Monday, December 27, 2010

Entry 25: "The Shipping News" by E. Annie Proulx (1994)

After an arguably failed attempt of reading William Faulkner's A Fable in one day and having my brain absolutely pummeled and my will to read anything else for the rest of my life almost beaten out of me, and with Christmas fast approaching, and with my checking account being overdrawn twice in two weeks, and with being kicked out of two places in one week, I decided to take it easy on myself with this project. I took a much-needed week off from reading anything at all, and, instead, indulged myself with YouTube, watching British and Irish sitcoms, like Father Ted and The IT Crowd.

Christmas is always a stressful time of year for me. Thanksgiving is bad enough, but the four weeks leading up to Christmas are like riding on a train that you know is going to crash into a ravine—I'm just waiting, waiting, bracing myself for December 25th. Then it comes, it's a mess, then it's over, and I come away from it relatively unscathed. This year, though, it's as if both The Universe and Fortuna, herself, were conspiring against me. 2010 was the year of the worst December ever.

But, I'm a fighter. And I'm a survivor. I had the courage and the strength to stand up to the winds (that are still blowing, if I'm being honest with myself) and I did not bow or break. I pressed forward, and even gathered the energy to read another book.

I needed to read another book from the 90's since I've been forsaking that decade lately, and at Joshua's suggestion, I wanted to read Robert Olen Butler's A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, but in my recent moves, I couldn't find it. Instead, I chose the first novel from the 90's I could find in my "Unread Pulitzer Books" box, E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News, the novel that won a year after Butler, in 1994.

Close enough.

Now, I know that conflict is a catalyst to driving a novel forward and that a story without conflict, really, isn't a story at all. But a few chapters into The Shipping News, I almost started to regret picking this one up when I did. As I mentioned, life was putting me through the wringer for the entirety of December and I was plenty stressed out. I thought I had it rough losing two homes in one week.

The hell that Proulx puts her protagonist, Quoyle, through makes my life look like a cakewalk. And that stressed me out even more.

In the first half of this novel, Quoyle's parents commit suicide, his wife cheats on him with countless other men, then leaves him and takes their children, she sells his two daughters to a black market adoption agency, she then dies in a car wreck, he loses his job, his house, gets his kids back, but is forced to move to Newfoundland, where his family originated, to a home he could afford with the very little amount of money he had.

This character took a beating from his author of The Fixer magnitude.

In her acknowledgments, Proulx mentions The Ashley Book of Knots, a book that she found at a garage sale for a quarter and references in almost every chapter; her chapter titles, predominantly, are knot names and she offers an explanation of the knot by referencing the The Ashley Book of Knots. The first chapter, for example, is entitled "Quoyle;" the explanation Proulx provides from The Ashley Book of Knots states, "Quoyle: A coil of rope. A Flemish flake is a spiral coil of one layer only. It is made on deck, so that it may be walked on if necessary."

This explanation is a perfect summary of her main character's life. Quoyle is a one-layered man that gets walked on by the world surrounding him every single day. Just like me, more often than not. Coincidentally, Quoyle has Irish blood.

Go figure.

However, as the novel progresses into its second half, Quoyle's luck starts to turn around—he gets hired at a local newspaper, impresses his editor and is promoted twice, he makes friends in the community, falls in love with a woman who truly loves him in return, his relationship with his children improves, and he learns how to love himself and be happy with his life. He becomes more confident, more poised, more in control of his life. There is no central conflict to the novel upon first reading, which I found annoying, but upon completion, the reader realizes that Quoyle's central conflict was with himself all along.  

The Shipping News is ultimately a redemption story. It is the story of a man who refuses to let his lot in life define his life and comes out on top. And that's the sort of story I think we're all hoping to live.

I certainly am.

Stage 1: Over

The Pulitzer Project is now officially coming to a close. Now that I have Margaret Wilson's 1924 Pulitzer-winning novel, The Able McLaughlins, in my possession, and Joshua has H.L. Davis's 1936 winner,The Honey In the Horn, Joshua and I have finally, after a full year of searching, completed our Pulitzer collections and now comes the time to buckle in and read. The first of three stages has finished and the second is already well under way—reading all 84 (in a few short months, 85) novels. The third stage of this project, then, will be to either write a Pulitzer-winning novel of our own under a pseudonym (i.e. Alan Germain, or Joshua Andrews) or a memoir detailing the journey from inception to completion.

I can't wait to see what the rest of this journey has in store for these two wearying travelers.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Guitar Lessons

I come from a family of musicians. On my mother's side, anyway—the members of my father's side of the family have trouble enough playing the radio, let alone any musical instruments. My mother and aunt dabbled with the piano when they were young; their mother has been playing jazz and boogie woogie piano semi-professionally for years; her younger brother played blues guitar; their youngest brother plays the blues on the mighty Hammond B-3 professionally; and their father, my great-grandfather, Pa, played bluegrass and skiffle on the banjo almost his entire life. These years of musicianship were passed down through the generations and have landed with me—an acoustic guitarist by trade. It's my hope to continue passing down my family's ear for music to my children, should that day ever come.

I first picked up the guitar when I was eleven. Just like everyone else who picked up the guitar for the first time, I had big dreams: songwriting, playing in a band, record deals, world tours, changing the world, and the face of rock and roll forever. And girls. Of course, there were the girls to consider. Even in the sixth grade, girls were flocking to boys who wore Led Zeppelin t-shirts and played electric guitars. The boys in my school could only run a few scales and maybe even play three chords (which, if we are to learn anything from the punk rock scene, that's really all you need), but girls loved them nonetheless.

The boys even brought their guitars to school. Sat around in the choir room during study hall, said to each other, “Hey, dude, check this out,” and would strum out “Louie, Louie.” The girls swooned and another boy would smirk, then retort, “Yeah, well check this out,” play the three same exact chords and mumble the words to “Wild Thing” or “La Bamba.”

This went on for years—all through middle school, all through high school. Boys attempting to impress girls, and even each other, with their guitars. Some people even made careers out of it. Their scales and chords got more complicated, their sense of rhythm and strumming patterns evolved, they started writing their own songs and incorporating other musical influences into their repertoires. Then, of course, as soon as the girls they were attempting to impress became disinterested in their guitars, so did they.

I was one of the few that never really cared much for rock music. At that time in my life, I was far more interested in the music my family listened to—American folk, jazz, and blues. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, George Gershwin, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan. While my friends in high school sat on Napster, illegally downloading Metallica MP3's then learning the songs by printing guitar tablature by the ream, I was sitting cross-legged on Pa's living room floor, listening to his old vinyl records through a pair of my uncle's old studio headphones, circa 1973. I learned the old songs on the acoustic guitar by slowing the record speed down and picking around on the fretboard until I found the note that sounded the same as the one Robert Johnson was playing.

That guy sold his soul to the devil at the intersection of two dusty country roads in the middle of Nowhere, Mississippi to learn blues guitar—my method seemed a much safer alternative.

My parents eventually enrolled me in guitar lessons. When I was 12 or so. Figured if I were going to become a serious guitarist, I should learn from a serious guitarist.

They enrolled me at a local guitar shop in Joliet and drove me there every Tuesday night for my lesson at 7pm; my teacher was Gustavo "Gus" Gutierrez, a sweet old Cuban man who was approaching his 70's. Every Tuesday night, he'd show up ten minutes late, wearing a white, V-neck undershirt, black slacks and sandals, his belly bulging over his waistband and his breath smelling of booze. Bursting through the door, semi-triumphantly, he'd stretch out his arms and proclaim, “Mi amigo! Que pasa, hombre?

I'd exclaim, equally as enthusiastically, “Gus! Oye como va, mi profesor?” and he laughed because he knew I was trying to be clever. All the Spanish I knew came from Santana song titles.

He'd sit down in his chair, pop the buckles of his guitar case open, pull out his beautiful semi-hollow body guitar, its sunburst finish and always freshly polished silver frets glistening in the low light of the practice room. He'd close his eyes, and effortlessly run a few jazz scales. “A quick calamiento. Need to clear the cobwebs,” then wink at me. It was like being with family, watching him play.

And every week, he'd forget what we were practicing the week before.

So, because I had a more enjoyable time just listening to him play, I would lie to him: "Well, last week we finished this song,”—I'd wave a piece of sheet music in front of him—“and you said you were going to play this song for me this week," then I'd pull any random song out of his rusty filing cabinet.

“Ah, yes. I remember very clearly now. Que bonita un canción .”

In the 1950's and 60's, he was a rhythm guitarist for a jazz combo in Chicago and they'd play the standards; songs like "Unforgettable," "San Antonio Rose" and "You're Nobody ('Til Somebody Loves You)." Every week, he'd introduce the new song to me by explaining the first time he'd heard it, the first time he'd played it and the audience's reaction. He'd tell me the stories for ten, fifteen minutes while absentmindedly strumming his guitar. Then, without any pause, he'd immediately transition into the song, singing his old Cuban heart out, his voice cracking and warbling under the strain of years of smoking cigarettes in dive nightclubs. It was almost magical to watch his old fingers weaving mellow tones into the air. Watching him lose himself in the music of his yesterdays. Before we knew it, it was 7:35 and the shop manager would knock on the glass window of the door and indicate that some other kid was waiting for his lesson.

Ay, ay, ay, chinga tu madre,” he'd say, and wave the manager away. “This kid that's coming in, Andres—he doesn't give a shit for the classics. He doesn't know how to make that guitar sing like we do. That's why the women will never sing for him. Am I right?” Another wink. “Now, you go home and practice this one,” and he'd gently place the sheet music for “Summertime” in my folder, hand it back to me. “You go home and play this canción and a beautiful woman will fall in love with you. Guaranteed.”


One week, he just stopped showing up for lessons and I had to start taking lessons from another teacher who wasn't nearly as talented and wasn't nearly as passionate about music as Gus was. So I quit taking lessons after about three more weeks, having never really learned anything after almost a full two years of taking them.

I saw Gus almost two years later, in a grocery store, with what appeared to be his personal caretaker. Gus was wearing the same white V-neck undershirt, with sweat and food stains all over it, his hair was greasy and completely disheveled. Instead of his characteristic black slacks and sandals, he was walking around in boxers and slippers, buying cheap frozen pizzas and Ramen noodles.

Pa, although he was never a fan of the music I started learning after I graduated from my own school of folk, was very encouraging and always eager to listen to whatever I learned. I suppose he got his patience from parenting three musicians who played music that he didn't like, and grandparenting two musicians who'd tinker on his upright piano's keyboard until they go so frustrated with it that they both just gave up. I like to think that he suffered through my playing because he would have much rathered I play music he couldn't stand than giving up on music all together.

Even though the banjo was his instrument of choice, he had dabbled with the guitar in the early days too; and, in the corner of his living room, resting against the wall was his prized possession—a Gibson acoustic guitar from the 1930's. He told me that during the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression, while living on a farm in Kentucky, he'd play that guitar to get through the day. It stayed with him his whole life—as far as I know, always resting in the corner of his living room.

He never let anyone touch it. His own children weren't hardly allowed to even look at it. When my cousins got anywhere near it, he'd shout “Scram!” and shake his cane at them. I, on the other hand, was given full access to it. I never knew why, but I never questioned it either.

At every family gathering—Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas—, when all of the family was in town, we'd meet at Pa's house for a party and dinner. And, at every family gathering, every musician in the family would pull out their respective instruments and we'd all play music together well into the evening. Pa played too, but as his progressed into his late 70's, and into his 80's, he became weaker and weaker, to the point where he couldn't play with us anymore. So he sat in his easy chair and tapped his fingernail on the wooden armrest, keeping time.

I knew not being able to pick at the banjo anymore killed him more than his advancing years did. No matter how much joy the music we played brought him, there was always that part of his heart slowly dying with each note.

During the Christmas of 1998, I ambled over to him with his guitar, sat down on the edge of the coffee table across from his easy chair, set the guitar down in front of him, “Teach me something, Pa.”

He furrowed his eyebrows, wrinkled up his weathered face, and admitted, “Aw, hell, I couldn't even pick up that damned thing let alone play it.”

I shrugged. I knew he was flattered at my request. And I knew his response, no matter callous it sounded coming from him, was humble.

“Eh, fine. I can show you something. You ever hear of harmonics?”

I shook my head, no, I hadn't.

So he reached out his shaking, fragile hand to mine, grabbed a hold of it, spread my fingers slightly apart, and guided my middle finger to the twelfth fret. "Like this," he directed. "Now pluck that top string." I did, and the guitar made the most pathetic sound I'd ever heard. It was just a muted pluck. The sound of dead weight.

“Like that...?”

“No, no, no, not like that, goddammit.” If I hadn't known the man for 13 years, if he hadn't been Pa, that man would have terrified me. He was in 80's, but had a fierce snarl and a rough, raspy voice that inspired fear in anyone he scolded. But his bark was worse than his bite.

“Well, what am I doing wrong? I did everything you said.”

His eyes widened with surprise. “The hell you did,” he scoffed. “I didn't tell ya to strangle the damn guitar's neck. You've gotta learn to be more gentle, Andrew. Don't force it. Just let the note be the note. You're just guiding it along.”

He grabbed my wrist again, pulled it away from the neck, gave it a shake. “There ya go. Now, relax,” as he guided it back, reset my middle finger at the twelfth fret. “Now, just lightly rest it there. Don't press it. Don't force it. Just lean on it a little. 'Til you're hardly even touching it at all.”

I did as he instructed, carefully eying the way the fleshy round of my finger sat on the E-string, making sure the skin didn't fold itself around it. When I plucked the string, the guitar sang out like a bell. The sound of overtones rising and falling, building and collapsing over themselves, the beautiful note's song wafting in the air between us. The wavelengths of the string, in half-time, stretching far back into his youth and far ahead into my unknown and momentarily tying the two of us together in a fleeting moment of mutual understanding.

He closed his eyes, grinned his toothless grin, sat back in his chair. I wanted to play the harmonic again, but didn't dare disturb the calm.

“Good. Good,” he finally affirmed. “Now ain't that the damned prettiest thing you've ever heard?”

It was.

“I don't expect you to understand this now. But someday you will. It's good and well to show off your strength and really press into these frets. The strings will discipline you. You'll build up callouses like this one here” and he tapped my fingertip. “Those callouses will help you. Makes you tough. Gives you hands like mine. Hell. He lifted his hand, worn and weathered, calloused and hardened by the years and scratched at his scraggly white beard. “But sometimes you need a more gentle touch.” He paused, possibly to consider what he was saying. “A more gentle touch, Andrew. That's when you really hear the beauty.” He looked past my shoulder at his wife of 60-plus years, Gwen; his wife who would pass a mere five months later.

“You'd be amazed at the beauty, my boy. You'd be amazed.”

The next Christmas was the last we spent at Pa's house. His wife passed in May of that year and Pa was slowly dying of heartache. I used to have my dad drive me over to his house for chats. We spent most of our time together talking about old music, old times, and his wife. I went there to spend time with him, to help him clean up, to help him haul firewood from the backyard to the fireplace in the dining room.
And I went for the occasional guitar lesson.

That Christmas, after dinner was drawing to a close, Pa hoisted himself up with his cane and excused himself from the table. My grandmother got up to help him to his feet and he protested, “Get the hell off, goddammit. I've been able to stand up on my own two goddamn feet for 80 years, I certainly don't need any help now,” then shuffled his way back into the living room. The family stayed at the table, gave each other exasperated glances of worry for dear old Pa. “He's not well,” “His heart is broken,” “I don't think he has much longer.”

I excused myself and followed him into the living room, found him sitting in his easy chair. He was hunched over a TV tray, examining a newspaper with a magnifying glass.

“Heya, Pa.”

He looked up, saw me squinting at the newspaper, trying to figure out what he was reading.

“What the hell's the matter with ya?” His customary greeting.

“Nothing, Pa. Full from dinner. Whatcha reading there?”

“Obituaries. I've outlasted all these poor bastards. Just look at me. I'm in the prime of my life!”

I laughed. “Yeah, I should say so. Hey, so I learned a new song I wanted to play for you. Want to hear it?”

“Aw, hell, can't you let me read for a minute?”

I shrugged. “Yeah, that's fine,” and started rifling through his old records, pulling out some of them and turning them over in my hands. “Oh! Pa! It's this one!” I held up an old Hank Williams record. One of his favorites.

“Aw, hell, go ahead and play yer damned song then.”

I knew he would say that.

So I made my way over to his guitar, picked it up, and assumed my regular position on the edge of the coffee table. Sat directly across from him, so he could see the chords. Gently and slowly I strummed a C, first the root, then the bass—an old country and western strumming pattern he had taught me. Switched to the F, to the G, then back to the C. First the root, then the bass, in ¾ time:

I heard the lonesome whippoorwill
he sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low
I'm so lonesome I could cry

I sang the song, sweet and low, with my eyes closed, then ended it with a harmonic on the twelfth fret of the G-string. For good measure.

And as the overtone rose up and swelled in mid-air, I opened my eyes and looked up at Pa to see if my song had gotten his approval. I was surprised to see that his eyes were still closed—closed eyes and a blank, expressionless face. One tear streaked down his wrinkled face and was lost in his beard.

I had never seen Pa cry before. Not even at his wife's funeral, not even when we drove away from her grave. I was surprised at how little it bothered me. How little it bothered me to see this 84 year old man, who had always stood out to me as a pillar of manhood, who always kept his strength, who never showed weakness, sitting across from me and shedding his brazen exterior to reveal the man underneath it all. I was surprised, in the low light of his living room, with just the two of us—the oldest and the youngest man of the family—and his guitar in my lap, the only thing between us, at how beautiful it was. How beautiful it was to see this gentle spirit that I had never seen before, and in a month's time, never see again.

You'd be amazed at the beauty, my boy. You'd be amazed.

I'm still learning.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Entry 24: "A Fable" by William Faulkner (1955)

Of all the books I could have chosen to read in one day, my only day off work this week, I just had to pick William Faulkner's 1955 Pulitzer-winner A Fable.


That's how my brain feels right now.

I struggled all the way through this book and I'm even finding it difficult coming up with the words to describe the experience reading it. The story is a good one, but is drowned in an ocean of language and stream and consciousness narrative and intentional ambiguity and paragraphs that last for pages and sentences that stretch over two or more pages with excessive commas, semicolons, and M-dashes to the point of the reader throwing the book against the wall in a fit of rage and in hopes of the book exploding in a flurry of pages flying everywhere, hitting themselves repetitively over the head with it until they pass out if the book's dizzying effect hasn't made them pass out on its own. *deep breath*

I like how one reviewer from Amazon put it: "...his stream of consciousness writing results in the reader becoming unconscious." That sums it up quite nicely.

Of course, this is all true to form for William Faulkner—very familiar territory. Faulkner, one of the most esteemed, prolific, and influential American writers of the 20th century, has oft been cited as the American Shakespeare (don't ask me by whom), but I'd like to offer that Faulkner is more like the American James Joyce. I've read quite a bit of Joyce, like A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and even all of Ulysses, and Faulkner's novels The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and A Fable, apparently, prove themselves to be prototypical of the Joycean stylings. William Faulkner's novels are never for everyone, and that may be doubly true of A Fable. This novel is Faulkner being Faulkner at his most brilliant and complicated.

And, of course, I just had to pick the book that Faulkner lets his Faulkner flag in all of its complicated, convoluted glory to read in one day.

Based on all of the other reviews I read of this book, A Fable is apparently Faulkner's densest work. I even read another Pulitzer reader's blog—a reader whose goal was to read all of the Pulitzers in five years—and he admitted that A Fable is the novel that almost sunk him; he almost gave up the project entirely because of William Faulkner, and he had only gotten halfway through his journey! Another reviewer stated that he once did a comprehensive study of William Faulkner's work, and, while most of his novels took him about a week to finish, A Fable took him nearly a year of reading and re-reading.

I, on the other hand, committed myself to starting and finishing this book in one day. Because I'm an idiot.

Now, even though I managed to, somehow, do it, and even managed to, again, somehow, at least comprehend the main story, I will admit that I didn't devote to this novel nearly the attention it commands from its reader. In fact, as I described it to my friends at work (yes, I did go to Peet's on my day off just to read) while I was reading it, it seemed like so much less of a novel, and more like a psychological challenge—it was as if Faulkner didn't invite me into his home to tell me a story, so much as he dared me to follow him on a winding, unbeaten path in a dark, scary forest. A better analogy, I guess, is that he dared me to follow him into an unlit, underground tunnel; but the good news is that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Just like Joyce (with his Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, most notably), Faulkner really makes you earn his endings. It's an epic struggle making your way toward the light at the end of the tunnel, but it's well worth the struggle when you step into the sunlight. Just like most of his novels, a lot of the narrative in the beginning and middle don't really come together until the very end of the novel, sometimes not even until the last few pages. Unfortunately, because I wasn't giving A Fable the time it deserved, I didn't pick up on all of the little nuances that make a Faulkner novel a Faulkner novel—this is my own fault, but, when this Pulitzer Project is over and done with, you can bet your bottom dollar that I'll be revisiting this one with a pen and journal to take notes.

Unlike some of the other novels I've read along this journey, A Fable is not at all one that can be read passively. It takes a lot of focus, concentration, and even willpower to forge your way

The other thing that surprised me about this novel (besides how incredibly dense it was) was that it isn't set in Yoknapatawpha—the fictional county that Faulkner sets a lot of his works in. More surprisingly, this novel wasn't set in the American South, nor even America at all (though there is one flashback scene that does take place in the South)! Rather, it was an anti-war novel set in France during World War I.

On the surface, it is the story of a French corporal and twelve of his officers who "corrupt" a brigade of 3,000 soldiers into not attacking the enemy, rather, staying in their trench and not fighting at all—this mutiny, as it is declared, eventually leads to their being court marshaled and, ultimately, executed. The anti-war sentiments of this novel are displayed, not in the mutiny, but in the Germans' reaction to the mutiny—rather than charging the lines and obliterating the French mutineers, they lay down their arms and stay in their trenches as well. This bizarre event leads to the end of the war after four years of bloodshed and horror. Of course, the thing Faulkner is saying here is, "If there were no armies, there would be no war; and if there were no war, there would be no senseless killing."

However, as the title, A Fable, indicates, this novel is so much more than your everyday anti-war novel. In fact, it's a really thinly disguised allegory. The corporal and twelve officers (by no means an arbitrary number) who protested fighting by performing a "sit in," as it were, and were court marshaled, arrested, and executed are actually metaphorical for Jesus, his disciples, and the passion of the Christ—a man who died for the sins of society, and not for anything he did or didn't do. Faulkner even takes this metaphor down to every jot and tittle during the execution scene: Jesus was arrested, the corporal was arrested; Jesus was marched through the streets of Jerusalem, the corporal was marched through the streets of France; Jesus was spat at and mocked by onlookers, the corporal suffered the same; Jesus was nailed to a wooden cross, the corporal was tied to a wooden post; Jesus wore a crown of thorns, the corporal's head got wrapped in barbed wire; and Jesus was crucified between two thieves, the corporal was executed between two officers.

And, in the end, Faulkner leaves the reader with mixed reactions; on the one hand, it is an anti-war novel as it celebrates pacifism. However, the novel is sprinkled with quotes like this one that make it difficult to gauge what Faulkner is really saying: "Isn't the war over?" one of the men said. "The sergeant-major turned almost savagely. "But not the army," he said. "How do you expect peace to put an end to an army when even war can't?" Then, right before the corporal is executed, the Generalissimo tries to convince him that war can never be stopped because it is the essence of humanity (this, of course, is metaphorical of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness).

I'll be honest—I was actually really disappointed with this one; but, again, that's mostly of my own doing. Rather than devoting the time and energy the novel deserved, I went with my foolhardy decision to read an entire novel in one day. This practice is probably unhealthy for any of the novels I'll be reading along this journey, but it was especially true of this one. I probably couldn't even properly read this novel in one week, let alone one day.

However, and this was the most disappointing aspect for me, the only reason I chose to read Faulkner in the first place was because Josephine Johnson and Shirley Anne Grau had put me in the mood for Southern Gothic literature—I was so enchanted by their novels that I wasn't completely prepared to leave that place. So, knowing that Faulkner was one of the most prolific of Southern Gothic novelists, I chose to read his first Pulitzer-winner. As you can imagine, after about ten or so pages, about the point when I realized that this novel was going to be solely about World War I, I was pretty disappointed.

Even more frustratingly, I chose what will probably prove itself to be one of the most intellectually challenging novels to read of all the Pulitzers, and I chose to read it in one day—my day off. I set out thinking that today was going to be a great day to kick back with a Pulitzer and relax. Instead, it turned out to be an altogether too grueling battle between Faulkner's prose and me that left me irritable, on edge, and mentally exhausted. My mind was so brutally pummeled by A Fable, that it actually led to a headache that spread throughout my body, infecting every muscle, joint, and sinew. I had to take hour-long breaks from it just to recuperate! I'd set the book aside and smoke a cigarette, or watch a DVD, or play guitar, or even take a quick nap in order to restore just enough energy to last me another 50 or so pages.

However, despite the struggles, despite the turmoil, despite the headaches and heartaches, I can ironically say that I enjoyed this "fable" and am really looking forward to revisiting it after Joshua and I have reached our destination. The bottom line here is this: this novel is the epitome of Faulkner being Faulkner; however, the conclusion of A Fable is considerably worth the effort the story requires.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Entry 23: "The Keepers of the House" by Shirley Anne Grau (1965)

I think I may have found my newest favorite form of literature: Southern Gothic. I am, of course, referring to the literary movement that is a subgenre of gothic fiction (with authors like Anne Radcliffe, Bram Stoker, and Mary Shelley) that is specific to the southern United States. Southern gothic literature got its start in the early 1900's, during the Modernist movement, and has blanketed authors like John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Tennesse Williams, Truman Capote, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O'Connor, the infamous John Kennedy Toole, and, as I've recently discovered, Shirley Anne Grau.

I can't quite put my finger on one specific reason I've fallen so in love with this genre—there are so many things about it that absolutely enchant me.

There's a certain sense of mystery that prevails throughout the novels, an eerie suspense that keeps you on the edge of your seat, a darkness that lurks in the woods surrounding the property, a ghost in the closet, an endless highway that stretches long into the night, the devil playing blues music on acoustic guitar at the corner of two dusty crossroads. The novels bring me into this dark, demented, spiritual place that terrifies me, but hypnotizes me; I don't want to be there, but I can't bring myself to ever leave (which is the reason why I'll be reading A Fable, by William Faulkner, next).

So far, every example of Southern Gothic I've read has been fantastic—Shirley Anne Grau's 1965 Pulitzer-winning The Keepers of the House is no exception.

I had pretty high expectations for this book going in because of the amount Joshua—who read this book at the outset of this project—hyped it up and I'm happy to report that I was not let down. It took me a while to get through it, just because I kept putting it off, but the only reason I kept putting it off was because I wanted the book to last longer. Normally, with a book like this (like Now In November and Gilead, for example), I love it so much that I race through it because I can't put it down. This time, I wanted to savor the book. I wanted it to last. I didn't want to leave the titled house that Grau invited me into. I had kicked off my shoes, reclined on the couch, and watched the family drama unfold from one generation to the next from that one place on the couch, and despite the discomfort that Grau put me in with her narrative, I felt obliged to be there.

The Keepers of the House is the story of a family through three generations and uses the family home as the pivot point of the novel—even though the story is epic in scope and far-reaching, telling story after story after story through these three generations, by keeping the house as the central "character" in the novel, the character that all of the stories and other characters revolve around, their stories, and the overall arc of the novel, are easy to follow and understand. This is a concept I earlier discussed in my review of Philip Roth's American Pastoral—the novel is even more epic than Grau's, but it's still accessible because of Roth's maintaining his focus on one specific family and the stories that surround them. The same is true of The Keepers of the House—in this novel, Grau confronts racism, interracial relationships, war, group violence, motherhood, fatherhood, family, religion, politics; she runs the gambit of hot topics of her day (this book was written just as the American Civil Rights Movement was gaining steam) and she does so in a really accessible, easy-to-follow fashion, never getting off track, never disinteresting the reader, and never getting preachy.

And, true to Southern Gothic fashion, she creates a world so full of mystery, so full of intrigue, so full of regrets and hopes, dreams and nightmares. This quote, from Wikipedia, really sums up quite nicely what Southern Gothic is and, after having read it, I can say now that The Keepers of the House is almost a prototypical representative for Southern Gothic literature—it has all of the basic elements:
One of the most notable features of the Southern Gothic is "the grotesque" - this includes situations, places, or stock characters that often possess some cringe-inducing qualities—typically racial bigotry and egotistical self-righteousness—but enough good traits that readers find themselves interested nevertheless. Southern Gothic authors commonly use deeply flawed, grotesque characters for greater narrative range and more opportunities to highlight unpleasant aspects of Southern culture, without being too literal or appearing to be overly moralistic. Tennessee Williams described Southern Gothic as a style that captured "an intuition, of an underlying dreadfulness in modern experience." However, the genre was itself open to criticism, even by its alleged practitioners. As Flannery O'Connor remarked, "anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic."
In this novel, Grau introduces the reader to some of the most twisted and perverted characters one will come across. The racism and bigotry that pervades this novel is almost overwhelming, and the racial tension keeps the reader in suspense all the way up until the culmination of the tension results in a near-deadly fire set by an angry mob at Abigail Howland's homestead. The ugliness of some of the events and characters in this book truly are grotesque.

Despite the grotesque, though, there's something quite moving about this novel. There's something to be said for the loyalty to family, for the coexistence of two races, for the ardent desire to be free from social norms and dictations. I really have discovered my new favorite subgenre and I want to stay in this place for a while.

1955's Pulitzer-winning novel, A Fable, by William Faulkner—you're next.