Guest Post, William J. Cobb: What Would the Dude Do?: On Fictional Violence & Mayhem, With a Sip of Caucasian

coloradoYears ago the catchphrase “What Would Jesus Do?” became popular, abbreviated to WWJD, and I have to confess I was always a bit leery of this mantra as a guide for life, considering that Jesus, albeit an admirable fellow, came to the kind of untimely demise that we would all rather avoid. I think my attitude to the WWJD phenomenon was also colored by how the Christian conservatives in my neck of the woods (a Colorado mountain town) seem inordinately fond of firearms. There’s a Christian resort above my home on Hermit Mountain, and more often than not what you hear from that direction—instead of the lovely sound of choirs singing angelic hymns—is gunfire. A target range is one of their most popular “activities.” That’s caused me to wonder “What Would Jesus Shoot?”—a question that may be logical, but also sounds a bit blasphemous. I know the answer as to Who: no one.

But as I’ve been writing a novel for about three years (and which is almost complete, thank you very much), and as I spend most of my time writing novels now, I’m often lost in a reverie of “What would he/she do?” You come up with a situation that seems interesting—an autistic boy being held hostage by a substitute teacher, though he’s not really being held and he’s not really a hostage you have to read the book—set the plot in motion, then imagine what would really happen. That really is the kicker. What would really happen implies an epistemological attempt at Realism, about which I don’t give a fig. But then again, I don’t want to be phony, or to write phony fiction. This is one thing when you’re describing what a substitute teacher would offer her student to drink if he rode his bicycle over to her house (Dr. Pepper? lemonade? vodka?). It’s another thing when you mix in the substitute teacher’s disgruntled ex-husband, who still pines for her, but who is so misguided that he expresses this lost love by watching her windows from a perch in the trees behind her backyard.

With this guy, I sense the looming shadows of a violent climax and conclusion, and I resist it. Although I know that violence occurs all the time in the world, I don’t want to insert it just for drama’s sake. Recently the news has been dominated by the terrorist killings in Paris, and closer to home, a mass-shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs—a city I often visit, not far from here. These acts of violence may be “senseless” in a general way, but if you knew the tangled, misguided emotions (anger, resentment, fervent beliefs) of the perpetrators, I imagine you would be able to understand the mayhem. That’s part of what novelists do: tell a good story, hopefully an important one, and imply some understanding. While contemporary writers tend to be big on implication, some of the greats weren’t shy about that role of understanding: I’ve been rereading Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) lately, and when describing the importance of the Battle of Austerlitz, he just comes out and tells you. So there.

Still I admire those who can tell a complex story without making the meaning explicit. Cormac McCarthy excels at depictions of gruesome violence, mayhem that usually occurs in a world with a moral center, even as it questions this morality. There’s a famous quote about McCarthy’s vision of the West in Blood Meridian (1985) as being one of regeneration through violence. For my money, McCarthy gives us a vision of the horrible reality of the frontier West, with civilizations locked in battle, and you figure out what it means (perhaps not unlike our own times.)

That brings me back to the novel I’ve been writing, and whether to “go rogue” or not. Much as I admire McCarthy, I don’t want to paste a McCarthyesque ending onto my novel just because I like what he does. Part of originality is offering your own (hopefully captivating and interesting) vision of the world, and for my money, a Coen Brothers goofball is more pertinent to my imagination than McCarthy’s Judge Holden—or, the flip side of that coin, Jesus. As most movie buffs know, The Big Lebowski (1998) is a great tragicomic film, leaning heavily toward the comic. Yes, Steve Buscemi’s “Donny” does die of a heart attack while he and his bowling buddies are being attacked by nihilists in a parking lot, a scene that includes John Goodman’s “Walter” biting off one of their ears and spitting the bloody hunk into the air, but most of the film conforms to expectations of classic comedy: It presents a (somewhat manufactured) plot problem—Bunny Lebowski is sham-kidnapped—that is resolved happily (the frisky sex kitten Bunny returns to her mansion home, and exits off-stage naked in a swimming pool, her sports car wrecked in the fountain). The thing is, for all its fantastic moments—Sam Elliot as the Stranger appearing magically in the bowling alley bar, beside Jeff Bridges as the Dude—The Big Lebowski never seems phony. Many contemporary novels (on the best-selling list, often) depict violence that just seems fake. Maybe I have a lingering touch of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in me, in that of all things, I can’t stand a phony.

So in those fictional moments of when push comes to shove, I don’t wonder what Jesus would do (merciful, compassionate, all-suffering) and no, I don’t think what Jeff Lebowski would do (weed-addled, harmless, stoner-charming) but what my character would do, really do, given the particular jamb into which he/she has fallen. But all that said, I’ll admit that the Dude is certainly more up my alley than the Big J, or any of McCarthy’s great characters, either. The trick is to imagine compelling personalities, and have them do something memorable, even if it’s groveling, as in the Coen Brothers Miller’s Crossing (1990), when John Turturro is on his hands and knees, begging his would-be executioner (Gabriel Byrne) to spare his life: “Look into your heart.” Which is, now that I mention it, always a good idea.

Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction

B.J. Hollars provides a multifaceted approach to nonfiction that has a direct application to the writing classroom.  Contributions from leading literary nonfiction writers like Michael Martone, Wendy Rawlings, and Dinty Moore make this book a must for any literary nonfiction class.

BlurringBlurring the Boundaries                                              

Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction

Edited by B. J. Hollars

Paperback

2013.280  pp.

978-0-8032-3648-6

$30.00

 

Contemporary discussions on nonfiction are often riddled with questions about the boundaries between truth and memory, honesty and artifice, facts and lies.  Just how much truth is in nonfiction?  How much is a lie? Blurring the Boundaries sets out to answer such questions while simultaneously exploring the limits of the form.

This collection features twenty genre-bending essays from today’s most renowned teachers and writers—including original work from Michael Martone, Marcia Aldrich, Dinty W. Moore, Lia Purpura, and Robin Hemley, among others. These essays experiment with structure, style, and subject matter, and each is accompanied by the writer’s personal reflection on the work itself, illuminating his or her struggles along the way. As these innovative writers stretch the limits of genre, they take us with them, offering readers a front-row seat to an ever-evolving form.

Readers also receive a practical approach to craft thanks to the unique writing exercises provided by the writers themselves. Part groundbreaking nonfiction collection, part writing reference, Blurring the Boundaries serves as the ideal book for literary lovers and practitioners of the craft.

B.J. Hollars is an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. He is the author of two books of nonfiction, Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, as well as a collection of stories, Sightings.

Guest Post, Adrianne Kalfopoulou: Patching the Cloth

Athens Graffiti Art

“Violence does not promote causes, neither history, nor revolution, neither progress nor reaction; but it can serve to dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention.” Hannah Arendt

“Maybe you should work against the moment,” he said to me when I spoke of writing a post that would go up on 9/11. I happened to be reading Hannah Arendt’s ON VIOLENCE.

I picked up Arendt’s essay in the midst of this summer’s dire news; bombings in Gaza; the Ebola virus; ISIS. Arendt seems especially contemporary: “Nowhere is the self-defeating factor in the victory of violence over power more evident than in the use of terror to maintain domination….” This was written in the late 60s during student take-overs in American universities and the Vietnam War. Her premise, that power and violence are opposites, that violence will turn into terror (rather than power) when “having destroyed all power” it “does not abdicate but on the contrary remains in full control.”

I was getting my American passport renewed and stood a few minutes waiting to enter the embassy in the full glare of the August sun that glanced off wide marble steps. The embassy’s newly renovated and expanded buildings spoke very clearly of power and its being “expansionist by nature.” The buildings surrounded by high barred metal fences are couched in an oasis of olive trees and nicely mowed grass knolls inside very carefully monitored gateways. As I waited inside there was a running story of Amelia Earhart on the plasma screen. That sense of expanse, of freedom dramatized too by the clips of Earhart’s pioneering voyages and courage created a stark contrast between the inner sanctum of the bordered space and the world outside of it.

I am privileged to be a dual national, but I experienced a visual split between my worlds. “Power needs no justification, being inherent in the very existence of political communities;” writes Arendt “what it does need is legitimacy.” And legitimacy is a consequence of support. She explains “the current equation of obedience and support” is “misleading and confusing.” Support is what we offer each other in recognition of our common vulnerabilities.

I live in Athens, Greece, and it has been over 4 years now of crisis-ridden moments, and tragedy too. Work against the moment. A man in the midst of August’s sweltering humidity was singing in the street, a worker whose voice rose above the drill as he sang, in Greek, I will melt for you, for you I will melt my heart… It was a sweltering day; it had been a sweltering summer.

Delphi Frieze

 

“Power springs up whenever people get together and act in concert, but it derives its legitimacy from the initial getting together….” I have a torn linen shirt I am fond of and want to patch, but the nature of the tear means I need a particular weave to iron against the cloth so it might blend in. Next to the post office is a fabric shop run by an elderly couple. The husband of the wife who runs it is always there; he’s had a throat operation and can’t speak though he picks out merchandise for customers. I show her the tear and she gives me a patch telling me to feel the rough side of it, to make sure to iron it so the rough side would heat against the frayed cloth. She doesn’t want any money. I want to leave her 2 euros, she vigorously shakes her head, placing the inch or two of cloth in a tiny plastic envelope and telling me again to make sure I don’t confuse the two sides of the cloth.

«Καλο Μινα» she says, “Good Month” a wish given the first of every month in Greece. It is September 1. Later that day I buy a salad at the bakery next to work, the cashier asks if I’d like bread, I point to a dark brown bun, she says, “these are good too” and adds a lighter crusted bun, saying it’s on them, maybe I’ll prefer it. “To act with deliberate speed goes against the grain of rage and violence,” Arendt writes. “The faculty of action” is for Arendt the essence of the political subject. Work against the moment…

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

from “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” W.H. Auden

Guest Post, Mary Sojourner: Review of The Third Law of Motion by Meg Files

Meg Files

The Third Law of Motion, by Meg Files, Anaphora Literary Press, 2011 (reviewed by Mary Sojourner)

Newton’s third law states that for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.

It is one thing to open a book and find yourself deep in a movie of the story; it is quite another to open a book and realize that you have become the character. Meg Files brings us into the mind, heart, body, longings and profound confusion of Dulcie White, a ’60s teenage girl too quickly becoming a woman.

You may have been Dulcie. I certainly was. She is a smart, curious, sensual young woman caught in a time when it was perilous to be both curious and sensual. She meets track star Lonnie Saxbe at a dancing class her friend has persuaded her to attend. The trajectory of their connection, or more accurately dis-connection, is predictable. Any woman who has gone into an abusive relationship or marriage knows the arc. Rather than describe Dulcie’s careening out of her own life, her own self, a discussion of Files’ craft in shaping Dulcie and Lonnie is more germane.

So often, the young are cursed by what they believe are their informed decisions. They are meteors propelled by desire and the longing to be desired. Files gives us in her perfect pitch renditions of conversations – both outer and inner – an exploration of the deep, intelligent and connected love between Dulcie and her college room-mate; and the hot and dissonant passion between Dulcie and Lonnie. By shifting point of view from Dulcie to Lonnie throughout the book, we are forced to know the young man’s inchoate violence and tangled driven mind.

Files brings us into intimate knowledge of two young people who most resemble the chaos of smoke. It is often easy for women to blame other women for entering and being unable to leave abusive relationships. Any of us who have found ourselves trapped in our own terror of being abandoned – “What if there is no other lover? What if I destroy my lover by leaving? I don’t want to grow old alone.” – whether we are gay or straight may know the sensation of being mired. We may know the equally energizing and terrifying rush of fresh air when we pull ourselves free. We may certainly know the descent that follows the liberation – and how old and new voices from our childhood and the society around us begin to natter in our minds, telling us to return to the mire.

To read The Third Law of Motion is to understand more than why a woman might find herself trapped by her past and present. As Dulcie and Lonnie tell their stories, the reader comes into contact with greater notions of cause and effect. We understand the degree that Second Wave Feminism – Files never preaches ideology – provides light for a dark and potentially deadly path. I imagine some of Files’ younger students reading the book and wondering why Dulcie didn’t go to a women’s shelter, to Planned Parenthood, to an empathetic woman OBGYN. Those of us who lived through the ’50s and ’60s can answer that question. There was nowhere to go. We were alone with what we believed were our choices. We didn’t yet know that there were few choices – and that all of them were part of the swamp that held us fast.

I found myself wanting The Third Law of Motion to be required reading in all academic women’s and gender programs. Meg Files has given the gift – subtle and sorrowful – of a woman’s truth.

marysojourner_2

– Mary Sojourner