99 Styles Later

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Wildflowers in Olympic National Park

My reprise of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises In Style is over. Woohoo, ninety-nine styles done! (And ninety-nine photos, which were as challenging as the styles.) Having reached the end of what turned out to be a long project, it feels mighty fine.

But beyond personal satisfaction, what’s the significance of revisiting this old and unusual work? A few things come to mind. One is that a book like The Exercises In Style poses a question about the nature of literature, not only from a stylistic point of view but also in terms of story. Because a book that recounts the same mundane anecdote on every page 99 times simply has to be boring. And yet it’s not. It defies expectations,  so it amuses and occasionally amazes.

As a result, it’s a book that demonstrates the power of ingenuity, as well as the influence forms have on readers’ experience of plot — from forms that encompass the whole story, like genre, to those that lie within phrases, like metaphors. These elements not only change the reading experience but fundamentally alter the story; the plot elements remain fixed, yet in spite of this the story flows and melts and reforms as something new.

One can ask, then, what’s a story? Because if Queneau has proven anything it’s that while strictly speaking we’re dealing with the same characters and events, in reality we’re not. The story mutates when you write it from a different angle. The original ingredients aren’t well-preserved, they dissolve into the whole. Literature, he proves ninety-nine times, is as much about structure and texture as about plot and character.

Moreover, the former shapes the latter. In other words, The Exercises In Style demonstrates that what people draw from a piece of writing is perhaps more contingent on authorial voice than many realize. And not only does this mean we should pay attention to the sorts of devices and perspectives we employ on the page — a commonplace — but we should actively cultivate a variety of them. Ninety-nine might be a good number to aim for.

Of course, this has its limits. At a certain point in this ‘grand game of styles’ a longing for change, character development, or just anything new to happen creeps up and seizes you by the throat (“Please God, not the same anecdote again!”). I can’t say I’m sad to move to other projects after rehashing the same material what felt like endless times.

On the other hand, it was always fun. The constraint of repeating certain story elements pushed me to breathe new stylistic life into them, for under such limitations that was all I could do. The result was a series of ventures into new genres, voices, and rhythms that I now see have tremendous power to shape how stories come across.

Mind you, such observations could well be made through reading too. But when you try out ninety-nine ways of approaching the same writing assignment, it really sinks into your bones. Not only does such an exercise illustrate that our angle of attack matters, but it underscores our vast creative potential: if you set your mind to it, the literary fount you can tap into is limitless. We are all creativity machines with infinite production lines.

So what does all this boil down to? Creative constraints are good. Exercises that push your literary limits are good. Experimentation is good. And writing? That’s beyond good. That’s magic.

But it’s a magic that bears repeating — that demands it, lest the pencils rebel from their drawers and poke us in the eye. And ninety-nine times is just a beginning.

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Review: Tenth of December by George Saunders

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Tenth of December by George Saunders review

George Saunders’s new story collection, Tenth of December,  is a funny book with a  sobering message on what it means to be (North) American today. Its eclectic assortment of pieces, while often focused on dramatic murders and rapes, also touches on familiar day-to-day themes including debt, dehumanizing work environments, and the role of large corporations in shaping our lives. In this way Saunders unromantically chronicles the modern landscape, with all its Burger Kings and “half-remodeled MacDonalds’,” at once giving voice to communities where the built environment seems not to speak, while also critiquing the way repetitive corporate experiences hem us all in.

On this note, one of the major themes of the book is the way corporations control people’s minds. In several stories, including “Escape from Spiderhead” and “My Chivalric Fiasco,” this takes the form of patented pharmaceuticals like “Verbaluce™” or “DocilRyde™,” which modify how articulate or agreeable you are. In these strange yet foreseeable futures, drugs are used not just by individuals to solve medical problems, but by corporations to induce particular work outcomes from employees. For those who staff the medieval theme park in “My Chivalric Fiasco,” there’s even a pill that can help you talk like an English knight.

In another story, “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the latest craze in conspicuous consumption is having a display of “Semplica Girls” in your front yard. In this potential future, doctors have invented a “microline,” which is a string that can be threaded through your brain in such a way that several women can be tied together at the head (harm free!) and then locked into a display. These women are brought to the US from countries like Laos and Somalia, and those who rent them (for it’s a corporation that actually owns them) justify their actions by citing poor conditions in the women’s home countries.

This last story has obvious resonances with the widespread practice of paying foreigners a pittance for work few Americans would consent to. But the overarching theme is about the instrumentalization of human life for corporate ends. This basically boils down to making money — often in wholly trivial ways — and one way the book shines is in the justifications both workers and management dream up to make sense of their mad work environments.

One of the most hilarious examples of this occurs in a story called “Exhortation” — perhaps the best piece in the book. This takes the form of a memo from “Todd Birnie, Divisional Director” of a company pushing its workers to boost productivity. While it starts out as a letter urging employees to have a “positive mental state” and work more efficiently, it winds up indirectly grappling with the moral ambiguity of their work and all that “must be done in Room 6.” While readers never explicitly discover the nature of the company, it becomes clear by the end that the work they are exhorted to approach with a positive attitude is in fact a Nazi-esque murder campaign.

Along with depicting the madness and sometimes-cruelty of the working world, another way Saunders excels is in capturing the colloquialisms of the common American voice. Some of these are humorous, like getting your “ass fried” or being a “dickBrain.” Others — like saying something as a question, even though it’s not? — are simply accurate and pleasing in their precision. This linguistic play makes for good reading, and although many of the stories are bleak and tragic, you can’t help laughing out loud at many of the things Saunders’s characters think and say.

On the weaker side, some of the stories feel more finished than others. Many follow characters through watershed decisions such as saving a life or taking one, and provide a glimpse of how the choices these people make will change their world forever. Others, like the story “Home,” about an Iraq War veteran whose life is falling apart, are vague and leave the reader wondering exactly what is going on and why it matters. Also, the alternate-reality scenarios, featuring personality altering drugs etc., are a bit overplayed and lose their effect when they appear in multiple stories. It’s interesting to imagine a world where our every trait and feeling is manipulated by chemicals in “Escape from Spiderhead,” but when this same idea reappears toward the end of the collection in “My Chivalric Fiasco” the effect seems recycled.

All in all, however, this is a noteworthy book. While The New York Times Magazine might’ve been overzealous in branding it “[t]he best book you’ll read this year” — the stories have no overarching cohesion, so the effect of the book is muted — it’s absolutely worth reading. Not only will it strike a chord with those who face some of today’s most common challenges — financial problems, demoralizing jobs, thorny family issues — it will also make you laugh. And with stories in the form of interior monologues, memos, and note-form diaries, you just might find yourself shaking your head in admiration at Saunders’s relentless inventiveness.

Style No. 99: Love Story

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Although the street was full of dust and metal, it looked just like this.

Although the street was full of dust and metal, it looked just like this.

I met her in the bare concrete of the road but it was like a garden bloomed around her nonstop. Had a smile like carnations and eyes like hummingbirds, full of force and shine. She was whistling for an autorickshaw when I spotted her, so I ran quick before my chance slipped off. “Hey,” I said. “We’re both wearing orange. Want to share a cab?”

She smiled, a little hesitant. “Where are you going?”

“Anywhere,” I said. “Anywhere at all.”

At that moment she did what I’ll never forget. This woman, whose name I had let to learn, put her arm around my shoulder and squeezed me tight. “Alright, handsome,” she said. “Let’s go.”

An auto pulled up then, and I remember it perfectly because a female driver was unusual — some nervous grandma with a funny shawl tied over her hair. Maybe that’s where she kept her driver’s licence and insurance papers, who knows. She leaned over and gave us that look they always do without speaking, those expectant eyes awaiting your destination. “Vishwavidyalaya,” said my orange companion. “Metro station ke pas.”

Tik hai ji,” the driver murmured. She spat an ochre jet of betel-tinged saliva in the road and glanced in the rearview before opening the throttle and launching into the traffic’s raging current. Those nervous eyes again.

I spun round to see what had her worried, and just as we pulled out I saw a strange man in the road behind us. I’m not sure what it was about him — I mean he wasn’t even looking at us, his eyes were off the other way. But he had a funny vibe, something frightening. Like he knew things you didn’t.

Then like that we were gone and all I could see was a crush of bikes and lorries. Anyway I didn’t have time to think about oddballs in the street. I was with a girl, and I was in love.

Style No. 98: Fantasy

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The dill pickle is the centaur's snack of choice.

The dill pickle is the centaur’s snack of choice.

You know I think dad’s losing his ears. After I got thrown out of school for dancing ass naked on the roof mom told him I needed a mentor. So next Saturday he barges into my room and squares up like he’s got an announcement to make. “Listen up. Your mother and I have talked it over, and we’ve decided it’s high time you had a centaur.”

“Jesus, Larry.” That’s mom from the other room. Doesn’t sound pleased one bit.

I’m used to her commentaries of course. And at that moment dad’s words were more important, if only because they were more confusing. So I blocked mom out and zeroed in on just what the hell he was talking about. A centaur?

You can imagine I was skeptical, but then he edges out of the jamb and in trots Mr. Horse-man, so there you go. Turns out you can buy the things up on West Saanich Road for like eight hundred bucks.

“Hey little boy,” the centaur said. “My name’s Clive T. Barrington. It’s good to meet you.”

Jesus, if the name didn’t shock me more than the hooves. Clive Barrington the horse-man. This can’t be real, I’m thinking. This can’t be. “Yeah totally,” I said. “Nice to meet you too. I’m Art. You know, I never had a centaur before.”

I reached up to shake his hand but it was too high to reach. Besides, he was looking the other way, staring out the window with a strange look on his face. There was a deep wistfulness in those obsidian eyes. Or maybe a knowingness. Yeah, a knowingness.

“What you looking at?” I asked.

“Hmm? Oh sorry. I was just thinking of the two boys who sold me. Noisy kids with whistles and gaudy fruit-coloured clothing.”

“Oh, well… sorry to hear that I guess.”

Finally he turned to me and smiled. This time it actually was wistfulness on his face. No doubt about it. “Ah forget them, eh? What are you and I going to do together?”

“Well jeez, I was thinking it’d be pretty awesome if we–“

“–take him back to the store?” That was mom chiming in, biting my lines like she does. “He can’t stay, you know. Good god Dan this is not what I had in mind.” There she goes scolding dad some more.

“Oh come on Wilna.”

“It’s a centaur for Christ’s sake,” she said.

“Exactly! That’s exactly what I’m saying! Look how awesome he his!”

Mom sighed and looked nervous. She rubbed her forehead where that shawl hid whatever it was she kept on her head all the time. “No, Dan, I’m sorry. Art, you can’t have a centaur. In case you forgot, you’re still grounded from that stunt you pulled on the roof, of all places.” Then she turns to Clive like she’s being all nice. “I’m really sorry about this, Mr. Barrington, but there’s been a miscommunication.”

Clive’s face hardened. I don’t think it was anger, though. Those were tears he was holding back. “Well,” he said. “Such is the life of a strange creature who is man above the waist and horse below.” With these last words it seemed a light bulb went off in mom’s head. I saw her eyes dart for a peek between Clive’s hind legs.

“Hmm,” she said. “Well you know, Dan, actually… Maybe this centaur would make a good mentor for Art, even if this is a mix-up.”

“That’s what I’m telling you,” he says. “Centaurs are fucking wicked.” Poor dad, he hasn’t caught on yet. Clive smiles like a little boy desperate enough to do anything to get what he needs. The tragic friggin life of a slave I guess.

Well it probably won’t take dad long, and then Clive will be out on his ass or his hooves or whatever. Suppose I’d better enjoy it while it lasts. Mom too.

Style No. 97: Post-Apocalyptic

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The ash grey world of the Time After.

The ash grey world of the Time After.

On the third day we took to drinking piss. By then so much ash had fallen that the water was worse. It was all worse. Sipping urine was the best thing left to us in this charred and lonely world.

When I say ‘us’ that’s an assumption of course, because it’s just me. Well me and Sheila, but she’s a goat and hasn’t drank much of anything since It happened. Turns out goats don’t drink piss under any circumstance whatsoever.

I did, however, see some people a month ago, so I’m not the only one. Two boys in orange t-shirts scuttling off with an old woman — a grandmother, maybe. Looked like she had their supplies tucked under a cloth on her head.

Couldn’t talk to them, though — nervous as hell, they were. Soon as they spotted me one of the boys blew an old whistle like a cat dying, then they disappeared. Now I’m back on my own. Alone, except for Sheila.

I’m not sure if it’s really what they call bestiality any more. With no people left I think the comparison doesn’t hold. It’s just animality now, raw love between living things. So few left, I’d say it’s fair.

Anyway I believe she likes it — I do. Every time we’re together she gazes off the other way, glossy black eyes staring in the distance, but in a nice way. Then she bleats in a fashion I could only describe as wise. The sound rumbles out of her like an old mountain stream, like the cry of an animal who knows something no one else does.

Well maybe that’s the truth. Maybe she knows more about living in a world like this than any man could ever hope to.

But hell, there’s no time for philosophy; the sun’s plunging down, purple as a bruise. We need to sharpen our spears before They filter out of the shadows, lusting for whatever meat remains in this tar-blackened husk of a life.

Style No. 96: Hardboiled

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They called him Khan The Tailor and he was known in the neighbourhood for looking the other way.

They called him Khan The Tailor and he was known in the neighbourhood for looking the other way.

Let’s just set one thing straight before we get started, which is that I ain’t no snitch. A dick’s got to have secrets or he ain’t no kind of dick, private or otherwise. That’s the law of this business if you give a damn about getting clients. Not that it matters whether you solve the case or not. In this town the victims’ll turn round and slit the throats of the criminals in a second. That’s if they ain’t done it already.

But stories. Well they got their own laws too don’t they. Stories got to be told, that’s why they call them stories. There’s a message stored up inside them.

So I was on the case for this broad named Jack. What the hell kind of name is that for a broad you’re thinking? Pal, don’t even. I been there. Anyway it’s a dime in my pocket so what do I care.

She says to me Rex have I got a job for you. That’s me, Rex Mosgley. Investigateur extraordinaire or whatever they say up in Montreal. Rex it’s a pinch caper, she says. My boys they lost two suits pricey as a mint.

— A pinch eh? What kind of suits we talking? (That’s my way of talking to broads.)

— Crushed velvet orange jumpsuits, it’s the latest fashion, oh you’ve got to get one you’ve just got to.

— Damn it Jack don’t talk to me about fashion. Don’t you know the world is all grey for a man like me?

— But can you get them back?

— Does the pope shit in the woods?

— I don’t imagine it’s my place to comment on religious matters.

— Oh come on, don’t get so nervous now. Makes you look older than you are, like you’re someone’s grandma, which just can’t be true for a broad as fine-looking as you. (Rule number one, always compliment the client.)

— Actually my daughter-in-law just had a baby. His name’s Melvin. Melvin Pennington Samsonite.

— That’s a lot of luggage for a little boy to carry. How about you just give me the skinny on this character you say made off with your boys’ funny suits. Let me guess, someone with a .44 Magnum and an attitude malfunction.

— Funny you should mention that. See, it’s Khan The Tailor. They call him the Khan Man because he’s always separating folks from their belongings. And he’s haughty too, like he knows something nobody else does.

— Whoa babe, let’s push the manifold crank back a few turns. Khan the tailor? Stand up guy he is. Sews my underwear every Christmas. (This is when I started thinking something’s fishy. This racialist type Jack broad? Fishier than a goddamn Newfie kitchen I’m thinking.)

— Are you implying I’m a liar, Mr. Mosgley? You do understand that this Khan is a… a Hindoostani, don’t you?

This is when I noticed that she’s got something hidden beneath the shawl on her head. Right from then I knew things weren’t going to end well. I’m telling you, clients are worse than marks in this damn town. It’s no life for a dick no more.

— Bend an ear this way Jack and bend it good. My mother’s from Chandigarh, you hear? Dad brought her back from the service, fell for the mangoes if you get my drift. So here’s what I’m going to do is I’m going to look the other way and let you leave my office. Let’s hope Khan’s willing to look the other way too.

Well wouldn’t you know it, one of those days. Turns out this broad’s name ain’t Jack at all. Frau Jach maybe. Soon as I’m done my spiel she whips off that head shawl of hers and slings a pistol my way. Then she starts spewing some cream-of-word soup, garbled German or  devil knows what. Arbeit macht frei.

But as it happened, I was the one to set her free long before her finger got to scratching that trigger. I have the shotgun bolted to the desk like any dick with his head screwed on right. Not sure what she expected, should’ve known better if you think on it. Hell, when you been working in this business as long as I have, that’s just what you call mandatory office supplies.

Style No. 95: Sci-Fi

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The planet of the Balthonians looks much like this piece of Earth-fruit.

The planet of the Balthonians looks much like this piece of Earth-fruit.

The planet Nebtok Blintz 6.1 is located just a short distance from the Zerbon nebula. It has a twin planet (6.2) and both float in a beautiful wraith of Zerbon’s orange gasses. While this was nice to look at as I drove in, visibility was terrible. Luckily I’d just had my wipers repaired, and after clicking them to intermittent I was able to see well enough to land.

I only had a tourist visa, which I’d picked up at the Nebtoki consulate on Pluto (all the Zerbon planets seem to have consulates there, who knows why). The bastards only gave me 30 days, but whatever. I’d have the last laugh as I was going to meet up with the Balthonians and help them smuggle four tonnes of diamonds from the planet’s carbon core. Then we’d roll in our billions and take  peyote and maybe go to Alpha Centauri for burgers. But first there was work to do.

Getting through customs was disgusting. I forgot how drippy the Nebtokis are, and to make matters worse the agent at my wicket had left his mucus cup at home. Ew. Maybe this helped me in the end though, because I was able to pass myself off as a tourist without being selected for reversible brain dissection. A more attentive agent might’ve seen I had things to hide.

I returned to my pod and headed for the rendez-vous point I’d set up with my contact among the Balthonians, Chad. “So you’re here, finally,” he said. As though it was my fault the whole road was socked in with orange gas and I couldn’t go more than 100,000. My foot wasn’t even on the pedal, I swear.

“Just give me the diamonds, cowboy,” I said. This is what people call Balthonians because they look like cows.

“And if I say no?” he said, smiling like a crazed fool. What the hell was he playing at? Jesus, I just crossed the galaxy for this guy.

“Hey, what’s the deal man? You’re the one who called me, unless you forgot.”

“Oh I didn’t forget. It’s her who isn’t so sure.”

“Her? The grandmother?”

“One and the same.”

“My god. I thought that was just a legend. You know, scare the Bogzarfs and all that. ‘Ooh, don’t mess with us or the grandmother will get you.'”

“Might scare you too.”

“Well I’m not nervous. If anyone should be nervous it’s her.”

“Oh she is, she always is. That’s her M.O.” He turned his head and yelled back into the darkness of the cave he’d come out of. “Grandmother! Our fence is here. Come size him up.”

Of course I’d lied to him, I was nervous as hell. The grandmother? She was feared from here to the goddamn vanguard of the universe.

After a minute she waddled out of the cave, and to my surprise she just looked like an other Balthonian woman. The only exception is that she had a cloaking device wrapped around her head like a shawl. “What do you want,” she asked.

“What is this?” I said. “You guys fucking called me, ok? You. Called. Me.”

“Alright alright, keep your hat on,” she said, looking me up and down like I was a slave she was inspecting for Krebian digi-lice.

“I’m not wearing any lice, if that’s what you’re worried about,” I said. “Trust me, no one is listening in.”

“Yeah haven’t I heard that a million times,” she said, continuing to size me up.

“What about you, eh? What you got under that cloak?”

At this Chad turned purple. I thought his eyes were going to pop out of his damn head. “No one dares mention the cloak!” he roared.

“It’s fine, Chad, it’s fine. If he wants to see, let him see.”

Finally we’re getting somewhere, I thought. A little cooperation. I was chewed up with curiosity by that point, wonder just what the hell this famous old lady kept on her precious little head, so even though it was just a second before she unveiled, it felt like an eon.

In the end I wish it had been. For when she pulled the cloak off her head I was greeted not by typical Balthonian fur, but something wholly different. A strange little man growing straight out of her skull. “Good god,” I said. “What the fuck is that.” At this the little man turned his head — not at me, but the other way — and a knowing smile pinched across his face. And that’s when I felt it, the heat. The raging unbearable heat. “No,” I said. “It can’t be true.”

His little voice croaked out then like a toad jumping from its wee dank toad hole. “Oh but I’m afraid it is.”

Every second that passed made it harder for me to speak, as I was cooking from the inside out. “Not…not…a mind boiler?”

“Haha! Merry Christmas Earth douchebag!” he cackled. With that I collapsed under the force of the burning, flopping like a fish on rocks. I tried to ask why, but my tongue swelled and choked me out.

There was no explanation, no reason, no hope. I’d met my end among this band of diamond nabbers. GoddamnI thought. Should’ve known better than to trust a cowboy. Should’ve known… And like that I was gone.