Blotter Paper

My quest to write the book that your kids'll have to read in eighth grade.

Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on September 18, 2014

A_Visit_From_the_Goon_SquadHello Internet!

My head hurts, in that abysmal and sourceless way that it sometimes does, especially in the late summer. But, other than that, life is pretty good. I’ve been reading many books. Which is a relief to me, because there’ve been points this summer and this year where I wasn’t particularly assiduous in my reading. For instance, I know the book is long and dry, but it really shouldn’t take three weeks to read Capital in the 21st Century.

Lately, I’ve been reading Jennifer Egan’s Visit From The Goon Squad. And I love it. The book is so purely and simply good that I’m a bit shocked it won the Pulitzer Prize. I mean, it just doesn’t have that hooky thing to it that leaps out at you. It’s just a bunch of short stories, spanning three generations, about a coterie of upper-middle-class people who’re loosely bound by friendship and family. It has a certain milieu—the more fashionable parts of New York and Los Angeles–and some recurring themes, but nothing that really leaps out at you and makes you think, “Alright, this is why this book is special.”

Nor is it well-written in the flashy sort of way that, for instance, a book like Cormac McCarthy or Jonathan Franzen is well-written. It’s more well-written in the mode of V.S. Naipaul: simple, effective sentences.

So I’m at a loss to explain how and why it rose to the top of the pile, except that Jennifer Egan has been around for awhile and people knew who she was and it felt like it was her turn or something.

However, I’m glad that it did! The book is undeniably worthy. I’m enjoying it immensely. The stories are so simple and they put almost zero weight onto their endings. There’s some sort of change that happens in them, but they don’t hit you with the change right at the end. Instead, they let events speak for themselves. The way that they move back and forth through time is also fantastic. For instance, the very first story is being told by a compulsive shoplifter to her therapist and it veers effortlessly between the frame and the narrative. Another story, narrated by the 23 year old girlfriend of a 40+ year old record executive who’s taking her and his two kids on a safari, both skips ahead of the main narrative and flashes back in time in a really wonderful way, especially towards the end of the story, when it starts to shudder out of control and we see past and future in one big jumble.

I also shouldn’t end this blog post without commenting on the two stories that most stand out, which are the two that are set in the near future. The first is a story told in a series of powerpoint slides (the implication is that in the near future, schools teach kids eschew continuous prose and, instead, to write slide decks), and the second is a story about a record producer who engages in an elaborate viral marketing campaign in order to sell music to preverbal toddlers. Both were extremely good…as capstones to the themes of the novel. However, they didn’t interest me as much in themselves.

Only real downside is that it’s another book, a la The Privileges and The Interestings and The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P and The Goldfinch and Friendship and every other contemporary novel I’ve read in the last year, about terrible upper-middle-class New Yorkers. But I enjoy that. Those are the people that I know and like and am comfortable with.

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Everyone becomes a self-parody in the end

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on September 17, 2014

cars_two_ver3All the time, people will look at some slightly-dubious action by a corporation or an institution or a public personage and say, “Oh, they know what they’re doing. They’ve got some angle on this.”

For instance, I was talking recently to someone about all these superhero movies and how I thought it was a pretty big bet to make on the public’s continuing taste for movie after movie that’s exactly the same thing, and someone said to me. “Oh, Marvel is smart. They know exactly how to please their public.”

But I’m dubious.

You know what other company was smart? Pixar. They made movie after movie that was high quality, critically-lauded, and fantastically successful. For the first fifteen years of their history, every single movie they made (with the possible exception of Cars) received universal acclaim. But for the past four years, ever since releasing Toy Story 3, they haven’t gotten nearly the same reception. Their movies still make money and people still enjoy them, but they’re also not really exciting. It’s sort of the same old stuff. What’s changed?

Oh, you could go into Pixar headquarters and pick pick pick at the way they operate and come up with a dozen explanations for what changed, but the real problem was with your flawed assumptions.

There is an assumption in the world that just because someone (or some company) made one good thing, or a string of good things, then they’ll keep doing it.

But that is a false assumption. Because no one really knows what they’re doing. People can be really good at giving you more of the same, but no one is consistently good at giving you the thing that you don’t know you need.

Competence and skill are something that come into play when you’re dealing with craft: trying to produce a known thing in as good and efficient a manner as possible. A company can, for instance, consistently do the thing that it does. Amazon can consistently sell things to you cheaply over the internet. Apple can consistently sell you iPhones that are slightly faster and slightly larger. Hollywood can consistently give you a big superhero movie with lots of explosions.

But that’s not enough. Because eventually other people come along and produce that thing too, and the market gets glutted. Or maybe people just get tired of that thing and they want something new.

In order to stay successful, companies need to either cheat (by using unfair business practices or government intervention to give themselves a competitive advantage) or innovate.

But innovating is really hard. Vision is hard. And eventually whatever it was that allowed your company to innovate (and does anyone really know what that is?) will become dead and ossified.

It’s the same for authors. Few are the authors who keep producing great work. Most authors who produce one great novel will never produce another one. For instance, I just read Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. That was her first novel. After it, she wrote 22 more. None of them caught the public imagination to nearly the same degree. I don’t know, maybe they’re unfairly forgotten. Maybe there was brilliance in them. But maybe she just failed to innovate.

We read all these books on creativity, and we study the thoughts and techniques of great visionaries. And we try to pretend that there’s some secret to coming up with something new. And the truth is that there’s not. No one knows where ideas come from. We might be able to tell the good from the mediocre, but no one knows how to consistently separate the great from the mediocre.

There is no sureness. There is nothing but people trying and trying and trying and, sometimes, succeeding. But even that success carries a dark price. Because with success comes the flailing around for more success, and, often, that flailing devolves into self-imitation and, eventually, self-parody. Some authors manage to avoid that terminal mediocrity, but most don’t. And even the ones who don’t fall prey to it are, more than anything else, just lucky. There are plenty of authors who sit down every day and read lots and stay active and observe the world and avoid destroying themselves with alcohol and still find themselves unable to avoid the loss of whatever vision they might once have possessed.

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Ummmmmmmmmmmmm, been reading books

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on September 16, 2014

Recently got back into checking books out from the online ebook lending library (Overdrive) that the Oakland Public Library contracts with. It’s really good. So simple. They have all the latest books. Any book that’s popular. And they get beamed directly to your Kindle by Amazon, and then synched across all devices just like a book that you’ve purchased. I checked out Laura Lippman’s And When She Was Good, for instance, and finished it in a day. It’s exactly like buying the book. Same ease of use. Except I didn’t have to buy it.

Now I’m reading Jennifer Egan’s Visit From The Goon Squad. Liked the looks of it. Checked it out and was reading it within minutes. When I went out to buy groceries, I had some downtime, so I whipped out my phone and downloaded it to the Kindle app and it picked up my page exactly where I left off.

This makes me wonder, though, what the point is of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited lending service. Why pay ten bucks a month to get something that your public library will give you for free? Actually, the library is even better, since they have books from major publishers, whereas I think the Kindle Unlimited service still doesn’t have any books from the Big Five.

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Started reading Laura Lippmann’s AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on September 16, 2014

Can’t believe I hadn’t heard of this book already. It’s a fantastic crime novel about a suburban mom / prostitute and madam whose ex-husband–sent away for murder–is about to be released. It alternates between chapters from her past (one a year for every year from 1989–when she’s sixteen–to 2005) and chapters covering the present-day story. Really quite a perfect crime novel. A main character who is extremely smart and savvy and wants a tiny space of her own–one little thing that she controls–but the circumstances of her life make it really hard for her to get even that.

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Finally realized why I have this lingering sense that I’m waiting for something…

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on September 15, 2014

waitingWithout a 9-to-5 job or any exciting events in my life, I’ve been forced to fall back on sharing emotional intimacies with near-strangers in order to get conversations going. As a result, I was talking to an acquaintance a few days ago about life, and I was saying, “Everything is great. But I just have this persistent feeling like I’m waiting for something to happen…”

And they, in true California fashion, were like, “Yeah…isn’t life just like that, though? You’re always waiting for the next big thing. People are never satisfied to live in the moment.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But it feels like it’s more than that, somehow. It feels like something really big is about to happen.”

And then I realized, oh, of course. I’m waiting for my book to come out. Duh. I mean, there actually is this major event that is looming on the horizon. And, for the first time in my writing career, it feels like I’m waiting for something that’s about more than just ego. Truth be told, I’m not sure that I benefit much, in terms of social status, from having a book that’s actually out. Once the book is out, then it becomes the past. And the past is fixed and, hence, much less glorious-seeming than an idealized future. Right now, I have all the social status of the debut author, but without the possible downside of being a failed debut author. So in terms of position, there’s not much to be gained from the actual release.

But there’s something else. This is the first time that someone’s actually going to read and pay attention to something that I wrote. And by ‘someone’ I don’t just mean the anonymous and, to me, unvisualizable audience of about 5,000 people who read science fiction short stories. No. This book will be read by actual people. People I might meet. People who will spend an afternoon or an evening with it. Teens who’ll read it at 10 PM when they ought to be finishing up their math homework. College students who’ll read it, as I once read books, when they’re drunk and it’s 2 AM and everyone else has gone asleep and they can feel all the loneliness of the world bearing down upon them. Twentysomethings who work all day at jobs that they don’t enjoy and then come home and watch four episodes of Law and Order on Netflix just because they don’t want to bear the burden of thinking and then, for a few minutes before they fall asleep, try to read something, just so they can still feel like they’re people who actually read. Thirtysomething women with young children who are stuck at home all day and trying to figure out some way to stretch their minds and maintain their sanity during the few moments that their babies are asleep.

I’m sure that I’m coming off like a megalomaniac here. That’s not my intention. I’m not saying that my book will change their lives. Or that it’ll be a bestseller. But it’ll get read. Somebody will read it. At least a few thousand people. I know that from the few anthologies I’ve been a part of. Books, physical books–even really minor ones from small presses–get way more readers than short story magazines do. So yes, it’s not unreasonable for me to think that more people will read this book than have ever read anything I’ve ever written in my life. And, what’s more, that they’ll spend more time with it and it’ll matter more to them than any work of mine has ever mattered to anyone.

And that’s a really new thought for me. Somewhere in my journey as an unpublished writer, I developed a double-consciousness. I learned to respect my own abilities and to see them as something that might someday receive some respect…but at the same time I never really believed that my current work in progress, whatever it might be, would even sell…much less actually be read.

Now there’s a decent chance that that will happen. And that, to me, is much more exciting than anything that’s likely to happen today or tomorrow or next week or next month. Which is why it’s no surprise that it feels like my whole life is being held in abeyance.

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Might read some Tacitus next

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on September 14, 2014

There’s a whole essay in Trilling’s book, THE LIBERAL IMAGINATION, where he goes on about Tacitus. I’ve never read one of the Roman historians before (unless you count Plutarch, which I don’t). But I might give it a try. However, does it seem to anyone else like this is a field and an era that’s a bit over-covered? I mean, Tacitus’ Annals and Histories cover the reigns of the Julio-Claudian emperors and the rise of the Flavian dynasty. But Plutarch also covers many of these personages and so does Suetonius. I guess it’s not weird that there’d be three books that cover the same period of time. I mean in modern America we have approximately ten thousand books about Lincoln. But it is weird that so many of these books would still be ‘in the canon’. You’d think that either Tacitus or Suetonius would’ve fallen out of it by now.

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Reading Lionel Trilling’s THE LIBERAL IMAGINATION

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on September 13, 2014

The opening essay, on how American critics value an ugly, plodding style over a highly refined one is pretty fascinating. Basically, it compares the reception of Theodore Dreiser and Henry James. The book was a good find for me. It talks about a lot of things I’ve been thinking about re: art. Primarily about how we don’t yet seem to understand the ways in which the artyness of art–its aesthetic qualities–can advance social aims. Instead, we tend to view the social impact of art in the grossest possible way: we ask if it represents some aspect of reality that’s underrepresented, or if the author is an underprivileged person, or if the art has some explicit social aim in mind. Sometimes I’m a bit repelled by the way that high art gets dismissed by activist types, as if we don’t have anything to learn from Proust and Henry James and James Joyce. As if the things that they did and thought about are the frosting on the cake of life, and that it’s silly to eat that cake when there are people in the world who have no bread. That doesn’t seem right though. All of those authors were radical in their own way. And there’s something in their vision of life that’s profoundly challenging to the status quo. Conversely, a work of art might ostensibly be about underprivileged people, but if it’s conventional on an aesthetic level, then it might end up serving to uphold the status quo. These ideas, amongst others, are what is elaborated upon, in much more detail, in Trilling’s book.

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There was hippy shit in the 1930s, and in the 1840s, and in Ancient Greece too?

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on September 12, 2014

I’m currently reading Cold Comfort Farm, which is a satirical novel about an upper-class girl who goes to live with some country cousins and decides to whip them into shape. Weirdly, it’s sort of science-fictional? It was written in 1932, but takes place in the near future, so there’s stuff like television phones and cheap, quick air travel and that kind of thing. I have no idea why the author made that choice, but there you have it.

One interesting thing: there’s an extended riff where the narrator makes fun of a character for being kind of a hippy and wearing colorful clothes and believing in nature and poetry and all that other Romantic stuff.

Which reminded me of Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance, where the author also makes fun of the early Transcendentalists for being big old free love hippies who tried to start a commune in upstate New York.

Which made me think: Have there always been hippy-type people? People who believed they could rebel against modern conformism by founding simpler communities that were more in line with nature and where they could practice sexual liberation and believe in flowers and being one with the earth and stuff?

One hypothesis of mine was that maybe hippyism began with the Romantic poets and that before them, there wasn’t quite this same meme. But then no, I was discussing this idea with a friend, and we remembered about ancient Greece and its Cult of Dionysis, where people would head out to the woods and get drunk and have orgies and tear apart animals in a way that was quite threatening to established religion.

And then there was Ancient Rome, which went through its own period, during the Augustan era, of idolizing pastoral life.

So yeah, hippy-type shit. It’s just something that happens.

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New writing project is starting to come together

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on September 11, 2014

But might fall apart, too. Who knows?

hyperbFeeling a bit worn down today.

I did read two fantastic books, though. I read the book version of The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp. It’s just as amazing as the movie, but in a different way. It’s more subtle and more complex. The movie was really careful to avoid suggesting certain things. It was careful to avoid the idea that the main love interest might be becoming a drunk. It was careful to avoid the notion that the protagonist might be an unredeemable boozehound and all-round loser. It was careful to avoid the idea that he was only staying with the girl out of pity and that, in the end, the only girl he really loved was the one who he started the movie with.

In the book, everything is much more ambiguous. The main character is just as warm as in the movie. Maybe even a bit more so, since you’re so fully inside him that you can really see he doesn’t wish any harm on anyone. And since you spend more time with him, you’re more fully able to see how charming he is. But there’s a darker side there. He’s not just feckless, like he is in the movie. He’s genuinely lacking in empathy for other people. It’s a brilliant portrait. It would’ve been so easy to paint him as a hapless loser or as a misunderstood rake. Instead, it walks a middle path. He’s a very complex person.

Also read Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole And A Half book. I’m on record as saying that I think laughter is mostly a performance. When you’re watching a comedy in theaters, people are just laughing all over the place–laughing so much that you find yourself laughing along–but when you’re watching it by yourself in your living room, you hardly ever laugh out loud.

Well, I read this book by myself, in a living room, and I laughed so hard and so often that my nose dried out and now my sinuses are crackling in a mildly painful way.

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Very frustrating day of writing; Also, I’ve switched to Spotify (in case anyone wants to listen to my writing playlists)

Posted by R. H. Kanakia on September 10, 2014

spotify-logoMy really cute novel idea did pale by morning time. So I faffed around a bit, trying to find something else to pursue. Honestly, I feel like I’m in a bit of a transitional period. My first year at Hopkins, writing was really difficult, but then I had a solid twelve month period where I felt electric and was tossing off stories and novels like mad. But the last six months hasn’t been like that. Firstly, writing that middle-grade novel was like pulling teeth. Secondly, I feel increasingly hemmed in. Last year, the world felt so expansive: I knew I could write about anything and anyone.

Now it’s different. I feel like there’s less and less that I can write about. I go through about a hundred ideas a week, and they all start to seem silly and stupid and shallow when I actually begin to write them.

Anyway, it’s a growth period. I’ve had them before. Usually, I come out of them with some fantabulous new insight about what I want to write and why. And then the insight gets thoroughly integrated into my writing process and I forget that I ever had one.

This afternoon, though, I resurrected the really cute idea and attacked it from another angle and wrote a few thousand words. Hopefully it won’t fall apart like everything else I’ve been doing lately. I’m really quite charmed by this idea; I’d like to be the kind of person who can write something lighter once in a while. In both my life and my reading preferences, I’m not nearly as grim as my stories tend to be. Although I guess there’s a fair amount of subtle humor in many of them.

In other news, I’ve decided that it’s totally inappropriate for me to keep listening to all the music that I’ve stolen over the years (mostly when I was in college), so I just signed up for Spotify Premium and I’m now slowly piecing together a collection on that site so that I don’t accidentally forget about some artist that I really like. Then, after a few days, I’ll go ahead and completely delete my iTunes music collection (up to 30 gigs now!) Certainly not proud to have done so much illegal downloading, but whatever…everyone was doing it.

As a result of this, all of my playlists are public. Which, initially kind of unsettling for me, but then I thought it might be a cool opportunity. Since I really only make playlists for listening to when I’m writing and since the music that I listen to is almost always pretty embarrassing (pop country and top 40 hits feature prominently), I thought some of my readers might be interested in seeing them. If so, you can follow me right here. And the playlist for my current work in progress is right here. Yes, I have listened to Rihanna’s “Shut Up and Drive” about 100 times in the last two weeks.

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