16 March 2016

A Good Story

Guy de Maupassant’s short story The Necklace sparked my lifelong interest in literature after I read it in junior high. Its twisted and ironic ending has remained in my mind for many years later. I read it again this week and found myself still very much absorbed in its plot, setting and style (spoil alert thereafter. To read it, click the above red marked link). It tells a story of an unhappy middle-class married girl, Mathilde Loisel, who dreams of a much more glamorous existence. As the result of her vanity, Mathilde pays a heavy price when she borrows a diamond necklace from her wealthy friend for an once-in-a-lifetime event but loses it afterwards. The story hooks me because it opens with protagonist’s external and internal conflicts in the first couple of paragraphs: “She was one of those pretty and charming girls who are sometimes, as if by a mistake of destiny, born in a family of clerks”, “She dressed plainly because she could not dress well, but she was as unhappy as though she had really fallen from her proper station”, “She suffered ceaselessly, feeling herself born for all the delicacies and all the luxuries”. These conflicts are intensified as the story continues with the contrast of Mathilde’s environment and her dreamy inner world. Her home is full of wretched walls, worn-out chairs, ugly curtains… whereas she thinks of “antechambers hung with Oriental tapestry”, “tall bronze candelabra”, elegant footmen, silky salons etc. The setting deeply affects the character and propels the plot. I can’t stop turning the pages to find out how she would prepare for the extravagant party at the palace of the Ministry and what would happen to her at the party and if the conflicts would resolve. The plot takes several turns to keep me engaged with the story: she uses all her husband’s meager savings to buy a dress and borrows a diamond necklace; she fulfills her wildest dream and succeeds at the party; but then she loses the diamond; and then she has to work manual labor as a lowly working girl for the next decade to repay the debt of the replacement necklace; and then only to find out in the very end that the diamond necklace she borrows is fake and worthless.

The story is mainly plot-driven with precise language, fast pace and an anti-climatic ending. Other than the plot and the setting, the style the author employs such as irony and symbolism also contributes to the story’s timeless quality. The title, the center object of the story,  symbolizes the difference between surface and hidden value. The author’s lack of sympathy toward the protagonist creates a dramatic irony throughout the piece and this irony is punctuated by its shocking ending. For me, these elements stand out in this story and make it a rich and rewarding reading experience.

Happy reading and writing.

 

15 February 2016

The Language of Paradox

In his essay “The Language of Paradox”, Cleanth Brooks states that “Paradox is the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry” and furthermore “…the paradoxes spring from the very nature of the poet’s language: it is a language in which the connotations play as great a part as the denotations”. This theory provides us a unique lens into which we can interpret and understand a short poem by Emily Dickinson: “I died for beauty”.

The first four words of the poem “I died for beauty” immediately alert and grip us that a dead person is talking. Besides that, he is talking about a sought-after human quality “beauty”. By closer examination, we may sense that “for” does not just mean “to gain, in order to obtain”, but with a secondary meaning of “on behalf of”, or even “embodying”. This sense of personification of “beauty” allows the co-existence of the dead and the living, the body and the spirit. The last two lines of the first stanza introduce “truth”, another constantly sought-after theme in human history. After reading the first stanza, we find ourselves start to contemplate: what is life and death? Does spirit really exist? What is beauty and truth? How can qualities such as beauty and truth die?

The second stanza continues with two dead people or spirits having a normal conversation just as we would in our daily lives: what happened? Why did you fail? However, this easy-going chat between “beauty” and “truth” is far more thought-provoking than it seems on the surface as it brings back the universal theme of beauty and truth and ties them together with allusion to Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” even they lie in separate rooms in the tomb.

The third stanza gives some chilling answers to the questions in our mind, especially “how can beauty and truth be dead?” They are forgotten and died as we living breathing people are gathered together at night. This is depicted with simple words “kinsmen”, “met”, “a-night”, yet with numerous implications: how many of us have attended social functions where we were so bored of being talked at non-stop? How many of us have babbled all night long about things so trivial and unimportant? As we do so unconsciously, we let real things that matter such as “beauty” and “truth” slip out of our conscience and let them die gradually. The poem ends with a sad and horrifying image of living yet indifferent moss, or nature in general in its derived meaning, silencing and erasing the identity of two values humanity holds true.

In short, through the paradoxical and connotative nature of poetic language, this poem juxtaposes and reconciles ordinarily opposed elements: life and death, constancy and impermanence, nature and indifference, body and spirit; by doing so, the poem prompts us to meditate on age-old philosophical quests and question what is the true nature of our being and our world.

Reference:

Brooks, Cleanth. “The Language of Paradox.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004. 28-39. Print.

I died for beauty

Emily Dickinson

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth—the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a-night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

22 November 2015

Style in “After Life”


Joan Didion’s essay is about the death of the author’s husband, and it offers a great example of a distinctive writing style.

“After Life” is a tough reading for me. Didion’s personal style makes me feel depressed. The opening sentences read directly from her diary, expressing an utter uncertainty of life. The mood is somber and helpless. What kept me continue to read are some of her unique writing choices, such as mixing of long and short paragraphs and of poetic and matter-of-fact sentences. On page 7 after the narrator realized her husband was dead, her shock and numbness are presented with repetitive short phrases: “I said yes”, “They gave me…”, “I thanked him” etc. The essay’s out-of-sequence flow gives a dreamy and sleepwalking feeling, an empty feeling stricken by the unexpected loss of a loved one. After the initial shock and numbness, the grief “comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.” The image of waves makes the ensuing scientific explanation of a person’s experience of grief relatable. Didion uses images throughout the piece. Towards the end, she compares trying to find meaning in her daily life “inconsistent with finding meaning in the vast indifference of geology and the test shots”; and there are images of “earthquake”, “swell of clear water”, and “we could have been swimming into the cave…slipped into the sea around us.” But life is not the clear water she has anticipated. Instead, “Life changes in the instant” as she says in the beginning when an unexpected cardiac arrest took place at the dinner table.

9 November 2015

Sedaris’ Paris and American Movies

Podcast: The City of Lights in the Dark (6:56)
In this podcast, David Sedaris uses humor to give his writing an authentic tone.

When I first read “The City of Lights in the Dark” by David Sedaris, I enjoyed its deadpan humor. The entertaining tone is immediately established by the diction in its opening sentences: “carton of ticket stubs” and Sedaris “groans beneath its weight”, the list of American movies, and his knowledge about Paris being gleaned from “Gigi”. I know I am in for an unusual treat, sensing a fish-out-of-water kind of story. Who would not go see the landmarks such as Louvre or the Pantheon in Paris but instead binge-watching American movies? As I read on, Sedaris’ dry sense of humor continues to make me laugh out loud. He changes the movie title “Saving Private Ryan” to “It is Necessary to Save the Soldier Ryan”; and rebuffs tourists’ rejection “I didn’t come all the way to Paris so I can sit in the dark” with “but this is the French dark. It’s darker than the dark we have back home.” Sedaris compares and critiques two different cultures through his sharp observation and candor. He pokes fun at the talking heads of the movie theaters back home; marvels at the availability of the titles and good prices and mom and pop “revival houses” in Paris; and is bewildered of the tipping for the hostess of the theaters in Paris. By zooming in his personal lens to a popular media across cultures, Sedaris drives home his point of view with hilarity: “Sitting in Paris and watching my American movies, I feel the exact opposite of homesick.”

I also think Sedaris’ reading of his own work extends the point he sets out to make. To me, he does not try to be funny; his detachment and seemingly non-emotional involvement makes the piece funnier. His delivery is subtle, such as the slight tonal change and pause before he reacts to his friends’ comment, “Yes, this is French dark…”; and the subtle accent of the theater talking heads. His calm narrative voice is the opposite of over-the-top performance. He does not shout or scream or swear to be heard and to be funny.

 

22 October 2015

Writing the Truth

I remember I bought A Million Little Pieces by James Frey when I spotted it on the best-selling shelf at the Borders over a decade ago and eagerly added to my next-to-read list.  However, I never got to read it. About a week later after I had bought it I heard the news that it was a fabricated story. I remember I felt disappointed and mad: what is the point of reading the book now? It has stood on my bookshelf since then, untouched and unread.

The funny thing is I love reading stories made-up and imaginative. Now I wonder if A Million Little Pieces came out as a novel, or even as a semi-autobiographical work, would I read it? Probably yes. I enjoy reading The Cider House Rules by John Irving, in which many elements are based on the life of Irving’s grandfather, among many other great books that have incorporated real-life experiences. I think in James Fray’s case, the publisher’s desire to feed into readers growing appetite for nonfictions back fired. Once the trust is broken between the reader and the writer, the damage is almost impossible to repair. Even though now I know Fray promoted his book as a novel initially, I will still not read it.

As Larson points out in Fiction, Fact, and Faked Memoirs, “Novels purify; memoirs testify”. To testify, truth, and only the truth, must be told; and that is nonfiction writers’ obligation and contract to readers. Writing nonfiction is different, and in many ways more difficult than writing fiction or poetry. One’s memory can be altered through time and one’s perception about other people can be subjective. Details may be lost, dialogues forgotten. For example, when I was writing about my near-death experience of contracting hepatitis at the age of 6, I simply could not recall lots of details. My mom’s memory was the only other source as I could not reach many of the doctors that I had treated me anymore. That piece is still sitting on my need-to-finish folders, with other stories I’d like to tell such as my dad’s unexpected death, growing up in China and coming to the United States and starting all over, while I am searching ways to break the limitation of memoir writing but at the same time to maintain the genre’s integrity.

Work Cited:

Essay: Fiction, Fact, and Faked Memoirs
In this essay, Thomas Larson discusses the consequences and the cost of fabricating memoirs.
Article: The Man Who Rewrote His Life
Laura Barton interviews James Frey to discuss the lies he famously told in his memoir.

19 October 2015

Cruising in the Nadir World

PDF: Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise
In this essay, David Foster Wallace uses observation and description to offer sharp cultural commentary.

The setting in Wallace’s Shipping Out serves more than a background. It is the center for his narrative arc and source for his perspective on luxury cruises and economic entitlement. Whether it is the boarding pier, the Megaship, the passengers and most of the cruise staff, the cabin and its bathroom, the image and sensory driven descriptions allow the reader to take an amusing and ironic ride with the author.

For example, the almost lyrical opening paragraphs immediately establish a sharp and humoring tone. The repetitions of  “I have” phrase provide specific sights, sounds, smells, tastes, body sensations and movements for the reader to immerse in a superfluous and absurd experiences of the Nadir world:

“I have now seen sucrose beaches and water a very bright blue (later a blue beyond any blue)… I have smelled suntan lotion spread over 2100 pounds of hot flesh…I have seen sunsets that looked computer-enhanced…I have seen and smelled all 145 cats inside Ernest Hemingway residence in Key West…I have felt the full, clothy weight of a subtropical sky…I have heard steel drums and eaten conch fritters…I have pointed rhythmically at the ceiling to the two-hour beat of the same disco music I hated pointing at the ceiling in 1977…I have burned and peeled twice… I have jumped a dozen times at the shattering, flatulence-of-the-gods-like sound of a cruise ship’s horn… I have now heard – and am powerless to describe – reggae elevator music…”

Right beneath the surface of these vivid images, Wallace introduces his poignant point of view of vacationing on a luxury cruise ship. We can discern his emotional and psychological tension with the popular notion and advertised version of floating free in a Caribbean sea. As this narrative tension leads us reading on, we gain new insights on “a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad”, as well as our innate nature of insatiable “WANTS” in any “environment of extraordinary gratification and pampering”.

11 October 2015

Cologne Cathedral and “In Cold Blood”

While I was roaming around central Europe in late September, people asked me: “What unique perspectives are you finding through the European culture as you read a truly American-themed work of classic non-fiction?” The classic being referred to is Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Looking back, it definitely has been a unique experience reading an American classic and traveling abroad at the same time. While I was zigzagging through Cologne, Prague and Vienna, it was hard not to be distracted by the towering medieval churches and grand imperial palaces. One day, I found myself standing inside the soaring vault ribs of the Gothic Cologne cathedral. There was a mass going on. While the ethereal organ hymns floating in the incensed air, faint sun rays filtering through the kaleidoscopic stained glasses and the priest praying and chanting in German, I could not help but thinking about Perry as I just started to read In Cold Blood that morning. I stood there for a long while, an ineffable chill running through my bones and skins. Of all the characters in Capote’s essay, Perry baffles and fascinates me most. As the light struggled to illuminate the dark dome, the hymn to sooth the pilgrim’s guilt, I thought about Perry’s many outward and inward contradictions. I have not finished reading the whole the book yet, but I think there is a timeless theme about the battle between good and evil, and questions regarding mankind’s potential for evil.

Here is the first part of the book that got me hooked:

Article: In Cold Blood: The Last to See Them Alive
Truman Capote’s 1965 article, which preceded the publication of the book In Cold Blood, is frequently cited as the first work of new journalism, a subgenre of creative nonfiction that combines the content of journalism with the art of storytelling.

Happy reading.

10 September 2015

The Decline of Grammar? WTF!

A couple of days ago, my friend Rolf and his out-of-town brother Dan and I decided to have brunch together. I was reading the printed version of The Decline of Grammar from PBS web at the café before the brothers showed up. Dan asked me what I was reading. After I showed him my paper, he took out a pen and wrote right next to the title: “WTF!”

I laughed out loud but did not expect Dan would joke like this because he does not seem to be your typical young hipster uttering urban slang over brunch. He is a professor at a prestigious university in his forties, and for Christ’s sake, he has a MFA from Columbia University! WTF!

Later that day when I got home, I looked up Urbandictionary.com to find out other words related to “wtf”: rofl lmao wth ftw omfg stfu sex stupid noob … Then I got anxious since other than “sex” and “stupid” I did not recognize the rest on that list. Am I really living in the rotten age of grammar and language? Or am I far out of touch with reality? WTF is going on here? I asked myself. Continue reading