April 19, 2010

Better Living Through Minor Vandalism - an Illustrated Guide

Let’s say you’re a guy, and you just want to go down to your local coffee shop, or sit on a park bench and read, or even just take a walk. The problem is, you have all this stuff to carry – wallet, keys, cell-phone, loose change, iPod, maybe a little notebook and a pen for stray thoughts, a pack of gum, a packet of tissues for your perpetually runny nose, a book to read, some cigarettes and a lighter (this blog does not promote smoking), and in certain states maybe even a concealed weapon (this blog does not condone violence) – in other words, too much stuff to put in your pockets. Besides who wants all those heavy, uncomfortable and pointy objects crowding his pants? Not to mention that if you ever want to have kids, you really shouldn’t put any radiation-producing electronics anywhere near your kid-making apparatus.

So what do you do? You don’t want to take your backpack / messenger bag / briefcase for these small things, but you don’t want to get a small bag either because, let’s face it, a small bag is a purse, and only women should walk around with a purse.

Well, if you’re the kind of guy that doesn’t mind being seen with a book, and if you’re reading this blog you probably aren’t, I have a solution for you – Get a book.

But not just any book, get a largish, hardcover book, preferably one that's kind of old, looks nice on the outside, and is really boring on the inside. A book like, say, this one:

You can probably pick up a nice looking book for a couple of bucks at a used book store (If you’re in NYC you can go to the Strand where they have tons of books outside the store for $1). The following step is not for those who have a thing against vandalizing books, but it’s perfect for people who are into recycling – take said book and do this to it:

If you want to learn exactly how to hollow out a book you can look here or here (both sites refer to this as a hollow book, which I find to be derivative; I prefer the term smuggler’s bible) I borrowed ideas from both sites and added my own touch in the form of the page marker (more on its function later).

So now you have a hollowed out book where you can place all your belongings:

Or even, if you’re feeling ironic, use it to carry around a better book:

(This is where the page marker comes in – if the book/notebook placed into the smuggler’s bible is a tight fit the marker serves as a handy tab (make sure it’s well-fastened to the back or bottom of the frame) Now you may ask: "What if I like to read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and my book is larger than the one that’s hollowed out?" Well, please hold all questions to the end.

So let’s say you’ve made your smuggler’s bible and you’re pleased as punch with it, but you’ve grown tired of holding it in your hand all the time. Well, it sound like what you need is a nice old-timey book leash. No, you don’t need to go out and buy one, you don’t even need to steal from your dog, because making one is remarkably easy. All you need is a little plastic buckle (or “slide” for you professional beltmakers) commonly found on various straps, backpacks, and other forms of luggage, and an old, unused tie:

Extra credit if the tie has ducks on it:

Now all you have to do is to pull the tie through both slots of the buckle, about two thirds of the way down from the narrow part, then wrap the tie around the book (wide part first), place the tie through one of the slots, pull it back a bit to tighten and voilà!

Now you can nonchalantly swing your fake book over your shoulder and sashay down the street while everyone eyes you with envy and yearning.

(Extra credit if there’s a Van Gogh painting in the background)

Plus, if you suddenly find yourself in a situation where a tie is needed, it can quickly be restored to its natural state since no structural damage was done to it.

And if you have to carry a book (or two) that’s bigger than your smuggler’s bible (I’m looking at you, Mr. Wisenheimer Tolstoyevsky), it’s not a problem. In fact, I think it looks even better that way:

Now, any questions?

April 18, 2010

Lost Between the Sofa Cushions of Time

How's this for a summer blockbuster:
A sexually frustrated London circus dwarf has a one-night stand with the depressed, childless wife of a circus magician. The dwarf quits the circus and retires to a small northern town, waiting vainly for the magician’s wife to join him. Eight years later, she turns up on his doorstep, announces that he has a son, and rushes away. The dwarf pursues her, but dies of a heart attack at her feet. To the gathering onlookers, the magician’s wife announces that her son died a few days ago.
That's the basic plot of Vladimir Nabokov's unproduced screenplay The Love of a Dwarf, listed by Salon.com alongside six other unproduced gems by famous intellectuals (including Jean-Paul Sartre, Aldous Huxley, and Georges Bataille). The article focuses on unusual and surprising ideas or collaborations, but I am certain there are countless other screenplays out there (or lost between the sofa cushions of time), written by celebreated authors, which remain unproduced. Just think of all the worthy novelists - Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dalton Trumbo, et al. - who at some point turned to Hollywood for steady income. The studio system at the time was very much like a production line attempting to churn out fairly homogeneous products, so that a lot of screenplays were completely reworked by directors and executives, or never came to fruition (I guess the situation today is similar; at least back then writers had a regular paycheck).

Barton Fink, yet another writer of unproduced screenplays

I don't know enough about the topic to make any far-reaching claims regarding the quantity of unproduced screenplays, but I assume it's quite a pile. Anecdotally, I can present the case of Nathanael West, who worked in Hollywood for about seven years and contributed to 28 treatments and screenplays, of which 10 were never produced (some never made it past the treatment stage). Though I can't vouch for the quality of these texts (which is probably the case for the vast majority of unproduced screenplays), there's at least one that's worth mentioning:

In 1939, Nathanael West and Boris Ingster were asked by RKO to write a screenplay based on Francis Iles' 1932 novel Before the Fact, but when the film was assigned to Alfred Hitchcock, he already had his own substantially different screenplay, which he filmed under the title Suspicion. West and Ingster's screenplay was abandoned and never produced, though it's included in the Library of America's edition of West's collected works.

It's up to Hollywood historians, Faulkner faithfuls, Fitzgerald fanatics, and others of their ilk to dig up these lost artifacts and bring them, if not to the big screen, than at least to our computer screens. Certain famously unproduced screenplays, Like Nabokov's Lolita and Harold Pinter's Proust Screenplay have already been issued as books, so there's obviously some interest in these.  Even if they're not the greatest works of literature, I believe these screenplays still have value; at the very least they could reveal that even Nobel-prize-winning authors like Faulkner could produce clunkers, a small bit of comfort for us  - the petty and the unpublished, The Unsound and the Furious.

April 4, 2010

Ars Prosa 101 - Epigraphs

Just as Ars Poetica deals with the nature of poetry, Ars Prosa aims to explore the nature of prose. In “Ars Prosa 101” I will present my ideas regarding certain literary devices employed in fiction, and perhaps offer some basic rules. These posts will be constantly reconsidered and revised, as I refine my judgments and come up with better examples, or new thoughts on the topic. I would also like readers to participate through the comments by voicing opinions or objections, which I may later incorporate into the post itself.

An epigraph, according to most definitions, is a quotation – ostensibly from a source other than the writer of the work before us – set at the beginning of a text (in our case novel or short story). An epigraph may set the tone for the subsequent narrative, provide a hint to its major themes and concerns, serve as preface or summary, or place the work within a certain genre or in relation to other works. It may also be a throwaway joke, a clever aside, or a playful flirtation with the reader’s expectations. It may also be none of those things.

There’s always something suspiciously serendipitous about an epigraph – how is it possible that the writer found the exact lines to complement the work, through the barriers of space, time, and sometimes language? For the conspiracy-minded this may also raise a sort of Post-Modern chicken and egg debate – which came first, the novel or the epigraph? Did the writer have the epigraph in mind before writing, or is it the work itself which imbued the epigraph with a significance it didn’t have before?

I think those concerns can safely be left to the critics, and for now I’ll simply focus on some basic Dos and Don’ts of epigraphs.

1. Don’t try to lend grandeur to a work by using a pretentious epigraph

A recent article in The Guardian offers the following warning:
With its privileged position at the gateway to the text, the epigraph is, of course, open to abuse. Authors may add random passages from the Bible in the quest for portent; Shakespearean couplets to add a little erudition; sections from Lewis Carroll to conjure that missing air of mystery. There's nothing inherently wrong with using such favourites - just don't expect to make up for what's lacking further in.
In other words, an epigraph won't change the nature of your work, and an unsuitably lofty choice could annoy or confuse readers. This rule, like many of the others that follow, does not apply if the epigraph is used ironically, as in Joseph Heller's God Knows, a satirical rendering of King David's deathbed confessions, where the epigraph taken from Ecclesiastes is:
"How can one be warm alone?""
2. Don’t use too many epigraphs

This naturally depends on the nature and length of the work, but I think it's safe to say you couldn't get away with 9 pages of epigraphs as there are in my edition of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. One is usually the norm; two can be used if they're placed in opposition to each other, as in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, where Gertrude Stein's claim that Hemingway and his friends are all a 'lost generation' is contradicted by a quote from Ecclesiastes (what can I say, it's very quotable) about the continuity of generations. Three epigraphs or more should have very good justification, and not merely restate each other.

Epigraphs for short stories are pretty rare nowadays, though many of Poe's short stories had them (often in foreign languages - more on that later). Contemporary novels vary widely - Robert Coover's hefty The Public Burning has five, Don Delillo's massive Underworld has none.

3. Don’t use a quote taken from a very recent work

This rule came from a recent visit to a bookstore. I picked up some novel whose name I can’t recall and found that its epigraph was taken from Cormac McCarthy’s celebrated 2006 novel The Road. Considering the time it takes books to be written, edited, published, and reach bookstores, I think it’s safe to assume this epigraph was chosen sometime around 2007-2008 at the latest, or in other words, at the point when The Road reached the height of its fame. This seems a transparent attempt to ride that book’s coattails, and immediately turned me off the book. It also makes the writer seem lazy and unimaginative, or at least like someone who doesn’t read much, which is the first sign of a bad author. Are there really no works worth reading that are older than two years?

I would say that a decade should be about the absolute minimum, anything more recent than that would seem the choice of a dilettante rather than a serious reader (which all good authors are). For example, Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, which takes its title and epigraph from The Waste Land, was published 12 years after T.S. Eliot’s poem. This rule does not apply if the quotation is taken from a newspaper or some similar non-fictional source, particularly if both epigraph and novel deal with the same historical characters, as in Coover’s The Public Burning, whose epigraphs deal with Ethel Rosenberg and Richard Nixon. Incidentally, Nixon is also quoted in the epigraph to Our Gang by Philip Roth, and in Part 4 of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, where the epigraph is simply:
– Richard M. Nixon
4. If using a fictional epigraph, make sure it’s not merely a private, unfunny joke

There are a lot of ways to get this wrong, especially if the author is too easily amused with himself. The safest way is probably to present a quote from a character that appears or is mentioned in the novel. A good example is Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman which presents a quote from DeSelby (alongside one from Shakespeare), a philosopher/scientist constantly referenced throughout the novel. The epigraph to The Great Gatsby is, in my view, a failure – it adds nothing, flattens the overarching themes of the novel, and almost contributed a disastrous name to the book (Fitzgerald considered calling it Gold-Hatted Gatsby, or The High-Bouncing Lover, based on lines from the epigraph)

5. Don’t present an epigraph in a foreign language

I think this is pretty self-explanatory – you don’t want to annoy or alienate your readers; exceptions can be made if the epigraph is:
Notable Examples

Some successful epigraphs I've recently encountered:

The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano

"Do you want Mexico to be saved? Do you want Christ to be our king?"
- Malcolm Lowry
 The Gift, Vladimir Nabokov

An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. a sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.
- P. Smirnovski, A Textbook of Russian Grammar