Tag Archives: fiction

George Saunders, “The Bohemians”

I remember being really charmed by his book Pastoralia, which is all about garbled management-speak and commercial items with wacky MultiCapNames and the basic human inability to step off stage ever.  In Persuasion Nation is just like that too, but it starts to feel like a schtick; yeah, yeah, in the future people think the most meaningful thing they can do is view advertisements, it’s comic yet eerily like our present condition, I get it.  But then again there’s “The Bohemians,” the best story here and a completely different thing:

Eddie Sr. rushed to the hospital with his Purple Heart and some photos of Eddie as a grinning wet-chinned kid on a pony.  He found Eddie handcuffed to the bed, with an IV drip and a smashed face.  Apparently, he’d bitten one of the Armenians.  Bail was set at three hundred.  The tailor shop made zilch.  Eddie Sr.’s fabrics were a lexicon of yesteryear.  Dust coated a bright-yellow sign that read “Zippers Repaired in Jiffy.”

“Jail for that kid, I admit, don’t make total sense,” the judge said.  “Three months in the Anston.  Best I can do.”

There’s really no other explanation for this but that George Saunders woke up one day and said “I want to write a Grace Paley story.” Well, why shouldn’t he?  Rock bands should cover the Velvet Underground and short story writers should try to write Grace Paley stories, though inevitably, in both cases, most will fail.

You can read “The Bohemians” online at the New Yorker.  Or watch him read it at Housing Works in NYC.  He plays for yuks more than I think is correct.

Part 1:

Part 2:  (the quoted paragraph is right at the beginning of this part.)

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How fiction doesn’t work

I was working in Borders the other day and stopped for a minute (ok, twenty minutes) to flip through a copy of James Wood’s new book, How Fiction Works. The book seems friendly and wise, has good taste, and accomplishes the feat of saying things both correct and unfamiliar about novels, as here:

“…language is the ordinary medium of daily communication — unlike music or paint. Our ordinary possessions are being borrowed by even very difficult writers: the millionaires of style — difficult, lavish stylists like Sir Thomas Browne, Melville, Ruskin, Lawrence, James, Woolf — are very prosperous, but they use the same banknotes as everyone else.”

This, though, stopped me:

“We have to read musically, testing the precision and rhythm of a sentence, listening for the almost inaudible rustle of historical association clinging to the hems of modern words, attending to patterns, repetitions, echoes, deciding why one metaphor is successful and another is not, judging how the perfect placement of the right verb or adjective seals a sentence with mathematical finality.”

Followed shortly on by:

There is a way in which even complex prose is quite simple — because of that mathematical finality by which a perfect sentence cannot admit of an infinite number of variations, cannot be extended without aesthetic blight: its perfection is the solution to its own puzzle; it could not be done better.”

This could only have been written by someone who has never experienced mathematical finality! No word, no sentence is ever finished and correct the way a mathematical argument is, once all the gaps are filled and the joints sealed. You spend as long as you desire making the sentence as good as you can, and then you give up, and eventually you start to get used to the sentence in its most recent form, and after a while it seems to you that the sentence could not have been written any other way.

But an honest writer knows it’s not true.

This distinction is perhaps the most powerful reason that writing novels is a dispiriting business, and doing math a fun one.

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