I find that when i’m going to meet an old friend, or someone whose mind is really engaged to all this creativity stuff I reach for certain books on my shelf to lend. Regrettably, it’s how I’ve lost some favourites; some for years to friends they forgot they had them, some to ex-girlfriends who wished they didn’t.
I’ve always thought you can judge a person by their book covers (that’s how the old adage goes, right?) and find myself reaching for the same ones when I recommend something. So today, I want to speak a little bit about poetry, short fiction and novels and what I look for. This of course is all subjective, but for what it’s worth, I thought I might as well document it here.
The thing about a short story is that they are not novels written in 6000 words and never will be, that’s the first hurdle I had to overcome when I first learnt to write in the genre. Perhaps I’ve now flipped to the opposite end of the spectrum, but I believe poems are snapshots, short stories are statements and novels are journeys. A short story needs to do one thing, it doesn’t have to elaborate the history of its protagonist or fill in the seconds between late buses. It shows what it shows and leaves it out there, bare for the reader. The greatest short stories in my opinion are memorable for what they say, or how they said it, not for the depth of literature they contain. That’s what novels are for.
Poems are pieces built on the length of a breath. The Australian poet Robert Gray once remarked to me that “poems are a comment the world can’t forget” and I’m inclined to believe him. The simplicity of E.E. Cummings and William Carlos Williams is at times, astounding. The way they compress all of the empathy of the world into a few phrases.
if you like my poems let them
walk in the evening,a little behind you
then people will say
“Along this road i saw a princess pass
on her way to meet her lover(it was
toward nightfall)with tall and ignorant servants.”
– E.E. Cummings
Or how William Carlos Williams can confess, assess and poeticise the effects of his debauchery.
This is just to say
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
– William Carlos Williams
Or the playfulness of Kerouac’s Pun for Al Gelpi
Jesus got mad one day
at an apricot tree.
He said, “Peter, you
of the Holy See,
Go see if the tree is ripe.”
“The tree is not yet ripe,”
reported back Peter the Rock.
“Then let it wither!”
Jesus wanted an apricot.
In the morning, the tree
Like the ear in the agony
of the garden,
Struck down by the sword,
What means this parable?
You’re really sipping
When your glass
is always empty.
Kurt Vonnegut – 2 B R 0 2 B (read it online here)
I was introduced to Vonnegut’s work through his novel, Timequake, a memoir of sorts and the first book of his I would recommend anyone read. Soon after falling in love with his novels, I found this story, a little bit of an allegory for today’s world. It’s dystopic and wonderfully so.
“One bright morning in the Chicago Lying-in Hospital, a man named Edward K. Wehling, Jr., waited for his wife to give birth. He was the only man waiting. Not many people were born a day any more.
Wehling was fifty-six, a mere stripling in a population whose average age was one hundred and twenty-nine.
X-rays had revealed that his wife was going to have triplets. The children would be his first.
Young Wehling was hunched in his chair, his head in his hand. He was so rumpled, so still and colorless as to be virtually invisible. His camouflage was perfect, since the waiting room had a disorderly and demoralized air, too. Chairs and ashtrays had been moved away from the walls. The floor was paved with spattered dropcloths.
The room was being redecorated. It was being redecorated as a memorial to a man who had volunteered to die.”
Donald Barthelme – The Baby and One Day Our Friend Cody (read The Baby and Some Of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Cody online)
I love Donald Barthelme. There I’ve said it… Shoot me. It’s not for everyone, I’ll give you that but it is certainly for me. There is something amazingly clever about all of his work, though not all of it strikes with the same poignancy. He has gone in a few different directions with his work; some are thick and others light but they all contain a certain share of genius. The first story I ever heard of Barthelme’s was in 2005, when Andy Kissane introduced me to Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Cody and I was immediately struck by the ticking absurdity of the story, drawing further into this conceptual prism. If Some Of Us is my favourite Barthelme short story, than The Baby is a close second. Check them both out.
“I said that although hanging Colby was almost certainly against the law, we had a perfect moral right to do so because he was our friend, belonged to us in various important senses, and he had after all gone too far. We agreed that the invitations would be worded in such a way that the person invited could not know for sure what he was being invited to. We decided to refer to the event as “An Event Involving Mr. Colby Williams.” A handsome script was selected from a catalogue and we picked a cream-colored paper. Magnus said he’d see to having the invitations printed, and wondered whether we should serve drinks. Colby said he thought drinks would be nice but was worried about the expense. We told him kindly that the expense didn’t matter, that we were after all his dear friends and if a group of his dear friends couldn’t get together and do the thing with a little bit of eclat, why, what was the world coming to? Colbv asked if he would be able to have drinks, too, before the event. We said,”Certainly.””
Amelia Schmidt – Unremarkable (read it here)
Amelia and I met as many writers do. Through something which, while creative, is not writing; we have a mutual love for photography. She is a very talented photographer AND writer, and the reason I’ve always loved her work in both fields is because of perspective. Amelia has a talent for looking at something fresh, for applying a new take on a tired scene. The story that stands out for me at the moment is one of her most recent and it reads like a dusty wine bottle. To quote too much of it would take away the intrigue. You must read it!
“The girls were dancing in that way that girls dance where you realise that you’ve been watching them with a drink in your hand that haven’t been drinking for a few minutes and you check yourself and try to walk away but your legs won’t work anymore. When their hips are drawing circles in the air that probably make the most beautiful patterns in all the world.”
Mark Mordue – The Azerbaijanis (read it here)
I was extremely honoured to have been taught by Mark back in 2004. He was my first official ‘writing’ tutor and inspired me in the way that a fashionable walking stick inspires a limp. Whether it was half-told stories about intoxicated afternoons, or the way he seemed to lean back in his chair casually, as if upon instruction the air particles would rally together and begin to breathe for him. Mark is cool in a ragamuffin kind of way, but breathtakingly poetic. I’ve heard him called a travel writer, I don’t know so much about that; I’ve never read another with that description who has as much sensitivity to the beauty of prose; his images have the capacity to make you weep.
“The women wear grey cotton raincoats and black scarves in sloppy deference to Islamic dress codes, but there’s a Western trashiness to them that won’t be suppressed: a polka dot handbag, a splash of peroxide blonde hair and red, red lips, a whole way of walking that suggests these women shop to kill and it’s best you stay out of their goddamned, hotsie totsie way.
The women also know a special whisper that makes all the hotel cats come to them. But they don’t give the cats anything when they arrive. Still they whisper and seduce them, time and again.”
The Azerbaijanis, Dastgah
Buy Mark’s book, Dastgah in all good bookstores and follow his blog here.
Now obviously, I’m more taken by short fiction than I am by novels. My main reason is time, it’s hard to cover the whole writing sphere if you’re focussed on such a large work at once. That said, I do read novels constantly, just at a much slower rate than other work. Yet, I find myself drawn to a similar thing in novelists as I do in writers of short fiction. They are writers who have a cadence to their phrases, a certain way of describing the world. Sometimes it’s beautiful and sometimes it’s horrific, but it always hits you in a special way. Rather than go on and on about the novels I love, I thought I would quote some passages from a few of my favourites and if they appeal to you, you can go out and read them.
Michel Houellebecq – The Possibility of an Island
“Little by little, as I watched the cassettes, I became aware that I was suffering from a deeper and deeper malaise, sometimes bordering on nausea. Two weeks before the premiere, the reason for this malaise became clear to me: what I found more and more unbearable wasn’t even my face, nor was it the repetitive and predictable nature of certain standard impersonations that I was obliged to do: what I could no longer stand was laughter, laughter in itself, that sudden and violent distortion of the features that deforms the human face and strips it instantly of all dignity. If a man laughs, if he is the only one, in the animal kingdom, to exhibit this atrocious facial deformation, it is also the case that he is the only one, if you disregard the natural self-centeredness of animals, to have attained the supreme and infernal stage of cruelty.”
Stefan Merrill Block – The Book of Forgetting
“In the years that would come, in the manner of so many before us, Paul would find a way to remove that wall, stone by stone. That wall into which the stain of impossible love can seep, on which the stories of our family are written, through which the unbearable groan of faithless tenderness can creak. And eighteen years later in the rubble of what would remain, I would find Paul’s face,, content, nearly beatific. And though the people from town would offer their condelences, and though the police officers would lover their heads and sigh, “Tragic, tragic,” and though the shock of it all would be too much for my daughter, I would understood how he, unlike me, had simply found a way to walk through walls.”
Bret Easton Ellis – American Psycho
Tagged: amelia schmidt, Bret Easton Ellis, donald barthelme, e.e. cummings, Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, margaret atwood, Mark Mordue, michel houellebecq, poetry, Pun for Al Gelpi, sam webster, samuel webster, short fiction, short stories, Stefan Merrill Block, tell me something i don't know, This is Just To Say, william carlos williams, Writing
“I’m tense, my hair is slicked back, Wayfarers on, my skull is aching. I have a cigar – unlit – clenched between my teeth, am wearing a black Armani suit, a white cotton Armani shirt and a silk tie, also by Armani. I look sharp but my stomach is doing flip-flops, my brain is churning. On my way into the Chinese cleaners I brush past a crying bum, an old man, forty or fifty, fat and grizzled, and just as I’m opening the door I notice, to top it off, that he’s also blind and I step on his foot, which is actually a stump, causing him to drop his cup, scattering change all over the sidewalk. Did I do this on purpose? What do you think? Or did I do this accidentally?”