Essays & Reviews
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, by Hilary Mantel (San Francisco Chronicle)
Hilary Mantel’s works — brilliant, elusive, inventive, psychologically acute and gorgeously written — vary more exuberantly in style and subject matter than almost any other great author. Nonetheless, they consistently track certain obsessions in theme and subject matter: cruelty, the uses and misuses of power, the shocks of illness and mortality, and the invasions of the spirit world. As much as Mantel is celebrated for exploring the workings of long-vanished monarchies, she’s vilified for her temerity in considering contemporary power issues, whether she’s writing an opinion piece that mentions the symbolic role played by a photogenic princess or a short story about the imagined assassination of a former prime minister. None of this seems to slow her down.
Among her projects, she’s best known for the deeply serious trilogy in progress about Thomas Cromwell. The first two Booker Prize-winning novels — Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies — combine a fierce political and psychological perspective with an intimate portrait of a man both caught in and altering history.
In another of her modes, she produces elliptical and hauntingly bitter autobiographical and semi-autobiographical works, including her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, and her first collection of stories, Learning to Talk. At other times, she shows a sly, playful distance and fluidity, along with a graveyard humor, in novels like Fludd or The Giant, O’Brien, or in the extraordinarily funny, acid and dark Beyond Black, in which a medium, pursued and “guided” by demonic spirits, displays a shrewd showmanship, giving “the punters, the trade” what they want.
"Self-Awareness & Self-Deception: Beyond the Unreliable Narrator" (A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft)
We refer to reality as if it were tangible--a geographical location or an absolute and identifiable state--but writers often arrive at the reality of the world of their story, if ever, as a kind of byproduct of the characters' everyday self-delusions.
The term "unreliable narrator" suggests that unreliability is a special category and that most narrators (and people) are clear-sighted, rational, and honest. Even a fairly casual consideration of an ordinary day, however, let alone a crisis, suggests otherwise; there's substantial narrative interest in the chaos of the "normal" human mind. It's a little scary, even for people who consider themselves to be recklessly truthful, to count the number of lies (social lies, kind lies, self-serving lies, small semi-truths to avoid long explanations, and outright lies) we tell. Often, we don't allow ourselves to know when we're lying. It's even scarier to look back over the decisions we've made and to try to remember what made those choices seem so smart or so necessary. So one aim in our ongoing project of writing and reading is the passionate desire to get an accurate view of reality.
Traditional notions of the unreliable narrator include the naive, the deluded, and the deceptive, like the narrators of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go or Patrick McGrath's Asylum. These brilliant and extreme models may be a little too tempting for writers: creating a deluded narrator or characters can be, at least sometimes, a psychological defense for the author. We create unreliability deliberately as a way of avoiding doing it accidentally. Because, really, how does the author know what reality is? How do the characters know what reality is? How do the work's readers know what the reality is meant to be, and are they willing to accept it?
Writers often miss the self-deceptions we all share, enticed away from everyday irrationality by the literary pyrotechnics possible with a clearly unreliable narrator or with a spectacularly deluded central character: the nonlinear and sometimes surreal thinking, the possibilities for marvelously bad behavior, and maybe, most of all, the pleasures of presenting characters for judgment or sympathy, of standing above and away from them. Grace Paley, always intensely aware of the contrast between our habitual befuddlement and our yearning for clarity, writes, "Now, one of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn't understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about-and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes...1"
Too often, we don't know what we should trust or fear, or which of the events going on all around us are the important ones, although it seems as if common sense should be able to deliver to us a clear picture of our priorities. Even the expression "common sense" seems like wishful thinking, an idea about plain and honest living that comes from a time before we knew anything about the workings of the mind and the brain (which are related to each other in some fashion endlessly argued over by scientists and philosophers). "Common-self-delusion" might be more apt, or "self-awareness-helpless-to-help-itself." We're groping our way in the dark; we know that we don't know something, but we aren't sure exactly what it is we do or don't know, do or don't see.
California, by Edan Lepucki (San Francisco Chronicle)
Edan Lepucki's ambitious, powerful, frightening first novel, "California," takes place, like the 1980s TV show "Max Headroom," "20 minutes into the future." Cal and Frida - two escapees from the dystopian hellhole of Lepucki's Los Angeles - have lost everything but each other and a few precious, talismanic objects, like a ratty family sweater or Frida's secret, cherished glass turkey baster, still wearing its price tag.
They live in the "afterlife," Frida's private name for the green place she imagined they would find when they left L.A. But their life in the woods is almost unimaginably hard - their survival only possible because of Cal's stint in a tiny, all-male, idealistic back-to the-land college called Plank. They're both haunted by the loss of Frida's charismatic brother, Cal's roommate at Plank, who became a revolutionary and the center of a violent tragedy.
In the woods, Frida and Cal are alone in their dark shed with the occasional visit from an itinerant peddler: They spend most of their energy on daily tasks and on remembering the past. Their only friends were lost before the beginning of the book. So they keep themselves entertained through sex: "And they made love all the time. Sometimes their lust was unquenchable, and sometimes they were just bored. Sex was the only fun, the only way to waste time. It replaced the Internet, reading, going out to dinner, shopping."
And yet despite this, their togetherness seems to be eroding: Cal is happier to be alone with Frida than she with him, but they both keep secrets, small ones at first. Then Frida becomes pregnant, and they set out to find another community. Not one of the rich, closed Communities, but a mysterious, unknown place they've heard about from their friends, protected by a maze of tall structures built from junk.
The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henríquez (San Francisco Chronicle)
Oral histories, real or fictional, exist both on and off the page: Readers are always trying to look behind the stories, to hear what isn't being said, to come to our own conclusions about the meanings and interpretation of a life. These histories can reinforce what we know about the world, delineating experiences like our own in ways that help us make sense of them, or can bring us into lives we saw from the outside but didn't understand.
Studs Terkel helped popularize the form, most famously in "Working," and Anna Deveare Smith has taken it onstage, re-creating a range of voices and views in her own person.
Cristina Henríquez, in her two previous books, has created conflicted narrators who seemed to be bearing witness to their lives, trying to organize and interpret their meanings. Many of the stories in her 2007 collection "Come Together, Fall Apart" are told in these first-person, witnessing personas, often using the present tense, exploring lives caught between cultures and facing the disasters of loss.
Politics and the Imagination: How to Get Away with Just about Anything (in Ten Not-So-Easy Lessons) (Dedicated to the People of Darfur: Writings on Fear, Risk, and Hope)
Defining the Problem
“I’m not interested in political fiction” seems at first like a completely baffling remark, not less so because it’s a stance adopted by large numbers of people. Not interested in the ways people use their power over each other? Not interested in the ways we can, fatally, succumb to greed or the wide devastation that greed can cause? Not interested in the heroic—and occasionally successful—figure who turns against life-as-usual to fight for justice, freedom, peace, the future? And yet, we can imagine why a reader, picking up and setting down new novels based on their flap copy, might set aside one novel about human rights workers in San Salvador and instead take home the book about four college friends—whose lives have gone in very different directions—on a road trip to their 20th reunion. Maybe a reader doesn’t want to be depressed, lectured, or made to feel helpless and stupid, but instead wishes to escape to Storyland, a delectable country of gossip, cat-fighting, self-revelation, sex, wit, and really good meals.
Almost any one of us may find ourselves feeling like E.M. Forster’s man on the golf course: “…I like a story to be a story, mind, and my wife’s the same.” Forster “destest(ed) and fear(ed)” that reader, but I think we could be a little more sympathetic than Forster to those who might only be willing to take on aesthetic and moral/intellectual challenges when there’s something in it for them.
In political fiction, world events and societal conditions have a direct effect on the dramatic action and the characters’ lives. The historical circumstances are more than just background noise (“During the Vietnam War, four college friends—whose lives have gone in very different directions...”). The characters may or may not be active contributors to their fates: an Argentine revolutionary in prison for his actions is in a different position than a woman born into slavery. In each case, though, their political circumstances are central to their stories. And we as readers, if given half a chance, will want to understand how human beings behave in extremity. We want to know more about heroism, betrayal, self-betrayal, and the high costs of living in the world.
Making political fiction delicious and fascinating is all about finding ways to evade the four horsemen of political writing: didacticism, self-righteousness, demonization of the other side, and subjection of plot/characters/language to the attempt to make a point. General rules don’t seem particularly helpful (i.e., “Rule #1: Create vivid, living characters”—Hey, great idea! Why hasn’t anyone thought of that before?) Instead, here are a few examples of methods used by writers who’ve gotten away with writing recklessly political fiction. Some of these writers get shelved under “Classics”; others use the techniques and approaches of post-modernism. What do they get away with? Making political speeches. Tackling the unthinkable head-on. Wrestling with subjects bigger than any writer can legitimately handle. Writing about war, slavery, racism, oppression, class struggles, political prisoners, environmental degradation, and evisceration and making us want to read it.
Interview with Joan Silber (Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers)
"THE WORLD IS NOT REVOLVING AROUND YOU -- OR IT'S REVOLVING AROUND YOU FROM YOUR POINT OF VIEW, BUT THERE ARE A LOT OF OTHER REVOLUTIONS GOING ON AT THE SAME TIME."
Things not always necessary in fiction-writing:
The mechanics of sex
When something awful happens, people often say that it builds character. More often than not, though, those who endure tragedies and disappointments are likely to become aggrieved, self-pitying, and sometimes vengeful. So it's a relief to read Joan Silber's stories, which have an almost godlike perspective on suffering, both self-inflicted and otherwise. Her characters endure pain, but neither the characters nor the story seem to luxuriate in that pain. Silber spent most of her teens looking after her sick mother, who died when Silber was in her twenties. In surviving adversity and loss, Silber herself has developed the kind of character many of us would kill for: apparently endless cheerful helpfulness and patience, a focus on the world around her, a complete lack of self-importance. Silber's writing has a clean, brisk authority that doesn't linger to congratulate itself over either its insight or its wonderful details. "Time is moving," these stories seem to say, "so let's get on with it while we still can."