Hawking Up Hairballs

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Same Old, Same Old

There’s an old saw that says, if it’s not one thing, it’s another. One response to that says that the real trouble with life is that the same thing over and over again. The gist of the latter is that we keep encountering the same sorts of problems because of the nature of our character and temperament. I have found that to be true in writing as well as the rest of life.

I grew up oriented toward science and math. My college degree is in math, and I worked for a long time as a computer programmer, so I tend to be good at thinking logically. That can be a handicap when writing a novel. For example, in “Buster Bungle’s Big Top”, my current project, the protagonist joins the circus and is assigned to sleep on a bus that has been converted into a rolling dormitory. The interior of the bus reeks of dirty laundry and stinking feet. When my protagonist goes to put his stuff away for the first time, the odor really gets to him and he vomits out onto the ground just as he gets to the door. The logical Chuck told me that I needed to explain why no one would notice the vomit on the ground. He also told me that, since I didn’t want anyone who mattered in the novel to see him vomit, I had to explain why they didn’t see it. I spent better than thirty minutes laboring over these explanations until it occurred to me that they were inconsequential. My logical mind wanted an explanation, but the narrative didn’t require it, especially since this was at the end of a chapter. I encounter this sort of problem again and again.

I am also a bit of a perfectionist, and I started out writing poetry. Hence, I continually have to fight my desire to really labor over and polish my prose before I really know where the narrative is taking me. “Buster Bungle’s Big Top” is my third try at a novel. The first two foundered on just this tendency. Right from the start on the first draft, I really agonized over my prose. In the middle of each of those previous novels, I realized that it wasn’t going where I wanted it to go, and that I would have to substantially rework the narrative. However, I had spent so much time working on my writing, that the prospect of such a task was just too daunting, and I ended up abandoning both of them. I have since learned the value of preliminary notes, and also of a quick first draft or two that is only concerned with nailing the narrative flow.

There are other minor problems that I keep encountering that could also be said to arise from the way I tend to think. I am not a person who is big on absolutes, since I have come to the conclusion that there are damned few of them. As a result of this opinion, I have to fight the urge to qualify my descriptions. For example, in terms of a character, I might describe him as aggressive, but then I’ll get to thinking that there are times when he isn’t so aggressive, and I want to describe him as kind of an aggressive person. It is generally a big mistake to do that, since such qualifications make for wishy-washy prose. (Never mind the fact that it would probably be better to show the character behaving aggressively and letting the reader draw his won conclusions. I’m just trying to make a point.)

For some reason I also have a lot of trouble with perceptual verbs, in that I have an inclination to include them where they aren’t really needed.. For example, I keep wanting to put things in this form, “He heard the sirens, and saw the fire engine scream past.” There’s no need at all for “saw”. Something like the following is better, and creates a sense of greater immediacy. “He heard the sirens. The fire engine screamed past.”

Another saying, attributed to Socrates, tells us that the unexamined life isn’t worth living. The same general idea applies to one’s writing. It pays to understand your own foibles and inclinations. A lot of wasted time and effort can be avoided if you do.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Europe Central

Well, I finally managed to slog my way through all 750 pages of William T. Vollman's Europe Central. That’s 750 pages of relatively small type in a hard-bound book. Was it worth it? In a word, no, and I’ll explain why.

In the first place, I want to say that the following constitutes my impressions of the book. I wouldn’t call it a proper review for the simple reason that I feel that I would have to read it a couple of more times before really getting a firm grasp on what he’s trying to do. In addition, I would have to learn more about certain subjects with which I’m not terribly familiar, like classical music, and certain aspects of Jewish culture like the Kabbala. That said, I don’t believe that a more thorough study of the book would change my opinion, and I’m not inclined to make the effort.

Europe Central is an epic tale of life in the Soviet Union, and also in Nazi Germany until its fall. It is told from the point of view of a number of individuals, principal among them being the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. As Vollmann writes in a note on his sources at the end of the book, “...the goal here was to write a series of parables about famous, infamous and anonymous European moral actors at moments of decision.”

In the notes, Vollman also says about Shostacovich that he was “a person consumed by fear and regret, a person who (like Kurt Gerstein) did what little he could to uphold the good - in this case artistic creation, and the mitigation of other people’s emergencies. He became progressively more beaten down, and certainly experienced difficulty saying no - a character trait which may have kept him alive in the Stalinist years. In spite of the fact that he joined the Party near the end, to me he is a great hero - a tragic hero naturally.”

A couple of things there leave me scratching my head, as does the novel itself. Vollman says that it’s a series of parables. Okay, I find myself wondering just what the lessons are. I came away from his story of Shostakovich’s life with a negative lesson, namely that it is impossible for one to maintain the purity of one’s motives and that one is condemned to failure if one attempts to do so. The Kurt Gerstein that he mentions is another whose life leads me to the same conclusion. He was a devout Christian who joined the SS to do what he could to inform the world of the Holocaust and to, in some small way, sabotage it. That led him to contact certain diplomats from countries that he hoped would be sympathetic, like Sweden, to tell them what was going on and to get the information to the outside world. However, none of those he was able to contact cared to listen to what he had to say. A big part of his job was to deliver poison gas to concentration camps and he would throw away a portion of it, claiming that it had spoiled, in the hope of thus sparing some lives, but it didn’t work. They always had so much of the gas that the canisters he disposed of weren’t really missed. In a word, he failed, though his testimony at the Nurenberg trials contributed to the convictions of some of the Nazis involved in the Holocaust. Does that make his effort heroic? I don’t know, but there’s a very fine moral calculus involved there.

All of the main characters in the novel, most of whom were real people, are failures in some sense. For example, there’s Paulus, the German general who failed to take the city of Stalingrad. As that battle concluded, the Russians broke through and surrounded the army commanded by Paulus. He wanted break out and retreat, but Hitler refused to allow it. When it became clear that his army was to be destroyed by the Russians, Paulus wanted to surrender, but Hitler refused to allow that either, and insisted that Paulus and his army fight to the last man and the last bullet. In addition, Hitler promoted Paulus to the coveted rank of field marshal because a German field marshal had never been captured. Hitler thus hoped to encourage Paulus to fight to the death against the Russians. It didn’t work. Paulus surrendered along with his troops. I forget what the number involved was, but it was enormous, well over a hundred thousand men. Of course, it didn’t do any good. All but a handful of the men died in Russian prison camps, though Paulus hmself embraced Soviet Communism and lived into old age in Russia and then East Germany. Where is the parable there? I guess my mind isn’t subtle enough to get it.

I could go on and describe other characters in the novel, but it would amount to the same thing. The book didn’t grab me. Part of it may be that Vollman is Jewish and, though I’m not a religious man, I had a strong Catholic upbringing. Christians are brought up to believe that the salvation of one’s soul is primary. Hence, moral purity becomes a big deal. Given the way Shostakovich, for example, was ground down and ended up as a flak for Soviet Russia, I can’t embrace him as a hero. I’m inclined to pronounce him a failure, and even something of an object of contempt.

One thing that Vollman does well though, is to communicate the atmosphere that existed in both Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany. Though both were brutal, totalitarian systems, there were significant differences. If you were a Jew, a gypsy, or homosexual in Nazi Germany, your life was hell, no matter what. However, if you were judged to be one of strong Aryan stock, life wasn’t so bad as long as you made certain minor compromises with the system, like doing your Heil Hiters. In Soviet Russia, it was another matter. Since, its system wasn’t based on racial ideology, everyone lived in terror of the KGB, the knock on the door in the middle of the night, and the ride to oblivion in the black maria, which is what the paddy wagon of the era was called.

Some critics have said that Vollman’s prose is bloated, and I would have to agree. With some judicious editing, this book could have been cut in half without losing anything. One thing that really annoyed me was the way he played fast and loose with his metaphors. For example, Shostakovich says of his lover, “Oh, yes, her teeth were as crystalline as The Jupiter Symphony.” What? How in the hell is a symphony crystalline? He also likes to get too cute with them. For example, when discussing a German character, Vollman writes, “...his face greyish-white like the element germanium...” Give me a break. How many people have ever seen a sample of germanium? That’s poor writing in my opinion.

Vollman has fifty pages of notes at the end of the book. These are all quotes that are attributed to the characters in the book and they were gathered from memoirs, interviews and published accounts of friends and associates of the real people portrayed in the novel. Given that this is a work of fiction, what’s the point? Nothing is gained by using quotations attributed to the actual people.

I’ve said more bad than good about the book. A lot of that can be put down to my curmudgeonly nature, but I just don’t believe that Europe Central is all that good, though it is a prodigious accomplishment in terms of breadth and length.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

William T. Vollmann

For a while now, I've heard about William T. Vollman. He's apparently a favorite of a lot of writers, and he has a certain enthusiatic following among readers. I went looking for his books at the local library, but they don't have much by him, so I took out his latest, Europe Central. It's a 750-page exploration of the WW2 Eastern Front told through the fictional experiences of various figures who lived at the time, most prominently Dmitri Shostacovich. I am about 150 pages into it, and I must say that I'm not impressed. Critics of Vollman say that his prose is bloated, and I would have to agree one hundred percent.

The Vollman novel that I really want to read is You Bright and Risen Angels. What an intriguing title, and it is supposed to be edgier and more surrealistic than his later work. In an interview, he said that he wrote it while working as a computer programmer. He said that he didn't really know anything about computers but that he managed to talk himself into the job. He hates automobiles and doesn't drive, so he would often go to work on Monday and live in the office until Friday, eating nothing but candy bars from the vending machines. He would work on You Bright and Risen Angels late at night while no one was there.

It's a wild story, but Vollman is a colorful character. In 1981, he spent time with the rebels in Afghanistan. He's made a trek to the North Pole. He met Pol Pot's brother in Cambodia. He spent time with the prostitutes and pimps in San Francisco's tenderloin district. During that time, he carried a gun for protection, and claims to have pulled it in self-defense. You get the picture. It's the classic writer-as-romantic-hero, at least if Vollman's accounts are to be believed.

One thing that I found interesting was Vollman's claim that he likes to write under the influence of crack. That's something he said in an interview that's ten or more years old. I doubt that it is now true since he's in his late forties, and crack would likely stop his middle-aged heart. At any rate, it's a surprising claim, and I'm skeptical. I've never done crack or cocaine myself, but if it gives you a "speedy" high, I could see its attraction, but it's my understanding that it's a short-lived high that leaves you with nothing but a hunger for more. A little bit of meth might do a better job.

When asked about what he thinks about technically when writing, Vollman responded as follows. "When I write a sentence, oftentimes what I do is try to treat it like a kernel of popcorn. I'll keep packing more and more words in there. Sort of refine it, until it explodes. When it does, it has all this surface area. It's kind of complicated to trace the whole shape of the thing. But if you do, you get the whole round shape of it." Say what? That makes no sense whatsoever to me. Hmm, about that crack, Billy boy.