From my 2012 MFA work. Analysis not really review.
Response to , Unless by Carol Shields, and The Keep by Jennifer Egan.
My tendency is to consider these in order of preference, with my favorite first, but this month I think I will reverse that order.
Snow, is an interesting novel on many writing levels, especially as in the end it fails. I suppose part of why it fails is it is impossible to remove the knowledge of this reader that Pamuk won the Nobel Prize and is a professor at Columbia University in writing (and comparative literature).
There is no doubt that many Nobel Prizes are given out for reasons other than purely work in the area the prize is given out in. This has been true for the literature prize for a long time, after all it gave Bertrand Russell a Nobel in literature, but acknowledged in the award in 1950 that this was “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.” One suspects that the same reasoning went into granting the prize to Pamuk.
Is this pertinent in an analysis of craft? To some extent; yes. Focusing on important social and political issues can be the direction a writer takes with his/her craft. Snow does this in a number of ways. The -story is a Turkish writer and poet returns to Turkey, from Germany, to the rural area where young women are committing suicide and is constantly questioned about his belief in god, his atheism, and whether the government has the right to ban women from wearing head scarves in universities and other settings.
I am fully aware that in many Muslim countries the topic of religion is indeed a constant source of conversation, but Pamuk carries it too far. It is relentless. Every conversation has this topic. Every. Single. One. It makes the story drag on and subsumes any subplots to the point where we really don’t care anymore. I sense some imitation of Kundera’s writing in Pamuk, but he fails where Kundera succeeds. We lose emotional attachment by this relentlessness.
There are, as I said, many interesting devices that Pamuk uses. One is captured in the title, Snow. The word snow is used 24 times in the first chapter and 12-20 times in each chapter afterwards. Snow is a metaphor for a number of things, with double meanings for all of them: “he might have realized that he was traveling straight into a blizzard (12)” where of course the town and situation is its own blizzard and dangerous; “years later, he would still recall the extraordinary beauty of the snow (12).” The snow obscures the road on the way to the town and he “joined the driver in trying to guess where the road was (14)” is in some sense referring to his own need to search for the road between religion and a secular society and the dangerousness of straying off the road in either direction. The snow is as relentless as the conversations always centering on religion. “Three days later, standing in the snow on Halitpasa Avenue with tears streaming from his eyes, Ka was to see this slim handsome villager again. (15)”
Pamuk even uses the snow in his similes, “it was as if a blanket of snow had settled over his memories (17)….” The idea of common thread and using it as a metaphor is nice, but like any good thing, you can overdo it. Pamuk over does both the plot focus and the snow device.
Pamuk uses the narrator who knows the protagonist and is clearly speaking about the past from the future. This is an old device, which gives the novel a certain feel, to me reminiscent of Salman Rushdie, or to fairy tales, with phrases such as “our traveler (12)” or “Let us take advantage of this lull to whisper a few biographical details … (13)” or “That’s all we have time for at the present…(14).” This gives us a bit of cinematic feel also. We are sitting with the narrator listening to the story. I find this technique works best when it brackets the story, but does not interrupt in the middle. Pamuk does occasionally interrupt, causing a bit of the fourth wall effect of stage and film, where the actor talks to audience. It interrupts my suspension of disbelief and usually I don’t like this technique. Still, Pamuk is loading his novel with a lot of literary techniques and this is one of them.
Whether the narrator is the protagonist or not, Pamuk also uses the constant referral of the future vis-à-vis the events occurring. This was already illustrated above, but it occurs throughout: “it was the thing he would see again and again during the days to come (20)….” Or “ask him the question he would hear hundreds of times during his three day stay. (20)” This tells us ahead of time how long the story is going to be and warns us that we are going to have some repetition. I would expect if this were to be used, that we would then avoid seeing the question repeated in dialogue, but we don’t. So, Pamuk warns us we will hear a question hundreds of times and then bores us with the actual question hundreds of times. This seems to waste the technique.
I really wanted to like Snow and there is no doubt that Pamuk knows what he is doing from interesting craft techniques, but the flaws of overusing this, pounding us relentlessly, make for such slow reading that I almost felt I needed another month just for this book. The brain starts to tune out if the writer does not ground us with an interesting story along the way. We need to get pulled along, but instead we get mired in the snow drifts and eventually lay back and let the cold overcome us.
I was drawn to Unless because the plot includes a nineteen year old daughter who drops out of … everything and lives on the street with a sign that says “Goodness” on it. Surely, I thought to myself, there is something I can steal for my own writing on a homeless woman. I’ll get to whether that turned out to be true or not later. What struck me first about Unless was that serendipitously all three books I chose for a response this month use one technique in common; they all have a protagonist who is a writer. I have to say that of the three, only The Keep does anything really interesting with this. In both Unless and Snow I found this device tedious and autobiographical
Unless is written in the first person. The writer is the mother of the daughter on the street. This makes sense in trying to make this very “personal” and feel the feelings of a mother that has in some sense lost her daughter. The danger of writing in first person is when you fail to convey the personal feelings, the angst, then the failure is worse. I can’t say Shields totally fails, but she comes across as an analyzing writer more than a mother. Joan Didion, in her non-fiction, does a much better job of conveying both the angst of loss from the perspective of a writer, but as usual I digress.
Ultimately, the technique Shields is using is all of the writing the protagonist has done is a springboard for reflection of the time she wrote it. Then, she loosely ties this with what her daughter was going through at the time. This, as a technique, or craft, works. It allows her to be chronological at times, but to switch to almost scenes surrounding any one book she (the protagonist) was writing, or translating, at the time, for example “My three daughters were happy about the book because they were mentioned by name…(80).” Then she goes on to focus on Norah, the dropout, and her reaction and thoughts. Then she drifts into her own life and thoughts. This is, I suppose, a subtle way of Shields mimicking the thought process of someone who has a self-destructive loved one. “Is it something I did, or all the things I did, that made her do this?” is something any parent asks. Shields is perhaps too subtle in this, as the scenes feel too focused on the writer and the writing, rather than the “why is my daughter doing this.”
Shields does have good beginnings and endings to chapters. “Tom and I still have sex – have I mentioned this? – even though our oldest daughter is living on the street, a derelict. (183)” Yet, with that beginning, which one might guess will lead to more insight on the daughter, the entire chapter is about sex, life with her husband, and about writing about sex in her current piece of writing. Too much of the book is about her writing. This will make a good contrast with The Keep, which uses a similar technique in a vastly different way (and better). In thinking of chapters, both Shields and Pamuk use chapter names instead of numbers (or in addition to numbers). In Pamuk you have:
A Great Day for Our Nation!
WHILE KA SLEPT AND WHEN HE WOKE THE NEXT MORNING (392)
Which sets some expectations. Murakami did similar things in his Wind Up Bird Chronicle. It sets a certain tone to the chapter. Unconsciously, the reader does keep this in mind. Shields is more simple with no number and simple titles, such as “Notwithstanding (183)” as the title of the fore mentioned sex chapter. She keeps herself to one word themes. The first sentence, still having sex, “even though….” The even though could have “notwithstanding” substituted. Or the next chapter “Thereupon,” then meshes with the first sentence or two. She writes a check to a homeless shelter, then starts crying. “Thereupon” starts crying. With Shields, this is similar to something I noted in one of my other responses, which is how some authors are really writing short stories for each chapter. This is true of Shields, much more so than Pamuk. Pamuk is writing a single, large book, with variations on a theme in each chapter. Shields is writing a series of short stories that are connected, often loosely, to the theme of her daughter.
I definitely enjoyed Shields’ piece more than Pamuk, partially because it does not pretend to be self important, while I think Snow is an important book, but Pamuk knows it and that makes it fail. It tries too hard. This is, I think, an important lesson. Even when doing what you think is important, don’t try too hard. Pamuk feels like he is trying to live up to his own reputation. I have read some essays by Pamuk and he sounds like a good thinker about the novel and he admits his love of Russian writers and Kundera, which I think overly influence his own writing.
If I had read Shields’ book first, I think I might have been even more enthused about it, but the first book I read was The Keep, by Eagan, and it was by far the best of the three. In retrospect, I have to say that the device of using a “writer” in The Keep, as a protagonist, is something that is getting old, with last month’s Imperfect Birds still leaving a feathery taste in my mouth. But, Eagan is very clever with how she does utilizes the “writer” as a protagonist.
Eagan starts the novel as a traditional novel, almost-third person, with the feeling that something is not quite right about the narrator. Is it an omniscient narrator, or is it a “friend” as in Snow? The looking back, but telling us forward is also there. The first sentence illustrates this and is important because this narrator fades back to more traditional third person quickly. “The castle was falling apart, but at 2 a.m. under a useless moon, Danny couldn’t see this. (6)” Eagan uses parentheses to turn aside and drop the fourth wall, which for some reason works well with Eagan and fails with Pamuk. “He left his Samsonite and satellite dish by the gate and circled the left tower (Danny made a point of going left when he had a choice because most people went right). (7)”
If it seems clear that we have a narrator that is omniscient, we suddenly lose that omniscience and are more firmly into a third person when “…he hoisted himself onto a flat walkway-type thing that ran on top of the wall. (7)” Either Danny (the protagonist) or the narrator doesn’t know and was too lazy to lookup the word parapet. This gives us clues. We get a lot of these sorts of clues constantly, while the apparently main story unfolds. The word apparently is apropos, as one really starts to get involved in the story about Danny and his cousin that he almost killed when they were kids. Almost killed out of childish cruelty and teasing. Yet, we keep getting this niggling in the back of our mind that there is something else going on here, other than the story we are reading and we keep asking ourselves “what hint am I missing?” We are firmly in Danny’s head for several pages, so firmly that we are sure this is not someone relating this, but an authorial narrator, when back we are with “Speaking of rain, a light spring mist… (11)” shows up. This conversational style brings us back to “something is going on.”
Finally, this is truly affirmed a couple of pages later with “I might as well tell you straight up, because how I’m supposed to get him in and out of these memories in a smooth way so nobody notices all the coming and going I don’t know. (13)”
So, now we shift our thinking to, “Oh, we are in the author’s head as the author is writing.” Ok, an interesting technique. The reader goes with it … generally thinking that they have figured out that this is the technique Eagan is using for this story. An interesting story about a castle being converted to a resort in Germany, or the Czech Republic, and the tension between the two cousins. Is one cousin plotting revenge, or simply forgiven the other and truly helping him? Then, quite suddenly, we find out that the narrator is a prisoner, in jail and taking a writing class. We are suddenly in his head. First person.
You? Who the hell are you? That’s what someone must be saying right about now. Well, I’m the guy talking, just a lot of times you don’t know who it is or what their reasons are. My teacher, Holly, told me that. (18)
So, here we have—again—another writer writing about a writer. But, this is a bit more interesting than Snow, or Unless. This is about a student writer. And, if the first 18 pages are an indication, this student writer is actually pretty good. And, we are getting a bit of a writing lesson, albeit the basics. The narration now drops into first person and we are trying to figure out what the deal is with this student. He is not “normal.” This is not some university class. We quickly get that he is in prison. We quickly get that this is a “hard time” prison. These are not nice people. We get that there is a story here about the prisoner and we get sucked into his story. Then we are thrown back into the story he is writing.
This technique of a story within a story is not new, but it is well done here. Also, the way Eagan keeps us guessing as to whether the story the prisoner is telling is real or not, keeps us guessing. We also keep guessing if Danny (the protagonist of the castle story) and Ray (the prisoner) are one and the same. Is this autobiographical for Ray?
Ray get’s knifed, it looks like he is dying, yet the Danny story keeps getting told. What is going on, we wonder. Sure enough, there is a third part, where Holly, the writing instructor is really the one telling the story and she is reading Ray’s manuscript. Then we find out Danny was killed by Ray and we start to think Ray is dead and Holly wrote it all.
But then we find out Ray escaped from prison, while Holly is reading the manuscript.
Wait, you say, you are giving me a synopsis, not a craft analysis.
No, I’m not. The synopsis is vastly more complex. I am describing a variation on a well used technique of the story, within the story, within the story. But Eagan has crafted this so well that each of the three stories are fully independent, but completely dependent on each other. What oxymoronic thing do I mean by that? Each story is a full arc. Each story is unique. Yet, each is completely part of the other two, not just one, within the other. Holly visits The Keep, the castle. It’s real, it exists. The peace she gets, her arc, only exist because of Danny’s cousin and his vision, which only exist because of what Danny? did to his cousin. She only goes there because she thinks Ray might be there, but knows he is not.
This demonstrates that a well thought out idea. Trick. Can make a book by itself. The writing itself is very good (Eagan is another Pulitzer winner), but this is a “grand concept” book when you pitch it to a publisher/agent. It is, in some ways, like The Time Traveler’s Wife. The concept is not totally new, yet the twist is original enough to sustain it. This is a craft concept. The grand concept.
Beyond the grand concept, there are many things to like in Eagan’s work. For instance, there is a real touch of magical realism. The story Ray is telling from Danny’s POV is so detailed you wonder when he had time to tell Ray. He tells him after he is dead. It is left to the reader to wonder if he dreams it up, or if it really is Danny “haunting” him, for want of a better term. One of the prisoners thinks he has created a “radio” that can tune into the dead, but it is described as full of dust balls and other crap.
Eagan has great lines, such as “He had a slingshot body, strong but borderline gaunt, just bare muscles soldered together. (21)” This is the “student” writer.
Eagan does do what I hate, which is not use quotation marks for dialogue. She uses a colon instead, avoid tag words like said.
Howard: Oh, man, look at you!
Danny: Look at you!
Howard: I don’t know if I would have recognized you, buddy.
Ditto on this end.
God it’s been a long time. (22)
Note how she even drops the person’s name as a tag. This is different than Cormac McCarthy’s technique, which is to simply swallow it all up in exposition and let you guess, but it is still a bit distracting, largely because the reader is not used to it. What is really noteworthy, however, is that this is yet another clue and differentiator between the layers. The final part, with the writing instructor, has quotation marks for dialogue.
In ending, I would discuss the ending to The Keep itself. It is one of those one line endings that one strives for, but often fail in coming up with. Some readers may find it unsatisfying, but with some careful thought it wraps up all three stories. The line is simply “I close my eyes and dive in.” This works because it satisfies her own arc and the obvious metaphors of taking the plunge, but the pool she is diving into is also the pool that is crucial in part one, the story of the two cousins and the pool is one cousin’s goal to make the keep a serenity pool, but it is where two twins drowned early in its history, it is also tied to the murder of Danny by Ray. Yet, when you are reading the novel the importance of the pool is not fully realized. Not until she takes the final plunge, in the now clean pool, that is providing her with the freedom she needs, proving Danny’s cousin (Howard) had the right idea and in some sense absolving Ray of the murder.
To bring it full circle, the last paragraphs of The Keep also have snow in them. Fortunately, Eagan does not beat the snow into frozen symbols, but allows it to melt on “hair and face and feet. (189)”
Egan, Jennifer. The Keep. New York. Anchor Books. 2007. eBook (read on Nook).
Pamuk, Orhan. Trans. Maureen Freely. Snow. New York. Alfred A. Knopf. 2005. eBook (read on Nook).
Shields, Carol. Unless. New York. Harper Perennial. 2002. Print.
Note on e-book citation.
There is still no accepted standard for eBook citation by the MLA. However, the ePub format has consistent pagination, no matter what font size is used, within a given reader. Thus, the page numbers are consistent for anyone using the same device-software. I note the device in the citation.
Stasa, your thinking is, as always, interesting, but your prose kept it from being as clear as I’m used to from your work. The books you describe are fascinating and complicated, and you need to slow down and describe cleanly and clearly what they do and what you think. Stories with writers as characters or protagonists are often about the nature of storytelling itself—how the choices we make in telling a story change our perception of reality sufficiently to actually can change our lives. I wonder how these books spoke to that question? I have to say, I envied your reading month. What interesting books to read, and to read together, despite the obvious tedium.