April 15th, 2010

modern lit

Peter Straub's A Dark Matter

So I read Peter Straub's A Dark Matter awhile back, and I was delighted to find that it's the book The Secret History should have been.

It's a testament against the old "there are no new stories" rag, and shows why that's an irrelevant thing to say. There are an infinite number of ways to tell any story. ADM is exactly the same story as The Secret History: a bunch of entitled college students fall under the spell of a charismatic teacher, have a demonic ritual in the woods that unexpectedly works, and accidentally kill somebody. The story is told from the point of view of the outsider of the group, the one who never quite belonged.

Exact same story. Totally different book.

The difference is that what happened at the ritual in The Secret History is annoyingly summed up third hand in about two and a half pages, when it's about the only interesting thing these characters ever do, where as in A Dark Matter, it's, well, the whole matter. I may be showing my genre colors here, but it's nice to get to the meat of it rather than having to dick around with unpleasant people for 500 pages because that's Real Literature and foul rituals aren't.

I feel like saying "Ma, that Peter Straub can really put a sentence together" is stating the obvious, since he's pretty famous for it. But damn, it was so pleasant sinking into a book that was elegant and interesting from the first page, presenting a voice I found compelling--and dude, this thing takes place largely in flashbacks to the 60s, and you know how I hate books about the 60s, so that should tell you how smooth and lovely the prose was. I read a lot of debut novels, because most of my friends are young novelists of some stripe, and while debut novels are often fresh and awesome and daring, they often haven't gotten it All Figured Out yet, hence the daring, but also a certain amount of by-definition rough at the edges. It was really nice to sit back and watch a master do his work.

There's certainly comparisons to be made to IT--the lone girl in the group is the focus of everyone's obsession, there's a nascent serial killer killed before he could really bloom, and What Happened That Summer is a classic for a reason. But A Dark Matter is essentially a character study, and not the postmodern wildebeest that IT is. DM is and oddly kind and elegaic book, and it also largely takes place in Madison, where Wiscon occurs, and therefore the source of a lot of delight at recognizing locales.

If I had one criticism it would be that in the end, I wanted more of the ritual, more understanding of the strange things they saw. It's still a Dark Matter at the end, we still don't really understand what it was they did (unlike The Secret History where we're bluntly told exactly what they did, with no details as to how they did it or what it was like. God, that book upsets me) or what reality they were glimpsing. But I do understand that this is part of my kink as a writer. I think of it in terms of Kelly Link's story The Faery Handbag, which ends with a character entering the world contained within the handbag. But for me, stories always start in the handbag, because that's my obsession--the handbag, the underworld, the other place, not the world outside it. Not everyone has to have my obsessions.

It's a book that makes me sigh because there should be more like it. I love horror--and I do think this counts as horror, the intrusion fantasy type. I want more of it. Not splatterpunk, but elegant, gorgeous dark books full of fright and touches of the numinous. I remember, when I was a kid and I barely read anything else, horror novels being like that. The Red Tree was like that. I want to write books like that.

In the end, A Dark Matter isn't quite a book that will stick in my soul. Contrary to popular belief, I don't require everything I read to crack open my whole being and fill it with molten awesome to give it a good review. It was a solid, lovely book, genuine and eerie and it was a completely wonderful two days I spent reading it. I think about it, weeks later. It says something that so few books I've read lately have even shown me a good time for two days. (Some exceptions.) But it didn't make me want to choke anyone or give up writing forever. These days that's saying a lot, and it's really all I ask.
urban anchorite

Heh. Bone a Duck.

So the other night I watched Julie/Julia, because I love food and cooking and blogging and it was on Instant and I'm still working on this shawl for my mother.

It's a marginally ok film. I mean, it drives me nuts when films try to talk about writing because it all seems too easy and perfect and worst of all inevitable. Not to mention her husband is horrible in the movie and calls her selfish for no visible reason, except that she cooks awesome things all the time and worries about her life and talks about her projects a lot. If that's selfish I am Beezlebub. Also: blogger. Duh. Does what it says on the tin, jerkface.

Not enough food porn by a long shot, though I liked the bits with Actual Julia Child, as the travails of hipster bloggers who feel it's a tragedy to live in Queens are not really My Bag. And the other night, when we were all sitting about discussing how to live life so as to not want to die all the time, with a dominant metaphor of skinny Buddhas (who focus solely on work in an ascetic and disciplined way) vs. fat Buddhas (people who might not do so well in their professional lives but have very full souls, with hobbies and food and video games and friends and such) which is bad Buddhism but good shorthand, I said "DIMA OBVIOUSLY YOU MUST COOK EVERY RECIPE IN JULIA CHILD'S COOKBOOK AND THEN YOUR LIFE WILL BE FINE."

Dima takes everyone at their word. It is one of his most charming traits. So he said "REALLY? Do we have it?" and I said sure, we have volume II, anyway, and cracked it open.

And I started frowning. And I got why, in the film and in real life, Julia Child didn't think much of Julie's little project.

First of all, it shocked me that in the film (ok, I haven't and won't read the book) there was no discussion of what seemed to me the most onerous of the skills to be learned in Child's repetoire: pastry. Dude, that shit is time consuming. Hundreds of layers of butter and dough. I love to cook and I draw the line at fresh pastry. But the movie's all: OMG I HAVE TO BONE A DUCK. Whatever, duck's dead, it's meat. It's gross, but it's not this GIANT SKILL like making pastry is. It also takes like 1/100 of the time.

But as I contemplated for a moment cooking out of Child's book for a set time, just to try it out, I got very cranky. Because I am a cook and I love it and I am an experimenter. I never saw a recipe I couldn't mess with. But I don't like parsley, I will use cilantro, which Child hated, I would certainly say, and the minute I see a recipe for seafood soup I immediately start changing it around and adding my exotic ingredients that I have around the house and in the end it would only use Child's recipe for a base. I think that's why Child sniffed at the experiment--chaining yourself to a recipe and never innovating is not an art, it's paint by numbers, and kind of boring. It's tying yourself to someone else's passion and work and doing very little of your own, and that kind of sucks. I'm glad it helped that blogger and made her a bazillion dollars (though seriously when I go look at the blog now its navigation is impossible and graphics hideous--come on, you have to consider future readers) but I could never do it, because it seems empty exercise to me, and not creative or fun. Just a slog through an assignment.

So Mme. Child is not going to get us through our concerns about modern life. These blog projects that become books and movies make me somewhat sad, because in the end they are unrepeatable experiments. We can watch, but to imitate has no power. We can take their lessons into our own lives but not their action--and that's just more consuming, and no one feels good and whole and satisfied consuming and not doing for too long. No matter how simplistic the original experiments were, tt's unforgiveably derivative to repeat them, and I don't think they would help anyone in the repeating, because the freshness of doing something you came up with yourself is gone. We always have to push the envelope of online quests to save ourselves, to wake ourselves up--and then how long do we stay saved, stay awake?

Judging from Powell's follow-up book, not very long.