Saturday, August 02, 2008

Why I Read: Apologies Forthcoming

I’m pretty picky when it comes to fiction—it seems to be one of the side effects of tackling the writer’s life myself. In my younger days, I used to finish every book I picked up. Perhaps this was a legacy of school assignments, but I did far more reading on my own than for classes. Now, however, I have no problem abandoning an uninspiring book with nothing more than a quick glance at the last few pages, which usually confirms the wisdom of my decision to bail early.

This might make me sound jaded, as if all the fun has gone out of reading, but actually the opposite is the case. Because when I find a work I really admire, the experience is electrifying. I recently finished a book that reminds me why I read fiction—a book that stretched my mind, charmed my sensibilities, and touched my heart.

I’m talking—or should I say raving?--about Xujun Eberlein's Apologies Forthcoming, winner of the 2007 Tartt Fiction Award. The eight stories in this collection, most previously published in prestigious literary journals, all deal with China’s Cultural Revolution and its legacy. This violent and tumultuous time in history has been an inspiration for many fine works of fiction and non-fiction, but Xujun Eberlein’s vision is distinctive in its emphasis on the common humanity of all the participants in this great drama—Red Guards as well as scholars, true believers as well as disillusioned intellectuals.

Eberlein’s low-key humor and eye for the perfect detail makes the book especially appealing and impressive. I was reminded of a comment Noah Lukeman made in The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying out the Rejection Pile (a great reference for writers ready to tackle the agent search or anyone looking for a good self-editing guide). I can’t seem to find the exact quote, but I remember Lukeman saying agents can actually determine the sensibility of a writer from the first five sentences! They know right away if this is a voice they want in their heads for a whole book. I feel the same way, and for me it was a pleasure to give myself up to the voices of these stories. The range of perspectives is especially satisfying in its complexity. In “Disciple of the Masses,” for example, when an idealistic young city woman is “inserted” in the countryside, we come to understand not only her plight, but those of her peasant hosts and her more cynical comrades and elders as well. These voices and images still linger—that to me is the ultimate sign of excellent writing.

I hesitate to say this—although only because we live in such an anti-intellectual society—but as I read this collection, I kept wishing I were reading if for a seminar so I could write a paper on it. There were so many fascinating themes, so many richly-layered passages to quote, the stories cried out for further discussion. I think this book would make a marvelous book group selection, perhaps accompanied by some historical reading about the Cultural Revolution.

I’m not sure exactly how I’d approach my paper, though, because there are so many choices. I might go with the theme of love in a society that is hostile to all personal expression, especially the ultimate in lawless self-indulgence: eros. “Pivot Point” and “The Randomness of Love” both introduce intellectual women who are unmarriageable because men see them as “too outstanding” and “too high to reach.” Nonetheless, they do find lovers, but the obstacles they face all but crush the relationships. And yet, the rare times the couples can be together heighten the poignancy. For someone like me, so immersed in erotica’s focus on sexual abundance (which I see as a reflection of the hyper-sexualized ethos of America as a whole), a society where ascetic endurance is the norm brings up fascinating questions about the relationship between culture and desire.

I was also struck by the way the author treats the figure of the artist at a time when creative expression was limited to mouthing Chairman Mao’s slogans. The collection opens with “Snow Line,” which examines the fate of a gifted poet in an environment that is not especially supportive to the arts, a story that foreshadows dilemmas all of the characters will face. “Feathers” was a particularly moving piece about a young girl who writes letters to her grandmother in her dead sister’s name to save the old lady from grief. These letters are, of course, a kind of fiction writing, an attempt to transform tragedy into art. Here a lie (read: fiction-making) becomes a form of love and healing transcendence—something the young girl cannot quite understand, although her sister’s friend who comes to visit, a writer herself, clearly recognizes their common bond. Another artist makes an appearance in “Watch the Thrill,” one of the most haunting and powerful stories in the collection. Told from the viewpoint of an aimless, essentially orphaned city boy, the piece portrays the psychological and aesthetic poverty of the times. The narrator remembers the old days, when a youth who has now been “inserted” into the countryside to be worked to death would tell ghost stories to the neighborhood children in the courtyard at night. The cleverly crafted, very dramatic stories would literally thrill the audience, but the Cultural Revolution has silenced the magic of storytelling and leaves only mundane, but no less horrifying, reality: the black, bottomless holes of his grieving mother’s eyes. In “Watch the Thrill,” the author’s skill is no less “thrilling”—this is truly storytelling at its best.

I could go on and on, and I know with material this meaty, I’d be bound to get a good grade (and then no one would ask me to dance because I’m too smart like the narrator in “The Randomness of Love”—believe me, I can relate). But perhaps it’s best to conclude with a final point about the power of fiction. These stories did indeed take me on a journey to a far-away place and time, and made me feel as if I’d slipped into other lives for a little while. Yet, what struck me most was that the protagonists’ dreams and disappointments, and the compromises they made to survive, were profoundly familiar. This apparently improbable sense of connection is why I read fiction—and I’m very glad indeed I read Apologies Forthcoming.

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