English 245: Modern Fiction

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


books we’re reading

“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.





Nell I don’t know if your still reading this but I hope you are. I’ve been trying to email my final for days now and it keeps either being sent back or I don’t hear from you. I am panicking you haven’t gotten my final and now it’s late and I don’t know hat to do…  Please tell me you got at least one of my emails, and I sent another today (Saturday). I don’t know what else to do… I haven’t been able to make time to get to BBC…. I don’t wanna let this wreck my grade jut cause my PC is being difficult… -Ashley Martsen (I’m so sorry my final is technically late)

The Strand 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.

The Tryout

It was a day they they have been preparing for as long as they could remember. In the town of Backwater, football was life. For the upcoming Freshman at Midland High football tryouts marked the end; the end of being a child, the end of being coddled, the end of being told not yet, and the boys were ready, most of them anyway.

As Tom rode his bike towards town, he could not stop thinking about how fast the summer had gone by. He had spent the past eight weeks on his grandfather’s farm, a few hours North, and he was not ready to come back to town. Tom had enjoyed football growing up, he moved to town in the fifth grade, and being a good athlete made the move easier than he had anticipated, as his family was the only in town not originally from Backwater. Raised by his mother, who worked three jobs to support the family, and her long time boyfriend Joe, Tom had always been independent and mature for his age.

Gordon looked out the window eagerly, he was ready to get to tryouts, ready to get it over with at long last. “Boy I’ve been trying to get you ready for this day since you could walk, don’t fuck this up” Dale told his son. Gordon nodded agreeably, he couldn’t help but notice the pile of Bud cans were especially high today, he couldn’t wait to get out of the house, even if it was for football. Gordon’s slight frame and nearsightedness were something he had always been teased for, and certainly did him no favors on the football field, but not playing was never an option, not with Dale as his father, not in Backwater.

“Gotta go Dad, Tom’s here” Gordon attempted to slip out without the inevitable alcohol induced story he’d heard since he could remember. “Don’t fuck this up son. When I was you’re age Coach and the boys made me the man I am today, enjoy every second of it. And don’t you dare be the weak link out there, no son of mine will be the weak link.” Gordon was pretty sure his father was still talking when he shut the door, but it didn’t matter, nothing he hadn’t heard before.

Tom and Gordon had arrived to the high school a full half hour before the tryout began, yet the parking lot was already filling up with pickup trucks from the men in town. Some were fathers of boys on the team, others just came to take in the ritual that was Midland High School’s football tryouts. Boys becoming men, no grater rite of passage out there, at least not in the eyes of the people of  Backwater.

As Tom, Gordon, and the rest of the boys hit the field for the first time, two things stood out, the heat and the number of people in the crowd. Not yet ten in the mourning, and the temperature was nearing triple digits, but that didn’t stop what seemed like every man in Backwater from attending. “These boys think it’s hot, in our day it was twice this hot, and we didn’t get water breaks. Kids today have gotten soft” belted Dale, the men around him nodded agreeably.

The boys had been prepared for this day, yet they knew nothing of what was to come. For as much of an emphasis the town places on the tryout, it is shrouded in mystery, no one could attend the tryout unless they had completed it themselves.

The team was lead in stretching by Simon, who at six foot two, and two hundred pounds was the biggest guy on the team. Simon was the team’s captain since the first grade, he was Gordon’s second cousin, but the two did not get along.

As stretching drew to a close a strong man in a sweatshirt and dirty white Midland Football hat. “I’m coach Heins, if you don’t hate me yet, I promise you will soon. Work you’re asses of and prey that that’s enough. Trust me boys, you don’t want to be the weak link, not in this town, not on this team.” Tom could see the fear on Gordon’s face growing. “We got this man, don’t worry about it.” he assured his friend.

The field sat at the bottom of the large hill nearly covered with spectators, with packed bleachers on one side of the field. “We’re going to get started with some Indian Sprints today boys, hope y’all are ready.” Coach Heins barked. “Back in my day we called ‘em savage sprints, this town’s getting soft” said Dale. The men around him nodded agreeably.

The boys formed a single file line lead by Simon, they jogged around the field with the man in the back having to sprint to the front of the line, and then the next man went. When it was Tom’s turn he dug deep and quickly made it to the front of the line, but as he looked back he could see the heat was getting to Gordon. Tom sprinted to the back of the line and ran forward with his friend, “we got this man” he assured him.

Next up was the Oklahoma drills. The drill involved two men lined up facing each other, when the whistle blows the two run into each other full speed, whoever takes down the other is the victor. Tom went first and effortlessly flattened the guy he went against. Next was Gordon, he had to face Simon, when the whistle blew Gordon was immediately knocked to the ground. “You two, go again” Coach Heins barked. Four times in a row Simon speared Gordon the the ground. When coach Heins ordered them to go again, Tom chimed in: “Coach let me get another go” Coach Heins shrugged and motioned for him to take over for Gordon. When the whistle blew Simon and Tom collided like fright trains, with Tom coming out on top. “Fuck you foreigner, and your four eyed friend”. The men in the crowd liked what they saw, “finally some fire out of these boys, bout damn time.” Dale said, as the men around him nodded agreeably.

As the Sun reached its highest point, many of the men from the bleachers walked to the hill on the other side of the field, forming a single path up the hill, a few feet wide. “Alright boys, now its on to the fun part, hill sprints” barked Coach Heins Gordon’s face dropped as he looked up the steep hill. Tom comforted his friend, “it all right man we got this.” The hill was over a quarter mile long, with a steep incline. “Alright boys, lets see if we can find our weak link” coach said, in a more light hearted town than he had used to this point.

First up was Simon, he struggled initially but glided to the top once he found his stride. One by one all the boys were making it to the top, where they rejoiced together, officially members of the team, officially men. The last two to go were Tom and Gordon, Tom asked who he wanted to go last, “I’ll go last man, if I see you make it then I think I can too” Gordon replied. Tom made it up the hill faster than anyone else, through the crowd, onto manhood. “You got this man!” he assured his friend from a top the hill.

Gordon had just began running up that hill, and he was already loosing steam. He had to make it, he told himself, he couldn’t be the weak link, not today, not in this town. Yet, he began to stumble and fell. Tom watched from the top in disbelief, he knew he needed to help his friend. “Fuck that loser, you’re on the team now.” Simon told him. It didn’t matter, not of this mattered, not to Tom. He ran down the hill lifted Gordon up, and helped him up the hill. As the got to the top, the two friends hugged, they had made it, together.

All of a sudden Tom awoke with a piercing head ache, taped to the goal post of the field. “He who helps the weak link, is the weak link”. A line formed behind Simon, one by when every man on the team speared Tom as he remain tied to the goal post. “He who helps the weak link, is the weak link” the all said before driving their helmets into Tom’s chest. Finally it was Gordon’s turn, with a fire burning in his eyes, and a look of pride that troubled Tom, “he who helps the weak link, is the week link” shouted Gordon before delivering a bone crushing hit on his only friend. As the team walked of the field, Tom motionless on the goal post, Dale put his arm around his son. “Proud of you boy” Gordan nodded agreeably.

Novel vs Film: Adaptation

For my research project I have been examining the reltionship between novels and their film adaptations. One of the most common complaints against film has to do with the way it is visualized. While reading a novel we use our imagination to create the world within. Due to this every individual has a different conception of what the semplica girls, B-more, or North Cathage, Missouri looks like. When we then watch the film adaptation that ability to create the world as we see it is taken away and instead we are presented with the way in which the director sees it.

Now that we have begun to watch Gone Girl we can examine how this visual form differs from our preconceived notions.  I myself had already seen the film about a year prior to reading the novel. Some of the films conceptualization of the story did stick with me, most notably Ben Affleck as Nick and Neil Patrick Harris as Desi. However I had forgotten much of the movie when we read the novel. Now going back to the movie I find that my notions of these places and characters is quite different from the way it is depicted in the movie. For instance the attitude which Margo portrays is considerably more monotone than I imagined. Also parts of the setting such as Nick and Amy’s house, the abandoned mall, and The Bar all differ from how I visualized them. Are their any major points which differ for you between the two forms? If so how does it affect your enjoyment of the film?

The project… sigh….

In a very typically Ashley Fashion, I worked very hard on my project, am finished with it early, and am very happy with it. The problem? Also in typical Ashley Fashion my family all thought I was crazy when explaining what I was doing. The look  my mother gave me reminded me I need to explain what this “thing” is. It’s not just an arts and craft project… I’m actually counting on Nell understanding it to get a good grade. Sigh… Too bad there isn’t a way to give Nell a separate piece of paper explaining what I was doing. So yay for the justification that does that! But then I go to write it and realize I sound daft.

So here I am trying to justify something I’m proud of, but doesn’t look like a traditional college project, and I’m panicked that I sound like I don’t know what I’m doing. If anyone has done their justification, or has any advice? This was supposed to be the easy part… sigh…

Role of the anti- hero in contemporary literature

It is said that we are living in the golden age of television, shows such as Breaking Bad, Sons of Anarchy, Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones are extremely popular. A similar characteristic of these shows, and the relation to contemporary literature is the use of the anti-hero. These characters are flawed, and more complicated and robust then traditional protagonists. We typically view situations from their prospectives and because of this we, like the characters, justify their actions. It is alright, in the eyes of the viewer, for Walter White to sell drugs and kill people because he is doing it to protect and support his family.

Initially I attempted to view Amy in the archetype of the anti-hero, she is a strong and intelligent woman who is trapped in an undesirable position, and has never been in control of her life. However, as we learn more about Amy, we learn she is not an anti-hero at all, but more of a satirical foil to the anti-hero that has become so common in contemporary art. We initially think that we are seeing the story from her perspective, but we learn that her accounts of her marriage are a lie, part of a diabolical plan to exact revenge on those who loved her. It is refreshing to see a female character flip the table on the damsel is distress cliche, yet for me it leaves me frustrated and angry with her for so callously hurting those around her. Like any anti-hero her actions are justified, Nick was a bad husband and her parents are also deeply flawed. Yet I still feel for Nick, and all those Amy is betraying. The traditional anti-hero’s actions are justified because the reader/viewer is able to understand their motives, yet Amy is more complicated than these  characters because we see the effect her actions have on others. Breaking up perspective between Nick and Amy as well as the before and after we know the truth is a powerful tool the author uses to control the way we view the characters and their situations.

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