Tag Archives: Freedom (novel)

Little Fires Everywhere

 

“Sometimes, just when you think everything’s gone, you find a way…Like after a prairie fire. I saw one, years ago, when we were in Nebraska. It seems like the end of the world. The earth is all scorched and black and everything green is gone. But after the burning, the soil is richer, and new things can grow…People are like that, too, you know. They start over. They find a way.”

— Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere

On the heels of her hugely successful debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, the second literary effort from Celeste Ng (@pronounced_ing) is called Little Fires Everywhere, but could very well be titled “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” (if not for Mr. Eggers) or simply “Trainwreck Central” (if only that title wouldn’t cause so much confusion among train enthusiasts). Call it beautiful, astounding, revelatory, captivating – just don’t call it late for the fireworks. And that’s because there are plenty of them in this rich tapestry of voices and shared histories.

Through Little Fires Everywhere, we are witness to an author who, with a practiced deftness beyond her years, delves into the intimate pasts of so many men and women, boys and girls, to bring about a cavalcade of experiences that are somehow, in some way far past the reader’s imagination, connected.

This novel reminded me so much of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom in all of the good ways – excellent character development, an intriguing plot, a window into the human condition – but with a tighter ending than what some would call Mr. Franzen’s opus.

Now this is ironic, for me at least, because of who Ms. Ng’s publisher has chosen to be the frontline supporter for Little Fires Everywhere: Jodi Picoult. There’s Ms. Picoult’s name splashed across all editions of the novel! And why not? Jodi Picoult is the bestselling author of something like 254 novels on…you guessed it! The New York Times bestseller list.

But within the publishing world, she’s also known as one of two women, along with fellow bestselling author Jennifer Weiner, who stood up to the alleged “literary establishment’s shoddy treatment of commercial writers” in the wake of “Freedomgate.” Jason Pinter wrote an article about this, “Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner Speak Out on Franzen Feud,” in which he interviewed both women.

Apparently, Ms. Picoult and Ms. Weiner got caught in the crossfire after Franzen published Freedom, landed himself on the cover of Time magazine, and had the Times drooling all over him and everything Midwest or Minnesotan.

Ms. Weiner summed up her point quite nicely by stating in the above interview:

“I think it’s a very old and deep-seated double standard that holds that when a man writes about family and feelings, it’s literature with a capital L, but when a woman considers the same topics, it’s romance, or a beach book – in short, it’s something unworthy of a serious critic’s attention.”

I won’t concern myself with this curfuffle/kerfuffle – or whatever it is – but I will say that Little Fires Everywhere is most definitely Literature, prose fiction, or whatever the France label you want to put on it to make it sound more part of la noblesse or the literati.

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Monkey Hunting (novel)

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When you hear the words “monkey” and “hunting,” what comes to mind? Searching through forests, rifle in hand, as you keep an eye  out for primates swinging from tree to tree so that you can kill them with one decisive pull on the trigger of your 12-gauge pump shotgun, blowing said Curious George to smithereens?

No, no, no. Obviously you are not a monkey hunter. That is your bad.

In her 2003 novel Monkey Hunting, author Cristina Garcia tells the story of four generations of a Chinese family, the patriarch being Chen Pan, a 19th-century immigrant to Cuba. In case you didn’t know, Cuba had a sizeable ethnic Chinese population until Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 and said, “Thanks for your years of service (i.e. slavery), but your mother country is beckoning (i.e. get the hell out of our country, you dirty slaves).” Today, there are still remnants of a Chinatown in Havana, I’m told, minus the ethnic Chinese people themselves.

Although the novel starts on a page-turning note – we follow the struggle of Chinese immigrants to Cuba on their horrific journey across the world in much the same conditions as slaves brought to the Americas from Africa – the author soon loses the plot, literally and figuratively, and we start bouncing around the world at different periods in history, which in and of itself is always cool, but ends up being disjointed, fragmented and at times hard to follow in this particular case.

More specifically, the reader is not given the opportunity to form any real bond with the characters, as they fail to evoke even the slightest amount of empathy. The general rule to a decent novel is that it’s either highly plot-driven and the characters are one-dimensional (think Dan Brown or Lee Child, for example) or very much character-driven and the plot is almost secondary (think of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Eleanor & Park or The Goldfinch). Rarely do the two combine to form a work of art (think of anything from Anna Karenina to Freedom).

Unfortunately, when you’re not invested in the characters and don’t really care what’s happening all around them, it’s a recipe for disaster. And this, sadly, is the case with Monkey Hunting. It’s an interesting premise with some well-researched information, but for that kind of story I generally turn to non-fiction. Or perhaps Time magazine, where – ironically enough – Ms. Garcia used to work.

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The Good Ol’ Social Media/Toxicity Conundrum

 Image result for another place you've never been

Author of Another Place You’ve Never Been (the prequel to I Know This Much is True?), debut novelist Rebecca Kauffman posted a thought-provoking piece on publishersweekly.com called “Is Social Media Toxic to Writing?” Ms. Kauffman explores an issue that I wrangled with for years, ever since publishing my first book way back in the Stone Ages of 2003 (hard to believe, but in that year there were no such things as Facebook [2004], Twitter [2006], Tumblr [2007], or Instagram [2010]): Do I succumb to the pressure and become a social media who**? For many years, I resisted. Social media platforms were dumb, fake (goddamn phonies, to quote Holden C.), pointless, and a waste of the space-time continuum.

Then, in 2013, I published my first novel and reality hit me like a stinky fish from Tsukiji Market across the face –>  No social media presence = No chance of building a core audience = No chance of landing an agent = No chance of signing with a respectable publisher = No chance of turning my dream into a full-time career. So what did I do?

Well, I think the answer is obvious by now. Perhaps Nick Carraway would be disappointed in my decision to sell out, but then again maybe Jay Gatsby would have seen it like Carraway described in Fitzgerald’s classic novel:

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.”

Although Ms. Kauffman looks at literary superhero Murakami Haruki as a case in point as to whether one should  spend hours on social media daily, exposing intimate parts of yourself and your inner-workings to the public (the Japanese literary superhero is notorious for giving very few interviews or public readings, let alone using social media on a regular basis), I think it’s dangerous to seek guidance in this area from a writer such as Murakami; for anyone who started a career in writing after 2004, the rules of engagement are forever changed.

I believe it was Jonathan Franzen, celebrated author of The Corrections and Freedom, who said it best when he expressed his sorrow for young writers trying to make a go of it in today’s publishing world because they are so pressured to spend time Tweeting and Facebooking, for example, that it takes time away from their craft. Franzen is especially irked by Twitter, telling all those who gathered for a talk of his at Tulane University in 2012:

“Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose. It’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters … It’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’… It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium. People I care about are readers … particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.”

Ultimately, I think Ms. Kauffman would agree with Franzen when she ends her Publishers Weekly piece by stating:

“For me, the best way to work, the only way to work, really, is to create a space for myself in which the reader’s perception of me (as a person) does not exist. It’s only after I have squashed down all awareness of myself that I’m able to access another world and explore it freely and truthfully.”

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