Anatomy of a novel

I wrote my latest novel, A Majority of One, to explore the influence of religion in our society, a Imageconstitutional democracy. To do this, I set up a clash between church and state, a clash of the kind that shows up in news headlines again and again, year after year, propelled nearly always  by misguided albeit sincere religious fervor. Oddly, we easily recognize religious zealotry in other parts of the world, like the Middle East, but are blind to its influence in our own culture. The idea for this story came to me years ago when I was the editor/publisher of a weekly newspaper and lived for five years in a small Southern town. At a party one night, the hostess, thirtyish wife of a popular local businessman, cornered me in her kitchen to tell me of her religious fervor. After exclaiming at length how much she loved Jesus, she segued into her fear of Satan, which struck me as much stronger than her love of Christ. The devil was after her soImageul night and day, she said, and she lived in perpetual fear that he would somehow capture it and take it off to Hell. I believed then and I believe now that the woman, who appeared completely normal, was actually under a self-induced spell smacking of lunacy. I also knew, while cornered in that kitchen years ago, that one day I would write a novel about that kind of religious zeal. A Majority of One is that novel.

Getting the Word Out

I wonder if other authors are as confused as I about how to stir up interest in a new book. Twitter seems to me to be thronged with writers interested mainly in promoting their own work. (I’m guilty, too.) Facebook strikes me as little more than a neighborly pow-wow, and if it attracts book readers, I’ve yet to detect that. And a blog seems to be a hit-or-miss proposition that you can spend a lot of time and effort on to little avail. Any ideas out there in Cyberland? Please pass them along to me.

God bless the South and Southerners

The South is known for its unusual characters, right? They populate the novels of Southern writers like Erskine Caldwell, Harper Lee, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers. But we Southerners know, don’t we, that you don’t have to read one of their books to find such a character’s prototype? Often they live right next door, or just down the street, or they show up at the other end of a conversation. To wit:

In sending email, I routinely include a favorite saying or famous quotation in the message’s personal signature section, at the bottom of the page. Recipients often comment on the quotations, which I change from time to time, albeit irregularly because I tend to forget they need refreshing.

Recently, I sent an email requesting information from an out-of-town bank. Louise, the bank’s computer teller, called next day to give me the information. “But first,” she said in a drawl dripping molasses, “tell me how you know my husband. I asked if he knows you and he doesn’t.”

“Your husband?” I said, puzzled. She was in Mississippi; I was in South Carolina.

“Yes. You quoted him in your email. I was amazed to see that.”

“Quoted?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’ve got it right here on my screen: ‘Fortune favors the bold’ — Virgil.”

The light bulb came on. “Oh,” I said. “That’s a quote from Virgil, the Roman writer.”

“Oh, then that’s not my Virgil,” she said. “I don’t think he’s ever been out of Mississippi.”

I wish I had had the presence of mind to ask Louise if she knew a young woman named Velma that I used to work with in Aiken, S.C. Velma glowed with vitality, but the glow did not extend far above her neck. (Nor did it need to; Velma was drop-dead gorgeous.) Anyhow, one day when the office staff was having a working lunch, the boss’s way of keeping our noses closer to the grindstone of commerce, somebody brought up that old parlor game in which one is asked to name 12 people they’d invite to a dinner party if they could include anybody who had ever lived. Soon, names like Jesus, Hitler, Lincoln, Joan of Arc, Elvis, the virgin Mary, Babe Ruth rang around the table — until it was Velma’s turn.

So help me, Velma, in all seriousness, named 12 of her relatives: parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.

I’ve often wondered if Virgil’s wife Louise was one of those relatives.

My Navy Daze

By Robert Lamb

When I tell people that I served in the Navy, their eyebrows go up when they hear that I was stationed in Oklahoma.  For the geography-challenged, Oklahoma is landlocked. For the vocabulary challenged, “landlocked” means “cut off from the sea.” For the connections challenged, think “sailors,” then “ships,” then “oceans,” and then “Oklahoma.”

Sound suspicious?

It did to me, too.

And I grew even more suspicious when my next duty station was in Jacksonville, Florida – and I still hadn’t seen a ship.

Long story short, I was in the Navy for two years – and never saw a ship!

Let me repeat that: I was in the United States Navy for two years and never saw a ship.

Talk about embarrassing! People see you wearing a sailor suit and just naturally assume that you are a sailor and that sailors sail, and that sailing requires a flotation device of some kind, and that the device is probably a ship. Anchors aweigh, ship ahoy, and all that – remember?

Bottom line, I came to believe that the Navy had no ships.

None.

Nada.

Zero.

But once I got over the shock, I began to think: Sonofagun! How clever! How economical, too!”

After all, how many times have you read in the newspaper, or heard on TV, something like this: “The Seventh Fleet steamed into the Mediterranean today”?

Didn’t you naturally assume that it was true, that it in fact happened?

Didn’t you picture this great flotilla of battleships and destroyers and aircraft carriers and various other vessels gliding east through the Straits of Gibraltar, flags flying, sea water spraying, radar scanners fairly bristling with alertness, checking out anything and everything that moved on land, sea, or in the sky.

But how could any of this happen without ships?

Note also that these news stories are never eye-witness reports. They never say, for instance, “I saw the Seventh Fleet steam into the Mediterranean today.”

They don’t even say “I know a guy who knows a guy whose cousin saw the Seventh Fleet steam into the Mediterranean today.”

No. It’s always a simple announcement. A flat-out, take-it-or-leave-it announcement. And it never comes with attribution. Or if it does, the attribution is something vague, like “Naval officials said.”

So there you have it, and you heard it here first: The Navy has no ships. Doesn’t need any ships. Simple news reports do the job. It’s a phantom navy, is what it is. Like the Emperor’s clothes, it simply isn’t there – but doesn’t need to be because everybody believes it is there. Brilliant!

But try as I might, I could not get our executive officer, ol’ Blood and Guts Richards, to understand it.

This was after Captain Richards called me into his office to “discuss” the “unusual theory” I had been “spreading among the men.”

But I spoke right up. “It’s not a theory, sir.”

“Eh?”

“It’s all a big mind game. Smoke and mirrors.

“Eh?”

“And I believe the Navy owes me an apology.”

“A what?”

“Apology.  You people got me into this uniform on false pretenses.”

He looked at me hard for a minute. “Well, Sailor, tell you what I’m going to do.”

“Yes, sir?”

“I’m going to get you out of that uniform, pronto, and there’s nothing false about my intentions.”

With that, he called for his clerk, Chief Somethingorother, who only a microsecond later stood in the exec’s doorway, eager to do his bidding. Pointing at me, Richards demanded, “Has this sailor ever been up to 650?”

Six-Fifty was the number on the building that housed the base’s mental cases.  The number had become a shorthand way of saying someone was crazy: “Oh, he’s 650.” Or “Oh, he went 650; didn’t you hear?”

The chief smiled. “No, sir. He’s what we call a 325.”

I knew that one, too. It meant only half crazy.

“He’s from Georgia, sir,” the chief added, as if my being Southern explained everything.

Capt. Richards did not crack a smile. He said, “Well, Chief, this is Seaman Lamb’s last day in uniform. We’re going to ship him back —” He caught himself and began anew.  “We’re going to send him back to Georgia. Draw up his discharge papers for my signature within the hour.”

“Aye, aye, sir. What kind of discharge, sir?”

“What do we have that’s just shy of Nutty as a Fruitcake?” the captain asked.

The chief smiled again. “Sir, that’d be a general discharge.”

“Then write him up as a general.”

“Aye, aye, sir. A general it is.” He went back to his desk just outside the door. Soon I heard typing.

I have to say that it kinda hurt my feelings to be given the heave-ho just for telling the dang truth. But I figured I’d better quit while I was ahead. Not many people go into the Navy as a seaman recruit and get promoted to general on their way out after only two years in uniform.

The Western literary canon revisited

By Robert Lamb

News item from the Boston Globe:
“… Universities are full of trendy English professors who don’t read Shakespeare for the beauty of the poetry or its peerless insights into human nature. The point is to uncover the oppression that’s supposed to define Western culture: the racism, ‘patriarchy,’ and imperialism that must lurk beneath the surface of everything written by those ‘dead white males.’ (The latest book from University of Pennsylvania professor emerita Phyllis Rackin, for example, investigates how ‘Macbeth’ contributed to the ‘domestication of women.’)”

I don’t believe for an instant that the Western literary canon should be changed to accommodate social and political agendas. Aesthetics shaped the canon in the beginning and should continue to shape it. Besides, art pressed into the service of a cause becomes propaganda, the aims of which are very different from those of art.

Yes, the canon’s shapers were mainly men, mainly white, mainly European, and, like all men, not without bias. But nowhere have I seen evidence that any work was admitted to the canon for any reason except that it was believed to be an outstanding work of serious intent.

But this should not be construed to mean that the Western canon is sacrosanct. It isn’t, nor should it be. Time changes everything, including the pertinence of art, and esthetic distance can reveal that a work’s admission to the canon might have been hasty or at the very least is ripe for review. Some inferior works also sneaked into the canon as companions of superior relatives. Any critic who believes, for instance, that all of Dickens’ novels are co-equal in quality simply hasn’t been paying attention.

Anyhow, of esteemed works in general, here are some nominations, purely random, for either demotion in the ranks or outright discharge from the canon (no pun).

–Moby Dick, by Herman Melville – Rather than a whale of a story, which might qualify it for canon membership, this novel is largely a treatise on whaling, with no more relevance to modern life than a how-to manual on buffalo-hunting. Moreover, Melville never uses one word when a few thousand will do, violates the most basic (and common-sense) rules of first-person storytelling (such as repeatedly entering the mind of another character, Ahab), and interrupts the story ad nauseam to deliver lessons on the anatomy of the whale. The best use of this novel is as an antidote to insomnia. If the celebrated (?) chapter on whiteness (yes, whiteness!) doesn’t put you to sleep, alas, your insomnia is incurable.

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy – This novel is the best argument for abridged novels ever written. As with Moby Dick, we have in War and Peace a novel that is largely a polemic disguised as a story. In fact, you can’t read War and Peace attentively without seeing that Tolstoy wrote it mainly to rebut history’s traditional accounts of the War of 1812. The novel’s beguiling love story is merely a Trojan horse designed by the author to sneak his version of history into the reader’s mind. In fact, when abridgers abridge this often-abridged novel, they simply throw out Tolstoy’s meticulous recounting of Napoleon’s ill-fated campaign against Russia. Is the abridged version worthy of admission to the canon? Well, as I said, it is a beguiling story. So maybe. But it would have to wait in line behind Tolstoy’s Anna Karinana, which is truly a great novel and fully deserves inclusion in the Western canon.

–King Lear, by Shakespeare – Inexplicably, some literary critics declare this disjointed and tiresome work to be one of the Immortal Bard’s best plays. It isn’t even close; in fact it’s one of his worst, exceeded only (perhaps) by The Tempest. Lear, a foolish old monarch with three daughters, divides his kingdom between two of them and banishes the third daughter for refusing to compete with her sisters in banal blandishments of filial love and gratitude. What follows is a tedious testament to folly and ingratitude proving only, ho-hum, that a fool and his kingdom are soon parted – but leaving unanswered, and even unasked, the question of how they got together in the first place. Then, grafted onto the story like scenes left over from another, unfinished play, is the story of Edmund, the bastard son of Glouchester, whose evil schemes are no more believable than is the credulity of those who fall for them. And Kent? He could have stayed home for all the use he was to the plot. Only Edmund’s father lucks out in this mish-mash of a play. Blinded early in the action, he doesn’t have to watch much of it.

The Devine Comedy, by Dante – This work hasn’t been relevant to man, not even spiritual man, in at least 150 years.

Lest it appear that I’m mired in the classics, let’s look at some contemporaries who are presumptive canon-ites. (So help me, I’m picking my targets solely from works that I read or re-read, for various reasons, sometimes mere curiosity, in the past year or so.) One that I had the misfortune to stumble upon (and stumble all the way through) was John Irvin’s A Widow for One Year. First, full disclosure: I’ve never read The World According to Garp. The dust-jacket notes alone induced yawning, as did the movie’s previews. I did tackle (in good faith, I promise) A Prayer for Owen Meany, but I threw in the towel (prayer shawl?) around the half-way mark. More yawning. Now A Widow for One Year has cured me forever of any interest in a John Irvin* novel. Long story short (which you’ll certainly never get in an Irvin novel): The author is a literary windbag with a Victorian guilt about sex. And to the press agent who dreamed up the absurd comparison of Irvin to Dickens, I say with all the fervor I can muster: 1) Get an honest job, and 2) stop defaming dead authors.

Next, in the grip of a burgeoning disbelief, I read to the end of Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, which more aptly would be titled Lunacy Park. I pushed on for one reason, and one reason only: His Less Than Zero is a small masterpiece. After Lunar Park, I have not taken him up again, and I won’t until I’m assured that he will never again write while in a marijuana haze or while trying to outdo Stephen King in the supernatural genre.

Speaking of which, the Keepers of the Canon Gateway, chief among them literary critic Harold Bloom, long ago launched a propaganda campaign aimed at forestalling any suggestion that King be admitted to the Inner Chamber. But Dr. Bloom is often as absurdly wrong as he can be brilliantly right, and where King is concerned Bloom has uncorked another of his many bloopers. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is a fine novel, better than many that hold a charter membership in the canon, and King’s novella The Body (which on film became “Stand By Me”) is a masterpiece. (Be it noted that Bloom has also tried to block the canon’s entrance to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird by damning it with faint praise as “a period piece.” Take my word for it, the period piece is Bloom. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of America’s greatest novels, ranking easily among the top ten.

But let’s hurry on before I run out of space:

*Hemingway qualifies for inclusion in the canon largely on the strength of his short stories and writing style. Only one of his novels, The Old Man and the Sea, is aging well. The others, which were at birth mannered and stiff, now seem downright arthritic. No matter. All of his short stories are clinics in good writing, and the best of them, “The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber” and especially “The Snows of Killamanjaro,” are sublime.

*Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby fully deserves its reputation as one of the best American novels ever written – and is very nearly the best. His other novels, and the short stories, leave me cold.

*Steinbeck. Several years ago, I heard a visiting academic at the University of South Carolina dismiss Steinbeck as “second-rate.” The speaker invited his university audience to agree with him, and I was shocked to see heads nod in the affirmative, and to hear mutterings of general agreement. I have since learned that “second-rate” best describes academic literary opinion. At any rate, Steinbeck’s range alone, not to mention his very American voice, guarantees him a place in literary memory. No such luck to the academics who dissed him.

*Faulkner. Time again for full disclosure: I am not a Faulkner fan. I’ve tried; god knows I’ve tried. I’m even willing to believe that the fault is mine, not his. But I just don’t get it! So there. Sorry, Malcolm.

*Flannery O’Conner. See Faulkner, above. O’Connor is a mix of the religious nutty and the Southern-Gothic batty. Except for her short story “All That Rises Must Converge,” put O’Connor aside in favor of a book by a really good Southern female writer: Carson McCullers. For proof, read her Member of the Wedding.

*Thomas Wolfe. He is, simply, the American Proust, which is to say that his writing is among the very best though his novels are not. Professor Bloom is wrong about Wolfe, too, who will still be read long after Bloom has been forgotten.

Obviously, I can’t cover here (or anywhere else) all the authors and poets and playwrights of Western literature, but I would feel conscience-stricken if I closed without mentioning such truly great writers as Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, Stephen Crane, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Robert Frost, Jane Austin, E.A. Robinson, Robert Browning, Robert Frost, Truman Capote, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Willa Cather.

Nor can I close without naming the book that deserves, hands down, the title of The Great American Novel. It is Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (and it’s also one of the best movies ever made).

I know, I know: in all these years, it has yet to gain entry to the canon. Academics and other so-called serious literary critics have long been loath to give this fine novel the laurels it deserves (or to even read it, which of course explains a lot). But it is these same critics who have put the Western canon in the mess it’s in today, mainly by using political and social templates to interpret literary works.

There. I feel so much better now.

(*Earlier this year, on NPR’s “Radio Reader,” I listened, in disbelief, to Irvin’s latest novel, Last Night In Twisted River — disbelief that a name writer could write so badly and disbelief that a respected radio show could select so undeserving a novel (from the many available) to air to its readers.)

(Robert Lamb teaches writing and American literature at the University of South Carolina. He has published novels, short stories, and poetry, and is a 2009 winner of the South Carolina Fiction Project.)

Award-winning Short Story

July Winner

Black Coffee
By Robert Lamb

The young waitress, bottle blonde, was back again. “Made up your mind yet?” She sounded impatient and indifferent at the same time.
Just coffee, I told her. Black. No cream.
“I need something stronger,” Jenny said. “Do you serve wine?”
The waitress nodded, chewed gum, checked her nails. Red.
“Chardonnay,” Jenny said. “House is okay.”
The waitress, wordless, went away. Jenny studied the wall at my back, her solemn hazel eyes fixed on a pastel wallpaper. I studied Jenny studying the wall at my back. We were the only customers in the place.
“What?” she said, meeting my eyes at last, defiant, distraught.
“Nothing.”
“Well, it’s hard.”
I said I knew.
“No, you don’t. It’s not your mother.”
I said I knew whose mother it was.
Jenny went back to staring at the wall.
The waitress brought our drinks. She put the wine in front of me, the coffee – with cream – in front of Jenny, and left the bill on the edge of the table. The wine was a blush, not Chardonnay, but when I started to call the waitress back, Jenny stopped me. “Never mind,” she said.
Swapping drinks, I nodded toward the waitress. “Hope Miss Congeniality there doesn’t depend on tips for a living.”
“Huh?”
“Nothing,” I said.
Jenny sipped her wine. “I don’t think I can do it,” she said, a pink flush rising at her throat.
“Well, go back over there and tell them that.” I nodded toward a big gray building across the street.
“I just can’t,” she said, sipping again.
“Look, if you can’t, you can’t. They’ll understand. You won’t be the first who couldn’t do it.”
“I don’t see how anybody could do it.”
“I could do it. I could do it because it ought to be done. When a thing needs doing, it’s best to go on and do it.”
“I’m not like you.”
“Then don’t do it.”
“I’d hate myself if I did it.”
“Then don’t do it, for Christ’s sake. Go on over there and tell `em.”
“I’ll finish my wine first.” She sipped again. “Maybe if I drink enough of this I can do it.”
“Do it and then drink,” I said. “Then you’ll have a reason to drink.”
“I have a reason now. Will you order me another glass?”
“I read somewhere that memory and judgment are the first things clouded by alcohol.”
“Memory would be okay,” she said.
“Suit yourself.” I started to call for the waitress.
“Wait!” Jenny said. “You’re right. I need a clear head for this.” She pushed the glass away. It was still nearly full. “What time is it?”
“Two-thirty.” I signaled toward a big white-faced clock on a nearby wall. You couldn’t miss it.
“How long did he say he’d be there?”
“Till three.”
She made a face. “Will you tell him for me?”
“Tell him what?”
“You know,” she said.
“No, I don’t know.”
She reached for my coffee. “Mind?”
I pushed the cup and saucer toward her. The cream, too. I didn’t use the stuff.
Stirring in the cream, she said, “It’s for the best, don’t you think?”
“What I think’s not important here,” I said.
She sipped the coffee, now a caramel-brown. “I can’t do it. She’s my mother.”
I reached for her wine. “All the more reason you should do it,” I said. “Should want to do it.”
“Was it this way with your mother?”
“No.”
“See.”
“Proves nothing.”
She shrugged. “You’re right. What time is it?”
I finished her wine while glancing at the clock. “Two minutes later than when you asked before.”
“Don’t be smart at a time like this.”
“Don’t be dumb at a time like this.”
She made a face again and heaved a sigh. “Okay. You’re right. I’ll do it.”
She started to get up. I thought I saw tears. “You sure?”
“I’m sure. As sure as I’ll ever be.” She got on up, smoothing wrinkles from her navy blue skirt as she rose.
I stood up, too. I left enough money on the table to cover the bill and give the waitress a good tip.

This story appeared first, in print, in the summer/fall edition of Ep;phany, A Literary Journal. For an account of the story’s origin, go to http://robtlamb.author.googlepages.com. On the right, click on “new story.” “Black Coffee” also was voted the best story of July 2008 among those posted on The Elder Storytelling Place: http://www.timegoesby.net/elderstorytelling/2008/07/black-coffee.html or  http://www.ronnibennett.typepad.com/elderstorytelling/

Spring break with a good book

I’m back from spring break at Pawleys Island, S.C., where besides long walks on the nearly deserted beach I read a very good novel: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt.

The novel, some 600 pages, was longer than it needed to be, and parts of it, sometimes long parts, could have been (and should have been)  trimmed. But Ms. Tartt may be forgiven because she writes beautifully and tells an absorbing tale of dissolution and madness among students at a college in Vermont that sounds very much like the one she attended, Bennington. In fact, one of her main characters sounds very much like novelist Bret Easton Ellis, who attended Bennington at about the same time and who befriended Ms. Tartt. 

I highly recommend The Secret History to the uninitiated — and I’d like to hear from readers as to what they thought of the novel. Me, I can’t wait to read more of Ms. Tartt’s writing. Indeed, I’m heading to the library tomorrow to see if her novel The Little Friend is available.

P.S.: I’ll have more to say about this later in continuing my discussion of the Western Literary Canon, but I consider Ellis’s Less Than Zero to be a small masterpiece. (I also consider his novel Lunar Park to be a large disaster, but, hey, nobody bats a thousand.)      

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