October 24, 2011
I expected Julian Barnes’ new novel to be stunning. Not because it recently won the 2011 Man Booker Prize (the odds-on favorite) but because of the subject of memory and remorse captured in a small page count (163 pages). No over-written narrative that spans a character’s life legacy here. The Sense of an Ending promised instead an emotional snapshot of potent human elements. What I didn’t realize was how strongly The Sense of an Ending would drive home a truth we casually brush aside — as we grow older, our memories become not only approximate but also deformed by time into certainty.
That’s what the novel’s ordinary and “peaceable” narrator Tony Webster discovers in his 60s. He lets us know from the outset that his “approximate memories” are at the heart of this unforgettable story that he begins in Part One with his pretentious high school days in 1960′s central London. His chums are Alex, Colin and Adrian, who go their separate ways after graduation to universities and a father’s business. Once, they come together again in London to meet Tony’s girlfriend, Veronica. It’s pretty clear Tony and the difficult Veronica aren’t marriage material – Tony informs us that she’s not only difficult but manipulative and, after a home visit to meet her parents, likely “damaged.” They break up, and Veronica falls into the romantic arms of Adrian. Tony writes the two off, graduates from college and travels for six months in the United States. When he returns, he learns Adrian committed suicide.
In Part Two, 40 years have passed. Barnes effortlessly leaps us forward through Tony’s marriage, parenting, divorce and retirement, keeping us focused not as much on the events as on “the compromise and littleness that most lives consist of.” Also, Barnes keeps us deeply involved and as baffled as Tony by the turn of events, especially when he inherits 500 pounds and Adrian’s diary from Veronica’s mother. Veronica and Tony haven’t seen each other for all these 40 years.
Veronica is in possession of the diary and won’t give it up. The former college lovers enter a battle of wills via email and uncomfortable, brief meetings. When Tony asks “why me?” about the inherited money, he receives a terse, perplexing reply in his inbox: “blood money.” That’s a small glimpse of the monstrous resentment the difficult Veronica presents to Tony. Her refrain of “you don’t get it” to his insufficient responses illuminates how he failed – and continues to fail – to see the depth of the story between her and Adrian. But Tony’s lack of awareness comes across as an uncomplicated man just trying to connect again. His combined innocence and ignorance intensifies the mystery.
Throughout the slim novel, Barnes elegantly walks the fine lines of what was and is between Tony and Veronica, unfolding the story as Tony first knew it in his memory versus what, as an omniscient narrator, he knows now. An easy example to give is a school event, observing the Severn Bor: In Part One, Tony attends the natural event with university friends, but in Part Two, the 60-year-old Tony realizes Veronica was there also. And so this award-winning novel, short enough and compelling enough to read in one sitting, leaves us not only with a good book to recommend but additionally some disquieting messages that Barnes communicates through his humbled narrator: “What you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed” and “the reward of merit is not life’s business.”
October 16, 2011
I haven’t given Moby-Dick its due in my reading life, not like Matt Kish, who’s read the classic close to 10 times. Now he’s illustrated the whaler’s story using the Signet Classic paperback edition with the Claus Hoie painting “Pursuit of the Great White Whale” on the front. In the Foreword to his new book, Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page, Kish writes, “So many editions of the novel have boring historical illustrations on the cover; this one really appealed to me for its fearless modernism.” But the Signet Classic also conveniently fit Kish’s project by beginning the story, with its famous opening line “Call me Ishmael,” on page one – Kish intended to create one illustration for every page of the book.
Working like a modern-day obsessed Ahab, he also set a goal to create those illustrations for the book’s 552 pages one per day, forcing himself to work creatively but efficiently. He ended up completing the project in 543 days.
I heard Kish speak at the official book launch held at the Wexner Center for the Arts where he remarked that as he got further and further into the project, he struggled with the relentless schedule that at times became depressing and bleak. It didn’t help that his creative space was the size of a closet – because it was a closet, approximately three feet wide and six feet deep. Much of Kish’s story about his days illustrating Moby-Dick in Pictures can be read in his book’s Foreword and also on Kish’s blog, which began the day he started the project, August 5, 2009.
The pace sounds like torture, but to hear Kish speak about the project with his energized joy is to hear the truth about what it’s like to set your mind on a project without any ultimate value attached to it other than personal achievement. No one urged him to start this rigorous creative project except himself, and he kept to it, day after day, while holding a full-time job that involved a 90-minute commute one way. That is, three hours in a car every day to get to and from work. Kish, having no formal art education, does not consider himself an artist. “Since I have never had to depend on art for an income, I have always been able to make whatever kind of art I want. The work is for me,” he writes in the Foreword.
A publisher eventually came knocking, but that was neither envisioned nor expected. And when that happened, Kish said he “weirded out” over the idea that someone now wanted to put his illustrations into a published book for retail. Thoughts of “Will the book sell? Will people like it?” troubled him but not for long. Kish said he knew the illustrations were about Moby-Dick, not him, and that’s what kept him going, focusing on his personal and immediate responses to Melville’s story, guided by his intuitive and instinctive reactions.
The illustrations are created with an assortment of acrylic paint, colored pencil, ink, marker, spray paint, watercolor and other materials. And because they are created on found paper, intriguing images and words often are visible in the background of the drawings, such as a description of sleeve finishes for a sewing project, numbers on a tube placement chart and instructions on how to prune roses.
Moby-Dick in Pictures is a beautiful book. The natural response upon picking it up is to flip through the colorful illustrations, and then to casually read Melville’s quoted words next to them. But true engagement comes from starting as Kish did, on page one, so you can see how Melville’s story evolves under Kish’s creative eye. Also, that approach inspires a desire to read Melville’s classic again, or for the first time. Because as Kish writes, “…Moby-Dick is a book about everything. God. Love. Hate. Identity. Race. Sex. Humor. Obsession. History. Work. Capitalism. I could go on and on. I see every aspect of life reflected in the bizarre mosaic of this book.”
Illustrations posted here are photos I took from my copy of Kish’s new book. You can see more illustrations from Moby-Dick in Pictures on the websites of The Huffington Post and The Atlantic. Finally, the Signet Classic paperback of Moby-Dick includes an introduction by Elizabeth Renker, who teaches English at The Ohio State University.
October 9, 2011
I didn’t ever see the movies Stir Crazy (1980) and Splash (1984). Both popular flicks were “penned,” as the industry likes to say, by Bruce Jay Friedman, whose delightful memoir is out this month. Considering I’m also unfamiliar with Friedman’s nine novels, let alone his six collections of short fiction, it’s a wonder I pushed aside my organized reading plan and put Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir first in line.
But then, I like what’s coming out of Biblioasis, the book’s publisher. They caught my attention a while back with Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting, a collection of short stories that drove me to act similarly — I began reading MacLeod’s collection within moments after receiving it in my mailbox. Also, likely influencing my decision of what to read next, I desperately wanted a book on the lighter side. Friedman’s take on his life clearly fit that need with his humorous, self-effacing, name-dropping, candid storytelling. I dove into his memoir eagerly and was rewarded sumptuously on every page.
Friedman is a long-time successful writer, screenwriter and playwright whose heyday occurred during the second half of the 20th century. His memoir flourishes on the insider wit about the famous friends met along the way, as well as his hilarious sometimes jaw-dropping experiences in the world of Hollywood screenwriting and New York City literati.
There are so many entertaining riches in this book it’s impossible to cast a far enough net to capture them, from encounters with actresses Natalie Wood and Marlene Dietrich to competitive storytelling with playwright Harold Pinter. And then there’s the time Friedman engaged in a public fist fight with Norman Mailer. One of my favorite anecdotes involves Richard Yates, author of Revolutionary Road. He just appeared one day at the Magazine Management Company, an organization that published men’s adventure magazines where Friedman worked for many years. Friedman writes:
“He sat down behind an empty desk as if he worked on the magazines and hung around for weeks. It was difficult to know what to do with him. He was a disheveled-looking man with a handsomely ruined face and the hangdog demeanor of a sheepdog who had wandered in off the street. I knew of his quality. I had read Revolutionary Road and the word-perfect Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. But there was no job available at the time; nor did he ask for one. He just wanted to sit there, as if we were operating a shelter of some kind. He rarely spoke.”
And here’s some more of those riches. Friedman hired Mario Puzo as a writer at Magazine Management, and one day Puzo asked Friedman’s opinion of the title The Godfather for his novel-in-progress. Friedman went negative on it and said, “I’d take another try at it.”
Before his career as a magazine writer and editor, Friedman studied journalism at the University of Missouri and then served in an administrative position in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. His first book Stern was published in 1962, while he worked at the Magazine Management Co. Shortly after, he left his corporate job to write full-time as an independent, which took him down the varioius paths of writing books as well as for the stage and screen. His agent, Candida Donadio, also represented literary greats Joseph Heller, Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon.
Now this talented raconteur can add Lucky Bruce to his pile of lifetime successes. Dedicated to authors Mario Puzo and Joseph Heller, it’s one of those memoirs that’s a large, refreshing pleasure, and worth pushing aside everything else to read it.