Why The Writing Works in Kevin Brockmeier’s “The Brief History of the Dead”

The Brief History of the dead

In his novel The Brief History of the Dead, Brockmeier constructs parallel worlds–one of the living and one of the dead, and both are just as real. Brockmeier’s use of concrete detail anchors the parallel reality firmly in the reader’s mind as an actual place–an anchoring that begins in the first chapter as the blind man, “Jim Singer, who managed the sandwich shop in the monument district,” and ‘the girl who liked to stand beneath the poplar tree in the park,” (3)  all describe their crossing from one world to the next. While the crossing experiences were different, they all had in common “that sound that everybody heard, the pulsing of a giant heart.” (4).

“Luka Sims had found an old mimeograph machine his very first week in the city and decided to use ti to produce a newspaper” (5)–a detail mimicked in the real world. As the population grows, so does this city of the dead–“Carson McCaughrean, who drove one of the sleek black taxis that roamed the streets, had to re-draw his maps once a week” (6). If one of the recently arrived dead believes he or she has arrived in heaven, it doesn’t take long for them to realize how wrong they are because “[w]hat kind of heaven had the blasting sound of garbage trucks in the morning, and chewing gum on the pavement, and the smell of fish rotting by the river?” (7). But, this isn’t hell either, for “[w]hat kind of hell, for that matter, had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days that made the hairs on the back of your neck rise on end?”(7) The detail in these descriptions–a newspaper, which is something to hold and read, sounds, color, and smells–using all the senses, is what enables the reader to accept the reality of the city of the dead.

By using the first chapter full of intimate details, Brockmeier anchors the reader into this parallel universe; the reader is able to accept this alternate reality as a viable one, a belief that makes the rest of the novel work.

This parallel world exists because there is someone on earth that still remembers those who have died. Once no memory exists on earth of the dead, the citizens of the dead city move on to an unknown place. When events on earth begin to drastically alter the city of the dead, the two worlds begin to braid together, and are inseparable by novel’s end. The ending works because the reader accepts the reality of both worlds in the novel; the world of the familiar and the world of the dead, made familiar through the use of concrete and intimate detail that pulls on all the senses.

Brockmeier, Kevin. A Brief History of the Dead. New York: Pantheon Books. 2006. Print.

McCarthy’s Comic Foil: Humor in Suttree

By Matthew McEver

With the upcoming release of a film scripted by Cormac McCarthy as well as the film adaptation of Child of God on the horizon, I’d like to offer another McCarthy work as an example of how to fold humor into an otherwise harrowing story. Suttree (1979) is “a doomed Huck Finn,” as the New York Times put it. Having rejected modernity and American middle class-values, the protagonist becomes a fisherman on the Tennessee River in 1950s Knoxville.

Thematically, Suttree is a meditation on mortality. Death flows constant and relentless in this story as the Tennessee River. The novel even opens with (I suppose I should warn you that spoilers are coming) a suicide and, roughly one-third into the novel, the protagonist’s child dies and, later, a lover dies as well.

Why would someone want to read this novel? And how is it that Suttree is largely regarded as McCarthy’s most humorous novel? How does he pull it off?

McCarthy tends to bracket the novel’s most harrowing scenes with humorous episodes, extensive comic narratives largely involving the character Gene Harrogate. Harrogate’s entrance into the novel is by way of a scene in which he is arrested for trespassing on a man’s melon patch and having intimate relations with watermelons. Soon after, under incarceration, he intoxicates himself by chugging hard cider made from half-rotten oranges. From then on, any time we see the name “Harrogate” on the page, we automatically laugh.

To look more closely a how the author uses Harrogate in order to balance the experience for the reader, consider Wanda’s senseless death by landslide. Wanda’s death is preceded by narratives in which Harrogate, determined to survive in Knoxville, constructs a boat from car hoods and aims to enrich himself by trading dead bats for cash. Following the tragedy, we read of Harrogate ’s plan to dig into an abandoned bank vault beneath the city as well as his scheme to rob pay telephones. 

The bracketing scenes involving Harrogate, within the larger scope of the novel, function as comedic counterpunches—counterpunches to the novel’s more somber themes, woven into the novel in order to prevent the novel’s tone from descending into pure gloom. In other words, Harrogate is one of the reasons we keep reading this novel. (Another reason is McCarthy’s lyricism, which is a matter of discussion for another day).

People who study the use of humor call this technique Relief Theory. It is when moments of humor function as a “pressure valve,” providing small moments of relief in what would otherwise be a bleak and unremitting story for a reader. Be warned, however, that deliberate attempts at humor within a certain kind of story can backfire, inciting not laughter but pushback from the reader. My recommendation is to study someone who has a knack for it, like McCarthy, and Suttree is a great work with which to begin.

McCarthy, Cormac. Suttree. New York: Vintage Books, 1979. Print. 

MFA application time-must read post by Leslie Pietrzyk

Must read post by my fantastic mentor Leslie Pietrzyk:

Leslie writes:

An Inside View on What’s So Great About the Converse Low-Res MFA (apps due 10/1!)

 
What are you waiting for?  The deadline to apply for the Converse low-residency MFA program is fast approaching…October 1 to join us in January.  Fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction…we have amazing teachers in every genre, and our director, poet Rick Mulkey, is the hardest-working man in the MFA business.
read the rest of her post here.
All the posters on this blog are graduates of/students in Converse’s program.

Breaking Down How Fiction Works

James Wood’s How Fiction Works is a craft book with many valuable pieces of advice, but it seems to me that it is more valuable in the later stages of revision. Though there are no exercises contained within, many of the points that Wood brings up do require an intense familiarity with the work being analyzed. Two of the topics I found to be most useful in How Fiction Works were those of free indirect style and the use of different registers. Free indirect style interests me because much of my writing is written in third person, yet the narrator often takes on the aspects and emotions of the main character. The discussion of changing registers was useful to me because I try to work humor into all of my writing, and this is a technique I’ve used in the past but have never put much thought into how exactly it works. Wood’s treatment of these topics was useful in expanding my knowledge of the mechanics of fiction as well as making me think a little bit more carefully about how I set out to achieve my goals in my own writing.

My natural writing style is close to that of the free indirect style. I’ve never put much thought into why I write this way; it just seems to happen. By breaking down the distinctions between direct speech (quoted speech with authorial tags), indirect speech (reported speech with tags), and free indirect speech (no tags) Wood shows what each style accomplishes.  Direct speech and indirect speech are more useful with a narrator who is distanced from the characters, while free indirect speech gives the writer more leeway to show a character’s emotions in a subtle way. I particularly enjoyed Wood’s example early on: “Ted watched the orchestra through stupid tears,” (10). Wood then spends the next few pages breaking down what exactly it means to have the word stupid in that sentence. The use of free indirect speech allows the writer to infuse that line with the character’s feelings in a way that is almost invisible to the reader. The same effect could be accomplished with direct or indirect speech, but it is more cumbersome and evident to the reader (as Wood demonstrates later on page 10). This discussion of the utility and limits of free indirect style was useful to me because it made me analyze how I use free indirect style in my writing. Not surprisingly, I write in this style to minimize the distance between author and character. There are, of course, times when free indirect style is inappropriate for the story being told. If the writer wanted to create a noticeable difference between the narrator and characters (making the narrator his own character, for instance) free indirect style wouldn’t be the best choice. But in many of my stories the narration feels like it fits best when it can reveal some of the character’s deeper feelings, yet is not in first person. How Fiction Works was useful to me in helping me understand how I achieve such a narration.

I try to put quite a bit of comedy into all my stories. I’ll be the first to admit that it works sometimes, and not others. Wood talks about the use of different registers as one way to distinguish one’s prose (and even add a bit of humor). This is a technique I haven’t used often, but Wood does a good job of explaining it with examples. The two specific ways of using a change in register that Wood mentions, juxtaposing an eloquent diction with a simple character (or vice-versa) or quickly changing register within a single passage, are both illustrated well, and it is clear how they could be used to add humor without distracting from the story being told. I’ve tried to maintain an elevated diction for the narrator and a more crass way of speaking with the characters in some of my stories, and I like to think it has worked in making the story funnier. However, the writer needs to exercise caution when playing with language in this way, as shifting registers too often can become distracting to the reader.

How Fiction Works is filled with insightful advice about many topics in fiction, both large and small in scope. The discussion of free indirect style is helpful in breaking down the distance between narrator and character, and the points on changing registers, while somewhat minor in comparison to free indirect style, are useful for any writer trying to expand their arsenal of humorous devices in fiction.

Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

On Googling Flarf

So I was trying to figure out what to write about in today’s blog because I left the chapbook I had planned on writing about at home. Out came my trusty phone and my Poem-A-Day app. Lots of really cool, really interesting poems. One by Dorothea Lasky called “Why poetry Can Be Hard For Most People” about speaking with the dead, one by Major Jackson called “On Disappearing” about being so close to death all the time, and one by Jordan Davis called “How to Be A Lawyer” about a small moment between a father and son.

And then I looked up Jordan Davis on Poets.org and read the poems they had listed there on the right with titles like “A Boat,” “Amber Alert,” and “Toothpaste Kids Sunburn.” I was about to go back to Google, I wasn’t quite ready to write yet and wanted some more background information, when my eyes flicked on the word “flarf.” I stopped. “A Brief Guide to Flarf Poetry” by Gary Sullivan was under the Further Reading heading. I thought, what the what is flarf? So I clicked on the link and read about the origins of flarf.

It started as a joke. How far would the poetry contest scams (you know the ones – they accept a poem and print it in a book you can purchase for a mere X number of dollars, we chose your poem out of X hundreds of thousands of poems, etc) be willing to go? Sullivan wrote “what [he] thought would be the most offensive poem [he] could manage.” He submitted it, and it was accepted for publication. If he so chose, he could purchase the “coffee-table quality book.” This started a series of poems by Sullivan and some of his fellow poets which they eventually dubbed flarf, and Sullivan defines in part as follows: “The work of a community of poets dedicated to exploration of ‘flarfiness'” and “To be wrong, awkward, stumbling, semi-coherent, fucked-up, un-P.C. To take unexpected turn; to be jarring. Doing what one is ‘not supposed to do.'”

I was, naturally, immediately smitten with flarf poetry and flarfiness in general, so I Googled it and got a blog with a gigantic picture of a unicorn complete with rainbow background with many flarf poems underneath including one titled “Why Flarf Is Better Than Conceptualism” that contains the lines “Flarf is a tricked-out unicorn that rides another tricked-out unicorn into eternity.” Yup.

So apparently, Jordan Davis (remember? “How to Be a Lawyer”?) was a part of Sullivan’s group at one point, and that is how he is connected to the seriously tricked-out unicorn posing next to a beautiful little stream and surrounded by forest animals and birds like Snow White. And “How to Be a Lawyer” is a wonderful little poem that is about a dad showing his son how to make music by blowing on a beer bottle, Schlitz to be exact, and then he asks his son, “‘Do you want to learn something else? Here’s how to be a lawyer. / Raise one eyebrow.’ I did so. ‘Good. Now hold it for a few seconds, / turn toward the jury, and say “I see.”‘” 

I love this moment, all by itself. The speaker and father are fully fleshed out and real. This poem is a prose poem, and it is definitely not flarf, although I suppose it could have started out that way. Perhaps Davis Googled “beer” with “jury” and came up with some pages that reminded him of a specific moment in his past. Perhaps he wrote a long flarfy poem about jury selection follies and then boiled it down to this. I don’t know. I do know this poem works.

My point? There are many arguments about whether or not flarf is real poetry. There are many arguments about whether or not prose poetry is real poetry. And isn’t that part of what makes this writing thing so much fun? I think so. Now, I’m off to do more of what I’m not supposed to do.

Davis, Jordan. “How to Be A Lawyer.” Poem-A-Day from the Academy of American Poets. 30 Aug. 2013 Web. 12 Sept. 2013.

Sullivan, Gary. “A Brief Guide to Flarf Poetry.” Poets.org from the Academy of American Poets. 2003 Web. 12 Sept. 2013.

“Why Flarf Is Better Than Conceptualism.” Flarf. 19 April 2010. Web. 12 Sept. 2013.

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Posts in regards to:
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When the Manic Muses Show Up

One Writer’s struggle with Writer’s Block

When the Novel You Delete Isn’t Yours: Oops

Do stories have expiration dates?

How to Plot A Novel

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Lego Librarians

Clued into Lego Librarians at Book Riot

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Creating a Pen Name

A Killer Diet

By Yolande Clark-Jackson

After reading Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, I felt as though someone had written my story and changed all the names and places.  It is memoir that anyone who has severe food allergies can relate to, but anyone who has ever had a handicap, big or small, will find common ground.  Sandra Beasley, the author of the memoir, takes her reader through the near death experiences she averts as she navigates a life around what might have killed her.  This includes her own birthday cake. Her guests could enjoy it, but they couldn’t even touch young Beasley after they ate it.

Beasley strikes the right balance in this book by revealing the thoughts and feelings she has about her life with allergies without sounding like she is complaining. In a book like this one, tone is key.  She reveals how it feels to basically live in fear while strangers perceive her as being picky.  She also reveals her need to be like everyone else, so she often tried to hide or play down the seriousness of her reactions.   It is hard not to feel sorry for her, however, when you read how seemingly limited her menu is and how her allergies have impacted her relationships and experiences. But Beasley doesn’t want you feel sorry about the fact that she can never carry a purse that won’t accommodate a bottle of Benadryl.  She wants you to laugh.  Yet, she also wants you to know how serious food allergies can be.  She wants you to consider how even taking communion could cost some people their life. The book is well-researched, so she  includes what some churches are doing, or not doing, to address the problem.

“There is little the Church can do except recommend that the person make a “spiritual communion,” says the FAQ answer issued by the USCCB’s Commitee on Divine Worship. “Why? Because the Church believes that it is impossible to consecrate anything except with wheat bread and grape wine” (51).

In her chapter titled, “What Doctors Think,” she includes the current protocol for dealing with food allergies as well as the research behind them. She also includes the names of organizations created to support people with severe food allergies.   Currently, there are thirteen million children who suffer from food allergies. Some of these children will outgrow them, but Beasley wasn’t so lucky. And she is not alone.  The state of Florida just passed a law that requires all public and private schools in Florida to have an EpiPen (a shot of epinephrine)  available for students in order to prevent death from an allergic reaction.

This  book acts as guidebook for allergy sufferers and their family and friends, It works because the the tone is right, her allergy adventure stories are entertaining, and the facts are startling. It is a book worth reading, whether you have allergies or not.

 

Beasley, Sandra. Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.

The Perfectly Timed Lie: The Lie That Tells a Truth

 by Rhonda Browning White

 John Dufresne’s The Lie That Tells a Truth is broken into three separate sections; “The Process” (3-115), which addresses writing habits and the writer’s life; “The Product” (119-264), a section tackling writing craft issues such as plotting, characterization, point of view and dialogue; and “Other Matters” (267-298), which discusses the importance of critical reading and also gives dozens of grammar, style and word-use tips for writers. In addition (and this is perhaps one of the things that endears this text to me), there are at least a hundred writing exercises and prompts that apply to each specific topic Dufresne discusses. The text is also sprinkled liberally with encouraging, sometimes humorous, quotations from well-known writers.

The chapter “Getting Her Up the Tree, Getting Her Down” (120-131), addresses story beginnings and endings. Story endings are a terrible sticking point for many writers. Dufresne provides a story example in this chapter in which the surprise ending of the example would best make a story beginning, which underscores that it’s important to write freely until we reach the crux of the story, then delete all that came before. Dufresne asserts that, “Endings shouldn’t be loose, shouldn’t drift or dissolve. They have to make a statement. They can be dramatic, but more often are muted, subtle” (125). This tells us that the ending of a resounding literary piece can’t simply go with the flow of what came before it; instead, the end must be evident in the beginning of the story, without repeating what has already happened. Tricky things, these endings. Dufresne also suggests ending a story with “a compelling visual image of the central character, one that is so resonant and compelling that it stays with us when we close the book” (126). I love that idea, don’t you?

The writing exercises and prompts you’ll find throughout this text are inspiring. Utilizing these writing-problem-specific exercises will do more than simply help you fill a page with words; they will help tackle specific areas where your writing needs improvement. This book supportively and helpfully addresses so many writing problems—both craft and style issues—in one place. One inspiring, liberating place. My copy of this text is tabbed, dog-eared, underlined and annotated. It has earned an important spot on my desk, within reach. For me, it is the right guide to writing fiction at exactly the right time. I hope you’ll find it perfectly timed for your writing, as well.

Work Cited

Dufresne, John. The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Print.