Month: April 2013

Power to the (Gray) People

Saw Redford’s new movie “The Company You Keep” last night in the musty old Gateway Theater (est. 1951) in Ft. Lauderdale. The theater is three years younger than me and about ten years younger than Robert Redford and Julie Christie. The crowd on a Tuesday night was not big, but there were a lot of old Sixties couples in attendance. You looked around and looked at yourself and said, yeah man, some of us here we were the ones sitting on blankets listening to anti-war speeches before Steppenwolf came on stage.

In my college days we were in the middle of things. We had martial law, tear gas, beatings.  I knew of the groups mentioned in the movie and the general vibe of the Movement.  My father, who ran a travel agency in those days, sent me FBI WANTED posters he received for the kids up in Madison, WI who blew up a building. That showed me the times and the dangers were real.  Back then, the radicals were vigorously pursued, under limited technology of course (a lot relied on informers). It’s implausible that the FBI would be so zealous about tracking radicals down forty years later. But all the chase scenes and dogs and guns stuff was necessary to move the story, to make it typical box office fare.

The entertainment for me was watching Redford and Julie and Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte and other veteran actors re-create and fan the flames of the Sixties arguments and, as well, exhibit their consumate on-screen skills.

Julie is still striking. She played the most radical character, far-fetched, but what the hell.  Seeing lithe Julie piloting a sailboat to smuggle pot and hanging out in Big Sur with Sam Eliott, or gracing a dark cabin in the deep Michigan woods (as filmed in Canada) were pretty good visual moments on film.

As for the script, I was willing to buy into the “radical forever” bit and the longstanding loyal brotherhood and cover-up between perpetrators.  I was also willing to buy into Shia Labeouf’s role as Redford-warmed over, as young aggressive journalist.  (Shia was also fascinating to watch in his deft approach to chicks.)  I was relieved when Jackie Evancho skillfully portrayed Redford’s cute little pre-teen daughter and didn’t sing in the movie, though to hear her sing, like on PBS, is a trip unto itself.

The portrayal of the gung-ho FBI team was totally over the top.  The Feds track Redford as if he had an atomic weapon or had murdered Santa Claus. His character is an old benign Sixties protester, that’s all, who happened to be associated with some folks in the past who went too far.

We get plenty of chances to see old Robert running around in the woods with his backpack and jeans and scruffy hair, as if he were flashing back on behalf of all of us.

Fresh-Squeezed Fiction

In his recent interview on PBS, Philip Roth made a passing comment about Saul Bellows’ late-in-life shift to writing short novels. He described the form as a novel in which the author chooses to condense a storyline rather than expand it. For an aging writer who is being efficient with the energies he has left, the short form is logical, Roth admitted. But something in his tone seemed to indicate he was less than convinced about the short form’s artistic merits, or if it was his vehicle of choice.

A mixed bag of reactions in my brain:

If the online literary journals are to be believed , writing compressed fictional pieces is revolutionary and the future. Most posted vignettes are often less than 1000 words, or less than 500; in some cases they are limited to three or six sentences. One I saw recently was a contest with ten words max. It’s like a Battle of Cleverness.

Sudden fiction or flash fiction is an internet product, a celebration of economy of scope, style and narration. And may as well throw in poetic devices, too. It’s fast reading, read fast by rapid-decision editors for fast webzines for digestion by fast-moving users with fast iPads in our fast and compressed modern times, etcetera.

But at the core of the product itself, flash fiction is not really new and revolutionary. It’s not that far removed from, say, what Hemingway was doing in “Hills Like White Elephants.”  Or Brautigan was doing almost fifty years ago in “Trout Fishing in America.”

Flash fiction strives for pure, lean impact. Evocative and as far from exhaustive as possible. Unfortunately many flash fiction pieces tend to sound strained, over-manipulated, ambiguous, or fall into the “way too precious” trap.  The ones in present tense (and/or second person You) are especially cloying, like someone boring us with a breathless dream account. Yet many are real gems that carry a sparkle no matter how many re-reads, and these rise above those done by magic tricks with words that wow momentarily then are forgotten.

What the proponents of flash fiction don’t show or even broach on their sites, and for expedience sake can’t, is how the novel form is affected by this new direction of less is better.

Getting back to the short novel, what is it? There are the usual suspects as examples, masterpieces like Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Pynchon’s “Crying of Lot 49,” Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Or some will include “The Great Gatsby” or “Catcher in the Rye.” The difference is, if we go with the generally accepted figure of 50,000 words plus equals a novel, those last two don’t count as short novels. But they do achieve an end by the same means: streamlining the story and its delivery in a highly artful and stylized way. Another that comes to mind, a personal favorite, is Rick Barthelme’s “Tracer,” a masterfully written short novel that is seamless and presented without a sense of author’s effort.

Within this venture of writing by contraction and condensing or compressing, whatever you call it, there are hundreds of toolsets at the writer’s disposal.

Kurt Vonnegut could present a novel with expansive action and concepts via his genius of writing pithy sentences and employing white space.  His thing was stylistic compression, not an abbreviation of storyline. “So it goes.”

Dave Eggers does it the other way, at the highest level, with a compressed storyline in “Hologram for a King.” The scope of actual drama of time and place are limited (similar to Camus’ “The Stranger”).  The payoff comes in character portrayal and mood that feels more like theatre than a bound book.

I love to read Roberto Bolaño because so many of his sentences are crafted to be interesting and filled with story. It is their density, their PSI that draws me in.  I can read one of his  short stories (and sometimes even just a page of one) and feel as if I’ve read a novel. He transmits an enormous amount of information. There are enough particularities to keep things visual and us the readers engaged. But there is no fluff, none of the vast amount of description (“the twittering birds”) and development we run across in a 500-page novel.

Each has its merits, the expansive and the brief.  Was Roth hinting at something else?  What defines a short novel?  Will flash fiction influence its presentation and what this new breed of insta-readers want?  Is there something new going with short novels? A new sub-genre yet to evolve?

(to be revisited)