media and technology. Multimodal forms of expression are required, and students write reflective journals with each project submitted, thinking about how the use of technology affects the language we use. And they also think about design related issues: color, shape, image, platform.
One purpose of the course is to help students who have fulfilled the R&C Requirement continue to develop academic reading and writing strategies as they learn to hear, appreciate and deploy their own voices. Voice is a slippery concept. Most writing books and manuals take a kind of Grammar Girl approach, which is fine. It’s useful as a starting place. But students enrolled in 105 have read something like this already. Probably more than once.
While 105 is not a creative writing class (what kind of writing is not, in some sense, creative? question for another day), I do try to approach the concept of voice in a way that is about something more than style (while it is also, of course, related to style–see the concept begin to slip and slide?!). I use material that you might more often find in a creative writing course to get the discussion rolling. For example, I might use some passages from Finding Your Writer’s Voice, by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall (a book I love): “Your voice is actually a very ordinary thing. It is just who you are, projected artistically. It is often linked to your speaking voice, and your breath, and the rhythms and sense of pace that you draw on when you are too absorbed in what you are saying to listen to yourself from a distance. It is also linked to your body, the language or dialect you spoke in childhood, and whatever naturally interests you. Your voice is how you write when you don’t have time to be elegant” (5). And later from the same chapter: “A search for voice must always involve a willingness to experience what you already know in a new light” (7).
And in 105 that new light often shines from new media. Students are using tools they have, for the most part, never used. They are writing in public. They are taking risks. And so when a student says to me, can I try, can I use, can have an extension, can I use I (yes, dear god, please use I–use it wisely, don’t over use it, but do not let writing at the University rob you of I). I say yes. We might have a brief discussion (depending on the question), but usually I say yes, try it; yes, you can turn it in late; yes yes yes.
I’m not an easy teacher, but I try to be a generous one.
How is yes rewarded? (okay, I’ll confess, sometimes it’s not; sometimes I should have probably said no: live and learn)
Yesterday in class we were discussing Jo Kyung Ran’s amazing short story “Looking for the Elephant” and students were puzzled in a kind of urgent way about the elephant: who is the elephant what is the elephant is the elephant real. And I kind of blurted out (in a way we often don’t appreciate when our students do it), “Elephants are amazing. Do you know this? Do you know how amazing they are?”
There was a brief moment of silence. Then they all looked at their laptops and quietly started tapping away. “Are you googling elephants?” I couldn’t help but laugh. They laughed and nodded yes.
So we took about 20 minutes for some research time. Then we got back to the story: what is the elephant who is the elephant elephants ARE amazing.
Looking for the Elephant is in an anthology put together by the wonderful Words Without Borders.