The Craft of Jennifer Clement’s ‘Gun Love’


This piece is the first in a series of author interviews about the craft of writing conducted by Chigozie Obioma for The Millions.

Jennifer Clement’s Gun Love is a beautiful novel. The writing is so lovely that, at times, it seems the author is observing the world through a peephole that foregrounds and magnifies every minute object. A tired person is described as being unable to make “my fist,” and a woman’s love interest is described as “the song inside her body.” The characters are eccentric, unforgettable, and nuanced. Pearl, especially, is a wonder: so finely shaped and created.

For the first in a series of interviews focused on the craft of writing, I asked Clement a few questions about her process and technique. If you’ve read Gun Love and have questions for Clement, please post them in the comments section before May 22. We’ll send the first three to the author, making this an ongoing conversation.

Chigozie Obioma: Did you do any research for this novel? I’m curious to know how prior knowledge shaped the lives of the characters in this novel since—as I understand—you have not even been living in the U.S. for a while now.

Jennifer Clement: Yes, I did a lot of research for this novel. I think of some of my books as an iceberg and what the reader reads is the surface of something much deeper.  However, the research did not shape my characters. The investigation was into people who live in cars, gun violence, guns, and I did interview survivors of gun massacres.  I’m on the advisory board of an organization called SHOT: We the People headed by Kathy Shorr, who photographs survivors of gun shots and how their bodies have been devastated. The truth is I’ve hardly ever lived in the United States.  I grew up in Mexico City, where I live today. I lived in New York City from 1978 to 1987.  My memoir Widow Basquiat is about this time in New York.

Because I live in Mexico, Gun Love is also about how U.S. guns get to Mexico.  This has also been a part of my research and the numbers are chilling.  As a low count, 20,000 guns cross the border into Mexico every day.  There are more than 8,000 gun shops on the U.S. side of the border.  This means that both poverty and violence in Mexico and Central America is fueled by U.S. guns.

CO: The characters are eccentric, and this is why they are also so compelling. This, of course, makes them very memorable. Margot, for instance, is able to live in her father’s house for two months with a baby without anyone knowing a child was there. What was the inspiration for such a woman?

JC: I’ve actually read about women who were able to hide their newborn babies for quite some time and I’ve always found this fascinating.  It’s not hard to do especially if you’re a lonely girl living in a big house.  There is no character in Gun Love who is based on any real person. At a certain point of my writing, I begin to feel a strong tenderness for my characters, which is a kind of love, and then I know the characters have come alive. What you point out reminds me of what Flannery O’Connor said when asked why her characters were so eccentric, “Whenever I’m asked why southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”

CO: For me, this is also in many ways a philosophical novel. There is wisdom, quiet wisdom I’d say, scattered throughout the page in form of aphorisms that Margot passes on to her daughter and therefore the reader (e.g., “If you don’t dream at night then only this life matters.”). Were you thinking specifically in these lines?

JC: I’m glad to hear you think this, as I do also. Part of developing a character is finding out their credo, what they live by.  I would never want to write a didactic novel, but a philosophical one, yes.  I’m interested in the fact that we spend half our day sleeping in a completely different world. One of my favorite poems is John Donne’s “Elegy X, The Dream” where he says, “If I dream I have you then I have you for all our joys are but fantastical.” I also know it’s in dreams and in the imagination where the muses live.

CO: Again, on a craft level, your language is breathtaking throughout this book. But I also noticed that it seems you save the bulk of the novel’s lyricisms for the end of each chapter. What is important about the end of chapters?

JC: This has to do with my love of poetry. I like to be going someplace and I do see the end of each chapter as a destination, as I do with each stanza of a poem.

CO: The story is extremely conversational in tone. What do you bring to writing dialogue?

JC: When writing dialogue, I think like a playwright. Every conversation has this kind of care. I like to read plays and scripts as a study of craft. This may be the reason that so many of my novels have been staged.

CO: Also, to that question, there seems to be a McCarthyian thrust in your technical attitude towards punctuation, in that you use it sparingly. Thus, much of the dialogue is unmarked while many sentences contain few commas. What’s your rationale for this?

JC: I’ve done this in my last two novels—Prayers for the Stolen and Gun Love. This was deliberate and made me have to be careful so that the reader can easily follow. Since both books are a long monologue, it felt right that the language would appear as a long cascade. I’m an admirer of Cormac McCarthy’s work so, of course, I’ve read him and am interested in what he does with punctuation. The poet W.S. Merwin also experimented with this and eliminated all punctuation.

CO: Imagery is viscerally rendered in most places to such an extent that one begins to almost see oneself living in the filth described, even “breathing in garbage,” as Pearl and her mother do. What is it about poverty that you find compelling?

JC: I don’t think it’s poverty exactly. I am always interested in how language can bring beauty to ugliness and despair. Language can enlighten the divine within the profane. I wanted to do this with gun violence. This was my challenge. In Gun Love, Pearl has empathy for people but also for objects. She discovers this when she senses that the pearls in a necklace are lamenting the sea. This also allowed me to give the guns a voice and history.

CO: It is almost uncanny to say this, but despite the violence and filth, this is a very, very funny book. How do you manage humor in such a dark atmosphere?

JC: Charles Dickens wrote tragedy mixed with comedy and he called this technique, “streaky bacon.” I do the same. I’m from Mexico where we have quite a subversive sense of humor. I think this comes from the fact that if you can laugh at something it doesn’t hurt as much.

CO: Can you talk about the title? There is something mystical yet familiar about the juxtaposition of two words which operationally seem diametrically opposed to each other, and consequentially are light and day. Operationally, “gun” is used to wreak violence often motivated by hate and the consequences are often dark. But “love” operates to bring comfort, consolation, peace, even joy, and consequentially it is always pleasurable. What is the import of the title?

JC: As sometimes happens, the title came to me very early on in the writing of the book and it felt perfect immediately. It has the complexity of describing love for guns but also speaks to a contradiction. The book is about guns, but it also is about the redeeming force of love. I remember Elie Wiesel once said that the people who survived Auschwitz were full of their mother’s love.

CO: In the novel there are different kinds of love—“Sunday love,” “gun love,” “mother love,” etc. Can you speak about your philosophy of love?

JC: Since I see Gun Love as a mixture between a ballad and a blues song, themes of love and music are present throughout the book. One character, Margot, has a philosophy of love, which is based on all the music she’s listened to and calls a “university for love.” At one point she says she has a Ph.D in love at first sight, which I also have!

The Transcendent Power of Triangular Fiction

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Like most other art forms, fiction has undergone many configurations over the years, but its core has remained, as always, the aesthetic pleasure of reading. When we read, we connect to the immaterial source of the story through its outstretched limbs. The “limb” or variants of it are what the writer has deemed fit for us to see, to gaze at and admire. It is not often the whole. But one of the major ways in which fiction has changed today — from the second half of the 20th century  especially — is that most of its fiction reveals all its limbs to us all at once. Nothing is hidden behind the esoteric wall of mystery or metaphysics.

The writers who do well to divvy up their fiction into fractions of what is revealed to the reader are the writers who tend to achieve transcendence, which, according to Emmanuel Levinas is recognized “in the work of the intellect that aspires after exteriority.” In fiction, a form of art expressed through letters, exteriority in this sense approximates meaning. For the writer endures himself to turn that which is interior inside out for the reader to see. Writing, then, is an act of turning out that which is in. The triangular writer then is he who projects meaning relentlessly yet systematically to the reader, and in the process of which readers glimpse something else. And then, something else. They see a man standing on the top of a cliff about to descend to his death, but they also see a cause — perhaps a nation’s communist past — standing there, about to plunge to its end.

When, in a text written more than 2,000 years ago, a character says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again,” the percipient reader hears at least two things: (a) In keeping with His miracles to this point, the said temple could be destroyed and this man, Jesus, can raise it up again with his miraculous power; (b) Once one has read to the end of the gospel of Matthew, one understands that “the temple” in fact means the man himself. It is he who will be killed, and he who will be raised again. This multi-layered meaning is, in the biblical concept, necessary because of the spiritual property of the book, and hence deemed “exegetic.” But the writers of triangular fiction achieve this in their fiction too. This is because the “divvying up” into fractions or parts that eventually become one and whole often works to more than one level of interpretation. The works of fiction that achieve transcendence are those works that lend themselves to this multi-layered interpretation.

I believe that fiction should work on at least three levels of interpretation: The personal, the conceptual, and the philosophical. In other words, the shape of the core of great works of fiction must be triangular — it must be emotional, cerebral, and sublime.

The personal level of interpretation is that basic level where the story meets the reader at his most human level. I will prop up three novels by some writers of this kind of fiction, Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), and Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart).

A young black girl in Jim Crow America who desires blue eyes. We know such a child has existed, and probably still does, and we cringe at the futility and even folly of such a desire. But we cannot deny its unvarnished humanness. A middle-aged man who has a crushing desire for a young pubescent girl whom he names his “nymphet.” We appreciate the humanness of his lust, and are disturbed/moved by it. Or a pre-colonial strongman of an Igbo village who has risen through hard times and established himself, his small kingdom, his traditions, and all that exist within the boundaries of his compound — and even beyond — “with a strong hand,” and then an encounter with a group of foreigners destroys all of that and brings him to become the lowest among his kinsmen, an akalaogoli, who cannot be accorded the common honor of a burial.

We can understand these characters and their stories as the writers, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov, and Chinua Achebe have created them on this personal level. But we can see, too, that much more lies behind these personal stories. The marigolds blossom, desire the bleak sun, and die, and in their protracted destinies share equivalent fate with Pecola. We see that the lust that fuels and drives Humbert Humbert, the lust in which he is imprisoned, is revealed in the thickets of language in which he is caught. But the aggregate meaning of the entire enterprise stretches beyond the page to the authorial intention expressed in the account of the monkey who, on being given a paper and pencil and taught the human art of drawing, draws the first thing in its mind: the bars around its cage. From this bar, its existence is enclosed and constrained. It cannot leave it. Its desire to leave comes and dies, unfulfilled, in futility, until it again surrenders to the reality that it will remain imprisoned. This is the distinct quality of the lust that possesses, and eventually destroys, Humbert Humbert and Lolita.

In Things Fall Apart, we can see, too, the ascension and power that Okonkwo acquires, and its flourishing when, at its peak, he receives various titles, and even has his daughter wedded. Then, an internal crisis erupts within him and slowly tears him apart. As he breaks down because Nwoye, his first son, has joined the ranks of the enemy, we also see — simultaneously — the villagers of Umuofia trying to understand what to do with their own brothers who have joined the white man’s religion and ways, causing the tribe to fall part. It is at this point that it becomes clear that Okonkwo isn’t merely an individual; he is Umuofia, he is an entire civilization, and it is not he alone but everything that falls apart.

The marigold, the monkey, the village of Umuofia — these become philosophical images on which these writers have constructed the personal stories of individual characters. On these things and on the vested characters, these triangular writers make profound philosophical statements while carrying through with strong, engaging plots. They are able to achieve this synchrony of vision because of the conceptual layer of their narratives. Morrison’s introspection into the head of her primary character is matched with an unblinking gaze from the outside through a girl her age, in Claudia. Thus, we are looking into Pecola, and looking at her at the same time. Humbert Humbert’s story is itself caged in bars. The writer within the story has died by the time the story is being published, and thus cannot change or touch anything in the manuscript. He cannot answer for anything that has been said, nor make restitution for anything that may require restitution. And within the precincts of the story itself, he is enslaved by an effusive, unguarded language as fecund as a wasteful forest, within which he himself gets lost. It is an imbroglio that yields, nonetheless, affecting flights of lyricism and ambient prose. And on the man on whom a poor beginning had been bequeathed, his rise is chronicled through a third person voice that intermittently strays into the omniscient. We see the knife that tears him within as it slides through the civilization of the Igbo people.

It is thus too difficult to not say, most definitely, that these three novels — The Bluest Eye, Lolita, Things Fall Apart –were conceived because their writers had diligently set themselves “the design of rendering the work universally appreciable” according to Edgar Allan Poe. Poe provides in that seminal essay that he had hoped to achieve this by seeking to “contemplate” the “beautiful,” a literary esotericism reached only by focusing on the effect of that which inspires beauty, and not the commodity of the beautiful itself. This is because “when indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect — they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul…”

This is the trajectory by which writers of triangular fiction approach literary truth. For, in their works, that which is personal is at the same time a philosophy, and at the same time a conceptual/artistic conceit. And as we read, we can not help but notice the transcendent power of triangular fiction.

Distilling Narratives into Images: Iké Udé’s Nollywood Portraits


This is adapted from the introduction to Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty by Iké Udé

For the history of human existence, the eye has fed innovation, as much as other organs of the body, in the act of looking (say, at artwork or photography), or watching (say, live performance, theatre, or movies). In Nollywood Portraits: A Radical Beauty, seasoned and renowned Nigerian photographer Iké Udé looks to fix our gaze, in the mutative act of looking, at the people who make up a burgeoning school of motion picture performance. Working in the tradition of documentary photography, Udé creates a compilation that strays from the tradition of this mode by its intervention in the crafting and organization of the photographed image. Udé performs the work of a movie director by making the actors and actresses sitters, thereby creating a mimesis of the process of production of the motion picture itself — the very subject of the compilation.

Nollywood, now the second-largest film market in the world after Bollywood, here provides a formidable subject. African screen came about in a series of prodigious leaps. The origins of Nollywood lie in the 1971 dramatization of Things Fall Apart directed by new stars Adiela Onyedibia and Emma Eleanya. But perhaps one of the earliest pioneers was also an audacious one — Ola Balogun. He produced the first movies in the indigenous languages of Igbo and Yoruba. It was his Black Goddess (1978), shot in Nigeria and Brazil, that gained him life-long recognition and followers. These years were followed by a slew of home entertainment soaps and shows, alongside movies in Igbo and Yoruba. One of the movies produced during this era is perceived to have inspired a generation of directors and jumpstarted what is now the robust Nigerian movie industry of today. That movie was the highly successful Igbo-language movie Living In Bondage in 1992, about a man who suffers a complete breakdown in life after murdering his wife for cultic purposes he is convinced will make him rich.

The new era of what became the Nollywood as we have it today — Nigerian movies produced in the English language and aimed at a national audience — began with what I have chosen to label the “51 Iweka Road school.” That iconic building in the business district of Onitsha in Eastern Nigeria housed the early production and distribution stores of many of Nollywood’s earliest directors and industry-makers, people like Zeb Ejiro, Chico Ejiro, Andy Amenechi, Teco Benson, amongst others. These men gathered some of the actors of the indigenous language era — Kenneth Okoronkwo, Zack Orji, Liz Benson, Sam Loco Efe, Rita Dominic, Nkem Owoh — and many others to produce quick, mostly low-quality direct-to-video cassette movies that came to be known as “Home Movies” and were intended especially for that purpose.

In talking about Nollywood, emphasis is often placed on the density and quality of cinematic output. But I will posit that the industry itself mimics the rooted tradition of the land (or lands) that now make up Nigeria. There were various Igbo stories that constituted scripts for night-time performances before audiences during celebrations or social enactments; often these took the form of masquerades like the story of, say, Ojadili, the great warrior who fought many evil spirits to get back his sacrificed “manhood.” In this way, Nollywood signifies a gathering of storytellers who have adopted the best medium of conveyance for their stories in an age of short attention spans and optimum pleasure. Many of the directors have spoken to this aim, even if unconsciously aware of it. In an interview on NPR, director Izu Ojukwu stated that they were mostly inspired to tell stories to a wide audience of viewers. The wide-access model of straight-to-VHS or DVD ensures that an immediate, wide audience is reached. In a couple of hours, movies “released” into the market at Iweka can reach remote Nigerian villages, and be seen the same day.

But beyond its efforts to capture the distinct identity of Nollywood stars, Nollywood Portraits also attempts to capture some of the unique characteristics of the industry, one being the extemporaneity of its output. The movie industry shares affinity with the defunct Aba Market Literature, which was the hallmark of literature in Eastern Nigeria in the early-1920s. The pamphlets produced were written by various writers who were often anonymous and the themes and subjects concerned matters of the day. If there was a big bank robbery somewhere in the town, the pamphlets offered a moralizing story about the fruits of contentment. This is a characteristic Nollywood has acquired. News pieces are converted when they are still fresh, within weeks sometimes, into movies. Subjects such as the April 2015 elections, the wave of kidnappings in the Eastern part of Nigeria, and even the Boko Haram scourge have led to the production of movies, among them the movie Boko Haram.

Nollywood has succeeded in covering a wide and variegated array of themes. Since, as producers and directors have repeatedly noted, the story is the core of the productions, and everything else is secondary or even negligible, the films have been much more audacious than those of Hollywood or the European film industry. Perhaps because of its nascence, the industry has yet to morph into distinct genre categorizations, and thus there is hardly any difference between a crime movie and a horror movie — all are simply Nollywood films, or Nigerian Home Videos. But the industry thrives in the production of culturally-themed films grounded in history and African — especially Igbo — traditions and folklore, like the epic Igodo (2002), and most recently Idemili (2015), a movie that portends a range of possibilities and prospects for the industry in its use of not just a well-written script but also some of the best CGI in the history of African cinema.

In the same way that the industry is extemporaneous and shows the anxiety of currency, it responds to global transformations. Although it has been slow to embrace the silver screen, Nollywood seems to be reaching toward this goal, with directors like Kunle Afolayon refusing to follow the DVD model. There have been success stories of movies having broken banks exclusively on cinema, interesting given that these theaters are situated mostly in the three commercial cities of Nigeria — Lagos, Port Harcourt, and Abuja. The South African cable supplier DSTV has for long owned TV channels dedicated exclusively to Nollywood movies. This outreach has enabled Nollywood to sweep across black Africa, from East to the far South, becoming the most subscribed film culture on the continent. In a 2016 essay in The New York Times, the journalist Norimitsu Orashi, who is partly responsible for the name “Nollywood,” which critics like the Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka have found lacking in creativity, noted that the industry has become so far reaching that many Zimbabweans are starting to affect a Nigerian accent due to a preponderant exposure to Nollywood films. It is one of the largest employers in Nigeria, a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Iké Udé’s Nollywood Portraits seeks to tell the story of Nollywood to an international audience. Udé’s signature mark is a somewhat baroque style that, with its tableau framing, often present the portraits as dandyish. Stars are adorned in sometimes surreal attire, and treated to a flashy style of portraiture that becomes almost animated in a subversive criticism of media idolization of stardom and fame. His style aptly suits the rising “Hollywoodization” of the Nigerian movie industry which, having moved its capital from Iweka Road to Lagos, has transformed its practitioners into socialites and celebrities. Like Hollywood actors in the United States, Nollywood stars are high-society celebrities in Nigeria and across Africa, and the Lagos socialite scene in Ikoyi and many parts of the Lagos Mainland is the Nigerian version of Hollywood and greater Los Angeles. Like major actors who join politics, amongst them Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Nollywood stars are often elected into political offices — Richard Mofe Damijo, Bob Manuel Udokwu, Hilda Dokubo, and others. This phenomenon becomes more pronounced as Nollywood gains increasing international recognition. In June 2013, there was a week dedicated to the showing of Nollywood movies in Paris known as Nollywoodweek Paris. Earlier than that, it had generated its own online video hub, Iroko TV, a rival to Netflix, but dedicated exclusively to Nollywood films.

Iké Udé begins Nollywood Portraits with a framing of the tribe gathered into a single portrait inspired by “The School of Athens” by Raphael. Like Raphael’s piece, Nollywood Portraits invokes a sort of Olympus-like convergence of actors and actresses. Udé then makes individual portraits of the actors and actresses against a pictorial narrative, pooling the documentary story of Nollywood into what Carolyn Forche would refer to as a “living archive.” Because our perception of these individuals is that of motion and action, our minds submit, upon every encounter with their photographs, to an animation that brings them into a living state. Udé himself makes a cameo in some of the images: standing, in the cover photograph, as a frontal shadow in the midst of the actors and actresses.

Udé’s compilation crawls into the traditional mode of documentary photography while also straying from the tradition of this mode. Many celebrities are represented here — many of them in high quality individual tableau portraits. Perhaps the most famous of them all, Geneivieve Nnaji, who recently starred in the mildly acclaimed movie Half of A Yellow Sun, is cast in an exquisite portrait composed of an otherworldly mix of demure colors that glow or dim by varying degrees. At the page end, to the left, is a wounded red, shadowed by a stunned tilt of bleached greenery that is separated, too, by several degrees of intensity. Just against this wall-like background stands the adroitly regaled Genevieve. She is dressed in a flowing gown that thickens as it descends toward the floor. On her shoulder where the gown begins, the blouse is translucent, but as it descends, it acquires more and more quilting until it pools on the floor. Genevieve’s posture is that of one focused on something the viewer cannot see but to which the viewer’s attention is demanded. In front of her is a chaise lounge, draped in glittering colors, on which sits what appears to be a bronze trophy — an allusion to her stardom even in the school of Nollywood.

As the Genevieve portrait reveals, the maximum effect of Udé’s characterization of these actors and actresses in the compilation is that of a eulogy. He seeks to esteem the stars, and to interrogate our perceptions of the industry as inferior to, say, Hollywood. All of the sitters are portrayed in a great mix of backdrop lighting that fades into the color of their attires. Thus, against the nuanced equivocation of background and setting, the expressions on the faces of the characters are foregrounded as if cast before a magnifying glass. In gazing keenly at the portraits, a dedicated consumer of Nollywood movies might easily parse the kerneled commentary in these portraits: that the portraits are snapshots of the signature movie roles they are best known for, or for which they commonly play. Belinda Effa, known for always playing a lover, is clad in a clinging blue gown, leering at the the camera. Jim Iyke, mostly reputed for his consistent roles as a charming philanderer and a consummate manipulator of women, is cast with an equivalent mien: a suited, bow-tied man in whose face is both an arrogant confidence of his pompous masculinity and an aroused sense of anticipation. In so doing, Udé seems to be fixing these artists into their filmic identities.

The images in this book will imprint in viewers’ and readers’ minds like permanent stills from movies. Udé resolves our gaze from watching the films to looking at the images. It’s no mere exhibit framed within the pages of a book, but a radical redirection of the eye from the interpretation — and appreciation — of motion picture to the still picture. By creating these portraitures, Udé is distilling narratives into images. We see in their stillness movement, in their postures gesticulations — we hear speech in their silence. The book itself becomes not just an educative work of art, but an extension of the narratives and intrigues that fill the films of Nollywood. And we, the readers, become an audience in the hall watching the unfolding of the riveting narrative of Nollywood, and being schooled and transformed by the experience.

A Year in Reading: Chigozie Obioma


Mischling by Affinity Konar is a lyrical book written with much gusto and power. The story of twin sisters trying to survive the Nazis is at once powerful and harrowing. It has the ambition that great novels, and those that last, carry. The prose is composed and has the energy of a restless dancer, one whom you can not tire from watching even late into the night. And I am sure that it will endure. Although I read and blurbed an advance copy, this is a novel I will return to in the nearest future.

The first J.M. Coetzee I read was Disgrace. I picked it up by chance, as I have been hard at work on my second novel, which has in its heart the theme of disgrace. Coetzee’s novel has a way of turning the reader into an unacknowledged participant in the disruption of a life. David Lurie, an intellectual, one who works a job similar to mine, will go on to be “disgraced.” Coetzee does not write what you might call abundant prose, but when the authorial gaze becomes razor-sharp, the result is often sensational. And this novel is a testament to the power of his writing.

I enjoyed Odafe Atogun’s Taduno’s Song, a novel about Nigeria’s tumultuous years under authoritarian rule. The prose is simplistic, and even sometimes imprecise. This would have marred a lot of novels, but because of the plot of this novel — the allusiveness of a musician who has returned from a long exile to his homeland where no one remembers him — the prose works. When the story veers towards its end, we are awakened to the power and strength of this debut novel, and everything feels like a kind of trick — a trick on the soul of the reader. The novel comes to the U.S. next year, and I hope people will give it a chance.

More from A Year in Reading 2016

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

A Year in Reading: Chigozie Obioma

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This is the year in which I read too little of contemporary books, even if I bought some 30 or so books, mostly published this year! But in between heavy travels, and a new job that demands my attention like a thrift collector, I found a few. The travel itself brought me in contact with Simon Sylvester’s The Visitors. It is a wonderful book that tells the story of a strange, quiet town in Scotland being transformed by the incursion of “strangers.” It is rare that a novel mines this level of landscape awareness, or that a novel push you to feel the air of an unknown land blowing at you from reading about it on paper. I visited Scotland for the first time this year, but this book imprinted more than my eyes saw of that wonderful nation during my trip there. The Visitors appears in America next year, and I can’t wait to begin crowing more about it.

I read through The Jewish War by the early-century historian, Flavius Josephus. It is a remarkable attempt to portray Jewish history through a secular lens much different than from that contained in the Torah and the Bible.

The howling masterpiece of 2015 must surely be Eka Kurniawan’s Beauty Is a Wound. It is — I mean it — a howl, an outrage, and a sheer burst of particular talent. It is the kind of thing you want fiction to do, and the kind of thing you want to imagine it is doing. It tells the story of a woman who returns from the dead after having birthed a “shirt-like” human being who is uber-ironically named “Beauty.” Kuniarwan sharpens the story of Indonesia with an energy that is rare. An earth-shattering review in Publishers Weekly in June first brought it to my attention, then in October, my agent signed him, and in November I met him in Indonesia.

Just last week, I read Make Your Home Among Strangers by my friend Jennine Capó Crucet, and it struck a chord with me. As a friend, I went into the book with a thicker skin, but it is a genuine, heartfelt portrait of a young woman striving to plant her feet firmly in the soil of an adopted country. It is believable, intriguing, and bright.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

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The Audacity of Prose

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In one of his essays, the late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe stated that “no one be fooled by the fact that we write in English, for we intend to do unheard-of things with it.” That “we” is, in essence, an authoritative oratorical posture that cast him as a representative of a group, a kindred of writers who — either by design or fate — have adopted English as the language of literary composition. With these words, it seems that to Achebe the intention to do “unheard-of” things with language is a primary factor in literary creation. He is right. And this should be the most important factor.

Achebe was, however, not merely speaking about the intention of his contemporaries alone, but also of writers who wrote generations before him. Among them would be, ironically, Joseph Conrad, whose prose he sometimes queried, but who embodied that intention to the extent that he was described by Virginia Woolf as one who “had been gifted, so he had schooled himself, and such was his obligation to a strange language wooed characteristically for its Latin qualities rather than its Saxon that it seemed impossible for him to make an ugly or insignificant movement of the pen.” That “we” also includes writers like Vladimir Nabokov of whom John Updike opined: “Nabokov writes prose the way it should be written: ecstatically;” Arundhati Roy; Salman Rushdie; Wole Soyinka; and a host of other writers to whom English was not the only language. The encompassing “we” could also be expanded to include prose stylists whose first language was English like William Faulkner, Shirley Hazzard, Virginia Woolf, William Golding, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, and all those writers who, in most of their works, float enthusiastically on blasted chariots of prose, and whose literary horses are high on poetic steroids. But these writers, it seems, are the last of a dying breed.

The culture of enforced literary humility, encouraged in many writing workshops and promoted by a rising culture of unobjective literary criticism, is chiefly to blame. It is the melding voice of a crowd that shouts down those who aspire to belong to Achebe’s “we” from their ladder by seeking to enthrone a firm — even regulatory — rule of creative writing. The enthroned style is dished out in the schools under the strict dictum: “Less is more.” Literary critics, on the other hand, do the damage by leveling variations of the accusation of writing “self-conscious (self-important; self-aware…) prose” on writers who attempt to do “unheard-of” things with their prose. The result, by and large, is the crowning of minimalism as the cherished form of writing, and the near rejection of other stylistic considerations. In truth, minimalism has its qualities and suits the works of certain writers like Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and even, for the most part, Chinua Achebe himself. With it, great writings have been produced, including masterpieces like A Farewell to Arms. But it is its blind adoption in most contemporary novels as the only viable style in the literary universe that must be questioned, if we are to keep the literary culture healthy.

One of the insightful critics still around, Garth Risk Hallberg, describes this phenomenon in his 2012 New York Times Review of A.M Homes’s May We Be Forgiven with these apt observations:
The underlying problem here is style. Homes’s ambitions may have grown in the quarter-century since The Safety of Objects was published, but her default mode of narration remains mired in the minimalism of that era: an uninflected indicative voice that flattens everything it touches. Harry gets some upsetting news: ‘Two days later, the missing girl is found in a garbage bag. Dead. I vomit.’ Harry gets a visitor: ‘Bang. Bang. Bang. A heavy knocking on the door. Tessie barks. The mattress has arrived.’
Hallberg goes on to describe, in the next two paragraphs, the faddist nature of the style:
Style may be, as Truman Capote said, ‘the mirror of an artist’s sensibility,’ but it is also something that develops over time, and in context. When minimalism returned to prominence in the mid-80s, its power was the power to negate. To record yuppie hypocrisies like some sleek new camera was to reveal how scandalous the mundane had become, and how mundane the scandalous. But deadpan cool has long since thinned into a manner. Its reflexive irony is now more or less the house style of late capitalism. (How awesome is that?)
As a non-Western writer, knowing the origin of this fad is comforting. But as Hallberg pointed out, context, not tradition, is what should decide or generate the style of any work of fiction. Paul West noted in his essay, “In Praise of Purple Prose,” written around the heyday of minimalism in 1985, that the “minimalist vogue depends on the premise that only an almost invisible style can be sincere, honest, moving, sensitive and so forth, whereas prose that draws attention to itself by being revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant turns its back on something almost holy — the human bond with ordinariness.” This rationale, I dare say, misunderstands what art is and what art is meant to do. The essential work of art is to magnify the ordinary, to make that which is banal glorious through artistic exploration. Thus, fiction must be different from reportage; painting from photography. And this difference should be reflected in the language of the work — in its deliberate constructiveness, its measured adornment of thought, and in the arrangement of representative images, so that the fiction about a known world becomes an elevated vision of that world. That is, the language acts to give the “ordinary” the kind of artistic clarity that is the equivalence of special effects in film. While the special effect can be achieved by manipulating various aspects of the novel such as the structure, voice, setting, and others, the language is the most malleable of all of them. All these can hardly be achieved with sparse, strewn-down prose that mimics silence.

The sinuous texture of language, its snakelike meandering, and eloquent intensity is the only suitable way of telling the multi-dimensional and tragic double Bildungsroman of the “egg-twin” protagonists of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Roy’s narrator, invested with unquestionable powers of insight and deliberative lens, is able to maintain a concentrated force of focus on a very specific instance, scene, or place, or action. Hence, the writer — like a witness of such a scene — is able to move with the sweeping prose that will at once appear gorgeous and at the same time be significant and memorable. Since Nabokov’s slightly senile narrator in Lolita posits that “you can always trust a murderer for a fancy prose style,” we are able to understand why Humbert Humbert would describe his lasped sexual preference for Dolores while in bed with her mum in this way: “And when, by means of pitifully ardent, naively lascivious caresses, she of noble nipple and massive thigh prepared me for the performance of my nightly duty, it was still a nymphet’s scent that in despair I tried to pick up, as I bayed through the undergrowths of dark decaying forests.” Even though the playfulness of Humbert’s elocution is apparent, one cannot deny aptness — and originality — of the description of Humbert’s response to the pleasure his victim is giving him is.

It is not, however, that the “less is more” nugget is wrong, it is that it makes a blanket pronouncement on any writing that tends to make its language artful as taboo. When sentences must be only a few words long, it becomes increasingly difficult to execute the kind of flowery prose that can establish a piece of writing as art. It also establishes a sandcastle logic, which, if prodded, should crash in the face of even the lightest scrutiny. For the truth remains that more can also be more, and that less is often inevitably less. What writers must be conscious of, then, is not long sentences, but the control of flowery prose. As with anything in this world, excess is excess, but inadequate is inadequate. A writer must know when the weight of the words used to describe a scene is bearing down on the scene itself. A writer should develop the measuring tape to know when to describe characters’ thoughts in long sentences and when not to. But a writer, above all, should aim to achieve artistry with language which, like the painter, is the only canvas we have. Writers should realize that the novels that are remembered, that become monuments, would in fact be those which err on the side of audacious prose, that occasionally allow excess rather than those which package a story — no matter how affecting — in inadequate prose.

In the same vein, describing a writer’s prose as “self-conscious” isn’t wrong, it is that it misallocates blames to an ailing part of a writer’s work. Self-consciousness is a term that mostly describes the metafictional qualities of a work; it cannot, in effect, describe the use of language. “The hand of the writer” can appear in the framing of a story, in its structure, in the characterization, in the form of experimental works and frame narratives, but it cannot appear in its language. “Self-consciousness” cannot be applied to the use of words on the page, just as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart cannot be accused of self-conscious tune or Yinka Shonibare of self-conscious art. Self-consciousness or pomposity cannot be reflected in a piece of writing, except in its tone, and in fiction, this is even harder to detect. What can be reflected in a piece of writing is excess and lack of control, which can stand in the way of anything at all in life. What critics should be calling out should be pretentious, unsuccessful gloss that lacks measure and control. They should call out images that might be inexact, ineffective, or superfluous. When critics plunge head-on against great writers (Don Delilo, Cormac McCarthy, etc.,) in the manner of B.R. Myers’s agitated fracking masquerading as “criticism,” they only end up scaring other writers from attempting to pen artistic prose. Fear might be what many writers writing today seem to be showing by indulging in the writing of seemingly artless prose. Authorial howls of artful prose as created by James Joyce, Faulkner, Nabokov, Cormac McCarthy, Shirley Hazzard, are becoming increasingly rare — sacrificed on the altar of minimalism. Hence, it is becoming more and more difficult to differentiate between literary fiction and the mass market commercial genre pieces, which, more often than not, are couched in plain language.

The gravest danger in conforming to this prevailing norm is that contemporary fiction writers are unknowingly becoming complicit in the ongoing disempowering of language — a phenomenon that the Internet and social media are fueling. Words were once so powerful, so revered, that, as culture critic Sandy Kollick once observed, “to speak the name of something was in fact to invoke its existence, to feel its power as fully present. It was not then as it is now, where a metaphor or a simile merely suggests something else. To identify your totem for a preliterate gatherer-hunters was to be identical with it, and to feel the presence of your clan animal within you.” But no more so. Too many words are being produced in print and visual media that the power of words is diminishing. There are now simply too many newspapers, too many books, too many blogs, too many Twitter accounts for words to maintain their ancestral sacredness. And as writers adjust the language of prose fiction to conform to this era of powerless words, language is disempowered, leading — as Kollick further points out — to the inexorable “emptying out of the human experience,” the very object fiction was meant to preserve in hardbacks and paperbacks.

It is therefore necessary that writers everywhere should see it as their ultimate duty to preserve artfulness of language by couching audacious prose. Our prose should be the Noah’s ark that preserves language in a world that is being apocalyptically flooded with trite and weightless words. “The truest writers,” Derek Walcott said, “are those who see language not as a linguistic process, but as a living element.” By undermining the strongest element of our art, we are becoming unconscious participants in the gradual choking of this “living element,” the life blood of which is language. This we must not do. Rather, we must take a stand in confirmation of the one incontestable truth: that great works of fiction should not only succeed on the strength of their plots or dialogue or character development, but also by the audacity of their prose.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.