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Posts Tagged ‘realism’

Field Geology: An Interview with Rivka Galchen

June 11, 2014 | by

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Photo: Sandy Tait

In 2008, Rivka Galchen published Atmospheric Disturbances, a novel about a psychiatrist who wakes up one day to discover that his wife has been substituted by a replica. He subscribes to the delusions of a patient (who believes he can control the weather) to explain her disappearance. What James Wood referred to as the narrator’s first-person “double unreliability” made for a richly inconclusive novel about the confusion and mystery of love.

In her new story collection, American Innovations, Galchen, who has a background in medicine, returns us to worlds in which weird things happen. A woman watches the objects in her Brooklyn apartment leave of their own volition; a student of Library Sciences develops a third breast; refrigerated string cheese won’t stay put. Galchen’s stories suggest oppositions that dissolve in their own reversals: real things take on the patina of the artificial, while the fantastic and strange can feel more real than what we call real life. To read her stories is something like using a map without contours or coordinates; it’s impossible to plan your trip.

Over e-mail, Galchen and I discussed fiction’s relationship to field geology, the peculiarities of the short story as a form, and the allure of McDonald’s. Galchen is exhilaratingly imaginative, precise, and generous.

Why is the story a form you return to?

Short stories feel found to me—I like that about them. Of course, they’re actually not found, they’re written, just as novels are written, but they seem to have a more dense and unchangeable core than novels do, or at least it seems like one reaches the immutable core faster.

I like how stories can feel like some shiny thing on the ground, something that might be malachite, or might be a fragment of a comet, or might be a rusted old ignition. The writing process for a short story feels more like field geology, where you keep turning the thing over and over, noting its qualities in detail, hammering at it, putting it near flame, pouring different acids on it, and then finally you figure out what it is, or you just give up and mount it on a ring and have an awkward chunky piece of jewelry that seems weirdly dominating but that you for some reason like. I could be wrong about field geology here.

Where do you find your stories?

Sometimes I wonder if it’s immaterial things rooting around to find their material. For example, I have a story set in large part in a McDonald’s, there’s a young girl at the center of it, it’s in many ways a kind of love story, but why McDonald’s? McDonald’s was just sitting there in the old costume trunk of the back brain, and there was some inchoate emotion trying to play its little tune, and for whatever congregation of reasons McDonald’s was ideally useful to that emotion. It gave it the right language—probably in part because of that weird residue of how enchanting McDonald’s used to be when we were kids, how it was all an outsize luxury. And then, of course, it looks so different to us today. I think it has something to do with the question, What is it fiction is actually good at? What can it do that’s not better done with, say, a long piece of journalism, or a photograph, or a TV show? And that, in turn, has something to do with the intangible murk from which stories start to organize themselves. That intangible murk is the part that feels found to me. Read More »

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Let’s Hear It for Refrigerators, and Other News

May 9, 2014 | by

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From Life, November 19, 1965. Via the Appendix.

  • BREAKING: FLAUBERT NOT A REALIST, SAYS EXPERT TESTIMONY
  • Nathaniel Mackey has won the Ruth Lilley Poetry Prize: a cool $100k. Don Share, editor of Poetry magazine, says, “The poetry of Nathaniel Mackey continues an American bardic line that unfolds from Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ to H.D.’s ‘Trilogy’ to Olson’s ‘Maximus’ poems, winds through the whole of Robert Duncan’s work and extends beyond all of these. In his poems, but also in his genre-defying serial novel (which has no beginning or end) and in his multifaceted critical writing, Mackey’s words always go where music goes: a brilliant and major accomplishment.”
  • The rise and fall of the conventional romance novel: “By the seventies, Harlequins became known for their lush language, which often evoked settings that sounded like Thomas Kinkade paintings: ‘The rolling tide of summer grass had engulfed the small meadow in a sweet-smelling flood of lambs’ tails, coltsfoot, feverfew, the drifting pollen from them like pale yellow dust on Linden’s bare arms as she lay full length among them.’” Now self-published erotica, much of it hardcore enough to make your average Harlequin heroine blush, have eaten into sales.
  • We take our refrigerators for granted, but history reminds of the glories inherent in artificial refrigeration, which used to blow people’s minds.
  • Google now offers a street view of the Grand Canyon: “On the virtual river you can fast-forward downstream, avoiding the soaking rapids and searing sun, putting in and taking out as you please. But part of the Grand Canyon experience is surrendering to the flow of the river and committing to the journey. Anyone who has traveled in canyon country knows how much the terrain can change in a matter of seconds during an afternoon rainstorm, or in the hours between noon and dusk, as sunlight glistens and fades upon the canyon walls. To these subtle but vital gradations, Google’s roving digital eye remains conspicuously blind.”

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Realer Than Real

February 7, 2014 | by

Charles Dickens was born today in 1812.


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FOOTE

The most illuminating thing that ever happened to me in those early days was winning as a Sunday-school prize a copy of David Copperfield. Now, I’d read Tom Swift and earlier Bunny Brown and his sister Sue, then moved on to the Rover Boys and Tarzan. But here came David Copperfield. I was dismayed that it was about six hundred pages long. But when I began to read I got so caught up in it—when I finished it, I realized that I’d been in the presence of something realer than real. I knew David better than I knew myself or anyone else. The way Dickens told that story caught me right then and there.  

INTERVIEWER

Was reading David Copperfield an early catalyst for making you a writer and not just a reader?  

FOOTE

I absolutely think so. I didn’t react immediately, but eventually it made me want to do what Dickens had done—make a world that’s somehow better in focus than real life, which goes rushing past you. He showed me how to do it too. 

—Shelby Foote, the Art of Fiction No. 158, Summer 1999

 

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The Epigraph

February 1, 2012 | by

Milton wasn’t working.

The aspiring novelist had already written the perfect dedication (“For my friends”), and he’d long had a list of possible titles, yet he still had no epigraph, the mysterious but meaningful quotation he’d seen at the beginning of every great book. He’d been holding John Milton in reserve for this very situation.

When contemplating the epigraph for his debut novel, the writer had always been confident that if all else failed, he could find inspiration in Shakespeare or Milton. For his part, the Bard hadn’t cooperated.

A line like “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” might work for a paperback legal thriller, but nothing Shakespeare wrote seemed appropriate for the “Borges meets Zola, if Zola had somehow been influenced by Nabokov” collection of loosely related vignettes set in a fictional megalopolis in an indeterminate near-future the writer hoped to get published by next fall. Read More »

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