Posts Tagged 'Charles Baxter'

Because You Have To: A Writing Life

Because You Have To: A Writing Life
Joan Frank
University of Notre Dame Press 2012

Reviewed by Bob Wake

Joan Frank poses a stark riddle in Because You Have To: A Writing Life, her disarming and candid collection of literary essays. She asks, “What do you call a state of mind which anticipates its own recurring annihilation?” For many of us, whether writers or not, this is a chillingly accurate description of compromised serenity. “In usual fact,” Frank states, “few of us have the money to buy necessary pockets of stillness.”

The struggle to write becomes the struggle to wrest clear-headedness from the anxious bread-and-butter strivings and obligations that demand our attention throughout the day. As the author of three novels (most recently, Make It Stay), two short story collections, and an earlier volume of essays, Joan Frank is one of the clearest-headed writers working. Because You Have To shows us how she gets the work done. The roadblocks, sometimes self-imposed, are legion and Frank fearlessly exposes them:

I have long wished to dissect envy, in a naïve yearning to be rid of it. Writers like to peer at the forbidden, to tease out components of the monstrous; why not spotlight envy, turning it like mildew toward the noon sun to banish it? Heaven knows envy’s democratic enough; old and young, published and unpublished do their time on one or the other end of the strained congratulatory remarks, the sharp reconfigurations of the face. A writing teacher I admire once mused to a class: “Writers are some of the least charitable people there are.”

Acerbic insights are a hallmark of Frank’s fiction. Her essays are no less uncompromising. She shares with us her writer’s life of exhaustive day jobs and economic hardship. In an epochal election year when the widening chasm of class disparity haunts so many of us, her essay “Never Enough” has the righteous fire of an Occupy manifesto. Comprising 173 numbered paragraphs mixing autobiography and her own hard-boiled aphorisms on the themes of money and inequality in America, “Never Enough”—to put a price on it—is worth the cost of the book:

10. I disdained wealth, distrusted wealthy people. They seemed to prove my private theory: big money—though it gets things done—really, really fucks you up. Wealthy people wore a manner: the gleam of distaste in the eye, the lean-meat-and-white-wine body. I found them pitiful. I felt sorry for all they did not comprehend, for all the life they were missing.

There is also good-humored encouragement to be found in these essays. “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Rejection Business,” for example, offers Frank’s hilarious deconstruction of a form letter rejection. More to the point, she advises us not to fear the world turning its back on us: “Rejection, then, is like the wake of a boat: proof of motion. No action from the writer means no reaction from the world. To risk rejection is to risk reaction and, as such, a courageous step.”

Joan Frank

Threaded throughout Because You Have To are warm and sometimes conflicted reminiscences of her father, a humanities professor, whose death came too early from a heart attack at age 54. (“He was searching desperately, recklessly. As if liquor and sex were large, clumsy keys he kept fumbling with, trying to fit them into a stubborn lock.”) Her own marriage to a college English professor comes under similar laser-like scrutiny, although it appears her husband was granted vetting privileges over occasionally unflattering anecdotes and recounted arguments. (“He has read these words and raised no objection.”)

Frank unabashedly shares her vulnerabilities with us. A scene of the author trying to read uninterrupted at the kitchen table is pointed and funny but also captures the awful tension between solitude and companionship that makes marriage (and, Frank is suggesting, the art of writing) a precarious balancing act:

I am trying to read a short Sunday newspaper piece at the kitchen table. My husband also reads across the table, but he stops his reading to comment to me. I make acknowledging noises and smile and refocus on my page, hoping he will be drawn into the section before him. He speaks again. I make the same noises and resume the same sentence I am reading. We have so little time together I cannot bring myself to utter, “Sweetheart, please, I need to finish this.” Because if I had my way I would always need to finish something, always need to be alone. If I achieved that—and the option to live alone again is always available, after all—I could not bear it. I love my husband, my family. Therein, the paradox.

Authors and books are name-checked and quoted frequently in these 23 essays as if part of the air Joan Frank breathes. Her enthusiasms are infectious and readers may find themselves wanting to revisit or visit for the first time some of the writers that inspire her: Martin Amis, Charles Baxter, Sven Birkerts, Robert Bly, Raymond Chandler, Thaisa Frank, Bonnie Friedman, Gail Godwin, Shirley Hazzard, Anne Lamott, William Maxwell, Frank McCourt, Edna O’Brien, Katherine Anne Porter, and Jane Smiley, to name a few.

“I wrote these essays in the grip of them, as serial obsessions,” Frank writes in the Preface to Because You Have To. A serial obsession to read these essays and share them with friends is sure to grip lovers of literature and seekers of time well spent.


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Jonathan Franzen’s zeitgeist-straddling Freedom has arrived with such outsized fanfare—most notably the Time magazine “Great American Novelist” cover—that backlash was inevitable. The binge and purge cycle of praise and resentment went several rounds before Freedom was even available in bookstores. NPR’s Alan Cheuse declared that the novel was “quite unappealing.” The New York Times trumpeted it as “a masterpiece.” I think I’ll go with compulsively readable, deeply felt, and often very, very funny. Like The Corrections before it, Freedom mines the psychology and behavior of an American family with the kind of acute detailing that elicits continual shocks of recognition. The characters are so intricately three-dimensional that they have the fullness and richness of close-up film acting, as if we’re witnessing dazzling Oscar-worthy performances. Franzen is fifty-one years old, roughly the respective ages of his psychically bruised married couple, Walter and Patty Berglund, at novel’s end. By which point—page 562 (a mere six pages shorter than The Corrections)—we feel deliriously and somewhat exhaustively connected not only to them but to their lovers, siblings, children, parents, neighbors and co-workers. The Berglunds meet while students at the University of Minnesota, Patty privileged from New York on a basketball scholarship, Walter of in-state modest background with political and policy wonk aspirations. Their college years are beautifully evoked, as is the secondary verging on primary character of Richard Katz, Walter’s roommate in school, and a charismatic rock musician whose life will stay entwined with Walter and Patty’s for decades to come.

Freedom is stylistically elevated with a brilliant strategy that turns one of Franzen’s “Ten Rules for Writing Fiction” advice on its head. That is, rule number four: “Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself.” Nearly 200 pages of Freedom purport to be a manuscript written by Patty Berglund—at the behest of her therapist, whom we never meet—about herself … in the third person. A first-person voice, in other words, masquerading as a third-person voice: “It’s not so fun to be on a road trip with a driver who considers you, and perhaps all women, a pain in the ass, but Patty didn’t know this until she’d tried it. The trouble started with the departure date, which had to be moved up for her.”

On the one hand, we come to recognize this as a dissociative mechanism on Patty’s part, the result of a high school sexual assault. But it’s also a means for Patty to step outside of her character and try to recast her experiences and relationships as pure narrative. Storytelling to pinpoint and separate objective causality from subjective dysfunction. Which, after all, is Franzen’s job here as well. It’s a fairly high-stakes literary gambit, a spritz of postmodern intertextuality. It also brings Patty Berglund spectacularly alive on the page. (At least one reviewer, Charles Baxter in The New York Review of Books, doesn’t buy it, claiming that Patty “hardly seems capable of writing the Franzenian sentences with which her autobiography is speckled…”)

Franzen had to perform a lot of twisty pretzel logic to make the metaphoric locutions on the theme of “corrections” work throughout the earlier novel. Lots of authorial heavy lifting for little payoff, since it was hard to take much from the metaphor other than something ultimately really reductive, i.e., that death is the final “correction” to life. The theme of freedom, however, is infinitely malleable and wondrously adaptive to situations both personal and political, the borders of which are porous. As individuals, we, like Richard Katz, may invariably meet a moment of despondency when we contemplate suicide, a freedom allotted us as sentient beings. (“He was pretty sure that nobody would miss him much when he was dead. He could free Patty and Walter of the bother of him, free himself of the bother of being a bother.”) But just as Katz rejects the notion of suicide in favor of life in all its messiness and conflict, we feel that Franzen’s literary heart is moving in a similar direction, away from the chic dead-end despair of The Corrections, toward something enduring and good in the human spirit.

Baxter on Porter

KatherineAnnePorterCharles Baxter’s excellent New York Review of Books piece on the fiction of Katherine Anne Porter isn’t freely available online, but it’s worth seeking out. The Library of America has just published Porter’s Collected Stories and Other Writings. Here’s an insightful snippet from Baxter’s review focusing on “impulsive behavior” in Porter’s stories and as a compelling component of short story writing in general:

Her tales tend to take place on a small dramatic stage with characters who find themselves claustrophobically entrapped. These protagonists typically discover themselves to be at a logical or emotional stalemate at the very moment when they must make a decision; if they don’t make such a decision, it will be made for them. Refusing to do what the moment demands, they enact a buried impulse, often violent, or they go into a kind of impersonal delirium quickly followed by remorse. The reliance of her characters on impulse puts them rather neatly within the short story genre, which as a form tends to downplay history in favor of sequences in the present tense. Dramatized impulsive behavior requires very little background material to be plausible, and short stories thrive on it. [...]

The problem with impulsive behavior, her characters discover, is that it reveals another distasteful and incompatible self unknown in daily life, whose desires are—for one reason or another—unpresentable. The question then quickly becomes whether anyone can live, can coexist, with that (unfortunately genuine) self once it has been revealed. The answer is usually “No.” Porter’s understanding of this throttled condition is of a very high order, and it is here, I think, that she can be compared to the greatest of short-story writers, particularly in what may be her finest story, “Noon Wine.”

Along with “Noon Wine,” which Baxter discusses at length, he rates four other Porter stories as “unsurpassed in American literature in their genre”: “Rope,” “Flowering Judas,” “Old Mortality” and “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.”

Baxter is in agreement with critics who say Porter’s 1962 novel, Ship of Fools, has deservedly fallen out of favor. She spent twenty years writing it. The book became a bestseller and made her rich and famous in a way her short stories never could have done. But its reputation has suffered and it’s rarely read or discussed today. Baxter suggests that a moralizing tone had overtaken Porter’s fiction and sucked out the artfulness. Possibly. I’d like to think Ship of Fools might yet get a second life. In fact, one could argue that Stanley Kramer’s lousy film adaptation has done more to dampen interest in Porter’s novel than the novel itself. To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel from the same era, has an insufferably high-handed moral tone about it, but the book was turned into a supremely entertaining movie that’s still frequently screened in classrooms as an adjunct to the text.

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