Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart

Cover illustration for Super Sad True Love Story by Gary ShteyngartI’ve finished it–the Super Sad True Love Story. And it only took me four months. I started this great (but grating) satire back in September. I waded through the first half over the course of about two weeks, and then abandoned it for, well, everything else I’ve written about here. I just picked it back up again. Luckily, according to the experts, “it’s the sort of riff-based novel that does particularly well in bite-size pieces.” While this probably isn’t exactly what Ron Charles had in mind, I finished it, and am writing about it, and that’s it.

Set in an only slightly futuristic New York city (like maybe ten years from now), Super Sad True Love Story follows the middle aged, middle income Lenny Abramov through a painfully sentimental romance with beautiful but troubled 24-year-old Eunice Park. The couple meets for one night only in Rome, where Lenny is coming to the end of a year long business trip, unsuccessfully hawking nanotechnology-based youth enhancement to HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals) and Eunice is indulging in a little post-college travel. Lenny falls instantly, deliriously, pathetically in love; Eunice is bored, but willing enough. The the two reunite in Manhattan through the combined pressure of Lenny’s eagerness to see Eunice again, and Eunice’s need for a rent-free place to stay.

The novel is epistolary in style, told through Lenny’s outmoded journal entries and Eunice’s slang-filled emails, chats and “teens” (facebook, in effect). It deals primarily with their relationship (which is sad, in more ways than one), but also with the social tensions that surround them: the impending visit of the Chinese central banker, the encampments of homeless protesters and returning veterans, the armed guards who monitor travel between the burrows, the private armies retained by corporations.

Shteyngart’s not-to-distant future is a corporate oligarchy driven by mass consumerism and credit, and populated by such financial monoliths as LandO’LakesGMFordCredit and AlliedWasteCVSCitigroupCredit. The American dollar is pegged to the Yuen and the “Governor of the People’s Bank of China-Worldwide” is “unofficially the world’s most powerful man.” American is run by the Bipartisan Party, and all government messages include an “apply and deny” clause: “By reading this message your are denying its existence and implying consent.” Service people are veterans, not of Iraq and Afghanistan, but of some equally ill-fated Venezuelan conflict. The entire populace carries iPhone-like mini computers called “apparats” which broadcast credit score and “fuckability” ratings, stream one-man-show-style reality-TV-esque video rants (which have apparently taken the place of both news and drama), and offer the opportunity to shop at such trendy stores as AssLuxury, JuicyPussy and Onionskin (where they sell translucent jeans). Books (irony of ironies, considering I paid $9.00 for the Kindle edition of this one) are valueless.

Critic Laura Miller argues that with Super Sad True Love Story Shteyngart offers readers a kinder, gentler satire. Indeed, the author seems to have great empathy for his characters, despite their flaws, and he’s put in the effort to make them real and well-rounded, not merely the cardboard cutouts that populate so many satires. Eunice is convincingly complex. Like many 20-something college grads, she’s drifting, caught between her desire to do something and her own crippling lack of confidence; her love for her Korean immigrant family, and the pain inflicted by her abusive father; her shallow shopping-based socialization and her impulse to help the homeless protesters in living in the park; her affection for Lenny, and her sense of his inadequacy and strangeness. Lenny, likewise, is a fully fleshed character, and, even more remarkably, one who is capable of change.

I began the book feeling that, while it might be easy to sympathize with and even pity Shteyngart’s characters, it would be impossible to actually like them. But, about 3/4 of the way through, I did find myself liking them. I was even anxious about what might happen to them. What started out as a slightly irritating slog had somehow sneaked into my good graces.

Super Sad True Love Story is a good book–a surprisingly good book–but, like the consumerist pop culture it mocks, it may drive you just a little nuts.

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen

Illustrations from Northanger AbbeyThough obviously distracted by the ongoing tax debate (which seems to have become inexplicably focused on the estate tax, rather than the >$250k break point, but whatever) I did manage to finish a novel this weekend: Northanger Abbey, the lost Austen.

Begun in 1798 and finished in 1803, Northanger was one if the first novels Austen completed, as well as her first sale, though it did not appear in print until after her death. She had already written Lady Susan and had started both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, however. It was a particularly unhappy and tumultuous period in the novelists’ life, encompassing her father’s retirement and the family’s subsequent move to Bath, a city she loathed, as well as her over night engagement to Harris Bigg-Wither.

The novel follows 17-year-old Ann Radcliffe enthusiast Catherine Morland on a visit to Bath. Under the guardianship of complacent childless family friends, Catherine visits the pump room and attends public balls, making new acquaintances. She quickly meets and befriends the lovely but manipulative Isabella Thorpe, and it emerges that the two girls older brothers also know each other at Oxford. When the young men pay a visit to Bath a dual brother-sister match seems eminent, or at last intended. Catherine, however, dislikes Mr Thorpe and remains blissfully unaware of his blundering attempts at courtship. She’s much too interested in Mr. Henry Tilney, a clever and handsome young clergyman. Just Catherine’s visit draws to close, she is invited by Henry’s sister to visit the Tilney family at their home, (you guessed it) Northanger Abbey.

Northanger is perhaps the least sympathetic of all Jane Austen’s satires. Though frequently both critical and comedic, Sense and Sensibility, Emma, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, all have the benefit of a compelling heroine and at least one honest romance. Catherine, on the other hand, is in many ways a foil–a nice girl, honest and not too bright, but with a healthy imagination where melodrama is concerned. She is Harriet Smith, with a better family and a stronger character. Her romance with Henry Tilney also lacks the weight of the relationships in Austen’s other novels–it’s funny and frequently charming, but, like Catherine herself, not too deep.

The real pleasure of the book comes from Austen’s language, her frequent tangential diatribes on the nature and import of novels, and her many hilarious digs at Ann Radcliffe–who as far as Austen is concerned, seems to have been the Stephenie Meyer of her day (only pro-woman, a better writer, and a different kind of crazy). Indeed, though the older author clearly influenced Austen’s work, Radcliffe jokes were something she could never quite give up–witness the roll The Romance of the Forrest plays in the breech between Harriet and Robert Martin in Emma.

Take a tally….

Look’s like someone‘s a little upset about his approval rating.

Well, you know what? I’m a little upset about his attitude. Um…take a tally of campaign promises? Seriously? Well, off the top of my head: the end of the war in Iraq; health care for every American; an end to additional tax breaks for the super-rich; gay marriage. Maybe the president could take a moment to point just one of those things out to me?

Obama is probably lucky he doesn’t have to depend on me for justification, because I’m inclined to leave it at that. But, as it turns out, someone actually did take a tally. According to PolitiFact, the president is doing basically what he said he’d do. The site summarizes his success so far as “okay, we will.”–which is pretty much exactly what president said of himself (though in somewhat milder terms). He’s doing what he said he’d do–but it’s going to take more than just two years, and it might not be as bright and shiny as well all imagined.

Of course, what PolitiFact doesn’t take into account (what, indeed, it would be almost impossible to quantify) is the relative importance of some of successes and failures, or as the site calls them kept and broken promises. For example, Obama “kept” a promise to implement a “Women Owned Business” contracting program. But he “broke” a promise to institute cap and trade. Now, women owned businesses are laudable, certainly–but are they comparable to cap and trade in terms of impact and implication? To be clear, no one’s saying they are–the point is, with this data, how would you know? One promise is weighted the same as any other. Deeper analysis is required.

What I think is so frustrating for anyone left-of-center at this point is not, as Obama seems to think, the concept of compromise. We aren’t children (for the most part). We understand that no one gets their own way all the time. It’s not even, as the media keeps telling everyone, that Democrats can’t seem to stand up to bullying from the GOP–at least not entirely. The real ongoing problem is that whatever they do, the Democrats come off looking kind of bad. It doesn’t matter if they’re squaring off or trying to negotiate an equitable agreement; if it’s possible to put a negative spin on a Democratic action, that’s what will happen.

Everyone keeps saying Democrats are bad at politics, but what they’re really bad at is PR. Everyone knows the Republican PR machine is consistent, powerful, and pervasive. The Democrats just don’t roll that way. They don’t all repeat the same phrases in interviews and speeches. They rarely espouse a take-no-prisoners, we’re right and everyone else is wrong attitude (even when I think they should). Although many reporters and journalists are probably liberal, we’d never know it since, with the dual (occasionally overlapping) exceptions of actual pundits and people on Fox, they abstain from political activism in the interest of journalistic ethics.

From the outside looking in, it seems that the right is all the same. From my point of view, way off in the western hinterlands, everyone on the left is totally different. I can’t listen to “Best of the Left” without getting totally mad at Jay and Thom Hartmann and that winy girl on “Young Turks” who just keeps laughing and agreeing with everything. As the above, clearly illustrates, even Obama can’t talk to me in a way that doesn’t piss me off.

I cannot honestly imagine how the president managed to generate such a groundswell of support in the first place, much less where it all went to once he settled into the job. Since Obama has continued to do what he said he would, the problem must lie, not in what he does, but in how he does it, or how he communicates it to his constituency.

In closing, for the record: I can’t tell you how wrong and how politically stupid I think this decision to compromise with republicans on the >250K tax issue is. Even Obama admits holding out “might be good politics.” He tries to spin this decision as a win for the American people, maybe it even is a win–but it feels like a loss. Case in point: PR!

Well, it’s official…

…all 42 senate Republicans are assholes.

In case there’s any doubt, here’s written proof, in letter format.

Now, I realize filibusters have become pretty common in recent years, and especially in recent months. As Rachel Maddow furiously but accurately points out, Republicans already block everything anyway. This letter just marks the subtle transitioned from pattern to policy.

So it’s not that this little declaration of war is all that surprising. It’s just that the whole thing is so completely repellent. After all this talk of “comprise” this and “adult conversation” that, congressional republican’s next move, as a body, is a hostage-style ultimatum.

You know what: that’s actually fine. If the the 42 signers of this letter really believe that sustaining the Bush tax cuts for earners making over $250,000 per year is the most important issue our country faces, let them prove it. Let the all the tax cuts expire.

I’ve written to the white house, as well as Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer on this issue, it pisses me off so much. Ugh!

Why is my publisher doing that?

Until moving to my current position–oh, last month, when I started this stupid thing–I worked in professional publishing. That is, I worked on books that sold primarily, not through traditional trade channels, but direct online, at professional conventions, or through university adoptions, associations, or other professional networks. My list spanned a variety of topics of interest to businesses and nonprofits–board development, leadership, strategy, ROI, training and development, talent management, perhaps most startling, coming from a literature back ground, industrial and organizational psychology. For the (I’m guessing here) 98% of the population who’s never heard of it, OD/ID is, in layman’s terms, the study of what makes workplaces productive. The science combines elements of statistics, group and individual psychology, and detailed analysis.

Anyway, the reason I’m sharing this: I recently received an email from one of my former authors asking, essentially, the questions above–why is my publisher doing that?–but asking it in a way only an I-O Professional ever would: what are the incentives and disincentives to action within this company?

So here we go. Bad news first. In general, I would say, the disincentives to act within a publishing company (at least the four I’ve worked for) are as follows:

A prohibitive workload

If you work in publishing, you never, ever run out of things to do. Your to-do list is long, and probably color coded–and, like Homeland Security, threat levels red, orange and yellow are the only real options–blue and green might be on the chart, but you never actually use them. This is okay. It’s actually kind of exhilarating. But it does make it hard to pick up those little extras.

Budget constraints

Budget is a problem in every business of course. In publishing, budget rears it’s ugly head in two main ways. First, all expenditures are supposed to be tied to particular book projects. This is designed to ensure that publishers don’t spend more making a book than they have projected they will earn by selling it, but it has the (unintended?) side effect of making it insanely difficult to invest in non-book projects–like infrastructure, a better website, an alternative content delivery system, or hiring staff. Basically, if the RIO can’t be measured on an expenditure-to-sale basis, it’s not something publishers will do easily. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to get funding for a long-term project, and that in turn makes publishing companies cumbersome and slow to adapt to certain kinds of market pressure. Second, marketing budgets (like marketers’ time) are tied to next seasons’ front list. If your book didn’t launch strong, it’s really kind of too bad. Your money has been spent and your marketer is already working on whatever is coming out in six months. Any secondary marketing efforts are going to be gorilla-style, and on a shoe string.

Bureaucracy

In a billion dollar international company that has absorbed dozens of smaller companies wholesale, it can be a real challenge to figure out how to perform certain tasks, who can help you to perform them, and sometimes even whether they are possible. And of course, there are all the usual bureaucratic issues. Like the age old question, famous among editors and salesmen alike: who’s territory is this, really. No one is totally sure, but you can bet they’re going to hammer it out, over and over and over again. And then there’s that other favorite: what does the boss like? If your publisher has decided that, say, strat planning books are out this year, and everyone should sign vampire romances instead, that’s what’s going to happen.

Basically, if the world were full of time and money, and everyone answered “yes,” then publishing would be a perfect business.

So, what are the incentives to act? What makes publishing people jump up and get things done?

Sales

If there’s real sales potential your publisher will move, probably faster than you’ve ever seen them move before. If you wrote a history book that’s supposed to be out in May, and you get a gig as key note speaker at the National Historical Society conference in March, odds are good that schedule will move up fast. This doesn’t mean your book was on a slow schedule before. It means your publisher offered the copy editor (and the pagers, and the indexer, and the illustrator) a raise to turn the manuscript around in half the time. Also, perhaps, a drop ship. This is the flip side of the budgetary coin. Book specific expenses with a good upside are easy to get approved.

Professional pride

A successful book gives everyone who worked on it–the publisher, the editors, the assistants, the marketers, the sales team, the production staff, the designers, the web guy, the systems people, everyone–a sense of accomplishment. When authors do well, it means publishers did well. Tons of work goes into every book, and the whole team wants to see it succeed–not as much as the author does, probably, but a lot. Working on to a high quality book mean a lot; working on a high quality book that people end up loving is the best thing ever.

Friendship

Books are prioritized based on projected sales numbers. Certain sales thresholds are tied to corresponding levels of marketing and production expenditure, and there’s only so much an author can do to get around that. HOWEVER, if your publisher likes you, they’ll go out of their way to help you. It’s a function of limited time and limited resources, divided by who calls yelling and screaming vs who calls and asks for help. Somewhere between the “squeaky wheel” and “you win more flies with honey” is the approach that will serve you best with your publisher: when you have a small question: email, when you have a big question: call, AND be nice about it.

Personal gain.

This is actually less of a motivator than you might think (or at least, than I thought going into it). Only two groups within a publishing company have financial incentives they can directly impact, but they are arguably the two most important groups: editors and sales staff. Virtually everyone else, from the support team to management, earns their bonus based not on the performance of the books they personally work on, but on the success of the company a whole, or a particular imprint, or some combination. For editors and (some) sales people, however, compensation is tied to the success of their own particular books. Many, but not all, sales staff earn commission. Editorial compensation is somewhat more convoluted. An acquiring editor is generally evaluated based on three criteria: signing, delivery, and profitably. That is, the number of projects signed within a fiscal year; the number of books published within a fiscal year; and most important, the value (perspective and actual) of those projects. Obviously sales expectations and signing goals will vary from topic to topic and from publisher to publisher–but wherever you go performance in these three areas determines an editor’s bonus. A little practical application for you: if you’re getting a lot of pressure to turn around a contract fast, it’s probably close to the end of the quarter. Delivery dates, though, are more complex.

Schedule

A late manuscript can theoretically impact an editor financially–but not that much. The real motivator here is the domino effect a late manuscript has on all the other team members. If a book is late to the editor it’s late to production, which means it’s late to the independent contractors, who may already be booked for some or all of the new time slot, so that new contractors need to be hired, which means it’s even later, which means it’s it’s late to launch, which means all the marketing needs to be pushed back. Just hope it hasn’t dropped out of the season, in which case the catalog is probably wrong, and the sale team and cover designers have incorrect information, and someone needs to make sure the book doesn’t get launched on the website based on the previous date. Is this the end of the world? No. But it makes everyone’s job harder, it costs you sales, and if a particular editor’s projects are chronically late, that editor gets get a rep. The odds are good that if your editor is hounding you to turn in your manuscript, it’s because a dozen other people are hounding them.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

Cover illustration for Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo IshiguroWith the movie version of Never Let Me Go, by  Kazuo Ishiguro, releasing last month, I was inspired to race through this book before the movie got nominated for something. Plus, never having read any of Ishiguro’s work (no, not even Remains of the Day), I felt it was a bit overdue. (As is this entry, given that I finished the book over a week ago.)

Never Let Me Go (2005) takes takes place in an alternate present (or an alternate late 1990s) with a dystopian bent. The novel is told in a conversational (and very, very English) first person voice from the point of view of Kathe H., a 31 year old about to retire from being a “carer” in order to become a “donor.” Kathe explains that, as she prepares for the next stage of her life, she feels the urge to recall her past with her two dearest friends, Tommy and Ruth, and more than that, to come to some understanding of what it has all meant. She begins her story at Hailsham, the boarding school where she and her friends grew up, on a beautiful but isolated country estate, and follows them through their late teens, living with a group of other students at a rural cottage, and into their adult lives as carers and donors.

The story, though phrased in a way that assumes a certain level of knowledge on the part of the reader, isn’t intended to be mystery. Like the students in the novel, readers know from the beginning that the characters are being carefully groomed to become multiple organ donors. As the children grow up, their knowledge of the specifics increases, and so does their understanding of where they come from, and the what donation will mean. Readers piece together the details of the donation system gradually from bits of information dropped throughout the text. The antiseptic language and Hailsham-specific slang scattered throughout infuses the book with a sense of creepy authenticity.

Throughout Never Let Me Go, Kathy comes across as friendly, matter of fact and honest–but she is not strictly speaking, a trustworthy narrator. Her remarkable evenhanded forthrightness in relating the events of the story, even her own faults and her sex life, is oddly offset by her extreme reserve. As the work progresses, it becomes clear that her own emotions are tightly controlled and deeply suppressed, perhaps as a survival mechanism, perhaps simply as a function of the expectations with which she has been raised. She faces the deaths of her friends, if not with equanimity, than with acceptance. Still, there are aspects of the donor’s fate, particularly what may happen after they “complete” that she cannot face, can barely imply. The emotion and drama of the story, like the precise truth behind the characters lives, is left largely to the reader to uncover.

Never Let Me Go features an unusual narrative structure that is both striking and convincing, though occasionally a little wearing. The story is primarily a sort of continuous flashback, one narrator recalling a series of a events in chronological order. But within those recollections, the plot tends to swirl and eddy, doubling back on itself. Kathy H., like any of us, telling a story to a friend, might start out to relate a specific event, then become sidetracked by some peripheral detail–what a particular teacher was like, which areas at school were and were not considered “in bounds,” etc.–leading to a whole other anecdote. It might be 10 or 15 pages before the narrator brings us back around to the original tale. Ishiguro adds a further layer by including frequent references to subsequent discussions the characters had about the events in question. In this way, each incident is rendered using a rich depth of perspectives, all filtered through the narrator’s current self, creating something manifold and complex and at the same time entirely one-sided. It’s really a great device, although I’ll admit that by about halfway through the book, it had started to drive me a little crazy.

In it’s style, characterization, relationships, and even in the simplicity of many of the events, this novel is compellingly realistic. It’s one of those rare books that inserts one fantastical detail into a world that is otherwise utterly true to life. As so many have pointed out, Ishiguro uses the novel as a venue to raise implicit questions about science and morality; what it means to be human, and what human beings are capable of.

Equally present in the work, but less discussed, is the apparent ease with which Kathy, Ruth and Tommy, and all the students accept their fate as donors. What is it that keeps these characters so grounded, so balanced, so willing? They aren’t restrained in any physical way–compulsion isn’t necessary. I would imagine that these students, released into the world as teenagers, would run as wild as Amish kids on Rumspringa, partying and shooting up and sleeping with outsiders. I’d expect runaways, or, if that were impossible, at least some self-destructive acting out–ODs, high speed car accidents, probably even a couple of deliberate suicides just before the donation processes begins. But none of that happens. In fact, the young people frequently make requests to begin their training early. There is only one context in which any kind of a reprieve is ever discussed, and even that is so modest: not a pardon, just a short stay of execution, a few extra years.

So why is that? I think Ishiguro intends it as a comment upon nature vs nurture, on the ways in which experiences and expectations can limit vision, can hold human beings in mental cages–and yet they still, as much as they are able, look for a way out. They crave the idea that a way out is even possible. It feeds back into the larger issue of amoral science: the author is saying, look, these children have been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they submit willingly to their own systematized execution–but they still love one another, they will still fantasize about the future, they will still try. This acceptance makes sense in context, but I found it consistently troubling, the one aspect of the book I could never quite credit.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, Heidi Durrow

Cover illustration for The Girl Who Fell from the SkyThe Girl Who Fell from the Sky tells a story of a family tragedy and survival from the points of view of five interconnected characters. Though the story is in fact very simple, the nonlinear time line, limited narrators, and unconventional sentence structure, give The Girl Who Fell from the Sky an odd sense of unreality and mystery–an airy elusiveness that keeps readers guessing, working to put the pieces together.

Set in 1980s Portland, OR, the novel opens innocuously with 10-year-old Rachel moving in with her grandmother. It’s clear that the move is precipitated by some recent family tragedy, but the exact nature of what has happened remains at first obscure. Rachel’s first-person, child’s-eye-view narration is absorbing. Bright and perceptive, she eagerly relates the details that strike her as new and curious–her grandmother’s unfamiliar speech and special lavender lotion, her aunt Loretta’s smooth beauty and “potential lizard,” Drew. More reluctantly, she discusses her sense of cultural alienation as the daughter of an African American serviceman and a Danish woman, living in America (and experiencing American racial tensions) for almost the first time. Rachel feels divided from the white girls at school because of her darker skin, alienated from black girls because of her blue eyes, her over-achiever status, and her prematurely large breasts. She also desperately misses the hybrid Danish-American culture in which she was raised.

“At the AME Zion Church, when we sing holiday songs, beneath my breath I sing the Danish words. The Choir is so loud no one can tell that during “Silent Night” I sing stille and not “still,” hellige and not “holy.” I’m glad I remember these sounds. I have learned a lot of words since I came to Granda’s. Dis, conversate, Jheri curl. There are a lot more. And sometimes I feel those words taking up too much space. I can’t remember how to say cotton in Danish or even the word for loud. What if you can have only so many words in you at once? What happens to the other words?”

Like the best first-person narrators, Rachel tells readers more than she means to, occasionally even more than she herself understands. Gradually, it becomes clear that Rachel’s mother and younger siblings recently died in an “accident”–that the whole family fell from the top of a Chicago apartment building where they had been living for most of one summer, leaving Rachel the only survivor.

Interspersed with Rachel’s narration are third-person sections following Jamie, a young neighbor boy who witnesses the family’s fall, and Laronne, the supervisor at the community college library where Rachel’s mother, Nella, had worked during her short stay in Chicago. As the novel progresses, Laronne finds and reads Nella’s diaries, while Jamie meets and talks to Rachel’s father Roger, creating fourth and fifth narrative strains that also help to fill out the story.

Eleven-year-old “Jamie who was really James,” known later in the story as Brick, is reading a fieldguide on birds in the apartment courtyard when Rachel’s brother plummets to the pavement, followed by her mother and infant sister, and last of all Rachel herself. Obsessed with the incident, Jamie hangs around the memorial erected in the courtyard meeting reporters and other visitors (including Laronne). Quizzed by a reporter, Jamie claims there was a man on the roof before the family fell, sparking questions about what exactly happened–did Nella throw her children off the roof and jump herself, or did some man push them? And who was the man on the roof: Nella’s red-headed boyfriend? Her estranged husband? Or only the crazy old Pigeon Man who raises birds on the roof? Jamie also visits Rachel’s hospital room, where he meets her father Roger and hears the story of Roger and Nella’s first son, killed in a fire before Rachel and her siblings were born. Soon after, afraid of the police and of the Pigeon Man, Jamie leaves the apartment building, living for a time with Laronne before heading West (somewhat inexplicably) to find Rachel and tell her Roger’s story. It takes six years before the two meet in Portland.

The novel is complicated, not only by the mode of storytelling, but by the themes which populate it–race and class, of course, but also alcoholism and addiction. The language of addiction and recovery is prevalent. In their youth, Nella and Roger are both alcoholics. The fire that kills their first son is started when Roger passes out drunk with a cigarette in hand. Nella meets the man she leaves her husband for at a meeting, and the fight that proceeds her death is brought on in part by his drinking and drug use. Roger drinks heavily at Rachel’s hospital bedside, and after the death of aunt Loretta, Rachel’s grandmother also becomes an alcoholic. Loretta’s fiance Drew runs the recovery program at the local Salvation Army. After leaving Chicago, Jamie/Brick becomes an alcoholic and addict as well. It’s through the Salvation Army and Drew that he and Rachel become reacquainted as teenagers. Creepily, young Rachel’s diary parallels that of her dead mother by numbering the entries “Day 1, Day 2, Day 3” AA style, rather than using conventional dates.

Finally, imagery of birds and flight and sky and maps permeates the text, flowing through nearly every section–ornithology, the bird-feeder, Pigeon-Man, the sky metaphors, pilots, bird-boy, the map maker, the maps on Rachel’s body, and of course, the family’s fate–it goes on and on. The effect is striking, artistic, holistic, but also unsubtle.

More importantly, the conclusion is seriously lacking. The climax of the story falls flat, failing to deliver the emotional impact that has been set up, and leaving behind a myriad of loose ends. It’s common in novels that aspire to “post modernism” that stories trail off, that life goes on, as it might in the real world, without the neat bows and morals of classical literature, but this is extreme. In the final chapters, it seems, all the characters but two disappear without explanation. It feels rushed, and it feels false. But it’s worth keeping in mind that Durrow is still a very young writer. Her prose is astounding, her characterization deep and astute, she just hasn’t mastered plot and pacing completely.

I Miss Ronald Regan…

…a president who, by the way, I cannot freaking stand, with his ripping the solar panels off the white house and screwing Jimmy Carter out of credit for bringing the hostages home; and his elitist trickle-down economic theories; and his vehement opposition of Roe v Wade; and his “homeless by choice” bullshit; and never mentioning AIDS until 20,000 people were already dead; and his “nine most terrifying words”; and his wife’s lame “just say no” campaign; and Iran-Contra; and Grenada; and whatever other secret CIA shit went down.

But I’ll say this about Regan: he was smart. He actually read the economic theories he promoted, and he was capable of explaining them coherently. He wrote some of his own speeches, including everybody’s favorite “government is the problem” inaugural address. He had the intelligence and (for lack of a better word) the soul to appropriate and rejuvenate the biblical “city up on a hill” analogy from John Winthrop and JFK. He had a sense of humor.

I’m pretty sure Regan would know what the 14th Amendment is, not to mention which supreme court decisions interpret separation of church and state as implicit in the 1st Amendment. I’m also pretty sure I’d hate what he’d have to say about both the constitution and the supreme court today…but at least I’d understand it. And there’s something to be said for that. Something to be said, too, for an opponent you can respect, someone you can argue with in a meaningful way, and someone who, at the end of the day, might not be such bad company over a beer.

Valencia, Michelle Tea

Cover illustration for Valencia, by Michelle TeaMichelle Tea is one of San Francisco’s living literary heroes–if you go to readings in the city, you hear her name all the time as an example of San Francisco’s vital literary scene. I’ve even heard her read a few times over the years without really knowing who she was. Her name carries such weight that, at the recent Litquake Litcrawl event, I found myself explaining the RADAR Reading Series to a friend, saying: they do a lot of alternative-style narrative. And Michelle Tea is really involved in it.

So, I figured it was time to get with the program and actually read something she wrote. For my first foray, I chose Valencia (2000), the second and best known of Tea’s three memoirs. She is also the author, co-author or editor of nine other books in a range of genres including poetry, fiction, collected essays, and one graphic novel, but this book stands out as her signature title–the one that always makes it in the author bio or the introductory speech. In other words, the perfect place to start.

Valencia is a fast-paced if slightly meandering narrative of 20-something Michelle Tea’s substance-fueled adventures in 90s San Francisco. The story follows Michelle through a series of friendships, jobs, drunken hook-ups, and, of course, girlfriends–especially her doomed relationship with socially conscious Southern girl, Iris. Tea’s language is elastic–by turns spartan and poetic–creating a mobile, richly textured narrative with a voice that sucks you in and propels you forward through the story. The author comes through as fearless and eager, blindingly enthusiastic, in love with love and with the city, by turns casual and obsessive, self-absorbed yet self-aware, and always unapologetic. She makes a compelling narrator, and not always a completely sympathetic one.

Tea doesn’t dwell on the inner lives of her characters or on the significance the events that befall them, and that can make Valencia seem shallow. (That, and lines like this: “I could never come up with a good reason not to have a beer, so I completely understood. Plus she looked good with a beer in her hand.” Or this: “But I wondered about being with someone who tried to stop me from drinking coffee.”) The truth is, unlike most memoirs, the trajectory of the author’s life and the emotional weight of events doesn’t seem to be the point of this story. Valencia is, more than anything else, a tribute: to youth, to the particular culture represented by the eclectic cast of characters, and most of all to the city of San Francisco. It’s a world Tea brings to life with clarity and honesty and a certain amount of wistfulness. “But back to when it was thick and glistening and alive. I mean life, never knowing what was going to happen.”

Publisher’s Weekly has described Tea as “a modern-day Beat,” an assignation I find somewhat mystifying. Yes, Michelle Tea, like the Beats, writes about doing drugs, quitting jobs, sleeping with strangers, and meeting people on the bus–but that’s where the similarity ends.

Tea’s core themes center on feminism, class, and sex (or sex work). There were no female Beats. Just women who let the Beats crash in their spare bedrooms or shoot apples off their heads. The Beats were for the most part,1The big exception, of course, is group muse Neil Cassady. disaffected members of the middle class: Alan Ginsberg, Lucien Carr and Jack Kerouac all met at Columbia. William S. Burroughs went to Harvard. They weren’t born into poverty and abuse. They didn’t work as whores (although they paid some).

More importantly, the spirit of the Tea’s work is so fundamentally different from that of the Beat poets. The Beats were in many ways modern-day transcendentalists. The intellectual precursors of the hippies, they believed in the inherent holiness of life’s simplest aspects, and the inherent goodness of humanity’s purest desires. They rejected the mainstream emphasis on material wealth that characterized the post-war years. They looked for beauty in small good things, but also in seedier side of society. More than that, they had confidence that all this mattered in some way larger then themselves.

Tea, like an up-beat Brett Easton Ellis, leaves her readers with the vague impression that none of what happens matters all that much. She has post-modernist, post-hippie, self-analytical sensibilities that prevent her from taking anything (even her own love and pain) too terribly seriously. “Even I was bored with trying to convince her that she was in love with me, or that she should be.” Tea writes, on breaking up with a girl friend. Describing late nights with a group of friends, she recalls, “…everyone’s political consciousness was very fresh and important and we loved to dress them up and trot them around the ring.”

Even during some of the more emotionally charged moments of the story, Tea retains her perspective. On tumbling into the ill-fated relationship that arguably forms the center of the story, she has this to say: “It was that gross. We would just stare at each other…It was very meaningful, we shivered with it… Once, when I was very high on pot, Iris raked her fingers up my back, and I had a vision of the world being born, dry land splitting into rivers. I was out of my mind.” All this grand, dramatic imagery, but also that self-regulating reality check (it was gross, I was out of my mind) that is the trademark of her generation.

So, ultimately, Valencia is a fast, fun read, artfully narrated and dotted with moments of surprising humor. It might not change your life, but it can definitely brighten your day.

 

References   [ + ]

1. The big exception, of course, is group muse Neil Cassady.

Thoughts on “The Acquisitions Editor” Spoof

I read (okay, sometimes skim) Joe Konrath’s blog the way I occasionally listen to Rush Limbaugh on the radio–because even though he pisses me off, it seems like a good idea to know what different people are saying. Not that I want to compare Joe Konrath to Rush Limbaugh as a person. I mean, Rush is a crazy, mean, asshole. Joe’s just a bit of a curmudgeon. But sometimes, like I said, he really can piss me off. Like this post, “The Acquisitions Editor” from two weeks ago (look, I don’t check it everyday).

Okay, so what’s wrong with this picture? Well, let’s start at the beginning. I’ve worked at a lot of publishing houses and visited a lot more. Let me just say: none of them are in hip happening buildings, and at none of them are Editorial Assistants expected to get coffee for anyone. What is this, Madmen?

Okay, yeah, I know, it’s not literal. I’m over it.

The top five infuriating inaccuracies in this article are as follows:

5. ebooks rights only?

On what planet are publishers contracting exclusively for e-rights? According to current estimates, ebook sales represent 6% of the total book market–a lot more than I would have thought, but hardly enough justify going through the whole manuscript process. Especially when whoever owns the print rights could presumably undercut your price at any time, or even just do something as simple as creating market confusion with a new edition.

4. The implication that publishers came up with the $9.99 ebook price point.

It may be shooting myself in the foot to mention this one, but the $9.99 price point is Amazon’s. It wasn’t created by publishers. In fact many publishers prefer a price point closer to the $14 trade paper standard, which is why so many ebook prices are going up now that publishers have a say. I can sort of understand this. Cheapo mass market paperbacks have always been my personal favorite book format as a consumer, but traditionally publishers only release those for their most popular books, so they can make up in volume what they loose in price.

The thing is, I really liked the $10 price. It’s equivalent to eating lunch out or going to a movie. That is, it’s the kind of little splurge I can indulge in on a semi-regular basis. More than that, it struck me as pretty fair–$5 more expensive than say, renting a movie, $5 less expensive than buying a trade paper you could potentially resell. RIP.

3. “Well, we could spend two or three weeks working on a single title in order to get it ready.”

All I can say to this one is, “I wish.” The standard time-table for publication, from the time the author turns in their finished manuscript to the day it goes up for sale is more like six or seven months. True, about six weeks of that is time spent at the printer and in transit to the warehouse–but that still leaves five months. What happens in that time? Well, copyedit, author review, integrating changes, design, proofs (2 rounds), author review again, another round of proofs, cover copy, author review, cover design, author reviews that, too, endorsements, putting the ebook in different formats as needed, and QC-ing the ebooks formats.

Keep in mind that all this happens after the author has turned in a first draft, received feedback, and made revisions. If you count the developmental process it’s closer to ten months.

2. “But paper books cost money to create.”

Not as much as you might think. The unit cost of a standard black and white 6 x 9 paperback is really, really low. Like really low. They are made in China.

Making a book does cost money, but the costs are mostly stacked on the content creation and vetting end of things. For instance, you have to pay for developmental editorial work, design, acquisitions and marketing time, and you have to all the production staff (mostly freelancers) like the copyeditor, copywriters, the pager, the person who handles the QCs, etc.

To be fair, old Joe does mention these costs. Based on his estimates, I guess he really doesn’t like designers.

Yeah, that was a joke. More seriously, when you go with a traditional publisher, one of the things you’re getting is experience and expertise. Konrath argues that publishers don’t product test, but actually the whole (failing) publishing business model is one big product test–basically you just throw everything at the wall, see what sticks, and then try to recreate it. Not the most refined approach, but over time it has let publishers build up a strong good body of market knowledge and, yes, actual data. From this article, and this whole blog actually it’s clear that Konrath prefers to go his own way. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that 200 years of industry experience are wrong–just that this guy prefers his own title and cover.

1. “Do you know how much it costs to rent this office? We’re paying $25k a month, and that doesn’t even include utilities. I’ve got three assistants. We all have health insurance and 401k. Expense accounts. Do you have any idea what it costs to take agents out to lunch?”

Delusional. Seriously. Delusional. Everyone working in publishing, and I mean everyone, is overworked and underpaid. Literally everyone in the business, the designers, the tech people, the editors, the finance people, the publishers, everyone, could make more money working elsewhere. The only exceptions are the executive teams at the big six, and perhaps one or two other large houses.

Assistants are shared, offices are eclectic at best, there are no admins at all, there are a ton of temps (that means no health care, son), and lots of people, (especially editors and marketers) put in free nights and weekends. These are not the fat cats of the literary world (I’m really not sure who those would be. Critics, maybe? Or Madona, when she wrote that children’s book?). They are mid-level (at best) professionals who’ve invested their careers, hearts, minds, blood, sweat, and leisure-time in making art happen. Essentially, they are good, hardworking advocates who don’t deserve a bunch of shit from the likes of this guy.

I’m not saying prices couldn’t get lower. I’m not saying the royalty split is perfect, or that it’ll fall out that way in the end. I’m not saying the system is efficient, or the business plan is a good one. I’m not saying authors can’t double as agents and micro-presses.

I’m just saying: publishers aren’t the enemy; they just may not be your solution.

And you don’t have to be such a feakin’ jerk all the time.