Friday, July 20, 2007

Memories of Syracuse

I am one of those lucky people who loved her MFA program. I say lucky, because compared to others, I’d done preciously little research prior to applying. I made some foolish choices, too. I applied to Columbia, which I could never afford. I applied to Brown, even though I barely knew at the time what “experimental” was. But I did one thing right: I applied to Syracuse.

Now, whenever I end up on MFA-related panels, I start gushing. I gush about the generosity and talent of the teachers, who cared about our writing as much as their own. I gush about the abundance of writing time. About full funding. About Salt Hill journal. About the Living Writers Reading Series. About receptions, and parties, and the coffee hour every Friday afternoon. (I don’t gush about Syracuse itself, which is a grim little town that every winter drove me to the edge of insanity. But hey, you’ve got to sacrifice something for your art. )

The best testimony to an MFA program, though, is the work of its students, and lately I’ve been reading a lot of “Syracuse” books, which I am here to tell you about. You see, if Grub Street was my first writing-home, Syracuse MFA was the second one, and I’ve always wanted to bring the two together somehow (Grub Street, meet Syracuse! Syracuse, meet Grub Street!)

So, without much further ado, the first book on my list is American Youth by Phil LaMarche. Phil was a class ahead of me at Syracuse, but the classes were small, we all knew one another well, and we spent many evenings on Phil’s porch drinking beers and forties – I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but yes, my Syracuse gang introduced me to forties! -- talking about the state of contemporary literature, and predicting brilliant literary future for one another. And what do you know, for Phil it all came true. His novel is a huge success -- published by Random House and praised in every review. It is about a teenage boy in New Hampshire who is implicated in a shooting accident (he loads a gun, his classmate fires it, another kid gets killed). The boy is then “adopted” by a conservative youth group called American Youth. It’s a great story, and the best part about it is, it makes you forget your politics. In fact, no matter what your politics are, you’ll end up caring about the boy and his parents. Not just understand where they’re coming from, but root for them and care. Just think – we’re all writers here -- how much talent it takes to tackle an issue as loaded (excuse the pun) as gun control and to transcend the politics. But it’s more than talent. It’s also hard work, and Phil was always among the most dedicated writers I’d known. No matter what else was going on in his life (a kayaking trip, a damaged vertebrae), writing always came first. The rest of us would still be finishing our beers on that porch, and Phil would already be heading off to bed, so that bright and early next morning he could get to work on his novel again. Whenever I start slacking off in my own writing, I still think of that.

Continuing with the New Hampshire theme, my next recommendation is Twenty Grand and Other Tales of Love and Money by Rebecca Curtis. I met Becky on my first trip to Syracuse, shortly after I’d been accepted. Denis Johnson was on campus that day doing a reading and q & a, and afterwards there was a dinner and then a reception. I remember George Saunders introducing me to Becky and basically telling me what a star she was. He was right. That summer one of her stories appeared in the New Yorker. Since then, she’s had two more stories in the New Yorker, two in Harpers, one in O. Henry Awards, not to mention StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, Fence, and many others. And now her book is finally out. The stories in the collection are set either in small New Hampshire towns, or else in strange unidentified locations where monsters appear at your door, wolves ask for your phone number, and married upper-middle-class couples adopt something called “cute-sters.” One of the things I love about Syracuse MFA is its stylistic diversity, a healthy mix of experimental and realistic writing. Neither style is considered superior, and students are encouraged to practice either, or, as in Becky’s case, both. I can’t think of another short-story collection that dares to combine two styles of writing the way Twenty Grand does. And Becky totally pulls it off. What makes it work, I think, is that thematically the stories sort of bounce off one another. Their heroines are young women who don’t quite fit in the world around them. They are lonely. They struggle financially. And they’re frequently betrayed by their families. To me, the family betrayals are the most haunting theme in the book, and it’s the more surreal stories that really bring these betrayals to the surface.

I read somewhere, years ago, that if a fiction writer wants to write beautiful sentences, he or she must read poetry. I think it’s a great advice. I don’t do it as much or as often as I should, but I try. Luckily, I happen to have met some fabulous poets along the way – many of them at Syracuse – and it’s their collections that I usually read. The latest one is Filibuster to Delay a Kiss by Courtney Queeney. It’s published by Random House. How many poetry collections get published by Random House? The answer is, not many. Especially not by newcomers. But Courtney is amazing. She’s already been compared to Louise Gluck and Sylvia Plath, except unlike Plath’s, Courtney’s poems are haunted not by “daddy, you bustard” but by a Mother. Mother as a force of nature. Destructive mother. Unstable mother. Mother who attempts endless suicides but never dies. But the heroine of the book -- or as Courtney names her, The Anti-Leading Lady -- is the daughter, a young woman trying to piece her life together, a survivor and insomniac. Also there is love (or anti-love), sex, and Syracuse. Where would we be without Syracuse! (In fact, it’s kind of tempting to try guessing which incident might have inspired a particular poem.) What I love about poetry – and what I believe fiction should do as well -- is that it finds the most unusual and brilliant ways to express things. And Courtney is a master at that. To quote:
"Then I heard a cello and thought,
Oh. That’s how you say it."

Finally, getting back to fiction, the book I’m reading and loving right now is Better Ways of Being Dead by Christian TeBordo. If you love experimental fiction, this is your book. If you don’t love experimental fiction, this is still your book. If you love panda bears, this is most definitely your book. It’s playful. It’s sad. It’s got a love story and a mystery. And its narrator is hugely compelling. He’s a student at a university, somewhere in Cincinnati, who has to wear long-sleeved clothes because his skin sometimes breaks out in lesions. He’s in love with an agoraphobic girl who lives in the tunnels underneath the university. They are both enrolled in “Advanced Recomposition” class, held in a janitor’s closet and taught by a creepy professor everybody calls “I.” The thing about tags such as “experimental fiction” is, they scare people. But a good novel, experimental or not, will break your heart and make you forget about silly tags. And Better Ways of Being Dead does just that. Back in Syracuse, Christian lived in a tiny studio filled with books, most of which I wanted to borrow. He’s incredibly well-read, but he never flaunted it. You could talk to him about anything. Even in the midst of a Syracuse winter, when everyone else got a little wonky. Especially in the midst of a Syracuse winter. Talking to Christian would keep you sane. He used to ask me if there were panda bears at the Pittsburgh Zoo, and I kept telling him I didn’t know. I would offer to check, and he would tell me not to – because it was fiction, it was better not to know. In the end, Pittsburgh didn’t make it into the novel. But panda bears did.

Ellen Litman

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

You had me at 'panda bear.'