Great Moments in Literature

“I began to understand home when Riv and I slept next to each other and Riv told me stories in the dark. Once, River told me about the ocean. He said: We got so much water where I’m from. It come down from the north in rivers. Pool in bayous. Rush out to the ocean, and that stretch to the ends of the earth that you can see. It changes color, he said, like a little lizard. Sometimes stormy blue, sometimes cool gray. In the early mornings, silver. You could look at that and know there’s a God, he said to me as the other gunmen coughed and tossed. Maybe one day, when you and me get out of here, you could come down and see it, Riv said.”

—Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing, 2017

 

“THOU HAVE DARED TO DISOBEY MINE ORDERS IMPERIAL! I HAVE FORBAD THY VISIT TO EARTH … AND YET … THERE, BEFORE MINE EYES, THOU DO STAND ON THE PLANET OF THE MORTALS! IF WITH MORTALS THOU WOULDST DWELL … AS POWERLESS AS THEY SHALT THOU BE! I HAVE SPOKEN! SO BE IT!

—Stan Lee, THOR, Vol. 1, No. 148, “Let There Be…Chaos!,” 1968

Great Moments in Literature

“Hints of robustness survived in him, more than a hint of primitive good looks, and Margaret, noting the spine that might have been straight, and the chest that might have broadened, wondered whether it paid to give up the glory of the animal for a tail coat and a couple of ideas. Culture had worked in her own case, but during the last few weeks she had doubted whether it humanized the majority, so wide and so widening is the gulf that stretches between the natural and the philosophic man, so many the good chaps who are wrecked in trying to cross it. She knew this type very well—the vague aspirations, the mental dishonesty, the familiarity with the outsides of books. She knew the very tones in which he would address her.”

—E.M Forster, Howards End, 1910

 

“YOU MISJUDGE ME, MY DEAR. THIS IS A QUESTION NOT OF MURDER, BUT OF BUSINESS EFFICIENCY …AND ADVANCEMENT.”

—Roger Stern, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, Vol. 1, No. 236, “Kill or Be Killed!,” 1979

My Writers — Emma Cline

girls

Emma Cline has only published one novel, but it’s a dandy. The Girls, which first hit shelves in 2016, in the late nineteen-sixties. It centers on a young teenager named Evie, who falls in with a group of slightly older girls who are part of a makeshift community that resembles a commune or a cult, depending on the level of skepticism brought to observation process. That the group is clearly modeled on the Manson family is a tip as to which way Cline views it.

The book is marked by vivid, creative language that occasionally tornadoes up Franzen-esque descriptive curlicues, but Cline never seems to be showing off in the common manner of first-time novelists with something to prove. Instead, the story is most notably for how firmly its grounded in an astute examination of Evie’s psychology, beginning with the depths of her need that makes the group appealing in the first place, and including the trepidation and quiet clamoring for acceptance that keeps drawing in deeper to toxic and dangerous places. Cline shows how fierce misgivings and acquiescent participation can exist in the same moment.

Cline’s depiction of a young woman trapped in ugly circumstances by personal manipulation helped make The Girls one of the buzziest novels of 2016. One year later, it’s even more poignant, as the delayed justice of women openly naming the men who’ve harassed and oppressed them proceeds unabated. And it’s picked up an added resonance as Cline has found herself the target of a plagiarism suit mounted by a bitter ex-boyfriend making ludicrous claims such as the shared presence of a body brush in Cline’s novel and one of his earlier short stories is damning proof of cold-hearted theft.

Naturally, the legal to and fro includes vicious attacks attesting to Cline supposedly using feminine wiles to entrap the weak, susceptible male, stealing away his talent in the process. The argument cynically traffics in the misogynistic notions that a young woman (Cline is still in her twenties) couldn’t possibly have written so successful a work, while adding a heaping side of succubus characterization. The patriarchal disdain for women couldn’t be more clear in the legal filing, which sputters its indignation that “Cline was not the innocent and inexperienced naïf she portrayed herself to be, and had instead for many years maintained numerous ‘relations’ with older men and others, from whom she extracted gifts and money.” When the relationship in question began, Cline was not yet of legal drinking age and the male who would become her accuser was thirty-three, yet she is depicted as the cunning, worldly manipulator.

The charges hurled at Cline would be laughable if they weren’t so sadly typical. In my estimation, the contrived attempt at ginning up scandal only makes Cline’s words more important, more resonant, more true. And I have no doubt they are absolutely hers.

 

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.

Great Moments in Literature

“Julian shooed Sasha into the other bedroom like a peaceable teenage goatherd. Asking if I needed anything before he said good night. I was taken aback—he reminded me of the boys in school who’d become more polite and high functioning on drugs. Dutifully washing the family dinner dishes while they were tripping, mesmerized by the psychedelic magic of soap.”

—Emma Cline, The Girls, 2016

 

“AND THEN THE UGANDANS CUT LOOSE WITH THEIR MORTARS. THERE WAS NOTHING I COULD DO FOR HER. ALL I FOUND WAS A TOOTH. AND TO MAKE MATTERS WORSE, MY COPY OF THE RED PONY WAS IN FLAMES. THERE WAS NOTHING LEFT FOR ME HERE. I SET MY COURSE FOR MARIN. THE NIGHT HAD CLEARED, AND THE STARS TWINKLED WETLY, AS IF THEY TOO WEPT FOR THE POOR BRAVE GIRL WHO HAD GOTTEN HER WISH. SOMEWHERE A BELL TOLLED. AND, BROTHER, YOU CAN BET I DIDN’T ASK FOR WHOM!”

—Will Jacobs & Gerard Jones, THE TROUBLE WITH GIRLS, Vol. 1, No. 1, “Meeting Girls,” 1987

Great Moments in Literature

“Outside the house, a shadow moved, an autumn wind rose up and faded away. But there was something else in the silence that he heard. It was like a breath exhaled upon the window. It was like a faint drift of greenish luminescent smoke, the motion of a single huge October leaf blowing across the lawn and away.”

—Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 1953

 

“A MELODY OF ALARM IS WAFTED BY THE WIND THROUGHOUT THE MOST SECRET RECESSES OF THE JUNGLE … RECOGNIZED BY ALL ITS CREATURES … AS THE SONG CEASES … RAUCOUS LAUGHTER TAKES ITS PLACE …”

—Robert Kanigher, RIMA, THE JUNGLE GIRL, Vol. 2, No. 6, “Safari of Death,” 1975

Great Moments in Literature

“My mother poured recklessly but perfect, capping off my glass just before it overflowed. Still, a trick to get it to my mouth without spilling. She smirked a little as she watched me. Leaned back against the newel post, tucked her feet under her, sipped.”

—Gillian Flynn, Sharp Objects, 2006

 

“ONE OF THOSE QUIET EVENINGS, WHEN EVEN THE CITY SOUNDS FADE INTO GENTLE, DISTANT MUTTERINGS — ONE OF THOSE SILENT PERSONAL MOMENTS A MAN SPENDS JUST BREATHING — JUST FEELING AN INSTANT OF TREASURED LIFE.”

—Gerry Conway, DAREDEVIL, Vol. 1, No. 80, “In the Eyes … Of the Owl!,” 1971

My Writers: Robert Caro

master

The books are massive, which makes them intimidating. Just glancing at one of the spines, likely wide enough to place a comfortably discernible portrait on it, is enough to tingle up a feeling of exhaustion. And yet one of the things I find most remarkable about Robert Caro’s biographies is the clarity of the writing. There’s a plainspokenness to his writing that makes it approachable, as if a story recounted rather than heavily detailed reportage based on unbelievably exhaustive research. That doesn’t mean the material is simple. Caro locks in on the complexity of lives of people who changed their worlds through sheer will of force.

There is nothing dashed off and no supposition lacking a mound of evidence. And Caro is notorious for his meticulous approach, reworking every last words of manuscripts that swell near to — and sometimes over — one thousand pages. He doesn’t farm out the research, nor does he easily acquiesce to the alterations of editors. Every word is his.

And those words lead the reader expertly, with a constant pull forward. Although Caro is master of the time-honored craft of ending every chapter with a promise for what will come next, he assiduously avoids anxious cliffhangers or other overt manipulations. In Caro’s craft, the pending page is as necessary and as natural as the twinkle of tomorrow.

Caro’s first book was published in 1974. His recent tome was unpacked onto bookstore shelves in 2012. In that multi-decade span, Caro effectively wrote about two men. The earliest biography covered the life and career of Robert Moses, a towering public figure in New York for a sizable chunk of the twentieth century. Four other books — thus far — have traced formative years and political ascendancy of Lyndon B. Johnson, the thirty-seventh President of the United States. Caro was in his forties when the first part of his multi-volume Johnson biography was published. As he’s chipped away at the fifth and probably final volume, the writer has become an octogenarian. Half of Caro’s life has been devoted to the Johnson books. It’s astonishing, speaking to a stalwart sense of mission. And the resulting extended biography is staggering, demonstrating that it is still possible — through dedication, precision, purpose, and artfulness — to create a work that is truly definitive.

Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “My Writers” tag.