Moby Dick on the Brain: The Snow Whale

June 27, 2012 § 6 Comments

Soon after posting on Monday, I realized that I’d based my whole article on humor and subtext on the decidedly less than hilarious Moby Dick.  I guess I shouldn’t say that about Mellville’s classic, since I read it when I was a precocious ninth-grader trying to impress people by the advanced level at which I read; I probably understood half of the book and wonder if I went back now, I’d clue into some hidden jokes.  Or maybe not.

Regardless, I feel the need to explain that I had Moby Dick on the brain because I’d just finished John Minichillo’s The Snow Whalea satire that uses Mellville’s familiar frame to humorously explore modern conceptions of race, consumer culture, and environmentalism.  There are lots of great moments of the sort of humor I like to talk about on the blog, those jokes that make you think about how your laughing, so I hope to use it as an example in future posts, possibly on satire.

In any event, next week I’m planning on finishing up our discussion of humor and subtext with one last example from Leaving the Atocha Station, so you should have plenty of time for the assigned readings.

Moby Dick in Needlepoint (on humor and theme)

June 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last time I discussed humor and subtext, I focused on the way authors can use subtext to involve a reader in the story, drawing him or her deeper into the experience of meaning—but authors can use subtext for additional reasons, as well, while still accomplishing this goal.  For example, in times and places of severe censorship, subtext is often used to address forbidden subjects, and the bond created by the subtext takes on the air of a clandestine handshake between secret conspirators.

But even in free-ish societies like ours, there are some things authors feel they can’t just come out and say.  Anything we could say directly on the subject would sound trite because what we want to say is too complicated and nuanced for words.  I’m talking about the big questions literature grapples with: the true nature of truth, beauty, or what have you—all the meaty issues we generally discuss as theme.

These are the issues that inspire a work of literature, the questions that the story is attempting to answer.  So it is never enough for me when we say, “the theme of Moby Dick is obsession” (or God, or the limits of knowledge, or class-strictures in colonial America)—but it is much worse when we get specific, with high-school three-part essay conclusions, “Moby Dick shows the destructive aspects of obsession.”

I should say here that I love the high-school theme paper, and that through it, my favorite teachers first instilled in me a sense of literature’s power, an idea that has become a driving force in my life.  That said, I feel it is really just a stepping stone to further understanding and that many readers’ desire for “theme” to come in the form of a clear, easy answer, is not just a failure to fully understand the nature of literature, but of language and the human experience at large.

I’m not saying that Moby Dick doesn’t “show the destructive aspects of obsession,” but through subtext, it does so much more that any such simple statement seems almost insulting; if Herman Melville thought a sternly parental, “Don’t succumb to obsession,” would do anyone any good, he could have saved himself a lot of time and sewed a saying onto a wall-hanging instead of writing a novel.  I, for one, am glad he realized most good advice goes ignored, and instead chose to explore the subject (and so many others, tying them all together) in a complicated and nuanced way, to say something about obsession that couldn’t be said in less than the 211,000 words he used.  We don’t get a nice take-away for an inspirational poster, but what we do get is a indelible but inexpressible sense of, “yes, Herman, that’s exactly how it is, isn’t it.”

Theme, then, isn’t a parental lesson or a sermon from on high, but an understanding shared between friends.  As I discussed last time, humor creates understanding in a similarly cooperative way.  The most profound jokes work like theme by communicating a concrete yet inexpressible sense of the truth of our experiences.  When we laugh together at the great ironies of life, commiserating over the cosmic joke of it all, we affirm a shared reality that can be expressed no more concisely than with laugher, but which we are willing to take as concrete because we agree on how abstract it.

I’ll flesh out this comparison with examples next week, but in the mean time, thanks for reading!

Free View

June 18, 2012 § 1 Comment

I thought I’d take this week off from theorizing to share some of my own work, especially for all my friendly readers out there who aren’t from the Twin Cities and can’t make it to the reading I am taking part in this Wednesday.

I’ll be reading the first few pages of my first novel, Half Drunk, for which I’m currently seeking a publisher or representation.  This opening section is titled “Free View” for metaphysical reasons, but it works as a title for this post as well.  Here it is, your free sneak peak at Half Drunk.  Thanks for reading!

Half Drunk

Chapter One

Free View

Simon is still half asleep when he hops onto his bicycle and into the street.  He’s barely conscious of the reason his alarm went off earlier than it ever has before but makes a smooth right into an alley and an easy left at the other end, comfortable enough with St. Paul geography to find Summit Avenue’s bike lane after nearly getting lost on his way out of the shower just five minutes earlier.

As his hair dries into a lucky mess of blonde wisps, he watches the night sky, still black behind him, turning purple over downtown.  Accelerating towards this dawn, he tongues his teeth for the taste of mint.  He can’t remember if he remembered to brush; awake at this hour for the first time in years, all he can think of are all those long nights when the rising sun seemed like the only thing that could blur him to sleep.

He tells himself he is different now, and as proof, when the sun bulges over the horizon like the pit of a halved peach, he becomes more alert to his life instead of slipping deeper into senselessness.  He is celebrating today—he finally fully remembers—with an eight-hour bike route that doesn’t officially begin until he reaches the opposite end of the High Bridge.

This is his warm-up ride, a mostly downhill glide through the outskirts of downtown, which at dawn are crowded only by parked cars.  Shadows of fruit flesh fade to bright blue morning on their westward route over his head, but Simon keeps his eyes down to watch the street lines shiver back and forth beneath his front wheel.

The bridge follows a slight incline over the Mississippi River, and he exerts himself enough to actually feel awake by the time he dismounts in the two-bench sliver of a park on the opposite end’s bluff.  Simon always starts his recreational rides here: the best view of downtown St. Paul you can find for free.  With the bike’s frame resting against his hip, he has an overview of everywhere he is about to ride.

He tries to squint the whole panorama in from under the shade of his palm as some skyscrapers give off the smooth green glow of an antique coke bottle and others pop with cop-shade glare.  On the left, the grey and gold dome of the Cathedral of Saint Paul tops a leafy hill, while to the right, downtown rises in more jagged peaks.  With the world waking to his eyes, cars start to grumble past Simon and onto the bridge.  As they shrink into the city, he imagines himself beside them, a precious model of his bicycle scurrying between skyscrapers.

If he thinks back to a similar but less ambitious ride he took to commemorate his 24th birthday two weeks earlier, he can picture each of the streets below from the inside out.  Buildings pass beside and then waver above him, and the Mississippi—its smell, sound, and calmer air—flows up the banks and through the blocks by subtle degrees.  But he can (and sometimes does) imagine these rides street-by-street while alone in bed; he crosses the High Bridge so he can see it all at once and imagine himself as the magic-marker on a map.  Miniscule again, but large enough to be everywhere, he chugs up a hill towards the Xcel Hockey Arena while, blocks away, another one of him coasts hands-free down a soft decline to squirt water in his mouth.

It’s a fleeting satisfaction, pretending his eyes are already everywhere he is going to be, because Simon only has to look at the hills to the left of the bridge to lose the illusion that his city is an open map; every street—and nearly all of the houses and brownstones that line them—are hidden by the trees that climb through St. Paul’s residential neighborhoods.

If Simon could cut through the leaves like one of the sunbeams that find those distant streets from over his shoulder, he could see all the houses ignited by this morning’s light instead of in the hazy noon through which he will ride past them.  If this distant vision were as good as being there (as he pretends it is), he would watch them buzzing awake instead of empty and waiting. And he might even have the luck to see Diana Sundergaard getting ready to leave for the day.

Not that he’d recognize Diana; she’s new to the Twin Cities and, having moved in to her older brothers’ skinny, blue house a little over a week ago, she hasn’t been much of anywhere besides a few hipster bars.  But Simon would surely notice Diana as she leaves through the backdoor, blonde braids shining after a shower.  As she takes her antique, three-speed beach cruiser from the garage, he’d wonder if she actually were somehow prettier than BB, the girl he assumes will always be the only girl he will ever love.  He’d silently watch Diana push off into the street and imagine meeting her, falling in love, and growing old together—all without actually doing anything to stop her from riding away.

Diana only makes it half a block before her feet spin off the pedals, though.  She walks the bike back home and wrestles it into the screened porch to find her oldest brother smoking a cigarette on the couch.  She’s only half surprised, but curses anyway: “Shit, Burt, I thought you were up in the attic.”

Picking the can with PBR still in it from his collection of empties on the coffee table, he asks, “How in the hell can you get up this early after all that beer last night?”

She stands the bike up in front of him and pulls the chain back onto the big sprocket.  “How the hell can you stay up all night after drinking all that beer?”

“I felt inspired, so I sat up to write some songs.”

She looks around the porch.  “Don’t you usually need a guitar or paper for that?”

“A lesser genius than myself might.”  He shrugs as he drops the cigarette into one of the empty cans.  “Seriously, what the hell are you doing up so early?”

“I’m going to go explore for some ‘Now Hiring’ signs,” she says and looks down at the grease on her hands.   “I’ll come back with a grip of applications, and you, Geoff, and Marley can tell me which ones are worth filling out.”`

Burt always wears V-neck undershirts that are as thin and grey as a page from the sort of old book it takes a whole summer to read.  As she finishes explaining her plans, she rubs the grease down his chest, and even though it is a barely noticeable addition to the week’s worth of grime already there, he slaps her away.  “What the fuck?”

“To ensure that you’ll do laundry tonight,” she says and sits down next to him to dig through her messenger-bag.  “Damn chain has got me stressed, though.  I don’t want to apply for jobs covered in grease.”

Burt looks up from his shirt, annoyed that the subject has changed from how annoyed he is, but Diana has a special smile—tongue twisted sideways between her teeth— that she uses to disarm him.   “Yeah, you look awful,” he says and reaches for the pack of cigarettes, but she stops his hand with a glass pipe packed full of marijuana.

“Come on, let’s smoke this instead.  It’ll help me start my day in a better mood, and it will help you finally get to sleep.”

Of course, Simon misses all of this.  He can’t see through trees or walls or miles, just like he can’t see into the future.  He can’t see over the hill to the side of St. Paul that borders Minneapolis, and he can’t see this afternoon, where and when he’ll meet Diana on a bridge over the Mississippi.  If he could, he’d probably stay on this hill, watching himself go nowhere.

Thankfully, Simon can only see these trees and this morning, so while Diana shares a toke and some of her smile with Burt, he gapes at the city’s whole blur until summer spreads fully across the empty sky and the haze of last night is burnt completely off the back of his brain.  When he turns around, the sun is bright enough to bring tears out of his eyes, high enough over the horizon for it to officially feel like a whole new day.

Monday, July 6th, and Simon Creek has been sober for two whole years.

He cuffs his jeans with one big fold that reaches up past his knees, mounts his bike, and begins to coast down the bridge, into each street and moment, one after another.

Come see me read!

June 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Hey guys! Assuming you’re tired of my dry, academic ramblings, I want to invite you to hear me read from my (much more juicy and immature) fiction work.

My friends at two incredible Twin Cities literary organizations, The Cracked Walnut Reading Series and Red Bird Chapbooks, have recently teamed up to form a literary-community-building powerhouse called Innocent Offerings–and they’ve invited me to read at their event this Wednesday, June 20th!

To celebrate the summer solstice, Krisanne Dattir will host a reading featuring Colin Mcdonald, John Medeiros, Kathryn Kysar, John Vick, and myself.  Best of all, it is outside, in St. Paul’s lovely Midway Green Spirit Community Garden, with a potluck to follow.  The event starts at 6pm (the readings at 7), and afterwards, in addition to feasting, there will be a chapbook of the evening’s entertainment for sale; Redbird’s chapbooks are always gorgeous, and I’m excited to finally see my work in one.

Full details and directions, as well as future Innocent Offerings events, can be found here.  I hope all of my Twin Cities friends can make it.

UPDATE (6/20):

It’s fixing to be a stormy day here in MN, so we’ve relocated to a space with some protection from the elements, the Newell Park picnic shelter, at Fairview and Hewitt in St. Paul.

If you have to explain it, it isn’t funny—and it isn’t subtext

June 11, 2012 § 2 Comments

Continuing on from my previous posts on the subject—in which I discussed and provided an example of humor as a literary tool and a sense—I want to get into the meat of my argument today and look at the relationship between humor and subtext.  As I hinted at in last week’s examination of Leaving the Atocha Station, it is hard to discuss any literary technique without discussing subtext and theme.  This is because the presence of an underlying theme built by subtext is what defines literature and sets it apart from general fiction.

I don’t think anyone has written so clearly on subtext as Charles Baxter does in his short treatise, The Art of Subtext, which I highly recommend and am greatly indebted to.  In short, subtext is the content implied but not explicitly contained by the text; it could be a character’s motives, the narrator’s understanding of the world, or anything else the author can’t or doesn’t want to express explicitly.  As such, it is literature’s greatest strength; straight genre fiction, depending on the genre, can certainly excel over literature at plot, setting, dialogue, or anything else to quickly satisfy a reader’s desires, but nothing can draw a reader deeper, more permanently into a story than subtext.

For example, if you’re reading a procedural crime novel set in a morgue, you’ll get drawn easily along the surface of a nice plot, and as you’re told what the main character is thinking and feeling, you might grow to like her and learn a few (hopefully forever useless) facts about how to dissect a corpse.  Maybe you’ll get so involved in the circumstances as to hazard an informed guess at the identity of the murderer—but unless it is a particularly literary crime novel, you won’t ever have to wonder at the inner workings of the main detective, the emotions that she may be hiding from even herself, or what her struggles imply about the human condition.

It is the mental and emotional work involved in all that implying that turns a lot of readers of off literary fiction, but for those that stick with it, the rewards are great.  In helping build the story through active involvement, a reader who picks up on subtext gains a sense of partial ownership of the story as well as a sense of communion with the author.  This deeper form of communication is why so many people dedicate their lives to the study of literature, obsessing over single authors or books, while most people won’t dedicate more than $5.99 and a couple afternoons to a disposable paperback.

Humor can work the same way in fiction by building similar bonds and forming another layer of subtext.  Both humor and subtext make generous assumptions about the audience’s intelligence, compassion, and attentiveness; an author who uses subtext takes the risk that the reader won’t pick up on it, losing the thread of the story, just as the comedian takes the risk that the audience won’t understand his joke, settling into a serious silence.  If you have to explain it, it isn’t funny—and it isn’t subtext.

There are many jokes that play on this risk of misunderstanding, and the humor of Chico Marx is a great example.  He’s always playing against the language barrier for a laugh, but while he’s misunderstanding everyone and being misunderstood, our understanding of him as a performer deepens as our laughter effectively says, “We are so simpatico, you and I, that we both understand not just what you said, but what you were trying to say, as well as everything that was implied by the discrepancy.”

So, just as with subtext, the rewards of humor are a deepening bond with each successful communication.  We’ve all broken the ice with a joke in the company of strangers and felt a good laugh cementing a friendship.  Similarly, humor can act as subtext in literature, deepening the unspoken bond between author and reader by letting the reader share in making the meaning of the story.

Just what this meaning might be is the subject of next week’s post, as we’ll discuss the ways both subtext and humor can express the inexpressible.

Thanks, again, for reading!

Show & Tell

June 4, 2012 § 4 Comments

This week, I’d like to take a look at the literary uses of humor I’ve  discussed so far (humor as a storytelling tool and as a “sense” through which the world of the story be brought to life) through a passage from Ben Lerner’s wonderful Leaving the Atocha Station.

Below, Adam describes one of the hundreds of awkward cross-cultural experiences he has while abroad in Spain:

It was getting cold; I had somehow never thought Madrid would have a winter, but I was sweating, no doubt visibly, as Arturo greeted and introduced me to the shivering smokers milling around the galleries glass doors.  I was too nervous to catch the names of the people with whom I exchanged handshakes, but I was aware that my kissing was particularly awkward, that I had kissed one of the women in the corner of the mouth, more on her lips than on her cheek.  This was a common occurrence; with a handful of clumsy exceptions when I had met particularly cosmopolitan New Yorkers one kiss on the right cheek, and various relatives when I was a child, I had almost never, prior to my project, kissed a woman with whom I was not romantically involved.  I wasn’t exactly sure what would have happened if I’d tried to greet a woman by kissing her in Topeka; certainly her boyfriend would have kicked in my teeth if she had one, or I would be at risk of becoming her boyfriend if she didn’t.  It often occurred to me that my upbringing would have been changed beyond all recognition if kissing had been common; such a dispersion of the erotic into general social circulation would have had unpredictable effects.  In Providence I could have gotten away with it, but not without an air of affectation and effeminacy; regardless, I had never thought to try.  But in Spain, I was guilty of abusing the kissing thing, or of at least investing it with a libidinal charge it wasn’t supposed to contain, and when you were drunk and high and foreign, you could reasonably slip up and catch the corner of a mouth.

This passage is indicative of many in the novel, which laughs in the face of the old MFA adage by telling nearly as often as it shows.  Here, the plot is paused for a long paragraph as Adam tells us about the ironies involved in his habit of over-kissing in Spain.  Removed from all but the most general sense of setting (“In Europe they do this–but in America, they do that”), this observational monologue could fit nearly as easily into a stand-up routine as a novel: Lerner, here, is using humor as a fictional technique.  But like all elements of fiction in a book that works, it works in concert with other elements: while we chuckle, Adam is being characterized and our sense of the setting is being deepened and reinforced.

As “sensory writing”, the humorous details in this passage make the world of the story come alive.  The ironic contrast between the setting of Spain and America is deepened, yet again, until it is undeniable fact, true from every angle.  Even more importantly and effectively, though, we’re getting a sense of Adam’s sense of humor, which is probably the attentive reader’s best means of delving deeper into his character.  This scene is ripe for concrete sensory details, but after a mention of the weather, Adam glosses over the physical aspects of the kiss.  Dwelling on the feel of the kiss–the contrast of textures between her cheek and lips, the smell of her hair, the sexual electric jolt it sends down his spine–might make for titillating reading, but Adam instead jumps to the abstract ironies it implies.

It is important to note that with a tightly constructed scene full of details, we might have been able to imply these ironies; but the fact that Adam comes out and tells us shows that to him, satisfying physical lust isn’t as important as his desire to use culture in a way that allows him to stay outside of it.  The most telling line in the passage might be “at risk of becoming her boyfriend.” Adam is always looking for ways to satisfy his urge to be around people without actually having to let his guard down or commit.

It is the jokes in this paragraph that made me realize Adam digresses so often because he doesn’t have much to show; all he can do is tell us about all the reasons he didn’t do what he probably should have.  Far from being a string of useless jokes, then, this passage uses humor as an element of fiction and a sensory detail to invoke a subtext and explore the theme of the novel.

But the relationship between subtext and humor is my next subject, so I’ll leave you here until next week.

Thanks for reading.

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