With substitute teaching, there are two things. There are certainly more than two things, but I like brevity. The first thing is this: you have an awful lot of time to kill. You may twiddle your thumbs, but that’s only good for a few hours, and unless you’ve built up sufficient callouses by tilling large tracts of land, raking heaps of leaves with a bare wooden rake, or using sand paper as your go-to stationary, you’re going get some blisters. Twiddling ain’t easy. You may also do crosswords, Sudoku puzzles, or create fake inventories of useful things come a nuclear apocalypse (alas, Twinkies and Ho-Hos are no longer viable forever-foods). But any serious substitute teacher knows that, outside of a dog, his/her best friend is a book. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read (credit: Groucho Marx). Also, dogs aren’t really welcome in most schools, and if I were to take my pit bull to work, I’d probably/certainly/definitely not be invited back. I’d have to embark on a new job hunt, dig up new leads, and fetch new purpose for my life. Too much? I beg your pawdon.

This leads me to thing two: if you are of a literary persuasion and feel as if you could ever possibly have anything cool to say that might take the form of a book-like thing, you have absolutely no excuse not to try writing it. As a reading substitute, you are steeped in the words of great authors–trusting you’ve chosen to avoid books in the Twilight series–and have ample free time to plot, piddle, and peck at your keyboard. Conditions couldn’t be more favorable if someone had dropped you in the middle of an all-expenses-paid writer’s commune in Northern California–one where you’re given your own little cabin with a fireplace and a view of the surf-tumbled coast, and meet nightly with a cadre of overly friendly and talented writers who gush over your “evocative, lush, terse, and poignant” prose.

The pressure is doubly intense during November: National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If, perhaps, November were renamed NaNoReMo, I would be winning. I can read. That’s what I do. But because this month calls upon people to write–to stick their muddled heads into a cloud of characters, plot lines, and rising action, culling from the great multitude a few serviceable platforms upon which to construct their 50,000 word proto-masterpieces–I am proving pitifully inadequate to the task. It’s not that I don’t enjoy writing or think I’m serviceably good at it. It’s this: writing that seriously for that long in that prescribed a structure eliminates excuses. You either do the work or don’t–show up to the job or call in sick. In my case, I’ve decided to fake a serious case of authorial atherosclerosis; my narrative heart is clogged with plaque of apathy or something even more insidious: fear. So, I’d like, in lieu of putting in the good, honest work of composing a novel, to write a few reviews of some books I’ve read during the last month. Please pardon the reviews’ brevity and lack of specificity; I’ve decided the best way to review a book is to whet the reader’s appetite, not artificially satisfy his/her cravings for foreknowledge (the way some movie-trailers try to do with a-chronological closeups and violins).

On Writing by Stephen King

I have not given Stephen King a fair chance. Having only glossed over a few of his works of fiction, I came to the premature conclusion that King was just too weird/scary/juvenile for my tastes. After reading his terrific book, On Writing, I am seriously reconsidering my snap judgement. This book is a literal treasure trove of practical advice for writers. It’s less, “find your inspiration spot and visualize doves flying over a marble city,” and more, “put your pen to the paper, pay attention to grammar, and don’t whine.” A few of the gems you’ll find in his book include:

  • Limit use of adverbs
  • Story comes before theme, and story should develop organically, not mechanically (as with plot).
  • Character studies only work in short stories–the novel needs story as its driving force.
  • 2nd draft equals 1st draft minus ten percent.
  • Write about 2000 words a day. Your first draft is written with the door closed. Upon completing your first draft, set it aside for around six weeks.
  • Novels are like fossils that need to be unearthed–they are found objects, not inventions.
  • The paragraph, not the sentence, is the primary unit of meaning in writing. Fiction paragraphs are like the beat of a song. Expository paragraphs are more like the melody.
  • All writers write for a single reader (the ideal reader).
  • Backstory is the spice of the narrative dish, not the entree itself.
  • Too much description is dumb.
  • For dialogue to sound convincing, it must be honest.
  • Read a lot; write a lot.

The part about adverbs is particularly apropos (see what I did there with “particularly”?). I have a weakness for wanting to delineate action, but too much adverbial flourish is like a 1920s musical: gaudy.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I compare Jonathan Franzen (favorably) to Tchaikovsky. He’s really good. Like, really. But because his prose is so readable, the thematic treatment of his novels so light, and his dialogue so fluid, some people want to classify him as a pop-novelist. Sure, his oeuvre is more McDonalds than French Bistro, but McDonalds has served billions (trillions?) of people, and there’s something to be said for that. This is mass appeal without catering to the lowest denominator. Perhaps the comparison to McDonalds is not very appropriate, because Franzen’s novels are not your literary McRibs. They’re more your literary “Nutcracker.”

In Freedom, Franzen depicts the familial dysfunction of the Berlunds–a “normal” east coast family. Like the Eye of Sauron, Franzen exclusively focuses his attention on specific characters for long stretches of the book. You are given voyeuristic access to the personal lives of nearly every character, and come away surprised at the depth of their interconnectedness.

You’d expect a novel like this to extend the trope of freedom to every facet of the narrative, echoing again and again in cyclical significance. Thankfully, this is not the case. I’m sure there’s some significant connections I failed to identify, but for the most part Franzen doesn’t bludgeon you with theme; he allows the story and the characters to carry the novel. And they carry it quite nicely.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Ok. So I read another Franzen novel immediately after reading my first. You could call it a Franzen-Fest or a Jonathan-Jubilee. The only thing you couldn’t call it is a lack of judgement. The Corrections is Franzen’s better known novel. It’s also probably the better of the two. If you had to read only one, read The Corrections. But really, read them both.

The Corrections is a lot like Freedom, only more devastating in its emotional depth. There were times while reading it when I was lulled into the happy bubble of superficial normality/inner f’ed-upness that Franzen’s characters always possess, only to be dragged, abruptly, into a bare field of tragedy and human suffering. You will empathize with these characters. You will not be able to help it. And it will hurt.

Especially heartbreaking is Franzen’s depiction of Alfred, the elderly patriarch of the Lambert family. Having led a proud and self-reliant life, Alfred is forced to deal with the ignominy of a rapid descent into Parkinson’s disease and Dementia. His afflictions are a source of constant stress for the Lambert family. The curative powers of a wonder drug (at least partially based on research that Alfred completed earlier in life) promises to fix Alfred’s ills, but things don’t exactly turn out as planned. The Corrections is about quick fixes that, in yielding imperfect results, force characters to recognize and begin dealing with the fundamental underlays of their problems.

Near the end of the novel, a few of the characters embark on a pleasure cruise. This is a good analogy for what I experienced while reading The Corrections: a fictitious holiday wonder-excursion. Just don’t read it if, like any comfortable landlubber, you can’t handle the rocking waves of emotional distress.

These Dreams of You by Steve Erikson

Having just emerged–bruised, battered, and tired–from a presidential election, the last thing you probably want to do is read a novel that has political undertones. Make an exception for Steve Erikson’s These Dreams of You.

As its title suggests, this novel reads like a loosely tethered sequence of dreams. Chunks of text are plopped down on the page, and time reverses, slides, and pivots between most text-breaks. This is not a sequential thriller. It’s more like a Milan Kundera novel–interested in elliptically pursuing themes through surreal time warps.

It starts out innocently enough. An American couple, Zan and Viv, have recently adopted a 4-year-old Ethiopian girl named Sheba. She joins Parker, Zan and Viv’s 12-year-old biological son, in rounding out the nuclear family. Zan and Viv are in some serious financial trouble, so Zan decides to accept an offer to lecture in London. Viv and the kids accompany him across the pond, but Viv soon goes her separate way to Ethiopia in an attempt to track down Sheba’s birth mother.

Pay attention, because if you don’t, you’re not going to notice the subtle shifts. Surrealism creeps up on you. Soon, you find yourself in a multigenerational, symmetrical, and torturous narrative labyrinth. What’s up is down, or–more appropriately–what’s up is also down and maybe sideways.

This novel is not for the faint of heart. But it is immensely rewarding. If you can trudge through the protracted chunks of text and weave them into a pattern of meaning, you’ll find beauty in the impression you’re left with. You’ll finish the novel, put it down, and feel as if you’ve awoken from a dream that bleeds into your morning, afternoon, and evening.

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Imagine a swamp. Imagine an amusement park. Imagine a scene so masterfully sketched with pastel nouns, viscous verbs, and the plastered contours of smooth adjectives that you might as well be reading a painting or a sculpture–one alive with the dance of primordial nature and the fever dreams of teenage girls. This is Swamplandia!

Russell is a master of setting. She imbues her novel with a sense of place that is hard to define, much less replicate. Though the plotting of her novel sometimes gets too bogged down (pun intended) in describing the supernatural beauty of the Ten Thousand Islands off the Southwest coast of Florida, Russell can be excused for the aesthetic thrill she elicits in the reader. You know the place she’s writing about because you’ve seen it because you’ve read about it through her writing.

The story focuses on the lives of the Bigtree family, an enterprising family of misfits that run an unconventional amusement park. The main attraction of their park is alligator wrestling–something the mother of the family, Hilola, does exceedingly well. Things start to get interesting when the oldest daughter, Osceola, falls in love with a ghost and travels to the underworld (you read that correctly). Her little sister, Ava, in league with a weird figure simply called the “Birdman,” must brave the savageries of the swamp to find Osceola. Conspicuously absent from the swamp for much of the novel are the father, Chief Bigtree, and the oldest brother, Kiwi. Kiwi has gone to work for a competing amusement park ominously named “The World of Darkness.” Russell does a hilarious job of describing The World of Darkness’ faux-evil and rampant consumerism.

There are a few twists and turns in this novel that I am almost ashamed to say I didn’t see coming. But I loved it and so will you. So read it.

And that about does it. If you made it this far, I commend you; I salute you; I forge for your person an honorary medal that you may wear (without shame) to any and all social events. Happy reading! And if you are one of the lucky, brave few who are composing a novel this November, happy writing!

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