My Writers — Rebecca Traister

mad

When the moment called for an evaluation comparing and contrasting the respective testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, The New York Times couldn’t have tapped a better writer than Rebecca Traister. As various pundits were fumbling through their evaluations of the markedly different temperaments displayed by the two figures before the legislative branch, Traister was in the rare position of being able to accurately cite a well-worn adage as credential: She literally wrote the book on the subject.

Traister’s essay, published in the Sunday opinion section of the Times, provided valuable insight to the uninitiated, likely preserved in happy ignorance by their own safe privilege, as to why Ford might feel obligated to remain intensely measured and why the man who followed her to the witness table felt emboldened to rant furiously, spitting out insulting, dismissive responses to the elected officials designing to question his suitability to serve on the highest court in the land. Traister drew on research she’d already done for her book Good and Mad, which bears the subtitle The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. With power, clarity, and historical evidence, Traister illuminated the persistent societal clampdown on women expressing any emotion much more heated that demure acquiescence. The piece is infuriating and heartbreaking. To the degree that it puts a diagnosis to a backwards, gender-specific prohibition against personal expression, the essay is also hopeful and inspiring. If a disease is identified, it can be combatted.

The same day Traister’s article appeared in the Times, I bought her book. Writers need to be supported, especially those that are making arguments against the darkening power structure in this alarmingly regressive time. Good and Mad covers the same ground as the article that inspired my commerce, but with greater depth and more expansiveness. Although Traister is obviously energized in the claiming of her own anger in the wake of the disastrous administration haphazardly assembled by second-place finisher in the country’s most recent presidential election, she doesn’t resort to a purely polemical diatribe. Without giving an inch on her right to be honestly aggrieved, Traister offers a considered, meticulous accounting of the long history that’s brought women to this point, including the progress that has been made, the victories won and lost in the past, and, more importantly, acknowledgment of the yet tougher judgment rendered upon women of color who dare to show their justified rage. She owns her notches of privilege, too.

Especially in recent years, I’ve tried to look past my own blinkered existence to learn the discomfort and hardship of others, particularly those who carry with them some signifier — of skin color, of gender identity, of religious belief, of familial heritage — that makes them an automatic target in this place and time where instinctual uncertainty about difference is weaponized by a ruling class fearful of citizen unity. My education has been just successful enough that I wasn’t surprised by much in Traister’s writing, but I was still grateful for its thoroughness and vivid sense of purpose. I’m prepared to celebrate the fury.

My Writers — Jennifer Egan

goon squad

It’s no shock that first Jennifer Egan book I read was A Visit from the Goon Squad. Her previous three novels had their fans, of course, but Goon Squad was something of a sensation, a must-read even before it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Simultaneously deeply felt and rambunctiously deconstructionist in execution, the novel is impactful, less because of any elements of its plot (or overlapping plots, depending on how one looks at it) and more due to its vividness of emotion and wonderfully wooly ideas. I don’t remember about the chapter “Great Rock and Roll Pauses by Alison Blake,” but it certainly sticks with me that it’s rendered as a fully convincing PowerPoint presentation. And it’s engaging to a degree that far exceeds usual instances of such formatting tomfoolery. Other authors easily get bogged down in the gimmickry of the technique, but Egan makes it an avenue into keeping her fiction fiercely connected to the moment.

I started with Goon Squad, but the book that put me in awe of Egan’s talents was the next one she released: Manhattan Beach. The novel is structurally and creatively about as far from its award-winning predecessor as is reasonably possible from the same author. A story of family hardship and seedy crime around the years of World War II, the book is meticulously researched, its details interlaced with the pure fiction in a way that properly heightens the authenticity. Again, Egan artfully achieves a feat that is often clumsy in other hands. The researched material is ever-present, but not in a manner that signals a desperation to employ all the outside reading. Instead, it’s there in way that feel as true as the casualness with which the names of apps or websites or perpetrators of political dismay are invoked today. Egan understands how the components of society become part of the pattern on the fabric of life.

Much as I adore these novels, there may be nothing more valuable about Egan’s current contributions as a writer than her commitment to pursuing assignments away from the comfort of fiction. As the studious approach to Manhattan Beach suggests, she has a journalist’s empathy and instincts, recently demonstrated by a lengthy cover story on the opioid epidemic for The New York Times Magazine. Plenty of novelists give non-fiction writing a spin from time to time, but it’s often in the form of observational essays or personal reminiscence, keeping them in the safety of drawing on little more than their own notions. Egan went out and reported, having tough conversations with people in pain. Basically, Egan does what anyone with her talents should do: She finds the stories that need to be told and writes them.

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

My Writers — Brian K. Vaughan

y the last man

As I’ve recounted elsewhere, I spent an embarrassingly long time trying the kick the habit of comic book collecting I plunged into as a kid. There was always one more series to hang on for, some promise of new wrinkles to an ongoing saga that I found painfully irresistible. To a degree, I just wanted to keep collecting and sought out excuses to justify the continued endeavor. There were instances, though, when I was genuinely ensnared while happily trotting away to freedom. On one such occasion, I clearly keep buying comic books only because Brian K. Vaughan was writing some of them.

Vaughan had been a professional comic book writer for a few years when he teamed with artist Pia Guerra to launch a title under DC Comics’ Vertigo banner. Y the Last Man had an irresistible hook and a perfect first issue (although I started with sixth issue, lured in by the enticement of “NEW STORYLINE” emblazoned across the cover). It’s lead character, Yorrick Brown, was seemingly the only male left on the planet after a strange plague instantaneously killed all mammals with a Y chromosome. Across five dozen issues, Yorrick and his new compatriots navigated a strange, treacherous landscape, marked by new tribalism and thoroughly upended geopolitics.

Exploratory and inventive, the series was serial storytelling at its best, and only in part because Vaughan was tremendous at deploying issue-ending cliffhangers. He shrewdly exploited the benefits of working with characters over an extended period of time, leaning on familiarity to drive stories while also letting them shift and grow gradually. He made astute points about psychology and society through believable interactions of characters, always fully justified in the logic of the narrative. He scratched at truths without pontificating. I kept following Vaughan across publishers and titles: Ex Machina, Runaways, The Escapists, and the only Doctor Strange comic I’ve ever really, truly enjoyed.

These days, I don’t buy very many comics. There are a few series I pick up in their collected trade editions, and I will occasionally treat my pal who’s still admirably devoted like she’s running a borrowing library. For regular issue-by-issue reading, though, there’s only one title left: Saga, with writing by Vaughan and art by the amazing Fiona Staples. As was the case with Vaughan’s previous works, it’s endlessly imaginative, emotionally potent, and ruthless in its cliffhanger endings. Without question, it’s one of the best comic book series I’ve ever read.

As a kid, I followed the methodology of a lot of comic book fans and locked onto individual characters and teams, working myself into fits of quiet outrage any time their adventures weren’t up whatever arbitrary standards I set. Thankfully, I quickly learned the foolishness of that mindset. Picking favorite creators was a far more sensible — and consistently rewarding — strategy. Under the common interpretation of the phrase, denoting status as a hobbyist as much as a consumer, I guess it’s accurate to say I don’t read comic books any longer. But I damn well do read Brian K. Vaughan. And I don’t plan to stop any time soon.

My Writers — Gillian Flynn

gone

Appropriately, I think, Gillian Flynn locked me in for good when I started reading one of her books in a drug store. I was waiting on a prescription, and I wandered over the the dispiritingly sparse selection of paperbacks. A copy of Dark Places, Flynn’s second novel was there, so I picked it up and started reading. Quickly rapt, I felt a pang of regret when my name was read over the business’s loudspeaker, beckoning me to the back to retrieve my pharmaceuticals. That, my friends, is the sign of a good writer.

Dark Places wasn’t my first experience with Flynn. I’d read Gone Girl when it was the novel of the moment. Although I loved it, especially admiring her brilliantly deployed mid-novel twist, it somehow felt easy for me to preemptively disregard her other works of fiction. Maybe it was due to some of the more churlish critics, quick to dismiss Gone Girl as a fluke, even when delivering generally favorable assessments. It could have been attributable to my own biases, since I’d read plenty of Flynn’s words when she toiled for Entertainment Weekly, mostly as the second-string TV writer, and I didn’t recall thinking she delivered anything all that special. I should have known better. Television reviews and darkly comic crime novels are wildly different beasts. I believe I could write a pretty dang good essay on the bygone TV drama Life on Mars, but I more confident I don’t have a Gone Girl in me.

I’ve read all three of Flynn’s novels, and I’ve had the same experience with each. I appreciate the caustic comic elements and the ruthless plumbing of the darker corners of human nature. More uncommonly, there’s always a point, around midway through the book, when my need to barrel through to the end becomes almost compulsive. I’m not necessarily caught up in the mysteries she ticks through or hooked by Flynn’s chapter-ending cliffhangers (though she’s exceptionally good at those). Instead, I simply have an intellectual hunger to consume the totality of it in a way I’ve rarely experienced since high school, when I was inclined to decide that nourishing sleep on a school night was less important than finding out how The Dead Zone ends.

Within that swelling obsession lies my satisfaction in the drug store as ground zero for my zeal for Flynn’s writing. She provides a fiercely modern version of the dime store novels from decades ago, the pulpy adventures that were bourbon-laced cotton candy for the mind. There’s no slight there. Flynn exhibits the same ferocity, fearlessness, wit, and bracing economy of language that makes the acknowledged masters of the once-disreputable form considered some of the worthier residents in the pantheon of U.S. literature. Like the efforts of those predecessors, Flynn’s work lands with a sharp, satisfying smack.

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

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.

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.

My Writers: Billy Wilder

The Apartment US Half Sheet Linen-backed

Until Woody Allen came along, Billy Wilder had more screenwriting Academy Award nominations to his credit than any other individual. Counting Oscar nominations and wins makes for a faulty metric of excellence, but the implicit message is sound in the case of Wilder. The Austrian emigree to the bizarre wonderland of Hollywood is one of the true greats of U.S. cinema, a man who earned an endless stream of accolades and yet remains somewhat underrated, unlikely to be evoked with the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks as a defining voice in the medium. He should be considered a true peer of those greats as a director. As a writer, though, I’d argue Wilder was unmatched in his time. When I think of how screenplays are supposed to work, I think of Wilder.

Venerating Wilder in this respect is complicated by the fact that Wilder was almost always a collaborator in the writing process. I.A.L. Diamond is the most famous co-writer of Wilder’s film, but there is a small battalion of others whose names appear next to the director’s in the opening credits, such as Edwin Blum (Stalag 17) and no less than Raymond Chandler (Double Indemnity). But there is an unmistakably unifying quality to the writing in Wilder’s films that can only be reasonably attributed to him. His films are sharp, bleakly funny, cunning, and deeply authentic.

Cameron Crowe’s hefty collection of interviews with Wilder remains one of the best books about filmmaking I’ve ever read. For as much discussion as Wilder rightly devotes to casting, image framing, and other mechanics of directing, it’s clear that the core of his philosophy is locked in on the writing process. The ten rules of filmmaking he provides are almost entirely connected to the screenplay.  In modern cinema, there is no quality that is more rare and endearing than this one, defined perfectly by Wilder: “The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.” As no maxim is more ignored — to the point of supreme irritation — than the one Wilder acknowledges he borrow from his mentor, Ernst Lubitsch: “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.”

Wiser, more refined cineastes that me have observed that characters in film noir don’t talk like real people, but their banter represents the way people should talk. Wilder triumphed in practically every genre, including film noir. And his pinnacle effort in that subgenre, the phenomenal Double Indemnity, provides insight into what Wilder did better than anyone, before or since. He somehow created dialogue that was recognizably wiser and wittier than most real world discussions, and yet it felt honest and true rather that jaggedly aspirational. That cascade of lines didn’t match how people talked, and yet it did. In Wilder’s words exists the big messy us of the American experience, one he entered into rather than inherited, which likely gave him a keener insight.

There’s one more cinematic storytelling tip that’s worth sharing: “Know where you’re going.” Wilder always did. Of course I was — and am — always eager to follow.