Friday, April 30, 2010

Analysis of Benjamin Percy's "The Woods" - Part 1

In a word – chilling.  Even read in the bright light of morning.  I don't want to get trapped by describing the story or even offering an oblique critique.  If you plan to read the story you should probably stop reading this entry right now and revisit it after you've read it.  Description is a start, but my reading comprehension and summary skills don't really need work.  I want to know why and how the author achieves "chilling".
So I reread The Woods the following morning to better understand the why and the how.  Right off he vividly recalls an event in the distant past in first person.  He puts us right up close to the narrating character's younger self with short, sharp sentences decribing his experience in sensory detail.

     My father wanted to show me something, but he wouldn't say what.  He only said that I should get my gun, my thirty-aught-six, and follow him.  This happened just outside Bend, Oregon, where we lived in a ranch house surrounded by ten acres of woods.  I was twelve at the time:  old enough to own a gun, young enough to fear the dark.

So he takes us into the woods with him.  He describes a keening sound at once like a woman, otherworldy and grating.  (Women do not fare well in Percy so far.)  They pursue the source of the awful sound until:

     Then, between the trees, I saw the inky gleam of its eyes, and its huge ears drawn flat against its skull, and then I saw its body.  Blood trails oozed along its cinnamon color.
     "Man alive," my father said. 
     It was a four-prong male deer ...

Note that he says "cinnamon" in color.  Not tawny or brown or sable or mahogany.  He uses a more sensory adjective, one that conjures taste and smell to describe how something looks.  Throughout that paragraph, and the many that lead up to it, we don't know what's making the awful sound.  By withholding it, Percy prepares us for the phantom that haunts the main body of the story.  But I forgot about the otherworldly possibility once I got to the later pages because after a few tense paragraphs, the sentence offers a simple explanation of things – It was a four-prong mule deer caught in a barbed-wire fence.
This led me to be believe that there's a simple explanation for things.  I relaxed.  It wasn't a pretty situation, but it seemed normal once explained.  An accident.  The trauma the narrator experienced was not really the discovery of the trapped and wounded deer, it was what his father directed him to do once they found it.
There's another passage of nice detail in the prologue preceding the father's directive:

   I stood behind a clump of rabbitbrush as if to guard myself from the animal.  The bush smelled great.  It smelled sugary.  It smelled like the color yellow ought to smell.  By concentrating on it so deeply, I removed myself from the forest and was thereby able to contain the tears crowding my eyes. 
   Then my father said, "I want you to kill it."

I admire the way he repeated the verb "smelled" three times.  I often avoid using the same simple word in the same paragraph.

The bush smelled great.
It smelled sugary.
It smelled like the color yellow ought to smell.

– – –– –
– –– – – –
– –– – – – –– – – –

That's poetic.  It's got rhythm.   I'm tempted to count the words and even the syllables as I was taught when studying Spanish poetry.  After his father's order, another three word sentence brings the prologue to a close:

Just like that.

I sit here thinking of giving the moment at hand some description.

I'm overwhelmed by the garbage truck sounds in the cul-de-sac.  Is that the compactor or the transmission struggling up the hill?  Gears and crusher blending and then gone revealing a bird's intermittent warbly tweeee and some other more typical sing-song chirps from other birds.  The furnace quietly blows from the register.  A bread bag rustles in the kitchen followed by the closing of a cabinet.  My stomach grumbles.  A feeling of heaviness on my chest.  Constriction across the bridge of my nose, especially the right nostril.  The long husky tweee continues its rhythm.  There should be a Shazam-like iPhone app for bird calls.  My stomach is empty.   Nearly painfully so.

The first thing I notice about my inventory of the moment is that there's a lot going on.  I couldn't even get to the multivalent use of descriptive words like cinnamon.

My sense of sight:  light, white, green    moss on the trees branches outside, cedar.  Soft shadows on the ceiling.  Almost camouflage, everything is white green and brown aside from the two washcloths, one pink, the other orange, dried and stiffly retracting on opposite ends of the towel bar in the bathroom.  There's no bigger towel between them.  I want to put one there.

My phone then rang with a call from a potential employer. (I booked the job today as production coordinator for a fashion photography shoot happening here in Portland by a New York photographer and Japanese client.)  And the morning's notes came to a close.  This blog entry was a transcription.  Is that cheating?  Like when a smack talking caller to a sports radio show scripts his call before calling in?

Two things contribute to this new blogging approach.  One, I've committed to keeping digital out of the bedroom.  When my wife is home and I'm not responsible for making lunches and getting the kids off to school, I've been waking up and reading a story and writing some notes before getting the day started.  Two, I feel like writing for an audience in the browser window evokes a different quality of writing than I'm currently interested in.  This is an exercise.  There's no self-promotion aspect to these entries.  I'm not trying to get anywhere on the outside.  That I'm currently aware of at least.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Caves of Oregon by Benjamin Percy

 I went to bed wide awake last night.  In the past couple of years I would have watched a TV show streamed on Hulu or a movie on Netflix' Watch Instantly, but we've resolved to keep digital devices out of the bedroom in the new house.  Which is great as I've read before going to sleep for most of my life and I'm glad I didn't lose that pleasurable discipline after a long period of succumbing to more passive methods of enjoying stories.
One thing I'll say about Percy is he not a writer to soothe and prepare and his reader for slumber.  I don't want togive away much at all about Refresh, Refresh's second story.  There's a conceit/invention that is truly unique, at once commonplace and absolutely absurd.  Throughout the story, even now, it had me wondering if it could really exist.  I suppose it could.  No, not a chance.  My mind still ping-pongs on the possibilities of that particular detail.
I will give away, as does its title, that the story involves a cave.  Last summer while camping in Tumalo, we visited the Newberry National Volcanic Monument which is home to the longest lava tube in Oregon.  (approximately one mile long, crossing under Hwy 97)  It's cool and dark down there.  You scramble over some craggy sections, wind through others and climb and down steps, some natural and others man-made.  There are portions as wide and as tall as a gymnasium.  I've also visited Carlsbad Caverns.  Newberry's lava tube is much more humble an attraction, but shares with Carlsbad the safe feeling of being in the deep, dark underground with many fellow tourists.  I don't much care for being amongst a group of chattering fools, so I create a safe distance from there compulsive  and inane babbling, but I do like knowing I am not alone down there.
In Percy's story the characters are indeed alone down there.  As I traveled with them I was sometimes driven to nervous distraction wondering if perhaps the rest of his stories might be better read in the morning.

I'm reading Percy for pleasure, to become more familiar with contemporary fiction and to absorb something of his craft for my own writing.  I was so absorbed that I will need to read The Caves of Oregon a few more times to absorb some of the latter.  One thing I notice is that his authorial stance is really really close to the characters even in the third person.  He puts us right in the room and the cave as it were.  And as I mentioned regarding Refresh, Refresh, this would be Stephen King or Peter Straub type stuff were it not for his lyricism.  He's got a very light touch to counterbalance his heavy subjects.  Very worthy of studying.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Refresh, Refresh by Benjamin Percy

There's a cursor arrow under the title on the inside of the book.  Right off it made me think, Of course! The title refers to surfing the web.  Something hip and modern.  But the author is from Tumalo, a very tiny and absolutely unhip little Central Oregon town just outside of which we camped for a week last summer.  I rode my bike every morning on the roads surrounding and passing through it. Logging about a hundred miles or so, I have a pretty good feel for the lay of the land around there.
Ultimately as I sat down to finally read the first story of the same title as the book, I really didn't know what to expect other than something good.  Why good?  It was recommended to me by someone I trust and beyond that it just had that aura about it.

There is indeed a reference to refreshing a web page in the story, however the urgency is much more visceral than trying to get the latest sports score or Facebook updates.  The anxious impatience with technology is but a tiny thing awash in the wake of the raw, desperate violence and pain that drives the story's plot.
Notwithstanding its angry savagery, the sweet humanity of the main character comes through with masterful subtlety without a trace of sentimentality.  Perhaps its the sparse but lyric quality of the prose.  It's a pleasure to read Percy.  And culturally insightful as well –  it's loud and clear why volunteers walk into armed forces recruiting offices in small, lonely towns to sign up in spite of the bleakness of a sure trip to the endless fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I've read but the first of Percy's collection of eleven stories in Refresh, Refresh.  I went back for another read of the first before proceeding further.  If the dense pathos continues in the rest of the stories, as I suspect it will, this book will secure its place on my nightstand for several weeks of patient and gratifying reading.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Master Says 367

All I can do is be me, whoever that is.

Bob Dylan

Dangerous Writing Trailer Test v2.7

Dead Man Trailer

Down By Law Trailer

¡¡¡¡¡¡¡¡¡I'M BACK!!!!!!!!!

FUCK YEAH! I'm fired up and I haven't even fired up the tea kettle yet.
Actually I never really left according to some of my Felliniesque beliefs. The whole "no beginning, no end ..." which bears repeating like a fucking mantra:

There is no beginning, there is no end; there is only the infinite passion of life.

There is no beginning, there is no end; there is only the infinite passion of life.

There is no beginning, there is no end; there is only the infinite passion of life.

There is no beginning, there is no end; there is only the infinite passion of life.

There is no beginning, there is no end; there is only the infinite passion of life.

There is no beginning, there is no end; there is only the infinite passion of life.

There is no beginning, there is no end; there is only the infinite passion of life.

I've been doing research. Recharging. A sabbatical.
One of the things I realize I'm very guilty of is not being clear. I evade exposition for fear of being a bore. There are other reasons like racebrain, intellectual arrogance/inferiority (which really just an elaboration of the fear diagnosis) and general impatience, but in the end I end up confusing most of the people in my life and feeling defensive about not communicating what I intended. And let's face it, all this jumbled jim-jam confuses the hell out of me, too.
So to be clear - I am back in the sense that I am formally resuming my practice of work as a storyteller. I've no new film projects in mind nor do I intend to resume making films. Actually I do intend to resume making films. I already have. I'm working on Dangerous Writing again, cutting a trailer and making music for it. And I've booked a couple of jobs to produce some mental health training videos.
I realize my attitude toward that is all jacked up. I'm looking at it as a check in the bank account and nothing more, when the fact is I really like the woman doing the presentations and I find the topics interesting. It's really going to help her career and possibly many others. And it's going to provide work for me and a couple of friends. Truth is, just as I want to avoid exposition - which is to say the appearance of making an effort to communicate - I want to avoid the giving the perception that I am making an effort to make money.
Okay before I bum myself and start listening to my inner critic (however accurate he may be) I want to get back to the topic of the day - lust for life. Falling in love. One of the things I've accomplished in the past year is finding, buying and renovating a home. It's a perfect structure for our lives. I'll post some pics soon.
Jumping around a bit again. Again? All I've done is jump around. So in short I was working on this New Orleans project in the fall of oo8 and it felt like maybe I could take a giant step forward in my career so I wanted to get in better physical shape both to increase my fitness and to present myself to the world better. So I started a fitness regimen for the umpteenth time and soon realized I had to do something different were I to have any chance at succeeding. Then there was a snow storm and my kids were home everyday and the combination of relating to myself physically and being with my kids so much opened my eyes to some significant realities that I had been avoiding. As I gave myself over to those truths it consumed my energy and interest to the point that I lost interest in pursuing telling stories. I formally said goodbye to this blog eventually. I got pretty involved in lots of physical activities and then went back to school to begin preparing for a career in public health. I took a term off to remodel the new house during which I was very resourceful and design conscious in ways that I hadn't been in some time. It was suggested to me to pursue a career in interior design by some of the contractors working on the remodel. (I appreciated the compliments, but don't find that path interesting.) I continued doing yoga and strength training and working with personal training clients almost all the way through. The last six weeks of the job I was working seven days a week and that seemed to be more than enough activity, so I backed off from some of my fitness commitments. We spent a lot of money on the new house, and while I was happy with the results it was becoming clear to me that I was going to need to start making some money to contribute to the family budget. Going back to school became both less tenable and less interesting. I resolved not to make any decisions until I was finished with the house, because I knew the stress and fatigue were wearing me down considerably.
Nicola had a two-week job in San Francisco and the kids and I drove down for a weekend visit. That drive has always been an interesting window onto myself. And being in downtown SF where I lived when I first moved to the city in 1989 was a good experience on many levels. In short I decided not to worry about school or my waning interest in pursuing a public health career or getting a job. I elected to simply do what was in front of me. Finish Dangerous Writing. Finish settling into the new house. Get back into a routine of meditation and movement. Help my family adjust to our new home and neighborhood while my wife has been out of town for three of the past four weeks. Cook, clean, shop for groceries. And to explore the possibilities of writing prose in a more directed but less ambitious manner.
So that's what I've been up to the past couple of weeks. I don't have it all figured out. But I'm happy to be working on DW again. I happy but a little afraid of the new stories I'm working on with an editor/teacher.
I was on Facebook yesterday and the long tail of the past led me to the blog of a woman I knew in passing many years ago. She looks really happy. I could tell she was in love with life by the way she documented the things in her life. I was inspired.