A few reasons why Louise Edrich and LaRose are amazing

(side note: I have an essay up on Orion about why insomnia can be a little beautiful, and an essay on Brain, Child about why I got rid of all my parenting books) 

I’ve been studying Louise Erdrich’s new novel LaRose these past mornings. It’s been awhile since I’ve read anything so great that I wanted to go over it, sentence by sentence, and figure out what the author is doing and how the heck she does this (books I’ve done this with in the past: Wolf Hall (many times), Alice Munro’s short stories, Alice McDermott’s Someone) (I’m noting that these are all women authors–I wonder if there’s something specifically female in their use of language that makes me want to study their writing).

I love Erdrich’s dialogue, which sparkles, sparks, and is often hilarious. Her characters argue with fierceness but also with this underlying love (versus my own characters, who seem to argue with this biting meanness or detachment which I sometimes wish wasn’t there). Erdrich is not afraid to use exclamation points. And I find it interesting she doesn’t use quotation marks to note dialogue (despite my googling skills, I’ve been unable to pull up an interview where she reveals why. What came up, instead, were readers irritated at Erdrich for not using quotation marks. The Guardian has an interesting little essay about not using quotation marks, in which an author suggests quotation mark-less dialogue is “more immediate, more with it.” I can see how it flows more smoothly, perhaps seems more spoken.) 

Here’s some dialogue that I loved between a married couple, Peter and Nola Ravich. Some background, which will probably be very confusing (sorry): the Ravich’s next door neighbor, Landreaux Iron, accidentally shot and killed the Ravich’s son Dusty, so the Irons gave their own son LaRose to the Ravichs. Now Emmaline Iron (LaRose’s mom) wants LaRose back for good. Peter is trying to explain this to Nola and thinks it might help if Nola talks to Emmaline herself. I find the line about Landreaux’s height so funny, where Peter tries to say he’s practically the same height too. Nola’s cruelty when imitating Emmaline is so pointed and precise, and the shift in conversation, when Nola says she would kill Landreaux for Peter, is breathtaking. Throughout it all this warmth between Peter and Nola remains.  (I also think Erdrich is a master of really short paragraphs!)

“Two days later, he tried to have the conversation.

I just don’t like her, Peter, I don’t, because she is a self-righteous bitch.

Why do you say that?

Peter had read magazine articles that advised questions when you wanted to divert a way of thinking in another person. Or you wanted to stall.

Why? he asked again, then ventured. She’s your sister. You could try.

Okay, I’ll tell you why I can’t try. She’s got that program director’s attitude for one thing. Like, here’s Emmaline. Posing at her desk. Wehwehweh. I can listen. Listen with my hands folded and my head cocked. You know? Emmaline puts on her listening mask and behind that mask she’s judging you.

They were outside, at the edge of the yard. Nola ripped up a stalk of grass and put the end in her mouth. She narrowed her eyes and stared out over the horizon, that line at the end of the cornfields, between the sweeping coves of trees.

For emphasis she dipped her head to each side. Right. And left. Judging me.

She tossed the stalk of grass away.

Oh, I guess I could. Talk to her. If she would give back LaRose.  

Peter glanced at the ground, disguising his hope.

It’s been four days. I get it, said Nola. I really do.

I never said.

But I get it.

Peter nodded, encouraged.

I mean, it’s wrong, but I get it. She’s holding him hostage because she wants my attention. She wants me to be like, Oh, Emmaline, how are you, how is your project, your big deal, your this, your that, your girls that Maggie likes so much? How generous you are, Emmaline, what a big-time traditional person to give your son away to a white man and almost white sister who is just so pitiful, so stark raving. So like her mother that Marn who had the snakes. People never forget around here. And they will never forget this either. It will be Emmaline Iron the good strong whaddyacallit, Ogema-ikwe. The woman who forever stuck by that big load Landreaux and even straightened him out so he could, so he could . . . I’m just saying I would kill him for you. I see your face when you’re chopping wood. I’d kill him for you if it wasn’t for LaRose. So their damn unbelievable plan worked its wonder because now I’m better.

Peter questioned that now, but said nothing.

And nobody’s going to kill the big freak. He’s too fucking tall.

He’s only six three, murmured Peter. I’m six two.

I hope our son doesn’t get that tall. I hope LaRose doesn’t turn into a killer hulk.

It’s been a while now, said Peter.

Yeah, the years have gone by, haven’t they, Nola said.  

I love Erdrich’s depictions of imperfect families and imperfect marriages — couples and parents trying to love their spouses and families and sometimes failing, but still putting up with it. Nola and her daughter Maggie were particularly interesting to me.  Maggie, at first, seems to have oppositional defiant disorder. She is hateful and manipulative and cruel. (On LaRose’s first night at the Ravich’s house, Maggie kicks LaRose out of bed and onto the floor. “What are you crying for, baby? she said. LaRose began to sob, low and profound. Maggie felt blackness surge up in her. You want Mom-mee? Mom-mee? She’s gone. She and your daddy left you here to be my brother like Dusty was. But I don’t want you.”) (though LaRose and Maggie do end up loving each other and become very close). On the other hand, Nola, the mother, treats her daughter with cruelty and really hates her daughter, especially in beginning (“Nola’s eyes followed her daughter, sour death rays. She had raised a monster whom she hated with all the black oils of her heart but whom she also loved with a deadly confused despair”). It’s a complex and very real relationship. 

Erdrich has some great descriptions of less than perfect marriages too. In the Iron household, wife Emmaline is struggling to connect with her husband Landreaux after the accidental shooting which changed/ruined their life. Yet they remain married, and though their love has changed, it’s still love, I think. I don’t often get to read about unsatisfying love in a marriage where a couple stays married. 

Emmaline would not check out if he did; she would survive for the kids. For herself. Also, the good stuff was in question. Emmaline had put a wall up, Landreaux thought. He even pictured it— brick but at least there were gaps, maybe windows. Sometimes she reached both hands through, unclenched, and Landreaux hurriedly clasped her from the lonely side. He understood the wall as blame for what happened. He did not understand when she said he was asleep. His eyes were open. He was driving. He was pulling up in Ottie’s driveway.

And one last scene between Emmaline and Landreaux….I love how, in the excerpt below, Landreaux is trying to keep/accept Emmaline’s love, whatever she can offer him—which is different than what she offered before, when they first met and fell and love. Landreaux is trying to make this lesser or at least different love be enough. There’s some grief in that, some loss–but I love the image at the end, where Emmaline imagines she and Landreaux together, not in some idyllic paradise but in a slough with a “muck bottom” where “ducks batter their way across and up,” the place where Landreaux almost got killed. Probably not the place either of them want to be, but that’s where they are, and they’re there together.

He went straight to her, bent over and put his arms around his wife sitting in the chair. She put her hand up and held his arm. The kitchen light was harsh. She closed her eyes and leaned back. He pushed his chin lightly along the crown of her head.

You smell like outside, she said.

She kept her hand on his arm, frail gesture. Hardly the way a woman treats her husband when she’s become aware that it might be her cousin Zack who comes to the door. Hardly. Something, though. The hand on his arm hardly represented what had been their passionate marriage, their once-upon-a-reservation storybook time. She just held his arm. He leaned over her, his elbows on the back of the chair. Leaning wasn’t much, when compared to how they used to push a chair under the doorknob in a cheap motel where the lock was broken. They used to think they were something special. Lucky. They used to say they were sure nobody else had ever been this happy, ever been this much in love. They used to say, We will get old together. Will you still love me when I’m shriveled up? I will love you even better. You’ll be sweeter. Like a raisin. Or a prune. We’ll be eating prunes together. That’s the way they used to talk. But now they were tasting the goddamn green plums, weren’t they. Bitter. What about me? Will you love me? I don’t know, it depends on where you shrivel up. That’s the way they used to talk.

Landreaux straightened up and got two glasses of water. He sat down in another chair. Emmaline felt a surge of fear that suddenly contained what might be, could be, identified as possibility. She took a drink of water and closed her eyes. She saw a slough thick with reeds, muck bottom, tangled, both deep and shallow. She saw the ducks batter their way across and up. She saw herself, Landreaux beside her. She saw them both wade in together.

A friend of mine is considering reading all of Erdrich’s novels. I’m considering doing this as well, the problem being I have literally several hundred books on my to read list right now. I’d like to do this with Munro as well, read all of her work. I think it would be fascinating comparing the writing styles of Erdrich and Munro. Both write so exactly but without overdoing it. I never feel a forced lyricism or romanticism when I’m reading them. Erdrich’s books have a warmness to them, a connection to the community, while Munro’s characters seem often to isolate themselves, or be isolated. I feel like Munro is always looking to the landscape and rooms and people’s dress as a mirror to a person’s emotions. Erdrich does this but sparingly (although she does have a great description of Nola’s uncluttered sterile house, though that comes so late in the novel–until then we never really see the rooms that the characters live in). Hmmm, and why not throw in Alice McDermott too? Perhaps I see more similarities between McDermott and Edrich–McDermott’s novel Someone had such an underlying foundation of love, despite the various tragedies that cropped up, as does LaRose.

Secret anti-plot hidden messages

and two publications

Side note #1: my novella "Over There" is out in the latest issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review. It's not exactly a beach read. Sometimes I wonder if it's perhaps the least commercially viable piece of fiction I've written -- a dark, violent, slightly experimental novella of all things about motherhood and torture in the Iraq war. Who in their right mind would publish something like that? Who in their right mind would spend months and months (I am underestimating the amount of time here) researching and writing something like that? On the other hand, I'm glad I wrote it. I wanted to investigate and try to understand how someone raises and loves a child after participating in really terrible things. Now I think I understand that more. I'm very grateful to the Alaska Quarterly Review for publishing a piece like this. They've published two other stories of mine in the past few years, both dark, violent, disturbing and rather humorless stories, that I think a lot of other journals might shy away from. I appreciate that the AQR takes risks and still sees the value of a story beyond its entertainment value. 

Side note #2: I also have a brief story up on Terraform from Earth Day. The story is from this project that has exploded all over my desk, which I'm trying actively to ignore now, but I will have to deal with it soon. I've read a lot of non-fiction these past two years about the environmental crisis, during which I started thinking the world would really be better off without us humans on it, so I wanted to examine that idea further by writing about it. This project concerns the future, computer games, the last generation of humans, auto-extinction (a word my husband claims to have made up but I love it), suicide, and beauty. It's supposed to be an optimistic project but either my characters or I keep seeming to forget this fact. The project now looks like it will be several million pages long. Commercially viable? Hmmmm.

In order to avoid working on that project / desk issue described above, I decided to clean up other areas of my desk, at which time I came across this folded sheet of legal paper that I found last year. The paper had been slipped inside the pages of a library book. I still have this fantasy, leftover from my childhood, of finding a really exciting note slipped into a book that would be the start of this great adventure or mystery: a clue, a map, a spell, etc. Instead, what I found was a woman's brief answers to a quiz from 2011. I kind of love that as an anti-plot twist. Actually I love a lot of things about what the woman wrote and how she wrote. The grammar of the voice. Her description of her eyes changing color (in answer #3 - read it - it's beautiful and eerie!). The slight feeling of a formal performance--it is a test after all--though it seems heartfelt as well. It's a reminder for me about what makes a voice believable. The small turns of phrase (how the opening that jumps right into the sentence ("Since I can remember..."). I would have written it, "Ever since I can remember," which is so much more stilted). The little surprising revelations (wanting to enjoy and slow down even the bad stuff in one's life). Or what is crossed out. 

Emotional truth versus realism

A Poem from The Crossover

The existence of the novel-in-verse YA genre strikes me as so unlikely. Who would have thought such a specific form could exist let alone be appealing and keep winning a lot of Newberry Awards? Speaking as an ex-poet, I love how a novel-in-verse can give poetry a cohesive story and, in doing so, makes poetry feel so much more relevant and enjoyable. It also can strip away unnecessary description and maneuvering from fiction, streamlining the voice in this very powerful way. Inside Out and Back Again, Brown Girl Dreaming, Out of the Dust, and Crank are a few great novels-in-verse  I've enjoyed. So during a recent trip to the library, while lugging bags around containing honestly 50 pounds of graphic novels for my son, I spied The Crossover and gladly checked it out. Told in free verse, The Crossover won the Newberry Award in 2015. It's a story of twins, Josh and Jordan, talented in basketball, and about their relationship to each other and to their father.   

The most powerful poem of The Crossover for me is "Questions." Josh's dad is in the hospital, Josh is angry, he's just sat beside his father, and after the two of them stare at each other for 10 minutes in silence, the dad suggests they take turns asking questions but not answering them. While I can imagine characters thinking these questions, I can't imagine characters speaking most of these questions out loud, and I wondered for a while whether the non-realism effects the powerfulness of the interchange. In the end I decided so what if this dialogue would never happen in reality: these words capture the emotional truth of the relationship and the situation so well that I don't think extreme realism matters here.

This idea of capturing emotional truth rather than reality reminds me of several passages from Tom Bissell's great essay about Warner Herzog, "The Secret Mainstream." Herzog occasionally scripts dialogue or action for his documentary subjects who, at least in the examples Bissell cites, don't seem to mind as the scripted parts get at the emotional truth of these people maybe better than their actual life does. Here's one example as described by Bissell: "In Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), Herzog’s astonishing documentary about the escape and survival of a German-American pilot named Dieter Dengler from a Pathet Lao prison camp in 1966, Herzog shows us Dengler entering his San Francisco home, whereupon he opens and closes the front door several times before entering. “Most people,” Dengler explains, “don’t realize how important it is, and the privilege that we have, to be able to open and close the door. That’s the habit I got into, and so be it.” Dengler did not actually have this habit. In fact, it was Herzog’s idea. While it embodied a real feeling Dengler had, it was not a real activity. Assigning to Dengler an activity he did not engage in is what Herzog has called “the ecstatic truth,” wherein literal accuracy cedes its ground to emotional accuracy, a subjective realm entered through manipulation and fabrication."

Two publications and a great book without words

Penny, The Sun, and The Only Child

I have a short piece out in Penny, a cool new journal that pairs a writer with an illustrator (the illustrator for my story was Brandon Reese), as well as offering interesting writing and drawing prompts. I started writing flash pieces about a year and a half ago, when I was bogged down in a slightly experimental novel about the Iraq war, and it was so freeing to work within a 1,000 or 1500 word limit. And fun! I mean, the revision process just can't go on for months or longer (one hopes) if your story is only a few pages long. Penny's limit is 500 words and it is such a pleasure to work within those constraints.

Also in the March issue of The Sun I have a short story "The Portal." Back in 2003 The Sun published my first real short story--about a girl who is trying very hard to be a miraculous saint. The story, and that acceptance, convinced me that I really could be a fiction writer (I was a poet at the time), so it was great to work that magazine again. Not to mention that in "The Portal" I finally got to channel my decades of longing for a real portal to open up and take me to another world. (Do most people outgrow this kind of longing? I might say I wish I could, but if I was totally happy in this world, I probably would give up writing.)

On the topic of longing for other worlds: Stella and I spent the last few days reading The Only Child (by Guojing), a wordless book told in heartbreakingly lovely pictures, and I really savored that time with her. Stella is in first grade and these days prefers long chapter books, ideally books with scary things in it, such as monsters, adventures, and danger (I'm glad I snuck in the Little House books with her when I could). Or, now that she is reading. she wants to spend our time reading Elephant and Piggy books to me. It feels like my days of reading great picture books to her (and maybe reading aloud to her in general?) are numbered. The Only Child was perfect for us though, as we took turns telling each other the story that was happening on each page - I told the story on the left page, she told the story on the right. It's about a child who is left alone one day because her parents need to work. The child leaves the apartment and takes the bus by herself, hopefully to go find her grandmother. But she becomes lost and enters a warm and compassionate fantasy world instead.  

only-child-1a

Random Thoughts I’ll Compile Here Since I Haven’t Posted Anything For Months

Writing about suicide: Adam Johnson's fabulous short story "Nirvana" (from Fortune Smiles) and the YA book All the Bright Places have gotten me thinking about the challenge of how to bring suicide into a story. Johnson does a great job of the narrator husband struggling to love his depressed and probably suicidal wife who can't stop listening to Nirvana (the band) and will probably be unable to get out of bed for the rest of her life. How do you create love in that setting? It's a powerful, moving story. Though honestly I could not put All the Bright Places down, I found Finch, the suicidal bi-polar boy, to be a bit too charming. What if he was just depressed? What if he wasn't so likable in his manic phase? What would the story be like then? It did feel like Violet (popular pretty girl who is struggling with older sister's death) only knew, and perhaps could have only loved, Finch as his manic self. Was it really love then? The thing about teenage love, I suppose, is that it has less strings attached than, let's say, marital love with house and kids. Though it's sad to leave it behind, you could more easily. Had Finch only been depressed, I'm guessing Violet would have never fallen in love with him in the first place (or if she had been able to fall in love with him, that would have been a very interesting and complex story). For my own writing, I was pondering if the least interesting point of view in a story about suicide was the suicidal person's point of view. Why would this be? And who to tell the story from then?  

YA tropes: though I love really, really YA, some of the repeating tropes are starting to get a little old for me. The cute outsider boy in a band. The boy who likes the girl who eventually likes him back. The awful parents. The clueless parents. The absent parents. The parents who are the cause of the characters' problems. Are parents of teenagers actually so terrible?

YA books that transcend those tropes: Picture Me Gone (a girl who has a close relationship with her parents, her parents are good, they do make mistakes but everyone works past that - it's also a great mystery); Tamar (historic World War II novel about resistance in the Netherlands. Parents make mistakes but it also shows the parents, or in this case the grandparents, at a young age making those mistakes, and it shows the complexity of how a mistake is made, and then having to live with those mistakes); The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (I don't remember there being any romance in this book, finally. Instead it is brutal, honest, breathtaking account of race and the American Revolution ); The Summer Prince (the prince loves the narrator's best friend (a boy) but also loves the narrator (a girl). In fact he has gotten some tech alterations and now loves everyone, including the city -- can that still be love? And the girl loves the prince....it was kind of mind-blowing to see a different set up of teen relationships here);  

Where are the YA books where: nobody likes anybody romantically; people like each other but then those people like other people for the entire book; people like everybody; the parents are good and doing their best; kids cause their own problems; there is not some revelation at the end and it's just really messy

Children Writing Books

Stella wants to be a writer / personal trainer when she grows up. Some nights she drags out my exercise equipment and encourages me to do the really complicated exercises she dreams up. Other evenings she spends working on her writing. Being a first grader, she's smack in the middle of learning to read / write / spell, which sounds like a magical time, when words stop being symbols and they start clicking into focus. She wrote some of her first independent sentences for this book she made in honor of her cousin Andre's first birthday. Seeing her work so hard on her word choice, and what happens next, and what she wanted to communicate to her reader made me think that writing when you're 6 isn't a whole lot different than writing when you're older, only my 6 year old seems less anguished about it. In fact she radiated pure joy every time she got down a sentence. I love the sweetness of her plot and how everybody in her story is happy. I wish it was possible to write like that as an adult. Here's the text / translation of Stella's story. 

hi
Clap clap cat said baby andre.
The baby andre had a cat. Did the baby andre have a dog? 
Baby andre did not have a dog. Hi stella said baby andre.
Little baby andre hid with stella.
Baby andre played with stella.
Baby andre laughed with stella.
Baby Andre pretended to fly. Stella did too.
Baby Andre climbed and ran. Stella did too.
Love stella

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Family Art

Hillerbrand+Magsamen, Clifford Ross, and a few other gems from the summer

My husband and I developed a nasty habit of really enjoying art museums when we were living in Minneapolis decades ago, and when our two children arrived, we weren't going to let the fact they existed make us quit. So we've been dragging our kids to museums ever since they were babies, learning a few things along the way, such as museum guards in big cities will probably be unkind so remember you're not there to see the guards, while museum guards in small cities will likely be nicer, and audio tours, especially audio tours for kids, are a godsend.

This summer we saw several exhibits that engaged the kids. I felt lucky to have the chance to watch my son and daughter experience, and lose themselves in, so much art. 

Stephen Vitiello’s All Those Vanished Engines

#1. Mass Moca, lodged in an old converted cloth printing factory in Massachusetts, was a treat, in part because the campus is such an industrial playground meant for exploring. Especially of note was Stephen Vitiello's All Those Vanished Engines, a sound installation taking place in the old boiler house building. While my husband called this perhaps the most dangerous art installation he's experienced (no unnecessary safety rails here!), the kids were thrilled with their ability to wander around the building on their own, and with Vitiello's sounds playing throughout, the once utilitarian setting was able to transform into something more sculptural, abstract, haunting (and haunted?), and timeless. I'm always grateful when art is taken out of its sacred guarded context and put in a place which encourages the viewer, and in particular a kid, to interact with it.

Capturing One’s Children in Art

sally mann family picturesSally Mann wrote a fascinating article back in April for the New York Times magazine explaining her reasoning behind photographing her children as they grew up, and how the critical and popular response to such photographs affected both her and her family. I thought she was eloquent about how, when a parent is capturing their child through art, the child they end up capturing isn't actually their own child: they are representations of a child, a glimpse of the child in a small moment of time. As I'm working on a more personal novella right now about parenthood, this idea has comforted me and also struck me as true. The process of writing is a process, even in memoir, of transformation of the subject, of turning a child, perhaps one's own child, into words, 

Andrew Solomon + expanding our ideas of pregnancy & motherhood

far-from-the-treeAndrew Solomon has produced some of the most articulate, intelligent writing about parenthood which hopefully is forcing us to finally expand our definition of what parenthood is. I've felt for a long time, ever since becoming a mother 8 years ago, that most literature is simplifying parenthoods' complexities. Solomon's book Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity is an exception: at 976 pages (or 40 hours long for the audio version!) it more than captures the pain, sorrow, and love that I know as parenting, and it shows, likewise, that parental love can take on so many forms. And that trying to love can be as meaningful as loving. It was one of the most powerful reading experiences that I've ever had. I read it two year ago, but after my son was diagnosed with autism last fall, I went back to reread the autism chapter, and found the accounts even more moving, as I now was one of those parents trying to understand, accept and love a child so different from me. Solomon's discussion on neurodiversity as it relates to parents is especially rich-- do parents try to cure their child's autism or accept it-- as well as his description of the "autism parents' literature of miracles," whose draw is hard to ignore.  

"Two diametrically opposite fictions contribute to a single set of problems. The first comes from the autism parents’ literature of miracles. In its most extreme form, it describes beautiful boys and girls emerging from their affliction as if it were a passing winter frost, and, after wild parental heroics, dancing off into springtime fields of violets, fully verbal, glowing with the fresh ecstasy of unself-conscious charm. Such narratives of false hope eviscerate families who are struggling with the diagnosis. The other plotline is that the child does not get better, but the parents grow enough to celebrate him rather than seek to improve him and are fully content with that shift. This whitewashes difficulties that many families face and can obfuscate autism’s authentic deficits. While the lives of many people who have autism remain somewhat inscrutable, the lives of people whose children have autism are mostly avowedly hard—some, excruciatingly so. Social prejudice aggravates the difficulty, but it is naïve to propose that it’s all social prejudice; having a child who does not express love in a comprehensible way is devastating , and having a child who is awake all night, who requires constant supervision, and who screams and tantrums but cannot communicate the reasons for or the nature of his upset— these experiences are confusing, overwhelming, exhausting, unrewarding. The problem can be mitigated by some combination of treatment and acceptance, specific to each case. It is important not to get carried away by either the impulse only to treat or the impulse only to accept."

Portals & poetry

I'm been thinking a lot about portals lately--you know, the doorways that are always appearing to characters in books and taking them to more interesting worlds. Lucky them, I have always thought. But after waiting a lifetime for a portal to appear to me, it seems that isn't going to happen. I'm not sure portals appear often to adults to begin with and they certainly don't seem to appear to mothers of small children, a minor tragedy of fact I'm trying to fix in some future stories. (Side note: great list by Lev Grossman of his top 5 portals, and also check out this thoughtful essay about writing portals from io9.) 

Tangentially, I have fallen in love with a book of poetry, something I haven't done for about a decade, since I kicked poetry to the curb and took up fiction writing. The book is Space, in Chains by Laura Kasischke, and the final poem of the book reads to me like a portal poem (if there isn't such a genre yet, there should be). "Home" is especially moving after reading the entire book, which is full of anguish, loss, and a lot of grief. I felt like I was holding my breath for the first 109 pages and then to reach this poem, on page 110, was like a long exhalation of air. Finally the narrator gets to arrive here, to somewhere she wants to be. It's worth noting this home is a place she has never been before but only dreamed about. The problem of how to get there is, unfortunately, not addressed. It makes me wonder what our own homes would look like if we got to create them.