Saturday, November 27, 2010

we can control how we ride

My food coma seems to have lifted, at least for the moment, so I finished Timothy Sanders' Orange Juice, a collection of very short stories that shamelessly begs to be judged by its cover (there is a cute kitten). It's a pretty good read, though - some of Sanders' work is "indie" to the point where it comes off as an annoying affectation (awkward dialogue pacing, repetition of characters' names, lots of brand/pop-culture references, etc.), but he is startlingly good at characterization. In fact, he makes it look really, really easy in "Cat Stuff," the third story included here; Jared's kleptomania, which is mentioned almost passingly but often enough to factor into how readers perceive him, totally works as an earned element of the character and doesn't seem like a random flailing attempt to rivet-gun a personality onto him. A fair amount of indie/alt-lit is guilty of the rivet-gun effect, so I'm glad Sanders avoided it.

I can learn from this. Again, Sanders (at his best) makes the tedious and frustrating process of developing characters and making them interact seem effortless. Steve Matanle talks about using chance during the creative process and just trying things, just to see what they do to one's characters and settings. His theory is that, when it's done well, it creates suspense by piquing the reader's curiosity and defying their predictions. I think Sanders pulls this off more often than not in Orange Juice.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

i do get the sofa

Currently reading Syrup, Maxx Barry's first novel. Recently finished Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? by Thomas Kohnstamm. I'm beginning to realize that the words "hip" and "scathing" and "biting," in conjunction with "funny," are semi-subtle book review codewords for "every character is attractive and witty and sarcastic." Occasionally the protagonist lacks one of those traits, but never more than one.

Not that Syrup or Travel Writers are bad books, mind you. They're both engaging and full of wry observations, and Syrup delves into the marketing industry with smirking enthusiasm. But they're both cinematic to a fault, in that each story is paced like a movie and contemporary Hollywood aesthetics are maintained throughout. It's numbing after a while, and abrasive in the same way that watching Van Wilder was abrasive - none of the "underdogs" are risking anything in terms of social capital. There are real moments in each book where the narrators experience real uncertainty, but those moments don't linger. Which is unfortunate, because it's hard to maintain what's supposed to be a suspenseful, roller-coaster plot if there's no energy in the plummets.

Since I'm editing a novel as we speak, this is all good to keep in mind.