Excerpts from a reading journal, 2007
1 March 2007
The question I wanted to ask, as I read the stories that would fill this book, was not: What is the plot, but rather, What is the story plotting for?Not: What is it about, but How is it going about its business, whatever its business might be? What is the story’s tactic of mattering, its strategy to last inside a reader? How is it scheming to be something I might care about?
— Ben Marcus (Introduction to Anchor Book of New American Short Stories)
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men David Foster Wallace
This story’s tactic for mattering is that it blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. It uses a form, the interview, to tell the stories it is telling. It also talks about sex. I guess anything about sex is going to be memorable and matter. It also uses humour — it is funny — but I guess that is not enough to explain why it matters so much, why it is so engaging. I think it is about vulnerability and compassion. It is about masculinity and frailty. It is about the business of being human. The bafflement people feel in positions of intimacy. I guess it is about the human condition yuck! But it is dealing with it in a way that is very much against the grain of post–modernity. It isn’t cold, it isn’t distanced, it is talking straight from the horse’s mouth (or giving that illusion) which makes it hard to judge.
The title of the collection is amazing. These are hideous men. We all are. It’s an exercise in what is real and what is in our minds. Especially the one about the masturbatory fantasy. It’s an exploration of experience outside versus experience inside.
Note from 25 August 2007 — This was going to be the ‘idea’ holding my anthology together: the relationship between experience outside and experience inside. I was obsessed with the idea of how we know we have experienced something, because I thought this is what David Foster Wallace writes about. I had read everything I could find about Hermeneutics and still had no idea what it meant. In truth I had no idea what the statement: ‘How we know we have experienced what we experienced’ meant. In our first meeting Damien asked me about the outline I submitted with my writing sample. He said something along the lines of, ‘Is this what you want to do or is this what you thought an outline was supposed to look like?’ I’m grateful now that he suggested shaking off this idea. It freed me up incredibly. After I handed in my first rather stupid story, Damien said maybe I should just write scenes and see what happens. He said, ‘You don’t know what your voice is — no one knows what your voice is.’ So, although I was worried I was wasting time, I sat down and started writing scenes and for the first time in years I fell a bit in love with writing.
8 March 2007
Where I Work Ann Cummins
I think I already talked about how it is interesting that middle-class people write about working class people and although I think it is a total assumption that Ann Cummins is middle-class I am just figuring if you have time to write you must be pretty well off. This is probably a bad thought. I can’t help thinking about what Jo Randerson said about when she was in Poland and how there’s no arts funding and people are very poor and if you are going to write something or put on a play it better be worth it. I kind of like that idea.
All that aside I love this story. I guess I like the voice. I like the unexpected turns it takes. I think that is what Damien was talking about yesterday, that idea that the twists make it alive. I guess it is kind of like a wombat or Tallulah’s view of that wombat we saw. It was dead to her until it moved and I think that is it. It is when it moves that you know it lives. This story really moves for me — it matters. It is sad and there is no victory in it, no celebration, she is celebrating but there is no celebration in it. It is kind of like George Saunders in the way it throws sand in the face of free will. All those stupid questions people say like why doesn’t she stay longer, or why doesn’t she stop drinking, or why doesn’t she just buckle down. It’s a reply to that and a very clever reply in that. Yeah, I think that’s what this is: a reply.
The Sound Gun Matthew Derby
This is science fiction. I just wrote science ‘fiston’ and maybe that’s what is so cool about it.
Science fiction is pretty cool but I can never stand the way it’s written. Like A Scanner Darkly — quite possibly the greatest title in living memory and a massive idea for a story, a fantastic way to talk about drugs, but man, he chooses to write it in third person?!! In that big authorial tone. What about China Mieville — now there’s some cool science fiction. I loved The Dispossessed as well but was laughing out loud at parts because it was so full of itself, so divorced from normal speech which is odd because The Dispossessed is one of the most humane things I’ve read. One of the most touching and beautiful things I’ve read. I still tell Tallulah that this is ‘the pen I’m using’, not ‘my pen.’
Then we have this. This is like science fiction but it is about the un–heroic (nothing new), it is about feelings (nothing new), it is about psychology (nothing new), it’s a comment on current situations (still nothing new) — so what is so fucking new about it? Why does it move so nicely? I think it’s the language. I think it’s the details he chooses to talk about the donkey, the shaving gel, the Wish Journal — this isn’t new but I love the management of the war and the soldiers like the Wish Journal and the whole way he tries to maintain control when the whole thing is a cluster–fuck. That military stuff where things are falling to pieces but no one’s trained to think or adapt, they’re trained to stay on task and that’s what this is. The sound gun is like a metaphor for the carrying on, the moving forward even though it is almost impossible to move the fucking thing. But yeah, I think it’s the language and the concentration on the mundane; the little bits and pieces. It’s like that Jane Espenson column on how to deal with technical things you don’t know about that no one can know about — it’s all about the short-hand, the fact that the characters are familiar with the technology (or not) but we don’t have to be. I love this story. I can’t quite articulate why, but I fucking love it.
Short Talks Anne Carson
I couldn’t even finish this one. I feel a bit ashamed, I just felt so dumb and I couldn’t bother beating myself any more with it. It seemed so — I don’t know, it was telling something by telling something else but it was like CELLARDOOR! Everything was so imbued with something huge. Now I can handle this in Smog, Bill Callahan can do it — the single image. The — what’s it called — like the well lid flapping, the shouting down the well, the bottle thrown into the wood. But yeah, I have no idea why that works for me but this doesn’t. Maybe it’s because it has guitars. That night we saw him and Joanna Newsom was cool. He had stripped everything back so there was no orchestration whatsoever and it was like a poetry reading and he was ‘one word says a million’ and she was ‘a million words says one’ and both were very cool.
I’m going to take a minute to write about what Dora Malech said yesterday because I thought it was pretty amazing. First I was awed by her understanding of who she was as a writer and her willingness to share that. It was like she was standing on firm bedrock and I can’t help thinking what an amazing place that must be to take criticism from. Totally understanding what you’re doing and if someone says something you can say, ‘Is what they are saying going to help me do what I’m doing, or is it not?’ Anyway, the thing I thought was bloody useful for me was the idea of objective correlative, the idea that no matter what the emotion, even if it is unspeakable, there is a corresponding image that will explain it. I love that. She talked about ‘images that navigate the unspeakable space’. The other thing she talked about was the idea of your river having water in it. She also mentioned the idea that as a poet you have to have an element of the evangelist in you, that you knock on people’s doors and say, ‘Can I have some of your time to tell you about something that makes me joyful or alive.’ She said you don’t have to know yourself but you have to want to know yourself or know what you don’t know about yourself. You have to come to the page, be present on the page, bring your heart and soul and mind to it. She also talked about the value of an honest and bold impulse. Oh, and the political poems, the idea that she is confused about politics so her political poems are confused. She said she would rather see someone do something great badly than something mediocre well. She would rather see people fall on their face than walk on through.
I think this story also made me think about the stuff Damien was saying like about Faulkner, how he is deliberate in what he does. Nothing is showing off for the sake of showing off, it is there for a reason, it is there for its place. There is texture behind it. He talked about the problem of what is sufficient if nothing is happening. I liked how he talked about how every writer will have an insurmountable problem in a story and their job is to navigate it so that the reader forgets it’s there, or will ignore it. He talked about the environment around the prose, about the shape of the writing on the page: what constitutes a paragraph, where a sentence finishes. He talked about how he wouldn’t give as much attention to a page of prose as to a page of poetry and I agree.
Up The Old Goat Road Dawn Raffel
I ended up ordering Dawn Raffel’s anthology from Amazon. I have no idea why now. I liked the story but I can’t remember why — oh here we go, it is heaps like Lutz. It is kind of all cliché and like ‘slipping through your fingers’ prose. Is it poetry? It reads a lot like some of Dora’s poetry; it’s kind of a lot like language poetry. Holy shit — do I want to be a poet? Oh, God please no. I’m a dreadful poet — but I do like short prose teehee. Like those Dave Eggers ones I carried around for ages. Unfortunately, I kind of think short prose has a bit too much riding on it these days, like dum-dum-dum. Yeah, that whole punch line thing. Anyway, I am glad I ordered this book — it was cheap — it was an ex-library book, it had been taken out twice. Brent keeps hassling me that all the books I like can’t be bought here and that one of them was in a library for five years and only taken out twice.
Scarliotti and The Sinkhole Pagett Powell
I think this is just about my favourite story of the anthology. That’s a big say, but I really loved it. It was funny and it was mean and it was hmm, it wasn’t like oh poor Scarliotti but it was umm, I don’t know, hideous, in that hideous men way, the part where the liquor store clerk puts her hands in his pocket to get his money out and he’s pissed himself and it goes like this:
Suddenly, inexplicably, he was sad. He did not do sad. Sad was bullshit.
‘Don’t think I came,’ he said to the girl.
‘I didn’t come. That’s pee!’ He left the store with dignity and pushed Tomos with the beer strapped to the little luggage rack over the rear wheel to the trailer and did not look back at approaching traffic. Hit him again, for all he cared.
Yeah, I think it is the defiance, the defiance in the reality of pathetic-ness, I think the word is pathos but I think that is not the right word here. It is like when you’re humiliated but you hold onto your anger and your fluster and they better watch the hell out.
The Departed Martin Scorsese
Okay, just want to mention it because of the one scene at the end. This was an awesome film. There was a scene where there is a funeral and this guy and this woman have broken up and she is pregnant and she hates him and after the funeral he stands and waits for her and she walks past and all he says to her, and he says it so you almost can’t hear it, all he says is, ‘What about the baby?’ and it’s beautiful. The thing I really like about Scorsese and I know it isn’t him although it may be a decision he makes in the direction of it — the pace of it is that people die quickly and without warning. I mean, isn’t that how it happens in real life? Although I’m kind of interested in the long, drawn-out ‘aware’ death. Maybe I just like death? It reminds me of The Sopranos, the way they will kill anyone and without warning — I like that. That is how things are.
I had a dream last night I was going to be put to death for all the shitty things I’ve done in my life. It was hideous. I was going to have my head chopped off. I think it was because I watched that Jeffery Dahmer thing. Yeah, it must have been because Brent gave me the tip of Tallulah’s finger to hold while they chopped my head off. My father was there and making jokes to lighten the situation. Which was nice I guess. This morning Brent said ‘The guy that killed Jeffery Dahmer thought he was Jesus Christ,’ and I said ‘Oh, boy so he wasn’t even trying to kill Jeffrey Dahmer,’ and Brent said, ‘No, the guy thought he was Jesus.’ — English is messy.
I said to Brent last night wouldn’t it be dreadful if Tallulah became a serial killer and he said women don’t become serial killers and I thought maybe they just become better serial killers. Dahmer almost got away with it. Imagine stumbling on that. That vat with three torsos in it. The heads in the pots — jeepers.
I enjoyed reading Lawrence’s novel. It is so helpful reading everyone’s work. It opens my mind up. I wouldn’t usually read a novel about a woman who had just returned from England to hang out with her twenty-something friends but I enjoyed it a lot. I was particularly impressed with how good third person narrative can be. It gives so much room for expression. First person gets so stuck. I find I have my voice and vocabulary limited completely by the character I am telling the story from, but with close third there is room for the narratorial voice to have its way.
Lawrence is a beautiful writer. It is nice to read a writer. I have been reading writers who have been trying to hide all their seams for a long time. Or trying to say YOU ARE READING WRITING. I so enjoyed being taken on a trip. I enjoyed the story and the language around the story, it was good. I am a bit confused about it all still. Like, is there a narrator outside the character? What is happening when there is a line like ‘Melinda was proud of herself?’ Is that Melinda thinking she is proud of herself or is it that narrator sitting on her shoulder looking into her head and thinking, She is proud of herself. Yeah, I think that is it. So now I have my problem — what is this narrator? How much does the narrator know? Is it Melinda’s own personal Jesus? Or an angel? Or her soul? It is very tricky — when I do this it is tricky. It probably wouldn’t be tricky if I just read the book but I kind of feel like I need to be able to deconstruct it to repeat it. I have enjoyed writing my third person past tense piece. It has opened up a lot for me and I am quite keen to try some more.
I have been reading a lot of Elliot Weinberger lately, for the workshop and I am in awe a bit. Well, a lot. ‘What I Heard about Iraq’ moved me in a way that nothing about Iraq has until now. Somehow it didn’t make me angry, it made me sad. Which I think is why it affected me so much. Everything I hear about that war makes me mad as anything and this just made me sort of surrender to the hopelessness of it all. I think it was the honesty. I think it was the bare facts. It was good. I wish I could say my essay is going well. It is not. I am embarrassed to hand it in but in the same vein can’t fix it. I am leaving it at the moment in the hope that the essay fairies will come and fix it while I’m not looking.
We saw The Proposition last night. I liked it a lot. It is nice to see Australia like it probably really was. I was asking Brent this morning if that’s how The Piano was. We decided it probably wasn’t. It was rugged, but rugged in the bush. There is something different about ruggedness in the dry. They buried a dead man under stones. There is something about that. The policeman’s wife grew roses in the middle of a desert. That was cool. It was a bit like Unforgiven. Someone said that. It was a bit like that. I like Westerns. I feel sorry for whoever has to read this. Hello. Sorry this is so boring. I am sure it was more interesting when I had time to read. I read the start of The Sportswriter. That was cool. Wow, that’s helpful. It was a voice I could have read for a long time. I keep thinking about how first person narrative seems to have gone out of fashion with me a bit. I think that it can only say one thing which is something like: ‘I am wrong about myself. You are a better person and you will see all the ways I am wrong about myself.’ Hmm. Yeah, I feel that’s it basically. I think sometimes it can say ‘you are wrong about me,’ but not very often. I don’t think it can say ‘you are wrong about you.’ I will test this theory at some stage.
The Westerly Barbara Anderson
I couldn’t leave her alone any longer so I got a slim edition of fiction and this is the first story in that. Apart from a good note from the author which had some good insights into short fiction compared with the novel. This story was like George Saunders about ten years before George Saunders and it made me think he isn’t very clever. Or at least it made me think I am not very clever for being so bowled over by him like nothing like that had been written before. It has — it’s this. I liked it a lot. What I liked about it more than George Saunders is that I got to feel really sad in it and with George Saunders I get to feel indignant and righteous — like ‘How did this happen? How can this happen?’ and all that political outrage, but with this story I got to feel sad, good old human compassion (as in compassio — to suffer with, not empathy). I keep thinking of that Modest Mouse line ‘Everyone’s a building burning’ and Chekhov.
Speaking of which, we watched the second to last Sopranos last night. It is a feat of engineering. They have managed to make every moment for all those years work like a weight on the point they are balancing the last episodes on. It was like everything is primed and dowsed and it is just waiting for one person to act and the whole thing explodes or falls down or something. It felt like Chekhov in that way. The mechanics of the story and then one person acts and that action seems to come out of the blue but then in the aftermath you realise that was the only way they could have acted and everything is proving it true. Phil Leotardo acts, in the midst of a beautiful speech on the way things are done and it all comes down to heritage and ceremony and tradition and there is a line that goes something like ‘Five families and those midgets — The Sopranos.’ And again we’re reminded Tony isn’t even a big time criminal, he’s a small-fry and that all seemed fine and that all seemed okay but it isn’t okay at all to fuck up over and over again. And it’s like oh, what pushed Phil and then it all comes falling back to you: the faggot, the lack of dignity (‘they are making guys up there without blood’) and Phil is acting the way he should have years ago and it all comes down and Tony is alone in a tiny, dark room on an uncomfortable bed with an AK47 on his chest and Bobby is dead and Sil is dead and Christopher is dead and Adriana and his cousin and everyone is gone and most of them at his own hand and all he has is him and Paulie — an animal. And it felt like Chekhov to me in that way. Everyone set in motion but free to move. Move in ways that you didn’t expect but completely accept. And you get to feel sad. He’s seen Camilla for the last time — probably, AJ is gone, Bobby is gone and every decision he’s made is here with him. And you get to feel scared. And you get to wait a week and see what happens. And all day I’m thinking — Tony in the dark trying to sleep. Like when they killed Adriana and I spent the day thinking ‘Aid’s dead,’ like a family member.
The Wheelbarrow VS Pritchett
Okay, this was quite good but I didn’t like the last paragraph. Good grief, is there no pleasing me? I also wanted them to have sex. I really, really wanted them to have sex. Maybe that’s me. I loved his hypocrisy and I liked her crisis but it was kind of a bit of a lame one without the sex. God I just realised I only wanted them to have sex because it was such a great rendering of sexual tension and by them not having sex the story had this very cool anticlimax (excuse pun). It gave the story a very bizarre arc. Hmm, maybe I liked it more than I thought. It was nothing — what they shared. And it kind of didn’t alter them by much but it was like the reader was thinking, ‘That alters them to me but they haven’t altered.’ Hmm, I wonder if that is a tool I could use with the whole ‘everything in place’ dilemma. Could the reader see a change but not the character? Hmm, could an event change the reader’s perception of everything else the character has done, yet the character is not affected by it. Like the reader is screaming out, ‘You should be reacting.’ Hmm, not sure I could pull that off but it’s worth a bit of a think. God, I spend too much time thinking — my head gets way too full. I think this is why going on holiday is a good idea. I am never in the world or life — well, Tallulah is good for that. She demands it.
18 July 2007
Friend of My Youth Alice Munro
This story has kind of paralysed me again. There is nothing inside of me or without that could help me write anything as good as this. I think I could possibly write for another hundred years and still not write anything as good. I don’t even know what is so good about it. I can’t even pull it apart and say, ‘Oh — here’s the bit here.’
I think it is the stringing together of the story. The way that it unsettles me. I go this way with it and then it turns around kicks me in the shins and runs off somewhere else. It shows up my own moral anarchy. I think that’s what it is. It’s like being in a room full of people and they all say, ‘Slavery is bad’ and I say, ‘Oh yeah slavery — that’s bad,’ and then some of them start to say, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad’ and more of them start agreeing and I find myself agreeing that slavery isn’t that bad. And I realise I am fickle and stupid and all the things I hold dear about myself and what separates me from the animals is paper thin and I can put a finger through with no effort at all.
2 August 2007
I am having a hard time with titles. Brent was laughing out loud last night at some of my titles. The prison story is now called ‘Personal Prison’ which he thought was awful. I suspected it was awful but he kind of convinced me. He asked, ‘What else did you try?’ and I told him, ‘It’s Prison’, and he has been hassling me about it all night. He will be doing something else and all of a sudden he will start chuckling and say under his breath, ‘It’s Prison’, like it’s the title of a variety show on television. He’s right. The scary thing is if anyone was to be kind about a bad idea I had, it would be him, so these titles must be extremely bad. I just can’t do it. I have read a couple of articles about them and that was helpful but I get to my pieces and can’t work out anything to call them.
Sarah has set this great exercise for her reading programme where we have to name other people’s stories. It relieved me to know I can’t do any better job naming other people’s stories than my own. Brent tried to help me with those too. He said, ‘You don’t have to use words from the story to name them — you can make up new words if you want.’ I love Will Oldham — I was wondering if I could just steal all his titles for my stories — or lyrics from his stuff.
17 August 2007
Sarah’s reading programme workshop was incredibly helpful. She passed on some great emails she received from Jo Randerson and another author whose name eludes me. I think the really helpful thing Jo Randerson said was that the title could be the first line of the story. I liked what Damien said as well about titles being in the story or at least from the world of the story. I have often tried to write titles that sum up life, the universe and everything. Or rather explain why the story is important to life. I have taken all the titles off all my stories and when I do my mass proofread I will title them. I am going to stop writing two weeks before my workshop and just proofread. I agree totally with what Damien said about them needing to be perfect because they are all so short.
I started writing this journal as soon as I knew I got into the MA. I was terrified about not having time because of Tallulah. I am pretty sure I am not going to include the entries I made at the beginning of the course but I think it is interesting to look at some of them and see how much I have changed. I often think, in my cynical times, that this type of course is all about building taste. I always think of myself as loud and brash and trying very hard to get noticed and I think my writing was like that. I think my reading was like that. I have a new dream to be demure and intelligent and articulate — to only speak when spoken to — I am pretty sure I will fail with that but I am interested in the degree to which my taste for literature has changed. It has taken me quite by surprise. I am sure that my cynical side would say this is based on reward — if I find something enjoyable people will reward me in workshop. In many ways I think what has happened is I have gone back to a lot of things I liked and shunned. I think somewhere around my first couple of years at University — waaay back in 1991 — I think I realised it was not okay to be earnest or caring, and I think I toughened up. I think there was a degree of rage in my reading and this grew and kind of sharpened. It was a bit of a move against emotion, a toughening up. I think a lot of it was a rebellion against feminism and femininity and all that heart-bleeding. I ended up reading only men and only American men — except for Amy Hempel. I think above all else I applauded distance, disassociation. I also think I loved polemic. I hate so much of what is going on and I wanted to answer it all and the answers always seemed so easy and I wanted to rant and rant and rant about why couldn’t anyone see what I could see.
I think what has happened this year is that I have had a chance to see the grey. I think a lot of this is down to Alice Munro — the whole ‘everyone is everyone’ thing. I think it has largely been the opportunity to read different writing that has brought about this change. I think I would have carried on forever reading David Foster Wallace — which is fine — he’s still my favourite author — that hasn’t changed. I think I love Infinite Jestmore now than I did at the beginning of the year. I am going to put my shift down to exposure. I am not going to dwell on delusions of Pavlovian taste modification.
In the middle of December I read the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. I love this collection. The thing that is quite interesting is that the two stories I was lukewarm about from the collection are the ones I have kept thinking about all year. ‘Do Not Disturb’ by AM Homes is the story of a woman who gets cancer but it is really about her relationship with her husband or rather his with her. It is very understated and quite disturbing — the last scene is heart-breaking. ‘The Caretaker’ by Anthony Doerr was the other story, it’s about a man who comes to America from Liberia and becomes the caretaker of a huge home on the coast. It is a Goliath of a short story. It spans a lot of geography — physically and emotionally and it totally floored me. Everything I knew about myself told me that I shouldn’t like this story. I made a polite comment about it but I remember being really confused. I think I called it ‘plot-driven’ because things happened. I think I thought ‘things happening’ was a cop-out, a way of making something accessible to readers. Above all else I hated readers. I never wanted to make anything I wrote accessible because then stupid people might read my work and I hated stupid people. This is what I told myself, but in truth I think I was frightened. I was frightened of saying anything that might be traceable to me. I also think I was afraid of writing anything that would make me or anyone ‘feel’ because I thought feelings were stupid and writing was about ideas not about feelings. I am not sure how I have reconciled all this. I think I have decided that feelings help people come to ideas. Maybe, maybe I have just done what I have seen others around me rewarded for. Maybe I have written more of what my supervisor has liked. Maybe I am that shallow and am destined to produce crappy writing that is only trying to please other people. I think all this goes to show that I am the stupidest one out of everyone.
The funny thing is that I let myself off the hook for liking The Caretaker. Dave Eggers published What is the What? this year and I think somewhere in my stupid mind I thought, ‘Oh refugees are cool — that’ll be why I liked that story.’ I am that shallow.
When I look back at my comments around this time I was resistant to anything that I called ‘personal’ or ‘confessional’ it seems ironic now. I hated most of the stories written by women, except the ones that were tough and rough and masculine. How times have changed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pip Adam is a Wellington writer. In 2007 she completed an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters. She writes short fiction.