As I Lay Dying – Faulkner

As I Lay Dying is a very peculiar book. There’s no context given for the story, we just start in the middle of things. “Jewel and I come up from the field, following the path in single file.” With a master’s skill, Faulkner sets us up right away — by the character’s name, Jewel — to assume this is a woman. Nope. Faulkner is always striving to keep the reader off-balance with tricks like this.

The chapters are extremely short as a general rule, and all in the first person. So this unsuspecting reader went a few chapters in before saying, ‘wait a minute, this isn’t the same person who was talking before…’ then realizing every chapter is narrated by a different character. More discombobulation. Should have realized the chapter names referred to the speaker. So the first chapter name is Darl (also a boy, btw). Who is maybe 16 years old, and of course not a terribly reliable narrator. Faulkner is constantly playing tricks on the reader. Nothing is explained, nothing is described in any sort of full manner, and what we are reading is often grotesque enough that it shocks us into a sort of numbed disbelief: a sort of ‘What in the heck am I reading?’ moment.

You can easily see why Faulkner won the Nobel. You can also see why he had a hard time selling copies. The events are weird, and get weirder, the characters are Gothic, then borderline monstrous. It’s a 200-page or so book, and it wasn’t until around p. 160 that I burst into laughter. And laughed for about five minutes. It’s just so crazy, so weird… yes, there are dead mules, as there should be in a Southern Gothic novel, right? Yes there are fires and floods and breathtaking stupidity. Along with crazy cruelty.

But Faulkner does not sustain the humor. We plunge back into a serious, sad view of the world, and come to shore 50 or so pages further along, changed and uneasy by the experience.

I have to warn the reader that Faulkner uses the N-word. And there are essentially no African-American characters, a vast chasm in this world. This is not a book of solutions, not a book of high nobility, or the yearning thereto. It is a flat-eyed view of people at their worst, artificially isolated and given a strange, Sisyphean task to reveal as many shadows as possible.

But it is also surely unlike anything else I’ve ever read, leaving aside other works by Faulkner himself. He’s a very peculiar writer indeed.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, battles to establish a kingdom of justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. You can find these ebooks on Amazon.

Related blogs:

Darkness At Noon – Koestler

Dear Life – Munro

Rebecca – Du Maurier

 

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The Wood Beyond The World – Morris

I very much enjoyed The Wood Beyond the World. It’s a novel from the 19th century, so it isn’t as slick as more recent work, but it is moving and fun. The best part for me was the deft use of archaic language. William Morris studied old English and Norse, so he had a mastery of ‘hight’ and ‘dight’ that very few of us ever learn. I recommend this to fantasy lovers, or anyone thinking of attempting such language as part of their own novel writing.

Morris sticks to a relatively simple plot, but the emotional reactions of the characters, and the interplay between them, are both deep and complex. This book isn’t as well known as his “The Well At the World’s End,” but I found it easier to understand and get through. Morris is one of the original writers of medieval fantasy, and set a standard of world-building, through magic and language, that thousands who came later have struggled to match.

Morris also brings in his expertise in textiles and other crafts to add a depth and resonance that is also much worth emulating. It adds a satisfaction to the reading. If we know anything about his own personal history, we can see how he created emotional depth by bringing some of his own history into the tale. Betrayal, loss, sorrow, a new beginning: he lived them all, and put them into this story, to the reader’s ultimate benefit.

J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and many others have named him as an influence, and I find it instructive to see what he did that they clearly emulated. He’s had a broad influence.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, intends to establish a kingdom of peace and justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. You can find these books on Amazon, at the above links.

Related blogs:

The Wizard of Earthsea – Le Guin

Beloved – Morrison

Invented Languages in Fiction

 

Darkness At Noon – Koestler

Wow, what a powerful novel. I’ve read that a high percentage of Millenials don’t think it’s necessary to live under a democracy. Maybe more of them should read Darkness At Noon. Totalitarianism does not sound pleasant. This is a brilliantly accomplished novel, showing how that is so.

On a practical level, the main trick a writer can maybe take away from this book is how effectively to fictionalize true stories. Koestler was a Communist himself, in Eastern Europe at the time of Stalin, and he syncretizes the lives of several people who suffered under Stalin’s regime into this story of a man in jail, desperately trying to get out from under the sentence coming down upon him, while lying to himself about his motives and his dedication to the cause of Revolution. I don’t think the narrator ever clearly sees himself, so it is amazing how Koestler slyly brings the reader along to epiphanies the narrator never gets, by showing rather than telling. We see how people get stuck in the webs of their own deceit, how they become complicit in the larger evil of their world, how their emotions grow numb, and how necessary that must be.

This is a fever-dream of a story, some of it almost non-linear, which makes sense given the situation. We feel the consequences of living in this world in our guts, we sympathize with the characters, who often come from desperate situations, and are trying to survive in a mad world. It’s cautionary, instructive, and very sad. And if we tie it into what is happening in our world today, honestly it’s terrifying. Because it’s so true.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

In Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series, young Rev Caern intends to establish a kingdom of justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. But his own flaws endanger his hopes. Find these books on Amazon, at the above links.

Related blogs:

Picture Of Dorian Gray – Wilde

The Power & The Glory – Greene

Go Tell It On The Mountain – Baldwin

 

Journey To The West – Wu

This is a great, brawling brute of a book, fun and strange and yet often familiar, especially I suspect to those who watch kung fu movies. Written in China around the time of Shakespeare, it really feels like two separate books (at 100 chapters, there’s plenty of room) first the story of a monkey become human, Wukong, the Great Sage, Equal to Heaven, who tricks his way to immortality, and even challenges the Jade Emperor of Heaven, the second the tale of a Buddhist monk, Tripitaka, who journeys from China to India through a phantasmagorical landscape populated by monsters, demons and divinities, helped by the above Wukong and a few monstrous allies. They hope by retrieving the scrolls of the Buddha to reach enlightenment.

The early part of the story is much the most readable, as the latter half often descends into almost rote recitations of challenges by amazing beings, grand fights in which the heroes are stymied, an appeal to some divine being who gives a solution, then the defeat of whichever demon has challenged them. I have to believe this book is a collation of old folk tales, forged together into an action-adventure tale.

The challenge of any translation, of course, is how to render the subtleties and depths of the original where not just words may not translate, but the context of the tale may be utterly alien and unknown. In Chinese, as I understand it, much depth of any literature is created by references to earlier works, with which the reader is assumed familiar, and the references add resonance and extra meaning. That happens here constantly, but I am sad to report I do not have the knowledge required to get everything out of this story that I could. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it a great deal. The tricks come through, as does much of the irony and parody. A wonderful book. For that, I have to thank above all the translator, Anthony C. Wu.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

In Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series, young Rev Caern intends to establish a kingdom of justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. But his own flaws endanger his hopes. Find these books on Amazon, at the above links.

Related blogs:

The Power & The Glory – Greene

Go Tell It On The Mountain – Baldwin

The Awakening – Chopin

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Occasionally, some of

Picture Of Dorian Gray – Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray is a brilliant book. Not just because, as with Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde seems to write in a string of cliches: “the one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties,” that we realize in reflection are original to this story, a reflection of how many people have read and loved the book. But going in, I didn’t appreciate how funny much of this book would be. Funny in a cynical, cutting way. Again and again Wilde starts us out with one assumption, then makes us laugh, as in the above phrase, by turning the expected on its head. The book is almost a string of bon mots: “she is a peacock in everything but beauty.”

But Wilde is a successful playwright for a reason. He is very good at stringing a story together; this is a short novel, with very little fat on the bones. The characters are beautifully rendered, Wilde reveals them with excellent pacing, that creates a sense of impending doom, a realization of how much is at stake for these people, how dangerous their lives have become.

One of the weakness of many novels is the ending. With mainstream novels, especially, finding a proper ending can be beyond even great writers. Huckleberry Finn ends in a deus ex machina, for instance, but I’m sure you can list a dozen more like it, great novels each one, where the ending just doesn’t satisfy.

Not the case here. Wilde obviously thought through what he wanted this book to do. He wrote a beautiful ending, one of the greatest I can recall. I don’t give away endings in my reviews, so to see what I mean you’ll have to read the book yourself. But for any writer, there are great lesson to be learned from this master. And with such a powerful humorist, much fun in the learning.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

In Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series, young Rev Caern intends to establish a kingdom of justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. But his own flaws endanger his hopes. Find these books on Amazon, at the above links.

Related blogs:

The Power & The Glory – Greene

Go Tell It On The Mountain – Baldwin

The Awakening – Chopin

Dear Life – Munro

Alice Munro is a grandmaster of misdirection, and her book of short stories, Dear Life, proves it once again. The set-up of the first story in the collection, “To Reach Japan,” is that a woman and her husband are somewhat forced to take a break from each other… he has a summer of research to do up north, she is going to house sit for some friends in Toronto, taking their daughter along. He sees her to the station. “The smile for his wife seemed hopeful and trusting, with some sort of determination about it.” Uh-oh, we think. Is there trouble in the marriage? Well, Munro then plops in a scene set somewhat earlier than this, where the woman has a bit of frisson with another man. Then withdraws from that. But then… and this sort of moving forward, shifting back, going sideways, then undertaking a complete spin-around, is typical of Munro’s storytelling. We don’t know where the story will end. And indeed, here, the final moments come as a surprise, after we have been set up by the author.

That quoted sentence above also reveals her brilliance in revealing character. One sentence delivers so much about him. And the relationship is shown to have tension. Munro’s style seems to be to set characters into some sort of relationship with each other, then to twist things, through accident, or choice, through boldness or fear. And the relationship changes. And that moment of change is where this author tricks us most often, for the characters rarely settle into the new relationships we expect. The put-upon spouse does not walk away. The will-o-the-wisp settles down, yes, but in the next town over, with a whole different woman. That sort of thing. And the results all seem inevitable, and inexorable.

The flawed choices everyone makes brings us into the stories, makes us hope for the flawed characters, cheer for them, boo and hiss at them occasionally. They are very quietly quirky. Sometimes very plain, sometimes very strange. And that as well misdirects us. Since we don’t know who these people are until they act, we don’t know which way they are going to jump. Until they do. And then we say, understanding at last, of course they did that. That’s who they are.

Brilliant stuff.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

In Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series, young Rev Caern intends to establish a kingdom of justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. But he has flaws in himself that may cause him to fail. Find these books on Amazon, at the above links.

Related blogs:

The Power & The Glory – Greene

Go Tell It On The Mountain – Baldwin

The Awakening – Chopin

 

The Power & The Glory – Greene

The Power And The Glory is a book that sweeps us along in the trance of a fever dream. The book is set in the jungle, among illness, disadvantage and poverty, and that oppressive world is never forgotten for a moment. “He caught a look in the child’s eyes which frightened him… as if a grown woman was there before her time, making her plans, aware of far too much. It was like seeing his own mortal sin look back at him.” There is an ongoing suspense in the world which matches the agony in the hero’s heart.

The hero is a priest on the run, his very religion a crime, his people sullen and treacherous. Greene uses the confusion in that set-up to keep us off-balance. Where is this story supposed to be taking place, and when? We almost can figure it out, but not quite. We think of how often native religions have been outlawed in just such fashion, and feel compassion for their practitioners, in turn.

It’s a powerful, moving tale.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

In Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series, young Rev Caern intends to establish a kingdom of justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. But he has flaws in himself that may cause him to fail. Find these books on Amazon, at the above links.

Related blogs:

Things Fall Apart – Achebe

Go Tell It On The Mountain – Baldwin

The Awakening – Chopin

Things Fall Apart – Achebe

The power of Chinua Achebe’s writing for me comes from the crash of cultures, and the honesty of how things work. In Things Fall Apart, I see that most directly in the depiction of the missionaries sent serially to the nine villages. The first missionary is a kind and gentle man, and though Okonkwo and others are suspicious of him, he is allowed to try to survive on cursed ground. That he does is a surprise to the villagers, and he begins to win converts, mostly outcasts who were at the bottom of the social heap and so have the most to gain from change. Then that missionary gets sick and withdraws, and a new one comes along, who is mean, hard line, unforgiving, even un-Christian you could say, but backed by the colonial powers. Now the new missionary’s followers are free to wreak vengeance on those who despised them before, as they have a savage military power backing them.

There is much to learn from this situation. The greatest power in writing, I have read, comes not from right confronting wrong, but from two rights confronting each other. That is certainly how the protagonists on each side of this confrontation see themselves. So each side is implacable, and the suspense and pain wring the reader’s heart.

The situation also creates tremendous drama with the sudden reversal of fortune… the low brought high, the high flung down. But we have watched the lowly ones be lazy, and seen the successful one work hard, so such injustice keeps us reading. Can it really be, we ask ourselves.

And there is deep attention to characterization. We know these people, their quirks and strengths. How will they react to such sudden change? It is this which touches our hearts most deeply, of course, coming to know people whose lives are changing forever, helpless in the wrack. And the knowledge that this is a real world, these are injustices actually visited upon people time after time, in place after place, makes the story raw and alive in a way impossible to duplicate through more improbable settings.

Finally, I just want to mention that for me, Achebe’s later work, Arrow of God, presents this dilemma even more subtly. I would strongly recommend it as well. Both works are heart-rending.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, intends to establish a kingdom of peace and justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. You can find these books on Amazon, at the above links.

Related blogs:

Go Tell It On The Mountain – Baldwin

The Awakening – Chopin

Beloved – Morrison

 

Go Tell It On The Mountain – Baldwin

As a writer, what I take away from Go Tell It On The Mountain, by James Baldwin, is how to handle intensity and passion effectively. This is a novel of controlled energy, with flashes of deep intensity, terror even, delivered in such a way that the reader knows these characters are used to such a life, have learned to handle it, to survive in it. A constant tension pervades this world, even in the casual scenes. “These men and women… had spent the night in bars, or in cat houses, or on the streets… They had been drinking. They had gone from cursing to laughter, to anger, to lust… The woman had wanted fifty cents, and the man had flashed a razor.” And we wonder, how does a young man grow up at all in such circumstances?

It’s a short novel, but no less powerful for all of that, laid out in five sections, using several points-of-view. That structure keeps the reader interested, as different histories appear for the different characters, surprising and intriguing by turns.

By presenting the people in their lives, in their aspirations, in the limitations even of their spirituality, without editorializing, Baldwin creates a tremendous tension and power, fueling a great novel. By the end, the narrator goes into almost a free verse chant, fevered, mystical, terrifying. The reader sometimes loses touch with location, reason… the tale becomes a roar of yearning that reaches a peak and releases to acceptance, to submission to a larger will than the narrator’s own. Simply breathtaking.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, intends to establish a kingdom of peace and justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. You can find these books on Amazon, at the above links.

Related blogs:

The Awakening – Chopin

Rebecca – Du Maurier

Beloved – Morrison

 

The Awakening – Chopin

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin, is a beautifully crafted work. I especially love her pacing. Most chapters are only a page or two long, giving us the chance to focus deeply on what is happening at the moment. The heroine, Edna, is young, barely knows herself, but already has a couple of children and thinks she understands how the world works. Her husband is kind, if a bit distant, and she simply believes that is the way the world works.

We as writers can learn a lot from how Chopin sets her characters up for change and crisis. She then meets a guy, who flirts with her passionately, almost as a joke. Others in their social circle see this as harmless, but of course it is not, and when the young man smells blood in the water, as it were, the story grows passionate and dangerous in a hurry.

I like how tightly the story is plotted. Every scene has a purpose, nothing extraneous intrudes. It is a short novel, just over 200 pages, and hard-hitting. People are not generally sweetness and light here, though many are good-hearted enough. Others are completely self-centered. Edna twists and turns, drifting farther away from who she was, who she always thought she must be. It damages her marriage, her relationships with her children, her relationships with the community, a logical, powerful process that begins to feel inevitable. Beautifully done.

As for the ending… well, my suspicion is, as the book was written at the end of the 19th century, it’s ending must conclude in a way proper to that time. And it does. Personally, I would have loved to see the whole story unwound farther, and more consequences explored.

But still, it’s a brilliant novel, very much worth reading, beautifully conceived and created.

Happy Reading, Happy Writing,

P M F Johnson

Check out Disk of Dragons and Trollen Rose, the first two novels in my mystical fantasy series. My hero, Rev Caern, intends to establish a kingdom of peace and justice, despite disasters that threaten his people. You can find these books on Amazon, at the above links.

Related blogs:

Rebecca – Du Maurier

Beloved – Morrison

The Red Tent – Diamont