Monday, February 28, 2005

A Complicated Kindness, by Miriam Toews elicits a complicated reader response

In my young adulthood, I worked as a counselor at a "Bible camp" in the Canadian Shield. The majority of its curriculum didn't differ much from its secular counterpart -- archery, leather-craft, canoeing, etc. -- but this was buttressed with daily chapel services and cabin Bible studies. The close of the week concluded with a fireside ritual. We lounged around the campfire, sang emotional worship songs, then quieted down and waited for the waterworks to begin.

By summer's end most counselors had moved to extreme ends of the faith spectrum: some had become exceedingly earnest, while others were coolly cynical. A few sat uncomfortably between the two extremes, and we were all exhausted. Our pubescent campers stood up and took turns stating the expected "I gave/rededicated my life to Christ," with variations that included expressions of gratitude for counselors or cabin-mates. I sighed, and settled down for my very last campfire ceremony. I'd spent the entire summer silently playing by the rules; I figured I'd about heard it all, and was ready to call it a day. But I was in for a surprise.

A 12-year-old girl stood up, and took a deep breath. "I'm writing a novel," she said. I shifted to get a better look at her. She was a nice kid, someone I hadn't paid much attention to -- until now. "Some of you will be uncomfortable with what I write," she continued; "In fact, a lot of you will. But I have to do this. I'm going to tell the truth -- I have no choice."

This was cause for some amusement. She didn't realize several of her counselors were up to similar mischief: a novel-in-progress about a readily identifiable Bible camp that played host to one outrageous scenario after another. We were dreaming up wild sexual orgies, exotic pagan rituals held deep in the woods, religious factions secretly arming their own militias, and an explosive conclusion that reduced the entire camp to blood and cinders. We wrote a few rough outlines, colored in some of the more scurrilous details, and frivolously fiddled with this grand "project," adhering stringently to the one aspect that finally doomed it: the entire book was to be written by committee, to guarantee that no single person involved could be inadvertently damned by a telling personal detail.

This camper, however, was up to genuine trouble. A solo project, telling the truth? What if a senior counselor named, say, "Wes K. Prediger" came off looking like a horse's ass? Fortunately for us, she was still a kid. A novel is a lot of pages, and most 12-year-olds don't have the stamina to craft that much truthful prose.

So there you go: true story. And it's tempting to declare that this young woman grew up to be none other than the internationally lauded, multiple award winning novelist Miriam Toews. Still, despite my spirited contributions to the biliously-conceived "Bible Camp Lampoon," I happen to believe the truth counts for something. The facts are I've long forgotten the camper's name, and Miriam is a year older than I am. But I have read A Complicated Kindness, and she's telling the truth about the freaky little town she and I grew up in -- a town which supplied the majority of said Bible camp's counselors.

It took me a while to muster up the wherewithal to read it. I've read some of her earlier stuff -- shorter magazine pieces, her novelized memoir of her father, snippets from her two previous novels. Her prose varies somewhat in quality and power, but there is no denying she is a writer of certain ability and perspicacity. Her sense of humor is cultivated and sly; readers either love it or are put off by it, and I must confess I belong to the latter category. I am, to my own great surprise, too close to the subject matter.

I'm hardly alone. I'm told our old town newspaper has devoted reams of press to correcting her supposedly misanthropic portrait of the place, particularly as it is presented in A Complicated Kindness -- a wildly misdirected effort if ever there was one. The imp in me wonders if I shouldn't step forward and offer to be the town's "Kramer," setting up literary tours to the various landmarks she mentions by name (owners of The Trampoline House should consider this a forewarning: I expect a cut of the profits). Pilgrims would likely be as affected seeing these modest locales as Dylanologists are when confronted with the Zimmerman house in Hibbing. Toews takes the sow's ear of small-town southern Manitoba and with her prose needlepoint stitches it into a silk purse. If her narrator's bittersweet take on the place seems at times too bitter, readers should bear in mind the inherent unreliability of the narrative perspective -- in this case, that of a desperate, self-aware 17-year-old girl too clever by half.

And yet, and yet ... actually knowing these places and these people creates problems for me when it comes to entering Toews' fictive dream. Her father was my sixth-grade teacher; my experience of him sits in some contrast to the man she presents in Swing Low, or in A Complicated Kindness -- indeed in all her books. It takes only the opening paragraphs, and I immediately recognize other people from Miriam's life: her mother and sister, some shared friends and neighbors, even the older carpet-laying boyfriend who left for Montreal (and, if I'm not mistaken, wrote his own discomfiting, highly experimental novel). There's no question these portraits cohere in the larger fictive picture she paints in her books. But they are also dissonant with the larger picture forever in flux in my own memory.

When Swing Low came out to national acclaim, her extended family and the small-town community was abuzz with disgruntlement. "That's not what really happened," was the general protest. I grew impatient with this line, and on more than one occasion snapped, "Then write your own damn book." This is still my official response, but A Complicated Kindness forces me to swallow hard and do a serious re-think. It reads as if it is the novel Miriam has spent her entire life working toward. It is a confidently accomplished and exquisite work that constructs an echo-chamber for complicated truths. If that makes me uncomfortable, it's hardly Miriam’s problem -- or yours for that matter. It is my own impoverishment, and you are free to consider it the result of a calcified imagination, best borne in solitude.

Until I write my own damn book, of course.

Footnote: the town's Mennonite Village Museum proudly sells Ms. Toews' entire ouevre alongside other cultural/religious staples, including Martyrs Mirror.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

"This book changed my life! ... I think ...."

This weekend I gave a copy of James Wood's novel The Book Against God to a friend for his 40th birthday. I haven't yet read the book, which makes it a risky gift, though less so than giving away copies of a book that's "changed your life." It seemed worthwhile, because I'm entirely charmed by Wood's criticism. But then I consider how much I enjoy the criticism of Martin Amis, and how little I enjoy his fiction.

(If you haven't yet read any Martin Amis fiction, here's a quick exercise to save you time. Take any novel by Amis, open a page and randomly pick a paragraph. Read it out loud. You can't help but be impressed by the stinging, accumulative impact of that paragraph. They're all crafted like that. Unfortunately, when you add them up it usually makes for a joyless, if not repulsive, experience. Too bad, that.)

I've always disliked the canard, "Those who can't do, teach; those who can't teach, critique." Here's hoping Wood amounts to something of a renaissance man. I fully intend to read his novel, and I'm hoping the adulation of the chattering class has been honest, and not a defensive response to the articulate and frequently damning insights of his essays. More than that, I'm desperately hoping it's a book that will stick to my ribs, because I recently came to a discomfiting realization: here I am approaching the close of my 30s, and I have yet to encounter a novel that speaks to me with the depth of so many of the books I read in my 20s.

There are plenty of cheerful reasons for this somewhat sobering epiphany, the best being the accumulation of age and experience. The truly "novel" is fast disappearing - is, in fact, something I'm increasingly disinclined to seek out. So while I've read some memorable novels in the last ten years - Fight Club, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Poisonwood Bible - they didn't quite penetrate deeply enough to achieve importance. A few did - The Road Home, Underworld (DeLillo seemingly scorched his wings with that one, and I love him for it), American Pastoral - but none of them hit me as hard as any of the greats from my 20s.

I hardly know where to begin with that decade. I have to skip over everything I encountered in my undergrad degree, for starters (Chekov, Hemingway, Austen – so many incontestable greats). After that we're dealing with dynamics that are in seriously weird flux: Cormac McCarthy, Douglas Coupland, and always Frank Miller. Still, I have no difficulty naming the novel that lodged itself in the heart of my 20s (a sentiment shared by more than a few friends who received copies from me): Moon Palace, by Paul Auster.

That book, ostensibly the narrative of a man recounting his 20s, is immediate enough to grip a young reader, yet is richly loaded with a perspective that comes long after that decade has been survived. Its chief concern is identity. Who are you once you are removed from your family? How does an environment as alienating as New York City affect your sense of self? How does your self-concept change as you discover more about your parents and their parents before them? Auster's narrative circulates around fathers and sons; lost history restored in fragments; insanity and recovery; and the ever-present wilderness. It is an artful and trenchant encapsulation of the fears and consolations I experienced as a young adult. If we read to know we are not alone, that was the book that most reassured me.

The closest I've come to such a phenomenon for my 30s is probably Annie Dillard's For The Time Being - not a novel at all, but an extended meditation on death, birth, and the geography of clouds (all of which make imminent sense when you witness the birth of your daughters, and the death of friends and family members). Perhaps my error lies in avoiding the ever-popular Life of Pi? I've got four months left, dear reader: if you have any recommendations, make them now!

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

NHL Brand Erosion: A Consumer's Report

Early last summer I chatted with a pump-jockey at the local gas-station. The Toronto Maple Leafs had just been eliminated from the play-offs by the province's other NHL franchise, the Ottawa Senators. I asked the guy if he was cheering for the Sens now. He looked at me as if I just didn't get it. "It's the Leafs or nothing," he said, his tone making clear just how far I was testing his patience.

Being a sports fan is an irrational business, and it's possible I'm missing some crucial mechanism in the soul to prevent me from joining their ranks. It's more likely I had it taken from me when the Winnipeg Jets followed the money to Phoenix. That was an eye-opener, alright. The way I see it, Leafs fans would be done a world of good if the franchise were sold to Albuquerque for a few years. The truth is the League, the team owners, and precious few Leafs players could give a rat's ass about gas-guy's irrational loyalty. If someone were to wave enough money from the Cayman Islands, the team would move, and the League would nod its approval.

As Gary Bettman gets set to announce the forfeiture of the NHL season, it's difficult to ascertain which party has behaved more irrationally: the League, the players, or the fans. After all the talk about "philosophical differences" between the League and the players, it now seems the ideological chasm can be bridged by a mere six million dollars. At this point, neither side is going to win with the fans. The fans had the least to lose, and plenty of time to consider that paucity. Now spring training is underway in baseball; a last-minute agreement and a 28 game season would be an outrageous act of contempt toward hockey consumers.

I used to watch regular season games, but for the last few years the only hockey I could be bothered with were the playoffs. I gradually lost interest after Winnipeg was sold. A sense of geographical loyalty plays a role in my disenchantment, but only a small role. The Phoenix acquisition of the Jets was the beginning of an unmerited league expansion that even an international talent pool couldn't fill. With talent spread that thinly, the game has become a dump-and-chase bore. The season is three months too long, the League is six, possibly eight teams too large, and everyone involved is too fat in the head to do the right thing and downsize appropriately.

Still, the inconceivable can happen. A few years ago I took my father to the Hockey Hall of Fame. As with the League whose praises it sings, the Hall of Fame is mostly an expensive and mediocre attraction. It's only when you get to the historical archives that you finally arrive at material with genuine interest. In fact, getting a close look at Lord Stanley's Cup was almost worth the exorbitant price of admission. Until I saw it with my own eyes, I had no idea Winnipeg won the Stanley Cup three times! It seems the Jets were not the first Winnipeg team to vie for it: the Winnipeg Victorias contested for and won the cup in 1896, 1901 and 1902.

It’s over a century later. Perhaps the Stanley Cup will regain its iconic brand value among hockey consumers. It seems like a crazy dream, but who knows? A Winnipeg team might once again lay claim to it. Stranger things have happened in the irrational realm of sports.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Offline Revelations "Rising"

My computer crashed. I had grand ambitions for this blog, and even a few for my day-gig, but they came to a screeching halt when technology failed me.

I had to tow the jalopy to the shop to get a new hard-drive installed. Our town has only one tech-shop, and it bills itself as a "Computer & Sign Store." Every time I walk through the door, it appears to be the sign aspect of the business generating the most income, and Wednesday was no exception.

I knew it would be a little while before I got online again, but I didn't expect my anxiety to mount to the degree that it did. I imagine I'm similar to most relatively literate people my age. I read heartfelt essays from poets like Wendell Berry or James Laxner, who quietly assert that technology is fostering our alienation, even as it promotes itself as the cure. "Yes, yes," I think, nodding to myself. "We certainly need to bear this in mind." But then - conk! - my computer crashes, or a blackout occurs, and I am, there's no other word for it, stranded.

Without the internet, my sense of intellectual expansion or cultivation dissipates as I'm forced to rely on conversation with family and neighbors. How absurd that, when this technological distraction is removed from the scene, I conduct my everyday physical congress steeped in a sense of isolation. How healthy is that?

The truth is I'm increasingly becoming a nerd. In 1995 I worked in a bookstore, and it seemed like every second title was heralding the grand new frontier of the digital age. I owned a 286 at the time, but I stayed resolutely off-line, and only used it to write my short stories, or play Wolfenstein. But I dutifully read Nicholas Negroponte, and I bought issues of Wired magazine, that monthly poster-colored travel brochure for destinations digital. And because they were so entertaining, I mainlined the cyberpunks: Gibson, Sterling and Stephenson (the latter being the only one worth revisiting). It took ten years of indoctrination, and the introduction of high-speed hookup, but I've finally reached that point of slack-jawed "I can't believe how much fun this is!" buy-in. I've finally arrived at 1995.

There is still a part of me that lags behind. I can install hardware and software, for instance, but my code-writing abilities haven't evolved past the "Me Tarzan, you Jane" level. The sort of rescue operation performed by my local sign-painters remains, for the moment, mysterious. That bothers me. It bothers me to be professionally removed from the maintenance of my life.

I'm unsure of how best to locate my dis-ease with this scene, but I'm drawn to something my wife said when she came back from her first visit to Uganda. She said everyone there participates in an immediate, free market. It doesn't matter if you are in a village or a city, people engage in their trade openly - that is to say, out of doors. The road is lined with the open manufacture of practical everyday items, as well as artistic renderings, from whatever is available for the salvaging. "Nothing is mysterious," she said. "You see how they do it, right in front of you."

When I wrote that, I vaguely remembered something Brian Eno said in an interview with Wired magazine. I raced down to my basement to retrieve the issue (May 1995!) and recover the exact quote:

Do you know what I hate about computers? The problem with computers is that there is not enough Africa in them. This is why I can't use them for very long. Do you know what a nerd is? A nerd is a human being without enough Africa in him or her. I know this sounds inversely racist to say, but I think the African connection is so important... What is pissing me off (with the computer) is that it uses so little of my body. You're just sitting there, and it's quite boring. You've got this stupid little mouse that requires one hand, and your eyes. That's it. What about the rest of you? No African would stand for a computer like that. It's imprisoning.

"This hand in particular."
I have to digest that for a while before I can respond. After this last crash, I'm compelled to initiate a personal change of some sort, but I'm not sure where to begin. Religion offers some basic starting points, but in my case I greatly dislike the usual exercises in Lenten self-denial - the discipline, such as it is, seems to my mind ridiculously misdirected. Rather than drop something from my life, I prefer to take up something I've been neglecting. Perhaps a worthwhile Lenten exercise might be to seek out a more tactile, engaged way of interacting with my immediate environment. I was once the family bread baker; since I've let that practice lapse, I believe I'll begin my quest by miring my hands with a good batch of whole-wheat bread dough - starting now.

The Brian Eno interview can be read in its entirety here. And because I raised the spectre of cyberpunk fiction, I want to make a pitch for the criminally underrated Dennis Danvers, whose Circuit Of Heaven is the most compelling, best-told story of the lot - because he paid attention to the emotional life of his characters (an all but nonexistent trait among SF writers).

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Wytold Rybczynski - Contemporary Architecture's Gentle Sparring Partner

Don't let the soft touch fool you, though: his right uppercut will be felt for weeks after he lands it.

This is a real treat from the people at Slate: a photo essay by Wytold Rybczynski on Disney's much-derided effort in commercial community-building, "Celebration." Unlike many design critics who leave the starting gate fueled by caffeinated irony, Rybczynski expresses his sympathies and approval with plainspoken clarity. His criticisms are equally clear, and have a more devasting impact than those mustered by po-mo blunderbuss wiseacres. Rybczynski is recongizably one the best critics in North America; his observations about this strange little town certainly opened my eyes to the quirks and possibilities of my own neighborhood. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Alan Moore Interview

I'm split on the work of comic book writer Alan Moore. His best stories are carefully polished affairs. They usually begin with an image that doesn't quite gel with the narrative he's proposing. By the end of the story, a mythical structure the reader has come to take for granted has been turned on its ear, and the reader discovers a new, unexpected center of gravity.

Moore obviously collaborates with his artists, and doesn't just dictate to them. But I wonder if the force of his personality doesn't end up paralyzing the artist, just a bit - in many of the books he's written, the artistry ends up looking cold and static, in contrast to the fluidity we see in Japanese and even American books. Perhaps the "high concept" is just a tad too high?

The man has personality to spare, though. He's also got an imagination that seems to fire up new and unused synapses in his brain as he gets older. This interview is one wild ride. Link thanks to Bookninja.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Boredom – The Inescapable Link Between Drugs And Rock & Roll

What Dr. Phil should probably advise Metallica is to call it a day. Why work with people you can't stand, doing work you're sick of, and that may be killing you? Lots of people have jobs like that, but Metallica has a choice. Roger Ebert, reviewing Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster.

I have an acoustic guitar collecting dust in the corner of our bedroom. I'd been eyeing it for the last few weeks, wondering why I don't pick it up and play it the way I used to. In my 20s, I played it every night. I took enough lessons to figure out what I needed for fun, then ran with it. I experimented with chord changes, and different finger-picking techniques; I learned several scales, and picked out the usual "solo" patterns (early Angus Young is a cinch). I went as far as my natural abilities and ambition took me, then lost interest.

Yesterday I unpacked the guitar, tuned it, strummed and picked through half-a-dozen of the old songs and discovered another reason why I don't play it anymore: the music I learned - rock music, mostly - is boring as dirt. I mentioned this to my teenage nephew, who plays drums. He snickered, and drawled, "Tragic, huh?" This kid once aspired to drum for a punk band, until a teacher pulled him aside and informed him he had untapped natural ability. Now he sets his kit up at a strange angle, eschews 4/4 timing, seeks out obscure jazz artists and crams music theory in his spare time. Tragic, indeed.

My first guitar teacher told me, "If you're gonna play Stairway To Heaven, you first gotta play This Old Man." Encouraging words, but he might as well have given it to me straight: I'd be playing Stairway by the end of the month - Led Zep just ain't that far removed from This Old Man. I think this is why drugs are an inescapable element in rock & roll. They get introduced as part of the fun, but quickly become a necessary ingredient. Physical addiction counts for something, of course, but surely every rock star reaches a point, while building a spice rack or changing his kid's diaper, when he realizes if it doesn't have a 4/4 time signature, he's born to screw it up. When you're caught between boredom and desperation, the obvious "exit" is drugs.

This is one of the clear subtexts to Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster, available on DVD this month. It opens with an album-release press junket where the band members sit in front of TV cameras and recite the usual tropes about the creative process. The next two hours document just what a crock those tropes amount to. Relationships in the band are toxic, different members are struggling with monsters of their own making, but the one monster they're all facing in the studio is boredom. Thanks to a bout of rehab, and their ever-present therapist's "I hear you" exercises, they manage to generate enough material to release an album that garners financial success - and critical shrugs. They have to go on tour to promote the album, so they hold auditions to replace their AWOL bass player. It's only when they discover their new bassist - an unknown session player from the barrio, who walks around with a permanent "I can't believe I'm playing with Metallica!" look - that they discover what the band and its music have been missing for years: genuine excitement.

Roger Ebert's analysis is right on the money: Metallica should call it a day. I'm glad they kept it together long enough to make the movie, however - watching that reality take shape in flesh and blood makes for sharp entertainment. The band members have compelling personalities, and you realize pretty quickly why their working relationship has gone off the rails. I know a great many people loathe drummer Lars Ulrich, but to my mind he's the Donald Trump of rock & roll: a self-obsessed, loudmouthed schnook, with an abrasive charm that gets results and is fun to witness (at arm's length). For guys like me, the DVD offers reams of delightful extra footage and goodies galore. For the morbidly curious, it offers a recommended evening's viewing.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Mennonite / NeoCalvinist Drinking Game - An Idea Whose Time Has Come!

“There are only two things I can't stand in this world: People who are intolerant of other peoples' cultures - and the Dutch!” Michael Caine, as Nigel Powers

Like most lapsed Mennonites, when I was on the cusp of lapsing I volunteered with a Mennonite relief agency internationally recognized for doing an astounding number of good deeds at home and abroad, despite an infrastructure that defies analysis or comprehension. There were several orientation retreats I had to attend, which I sometimes remember nostalgically. They were folksy affairs, often laden with the sort of pop-psychology-speak that makes the modern Mennonite so worthy of ridicule ("I think I hear you say we need to be careful not to forget the special needs of individuals, while we're visioning for the whole community. I would affirm you in that. Maybe you could give more leadership to that"*). Despite, or possibly even because of this, a surprising amount of creative activity took place — most of which would qualify for respectability as religious folk art. And, always, the singing was to die for.

The last such event I attended was held in the middle of winter, at a secluded camp in Ontario. We were sharing the premises with a Dutch Reform congregation that was also "on retreat." For those who don't know, Mennonites and the Dutch Reform have quite a bit in common, beginning with their gene pool.** Thanks to geography, Mennonites and the Dutch Reform share ideological origins as well: in the heat of the Reformation, an impassioned branch of heretics cooked up the nettlesome scheme of Anabaptism: reserving the act of baptism for people who consciously choose to be baptized. Suddenly Luther and the Catholic Church had something they could agree on - these people needed to be hunted down and made an example of in that charming, medieval fashion so popular at the time.

We parted ways, however, on the issue of church and state. The Dutch Reform adhere to a Calvinist perspective, seeking public office and embracing the responsibilities of the sword; the Mennonites ... well, these days it depends on who you talk to, but if you enlist in any organization that calls itself "Mennonite," you work with a mandate that adheres to pacifism. Consequently, even though these dueling Dutch ideologues frequently share geographic location and building facilities, the time eventually comes when the groups retreat to their respective corners, lower their voices, cock a thumb at the other corner and say, "You know what those guys actually believe, don't you?"

At this retreat, the only building we shared was the dining hall — Reform sat at the right side of the hall, Mennonites to the left. Early in the week, one of the Mennonites (a bearded, goofy-looking guy I'll call "Herb") came late to dinner. He got his tray of food while we were all chowing down, then walked over to the right side of the hall. He wore his habitual, goofy grin and looked from face to face, searching for someone familiar. Nothing but scowls. Eventually, someone from our side piped up: "Herb? Over here." To which a Reform voice added, "Yeah, you're not one of us!"

That got a laugh from everyone. And it was funny, even if it reads as harsh. It's just so hard to believe that we — the Dutch, of all people! — can be so severe and uncompromising.

For the last month or two I’ve lurked among my Dutch siblings in the on-line halls of Neo-Calvinism. The only conclusion I’ve reached is that I’m still in existential disagreement with them (I’ll show you who’s “not one of us!”); given that perspective, any attempt I might make to summarize Neo-Calvinism would be worthy of their contempt. I’ll say this, however: the further I follow NeoCal reciprocal links, the more I feel like I’ve just beamed myself into the Borg Collective — what with the humming, and the sparking, and the responsive-reading-type-of-thing. The energy they expend fleshing out their ideas can be both awesome and unsettling, depending on your point of view as an outsider.

The curious can see and judge for themselves, here and here. In the meantime, I wonder if Mennonites and NeoCals could collaborate on a drinking game? Every time a NeoCal says "Kuyper" or “Dooyeweerd” take a sip; if you hear “We ignore Dooyeweerd at our own peril!” — DRAIN THE BOTTLE! Reciprocally, if a Mennonite talks about “the Story we find ourselves in,” or “peace and justice concerns,” lob the empty bottle at the speaker's head. This just might be the beginning of a miraculously renewed relationship...

"Uh-oh! Someone's gonna Kuyper their Dooyeweerd!"

*Mennospeak appropriated from The Mennonite Starter Kit, by Craig Haas and Steve Nolt.

**A woefully arrogant assumption on my part, considering African Mennonites now outnumber their Western progenitors by quite a margin. Still, I'm trying to make a point, and in the grand scheme of things,
we all share the same gene pool — right?

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Youthful Desire #2: Complete Freedom Of "The Inner Voice"

During my second year of University, I enrolled in a creative writing class. I also took an Early 20th Century American Literature class. To quote a successful author (who somehow never set foot in a creative writing class) "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

Beginning with the worst: the Am Lit prof was one of those frustrating creatures who used our classroom as a platform on which to proclaim her unshakeable authority over the subject - we, the paying peons, could attempt to wrest whatever shards of gnosis she might coyly hint at, but gaining a comprehensive understanding of the material was out of the question. Thanks to her methodical obfuscation, the poetry of William Carlos Williams was transformed from something intriguing and mysterious, to something maddening and obtuse. Sherwood Anderson managed to withstand her theorems of confusion, but Hemingway took a real beating. Finally, we reached Faulkner's The Sound And The Fury.

Oy vey. If you've not yet read Faulkner, but feel the need, I implore you to start with something relatively approachable: As I Lay Dying. Better yet, read a few of his short stories and see if you've any appetite left. The important thing is to build up aesthetic antibodies before you ingest TSATF, because that book is harsh. I finished it, but I regretted the experience, and I regretted enrolling in the course. I retrieved my class enrollment slip from the prof, got a partial refund for my troubles, then shook the dust from my sandals and went on the scout for better times.

The creative writing class certainly qualified. It also did a better job of communicating the true worth of different prose aesthetics. The class was typical of its kind - through a series of exercises we experimented with voice, perspective, prosaic structures and pyrotechnics, etc. Every week we read our efforts to the rest of the class. The latter exercise was especially valuable - nothing impresses a writer faster than the sound of his prose going "clunk."

As I age, my memory seems bent on self-flattery by removing my most embarrassing moments, and replacing them with the embarrassing moments of others. I can recall feeling uneasy after some of my readings, but I best recall the general reaction toward a classmate who discovered "Stream Of Consciousness" late in the course, thanks to his recent exposure to (you guessed it) TSATF. We were now finished with the exercises, and toiling on our larger "final projects"; each class was now devoted to a single student's reading. Our classmate, who had until then demonstrated a keen ear for wit and parody, used the occasion to read page after page of tedious SOC drivel, in tones that conveyed the lamentable earnestness of a new religious convert. When he finally set his notebook aside and asked for comments, I took a deep breath, and got ready to deliver the news.

I was all set to tell him even Faulkner at his drunkest didn't expect to fly on a first draft of SOC writing, but one look at my friend's face stopped me in my tracks. His cheeks were aflame; he seemed ready to cry. The "clunk" had been thunderous.

It was just as well: I wasn't at all confident TSATF wasn't a first draft.

Ideally, creative writing classes achieve an extremely tricky balance: the recognition and nurturing of a student's "voice" on the one hand, and a critical appreciation of the elements of fiction or poetry on the other. My own inclination is to seek critical congress on the latter, while letting the former grow on its own in the private playground of notebooks and journals. Perhaps I'm too cautious, but I wonder if my friend might not have gleaned something of greater value had he made a tape of himself reading his SOC experiment. I'm convinced if he'd played it back and heard himself, I'd be writing about someone else today. Now that I think of it, how might it have sounded, and what choices would he have made, had he recorded three pages of his own writing, followed by three pages of Faulkner's?

These thoughts occur to me after reading Eric Liu spend an hour with a Julliard piano teacher. This person apparently has ways and means of releasing a student's musical instincts toward improvisation that, he claims, we bury beneath years of formalist training. I'd love to take a few of those piano lessons, but Liu's stress on the necessity of freeing personal voice can be overstated. Sooner or later, paying people want some formalism asserted on the material: nobody is going to line up outside the concert hall to hear you "play your name." It's laudable to free your voice, but if it has something worth saying, you'll exercise some formality in how you say it.

Also, here's an intriguing piece on exporting Spider-Man to India. Again we have a strict, narrative formula - the origins of a particular comic-book superhero - that experiences rejuvenation via a literally spiritual re-birth. The generic parameters are instantly recognizable to western eyes, but the eastern improvisations within it are, well, breath-taking. Cross-cultural improvisation within an ossified pop-culture medium? That I'd pay to see.

Both links courtesy of Slate.