Steps are my new bane. After the second day back at the boxing gym, and countless forms of lunges and squats, sometimes with weights, other times without, my legs have stiffened up into appendages that register only pain and discomfort. Tomorrow, I’m back again, with a break over the weekend to recuperate.
Dean Young writes with a unique perspective. His poems move with a life of their own and make connections between ideas and images that are vivid and poignant.
Today was my first day back at the gym. It’s been a while. Four months to be exact. There’s a new gym which I’d hoped would be open, but I couldn’t wait anymore. So, it’s back at to the boxing gym, and while the price is definitely more, so are the results. Woke up at 5:20, got dressed had a cup of coffee, and wrapped my hands for the heavy bag. Seven hours later, I’m hungry, tired, and walking like I’ve been out horseback riding across the plains. That said, it was great.
Writing is about making choices. We choose what to write about, from whose perspective to tell a story, and what we want our audience to take away from the narrative. In looking at, True North, let’s examine the choices Harrison made. He chose this novel to be in the first person. The events are narrated by, David Burkett, the wealthy son from a family that logged and mined the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for three generations. Why use first person for this novel? What does it achieve?
First person narration shields the reader from the other characters in the novel. While the narrative may be about, Burkett, trying to understand his ancestors and make amends for the evils he believes they’ve brought upon the land, stripping away natural resources and bleeding their labor force in equal measure, it is really about, Burkett, the man, or Burkett, the shadow of man, trying to find his own stride against that of his father’s. If this novel were in third person, the reader might end up sympathizing for some of the other characters. They couldn’t be as evil unless they are seen through Burkett’s skewed perspective. Of course, Burkett’s father is a terrible man known for having sex with underage girls, sometimes consensually while other times forced. His terrible nature could still be represented in the third person, but it would be difficult to make him as evil as Burkett believes him to be.
The topic of the novel seems like it could be interesting. I’m from Northern Michigan, so there was a connection between me and the Upper Peninsula. However, while the narrator is writing a history of the logging industry, we never really see it and the story focuses exclusively on Burkett’s relationship with the history. This process of writing for the narrator dominates his life for twenty years, in which he spends his time guiltily living off his family’s wealth, wandering the woods, fishing, trolling the surface of Christianity, having sex with women, and feeling disconnected. Perhaps, this could be interesting, but Burkett is a bland narrator, and his story and obsessions come across as mediocre and whiny. As a reader, I found myself unable to sympathize or identify with Burkett. He’s petulant. He’s weak. If he’s an idealist, then it is negated by his utter passivity. What does he risk in the novel? When does he grow? The novel moves from the 60’s through the 70’s and then the 80’s. But the reader never gets a sense of time really moving. The decades seem of little consequence, except that Harrison can no longer use the casual sex of the late 60’s as an excuse for Burkett’s sexual romps. Burkett, while in his late 30’s seems to be the same as when he was in his 20’s.
This brings up my last question. What is the audience supposed to take away from this novel? Does the narrator overcome his father? Do we see enough of a change that it pays off? Is the investment of roughly 400 pages of prose worth the ending? Personally, I found very little to take away. In an earlier post, I’d written how I continued to read this book because I couldn’t fall asleep and didn’t want to get out of bed and dig up a new book at 2 A.M. Not exactly a gun to the head, but not a ringing endorsement either. Worst of all, the ending seems tacked on. As if Harrison realized there was something dramatic lacking from the novel. It’s dramatic, but we’ve seen that on the first page, and it comes hundreds of pages too late.
One thing I found interesting is Harrison’s stab at meta-fiction. On page 340, Burkett’s sometime lover who is a poet gives him some advice regarding the history he is writing. She says, “Figure it out for yourself. If you can’t you’ll always write shit. You’re dog-paddling in too much material. Start over. Give me a hundred clean pages called ‘What My People Did,’ or something like that. You’re trying to be a nineteenth-century curmudgeon. You’re starting twelve thousand years ago with the glaciers then moving slowly onward like a fucking crippled toad. Get over the glaciers in one page, please. You quoted that beautiful prose of Agassiz. Try to understand why it’s beautiful and your prose isn’t. You wrote nicely in those thirteen pages because you forgot yourself and your thousand post-rationalizations and let your material emerge directly and intimately.”
Perhaps, this is Burkett the narrator commenting or Harrison himself in the following passage. Whoever it is speaking, it seems to be a proper response to the novel.
“I had pressed my thumb on the dorsal fin of a trout and now watched a raindrop of blood ooze out. I had asked for this speech and been roundly whipped by a schoolmarm. All these years after the inception and I had thirteen golden pages.”
It may not come as a surprise, but I don’t care for new year’s resolutions. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have one. By all means, go for it if you find it useful. Personally, I become fed up with the idea of waiting for the new year. If there’s something you want to do, do it; don’t wait. So this year, I thought instead of using the time to think of this year’s revelations. What have I learned? What have I experienced?
I completed a 150 mile bike ride. I started doing yoga. Took a writing workshop. Have begun to plan out a novel. Was nominated for a Pushcart prize. Lost 25 lbs. Gained new friends. Reconnected with old ones. Visited my family in Michigan and Hawaii. Started playing tennis again.
These aren’t revelations; they’re things that have happened. So what are my revelations? I value my friends and family. It’s never too late to try new things. Writing is a part of my life. They sound cliche. Maybe that is a revelation in itself. Things can be cliche and still matter.
This next year is going to be the year of art. I’ve begun to paint and draw again. Also, in the spirit of new experiences will be taking a glass blowing class. Just the other day I was talking about how most people love creating art as kids, but then as we age, we leave that stuff behind. It’s like without a perfect result or object, the process is discounted. Why? Why not have fun? So, whether what I make is terrible or pleasing, isn’t going to matter to me. I will enjoy sitting at my drafting desk, hearing the water circulate through the radiators in my home, while the snow spins in swirls outside. I will let my pens and pencils move across the paper as images take shape, half formed and unfinished while I become lost in thought watching the window frames shake with the wind. You may not be able to frame an experience and hang it above the mantle, but it beats the dull glare of television and the sounds of a laugh track echoing off the walls.
Moon Palace is about a young man who is orphaned at a young age. Throughout the novel, Marco Stanley Fogg, tries to find himself in the world. The events largely take place in the late 60’s early 70’s, but as the narrative bounces around the story expands to the early and mid 1900’s. Much of the early novel is spent building Fogg up to be an unreliable narrator, so it’s hard to say what happens and doesn’t happen in this novel. If you believe, Fogg, then you buy into the entire convoluted story involving Thomas Effing and Solomon Barber. If you don’t, you begin to doubt everything that Fogg has said.
The stories of Effing, Barber, and Fogg all bear some similar resemblances. All of the men go through periods of transition physically where their bodies define them. Fogg becomes disastrously skinny, his body morphing into something skeletal and gaunt. Effing is trapped in his body by the loss of his legs and sight. Barber, has the opposite problem of Fogg and has ballooned to 350 pounds. These changes in appearance end up defining the men and their relationships with those around them. This further plays into the moon motif; however, it might be seen as a little heavy handed.
Another thing the men share in common is that they are all on their own near their early twenties. Effing’s father dies while he’s young. Barber’s father disappears before he’s born. And for Fogg, he has no idea who his father is.
In the end, no matter what you believe, this is all Fogg’s story. For me, I believe he’s invented the entire thing or embelished events to provide a greater context for his own life. All of the men’s stories are too similar to be original, and while Auster asks us to push coincidence to the side and believe that things happen for a reason, he also contradicts this request with lines such as, “never take anything for granted. Especially when you’re dealing with a person like me,” spoken by Thomas Effing.
The entire relationship between Effing and Fogg is so full of lies and half truths that it permeates everything. That said, Auster’s writing is compelling. It reads fast. The characters are memorable. The only downside of that is the sparseness of setting and descriptions of what characters are feeling. Auster glides over descriptions choosing to narrate page after page in a way that tells the reader what’s happened but doesn’t show it. Perhaps, if he choose to show more the book would have stretched well beyond 300 pages.
Overall, this is an interesting novel. I almost want to page through it again, because it’s hard to tell if there is a lot of depth to it, or whether the number of thin narratives overlapping each gives the illusion of complexity.
What is there to say? I’ve managed to plow through the last of Infinite Jest and am relieved. Relieved because now I can start reading other books and at a faster rate. What is there to write about a 1,000 page monster of a novel? Obviously, there’s a lot one can say. For me, right now I feel like maybe there’s too much. Where do you start?
I don’t want to be a spoiler for my friend who’s still reading it, so I won’t give anything away. But, what I’m really curious about is the ending of the novel. What happens? What are other people’s take on it? How does it relate to Hal in the beginning? So, I’ll poke around and see what other people have written about it, but if you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear your ideas.