KC Kirkley

Reading and Writing in the Margins

"Ars Longa, Vita Brevis" Has Arrived

Thanks to the good folks at The Paragon Press and The Paragon Journal, "Ars Longa, Vita Brevis" is now out in the world. I've been surprised and humbled, already, by the number of friends and family who have expressed congratulations and assurances that they are purchasing and reading the thing. And yes, this makes me very nervous. It's a strange sensation after all of the work to create the story and get someone to publish it only to dread the thought of real live readers holding it in their hands. Certainly, some will dislike it, find it vulgar, find it disappointing. I suppose this is inevitable. I suppose some will reconsider their estimation of me in light of this work. All I can say is, "Here I am; take me as you will."

Thank you, Portland!

I had a wonderful time in Portland. Thank you to The Portland Review and to John and Melinda Baker for their hospitality. I'll put a link up on the Publications page with information about how you can get a copy of story I read, "A Secondhand Love".

See you in Portland!

Just a quick note here to let you all know that I will be reading from my award-winning short story, "A Secondhand Love" at Portland State University on June 7th. More details to come!

A Puzzle to Confound: Reading English Passengers

In Matthew Kneale's seafaring novel, English Passengers, we have yet another multiiple POV tale (David Mitchell is to thank for the resurgence of this trend, I think), told through journals, letters, and vaguely defined autobiographical accounts of various characters involved in the British exploration and colonization of Tasmania in the mid-19th century. I'm not saying that I dislike the device of switching between many 1st person narrators.  In fact, the strategy has many advantages for both the reader and the writer.  Here, by circumspection, we encounter many sides of the truth, but never really get the white heat of the real thing.  Instead, we see one myopic view of it from this angle, and another from a different angle, and then yet another from a third angle, none of these apprehending "objectivity" by any means. In fact, it seems that the more perspectives we have on any particular event, the less sure we are of its meaning.

Enough of these generalities.

Kneale uses five central narrators throughout this novel, but incorporates many more minor perspectives.  The major voices include a Manx sea captain, an English vicar, a surgeon (turned natural philosopher), a botanist, and a Tasmanian Aborigine.  Other narrators include colonial settlers, a prisoner, colonial governors, wives of colonial governors, a missionary, etc.  They all play their parts in the larger plot arc, and they are all interesting, indeed.  Each is rendered with care so that no two voices sound the same, including differences in diction, syntax, and, of course, beliefs. The thing that gets me, though, is that all of these characters (especially the central five) seem like absolute caricatures.  It is, I believe, an unfortunate result of Kneale's attempt to give each character such a distinguishable voice - they turn in to cliches of themselves.

Not that this is a problem that dooms the novel.  On the contrary, it adds to the humor of the work, which is substantial, and the story is (dare I say it? Yes!) a swashbuckling affair, indeed.  Kneale includes an ocean's worth of adventure, mishap, and mayhem, and the story is just pure fun to read.  Nor is the book without insights.  The Aborigine (Peevay) is the most insightful (yes, he's dangerously close to the "noble savage" cliche), and his "catch phrase" sums up his assessment of the European colonial machine: it is "a puzzle to confound."  Indeed.  Finally, At the heart of the plot is a conflict between religion and science (the vicar and the surgeon).  This conflict doesn't do the true debate justice, as neither character has a very solid grasp of his own belief system, let alone that of his adversary, but nuggets of wisdom do shine through.  Near the end of the novel, the Manx sea captain reflects, momentarily, on the events of the story (at least the ones that he knows) and comments that "It's never being right that matters, after all, it's being believed, which is another animal entirely" (427).  I'd guess that's about as tidy a summation of the theme as there can be.  This religion-science debate isn't about truth, nor is the story.  It's about manipulation and persuasion and being believed.  I guess not much has changed since.

The Stuff of Legend: Reading Everything is Illuminated

Reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s debut novel, Everything is Illuminated, can be a bit disorienting for the casual reader.  Foer manages to cover over 200 years of history (and fantasy) through the eyes of dual narrators (one writing in mostly broken English), with four distinct narrative modes alternating and interacting with one another.  Through all of these narrative gymnastics, though, Foer manages to tell a compelling story.  In fact, it is the interchange between these narrative modes that gives the novel its depth and richness of meaning.

The novel is comprised of two intimately connected story lines.  The first is the history of the shtetl of Trachimbrod, a Jewish village in the Ukraine.  This story line is fanciful, yet tragic, and spans the 151 years from the naming of the village (through a mysterious disaster in the river) to the destruction of the village (through the disaster of Nazi bombs which drove the villagers back into the river).  The story is told by Jonathan Safran Foer, the author’s eponymous narrator.    Within the novel, Jonathan (the character) sends sections of this story (as a novel-in-progress) to Alexander Perchov (Alex), a Ukranian travel guide who is learning English.  It is Alex who (using an apparently outdated dictionary) is writing the second story line.  His story is the story of Jonathan (the character) and his search for Augustine, a woman Jonathan believes helped save his grandfather from the Nazis in the last days of Trachimbrod.  In reply to Jonathan’s letters, Alex mails his novel back, chapter by chapter.  This interaction results in four distinct narrative modes: Jonathan’s narration of the history of Trachimbrod, Alex’s narration of Jonathan’s search for Trachimbrod, Alex’s letters to Jonathan explaining his narrative (meta-narrative), and Jonathan’s letters to Alex critiquing Alex’s narrative (the reader never sees these letters, but Alex refers to them and their contents frequently).

Clearly, this arrangement is complicated, and in the hands of a lesser writer would have surely failed.  But Foer (the author, not the character) manages to use it to his advantage.  The true narrative of this novel is the story of trying to harmonize the two stories.  The story tellers are actively aware of this very problem themselves, and the reader can tell early on that the key to the themes of the novel lie there as well.  So, this complication is not only beneficial, but it is in fact the purpose of the novel.  Foer is here exploring the nature of memory, things forgotten (both purposefully, and not), and how people shape the past to suit their beliefs or perhaps to just keep their sanity.  This is most clear in the final pages of the novel as the truth is “illuminated” to be the surprise key character, Alex’s grandfather.  He, for the first time in fifty or more years, faces the truth about the connections between his past (connected to Trachimbrod) and his present (his relationships with Alex and Jonathan).  Had he not come to this realization through the congruence of narratives alive in the story, his subsequent suicide would have had far less impact.

A further benefit of this structure is the opportunity that it affords Foer to contrast the tones of the two story lines.  When Jonathan is telling the story of Trachimbrod, the language is lush, the events are bizarre (approaching Magical Realism), and the tone is fanciful even in the face of great tragedy.  The distance between narrator and subject allows for this style – Trachimbrod is the “stuff of legend.”  Conversely, Alex’s story of Jonathan’s search for Trachimbrod and Augustine is straight-forward, even halting, as it approaches the dark truths that are so painful for Alex.  Although it is at times quite humorous, Alex’s account grows more and more serious (and erudite) until it finally gives way to the final words of a man whose next act will be to commit suicide as a direct result of the story that is being told.  The contrast between these two tones is yet further commentary on the nature of memory.  In essence, the two different tones represent the two possible ways to deal with the memory of the same terrible event.

Foer makes things complicated, that is a certainty.  But he does so for good reason.  In fact, this amalgam of narrative modes is the only way he could have possibly told his story effectively.  The confusion of perspectives is not a distraction; it is the point of novel.

Little Moments Add Up: Reading The God of Small Things

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy's debut novel, is the type of book that inspires me to grab my own pen and set forth.  What really prompts this reaction is Roy's audacious use of language.  She frollicks with phrases, warps words, and summons metaphors in ways that test the boundaries of this reader's imagination.  Not only that, but every image, every motion of every character, is laced with diabolical meaning.  Little moments add up.  Small things, for the reader and for the characters, add up to large things as they accumulate to orchestrate disaster.  In fact, form matches message brilliantly here.  The story is an examination of the small things that lead to big horrors and the reader can sense that each small thing that each small character (literally and figuratively) enacts contains a gut-level kernal of foreboding.  But Roy manages to set the mood on a razor edge without resorting to face-slapping foreshadowing like the late master Poe. 

For instance, check out thisminor moment (embedded in a major moment) in the story, just less than half way through the book:

"Ammu caughed up a wad of phlegm into her handkerchief and showed it to Rahel. 'You must always check it,' she whispered hoarsley, as though phlegm was an Arithmetic answer sheet that had to be revised before it was handed in. 'When it's white, it means it isn't ripe.  When it's yellow and has a rotten smell, it's ripe and ready to be coughed out.  Phlegm is like fruit.  Ripe or raw.  You have to be able to tell.'"

Roy uses this little image/conversation to accomplish multiple levels of meaning.  First, we see that Ammu has degenerated into a loathesome creature - one who not only discusses phlegm in detail, but who also shows it to others.  But we also get this idea that the relationships and fates of these characters are a lot like that phlegm - they must be examined for that "rotten smell."  Third, Roy accomplishes something on the linguistic level, offering insight to Ammu's character (she now speaks in short, simple, crude sentences as compared to her more educated and complicated speech patterns earlier in the chronology of the story) and offering yet another in a book's worth of fresh metaphors (phlegm as math / phlehm as fruit / phlegm as relationships).

Although there is nothing foreboding about the phlegmatic discussion per se, this scene, along with the multitude of other moments like it, forces the reader to brace for something horrible.

If I could write like Roy, I'd be thrilled.  And yet, this was just her first foray in to long fiction.  I can't wait to read her most recent novel, The Cost of Living.

We're All Fools: Reading Humboldt's Gift

In this novel of loneliness and irony, Bellow reminds me why I love to read and write...he truly enjoys his words, as do I. While the story is merely interesting, the sentences are salaciously captivating. Some of his passages make me feel like I'm getting away with something...I'd even say he has a voluptuous sense of diction. Sentences, phrases, and even individual words materialize in unexpected, even shocking ways. For instance, here Charlie (the narrator) describes his one time hero/nemesis, Humboldt:

"...he accused, fulminated, stammered, blazed, cried out. He crossed the universe like light. He struck off X-ray films of the true facts. Weakness, lies, treason, shameful perversion, crazy lust, the viciousness of certain billionares (names were named). The truth! And all of this melodrama of impurity, all these erect and crimson nipples, bared teeth, howls, ejaculations! The lawyers had heard this thousands of times but they wanted to hear it again, from a man of genius" (162)

When Bellow gets going like this, he is just pure fun to read. And the real kicker is that it's all done with a perverse sense of irony. These characters describe and speak like this, I believe, out of ignorance rather than insight. If I love these over-the-top pseudo-intellectual characters expounding on the human condition, is the joke on me? If so, I don't care...I'm laughing right along with Bellow at Charlie, Humboldt, and myself.

It's About Time: Reading One Hundred Years of Solitude

In his seminal work of Magic Realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez documents the tragic genealogy of the Buendia family – a family in which the strengths and flaws of each generation are repeated, magnified, twisted, and reinterpreted by the next.  The story traces the family from the founding of the town of Macondo by Jose Arcadio Buendia and his wife Ursula Iguaran until the death of the last of the Buendias, Aureliano Babilonia.  Along the way, Marquez plays with the concepts of time and memory, as characters repeat, remember, and forecast the tribulations and triumphs of other members of the family history.  Marquez achieves his twist on time through his narrative strategy as well.  He makes an otherwise linear narrative seem cyclical by framing the story around several key moments and characters in the long history of the family’s genealogy.

Marquez uses some key scenes in his long narrative to achieve a few very important effects.  These scenes serve to orient the reader by grounding the many occurrences that occur over the course of one hundred years.  They also act as lenses through which to see the narrative, providing for the reader a way to interpret the rest of the many scenes in the novel.  Finally, they act as pivot points through which Marquez creates the cycle of blessings, curses, super-human achievements, failures, and all the ancestral baggage that could ever be dreamed.  A key example of one of how Marquez uses these important scenes is that of the combination of the attempted execution of Colonel Aureliano Buendia and the “discovery” of ice.  The execution scene, from a linear standpoint, occurs nearly half way through the history of the Buendias, but the reader is introduced to the scene on the first page.  The scene of the discovery of ice occurs much earlier, but is connected to the execution throughout the novel.  The first line of the novel begins with this flash forward: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice” (Marquez 1).  The firing squad scene (and the scene detailing the discovery of ice) is referenced many times throughout the narrative, notably on pages 107, 132, 272, and 333.  Marquez comes back to the scenes time and again to keep the reader oriented, to provide a lens for interpretation (that time is a fragmented cycle), and to create a pivot point for the cycle of time.

Another device that Marquez uses to create the sense of a cyclical narrative is to use repetition of names and events that echo each other from generation to generation.  The names of the characters are repeated, with key variations, over and over.  Each generation has its own sets of Jose Arcadios and Aurelianos.  Each name has a set of associated traits, so that with each new generation, the new Jose Arcadios and Aurelianos are bound to repeat the failures of their predecessors.  Grandsons are even mistaken for their own grandparents.  When Pilar Ternera first sees the last Aureliano (son of Aureliano), the narrator notes that she “felt that time was turning back to its earliest origins…she was seeing Colonel Aureliano Buendia once more as she had seen him in the light of a lamp long before the wars” (Marquez 400-401).  This is the kind of occurrence that happens regularly in the world that Marquez has created.  He uses this technique to create a sense of repetition, of fate, and of a family circling the drain of tragedy.

The cyclical nature of the narrative is clearly not a matter of happenstance.  Marquez uses great care in creating the sense of a family history spiraling toward destruction over the course of the one hundred years.  This is no small matter, for the themes of the novel are closely bound up in this pattern.  Ursula, the most wise and aged of the Buendias, notes this herself in observing the family history as it passes before her.  Midway through the story, she hears of Jose Arcadio Buendia’s plan to build a railroad from their village of Macondo to “civilization,” which reminds her of her husband’s earlier plan to blaze a trail to “civilization.”  The narrator then adds that “Ursula confirmed her impression that time was going in a circle” (Marquez 226).  Later, in yet another repetition, Aureliano Segundo attempts to build a canal from “civilization” to Macondo.  Still further in the novel, Ursula has a perplexing conversation with Jose Arcadio Segundo in which she herself commits a repetition by saying something to him that her son (Colonel Aureliano Buendia) once said to her.  She recognizes the pattern and the narrator comments that “once again she shuddered with the evidence that time was not passing, as she had just admitted, but that it was turning in a circle” (Marquez 341).  Finally, near the end of the novel, Aureliano Segundo and Jose Arcadio Segundo meet the spirit of Jose Arcadio Buendia and after speaking with him, “they understood that Jose Arcadio Buendia was not as crazy as the family said, but that he was the only one who had enough lucidity to sense the truth of the fact that time also stumbled and had accidents and could therefore splinter and leave an eternalized fragment in a room” (Marquez 355).  All of this repetition of names and events, and the awareness of the characters that they are living in a fragmented circle of time, gives the narrative a cyclical feel that can be simultaneously dizzying, humorous, and foreboding.

One constant throughout the entire unsettling history of the Buendia family is the character of Melquiades, who is not a Buendia at all, but rather a family advisor.  He is present on the first page and on the last, and is instrumental throughout the novel.  In fact, one could argue that Melquiades, as the timekeeper of the story, is the primary actor in the plot.  He introduces ideas and technologies (from ice to astrolabe to the tools of alchemy) that pave the way for the Buendias’ fates.  He begins as a kindly teacher, then grows into a wise sage (back from the dead), then dies and becomes a guiding ghost, and finally turns out to be the author of the Buendia story.  The translation of his mysterious parchments have provided a decades-long challenge to the men of the Buendia family, but in the last scene, Aureliano Babilonia (the last of the Buendia line) finishes the task.  As he does, he realizes that “it was the history of the family, written by Melquiades, down to the most trivial details, one hundred years ahead of time…Melquiades has not put events in the order of man’s conventional time, but had concentrated a century of daily episodes in such a way that they coexisted in one instant” (Marquez 421).  Thus, Melquiades has written the Buendia fate that could only be achieved by the Buendia family trying to decipher what, in fact, he had written.  Melquiades has set the time for the demise of the family and, as time keeper, has orchestrated the cycle of destruction that is the frame of the narrative.

By employing these “timely” techniques, Marquez is able to achieve a cyclical effect for the reader that mirrors the fate of the Buendias.  He uses repetition, forecasting, flashback, and confusion of the past and present to reinforce this effect.  In achieving this effect, Marquez not only achieves a powerful comment on the nature of time and its effects on memory and solitude, but he also shows of is impressive mastery over the elements of time in storytelling.