intense sensations

Posts Tagged ‘creative writing

Telex from CubaTelex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was going to start this review by saying that this novel gives the lie to anyone who says you can’t teach people to write.

Of course you can teach people to write. You can teach people to drive, which is a lot harder than writing. You can teach them to build bridges across impossible spaces, put up those massive, bristling skyscrapers in New York and Shanghai, get oil from the desert, make rockets and missiles and sell them to countries worse off than you so they can almost but not quite destroy each other. You can teach people to enslave entire populations and justify it with plausible rhetoric that makes it look like you are a philanthropist and benefactor.

So of course you can teach people to write.

It’s just sentences. One after another.

We can’t all write beautifully, I’ll admit. Even after a lot of lessons at top schools like Berkeley and Columbia, where Rachel K learned to write, it takes a lot of patience and practice to write something like this:

The rain let up, and wind was vacuuming out the last low, ragged clouds as La Maziere continued along the Malecon, looking back periodically to be sure no one was following him. The moon appeared, glowing like a quartered orange section that had been ever so lightly sucked, its flat edge thinned and translucent.

He turned and headed up La Rampa, in the direction of the Tokio. He assumed she was still there, still in her zazou getup, her legs painted in prison chain-link, as smearable as when he’d last left his handprints on her soft and unathletic thighs, six months earlier.

The references to the rain and the moon are fairly standard. You’ll find paragraphs starting that way in every half-decent detective, romance or horror story. Rachel gives them a bit more intensity than many writers. There is some close observation there. Maybe the description of the moon is even a bit laboured.

But I admire enormously the second paragraph. I admire it and it gives me great pleasure. I can read it again and again.

She could have said something like “He assumed she was still there, still in her zazou getup, still exactly as her remembered her from six months earlier.”

But no, instead we get a vividly visual and tactile memory of what exactly it is that La Maziere remembers, her painted-on fishnet stockings, rendered with that wonderfully evocative word “smearable”, her soft thighs, susceptible to his “handprints”. What an image!

There are many paragraphs like this in the novel, which give it a compelling forward momentum. I not only go back and saunter but I also race onward, eager for the next delicious frisson, which is at once sensual, intellectual and literary.

The narrative sections depicting La Maziere are probably my favourite ones in the novel. I love the way Rachel is so cool and wise in showing us his brutish, predatory and often childish responses to women. As a narrator, she is aloof. But the insights she gives us into the way people think are astonishingly intimate. She does this without irony, or an irony so faint and empathic that it is ambivalent if it is there at all.

La Maziere doubted going to Japan would convince him that femininity was the art of walking in stilettos, that it had much to do with poise or surfaces, makeup and neck ribbons. Whatever female essence was, he had caught it only fleetingly, a thing women reflected when they were least aware. He couldn’t name this quality but suspected it had something to do with invisibility, a remainder whose very definition was predicated on his inability to see it.

These insights lingered long in my imagination. Reading this novel was like being plunged into lots of different lives and experiencing strange situations with the freshness and immediacy of a child. It was revelatory and inspiring. It was healing. It made me happy.

I was going to start this review this way but then I read through the comments on Goodreads and I thought, “Oh no, I’m wrong! Rachel can’t write, after all. She has failed to please so many readers, many of whom struggled to finish the book.”

I learned of a new literary genre: “LOB – left on board”.


Perhaps you can’t teach writing, then. Those world-leading writing schools have failed us and failed Rachel K.

What to do? Bin my review? Re-think my literary touchstones? Doubt my judgement? Throw in the towel?

I don’t know. Writing is hard. Writing is really hard. Teaching people to write must be even harder. All right, then. It’s impossible.


The Go-BetweenThe Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the most perfect novels ever written. It has many layers and levels, thanks to its brilliant narrative structure of an old man recollecting a tragic love story he witnessed in intense close up as a young boy. It is a rare case of a complex narrative structure actually being necessary for the proper exposition of the plot. For the story is not just about what happened when the narrator was a boy, but how it changed his life as a man and how, towards the end of his life, writing about it changed him again.

It is evocative and sensual like nothing else I’ve read. It makes nostalgia seem religious and sexual desire seem pure.

The damage that is done to the lovers and to Leo, the narrator of the story, is not caused by their sexual feelings but by the constraints that society puts them under.

This is a profound work and reading it is a profound experience.

Amongst other things, it is a story about the power of imaginative writing to transform and heal the writer. This is a subject that interests me deeply.

Sometimes in my fantasies I run courses in creative writing and this is definitely one of the books I would choose to make compulsory reading for my students, for, apart from being a billiant novel, it is one of the best books there is on how to write.

Vanessa Wu has a new story out called Black Silk Blindfold

CandyCandy by Mian Mian

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love this book. I find it very restful. I do not like books that portray heroin addiction as heroic. The persistent image of the artist as addict is a disservice to art and creativity. Junkies have no imagination. This book is not one of those.

“Honestly, heroin is nothing but glorified shit.”

What makes this book appealing is the author’s use of creative writing as a form of rehab. Her imagination is redemptive. Special praise is due, too, to Andrea Lingenfelter, who has rendered the original Chinese into an English that is beautiful, warm and poetic. I like to immerse myself in it at the end of a stressful day, like sinking into a relaxing bath.

Bless you, also, The Book Depository.

Best New American Voices 2008Best New American Voices 2008 by Richard Bausch

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

By the end of the third story in this collection, which deals with the long term emotional impact of being sexually molested by an uncle, I was exhausted.

I skipped the fourth story because I didn’t understand the first three paragraphs and came to the fifth story, Quiet Men by Leslie Jamison.

It begins:

“HE was a poet who worked with intricate forms—villanelles and pantoums—but during our month together he spoke quite simply.”

My bookmark got stuck there for a few months, which is a shame, as Quiet Men is a fascinating story.

A lot of the stories from these American creative writing courses seem like they’ve had all the life pressed out of them. The sentences are so smooth and dry that their meaning eludes you. They don’t express any emotion. The emotion is there but it’s buried very deep. Which makes it somehow more literary, I suppose.

Quiet Men, as that first sentence shows, is interested in this tension between what is said and what is felt. It’s written in a very understated way but it’s full of dynamic contradictions. The narrator tells a man she’s just had sex with that she’s not interested in talking about emotions…

“but secretly I wanted him to ask some questions. I wanted to discuss why we wouldn’t talk about our emotions, and what it would mean, and how it would feel.”

The man doesn’t find her attractive and she finds that arousing.

“I liked the thought of him aroused by a woman he found unattractive.”

It’s a very polished story. They’re all very polished stories. I long for something a little bit more raw. When the man rips her bra off and fucks her from behind, I don’t want it to be told to me in a neutral tone through ten layers of polished glass.

But still, Quiet Men is so deeply interesting that it remains interesting in spite of all the polish. The girl, who has had sex with a cruel man as a sort of experiment, turns on him with her own cruel intention:

“After a few nights, I decided to start telling Treat everything he didn’t want to hear. It would be like pressing a bruise to produce a certain, predictable feeling.”

There is a lot of dry humour in this story. She meets a simple minded guy who takes her for a ride in his tow truck and talks in clichés. She tells him it’s nice when people like you. “I was trying to practice saying things that were simple and true,” she writes. Probably because after years of polishing your prose at an American university, it’s a really hard thing to do.

Leslie Jamison has written a novel called The Gin Closet that is probably worth investigating.

I haven’t read the other stories in the collection yet, though. I’m a very slow reader.

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Books by Vanessa Wu

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