Review: Seize the Day

Seize the Day
Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anymore, I read novels to learn how authors handle narrative structure and pace, characterization, and point of view. Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day is an excellent course of study in these elements of novel writing.

The novel follows a day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm Adler, a middle-aged man who is one of the most down-on-his-luck characters I’ve ever read about in Literature. As a young man, under the spell of a shyster talent agent and against the advice of his parents, he went off to Hollywood with aspirations to be a big star. Several years later he returns home to New York, his biggest claim to fame being an extra on a set. He marries, has two children, and settles into a life as a traveling salesman for a corporation. His initial failure in Hollywood gnaws at him and the restlessness he feels while mourning what could have been destroys his marriage and career. When we meet Wilhelm on the first page of the novel, he and his wife are estranged. She’s bleeding him dry and not granting him a divorce. The image his two children have of him is sifted through his wife’s contempt for him. He’s living in a residence hotel for old retirees, among them Wilhelm’s father, Dr. Adler, who considers “Wilky” a loser and a slob. Wilhelm would like his father, who is presented as having money, to help him out of his financial crisis, but Dr. Adler refuses to help his son on principle. Wilhelm has also entrusted his last $700 to a con-artist named Tamkin, who has talked Wilhelm into investing it in lard and rye on the commodities market. I love the ominous, first sentence: “When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow.”

In seven chapters, Bellow follows Wilhelm around throughout the day. We watch as Wilhelm succumbs to yet another scheme that will leave him worse than he was before. It’s not that Wilhelm is a total idiot, because he does reason with himself, listing several good reasons he shouldn’t trust Tamkin, but just like the other big decisions in his life (his going to Hollywood, getting married, quitting his job), he sweeps aside all the reasons mounted against the decision at hand and does exactly what ends up making him suffer. If I didn’t sometimes find the same inclinations in myself, I would want to knock Wilhelm upside the head. Ironically, Tamkin tells him exactly what his problem is as he counsels him not to repeat the same mistake: “Now, Wilhelm, I’m trying to do you some good. I want to tell you, don’t marry suffering. Some people do. They get married to it, and sleep and eat together, just as husband and wife. If they go with joy they think it’s adultery.” In the end, Wilhelm comes to recognize where all his embracing of suffering leads him to.

Bellow’s narrative weaves between Wilhelm’s actions of the day and his thoughts about the state of his life and his hopes that he’ll get a big payout from his foolish investment. Bellow’s language is beautiful. It’s simple, direct, and appropriate for the scene. Although he does describe character and the Broadway of the day, Bellow doesn’t let description override the action of the narrative. Also, the voices of the characters come through nicely, especially Tamkin’s. One feels enticed to trust what he’s saying, even when one knows he’s a person not to be trusted. He says enough true things that the half-truths, or the subtle twists on the truth, don’t register keenly enough with Wilhelm to save him from being made a fool of. Bellow’s main characters, Wilhelm, Tamkin, and Dr. Adler (Wilhelm’s father) are fully developed. Bellow provides descriptions that are fresh, detailed, and original. Their voices in the dialogue are distinct and interesting. They are human and real. Bellow’s stays focused from Wilhelm’s point of view for most of the novel, but occasionally, he’ll step outside of Wilhelm and give us an idea of what another character is thinking. That played well in the scene where Wilhelm is eating breakfast with his father. We become privy to Dr. Adler’s thoughts about his son. He doesn’t have any good thoughts about him.

I gave the novel only four stars because the novel seems incomplete, as if it didn’t ride out the denouement. At the end Wilhelm is worse off than at the beginning. All he has seized from the day’s events is some recognition that his only release from suffering will be to die, and that if he doesn’t want to end up like the corpse he’s crying over, then he’d better find a way to turn his life around. Whether Wilhelm decides to stop blaming circumstance and others for his failures and stop embracing suffering isn’t clear in the narrative. It’s as if Bellow were trying to say that there’s a hopelessness to human suffering that can only be relieved by death. As much as I admired the novel, I just wasn’t moved by the takeaway.

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“White Roses” for #SaturdayScenes

This May, I submitted three entries of 1,000 words or less each to the Mormon Lit Blitz. I’ve already talked about each story I submitted in my blog post about the Lit Blitz at the end of May, so you may read about them there. By the first couple of weeks in June, the results were in. My “Riffs on Korihor’s Testimony” earned a spot among the 24 semi-finalists, but didn’t make it among the top twelve. However, there is talk that the editors may put together an e-book of all 24 semi-finalists. That would be great. There were many worthy writers among them.

But today is about “White Roses,” one of my entries that didn’t make the cut. The situation is one that’s difficult to handle in 1,000 words, so it may undergo some revision in the future. But I do think it has its strengths. Read it and let me know what you think?

White Roses

Corry was waiting at the kitchen table when Lot entered from the garage. She’d had an hour to process what she’d just learned about him. She’d also had her mom come get the two children.

She didn’t greet him. She just watched as he removed his wingtips and then put his slippers on. He still looked flawless, even after a day of managing his clients’ wealth.

They’d been married five years. Her photography had supported him through his senior year of college and then business school. His recent promotion had allowed them to buy a home on the bench overlooking Utah Valley. He’d been a kind husband and father, if not a little too perfect. Their life was just getting off the ground. As usual, he hadn’t closed the garage.

“Honey,” Lot said, when he noticed her, “who is that woman in the Mustang parked out front? Virginia tags.”

Corry dropped the tissue she’d been squeezing onto the others piled against the Kleenex box in front of her. The used tissues reminded her of the roses Lot would get her every anniversary. He insisted on white roses.

“Shut the garage.”

The woman had accused Lot of things and given Corry three unopened letters. Corry had told her to leave, but she said she’d wait for him.

Lot closed the garage and then set his briefcase down. Corry tucked the letters she’d ripped open and read under the tissue box so he wouldn’t see them.

“You’ve been crying,” he said, sitting down beside her. “Are you all right? What did she want?”

Standing up, she turned away from him and looked out the French doors at the deck and the manicured lawn where they’d recently hosted a barbecue party for ward members.

“Her name is Arizona and she wants child support, Lot. She can’t afford a lawyer, so she came herself. She says you have an eight-year-old son. He’s with her, too.”

“No, that’s not true,” he said. “She would’ve told me.”

“She did,” Corry said, facing him, then bringing the letters out. “You should have read these instead of sending them back.”

She tossed them on the table in front of him. Lot sat still.

“You didn’t even open them?”

“I didn’t want anything to do with her.”

“Funny how your past catches up with you, isn’t it? She got your address from your brother. She wrote the first one shortly after you left for the MTC. It says she’s sorry that what you two did made you upset, but she likes you. The second one, dated a month later, says she’s missed her period and she’s worried, wants you to come home. She never told your parents, because they didn’t know her from Eve, and probably wouldn’t have believed her. The third one she writes in all caps. She calls you dirty names, says she’s desperate, and that she’s eloping with the boyfriend she was on the outs with when she met you, so her parents don’t kill her. She told him he’s the father.”

“So the boy isn’t mine.”

“Wait, let’s rewind. You went on a mission, having just slept with a girl a week before?”

Lot stood, turned away, and stared at the wall of family pictures.

“Some wild, non-member friends from high school had a farewell party for me. They set me up with her. I’d never met her before that night. She came on strong. It happened so fast. I’ve been trying to forget it ever since. I just couldn’t disappoint my parents.”

“Unbelievable.” Corry sat down. She grabbed a tissue, but was past tears now. “I’ve heard of duplicitous people, but you’re picture perfect.”

“Honey, I’ve–”

“Don’t. You told me you were worthy. You took me to the temple and made covenants with God and me when you’re nothing but a cheater. How could you?”

“I’ve been repenting ever since,” he said, swinging around, tearful. “God knows what I’ve suffered because I was too proud to confess to my bishop, to anyone. That’s why I struggle so much against imperfection, so that one sin might be erased.”

“You don’t even get the Atonement. What makes you so special that you don’t have to repent like ordinary sinners?”

“I’m not, hon,” he said, lowering himself into the chair beside her. He reached for her hand, but she folded her arms. “I’m scared of that. Losing what we’ve created together. Our marriage, our family, our home. It’s who I’ve been for you that counts.”

“What am I supposed to do?” Corry said. She pulled apart the tissue she held. “The boy is yours, Lot. I’ve seen him. He looks just like you. Arizona didn’t know at first, but she suspected it over time. She says you’re the only other one she slept with. I believe her. She and the other guy are divorced now, but it wasn’t about that. Her parents won’t help. She has a crappy job, no support. You should have opened the letters. You should have married her. You need to take responsibility now.”

The doorbell rang. She stood.

“What are you going to do?” he said, reaching for her.

“I thought about going to my mom’s for a few days.”

“Corry, please,” he said, rising. “Think about the kids.”

“I have, Lot,” she said. “I thought about kicking you out, too.”

She went toward the front door and he followed.

The doorbell rang again. She put her hand on the knob and faced him.

“Have you been true to me otherwise?”

“Yes, I swear.”

He reached for her, but she brushed his hands aside.

“What I’m about to do is not forgiveness. Only God can grant that. But it should be interesting to see how you pull this off, Mr. White Roses. Besides, I like the neighborhood.”

Slouching, appearing contrite, he looked vulnerable for once. The doorbell rang again.

“Please. Be a man. Your past is calling.”

Then she opened the door for him to deal with it.

<<<THE END>>>

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Have You Read “Cocked” Yet?

Book Cover Cocked

Summer Sale! Starting tomorrow August 1st!

Take advantage of discounted prices on my unique short story, “Cocked,” about a young Hmong woman who escapes the cultural roles she was expected to play.

All the times below are Pacific Standard Time (UTC -08:00).

From midnight August 1 to 11:59 a.m. August 4, “Cocked” will be on sale at the heavily discounted price of $0.99!

From 12 p.m. August 4 to 11:59 p.m. August 7, “Cocked” will be on sale at the discounted price of $1.99!

At midnight August 8, “Cocked” will return to its original price of $2.99.

If own a Kindle device, you may also read “Cocked” for free through the Kindle Unlimited program.

Happy reading!

When you pick up your copy of “Cocked,” please pass this sale information on to someone else—a friend at home, or share it online. Word of mouth is the best reference! Also, please consider leaving a review of “Cocked” on Amazon or Goodreads.

Thank you for reading Indie authors!

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Review: Stoner

Stoner
Stoner by John Edward Williams
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I came to Stoner by way of the Web site http://conversationalreading.com/. Scott Esposito recommended it, so I decided to put it on my list and recently found the time to read it.

Stoner is the life story of one William Stoner, a farm boy who left the rural life behind and became a professor of literature at a small university in Missouri in the early twentieth century. His life is a series of disappointments, however, and the work left me wondering about the weight of a life lived with little or no worldly recognition. Not that such a legacy of recognition is everything. In the first few paragraphs the scope of Stoner’s life is set, and his mark on the world seems so limited, like a footprint in melting snow, yet the author writes 200 plus pages about this “insignificant” man. So I read on.

Besides finding Stoner an interesting character, what carried me through was the exquisite, original language and the narrative structure. The sentences were straightforward and clear, but many of them had the poetic quality that I like. The narrative structure was traditionally linear, beginning with his birth and progressing toward the end, but what I appreciated was the control John Edward Williams had over the narrative. Here is a great example of speeding up narrative time by “telling” some of the story, and “showing” only the parts of the story that warranted more detail and drama.

In the end, I found William Stoner to be someone I could feel empathy with. I was saddened by his disappointments and wished some of the events in his life had gone a different, more positive way. I was particularly frustrated with his wife who viciously tormented him unjustifiably. I admire his love of literature and understand his struggle to share that love with students who simply want to get by with mediocrity. All in all, Stoner’s was a life worth living, and this is a novel worth reading.

I would read it again.

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Mormon Lit Blitz

Writing Late at Night
Writing Late at Night, iStockPhoto

My three Mormon Lit Blitz entries are in! (And now the post-partum depression and anxiety sets in. Chocolate, Dr. Pepper, and photos of kittens at play welcome!)

The shorts are titled “Riffs on Korihor’s Testimony,” “Singularity,” and “White Roses.”

My silence on my blog here has been largely due to my taking the time to work on getting these three pieces of a 1000 words each written. Believe it or not, it’s hard to write a story that “works” as a whole in that many words. It’s a good training exercise for sure.

Background

I wrote “Riffs” and “White Roses” from scratch. I had written most of “Singularity” before now, but added to it for this contest. “Riffs” and “Singularity” are more “slice-of-life” pieces than coherent stories. “White Roses” was the most difficult to write because there was a lot to compact into 1,000 words.

“Riffs on Korihor’s Testimony” was inspired in part by Lorrie Moore’s “How to Talk to Your Mother” and in part by Boyd J. Petersen’s essay in Sunstone titled “Arriving Where I Started: Disassembling and Reassembling a Testimony.” I think it could stand to be expanded a little, but I worked in what I could for the contest. It’s intended to be a part of a larger work. It’s one of the blog posts written by my main character, Corey Hoar, who identifies himself as “Korihor” in the post. Corey Hoar is going through a “faith crisis” and works through his struggles on his blog.

“Singularity” is also a part of the same larger work. It’s a piece where Corey Hoar contemplates his own mortality. I added a bit at the beginning to contextualize his narrative.

You wouldn’t think so reading it now, since the story has gone way beyond the parable structure that motivated it, but “White Roses” was also inspired by Boyd J. Petersen’s essay mentioned above; in particular, the part about faith being more fidelity as in a marital relationship than it is a belief about a certain set of facts/non-facts. I went through a dozen drafts of this thing, so I hope it makes the finalists at least. I think it’s a strong, resonating short. Writing this story, one written in the realistic vein, and getting it “right,” made me appreciate realistic fiction again. (I’m constantly flirting with, seduced by postmodernist techniques.) There is a real craft in creating a realistic story that resonates with a reader. (Not that I’m saying I have it down pat. I’m only too keenly aware of my weaknesses.)

Final Plug

Still three days left! If you’re interested in throwing something into the mix, then go to the Mormon Lit Blitz Facebook page or the Mormon Artist blog page for instructions.

Read, Write, Execute!

a writer's reading, writing, and meta-imagination

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