Essays

The Brightest Thing in the World: 3 Lectures from The Institute of Failure

1) Pick it up. Put it down. Cross out the parts you don’t like. I kind of think that’s what the author wants you to do. His name is Matthew Goulish, and his main argument in this series of lectures is that rupture, transgression, and failure lead to innovation. In the author’s words, “To understand a system, study its failure.”

2) My own failures with respect to this book revolve around two axes. The first is my ignorance of some of the figures Goulish mentions throughout the text. Martin Heidegger, for example. I fancy myself a well-read individual, but I couldn’t name anything by Heidegger. So when I read about him, even oblique references to the man, I feel like I’ve missed out on something. Could I rectify the situation? Yes. Do I? No. The same could be said for my second failing: my inability to grasp even the most basic mathematical concepts. This failure impeded my understanding of a brief lecture titled “The Butterfly Catastrophe.”  Together these failures, according to the logic of this book, give me a unique perspective on Goulish’s argument. More accurately, I suppose, the unique dimension of my failures gives me a unique perspective on this point. It probably also says something about me an my character. I’m a kind of creature who’d like to think of myself as learned but who won’t take steps to address the gaps in my learning.

3) In addition to studying failure, Goulish also attempts to examine the meaning of a life. There’s a distinction to made her between the meaning of life and the meaning of a life. As in one life. As in someone’s life. As in What is the meaning of your life or my life or Goulish’s life. To investigate this problem, he looks at an early twentieth-century naturalist named W.N.P. Barbellion, among whose works is an essay titled “Curious Facts in the Geographical Distribution of British Newts.” It sounds funny, like a Monty Python sketch. And maybe Goulish’s lip was curling into a subtle smile as he gave this lecture. Maybe. Probably. I’m guessing it was. There’s something funny about all of this.

4) “Funny” in the academic sense of the word. Dry humor. Academic humor. I probably missed half of the jokes, and that’s being generous to myself. I wouldn’t be surprised if knowing more about Heidegger would have made this book a scream. I’d have laughed out loud, wiping tears from my eyes as I turned each page. Heidegger was a Nazi sympathizer, by the way. I only know this because Goulish mentions it.

5) The closest comparison I can make is to the writing of Jean Baudrillard or Jacques Derrida. Dropping these names is as much a ploy to make up for not knowing anything about Heidegger as it is to give you a sense of what this book is like. What I mean to say is the he writes like a philosopher. A French philosopher.

6) The Institute of Failure is real.

7) For the most part, I really enjoyed this book.

Designing for a Small Press. Big Rewards. (smaller fees) – Essay by Lon Kirschner

In the Fall of 1991, I received a phone call in response to a promotional mailing I had sent to publishers advertising my studio’s book jacket designs. The promotion was unique in that it was quite small, only 3 ½ by 5 inches and arrived in a hand-addressed envelope. This gave it the look and feel of a personal invitation, not another mailer from an art studio.

As I write this in 2012, printed mailings and telephone inquiries seem quaint but were a very human way to make contact with a prospective client. Someone had to take the time to open the envelope, hold something in their hand, read some copy and then, if you did it right, make a phone call and have a conversation. Aside from the conversation, this is much the same way a well-designed book jacket should work. Something sparks your interest, you pick it up, read some back or flap copy and, if the package is right, you’re hooked.

That phone call was from Martin Shepard, who along with his wife and co-publisher Judith, run
The Permanent Press, a small independent publisher of quality fiction.

Marty and I spoke for several minutes, long enough for us to feel each other out. During that first
conversation I learned several things:

1. Marty was a sincere and honest man who published because he believed in his authors and
their work. He published what he and Judy would want to read.

2. He had an artist’s sensibility and knew the importance of a good cover and its impact on how a
book would be perceived.

3. Independent publishers do not have deep pockets.

For some designers, point 3 could have been a problem, but we agreed to give it a try due to the fact that the print schedule of the press would allow me to work on several covers at a time, but the most exciting part of this venture would be the working relationship I would have with The Permanent Press.

There was Marty, and there was me. No account guy, no marketing guy, no focus group guy. It was just us two guys. This could be a dream client.

My first assignment was Postcards from Pinsk by Larry Duberstein. I read the manuscript, got to work and turned in my cover concept. Marty loved it. All was right with the world.

Then the phone rang.

It was Larry, “The character on the cover is too fat. Can we slim him down”?

Dream client?

It must be said that Larry Duberstein is a wonderful person and author and meant no harm in his comments. He genuinely loved the cover and even more so when an eraser (pre-computer) solved the cover’s slightly “weighty” appearance. We went on to produce another half dozen covers together (without ever once again
needing an eraser).

The point of this is that although my ultimate approvals come from the publisher, I as a cover designer have become very aware of the author and their feelings of wanting to be involved. Marty and I have developed a policy that works like this: “We welcome your suggestions and will always listen to them but we make no promises.” This sometimes proves difficult for an author. They have worked tirelessly on a book and have a unique and emotional relationship with it, they feel they know exactly how the cover should look.

Is it a good or a bad thing to let an author be involved in the development of a cover? After more than
20 years and well over 120 covers, I still haven’t fully decided. I can’t say that I have ever taken an author’s suggestion and created a cover based solely upon it. What I can say is that if you stop and listen, you may get a better understanding of the author’s intent even if the graphic representation presented may not be quite right.

This brings to mind a wonderful book, The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer. The story of Chester’s life is told by stringing together a series of short stories. Individually, each story can stand on its own, but together they become a life. A life that is dominated by the relationship between a boy and his father.

Kermit did not make any initial suggestions for a cover design. The original concepts I created were not quite right. They just didn’t do the book justice. After several emails with the author I began to get a better understanding of where we should be going. The final cover, an image of a vintage car heading down the road has a nostalgic overall feeling. The cover reflects the power of the father figure and also serves as a subliminal reminder that life is a road that must be travelled. Combined with some retouching, a typographic treatment and color scheme, it became the complete package. When I found this image, I knew it was going to be the cover due to my contact with Kermit. When Kermit saw the final design he was thrilled, it was everything he wanted the cover to be.

Many times an author will make one little suggestion that in fact helps elevate the cover and gives it an extra push. A suggestion by the brilliant Leonard Rosen to include a figure of his protagonist on the cover of All Cry Chaos was something that both Marty and I resisted. We felt it would confuse the bizarre cover image but in the end, the addition of that figure in such a strange landscape set the stage beautifully for the first Henri Poincaré mystery thriller.

There is nothing more satisfying than having an author tell me that the cover is perfect. It is what I strive for. As a cover designer, I get one chance to state my case as opposed to an author who gets to build his case page after page.

Most of the covers I produce do not have the input of the author. I read each manuscript as I find it very hard to grasp a book wholly by reading several pages of a synopsis (unless that is all that is available). I have been asked many times if it is worth the time and effort. My answer to this question is that more than once the idea for the cover has come on page 209 of a 211 page manuscript.

This is not to say that I choose to illustrate a particular moment in the story, it is more likely that something in the text sets off an idea that in the end becomes the basis for the cover.

My hope is that when someone reads a book, they will look back at the cover and say to themselves “yes, that is what this book is about.”

The world of publishing is constantly changing. Internet shopping and digital delivery present new challenges to authors, designers and publishers, but in the end, no matter what the form, a book is still a book—an idea pieced together with words from an author’s unique idea. In much the same way a cover is still a cover—a package to present that unique idea whether it be printed on paper or illuminated on an e-reader.

Many years ago, the Creative Director at Bantam Publishing said to me, “If I can get them to pick up the book, then I have done my job.” In this day of internet book selling and online browsing the rules may have changed slightly but the basic concept hasn’t: “If I can get them to click on it, then I have done my job.”

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Lon Kirschner is a graphic designer who has designed logos, packaging, film posters and of course book jackets. You can see more of his work at www.kirschnercaroff.com.


To Befriend a Fox

Recently, PS Books asked me to edit a collection of poetry by Richard William Pearce and also to provide a foreword for that collection. Since a review would likely be somewhat biased, I will, instead, post the foreword that I wrote. Apologies in advance for the length of this post. The book is called To Befriend a Fox, and the foreword is titled “To Befriend a Poet.”

To Befriend A Poet

Richard Pearce hid his depression in plain view. On good days, his dreams and ambitions had no bounds. He’d dive headfirst into whatever captured his imagination: painting, boxing, strong man competitions, and, of course, poetry. His ambition with respect to the latter was to be anthologized, to have his work discussed and debated among poets and scholars, yet it was his interest in other fields that turned his public readings into events not to be missed.

In bookstores and art galleries throughout the Philadelphia area, a Richard Pearce reading meant a gathering of the most disparate elements of the poet’s life: his mother (a nursery school teacher) seated next to a body-builder seated next to the editor of Weird Tales, one of many journals that published his wide range of work. At these events, Rich would make us laugh not only with the content of his poetry (“The Frog” and “Repo Man,” reproduced in this volume, are shining examples of how whimsical he could be at the best of times) but also with his ebullient presence. That the man could work an audience with the ease of a standup comic concealed, or at least mitigated, the pain inherent in much of his work. He was a performer, but, more than that, he was a poet—one who loved his audience and wanted nothing more than to connect on the most human of levels.

One thing that always mystified Rich was the publishing industry. The decisions of editors to accept or reject his work never made sense to him. The first of his poems ever to reach a wide audience was the aforementioned “Repo Man,” and it was published in what was, at the time, a pretty big journal. Yet while “Repo Man” was a favorite for both Rich and his loyal coterie of fans, the poet in him knew that it wasn’t his “best” work. When he submitted subsequent, “better” poems to the journal in question, however, they were rejected outright. Pressed for an explanation, the editor simply replied that Rich’s later work didn’t rise to the quality of “Repo Man.” This, in Rich’s opinion, was idiotic, and he was quick to let the editor know it—and, over time, antagonizing those who held his poetic fate in their hands became one of his lesser hobbies.

In a letter dated June 2, 2003, Rich writes, Speaking of f—ing with people, another editor TOTALLY trashed some poems I sent her. She sent them back with red pen marks all over them, telling me how this was no good and that was no good… She also went to the trouble of schooling me on grammar and generally how to get the “meaning” of the poem across to the reader without the reader having to struggle to discern it for herself. I took the letter, wrote, “Jean, are you retarded?” then sent it back to her… Shortly thereafter, I sent her six absolutely RIDICULOUS poems (which I’ve included herein). Among the poems was one that opened with the couplet Stevie Wonder cannot see/Cannot see, oh me, oh me! Another consisted only of the word tuna centered on the page. And when Rich returned his attention to the editor who published “Repo Man,” he went so far as to tell her that he was dying, and sent along a somber poem, “Green Hillsides in Winter.” Again, Rich’s words say it best: All an attempt to make her feel like shit for writing what she wrote, but I think I actually managed to produce a halfway decent poem as a result.

As an editor, I can appreciate how aggravating Rich’s shenanigans may have been to his victims, but as a writer, I sympathize with his impulse to antagonize. He said the things I always wanted to say when, through gritted teeth and a forced smile, I would thank editors for taking the time to consider my work. But although Rich was a mercurial trickster, he was also plagued with second thoughts. At one point, he went so far as to wonder whether a harsh rejection from one editor was a form of cosmic payback for the hard time he’d given to another. I probably wouldn’t have given the letter I sent a second thought, wouldn’t have bothered wondering how badly I (possibly) hurt [the first editor’s] feelings, if my own feelings hadn’t been hurt by the [second editor], he writes in one of the last letters I received from him, underscoring the fact that beneath his devil-may-care attitude, Rich was, at heart, a sensitive soul.

Shortly before he took his own life, Rich called me to talk about—of all things—Son of Godzilla. What bothered him about the movie wasn’t so much that Godzilla had a son or even that the son knew how to speak, but that when the tropical island where Godzilla lived froze over at the end of the movie, the radioactive lizard went into hibernation. Lizards don’t hibernate, Rich insisted. If the weather gets too cold, they die.

In some ways, it was just like all of the other conversations we’d had over the years—part humorous, part serious, largely inconsequential. But when I learned some days later that he had died, the whole conversation, like everything else I knew about Rich, took on a whole new meaning: his jokes, his poetry, his love the first line of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground—“I am a sick man.”  All of these things suddenly and in hindsight revealed my friend to be far more sensitive, far more delicate than I ever imagined. Yet it’s Rich’s very sensitivity that makes the poems that follow so meaningful, so moving. Throughout this collection, my friend, the poet, bares his soul in ways that are sometimes playful, sometimes painful, and frequently both at once. He was a rare talent, a dedicated artist, and a caring friend. I only wish I’d known him better.

Why I Love Small Presses

Just a quick note on one of the many reasons why I love small presses.

A few days ago, my friend and publisher Martin Shepard of the Permanent Press sent me a few books he thought I might like. One of them was a novel that was published in 2007 and sold about 400 copies. A subsequent novel by the same author, Marty explained, only sold 140 copies. Yet Marty and his wife, Judith, decided to go ahead and publish a third novel by the same author. In Marty’s words, “Hey, if you like a writer, no reason to give him or her up just because sales are almost non-existent.”

As someone who’s spoken to a good number of editors and agents (and who reads extensively about the publishing industry), I can say with complete certainty that I’ve never heard anyone associated with a major publishing conglomerate say anything even close to what Marty said in his brief note. He publishes books because he loves them — and loves sharing their work with the world — not because they might make a buck or two.

To me, this is what the small press movement is all about.

The Universe in Miniature in Miniature (and the future of books)

As is well-documented, there’s been a lot of anxiety in recent years about “the future of the book.” Lately, that anxiety has focused on e-books and whether they’ll supplant traditional books as our preferred literary medium. Maybe they will, and maybe they won’t. But one thing’s certain: e-books can’t do the kinds of things that titles from Chicago-based Featherproof do. Scorch Atlas, for example, has the look of a book that’s been through hell and back. Daddy’s looks, at first glance, like a fishing tackle box. And Patrick Somerville’s The Universe in Miniature in Miniature can, if the reader is ready, willing, and able, be converted into a working model of the solar system (see diagrams below!). You just can’t do that with an e-book no matter how hard you try. Yes, these titles are available in e-formats, but half the fun of owning them is just plain looking at them — or “accidentally” leaving them out on your coffee table for your guests to admire and enjoy. To put it another way, these books are cool.

The other half of the fun inherent in Featherproof’s titles, needless to say, is reading them. As reported in an earlier post, Christian Tebordo’s The Awful Possibilities is a mind-bending roller-coaster ride of a read, and Patrick Somerville’s aforementioned The Universe in Miniature in Miniature follows in the same vein. Indeed, the works in Somerville’s collection display a colossal range of imagination and emotional depth. He is an author who is as comfortable depicting the end of the world (as in the apocalyptic “No Sun,” which sees the Earth stop in its tracks without cause or explanation) as he is following the burgeoning passions of a teenage girl (as in the coming-of-age tale “The Wildlife Biologist”).

Significantly, Somerville is also funny, as initially evidenced by the book’s dedication to Slartibartfast (of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) and borne out through subsequent tales of wayward, incompetent aliens, grad students in unaccredited MFA programs, and a balding man desperately seeking matriculation into an overseas institution known only as Hair University. The humor in all of these situations is, of course, balanced with pathos, underscoring the exquisite ambivalence of the human condition in ways reminiscent of both Kurt Vonnegut and Woody Allen. Our struggle for happiness, these stories suggest, will always be undercut by our tendency to screw things up, yet it’s our tendency to screw things up which, ironically, makes us keep trying (and failing, and trying again) and, not coincidentally, also makes us human. We are flawed, and we are beautiful, and we are funny. Patrick Somerville sees all of it (and then some), and reports lovingly on our shared humanity throughout The Universe in Miniature in Miniature. It is, in short, an amazing collection of stories.

Most likely, we’ll be debating the future of the book until the Earth does, in fact, stop in its tracks, but as long as small presses like Featherproof — which is to say, people who care deeply not only about storytelling but about books themselves, the very experience of reading a book, the thrill of regarding a book as more than a medium for conveying information but as a work of art in and of itself — have anything to say about it, the printed word will continue to thrive. If you or someone you know is a book lover, do yourself a favor and check out this wonderful press.

Build your own solar system with Patrick Somerville's THE UNIVERSE IN MINIATURE IN MINIATURE!

How to Write About the Poor – Review/Essay by Sean Bernard

Editor’s note: Special thanks to Sean Bernard of Claremont, California, for sharing the essay below with Small Press Reviews. In it, Bernard reviews Unintended Consquences by Larry Fondation (Raw Dog Screaming Press, July 2009, cloth, $24.95), Poor People by William T. Vollmann (Ecco, 2007, paper, $16.95), and Welcome to Oakland by Eric Miles Williamson (Raw Dog Screaming Press, June 2009, cloth, $29.95). Any readers interested in submitting long-form essays on small-press books and their relation to larger social and literary issues can feel free to query me at marc (at) marcschuster.com.

Isn’t it true that writers once wrote — and readers once read — about our poor?

Absolutely — after all, the fiction from our high school literature classes was (and still is) filled with standard American classics, reassuring and familiar works approved by school boards across the country, works featuring very much the struggling poor of our country. Pearl Buck, Upton Sinclair, Jack London. Harper Lee, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck. Books about characters who often worried about having roofs over their heads, about eating their next meal. Characters with little — if any — security. Poor.

And many more great American writers of the early twentieth century wrote very consciously about the poor. John Dos Passos wrote the USA Trilogy (a work Norman Mailer called the greatest in American fiction). The novels of Faulkner, our greatest writer, are filled with poor folks. The characters of Bellow, Elkin, Conroy. The early works of McCarthy.

Why is it important that these authors wrote poor people?

The obvious (and somewhat boring) answer is that it’s a good writer’s duty. On their own, every day, readers experience the ordinary. They don’t experience sweatshops, migrant working, racial violence — not unless our best writers bring it to them, as our best writers, our Faulkners and Steinbecks, once did. Literature shows the entirety of a society. Good writers lift our most unkempt corners so that our literature is complete — so that we can see ourselves, no matter how bad we look. Tolstoy and the peasants. Zola and the mines. Solzhenitsyn and the gulag.

The poor are part of our national landscape. They should be part of our literature.

Who are our best writers? Our contemporary Faulkners and Steinbecks?

Authors of comparable girth — longevity, critical success — include John Updike, Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo. McCarthy, again. Pynchon.

Do they write about our poor people?

Pynchon? Updike? Roth? DeLillo? No. Oates, at times. McCarthy, no more.

So is their turning from the poor the reason we* no longer read about our poor?

Not entirely — it’s not only them. What other celebrated authors of the last twenty or thirty years write about our poor? Toni Morrison**? Richard Ford? Peter Matthiessen? Richard Powers? Marilynne Robinson? Denis Johnson? Ben Marcus? David Foster Wallace? Diane Johnson? Thom Jones? Elizabeth McCracken? Michael Chabon? George Saunders? Claire Messud? Dave Eggers? Ethan Canin? Jeffrey Eugenides? Jonathan Franzen? The authors published frequently in The New Yorker — do any write consciously about poverty?

*“We” are the people working on books, the poets, the short story writers, very likely with MFA degrees, the people who read Book Forum or Quarterly Conversation, who blog and glance at Book Slut every now and then, who know the signifier of the sign “Book Slut,” who know sign, who know signifier. Who know of and have opinions about Ben Marcus. Who desire publication in McSweeney’s. Us. Me and you.

** The poor, yes. American poor, yes. Our poor? From our time? Not so much.

So why are stories concerned with poverty rarely published by The New Yorker?

[Silence.]

Back up a sec. Though neither was as successful as Jesus’s Son or Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson did write two novels about the poor. Doesn’t that disprove your theory?

Yes.

So there are books about the poor by well-known authors.

Yes, but very few. Written primarily by Southerners. And William Vollmann.

William Vollmann? The prostitute guy who tries crack and fights with mujahadeen?

That’s the guy. William Vollmann is the closest thing we have to a modern John Steinbeck (or maybe Steinbeck was the closest thing we had until Vollmann himself, in terms of success, caliber, and conscience). Vollmann is a writer actively concerned in his literature with being moral in the current world. He does not preach right and wrong.

9780060878849Unfortunately, his better works are more journalism than fiction. For example, Poor People (2007) is a series of anthropologies as he interviews poor people, describes their circumstances, and basically asks each of them, Why are some people poor? Then he sorts the depressing information and presents it matter-of-factly, generally staying out the way:

“People’s clothes would stick to their bodies; the parasol-carrying women would dab at their foreheads. And then the haze of heat, plant-breath and motor-breath would press down upon the white skyscrapers, tree-lined streets, whitish-grubbyish roof-tiles, gridlocked traffic and construction skeletons of Nan Ning, which boasted more towers every month.” (82)

When he does enter his narratives, Vollmann uses himself as a case study to question the best human response to situations from seeing a black guy walking toward him down the street at night in the city (I’m afraid — am I racist or am I smart?) to giving to the poor (Will this help? Does it matter if it doesn’t? Am I doing this for me?) to questioning his own work:

“This book is not ‘practical.’ It cannot tell anyone what to do, much less how to do it. For all I know, the normality of our epoch may render resource-sharing substantially impossible. But what is greater or braver than to beat down misfortune, or at least to try?” (247)

But that’s non-fiction. How’s his fiction about poor people?

Not as good, unfortunately.

Why do Vollmann and Southerners write about poverty while few others do?

They’re around poor people. Vollmann chooses to be; Southerners live in a place that’s still greatly impoverished. Once upon a time we — writers and readers — were nearer poverty, too. Our parents were once poor, or our grandparents, great-grandparents. They were immigrants or a part of our shared American poor history, the Great Depression.
Now? Despite the current recession, subscription rates to Netflix have risen steadily each month in 2009 — while cable television subscriptions have decreased.

Today, “poor” this year means sacrificing cable for Netflix.

That’s a different kind of poor.

The old poor, the worry about roof and hunger — that poor is now Other. To be old poor in an America — where new poor means no cable TV — implies failure on the fault of the poor person. To be poor during the Great Depression meant little — plenty of ordinary people were poor. Now, though, it means you’re addicted to drugs or were born of a mother addicted to drugs or suffer acute personality disorders or were poisoned in an overseas war or deformed or just a victim of rotten luck over and over again. The level of failure is so grand we can’t possibly relate. The poor now aren’t like our grandparents.

They’re people who have failed our pleasant society — our pleasant society hasn’t failed them.

It’s their fault.*

*Even if unlucky, we can prevail despite bad luck. Will Smith teaches us this in The Pursuit of Happyness (sic).

If there are fewer “old” poor now, less books about them is to be expected, right?

Yes. Because there are fewer poor people in our country doesn’t mean we ought to ignore those we have. And while we could use more books about any fading group — Luddites, militias, weavers, and so on — the poor are a unique in that they reveal the cracks in our society. Luddites, less so.

But writing about the old poor is hard. Do any non-Southern Vollmanns try?

Yes. Two who’ve done it for some time each have a new work out: Eric Williamson with Welcome to Oakland and Larry Fondation with Unintended Consequences.

Who?

oaklandWilliamson was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway with his first novel, East Bay Grease, writes an American literature column in the celebrated French literary review Transfuge, and this new book may become an HBO series (which doesn’t automatically mean greatness, obviously — still, HBO). His best novel Two-Up is about gunite workers in the Bay Area. For his part, Fondation has published critically-acclaimed works including Angry Nights, Common Criminals, and Fish, Soap, and Bonds. All focus on poverty and violence in Los Angeles, and though Angry Nights is his greatest work, the others are also excellent; for Fish, Soap, and Bonds, he garnered a Christopher Isherwood grant.

How does Williamson write about the poor?

Every way he can.

Welcome to Oakland is narrated by the once and future poor T-Bird Murphy. Before taking us on a fragmented tour of his twenty-ish years in Oakland, the story begins in a distant present with Murphy acidly mocking his youthful American dreams: “I wanted an address, a phone number, a normal life that didn’t surprise me at all… I wanted to be happy” (11).

This isn’t the familiarly defeated, hopeless poor guy we think we know.

This guy hates us.

The novel resembles by turns Notes From Underground, Ellison’s Invisible Man, even Absalom, Absalom!, and Williamson throws in a handful of post-modern techniques, too, to see what sticks. T-Bird lists at one point Thirty-two aspects of Fuckers, Qualities of and How to Identify (eg, “have British names,” 78) and later adds a critical manifesto: “What we need is some imperfect fiction, some fiction that does not try to bring order to the chaos of life, but which instead tries to not only represent the chaos with chaos” (104).

While the novel is in places an incessant rant against stupid people (who usually are rich), Murphy/Williamson calms down enough to just tell story. The novel’s most brilliant section shows Murphy residing in a dump that, thanks to its philosophizing Aussie caretaker (“Permanence is the realm of only the very powerful and the very stupid” (169)) is more art-installation than trash. The squalor becomes beautiful, and we see that in poverty each moment means, each life means:

“I could see the dumps from where I stood, dark hills rising against the glow of the bay, and I could see the glow of Jones at work on his crazy junk sculpture, and seeing that glow, knowing that Jones was at work shoving his metal in the air and ramming it up the asses of the gods, I felt good. I felt as if everything made sense and that in this world there are some things they can’t take away from us and those things are the things we make, the things we create just for the hell of it without any hope of ever making a buck or fucking someone out of their check.” (178)

Reading Welcome to Oakland is strange. We’re the insulted, throughout — sort of — the educated, the non-poor, and so the novel is in a way attending your own roast. Still, we know that Murphy is in some ways one of us, as the work captures the conflict of hating those who have what you don’t… while wishing you were them. Welcome to Oakland is crass and unfinished, which is either reckless or daring, maybe both, at the approach perfectly weds form to theme. We can give Williamson credit for making an angry, frustrating, smart, and sometimes beautiful mess of a book about a mess of people in a mess of a town.

How does he write about poor people?

By having been one, remembering it bitterly/lovingly, and letting the pain fly.

How does Fondation write about the poor?

unintendedUnintended Consequences, which (appropriately) resembles the fragmented realism of Vollmann’s early stories, though whittled to an even finer point, is a stylistic counterpoint to Welcome to Oakland: rather than Williamson’s long rushing sentences and blend of literary techniques and references, Fondation gives us a larger look at poverty — in terms of wealth, yes, but more so the impoverished urban landscape — with sixty-five slim stories in 140 pages, stories like needles without their vial. The accumulation of violence and decay touches not only on the poor in wealth but poor in spirit: we get homeless encampments routed by urban redevelopment and lonely orphans and barflies, yes, but also cheating middle-class husbands, depressed suburbanites caught in the big city, and so on. As Fondation’s characters don’t know how else to react to physical or intellectual threats, they grab knives, guns, broken bottles, and get to work, and the violence is ultimately more sad than disturbing.

While the relentless approach works, at times it almost comes across as silly, as in “Strolling,” where a woman with nice legs (Miss Legs) is hit on by a jerk in a Mustang:

“You got a nice ass, baby. I’ll stick you good.”
“Fuck off, loser,” the woman said. “I’d rather fuck him.” She pointed at J.L. Hill. (She meant no harm.)
The man in the Mustang did not miss a beat. He pulled out a Colt Python and pointed it at Hill. He squeezed off three shots in a short burst, then another short burst, all right on target. Hill slumped to the ground.
The downtown lunch crowed scattered screaming. The driver persisted.
“He’s dead. Will you fuck me now?” (62)

At which point the woman gets in the car and drives off with the shooter (really). Is the story grim? Funny? Ironic? Does it show us how sad the lives of the poor (in spirit? in intellect?) in Los Angeles truly are? Not really. It and the others like it are out of place in an otherwise taut collection; thankfully, Fondation usually stays focused, and his approach to writing about the poor is novel and effective. By avoiding an intertwined narrative (as in a work like Crash) and simply juxtaposing the experiences of the homeless/financially poor with the lives of the more wealthy but no less poor, by blending spare first-person monologues with brief distant third-person sketches, by including humor, sadness, hope, and most of all anger, Fondation has made Unintended Consequences an oil- and blood-soaked fabric of urban life:

I live alone in a single room; last year I did not.
At the dark bar, spilled beer puddles on the polyurethane.
We don’t know whether to stay or leave. For a whole host of reasons.
We stay until the pungent end. (“City Blocks,” 140)

So which is the better work of fiction about the poor?

While both Unintended Consequences and Welcome to Oakland — two hugely disparate works — are admirable and unique to contemporary American fiction… probably neither of them. Both pieces are so repeatedly opinionated, angry, and passionate, so outraged… that they’re too loud for us.* The ranting bum on the street? The ranting drunk in the bar? Interesting the first time. The second, third, fourth times? Not so much. And so these books, though impressive artistic works, aren’t ultimately as moving as they could be.

So who does it best? Interestingly it’s almost Vollmann, with Poor People. Though journalism, Poor People would be horrifying and fantastic re-imagined as a work of fiction: a tale told by a cold anthropologist, a bored and wealthy Humbertian narrator who curiously and conscientiously studies the poor like ants yet to be squashed by life, revealing them to us (himself as one of us), prodding them, asking questions. “Learning” from them so that we can learn from them, too. Of course Poor People is not nearly so cold and callous… but it flirts enough with condescension that such a marvelous fictional version is not hard to envision.

* We have sensitive eardrums.

If these three authors are already doing it, why should we write about poor people?

A long answer begins by admitting there are obvious platitudes here — the poor are “part” of us, etc, we should include everyone in our country in our fiction, etc, etc, otherwise we’re jerks. Here’s a better reason: look at the greatest works of contemporary-life-based fiction* from the last twenty or thirty years. What is our most lauded American novel, a work that defines our country? Would many people — would we — offer Underworld, for example?

Compare Underworld — in its total encapsulation of life — to The Savage Detectives.

Compare it to 2666.

Compare it to Juan Villoro’s El Testigo.

To Ulysses.

To Anna Karenina.

To our own great works. Moby-Dick, Huck Finn.

We can’t compare it because for all Underworld’s heft and artistry, DeLillo is no BolaÒo, no Melville, no Tolstoy. A novel like Underworld, while deeply commendable, is only a couple slices of a much greater American experience; the greatest works from the greatest authors encapsulate much more, encapsulate everything — or at least try to.

Reading DeLillo shows us that he simply doesn’t live in the larger world; like us, he’s too far from poor. Like us, it’s not so much on his mind.

And all our lauded authors are equally removed. And so too their works.

We should write about the poor to write the greatest fiction that can be.

* “Realism” seems too limiting a term.

Well, then, how do we write about poor people?

It’s hard. We don’t want to go out and be poor ourselves. That’s too hard. Spending lots of time with the poor would also be a big sacrifice. Besides, in many ways poverty isn’t compelling. For one, on a daily basis, it’s boring. Not much happens and what little does is repetitive (as the flaws in Unintended Consequences and Welcome to Oakland are their repetition). Beyond that, we don’t aspire to poverty — we don’t want to imagine it. Beyond that, the downfalls of the poor are clichéd. As we learn in Poor People, most poor people are poor for sad and uninteresting reasons: they got fired from jobs and never found work again. They’re alcoholics. They blame society as being too complex… so trying to fix the situation is pointless. They are defeated. And there’s not much story in defeat.

Still, there are ways.

Vollmann gives one avenue: by thinking about them. Caring. Having interest. Path #1.

Fondation gives us another: slice life down to the barest essence and then, rather than forcing an artificial entwined narrative that pulls all lives together, simply place the lives of the poor beside the lives of the non-poor. #2.

And Williamson in Welcome to Oakland, presents a narrator who is half-us, half-them: a hybrid conflicted soul who loathes everyone. The screaming bastard child. #3.

So it’s very possible — and important — to write about the poor, to make poverty artful, meaningful, true. These writers have to large extent already succeeded. Let’s learn from their works and their methods, especially that most basic one they’ve all used: simply by trying.

–Esssay by Sean Bernard