All the rolling wheels that contradict Death! Thoughts on Tomas Tranströmer’s Selected Poems

Tomas Tranströmer’s Nobel Prize-winning collection, Selected Poems, discusses big concepts– God, heaven, existence– but does it through small, specific objects and simple words. With vivid imagery and scientific precision , Tranströmer brings the infinitude of uncertainty back to the familiar and natural. After reading Selected Poems, I felt like I had experienced enough of Tranströmer’s beautiful poetry that I could, … Continue reading All the rolling wheels that contradict Death! Thoughts on Tomas Tranströmer’s Selected Poems

My Recent Jonathan Franzen Obsession: Thoughts on Farther Away, The Corrections, and Freedom

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Reading a Jonathan Franzen novel makes a voyeur out of everyone. You get a bird’s eye view of a dysfunctional-yet-loving family, and you get to see them mess up. Repeatedly. The parents make parenting mistakes, the kids squander opportunities and ignore their parents, disconnections widen, and alliances shift. In many ways, Franzen’s stories are incredibly ambitious; he covers lifetimes of bad decisions and turns a critical eye towards capitalism, fraud, and selfishness. He portrays the struggle of families trying to keep up appearances while everything around them is falling apart. But in another way, Franzen’s stories are variations on a very familiar narrative of the unhappy family. It’s his writing style that elevates this pedestrian storyline to something more.

Here are a few things that make Jonathan Franzen’s work so fascinating to me:

(Spoilers Ahead)

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Secrets as Tools of Connection: Thoughts on Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a frenetic, darkly humorous, and tragic memoir, is a story about rebuilding. After both of his parents die when he is twenty-one, Dave is charged with caring for Toph, his precocious 7-year-old brother. He and Toph move to Berkeley where Dave starts a magazine and auditions for … Continue reading Secrets as Tools of Connection: Thoughts on Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

When Fiction Gets Really Fictiony

9780062105622_custom-a749cacb4e7b05f66183a4069f5a6fd62f4a5b35-s6-c30When it comes to stories, everybody knows that when you say, “That character’s not believable,” it’s a bad thing. You hear it in school. You hear it in workshop groups. You hear it when people talk about what they’re reading. This intense preoccupation with everything–even fiction– being extremely believable is human nature. In Aristotle’s Poetics, the earliest surviving work of dramatic theory, Aristotle talks about how mimesis in narratives creates an emotional connections between the writer and the audience:

The instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood, one difference between him and other animals being that he is the most imitative of living creatures, and through imitation learns his earliest lessons; and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.

In other words, people connect to what they know. Fiction, then, becomes a balancing act: get as close to the truth as possible without telling the truth.

I thought about this paradox when I read Isabel Allende’s latest novel, Maya’s Notebook, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was fascinated by the story of Maya Vidal, a teenager who gets involved with drugs, runs away, gets caught up with a group of criminals and addicts, then is saved by her adoring, spunky grandmother and whisked off to Chiloé, a rural island in Chilé. It’s a fantastically entertaining book, but the eerie thing about it is that for all the darkness it takes on (counterfeit money rings, drugs, racism, rape, police corruption, alcoholism, death), it’s filled with an overarching sense of serenity and joy. Maya overcomes her addictions more easily than a person might in real life; her grandmother is a little too adept at out-smarting the police, considering she doesn’t have any practice as a criminal and all her knowledge is theoretical; the romance between Maya and the dreamy American guy visiting Chiloé, Daniel, is a little too perfect.

I loved all these unbelievable things, even though they were unbelievable. Because they were unbelievable. Mary Pols says on her review of Maya’s Notebook on NPR:

I myself was not scared by Maya’s story, mostly because I didn’t believe a word of it… Maya may be a lively character, but she never feels remotely real.

I didn’t believe Maya’s character, either. Her voice didn’t sound like a teenager’s voice to me and she seemed to get through her struggles a little too calmly. But unlike Pols, I didn’t feel like that was a bad thing. It was what made Maya’s Notebook what it was– a magical kind of story where all the characters pass through troubles with grace and skill.

SPOILER AHEAD.

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