Sunday, November 22, 2009

How narrative creates us (Books - Generosity by Richard Powers; A Brief Life by Juan Carlos Onetti; The Needle's Eye by Margaret Drabble)

Three very important words: new Richard Powers. A writer who just can't stop writing about how what we know makes up who we are. A theme that has kept me returning to him book after book. Although I count his Gold Bug Variations as among my Top-10, I cannot say I have enjoyed all his books equally,in fact, there are two I just couldn't get through. But in the ones I have read, like The Echo Maker and Galatea 2.2 and especially the Gold Bug Variations, I am always astonished how he takes a fascination in our information-driven culture - the genetic code, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, a neuropsychological pathology called Capgras syndrome - and uses it not merely to structure the book, but to intersect with the basic ingredients that give character meaning - their loves, their drives, their identity. In Generosity: an enhancement for only the second time, I believe, Powers writes about writing. Also for the second time he writes about genetics. The emotional themes seems to be happiness and love. The writing has an effusive, run-on feel to it. An almost commercial chatty diction, lots of lists for sentences. I am finding it a bit annoying, truth be told. The opening of the book feels like it emerged from a writing exercise. I'm a creative-process fanatic, so I have no objection to that. I just don't want to be aware of it as I'm reading.
I give myself a first assignment: Russell Stone in one hundred and fifty words.

Start with this: His earliest crime involved a book about a boy whose marvelous scribbling comes alive. ...
Powers seems to be using the writing device as a type of virtual reality, an idea I am enjoying although it seems as perhaps the writer's faith was tested as he started this book and he's left feeling he must apologize for it.
No, you're right: those streets don't really run that way. That neighborhood is a little off. The college isn't quite there; it's not that college.

This place is some other Second City. This Chicago is Chicago's in vitro daughter, genetically modified for more flexibility. Ad these words are not journalism. Only journey.
That's may just be my feeling. What he is telling us he's doing is making a fiction and that we are supposed to take this fiction as a parallel for the creation of a genetic code. That's what you did in Gold Bug Variations, Richard, and I got it without the instruction manual. I'd rather discover through the reading how to put your ideas together. Is this Richard Powers for Dummies or what? I'm feeling a little anxious that this is going to be one of those Richard Powers books I can't read. Which is too bad, because I so look forward to his books. I'm going to give this one some more time.

I was delighted to receive an advanced reading copy of A Brief Life by a Uruguayan novelist I had never heard of - Juan Carlos Onetti. He lived in Buenos Aires and Madrid, wrote from the 1930s to the 1960s, and is described as the South American parallel of Beckett or Camus. The narrative floats in and out of time frames without preamble as our hero Brausen, moves from disatisfying life circumstances - a job that bores him, a wife who is recovering from surgery - to listening to his neighbors. Brausen uses this as a springboard for an existence that takes place in an imagined town - Santa Maria - through the lives of many characters he creates so that he doesn't have to live in his own life. It's a dark and highly imaginative work so far. I'm looking forward to reading more.

I am still making my way through Margaret Drabble's The Needle's Eye and still finding the narrative voice irritatingly verbose, but I keep coming back to it because the central characters Simon and Rose have won me over. There is nothing that is surprising to me about their blossoming friendship but I am particularly liking the way Simon, tight-laced ambitious, barrister that he is, is being revealed to himself as someone who can love. Moreover, someone who can love what he isn't supposed to love. He is seeing himself as someone he didn't know before. Rose is leading a less than conventional life, and can acknowledge her faults, but seems to be unable to live anything else. They both crave a more just world, Rose through giving away her money and living with the same means as those poorer than herself, and Simon, having worked his way up from poverty, through the law. How I just wish the diction were less runny:
It was he himself that was swamped. A bad word, swamped: because what he was, was dry, dry as a bone. And he wanted everything to be as dry as himself so that he would not be reminded of thirst. That woman in the off-licence, how her evening's plans had rejected and excluded and judged him. There was nothing to be done about it, nothing, there was nothing in himself that could save him: there was nothing to be done in life, but to keep going, keep working - and work, yes, he always came back to this point because work, could be done.....
How very Uncle Vanya. I wish the occasional sentence could have one verb. Her plans had rejected AND excluded AND judged him. And I understand the power of repetition as a rhetoric device but I would find it more persuasive if it were used more sparingly. Despite my complaining, the writing has clearly not sacrificed authority as the characters' lives are gripping my interest.


Matt said...

The Echo Maker required some effort on my part when I read it--I recall reading it in transit on a plane. I had the impression that, at least in Echo Maker, he is constructing two narratives, one that is more rational and the other influenced by the neurological pathology. The ending begs for some debate. If I am to choose between Generosity and Gold Bug Variations, which one would you recommend?

Ted said...

Hi Matt - I haven't finished Generosity but I am finding it a less strong novel. Gold Bug Variations is is much more dense but (so far) much more worth it.

Danielle said...

I received a copy of the Onetti and am looking forward to it as well!

Ted said...

Danielle - It's very filmic in how it uses time. A bit psychedelic.
Happy thanksgiving!

Matt said...

Gold Bug Variations will be on my shopping list. I tend to enjoy a dense book more. Happy Thanksgiving, Ted! :)

Ted said...

I'll enjoy reading your reaction to it. It's one of my top ten! Happy thanksgiving yourself! Hope it was tasty.