Some technical issues, as well as finals issues, have caused a slight extension of the discussions of our Read This! title this go-around - we'll still be posting to Matthew Eck and The Farther Shore links at least through the weekend instead of stopping tomorrow.
Today, however, there was an Eck spotting online, as CAAF got Matthew to write a "5x5" post over at About Last Night!
I first heard of Matthew Eck, and his novel, last year at AWP. I was walking the floor of the various booths and tables and bumped into him at the Pleiades location - he's their Fiction Editor. We chatted for a bit and during the course of our conversation about books, I found out his own book, The Farther Shore, his debut, would be coming out from Milkweed the following year, though, I recall having to drag the fact out of him. Wandering over to the Milkweed booth a short while later, I realized just what a poor job Matthew was doing in regards to the author being his/her own publicist. According to the Milkweed catalogue, The Farther Shore was their National Fiction Prize Winner - leading Matthew to join such authors as Susan Straight, Larry Watson, and Gary Amdahl, to name a few. All I could think is that if I had won this prize, you couldn't stop me from dropping the fact into every conversation I had from that point forward. Milkweed's Marketing Manager, Emily Cook, both assured me that she thought I'd love the book, and that I'd be seeing a copy for sure.
As you might imagine, many books do find their way to my home. Be it via publishers as review copies, titles I buy on my own, or those loaned or given to me by friends, many titles arrive that while I sincerely hope to spend time with them, it just never happens. There just aren't enough hours in the day. Each and every one is looked at though. All of them are cracked open at the very least.
The Farther Shore begins:
It was full dark, midnight, and heat like that should have disappeared. Then the bombing started. Those poor souls, the poor fucks of the city, had no idea we were watching from the rooftop of the tallest building in town, six sets of eyes in the night, calling in rounds from the circling AC-130 Spectres. When they fired too close to the city's edge we'd make a call for them to move further out, into the unknown. When they veered too far out over the desert, we made another call. It was a tightrope, a balancing act, a burden we adored. We were spotters on the roof, recon in a city controlled by warlords and their clans.
It's the type of beginning that reels me in as a reader - the writing is spare, yet descriptive. A situation is revealed that leads me to believe there's room for an interesting plot. As I read further, I realized that Eck was fulfilling the promise of his opening paragraph. Before the first chapter is over, a firefight breaks out and the two or three pages it covers were read with increased speed as Eck very aptly switched gears and brought full-on excitement and action to the page, while maintaining the excellent use of language. There most certainly was going to be an interesting plot - a small group of soldiers get separated from the rest of their unit and need to find their way back, through warring clans safely.
When contemporary writers are compared to other contemporary writers, in regards to writing about war, a name frequently bandied about is Tim O'Brien. It must be a scary comparison for most new writers, having The Things They Carried on the other side of the scale your title is on. One area that I think Eck deserves this comparison is how he allows, or even expects, his readers to make determinations in regards to situations he's written of, especially the morality of the actions his protagonist, Josh Stanz, takes. Eck doesn't come out and say what is good or bad; he doesn't have Josh think about these things either - things that need to get done, do get done, and that's all there is to it. Eck allows the reader to decide whether or not the means justified the end.
Another aspect of Eck's writing that I found appealing was his usage of a specific scenario, and done so in a way that brought about common scenarios from various wars. And maybe not even wars, as in global fights, specifically. I think that Eck's writing and Stanz's dealings can even be applied to individuals not serving in the miliary during a war time. I think that the way Stanz goes about his life once separated from his unit, how he deals with his problem, is comparable to how anybody else has to deal with their own.
I'm very excited that my fellow LBC members also took a shine to Matthew Eck and The Farther Shore. We will be discussing the title here and the various LBC member websites the week of December 10 - I know there are a couple of interviews planned, a podcast interview planned, as well as some more detailed posts about The Farther Shore. We hope you'll Read This! and join us in the conversation.
Subjects Discussed: Post-apocalyptic novels with a sense of humor, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, allegorical representations of Jamestown, John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, Afghanistan, parallels to Iraq and other military blunders, creation and transposition of vernacular, people named John, Buckaroo Banzai, the Bruces Monty Python sketch, reluctant communications officers, Ed Park's review, the origins of the Internet, communicating into the void, mishearing things, the dangers of writing, New Journalism and the bus ride, As I Lay Dying, Susannah Meadows's tone-deaf review, on excluding certain reader sensibilities as a writer, and the plausibility factor.
EXCERPT FROM SHOW:
Sharpe: It's been pointed out to me quite a number of times that mine is one of a spate of post-apocalyptic novel to hit the stands in 2006, 2007. And the only one I have read is The Road and I actually just read it a couple of weeks ago. There is really one very funny bit. There are a couple of funny bits. I actually do think that Cormac McCarthy has a wonderful understated sense of humor. But it's not a laugh riot. I think -- I suppose I have a number of predecessors or influences, when I don't know if they're necessarily apocalyptic novelists, but they are certainly war novelists, who I think are very funny. And Vonnegut and Joseph Heller are two obvious ones. Haruki Murakami, I think, has a great sense of humor. Donald Barthelme's. I don't even think I would consider them war novelists, but he -- I've been influenced by the way that he writes about history. Even in short stories like "Cortez and Montezuma." And then Susie-Lori Parks, I think, also is somebody whose hilariously funny and scathing about history. So I suppose these are my novels more than apocalyptic novels, per se. I guess Philip K. Dick has written a number of futuristic novels -- again, not a hilariously funny guy. So I guess I'm not a terribly well-read person in areas of science fiction or even historical fiction. So I guess I'm deeply underqualified to be entering the genre. But I try to make up for it by being somewhat of a clown.
Though I've been thinking for a while now about what I could possibly say about Jamestown that hasn't already been said somewhere by somebody (for a few such things, see the collection of links I put together at my own blog), I don't really have any insight into the book that is in any way original or something that readers wouldn't figure out for themselves pretty easily.
I thought about writing a post about one of the things I like most about Matthew Sharpe, which is his first name. I'm in favor of it. Yes, it's a pretty common name, but nonetheless, in my experience, people named Matthew are extraordinarily intelligent, capable of stunning physical prowess, genial and warmhearted, and, well, more attractive than people named other things. But that's based purely on anecdotal evidence and personal experience. And according to this site, "Based on popular usage, it is 14.942 times more common for Matthew to be a boy's name." Does that mean that for every 14.942 guys named Matthew, there's a girl named Matthew? Interesting. Apparently, the parents of those female Matthews did not read down farther on that webpage and see the warning: "When naming your baby Matthew, it's important to consider the gender of
the name itself. When people look at the name Matthew, they might ask
the question, 'is Matthew a man or a woman?', or 'what is the gender of
the name Matthew?' Some names are more gender neutral than others, and
some names are more strongly associated with either males or females." (This has not stopped people from wondering if I am at least partially female, and the Gender Guesser usually thinks my writing is female. I haven't tested anything from Jamestown yet, though. I'm kind of hoping Matthew Sharpe's writing comes out as female, and not just the Pocahontas sections. There should be more of us Matthews who are female writers.)
I didn't think there was much material in the Matthew idea, though, and if there was it was probably just silly or even, at worst, embarrassingly narcissistic, so I decided against writing it up for a blog post. Instead, I went to the one page in Jamestown that I had stuck a little Post-It note on. It covered this paragraph:
I used the time to commit to memory one of the sonnets of Olena Kalytiak Davis, last Poet Laureate of the United States -- at the end of the time when there were such things as poets laureate, and states -- an endeavor in which I am indebted to you for allowing me free access to the closely guarded underground vaults of the erstwhile Brooklyn Public Library.
Upon rereading that paragraph, I immediately remembered not only why I had stuck a Post-It on it, but also why I was fond of this book. Because any book that imagines Olena Kalytiak Davis as Poet Laureate is okay by me.
Unless you keep a pretty good eye on contemporary poetry, it's unlikely you've heard of Olena Kalytiak Davis. You might have even thought to yourself, "Why that Matthew Sharpe, what with his fine sense of humor and his impeccable sense of rhythm, he came up with a durn good name in that there Olena Kalytiak Davis. That's a good one, that is. (Not as good as 'Matthew', but good nonetheless.)"
One of my all-time favorite poems is Davis's "Sweet Reader, Flanneled and Tulled", a poem I delight in reading aloud because of its playfulness and its rich, varied, physical sound -- it's a poem that wants to be danced and shouted and sung and whispered all at once.
I first discovered Davis's work when I attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in the summer of 2000, where she was also attending. Somebody said to me, "Don't miss Olena's reading!" and I think I said something like, "Who?", but thankfully that somebody, or another somebody, grabbed me and brought me to the reading, and then I understood why I shouldn't miss it. She read with energy and a good dramatic sense, and I was entranced. Those words of hers, those words! I immediately bought Davis's first collection, which is quite different in tone and approach from her more unbridled second, the one with sonnets.
Though I have a stated preference for keeping the U.S. Poet Laureateship in New Hampshire, I would not be against Olena Kalytiak Davis becoming Poet Laureate. In fact, I think she should move to New Hampshire so she can become Laureate soon. Would she be the Last Laureate? Well, in that case we'd probably be living in the world of Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown, and though I like the book, I don't really want to live in its universe. But if that's the only way...
Thanks to all who chose my novel as the summer's Read This title, and thanks for giving me this chance to guest blog on a topic of my choice. As for yesterday's sausage thoughts by Richard Nash: that's part of what's great about working with him and Soft Skull. I'll attempt to do here what I've seen Litblog Co-op members do so remarkably well, which is to write a brief informal essay on a recently published novel about which I have strong positive feelings, namely, Falling Man by Don DeLillo-an author no longer struggling to be noticed but whose books routinely used to sell fewer than 5,000 copies. This won't be a review but a sketch of a few ways I see that novel accomplishing its task of signification. One of the qualities of DeLillo's prose I've admired since I began reading him more than a dozen years ago is its analytic rigor, the way he can use a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph to bore into the texture and meaning of contemporary life. And one of the grammatical constructions he uses repeatedly as the vehicle for his insights is apposition, which is when two nouns or noun phrases, usually adjacent to each other in a sentence, have the same referent and stand in the same syntactical relation to the rest of the sentence, as in, “George W. Bush, the worst president in U.S. history, is on vacation.” Apposition allows a writer two or more passes in a row at coming up with a verbal equivalent for a given phenomenon, wherein each pass amplifies the others. The result can be a kind of verbal Cubism, a grammatical form of hopefulness in which each periphrastic utterance brings you closer to the truth of the subject under discussion. In a scene that takes place early in Falling Man, shortly after September 11, 2001, Keith, who escaped from his office on the upper floors of the north tower and is recuperating from minor injuries, is portrayed as follows: “He began to think into the day, into the minute. It was being here, alone in time, that made this happen, being away from routine stimulus, all the streaming forms of office discourse.” There are several felicitous turns of phrase and modifications here-DeLillo is one of my favorite wielders of a comma among contemporary writers-but I will limit myself to suggesting that not only is the first appositive phrase, “routine stimulus,” given specific embodiment in the second, “all the streaming forms of office discourse,” but the repetitions of vowels and consonants that constitute the sentence's melody serve as acoustical underscore to the semantic doubling of the apposition. In other words, part of what makes DeLillo good is that his sentences sound good, and that the sound reinforces the meaning by giving it a physical dimension, as in music or poetry. Or there's a passage about midway through the book where DeLillo describes lunchtime walks Keith takes with his best friend and officemate, Rumsey-before the terrorist attack-in which he tells us that Keith, being taller than his friend, “saw male pattern baldness develop in Rumsey, seemingly week by week.” And then: “Baldness in Rumsey, as it progressed, was a gentle melancholy, the pensive regret of a failed boy.” The mood of the first appositive phrase, “gentle melancholy,” gets its own mini-biography in the second, “the pensive regret of a failed boy.” The more striking equivalence in this sentence, though, is not the apposition but the way the concrete subject (baldness) and the abstract objects (gentle melancholy, pensive regret) are melded together by the verb was, becoming each other. So DeLillo the rigorous analyst of the texture of contemporary life is also a guy who regularly makes stuff be other stuff that it shouldn't logically be. A truly wacky apposition, the kind that so frustrates DeLillo's grassroots base of ardent detractors, and is exactly the sort of thing about his work that excites me, comes at the end of a paragraph about the erotic charge between Keith and his wife, Lianne, at the beginning of their acquaintance: “The rented beach house was sex, entering at night after the long stiff drive, her body feeling welded at the joints, and she'd hear the soft heave of the surf on the other side of the dunes, the thud and run, and this was the line of separation, the sound out there that marked an earthly pulse in the blood.” Well, “entering” is a dangling participle, among other grammatical infelicities, and while “thud and run” and “the sound out there” are clearly two phrases describing the same thing, how is either of them a “line of separation”? But DeLillo throughout his work has lavished attention on uses of language that aren't correct or don't quite make sense. His people make a hash of grammar-“Which, by the way, did you get my postcard?”-while he investigates everyday vernacular's routine betrayals of its own presumed sense-making efficacy-“Light-skinned black woman,” for example, or, in reference to the physical therapy Keith does for his injury from the tower, “He used the uninvolved hand to apply pressure to the involved hand.” DeLillo's people struggle valiantly with or against language as a way to get a foothold in their own chaotic lives, their insurmountable mortality, the terrifying world that is often the subject of his novels-as in this conjugation-gone-mad, the heartbreaking final written remark of an Alzheimer's patient with whom Lianne has been conducting weekly writing sessions: “Do we say goodbye, yes, going, am going, will be going, the last time go, will go.” Moments of verbal nonsense and misapprehension are DeLillo's way of representing the mind's-even the intact mind's-logic-transcending representation of the world. An apposition that violates the strict rules of grammar and sense replaces them with intuition's urge to find equivalence in disparate things. A mid-century Italian still life of some bottles in Lianne's mother's apartment reminds Lianne of the fallen towers, and, later, of her now-deceased mother. And the novel itself uses verbal quirks to unite disparate characters in resemblance: Lianne, to stave off Alzheimer's, counts backward from one hundred by sevens; her boy, Justin, refuses to speak except in monosyllables; Hammad, a 9/11 terrorist, recites repetitive prayers; Keith and his poker buddies take deep satisfaction in saying the words “five-card stud” at the beginning of each game, though this is the only version of poker they play. The correspondences and equivalencies in Falling Man are myriad. Of course, creating resonances among diverse characters, events, ideas, and objects is one of the tried and true ways novels make sense, but the job of any novel is to bend the verbal and thematic patterning to the shape of the events it seeks to make known-to shape form to content, if we may pretend for a moment that these are separable entities. And indeed, the interconnectedness of people and events does have a singular quiddity in this novel written by a man who used to be called “the chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction” (though no one seems to want to call him that anymore, maybe because what might once have looked like paranoia is now seeming-to paraphrase another 20th-century shaman, William Burroughs-more like a realistic assessment of the facts). This is a book about, among other things, how a single large-scale violent act altered the world by forcing things together: East and West, Islam and Christianity, fundamentalism and atheism, rage and contentment, worship and card game, husband and wife (ironically) and, of course, airplane and tower. DeLillo describes this last awful convergence at the end of Falling Man in one of the most powerful passages anywhere in his work. He marks the moment itself with a jarring and disorienting violation of grammar in the kind of sentence that makes Falling Man equal to the daunting task of limning that terrible day.