Flying on Other Writers’ Fiction

Me and My Muse, Discussing Lunch

I’ll use the pandemic, politics and general pissiness for an excuse, but I haven’t written any fiction—other than some absurdist flash—in more than two years. That surprises and distresses me, because I love the stuff: I love its whooshing of you into another world, the anxieties and delights you can feel for certain characters, the textures of place and time.

I’ve had a good story idea in the wings for a couple of years, with notes and references, but type a word of narrative?


But that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped reading. If I stop reading, it’s time to put me down. That dog isn’t breathing.

I just finished Jonathan Franzen’s latest, Crossroads, a 600-page sprawler, though it’s set in a narrow phase of time, December 1971, and in a sometimes claustrophobic family situation in suburban Chicago, which at moments spirals into mania. Three of the family’s children are in high school or recently out, and two of them have a torqued involvement with a Christian youth group, as I also did during that period.

If you ever read The Corrections, another of Franzen’s novels, you know that he has more than small skills in depicting family dynamics, especially if those dynamics involve much self-deception, unfounded hopes, absolute lies, love, desire and a highlight reel of human folly. He goes into that ring and everybody gets a good workout; at times his depictions of some mental illness and drug-addled actions had my heart beating (maybe because of my own suppressed depression and drug addlement during the 70s, about which I’m writing a memoir now).

I can’t give the book five stars though—there were some long sections of backstory that plodded along for me, and that seemed curious in light of Franzen’s talents. And occasionally the whininess and entitlement of all of the main characters was grating, even though it served the plot. Plus, I think he could have shaved 100 pages off, and not missed a beat with his themes and story arc. Nonetheless, worth the read.

I am also a sweep of the second hand from finishing Einstein’s Dreams, a much more compact fiction work. Or works, as it is a collection of very short stories, vignettes even, on the nature of time, what it does to us, what we do with it, and how it slips away. Or in the case of several stories, stops.

There are 1905 title time stamps on all the stories, though none of the tales take that as a starting point. For Einstein, 1905 was his so-called “miracle year,” when he published 4 groundbreaking (clock breaking) papers. The great man himself is a peripheral character in a few of the stories, but most of them center on unnamed men or women or places and objects in Berne, Switzerland and elsewhere in the country.

For these men and women, they are subjects of memory leaks, jarring and soft movements through the past, a variety of parallel worlds and futures, baffling fulfillments or thwartings of their desires, bizarre time effects on bodies and minds.

The author, Alan Lightman, is a physicist himself, who naturally has poured the bucket of relativity theory over his own head more than once. I admire his use of lyrical and often economical language, and perhaps I absorbed some remote-starlight glimmer of the scientific dissection of time tricks, though I doubt it. No matter: There is a romantic wistfulness in many of the stories, which are often just three or four pages long. People meant well, but time got in the way. I loved this one.

And for the people of Ukraine, and of Europe, and to we Americans, Godspeed in the hell to come. Now is a time that should happen only in a parallel universe, and one from which we could step away.

Links to Thinks

I said in my last monthly newsletter that I was going to park all of the links to articles on psychic health and good cheer I’ve been curating only in that newsletter, but instead, fickle boy, I’m going to split them between there and the blog. Here are a couple:

“This silent internal dialogue is vitally important to our ability to problem solve, cultivate a sense of self, and understand our place in the world. But our inner coach can become our inner critic.”

How to make a difficult decision
“Avoiding a decision is in fact a decision. It can be tempting to kick a difficult decision down the road – but that itself is actually a decision, and probably the wrong one.”