The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams

Joy Williams’ The Quick and the Dead is unlike any novel I’ve read. What separates this book from a lot of writing is the ever shifting point of view, and the how characters enter and leave the narrative in ways that do not conform to any of the advice from the dozens of books on fiction writing.

If I had to pare down the prose for a blurb or a quick summary, I’d say this novel is about the boundaries between living and dying. The characters seem caught in a state where they are neither wholly alive nor dead yet. Some of them are paralyzed by grief, trapped by their televisions, haunted by the recently deceased, medicated, obsessed with their image, and regurgitating slogans. The novel takes place in Arizona, and the desert exerts its will upon the characters. Perhaps they are reflecting the life and death struggle of survival in the desert?

While this book wasn’t conventional, it was entertaining, interesting, intriguing, and raw.

Man Walks into a Room by Nicole Krauss

What would you do if your memory from adolescence to the present were wiped out? That’s the central question in Nicole Krauss’ novel Man Walks into a Room. The novel follows the events of Samson who disappears from New York and is discovered wandering the desert outside of Las Vegas, sick and incoherent. It turns out he has a tumor in his brain, which when removed causes the loss of his memories since age twelve. However, he does not suffer any other effects from the surgery. That was one part I found a little unbelievable, then again, I don’t have a lot of knowledge of the brain and how it works. I was willing to let this go, but it still seemed a stretch.

Samson returns or tries to return to his life. He is an English professor in New York, married to a caring and beautiful woman, has plenty of concerned friends. Yet all of this seems alien to him. With no memory of who he was, he doesn’t identify with this life or feel a connection with the people who care for him. He feels there is this vast expanse in his mind, this empty space where the old memories were. He’s not sure he wants them back, or that he wants to be who he was. He identifies with explorers and astronauts, because he sees his mind and lack of identity as a new frontier. He’s not the only one though.

This novel explores what makes us who we are. Are we a collection of habits and preferences? How do we recognize people in our lives? We perceive them to act a certain way, because that is how they’ve always acted and thus who they are. If the experiences which form us are swiped away, who are we, and how can we be close to the people with whom we’ve shared those experiences?

At times Samson seems callous and small. He is unable to empathize with people, partly because he feels a lack of connection, but also because he can’t remember experiencing the emotions his loved ones feel. So much is new to Samson as he navigates through his life.

Another moment in this novel which is a little unbelievable as well, is when Samson gets a phone call from a brain researcher. The man convinces Samson to come out to California for a project. This project involves implanting a memory from someone else into another person’s brain. Since Samson visualizes his memory as having a wide open void, he seems like the perfect candidate. Krauss does a decent job of supplying Samson’s reasons and motivations for the experiment, but still it’s difficult to imagine someone signing on for such a project. When the memory is implanted, things do not turn out how either Samson or the researcher thought.

The final section of the novel involves Samson dealing with this outcome and eventually finding his place in the world again.

If this doesn’t seem like a narrative that interests you, another reason to read this book is how beautifully and succinctly it’s written. Some people may complain that not enough happens, or we spend too much time in Samson’s thoughts. While that may be true, this is a novel about thoughts, about memory and identity. Reading it makes you think about your own life and what events have shaped your being. Even though the premise might be hard to believe, once you accept it the narrative is compelling.

Regarding Arts and Letters: REAL

My creative non-fiction piece – “The Night Janitor’s Son, Racing the Midnight Train, and Thoughts from across the Ocean” was published in the 33.2 issue of REAL. Check out all the great writers in that issue and help support the magazine.

the habit of writing

I woke up at six a.m. with the intention of doing some yoga and then writing a little bit. One thing I discovered, is that I can’t wake up and do yoga. I can wake up and go for a run, or wake up and go for a bike ride; however, the need to think and plan (other than moving in a linear fashion as in the other activities) was too much for my brain to handle.

So I enjoyed the miracle of the automatic coffeepot, poured a cup, read some of the Atlantic and gradually woke up.

Eventually, though I did do some writing. What I like about poetry is that you can get a draft down in 20-30 minutes. Maybe I’ll use this again, or maybe it will just sit in a notebook like a thought, until the ink gradually spreads across the page forgotten.

The poem was about distance. The physical distance between family members, and how it can seem overwhelming to cross that distance.

It was good to get something on the page. Always is.

Commentary on poem draft

I’m not sold on this title the subjects of our study, but titles can always be changed, and you should never leave the top of the page blank.

Started on this while at lunch today. The campus is in exam frenzy. You can feel the student’s tension and nervousness. It seemed as though I were in a different world than they. I’m not studying for a test. I don’t have papers to write. My life won’t change next week with a summer vacation and either a trip back home or an internship somewhere.

The last stanza underwent the most change. I kept adding and tinkering with it. Initially it read:

The real constant being these days
which flutter fast as pages caught by the wind
will trail into a vanishing point
the memories too repetitive
to differentiate between the days.

-> But it seemed pretentious. Is that the real constant? Like I know what the real constant is? So I cut it. Changed it. Incorporated more of the previous stanza.

The subjects of our study

The Subjects of Our Study

The number of students decrease
and those whom walk through campus
wear wrinkled clothes, unkempt as energy
turns toward exam time studies
forgetting the ginkgo blossoms for lists of minerals
like Feldspar, six on the Mohs hardness scale,
qualify couplets of Keats believing
that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever”
failing to feel the humid spring air
their eyes on papers clutched against the breeze
while some mutter equations where G
is a constant for gravity
and if R is the distance between objects
as measured from their centers
then where are our own? And what pulls
one person to another other
than F, the force
of attraction between two objects?

Unable to differentiate between the days
these weeks will fall fast
like leaves caught by the wind
more permeable than Talc
beauty unshared trails
toward a vanishing point
merging multiple concepts
into one, the past
a constant for the present
the force that propels us into the future
a spray of broken promises in our wake.

Emigrating from England

A couple of years ago, my mom gave me the beginnings of an autobiography or family history that my great grandmother had written. She chronicles the family’s move from England (Leeds and London) to the United States, where they initially lived in Michigan. My great great grandfather was a pastor, and the family followed the needs of the church and communities, their lives pushing through the Midwest like a breeze across the fields. Small towns in Indiana and Illinois were home for a few years at a time, then circumstance would change and the family packed and moved again.

The way it’s written, it seems that Anne (I forget her name for now) expected whomever read it would know of her family, of these ancestors. That’s not the case. Where she grew up with three sisters and three brothers, our family has become decidedly smaller, and with that decrease in size comes a decrease in knowledge. Who is there to hold all of this information about us? We are few and have started families later. No one has had children in their early twenties. Instead, we wait. We grow up, we have children when things are more predictable and stable, when we are done being selfish and pursuing our personal goals. Now, there is my mom who has this knowledge, knows the stories of our ancestors, but how well has that passed on to us, her sons?

Perhaps in giving me these pages, she wants that history to live on, for me to say there was a great aunt named Mary Agnes, whom everyone called Birdie because when she was little she’d hold her mouth open, hungry like a little bird, and then years after they emigrated and were living in southern Illinois, Birdie came down with typhoid fever and died. They wrote Birdie on her gravestone. That’s what she liked to be called. That was her name.

When I read those words it caused me pain. I’d read about the ups and downs, but not of death. With seven children, not everyone is in the forefront of the picture. Birdie had receded for pages, and then she died, and the family stopped moving so much. There are so many cliches about home. Maybe one truth about home is that home is where you bury your dead. The family stayed in this town after Birdie’s death, even though my great great grandfather lost his position as the pastor. The town could no longer afford it. So they tried farming instead, but what do men and women from London know of farming? After a rough couple of years, they sold the animals and land, moved to East St. Louis, which was not to far from Birdie’s grave and began to settle down.

untitled poem 1

All the words you used
to want from me
no longer matter.

As I revise for the present
tense, try to forget your eyes
or the way your smile spills
like a glass of wine.

I will wait
for the syllables
“I’m sorry” to dissolve on my tongue
like a communion wafer
as if forgiveness were such a simple act.

Good Day

Woke up at 5:30 and went jogging. Not writing, I know, but managed to shuffle out of bed, lace up the running shoes, start the coffee and head out for a quick jog with some friends. My knee has been bothering me a little bit again, so I’m trying to take it easy. Last year, I ended up injuring or straining my knee and it took a while for the recovery.
It’s in the 70’s this morning and should be in the 80’s for the day. Let’s hope it stays this way before the summertime heat settles in the bricks and concrete of St. Louis.