Tuesday, August 09, 2005

the moon was full and it was the February that it didn't snow

Thus begins Tom Spanbauer's début novella Faraway Places that first hit the stands in 1988. I heard of Spanbauer while reading about Chuck Palahniuk. Palahniuk acknowledges a debt to Spanbauer's writing workshops that he attended. This novel rides on a conventional coming-of-age plot, and that's apparently a feature of all the stuff Spanbauer has written. Nothing grabbed me in the book. The style is interesting, and presenting the pivotal event at the beginning and using it as a motific checkpoint throughout the narrative until time catches up was neat. But I don't sense this as being a direct (see below) influence on Palahniuk. The minimalism is there, but it isn't clipped. And there's a nostalgic personal touch that Palahniuk eschews in favour of two devices that work wonders in his dark writings -- (a) the use of the second-person narrative (thus involving the reader more than the standard first-person narrative would), (b) the use of facts (sometimes relevant, sometimes serving as counterpoint, sometimes throwing you off-guard) to pepper the narrative. I'm about to begin Spanbauer's famous The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, and perhaps there might be more to learn there (it's also a novel -- i.e. it's larger in size).

I also finished Amy Hempell's first collection of short stories titled Reasons to Live. Palahniuk acknowleges another debt to her (he was introduced to her work in Spanbauer's workshop), and especially references The Harvest, which appears in a later collection titled At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom. As soon as you start reading, you can see the direct influence on Palahniuk's minimalist style. The stories are also just as deracinated (while Spanbauer, on the other hand, draws heavily upon Idaho geography and his own life for effect). The theme spanning this collection is the need to improvise "reasons to live" with wit and irony from the morass of unrelenting lack of promise all around us. And yet, as you go on reading, these improvisations are understated. Right from the opening lines of the first story In the Tub (My heart - I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God), a mix of a quirky sensibility, a minimalist style (the debt to Gordon Lish appears in the dedication), poignance, wit, and the sense of a "slice of life" awaits the reader. These are not O Henry-esque stories with a linear narrative and a twist at the end; these are not narratives that exploit the limitations(?) of the short story to their advantage. These stories, with their pervasive mix of loss and humour, are quite Carver-esque (from what little Carver I've managed to read). Rather than extolling each story, I'll just offer this as a recommendation. And hope for another point of view.

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