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English 245: Modern Fiction

a collaborative exploration of pervasive tropes, themes, and concepts in contemporary fiction

Author

kenbastard

I'm an ornery SOB who makes purty pitchers.

“Everybody’s Fool” by Richard Russo

I just put down Richard Russo’s latest novel, Everybody’s Fool. Clocking in at 477 pages I devoured it in just over two days. Now, this suggests two things; that the book was so good I couldn’t put it down– or I have way too much time on my hands lately, and, so, had nothing else to do. Both are true to a certain extent, but don’t put too much emphasis on either reason for its quick consumption.

Some books just play out like that.Neither page-turners, or deep ruminations on character development and motivations, Everybody’s Fool is both of these in spades.

Everybody’s Fool is in every way the sequel to Mr. Russo’s 1993 novel Nobody’s Fool. Made into a fantastic film by Robert Benton starring Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Gene Saks and Philip Seymour Hoffman, It was a perfectly cast movie that, I must admit, colored the perceptions– and looks — of the characters long before I read the book. After reading the book, not very long after seeing the film, and several more times since, I have an affection for these small town denizens that borders on a nostalgia that hasn’t yet happened in my real life, or has, because I’m in the middle of it.

Nobody’s Fools central thread revolves around Donald Sullivan, known to all in the depressed upstate New York town North Bath (there is no South Bath), as Sully. Sully is one of those guys. You know at least one. Stubborn, poor, a guy with a heart of gold, who for some reason always does things the hard way, but is liked– and reviled– both in equal measure, who’s reputation depends on his actions. He’s a deadbeat Dad, a philanderer, a thief. He is also steadfast and true and sure of his convictions– no matter how wrong they could be. Donald Sullivan is the catalyst that moves the narrative in Nobody’s Fool.

The overriding theme in Nobody’s Fool is revenge. Revenge for perceived wrongs, whether real or imagined, Like Sullys neglect of his family home on Bowden Street to utter dilapidation in order to get back at his cowardly, drunken violent father. Or the slow dismantling of Carl Roebuck’s Old Mans construction company by being an utter asshole. Or the sinking feeling that North Bath just doesn’t deserve redemption sheerly through the forces of bad luck. Whatever it is that hangs over the town of North Bath is not sunshine, but constant overcast.

There are many, many amusing moments that occur during Russo’s book– too many to mention here– and many moments of pathos and introspection. But, Nobody’s Fool really ends up up where it begins. Loose ends are tied up, and relationships resolved. Not all in nice little bows, but satisfying enough for you to put the book down and call it quits. That is how Small Town life plays out. Life goes on.

Everybody’s Fool turns that ending on it’s head. Ten years have gone by. The most colorful and wise inhabitants of Bath have shuffled this mortal coil, and left mostly fools in charge. or so it seems. There is a new mayor, Gus Moynihan, a retired Poli-Sci academic who has it in his head that he he can turn hapless Bath around. Douglas Raymer, who in the previous book had mistakenly discharged his firearm at Sully while he was driving on the sidewalk, is now the Chief of Police. Also back in town, after a long stint up the river, is Roy Purdy, a petty criminal and wife beater, sworn to exact revenge on those he deems need it.

Though Sully dominates Nobody’s Fool, it is his life-long nemesis Chief Raymer who dominates Everybody’s Fool. A decent, yet deeply flawed young man, he has grown into an even more troubled middle aged man in crisis. Questioning his every waking moment, even after having married the prettiest woman in town, getting elected Chief of Police and earning the grudging respect of his constituents, Douglas Raymer is a rampant cauldron of self doubt and hatred. His every waking moment used to second-guessing whatever it is he his doing. But he lacks the skills, or outside experience to address these issues. Like most small town inhabitants that have limited exposure to– or little interest in– solutions outside of their small world, they figure this is what life is and you make the best of it.

Until the day he discovers his wife, in the act of of leaving him– her suit cases packed and lined up on their condos porch– dead from a fall down a flight of stairs. This sets in motion the central sub-text of Russo’s novel: Given enough intuition, and a little less self-involvement on the part of Baths inhabitants, could their lives have been a little less tragic, a little more at peace?

The human heart, being what it is, wants what it wants when it wants it. Fleeting glances at the possible repercussions of ones actions rarely effect the outcome of rash decisions, even years down the line. There are consequences. There are repercussions. Though both of those previous word carry negative connotations, that is not always so. If something starts out as wrong who is to say that a catalytic change cannot transform something toxic to something kind.

Everyone in this book wants to fix something and be at peace with the efforts they made. Somewhere between Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool something changed. Where I found Nobody’s Fool lighthearted and entertaining, Everybody’s Fool was not. This novel was a downward spiral to all the things that made North Bath a curious, yet not unoriginal playground for it’s inhabitants, who, for the most part, loved their town and made the best of it.

Sequels, at best, are a double edged sword. They could surpass the original or not. To Russo’s credit he revisited a town that he knew well. Knew it’s inhabitants and how they would have evolved, and wrote a book that seemed close to his heart. Russo has a grip on what things motivate his characters pasts and makes them them operate in their futures– some of aware of what motivates them– some not, but he make US aware of why they are doing the things they do. Much of his work is backstory.

Which brings me back to why this is both a page-turner and a rumination on his characters motivations. Russo, in the middle of telling you what is going on in real time will take the time to ruminate on what is going on in their heads as they are doing it. A simple act of stealing  something small will harken back to a hard lesson learned at the hands of whoever had taught it to them.

I love Richard Russo’s books. I’ve read most of them… Empire Falls (for which he won the Pulitzter), Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Straight Man… but I have not read his more autobiographical  books– perhaps it would ruin his smart-assed fiction for me.

Also, as a postscript…If you read the books, or watch the move, I could have been Scully– without the bad homelife.

 

 

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The Strand

http://thenonesuchtales.thecomicseries.com/comics/117/The Strand_01

The Through line

When I take a class, I am arrogant enough, especially when I’ve taken a one with an instructor I’ve had before, to think I know what to expect. I always hope that my expectations are blasted to bits. I came to school to be challenged, turned on to new things–new ways of looking at the same old things. Seeing things in ways I’ve never thought of, or wanted to think of. I needed to be exposed to artists I’ve never heard of, writers I’ve never read, thoughts I’ve never had. Worlds I’ve never imagined.

Writing this I should go back to the tiny works we read at the very beginning, but they didn’t make an impression– at least one I am recalling now. What I am remembering now is the brief history of fiction, probably from the very first class. There were very delineated movements, or Ages, of fiction going back as far as the written word. I remembering sitting in class, with fellow students that I had shared this instructor with, some I had not, and thinking that this was an austere beginning to a class about Modern Fiction. By the end of that first hour and fifteen minutes I knew that this class was going to show me how what has been written before influences what is being written now. However, we didn’t read anything old. It was understood that a certain amount of familiarity with what had been set down before rears it’s ugly head now.

I have a problem with Postmodernism. I don’t get it, don’t understand it. On an intellectual, visceral level I kind of have a left-handed view of what it’s supposed to look like. Pulp Fiction has been held up as an example of Postmodernism– with it’s fragmented, out of linear time-line storytelling style of telling a tale. Is that all it is? My classmates tell me no, no that is not all it is, but cannot give me the definition that satisfies me. It’s this, it’s that, it’s how you perceive it. Nobody can give me a “nuts and bolts follow the directions” answer to how Postmodernism works in contemporary fiction. I need to know how to construct something with the materials I’ve been given, with some kind of direction to get the job done. All this semester I have struggled with this Postmodernism conundrum.

Here, at the end of this semester, I think the key for me may have been Sanders’ Tenth of December. On it’s face, the yarns spun by Sanders are really very simple tales where, for the most part, nothing extraordinary happens– if you know human nature. But is it in how he tells his stories that, maybe, made me understand– even a little bit– how Postmodernism works?

The idea of the different voices in Victory Lap that eventually converge to a denouement, with their different viewpoints, has multiple endings that really has no ending. These things that have happened to Allison, Kyle and The Potential Rapist/Serial Killer(I can’t find his name in the text) will go on, and on, and on. The story doesn’t end with the writer’s prose, but goes on in the reader’s imagination.

The Semplica Diaries, is, from what I get, is the ultimate Postmodern tale we studied. The Diarist is totally removed from what should be, from my perspective, important. Totally indulging in his children’s wants and needs, at the expense of his family’s greater good. The narrator needs to learn to say “No”. His youngest daughter makes his Weenie-ism all the more acute when she sets free the very thing that will cripple her family. The little shit. Doesn’t she realize her parents are on the hook for that? Nope— neither does she care or want to. In her mind it was the right thing to do. The writer ponders all of these things

…and Sanders write this in a curt, short-hand like a diary would have been written like a Man. Full of angst and worry and guilt. Because it’s a diary, or written as so, we assume it’s the truth– or a version of the truth– the writer’s version of the truth. But… it is the truth! as far as the writer believes it.

Chang Rae Lee wrote a book. According to Mark’s questions, he let the narrative meander and grow. He had certain themes he wanted to explore, and not necessarily  ones about heroics, but ones about how in times of perceived trouble the masses will latch on to symbols. When things got tough in B-Mor, a so-called Savoiur was needed to give the lower classes hope. A successful part of their society leaving, apparently for no reason, is the perfect template to impose whatever Hope they need.

Lee circumvents this in the book by fragmenting the telling. It jumps from the adventure that Fan is having to the real everyday bullshit that happens. When things get tough, really tough, people look for simple answers– leaders– symbols of rebellion. Even though no one is privvy to what happened to Fan on her journey, for some reason the masses took it to heart, and did nothing with it when things got better. They told the story, got what they wanted from it, and went to work the next day. Fan rode off into the sunset.

Then there is Amy. Again, told in fractured time by Flynn, the story is told by the character’s point of view. As the mystery unfolds it dovetails into the center of the book, where the victim all of a sudden becomes the villain. This turns a run-of-the-mill Dateline Murder Mystery on it’s head. And Flynn does it by changing the voice of the so-called victim. A brilliant sociopath– but not a perfect one– she makes mistakes We all know what they are,

One mistake, I think, Flynn makes at the finale of the novel, is she abandons the conceit of the diary– at least on Amy’s part–Nick’s story is told mostly from inside his head– the last entry is from Amy, but it’s more like one of her lists. Lists Lists Lists. This is how Flynn defines her killer.

So, the point I am trying to make here, and I could be wrong, and this is the Through Line that is my title– is that nothing is what it seems. Perception is everything. The Kid with his over-heated imagination who gets saved by a dying old man, the pretty rich girl who turns out to be a wicked sociopath, a dad who wants to just please his kid. Heroes that come from weakness.

Is Postmodernism in literature just playing off expected norms? Is the fractured (sorry for using this word so much) nature of how these tales are told natant Postmodernism?

I am not a fan continuity. Perception, in reading, in Art, in Film and in choices, is suspect.

Nothing is what it seems.

What if?

I can’t help but wonder. I think about stuff like the following all the time…

What kind of life would Nick and Amy have had if the recession had never hit, they didn’t lose their highly lucrative New York jobs, Amazing Amy’s marriage book was wildly successful and Nicks mom had lived till she was 100?

Although we know that Amy is a crazy bat-shit sociopath, and Nick is just a relatively passive dull guy, what would life had looked like for these two? At what point would Amy’s true nature come to the fore. Even in the post cool-girl entries in Amy’s diary she alludes to enjoying the life that she and Nick were living in New York. What would have sparked the madness that was just below the surface of Amy’s facade? Would she have picked another fly, other than Nick, to snare in her web and torture and ruin– this time with Nick at her side– clueless to what her real motivations were?

I love what if’s. It is a good game to stretch the imagination with. So many random factors, spun by the writer in a narrative, could go anywhere.

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Fan

Modern Fiction
Nell McCabe
March 15, 2016

The Blank Slate

Memory, like water, is fluid. It ebbs and flows with time and experience. Elasticity and conjecture are its currency. What appears to be fact can be washed away by blind belief, or subordinated by the wants and needs of the memory holder. There is fiction, there is myth and there is parable. All serve to show us something. Something the writer wants us to understand. Something we may have missed.
Allegory can be tricky form of narrative to sell to a reader. It has to have just enough of the truth in it so the reader can empathize with the tale being told, but removed enough so that it can be dismissed as a dream, a lie or a fantasy. Leave the background details vague enough to seem familiar, yet alien. Call everyday objects by just-off names—so the reader knows exactly what they are, but still seem strange and new—and you are off and running. Chang Rae-Lee handles this morphing in his novel, On a Full Sea, masterfully.
America, as it is in Lee’s book, has suffered a collapse of some sort, and has been re-colonized by, as it seems, Asians. Most notably, those from “New China”, though we don’t really know what that is. All we are told, in an offhand way, I might add, is that there was very little endemic population to resist this colonization. Weather and pollution are alluded to in very passable ways by the collective narrative as just facts of life. It’s in the past. It is just the way things are.
The colonizers have set up, over generations, a society that mirrors—in a very stark, and not very veiled way by the writer— an America that could be on the horizon. Rich on top, Service in the middle, Poor on the bottom. This is not so far removed from our everyday reality today.
People, when they are miserable, or feel oppressed, look for saviors. They will look anywhere. Anyone out of the ordinary who has a message that resonates with their plight is ripe for the role—whether they intended it or not.
Enter the figure of Fan in this tale. Fan is portrayed, in Lee’s tale, as really nothing special. She looks young for her age, hence no real extra-sexual allusions to her society. She is good at her job in the tanks, but she is expected to be. She appears normal in every way. Not to pretty, not too smart—not too anything. She is the perfect B-Mor worker.
Until she’s not.
This is where the Blank Slate starts. Once Fan walks out of the gates of B-Mor the mythology begins. No one—not even the collective writer knows anything.
This is where it gets interesting. How did these details become known to the writers of this? This is a non-descript girl that no one cared about. How did she get on the radar? How did these tales of Fan’s travels get back to B-Mor?
They didn’t.
Reg disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again. Was he C-Free? No one
knows—least of all the Pharmacorp. Did Fan? Nope. And did she care? No one knows.
Fan’s act of leaving is a direct slap in the face of everything that she and her Clan have been raised to believe in. That starts the Myth. Love conquers all… or so we want to believe.
No one knows Anything once Fan leaves B-Mor. However, the stories, and they are very distinct passages, with very distinct starts and endings, read like parables. Fan acclimates to the Smokes: Fan fits in with the murderous circus family, until it is obvious she doesn’t; Fan ends up with the girls in Mr. Leo’s house—but apart from them: At her brother’s house with Betty as an apparent part of “the Family” until she’s not—
Fan is the catalyst that is slow moving water that erodes and changes the landscape.
To the collective writer of this book she is a symbol. Maybe they heard of her adventures, if you could call them that, from traveling traders, but who would care? She is the One Who Left. All the writers know is that.
As B-Mor’s sustainability was threatned, even though it was short term—as this tale only spans a few weeks or months—they looked for a savior. A young girl left the relative safety of her home, for no reason they could fathom, put their hopes and dreams and frustrations and imaginations on a video image. No one knew her. No one cared, Until she left.
It doesn’t matter what happened to Fan after she got into that Limo with Vik. The story was done. The one person who asked nothing of her was her companion—at the behest of the true love of his life. Sacrifice.
Fan is who we would want to be without having to do anything. Fan is just a figure that because she is there things happen, She is what the writers want her to be. She is everything—and nothing. She is just Fan.

Saunders’ Style Sheet

Holy crap, I had no idea what a style sheet was! I love finding stuff like this, it opens a door to the creative process of delivering a finished product to the market. I was always under the impression that the publisher, after an Editor paws through it, just prints what the writer has written. Who would have thought that you have to make it crystal clear that what you wrote is what you wrote and don’t change it! Wow. Mind blower to me.

One before the other…

I wonder, and I do that a lot, if there is any significance to Nell listing Exhortation to be read before Puppy? Haven’t read them yet, but will do so presently, but I can’t help but think will one color the other by being read first– and vice-versa.

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