Sunday, September 29, 2013

Joy Luck Club: Reading Log VI

September 27-29
90 minutes (three segments)

Rose Hsu Jordan: "Without Wood"

June Woo: "Best Quality"

An-mei Hsu: "Magpies"

Ying-Ying St. Clair: "Waiting Between the Trees"

Two daughters, two moms. Rose is getting divorced from her husband Ted, and beating herself up about it, and asking for everyone's advice. Which is where the title comes in: "My mother once told me why I was so confused all the time. She said I was without wood. Born without wood so that I listened to too many people"(191) By the end of the chapter, she's stood up to Ted, and told him she's not giving him the house. She's got wood after all. The ending felt a little too pat, a little too easy, a little too predictable to me.

I am in fact finding myself reading more skeptically and more antagonistically than I was at the start of the book. One of the things that is bothering me is that while the book is elaborately organized— "orchestrated" might be more apt—it doesn't make me feel much. It's a book with a high IQ and a low EQ. While Amy Tan is clearly into the architecture of the story, I don't get the impression that she likes her characters all that much. She's good at depicting them, especially their foibles and obsessions, but there isn't anybody here I feel like rooting for. The mothers seem imprisoned by their pasts, and the daughters imprisoned by their personalities.

In her chapter, June is at her mom's for New Year's dinner, and much is made of the fact that there are not enough crabs to go around. June gets upset with the airs that Waverly is putting on and tries to embarrass her, but winds up being embarrassed herself, which leads to her end-of-the-chapter "aha" moment: "That was the night, in the kitchen, that I realized that I was no better than who I was... I felt tired and foolish, as if I had been running to escape someone chasing me, only to look behind and discover there was no one there" (207). Feeling for her, her mother offers her a jade pendant, telling her "This is your life's importance" (208). And you know what? I'm not much moved by any of it. On a scale of revelationary world-shakingness, June's feels like maybe a two. She's diminished by it, and so are we. And the jade pendant thing seems over-freighted with Symbolic Significance. It's a move I've seen maybe one too many times.

An-mei's chapter is mostly a flashback which tells how her mother reappeared in her life when she was nine years old and takes her to live in the household of Wu Tsing, to whom her mother is third concubine. The chapter ends with the mother's suicide, arranged in such a way as to force Wu Tsing to acknowledge An-Mei as his daughter and provide for her. All of this is related by way of conveying An-mei's disdain for and disappointment with her daughter as she wavers indecisively as her marriages breaks up.

Ying-Ying's chapter is also built around a flashback (surprise!) details how she grew up in a very wealthy family, how she married and was abandoned by her husband, how she aborted their child and moved to the city and essentially played Clifford St. Clair for a sucker in order to get him to marry her and take her to America, where she promptly withdrew into her own little world:

So I decided. I decided to let Saint marry me. So easy for me. I was the daughter of my father's wife. I spoke in a trembly voice. I became pale, ill, and more thin. I let myself become a wounded animal. I let the hunter come to me and turn me into a tiger ghost. I willingly gave up my chi, the spirit the caused me so much pain.
     Now I was a tiger that neither pounced nor lay waiting between the trees. I became an unseen spirit. (251)
And now she wants to "use this pain to penetrate my daughter's tough skin and cut her tiger spirit loose. She will fight me, because this is the nature of two tigers. But I will win and give her my spirit, because this is the way a mother loves her daughter" (252).

Well, okay, I get it. I see why she did what she did, and why she thought she had to do it, Tiger Mom that she is. But I don't like her a whole lot more than I did before. And I'd argue whether this particular way of loving your daughter, or your husband, has a whole lot to recommend it.

Maybe there will be an updraft of sorts in the last two chapters. But it's hard for me to imagine, at this point, what that would look like. I'm curious as to whether June will in fact go back to China to meet her long-lost siblings, and how that will turn out. That question was planted way back at the beginning of the book. There's things I do like about the book, and I'm curious to see what the students will have to say. But I feel like the last few chapters have been leaking energy.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Deliriously in Love with Stories

When I moved into the office I am sharing with Brian this fall, there were some books on the shelves I had not seen, a book called The Most Wonderful Books: Writers on Discovering the Pleasures of Reading. It was edited by Michael Dorris and  Emilie Buchwald, and consists of fifty-something shortish essays by various writers, mostly describing how they came to be readers and/or the impact that reading has had on their writing. I've been dipping into it as time permits, and read one yesterday by Ted Kooser that cracked me up.

In it, he describes (with a precision and sense of humor my summary cannot begin to capture) coming down with pneumonia as a freshman in college and spending ten days in a hospital bed recuperating. He describes how he spent most of his time reading a book called King: A Dog of the North, which someone had left in the room. When his temperature went down, he started looking for the book, but it was nowhere to be found, and he eventually came to realize that in his delirium he had made up both the existence of the book and the very engrossing stories in it. Here's the concluding paragraph of the essay:

I've been a writer ever since. Oh, I'd written some poems before I got pneumonia, but it took pneumonia to make me serious about writing. The creation of King: A Dog of the North, a solid accomplishment of the imagination, may have given me the confidence to try my hand at letting my imagination carry me forward, toward other stories, and poems, and essays like this one. And whatever success I've had as a writer I may owe in some part to that magnificent silver-haired German shepherd who vanished into the frozen wasteland once he had finally seen me back to health. Writing late at night, sometimes I think I hear his great paws padding through the snow.

And as long as I'm at it, I thought I'd add in this poem (you can see him read it on his web site) that comes at writing from another, quite wonderful direction:


Spinning up dust and cornshucks
as it crossed the chalky, exhausted fields,
it sucked up into its heart
hot work, cold work, lunch buckets,
good horses, bad horses, their names
and the names of mules that were
better or worse than the horses,
then rattled the dented tin sides
of the threshing machine, shook
the manure spreader, cranked
the tractor's crank that broke
the uncle's arm, then swept on
through the windbreak, taking
the treehouse and dirty magazines,
turning its fury on the barn
where cows kicked over buckets
and the gray cat sat for a squirt
of thick milk in its whiskers, crossed
the chicken pen, undid the hook,
plucked a warm brown egg
from the meanest hen, then turned
toward the house, where threshers
were having dinner, peeled back
the roof and the kitchen ceiling,
reached down and snatched up
uncles and cousins, grandma, grandpa,
parents and children one by one,
held them like dolls, looked
long and longingly into their faces,
then set them back in their chairs
with blue and white platters of chicken
and ham and mashed potatoes
still steaming before them, with
boats of gravy and bowls of peas
and three kinds of pie, and suddenly,
with a sound like a sigh, drew up
its crowded, roaring, dusty funnel,
and there at its tip was the nib of a pen.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Writing = Failure + Perseverance

Tim sent this link (from The Atlantic) along. Ta-Nehisi Coates talking about writing as a function of perseverance despite the failures you must inevitably experience:

Joy Luck Club: Reading Log V

September 27
35 minutes

Two Chapters: Lena St. Clair talking about her "Rice Husband" and the growing dissatisfaction she feels, during her mother's visit to their house, with their marriage. A quote that strikes me as being funny, sad, and apt appears on page 160:

I was putting the breakfast dishes away and Harold was warming up the car so we could go to work. And I saw the newspaper spread open on the kitchen counter, Harold's glasses on top, his favorite coffee mug with the chipped handle off to the side. And for some reason, seeing all those little domestic signs of familiarity, our daily ritual, made me swoon inside. But it was as if I were seeing Harold the first time we made love, this feeling of surrendering everything to him, with abandon, without caring what I got in return.
            And when I got into the car, I still had the glow of that feeling and I touched his hand and said, "Harold, I love you." And he said, "I love you too. Did you lock the door?" And just like that, I started to think, it's not enough.

I think this passage really captures the deep ambivalence of being in a long-term relationship with someone. Lena can still remember when it was all new and she was all in. But inevitably the excitement wears off, and life together becomes routine. And the question is does that routine wind up being reassuring, or just stultifying. The rest of the chapter has Lena thinking over the financial arrangements that they agreed upon in the prenup, and worrying about whether their marriage amounts to a balance sheet. The chapter ends in another Symbolic Moment where the marble end table her husband had made that he was so proud of, despite the fact that it was unbalanced, has collapsed.

The there's "Four Directions," in which Waverly Jong comes to a realization about the relationship between her and her mother. She has gone through most of her life in conflict with her mother, blaming her for finding fault and attacking everything that Waverly values. The title of the chapter is alluded to obliquely in one of her inventories of complaint, where she is anticipating what her mother will do to break up her relationship with Rich, whom she hopes to marry:

She would be quiet at first. Then she would say a word about something small, something she had noticed, and then another word, and another, each flung out like a little piece of sand, one from this direction, another from behind, more and more, until his looks, his character, his soul would have eroded away. (173)
The "aha" moment comes at then end of the chapter:

I saw what I had been fighting for: it was for me, a scared child, who had run away a long time ago to what I had imagined was a safer place. And hiding in this place, behind my invisible barriers, I know what lay on the other side: Her side attacks. Her secret weapons. Her uncanny ability to find my weakest spots. But in the brief instant I had peered over the barriers I could finally see what was really there: an old woman, a wok for her armor, a knitting needle for her sword, getting a little crabby as she waited patiently for her daughter to invite her in. (183)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Evidence. Handicap as the Bone. Faraday.

ATC's, three of eight, September 25, with annotations:

Evidence accumulating, uneasy architecture, 
yes spectacular but not so right now, 
music, regardless. Fold and swallow, 
invite me in. No blame. Now.

The bones of thought. 
Catatonic, inward, what 
words can't. Hem and haw and who.
If maybe? Never. Time. Out.

Not that. Nor that. Electrical. 
Calligraphic. Bent off slight 
shadow. Hum. On your mark, 
get doing. Safe at second. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Joy Luck Club: Reading Log IV

September 23 and 24
25 minutes each day

I always though it mattered, to know what is the worst possible thing that can happen to you, to know how you can avoid it, to not be drawn in by the magic of the unspeakable. Because, even as a young child, I could sense the unspoken terrors that surrounded our house, the ones that chased my mother until she hid in a secret dark corner of her mind.

Lena St. Clair (103)

This section is pretty dark, and more than a little confusing. Lena's mother apparently lost, or was responsible for the death of, one child at some time previously. Then, in America, she bears another child, who would have been Lena's brother, and basically starts to drift away and become a living ghost. Which is what she was most afraid of. A common theme in both the mother's story and Lena's is the threat of losing yourself, crossing over between the world of the living and the world of the lost, and Lena closes her chapter with the image of a girl grabbing her mother's hand and pulling her back through the wall.

This is a chapter I feel like I need to re-read, especially the first page, where there is an odd story that also uses the motif of someone being pulled back through a wall. It all holds together somehow, but that story, an embroidered re-imagining by Lena as a child of a story she had been told by her grandfather, is hard to get my mind around.

The first part of Rose Hsu's chapter is largely about the history of her marriage to Ted Jordan, how it fell apart, and the impact of the breakup on the relationship between her and her mom. Then there is a lengthy flashback in which Rose tells how her mother lost her faith in God after the drowning death of Rose's brother Bing, for which everyone feels some degree of culpability. The two stories are connected at the end of the chapter when Rose says "I know now that I had never expected to find Bing, just as I know now that I will never find a way to save my marriage… I think about Bing, how I knew he was in danger, how I let it happen. I think about my marriage, how I had seen the signs, really I had,. But I just let it happen. And I think now that fate is shaped half by expectation, half by inattention." (130-1).

Jing-mei Woo's chapter deals mostly with her mother's attempt to discover what kind of prodigy Jing-mei would turn out to be. (Her mother seems to be actively jealous of Jing-mei's friend and rival Waverly Jong, the chess master, and looking for a way to compete.) It turns out that Jing-mei's most singular talent is for the deployment of a ferocious anger that leads her to strike out at her mother and her elevated expectations in the most devastating possible way, by throwing in her mother's face the children she was forced to leave behind.

"I wish I'd never been born. I wish I were dead! Like them."
It was as if I had said the magic words. Alakazam! —and her face went blanck, her mouth closed, her arms went slack, and she backed out of the room, stunned, as if she were blowing away like a small brown leaf, thin, brittle, lifeless. (142)

So much of this book is about the damage that the mothers and daughters inflict on each other as they try to impose their will upon each other.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Any Old Kind of Day

Saturday night. This was the kind of day I look forward to during the week. I woke up and did my morning exercises, ate and showered, read the paper, write in my journal, and then went back to sleep from about 9:00 to 11:00. Went out to Subway for lunch. Spent the early part of the afternoon first listening to the UH football game (don't ask) on the radio while I did the Times Sunday crossword puzzle. I did some reading, then did some light housework (clearing stuff out of the guest bedroom in preparation for the move in January). Had an idea for a midsize collage (5x9) and put that together. Nice dinner at home, a walk at the mall, back home to answer some student emails and play a little Words with Friends. Now it feels like I've got maybe another half hour or so of reading left in me before I head off to sleep. Thinking about the day reminds me of an old Harry Chapin tune: was just an any old kind of day,
The kind that comes and slips away,
The kind that fills up easy my lifetime.
The night brought any old kind of dark,
I heard the ticking of my heart.
Then why am I thinking something's left behind?
The part about something being left behind has been much on my mind of late as well. I've been in a strange space, not uncomfortable but not entirely settled either, where I'm trying to be alert to and appreciative of what is going on right now, since I know that I won't be here any more after January, while at the same time trying to make physical and mental preparations for the move. Needless to say, the two tendencies work against each other. Today was mostly about just trying to be here, ratcheting down a few notches.

Anyway, I expect that tomorrow will be a little more purposeful. I've got work to do on a book I'm helping George put together. I want to read ahead in The Joy Luck Club so I can plan what the sophomores who are reading it will be up to this week in class. And I want to do some more artwork; I've been trying to re-establish that rhythm in my days.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Joy Luck Club: Reading Log III

September 19
35 Minutes

(67-83) Last part of Book One (Feathers from a Thousand Li Away): Ying-Ying St. Clair, "The Moon Lady"

The bulk of this segment is a flashback to when Ying-Ying was four and was taken to Tai Lake by her family for the Moon Festival. The family boards a boat. Later, she falls off the boat, is rescued by fishermen and taken to shore, watches a dramatic enactment of the story of the Moon Lady and the Master Archer of the Skies, and then is found by her family. The recurring motif is the idea of having a secret wish. At the end of the dramatic presentation at the park, Ying-Ying approaches the Moon Lady to share her secret wish with her. Throughout most of her life she is unable to remember what that wish was. Now, as an old woman, she remembers. The section ends with this:

     I remember everything that happened that day because it has happened many times in my life. The same innocence, trust, and restlessness, the wonder, fear, and loneliness. How I lost myself.
     I remember all these things. And tonight, on the fifteenth day of the eighth moon, I also remember what I asked the Moon Lady so long ago. I wished to be found.
It seems significant that she claims that what happened that day "has happened many times in my life." What does it mean, what does it feel like, to be in the habit of losing yourself?

(87-98) First part of Book Two (The Twenty-Six Malignant Gates): Waverly Jong

I haven't finished this section yet, but the first part deals largely with Waverly's early fascination with and talent for chess. She starts out by watching her older brothers Winston and Vincent playing with a set they got as a Christmas present at a church fair. For them, it's just a game, and they are soon bored with it. But for her, "The chess board seemed to hold elaborate secrets waiting to be untangled" (93). At first she teaches herself the game by reading about it. Later, she comes under the tutelage of a chess player at a Chinatown playground named Lau Po:

Over the weeks... I added new secrets. Lau Po gave me the names. The Double Attack from the East and West Shores. Throwing Stones on the Drowning Man. The Sudden Meeting of the Clan. The Surprise from the Sleeping Guard. The Humble Servant Who Kills the King. Sand in the Eyes of Advancing Forces. A Double Killing Without Blood. (95)
I liked this section, mostly because I've been a chess player all my life and can understand Waverly's intuitive connection with the game. At one point she comes to the realization that "A little knowledge withheld is a great advantage one should store for future use. That is the power of chess. It is a game of secrets in which one must show and never tell" (95). So that's another motif involving the keeping of secrets.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Joy Luck Club: Reading Log II

September 18
35 Minutes

Two stories: An-Mei Hsu, whose mother left the family but returns to take care of Popo when she lies dying; and Lindo Jong, who is contracted into an arranged marriage at age two, married at 16, and uses her intelligence and determination to find a way to escape her marriage and emigrate to America.

There's a controlling metaphor for each story: An-Mei's story is entitled "Scar," and the relevant passage comes from a flashback in her story when she recalls the healing process from having burning soup spilled on her neck as a child:

Every night I cried so that both my eyes and my neck burned. Next to my bed sat Popo. She would pour cold water over my neck from the hollowed cup of a large grapefruit. She would pour and pour until my breathing became soft and I could fall asleep. In the morning, Popo would use her sharp fingernails like tweezers and peel off the dead membranes.  
In two years' time, my scar became pale and shiny and I had no memory of my mother. That is the way it is with a wound. The wound begins to close in on itself, to protect what is hurting so much. And once it is closed, you no longer see what is underneath, what started the pain. (47)

Lindo's story is entitled "The Red Candle," a reference to a wedding night ritual where a candle is lit at both ends. "In the morning, the matchmakers was supposed to show the result, a little piece of black ash, and then declare, "This candle burns continuously at both ends without going out. This is a marriage that can never be broken" (59).

On her wedding night, Lindo considers throwing herself into the river, recently swollen by rain.  But then

It started to rain again, just light rain. The people from downstairs called up to me once again to hurry. And my thoughts became more urgent, more strange.

I asked myself, What is true about a person? Would I change in the same way the river changes but still be the same person? And then I saw the curtains blowing wildly, and outside the rain was falling harder, causing everyone to scurry and shout. I smiled. And then I realized for the first time I could see the power of the wind. I couldn't see the wind itself, but I could see it carried the water that filled the rivers and shaped the countryside. It caused men to yelp and dance.

I wiped my eyes and looked in the mirror. I was surprised at what I saw... I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me. I was like the wind. (58)

Later that night, drawing upon her newfound identification with the wind, Lindo finds a way to leave her husband and blow out his end of the candle, and thus escape the mandate.

I like the way Amy Tan is able to create characters with particular experiences and personalities and habits of mind and then have them tell their stories in ways that link to individual metaphors which are then woven into a symbol system of sorts. It's a risky strategy for a writer to employ, in that if not done well it can feel staged or forced. But I thought in these two sections the stories were interesting and plausible, and the metaphors felt organic.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Joy Luck Club: Reading Log I

September 13
45 Minutes

I don't remember exactly how long ago it was I last read this book. Close to 20 years, I think. I know I've read it two or three times, and seen the movie a couple of times as well, but it was a long time ago, so it's interesting to go back in after all of this time and see what has stuck and what will be different, now that my own frame of mind has shifted. Reading this book as a grandfather is going to be different that reading it as a son or daughter, or as a parent.

A couple of things, right off the bat.

I remember that the book was carefully structured. Four mothers, four daughters, alternating narrators, intertwining families, intertwining stories. There's something elegant about the architecture of the book, but also something artificial. I know, all books rely on artifice, but some rely on it more obviously than others. For example, June Woo, the narrator of the first chapter makes much of the fact her mother, who started the Joy Luck Club, would sit at the East position at the table. "The East is where things begin, my mother once told me, the direction from which the sun rises, where the wind comes from (33)". Well, that's three little taps with Maxwell's silver hammer right there. But just in case we weren't paying attention, the last words of the same chapter, eight pages later, are "I am sitting at my mother's place at the mah jong table, on the East, where things begin." Okay, got it. This is a book of about stories, and it's the beginning of the book, and the stories arise in the East, and the narrator is sitting in the East, where things begin. Clear it is. Subtle it's not.

Another instance: Near the end of this same chapter June is besieged by her aunties, who have just presented her with a check to pay her way back to China to locate stepsisters she has never met, and who are yammering at her about how important it is for her to find her sisters and tell them stories about their mother, from whom they were separated during the Japanese invasion of China. The aunties are afraid she won't be able to tell the stories well, so they are prompting her, feeding her ideas. So far, so good. Then out comes the silver hammer again:

And then it occurs to me. They are frightened. In me, they see their own daughters, just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese, who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters, that to those closed American-born minds "joy luck" is not a word, it does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation.
I dunno, maybe it's just me. But it seems to me that Amy Tan has got her thumb a little too obviously on the scale here. There's lots of other stuff to admire in chapter one, but the paint-by-numbers signposting of theme feels intrusive and heavy-handed to me.

Having picked on the author for that, let me point out one passage that I did find well written and instructive. June's mother is describing the realities of life in Kweilin during the time when the Joy Luck Club got started, and the criticism that the members of the club came in for who thought that the club was operating, under the circumstances, in bad taste:

"It's not that we had no heart or eyes for pain. We were all afraid. We all had our miseries. But to despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable. How much can you wish for a favorite warm coat that hangs in the closet of a house that burned down with your mother and father inside of it? How long can you see in your mind arms and legs hanging from telephone wires and starving dogs running down the streets with half-chewed arms dangling from their jaws? What was worse, we asked ourselves, to sit and wait for our own deaths with proper somber faces? Or to choose our own happiness?" (24)
Here, the move from idea to exemplification to response is authoritative and convincing and sympathy-inducing.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

What I'm Doing Here

Looking back, I'm somewhat surprised that I was able to post something every day for 50 days in a row until I finally fell off the wagon on Tuesday. Obviously, there are tradeoffs when you're writing under that kind of compulsion. The most time I'm likely to have to write on any given night is limited, maybe an hour on average, certainly no more than two. It's hard enough to write well when you have as much time as you want to develop and re-think and polish whatever it is you are working on. So forcing yourself to write daily is a little like walking on a very long balance beam. Each step is an adventure, some steps are likely to be more wobbly than others, and there's always the chance you're going to wind up on your ear. And the fact that each night is a new beginning makes it unlikely that any given post is going to be either remarkably significant or remarkably deep. Which is okay by me. This is not the only kind of writing I do. I can always go back and work into what I write here. I look at throughlines as being a kind of workshop, a place to body forth whatever is rattling around in my mind at a given time, with the understanding that any likely result will be, in the language of design thinking,  a non-precious prototype. Sometimes I'm just trying to capture and follow up on some thread or idea that came up in discussion during the day. Sometimes I'm just trying to use the act of writing as an incubator  to hatch ideas I haven't had yet. Sometimes I'm just playing around. But most of the time it feels like work, in the most positive sense of that word.

Basically it's a practice, a discipline, an attempt to live up to something I believe (and have sometimes annoyed some colleagues by saying out loud): that teachers of writing should be teachers who write. One core message that I attempt to convey to students, in one way or another, pretty much every day, is that it is better to be an attentive, thoughtful person than an inattentive, thoughtless person. The second core message is that if your question is how to do that—if your goal is in fact to cultivate within yourself your potential to be a thoughtful, attentive person—there are few more powerful ways of proceeding that to voluntarily, even enthusiastically, submit yourself to the disciplines of daily reading, daily writing, and daily reflection. Given that that's my message, how hypocritical would it be for me not to practice those disciplines myself?

That's not to say that there are no other disciplines that might serve (meditation, prayer, art, and music spring to mind, as well as things like, say, gardening, or public service), nor that people who do not read or write much are necessarily less attentive or thoughtful than those who do. But the hours and days (and yes, weeks and years) of our lives go by so quickly, and it is so easy to be drawn into the flow of everydayness, that it is certainly helpful to create a space for yourself to stop and reflect and process what is going on in your life, to consider the (inevitable) gap between the way things are and the way you would like things to be, and to think about what you might want to be doing differently by way of narrowing that gap. Gandhi's exhortation—"Be the change you want to see in the world"—implies two prior conditions: firstly, that you have looked at the world—attended to the world—carefully enough to be aware of what might need changing, and secondly that you have determined and thought through (and accepted responsibility for) what role you might have in effecting that change. It doesn't just happen. It's something you need to make happen. And that, more or less, is what I'm doing here.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Wreaking "havoc"


For months, I couldn’t write. It was the loveliest vertigo, sort of like drinking tequila but without the hysterical blindness. My blackbirds were wingless, legless. They sputtered on the ground like firecrackers while you played flare gun, fire engine. I smelled like grass and rabbits, waited in the field for days for lightning, wanted that spark, the mailbox sticky with wasps. I could say I wanted order, all my ducks lined up like a carnival, playing hide and seek, patty cake, with the wedding rings. Shiny, sharp toothed and singing. But I meant I wanted us strung together like lanterns. A sort of morse code in my molars. Once for no, twice for yes. Meant I wanted turbulence, trouble, to be sawed in half by wanting it.

Kirsty Bowen,Vinyl Poetry Online, Volume 1

Process Articulation:

I. Kirsty Bowen writes "havoc" and

II. submits it to Vinyl Poetry where it is published and picked up by

III. fluttering-slips on tumblr,

IV. where it is seen and re-posted by apoetreflects, and

V. since I follow apoetreflects on my tumblr blog, "havoc" shows up on my dashboard; I add it to the posts I've marked "Like" (because I'm interested in the way the words move) and then, tonight, as I'm reviewing my tumblr posts for the day I get thinking that

VI. maybe tonight on Throughlines (since I've had three nights in a row where outside engagements have kept me from posting anything) I'd lead with "havoc" and perhaps write something that attempts to mirror it in some way, maybe some thing like

VII. this:

The weeks have been speckled and sere, the evening bells smothered by scooters and Escalades. I lie beside the fountain, fingers trailing along the damp copper pipes, and wait for the pinch I know is coming. One thousand one, one thousand two… ouch. The scent of watermelon lingers; the knives glisten in the fading light. I can sense that there outside the door, eyes hooded, biding your time. I don't know how long this can go on, but it's probably better than what is around the corner. Are you still there?

Process Reflection:

The other day in class I got talking about writing which is exploratory in the sense that the writer makes a decision to abandon one or more of the default assumptions about what writing is supposed to do in order to play around with some other aspect of language that is usually not the first thing on the agenda. John Ashbery, has made a career of writing gorgeous, thought-provoking poems which don't make literal sense. If the default assumption is that we write in order to convey an idea, Ashbery basically says "What happens if we take the sense-making mandate off the table. The what can we do with language? He's not at extreme pole, by any means: his poems often do drift in and out of focus. Sometimes you can almost start to follow him, at which point he typically veers away. Here's a typical example, chosen more or less at random:

The man with the red hat,
and the polar bear, is he here too?
The window giving on shade,
Is that here too?
And all the little helps,
My initials in the sky,
The hay of an arctic summer night?

The bear
Drops dead in sight of the window.
Lovely tribes have just moved to the north.
In the flickering evenings the martins grow denser.
Rivers of wings surround us and vast tribulation.

This poem is actually perhaps a little more of a piece than others: the first and the last sentences are like reader-friendly bookends, sense-surrounding the stuff in the middle. But in the middle you do see the way Ashbery's syntax and phrasing keeps moving around like mercury on a pie plate:   "And all the little helps/My initials in the sky/The hay of an arctic summer night?" Whatever "sense" can be made of that must be intuited.

Given a continuum of sorts between conservative predictable rule-bound informational or narrative writing on the one hand and completely nonsensical experimental gibberish on the other, there are lots of waystations along the road. Ashbery is further over to the right than say, Emily Dickinson, who in turn is somewhat wilder than, say, Robert Frost. Kirsty Bowen's "havoc" is maybe just to right of center: fairly comprehensible at the macro level but interestingly experimental at the micro level: there's a kind of wildness within the sentences: the wingless blackbirds, "the mailbox sticky with wasps," "the morse code in my molars."

What I wound up writing in my little five-finger exercise was something maybe in between Bowen and Ashbery: not so much verbally turbulent as logically and sequentially disjunctive. And that's by design, not so much as a conscious result of active advance planning, but by the way in which the words were pushed forward from my mind onto the page: I was writing by feel. The logic is subliminal and intuitive rather than consciously selected, although I was looking back and forth, as I was writing, at "havoc" and trying to catch something in the mirror. I don't claim much for it, at least not yet; I was just interested in seeing where I might wind up if I started playing that particular game.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Not a Pipe

Zoë and I just completed an exercise with the class that we co-teach in which we read and discussed "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" with a group of tenth graders. So Zoë came by today and gave me a book by Simon Critchley called Things Merely Are. Critchley is a Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, and this book is a look at the poetry of Wallace Stevens as a gateway to the consideration of various epistemological questions. I've only just begun reading it, but one passage in his introduction struck me as interesting and relevant in the light of the post I wrote the other day about David Ferry and the limitations of language. Here's the passage:

... although reality is given to us through an act of the mind, Stevens's late poems stubbornly show how the mind cannot seize hold of the ultimate nature of the reality that faces it. Reality retreats before the imagination that shapes and orders it. Poetry is therefore the experience of failure. As Stevens puts it in a famous late poem, the poet gives us ideas about the thing, not the thing itself.

Why do I seem to keep returning to this issue? Well, I think there's a commonsense notion that most students (and most adults, for that matter) have in their heads most of the time, an assumption that there is a pretty exact one-to-one match between what we see and what we say and what we write on the one hand and what is actually "out there," what is actually real, on the other. And that assumption simply does not hold up to even the most offhand scrutiny. There's lots of stuff that is out there, for example, that we are not, as human beings, capable of perceiving. We can't perceive certain electromagnetic waves that surround us, for example, without the aid of a radio, even though the radio demonstrates that they are in fact there. Dogs can hear higher pitched sounds than humans can register, as is demonstrated by the "silent whistles" used by some dog trainers.

Furthermore, even when there are things we can perceive, there is no guarantee that our perception of them is accurate. "I thought I saw you at the mall yesterday" often elicits something along the lines of "No, I wasn't there, it must have been someone else." Not to mention what goes on in our minds when we are dreaming.

Language and art are deceptive in that they seem to promise a means of precise communication, but are often most deceiving when they are apparently most accurate. Even the most self-assured artistic and linguistic renderings are just that, renderings, as Magritte was at pains to remind us:

What is it that we are looking at? Is it a pipe? Well, no. Is it a painting of a pipe? Well, no it's not that either. Is it a very small digital reproduction of a famous painting that shows us a pipe but includes a caption reminding us that what we are looking at is not a pipe? Well, maybe we're getting warmer. But even this fails to take into account the complicated neural processes that occur in the body and in the brain that occur as the photons from the screen reach our eyes and are "translated" into an image and brought to consciousness and turned somewhere else in our brain into an object of contemplation, from which arise by some process that we have no conscious awareness of "ideas" about what we are seeing and whether it is what it is, or even "exists" at all in any demonstrable sense.

I had no idea when I started writing this post half an hour ago that we were going to wind up over here. And while you might be tempted to read these words as a record or rendering of my thoughts during the time I was writing, the fact of the matter is that there were hundreds, thousands, perhaps millions of other thoughts competing for my attention, being subliminally selected or discarded as my fingers moved on the keyboard  and I considered my words and went back at various places to revise or rephrase. No matter how good a typist I might be, no matter how fluent the correspondence between my thoughts and my words, no matter how diligent and determined I might be in my attempts to match the words to my thoughts, the fact remains that writing is a linear, one-dimensional process that is hopelessly inadequate to convey the multilinear, multidimensional, sensory/motor/muscular/emotive reality of what is going on in my mind and around me as I write.

Does that mean that it's hopeless and I shouldn't do it? Well, no. I'd argue, in fact, in the opposite direction: while it is wise and only right to bear in minds the limitations of language, and accept those limitations with some degree of intellectual humility,  the fact remains that language is still the most powerful vehicle we have for making at least some part of our experience hold still long enough to weigh it, assess it, re-think it, and come to some provisional approximation of what it all means and how to deal with it.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Three Vessels

Nothing too ambitious tonight. I just thought I'd post a picture of a painting (via Bo Fransson on tumblr) entitled Three Vessels by Stanley Bielen that I think is extraordinarily beautiful:

This is a small one, roughly 7"x10". I love the looseness of the brushwork, the way the planes and surfaces are suggested rather than made trim and tight, the balance and contrast of the colors, the way the painting seems suffused with light. He's got others at the gallery (link above) that I don't care for as much, but in this one it seems to me he about nailed it. 

Another thought: theres something about the subliminal symbology of vessels—even beyond the more obvious Freudian suggestions—that appeals to me. While I am not normally drawn to ceramics or glass as strongly as I am drawn to drawing and painting, most often when I do finding myself wanting to handle (or to purchase) a work of ceramic art it's a partially enclosed bowl or vase or something of that shape. So this painterly rendering of three vessels gives me the best of both worlds. 


I was walking by the new books display in the library on Thursday and saw a book of poems called Bewilderment by David Ferry. I had not read Ferry before, but there was a National Book Award seal on the front cover and some adulatory blurbs (Alan Shapiro: "no better poet on the planet than David Ferry") on the back, so I checked it out and read through it on Thursday and Friday night.

I'm not sure, on the evidence, that I can agree that there's no better poet on the planet, but there were a couple of poems that got and held my attention. The first poem in the volume is one of them:


There’s the one about the man who went into
A telephone booth on the street and called himself up,
And nobody answered, because he wasn’t home,
So how could he possibly have answered the phone?
The night went on and on and on and on.
The telephone rang and rang and nobody answered.

And there’s the one about the man who went
Into the telephone booth and called himself up,
And right away he answered, and so they had
A good long heart-to-heart far into the night.
The sides of the phone booth glittered and shone in the light
Of the streetlight light as the night went echoing on.

Out in the wild hills of suburban New Jersey,
Up there above South Orange and Maplewood,
The surface of a lonely pond iced over,
Under the avid breath of the winter wind,
And the snow drifted across it and settled down,
So at last you couldn’t tell that there was a pond.

I've read this poem a dozen times now and there's something vexing and challenging about the way Ferry sets us up here. As we start reading, even before we start reading, we register that there are three six-line stanzas with lines of approximately even length. The format encourages us to see these as three equal parts of one whole, and the title nudges us to connect it to Narcissus, which presumably might be either the figure of myth or the flower.

The first two stanzas present no real conceptual or interpretive problems. They use a conversational tone "There's the one about..." to convey what are basically amusing anecdotes, parallel stories, jokes, easy to "get, " about a guy in a phone booth calling himself. The third stanza pulls the rug right out from underneath us. It feels like the last stanza of a different poem. The diction has shifted, the tone has shifted, the point of view has shifted, the voice has shifted. There's this enormous leap, and suddenly the space between stanza two and stanza three feels like a gaping hole, a chasm which we are somehow expected to be able to bridge in our minds.

I don't get it, and I suspect that there is not an "it" to be gotten. The distance between the first two stanzas and the third doesn't seem to be bridge-able in any way I can think of. (The title doesn't help much, either.) What intrigues me, though, is precisely that gap, that space, that open territory. The poem presents itself as a brainbreaker, a kind of koan. Perhaps it's actually a kind of joke: the title of the book is Bewilderment, and the first move the poet makes is to push us into that space.

But my writerly brain makes note of the move and says, that would be an interesting thing to try: writing a poem in which the spaces between the words are as important as the words themselves. (Later in the book Ferry offers a two-word poem (entitled "Untitled) which plays this game in its purest form: at the top of the page is the word "without" and at the bottom of the page the words "not any." The rest is white space: room for the mind to roam. One of my colleagues at school has been doing this two-word poem exercise with students for a very long time.)

Another poem that I found interesting was this one, from very nearly the end of the book:


I sit here in a shelter behind the words
Of what I’m writing, looking out as if
Through a dim curtain of rain, that keeps me in here.

The words are like a scrim upon a page
Obscuring what might be there beyond the scrim.
I can dimly see there’s something or someone there.

But I can’t tell if it’s God, or one of his angels,
Or the past, or future, or who it is I love,
My mother or father lost, or my lost sister,

Or my wife lost when I was too late to get there,
I only know that there’s something, or somebody, there.
Tell me your name. How was it that I knew you?

What I find interesting here is the way that the way that the awkwardness of the poem enacts or reinforces the notion that the poem puts forward: that words themselves are a poor substitute for whatever thought, whatever reality, whatever thusness or suchness they are asked to communicate or stand in for. This notion is reinforced by the title and generative metaphor in the poem: scrim. Scrim is a translucent fabric. You can see through it, but not easily, and not fully. It hides as much as it reveals. If words are scrim, then they must ultimately fail to clarify.  (Flaubert: “As if the soul’s fullness didn’t sometimes overflow into the emptiest of metaphors, for no one, ever, can give the exact measure of his needs, his apprehensions, or his sorrows; and human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we bang out tunes that make bears dance, when we want to move the stars to pity.”)

So where else is this awkwardness? Well, let's start with the repetitions. One aesthetic principle often taken as a given is the value of precision or economy: if you can say the same thing in five words that you could have said in twelve or ten or ahead, that's generally considered a good thing, especially in poetry, where every syllable is supposed to count. But look how Ferry seems to fumble: "behind the words of what I'm writing,""looking out through a curtain of rain that keeps me in here," "like a scrim upon the page obscuring what might be there beyond the scrim," "my mother or father lost, or my lost sister, or my wife lost," "I can dimly see there's something or someone there...I only know that there's something, or somebody, there." This is language which is blatantly and (I have to assume) deliberately imprecise and repetitive. It gestures at a world of feeling, a world of the mind, which is, as Ferry explicitly states, is not going to be re-presented via the words of the poem, but rather "obscured".

Then there is the way that the poet expresses more or less explicitly his own inability to see through his own words to what lies behind. The poet begins in a kind of tentative security ("I sit here behind the words..." but ends with bewilderment; not ours, this time, but the poet's own: "Tell me your name. How was it that I knew you?"

There's a video of David Ferry reading this poem and some others here on the National Book Award web site. Interestingly, his reading style—his pace and delivery and presence—is itself is more than a little awkward. Which raises the question of whether the awkwardness in at least some of his writing is indeed deliberate, or all of a piece with his manner of thinking and being. These two poems are not anomalies. Most of the poems in the volume—outside of his translations of Horace and Virgil and other classic poets, which are quite adroit—have this quality of putting us as readers, for better or for worse (or perhaps for better and for worse) into a space which is itself a little uncomfortable and a little awkward an a little bewildering.


Addendum: Sunday night (the day after)

Ran across this quote from Heather McHugh on Tumblr:

All poetry is fragment: it is shaped by its breakages, at every turn. It is the very art of turnings, toward the white frame of the page, toward the unsung, toward the vacancy made visible, the wordlessness in which our words are couched.

from “Broken English: What We Make of Fragments,” in
Broken English: Poetry and Partiality (Wesleyan University Press, 1993)

Friday, September 6, 2013




"Anything at all," she said, and I wondered how much
better it would be if it turned out I wouldn't have to ask.


Compared to the way it was, say twenty years ago, I
doubt if what we were able to add balances out what we lost.


Every day I don't see him makes it easier for me to
forget why I chose to leave in the first place.


Give me one good reason why I shouldn't just
head out on my own. Do you even care?


If you really cared about me, you wouldn't be
joking about this. All you think about is yourself.


Keep a candle burning. I'm sorry that I have to
leave, but I'll be back soon. I promise.


Maybe the best thing would be to just pretend that
nothing ever happened in the first place.


One foot in front of the other. Just keep going.
Put some distance between yourself and all of this.


Quite a show you put on last night. Do you even
remember what you did? Do you feel proud of yourself?


Suppose you could choose to erase your life and
take another shot from the start. Would you do it?


Up until today, I thought everything was going
Very well. What happened? What went wrong?


Figure it out. Turn in over in your mind. Solve for
X. Take responsibility for yourself, for God's sake.


Yesterday feels awfully far way right now. I have
zero confidence that tomorrow will be much better.

Process Reflection: One of my students tried doing something like this for an assignment this week, stringing a series of short stanzas across an alphabetical and numerical grid. Looked like it might be fun on Friday night. This is a very wet first draft. But pretty early on I got interested in the idea of snippets from dialogues or interior monologues. The alphabet headers just gave each line a little bit of a push. Needs a lot more work, maybe either by pulling the threads together or by pushing them further apart. But it's something that didn't exist forty minutes ago that does now. Strange magic.

Notes Toward a Theory of Writing

Learning to understand and monitor one's own writerly needs is the main project of a writer's education. Beginning writers almost always feel that they have to learn the secrets that all successful writers have mastered. They think they need to take possession of something outside themselves. Writing teachers are often frustrated because they can't make students see how they're looking away from the place where the real secrets are located. The elements of a writer's making are within the individual, and they are different with each individual. Each writer makes his own habit. (David Huddle)

Implications, Corollaries, Questions, Elaborations:

1) If what Huddle says is true, what conditions could a teacher create that would enable students to understand and learn their own writerly needs? (It's pretty clear that writing "instruction"will have the opposite effect, starting as it does with the notion that there are certain things that everyone must be taught.)

2) Should it be the goal of high school and college English teachers to encourage/enable their students to become writers? Or is their mandate more properly understood to be the delivery of a basic skill set? Or some combination of both?

3) Writing is, at its best and most powerful, essentially a kind of reflective practice, the vehicle by which our thinking can be clarified and developed and made visible, and by which ideas we did not know we had can be generated (see yesterday's post for variations on this theme.)

4) What sorts of writerly needs might we be talking about?

  • The discipline of regular (daily?) practice. (A writer is someone who writes. Someone who writes is a writer. If you claim to like writing but do not write, you are not a writer.) 
  • The willingness to begin without knowing where you're going, to confront the blank page whether you have a plan or not.
  • Time. Place. Materials. (Much easier, this last, than in most other disciplines. All you really need is a writing utensil and a surface.)
  • The capacity for sustained attention, for monotasking. (Writing is predominantly a linear process. One word follows another. Even when revising, going back and moving things around, the end product is a sequence of words that will be experienced linearly by the reader.)
  • Some (l)earned sense of how language works, of what readers are likely to find either clear unclear, convincing or unconvincing, satisfying or unsatisfying, and why. Which implies, I think, some accumulated experience of attentive reading and interpersonal dialogue.

5) The notion that you need to look inside yourself to answer your own questions, rather than look elsewhere (out there, up there, somewhere) strikes me as being a very Buddhist notion, which, being a Buddhist, I see as only common sense; but which, being an American, I see as being profoundly countercultural—not an idea generally endorsed or reinforced by our schools, our government, or our churches. Students, parents, even colleagues will be unlikely to thank you if you challenge their assumptions about where the responsibility for becoming a better writer lies. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it:

There is no better way to make people think than by annoying them in a way that makes them defend their point of view, especially when their point of view may not have been well thought out... No one is a better teacher than a teacher who makes students wonder whether they might have been wrong about something. (Roger Shank, Teaching Minds (24))

Thursday, September 5, 2013


A conversation I had at lunch today about the habits of mind conducive to good writing sent me back riffling through my commonplace books tonight. Here's testimony I have collected over the years from writers, artists, and musicians about the role of exploration, uncertainty, and provisionality in their work:

The work I did is the work I know, and the work I do is the work I don't know. That's why I can't tell you, I don't know what I'm doing. And it's the not knowing that makes it interesting. (Philip Glass)

But poems are like dreams: in them you put what you don't know you know… (Adrienne Rich)

Like the novelist who finds that his characters begin to have a life of their own and to demand certain experiences, I find that I can no longer go to write a poem with a neat handful of materials and express those materials according to a prior plan. (Rich)

I'm opposed to the whole idea of conception-execution—of getting an idea for a picture and then carrying it out. I've always felt as though, whatever I've used and whatever I've done, the method was always closer to a collaboration with materials than to any kind of conscious manipulation and control. (Robert Rauschenberg)

The point is, I just paint in order to learn something new about painting, and everything I learn always resolves itself into two or three pictures. (Rauschenberg)

A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. (Thomas Mann)

Art is a journey into the most unknown thing of all—oneself. Nobody knows his own frontiers… I don't think I'd ever want to take a road if I knew where it led. (Louis Kahan)

Conception cannot precede execution. (Merleau-Ponty)

Vision, uncertainty, and knowledge of materials are inevitabilities that all artists must acknowledge and learn from: vision is always ahead of execution, knowledge of materials is your contact with reality, and uncertainty is a virtue. (Bayles and Orland)

From a welter of poorly understood substances, artists and alchemists make their choices more or less at random. In part they know what they want, and in part they are just watching to see what will emerge. (James Elkins)

Like poetry or any other creative enterprise, painting is something that is worked out in the making, and the work and the maker exchange ideas with one another… The state of mind at the beginning of the creation of a work of art is nearly inaccessible. What an artist knows is principally what will happen in the next second, not the next hour or month. (Elkins)

The artist is a man walking into space, and we cannot know by what miracle the solid earth rises up to support his feet. (Michael Seuphor)

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing. (William Deresiewicz)

When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people's, the mottos, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment—once you have removed all that wraps experience into a shape you do not recognize and do not believe in—what you have left is something approximating the truth of your own conception. (Paul Graham)

What is the enjoyment of this art? [Printmaking] The source of joy of working in this field may be the participation in a process leading to the unknown, the opening of the mind, the surprise of discovery and the breakthrough of revelations. (Stanley William Hayter)

The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created--created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them, changes both the maker and the destination. (John Schaar)

I’ve written five books and what happens is that you know less and less. Each time you realize that you don’t know what you thought you knew. It’s terrifying. The things you know you have accomplished are invisible to you and all you are aware of are the outer edges of your culpability and the darkness out there. So you always have the sense of yourself as an absolute beginner. I think that is the place to be if you want to continue: not sitting complacently in your own light, but off where it’s scary. (E. L. Doctorow)

I'm a writer, so I don't wait for something interesting. I write. Period. And if there's nothing interesting, I'll make it interesting. For me, writing starts with a line, or some imagination, or some notion, and I just go with it as far as I can. You set yourself afloat on the language. (Thomas Lynch)

We do not write what we know; we write what we want to find out. (Wallace Stegner)

When I write, I get pen and paper, take a glance out the window (often it is dark out there), and wait. It is like fishing. But I do not wait very long, for there is always a nibble—and this is where receptivity comes in. To get started I will accept anything that occurs to me… If I put something down, that thing will help the next thing come, and I'm off. If I let the process go on, things will occur to me that were not at all in my mind when I started… For the person who follows with trust and forgiveness what occurs to him, the world remains always ready and deep, an inexhaustible environment. (William Stafford)

If you're writing mystery stories or something, you might want to have an outline, because it all has to have a logic and fall into place and have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But if you're writing a novel, the best things just sort of come out of the blue. It's a subconscious process. You really don't know what you're doing most of the time. (Cormac McCarthy)

If you have other testimony to add, either in confirmation or contradiction, feel free to append it in the comments section. Mahalo.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Looking for Alaska II

So I finished reading Looking for Alaska last night, and thought I'd try to unpack some thoughts to follow up on my first post about the book several days ago. I don't think that I need to issue a spoiler alert, because the events that I am going to refer to are hinted at somewhat obliquely on the cover of the book and very directly in the summary reviews on Amazon. If you are thinking about reading the book and don't want to know anything about it before you do, then you should maybe click out right here.

Still with me? Okay then. (Let my qualify what follows by reiterating that I'm more or less thinking out loud here. These are first thoughts, before they get around to becoming second thoughts, of which I'm already having some; thus the disclaimer.) Anyway, suffice it to say that the book is divided in two parts: "Before" and "After," and that the defining event separating the two sections is the death of the title character in a car crash. The decision to set the book up that way comes with a built-in problem for both the author and his readers. The first half of the book has to largely do with Alaska's intelligence and charisma and beauty and all-around awesomeness. (I'm not being facetious; she really is a great character: fun to be around, fun to read about.) She's the centerpiece, and her closest friends Miles (the narrator, known as Pudge), Chip (known as The Colonel), and Takumi, (known as Takumi) spend the first part of the book basically trying to stay close to her and derive what pleasure they can from her energy and inspiration. There's a lot of predictable mischief of a teen-angsty variety, but it's well rendered, the dialogue feels true, and the kids are all right.

So far so good. When Alaska is killed, in what may or may not be a suicide, clearly that changes everything: both for the characters and for the readers. In the "After" section, an enormous hole opens up and threatens to swallow everyone, readers included. The tonality of the book changes. It becomes less of a lark and more of a slog, trying to grok it, trying to cope with it, trying to come to terms with her absence, and with the feelings of remorse and complicity they feel.

Pudge and The Colonel are, for a while, able to sustain themselves by conducting an investigation of sorts, trying to sort out What Actually Happened That Night, and why. This is a good thing, in that it substitutes one pretty much foolproof plot engine for another. We readers also want to know what really happened, and the detective story frame helps keep us going. But for obvious reasons, it's less pure fun to read, and the book gets a little more self-consciously philosophical and pedantic, especially toward the end. The challenge, which I believe John Green clearly understood and actually succeeds at meeting — to some degree — is to take us all the way down this road and drop us off somewhere that feels good, somewhere that begins to make at least preliminary sense of what happened and why it happened. So, given that he gets us there, my first reaction was okay, I liked that. Not bad.

Not bad. That raises questions. A lot of questions actually. First of all, "not bad" is not the same as "good,"right? Where do we draw the lines between not bad and okay and good and terrific? Are the lines in so-called "YA fiction"to be drawn in different places than for Serious Adult Fiction? In this case, does the fact that the final realization turns out to be a cultural cliché (think Don Henley - "The Heart of the Matter") feel like a letdown? (Well, yes.) Random thought taking shape: Are there any other Great American Novels that feature a detached narrator telling the story, after the fact, about a highly charismatic character whose life is fatally compromised by a car crash? (Well yes, I believe there is at least one.) Is one of those novels "better" than the other. (For sure. Even though the Other Novel is not, IMHO, anywhere as good a novel as it is cracked up to be.)

There is an interesting reader review on Amazon by someone calling him/herself X October which points out that if you read enough John Green, you realize he keeps telling the same story over and over again, a story in which

1. A nerdy, slightly awkward girl/boy who believes in shutting up and staying quiet, usually with a slightly odd name meets

2. a super sexy (but nonconventionally so) girl/guy who is also really really intelligent, who usually has a weird name and weird smart-kid quirks and a spirit of adventure, who

3. Takes the protagonist on pranky fun high school adventures and forces them to be something more than an introspective shy awkward person and then

4. Runs away from home/dies leaving the protagonist to

5. Sit around coping with the loss and ultimately come up with big deep conclusions about the meaning of life so that the book can end.

Not having read all of John Green, I'm not in a position to verify (or quibble with) this characterization of Green's default formula for writing. If it's true, it makes it difficult to argue that John Green is a good writer by any standard other than that he has a clever formula that keeps kids coming back for more.

Another thing that I have observed about YA fiction titles that bothers me is that they are so often (almost always? — I don't know, I'm overgeneralizing out of ignorance; I haven't read enough YA novels to be sure that what I'm hypothesizing is correct) built around the kinds of problems that adults presume teenagers are most prone to obsessing about: suicide, cancer, self-mutilation, the new kid in town, etc.) And the behaviors teens are understood to be drawn to (smoking, drinking, drug use, sex) are often cast, as they are in Looking for Alaska, in such a light as to make them seem only to be expected, and maybe just part of the rascally charm of the protagonists. That somewhat patronizing attitude seems both superficial and false to me. I don't think many authors give young people enough credit.

So let me ask this: if there were a writer out there who could be for teenagers what Chekov was for the Russian adults or Alice Munro was for the women of her era or Andre Dubus was for working-class and middle-class men and women, someone who could sketch out the territory with some attention to nuance and the real world(s) that young adults inhabit, who would that writer be? Seventy years ago it might have been Salinger, whose Catcher in the Rye is anything but condescending or formulaic, and which set a standard which is referenced today. Like this, from the cover of Looking for Alaska: "The spirit of Holden Caulfield lives on." Well, maybe. Sort of. Or not. At least not in this case.) If I had to answer my own question, I'd say Cormac McCarthy about nailed it in All the Pretty Horses, but what teenagers are reading McCarthy nowadays? So who's out there? If you have a nominee, I'm all ears.