Down the sidewalk from my house, a few blocks away, a boat rests on a trailer next to a truck parked in the driveway.
I guess the neighbor bought the boat from a boat store, but I like to imagine a massive wave carried the boat from the lake and left it here.
Of course, no fishes or people were harmed in the wave’s crash. The fishes that were in the wave took a bus back to the lake. I doubt they had money for bus fare, so maybe fish can ride buses for free.
This story walks a delicate line. Perhaps we will find an easier approach of starting with what the story does not want.
It does not want to be seen as pretentious. This story would never go to a chic restaurant and, upon hearing the sommelier say the restaurant has no more bottles of 1984 Fancypants Chablis, throw a fit and storm out of the restaurant. This is not one of those kinds of stories. Also, when wearing a polo shirt, this story does not “pop the collar.”
It desires to be seen as a “story among the people.” On weekends, after mowing the lawn, it sits on a patio chair and sips a common brand of beer — not a “this dude only drinks microbrews nobody’s heard of and listens to bands nobody’s heard of” type of beer.
This story wishes to entertain, in the hope that people will have a good time while experiencing it. Of course, “good time” is subjective to every reader. Some readers prefer action:
Viv dispatches the four members of Baron Lybo’s assault squad with throwing knives as she creeps around her house that they’ve entered in the night. Viv acts as a ninja using the familiar territory to her advantage. The last two assaulters fire their AK-47s before Viv’s knives plunge into their necks. The shots will cause neighbors to call the cops. Viv slings the four AKs on her shoulder and marches outside to her muscle car. Plenty of ammo is in the guns for her to attack one of Baron Lybo’s drug warehouses. But how did the baron discover Viv’s safe house? Is one of Viv’s few friends a snitch? Does her car have a tracking device?
Other readers prefer romantic comedy:
In the office’s break room, Jacqueline stands at the counter and has no way of knowing that Antonio is walking behind her when she turns around. Jacqueline bumps into Antonio. She was heading to the microwave to heat her leftover chicken curry. Both people watch in surprise as the green curry sloshes, then dollops of curry sauce leap from the container and land on Antonio’s shirt. He recovers from the surprise and says, “I better soak it before the stain becomes permanent.” As Antonio unbuttons his shirt and holds it under the sink’s faucet, Jacqueline is hit by lust/love’s gentle cheek slaps: Delicious six-pack of abs! Knowledge of good laundry practice! He chose to solve the problem instead of lashing out in anger!
But this story doesn’t want to be only entertaining. Going for thrills and laughs is a fine goal. Reaching beyond that, into the realm of admirable
(in the story’s estimation),
is to also aim for resonance. To weave a story with such emotional depth, readers will remember the story as more than “five or ten minutes I spent while avoiding my work at the office, or while I waited for the bus.” To resonate with readers, the story could show a character with weaknesses:
Parcy slumps on a kitchen chair as the dishwasher starts. Another difficult day of work. Tempting is the thought of pouring wine into one of the tall, retro-swirly decorated glasses (thrift store finds; to hell with “proper” wine glasses) and binging on a TV show. Yet, Parcy doesn’t want that tonight. There’s an urge for a meditative time. Parcy taps her phone’s screen to find the Quiet Nights album by Miles Davis. Interesting how the jazz mixes with the sound of water spraying inside the dishwasher. Parcy wonders when she’ll feel consistently confident at work. To get past the thoughts of being behind. Doubt weighs heavily. She closes her eyes and focuses on the trumpet’s music. She wishes she could ride the music, let it carry her around the apartment while rain falls outside the windows.
The story’s aim is for this kind of character, contrasted with a character representing a societal ideal that’s impossible to achieve. Such a character would breeze through life, everything coming easily to her/him/them.
This story would rather include a character facing struggles, while developing strength and lessons from struggles and failures:
The octopus swims away from the crowded sea floor, into a maze of rocks, gliding over and under, around them. Until the octopus finds the cave and enters its darkness. The sun’s rays diving into the water do not reach inside the cave. That’s preferable to the octopus. She needs a break from her parents nagging her to find a mate (“Please! We’d like grandchildren before we get too old and slow to play with them.”) and her friends, whose kidding around can sometimes get on her nerves. In the cave, the octopus dances. Her tentacles swirl and ripple in complicated patterns. Nobody can see her. She dances simply, for the joy of movement. A good way to let off steam and help ease her mind. However, she is wrong about nobody seeing her. Today, a lanternfish happens upon the cave. Seeing the octopus, the lanternfish turns off her green glow. The octopus is so involved in her dance that she doesn’t realize the presence of another creature. Until the octopus spins toward the cave’s opening. Immediately, she stops dancing. She says, “Why are you spying on me?” The lanternfish says, “I couldn’t help it. I came in here and saw you and I didn’t want to stop you. Please keep dancing.” The octopus says, “No. You’ll judge me.” The lanternfish says, “Too late. I already judged you. Your dancing is wonderful.” The octopus says, “You really mean that?” The lanternfish nods and says, “I’d like to see more.” The octopus says, “Promise you won’t make fun of me?” After the lanternfish promises that, the octopus says, “Will you tell the others?” The lanternfish says, “I won’t. Your secret is safe with me.” The octopus hesitates, weighs her options, then begins to dance again. The lanternfish turns on her green light, brightening the cave. The lanternfish joins in the dance, swimming over and under, around the swirling tentacles.
Hopefully, the reader would connect on some level with the character, to feel less alone in the world.
Which springs a kind of magic. The little drawings that we’ve come to the collective understanding that they represent letters. When grouped together, they form words. Strings of these words can inspire pictures in readers’ minds and inspire emotions in their hearts.
Such is the wish of this story. With every reader who happens upon it, the story knows it walks the delicate line between failure and success.
Captain Morgan held fast to the rigging as the ship keeled sickeningly to port before finally, exasperatingly, righting itself. He snapped, “I told you we needed to wait another day before Rounding the Horn! This storm’ll be the death of us! The ship’ll be dashed into a thousand pieces!”
Captain Crunch, also holding fast, narrowed his eyes and growled through the tiny gap between his gritted teeth, “She’ll hold up, just you wait and see.”
The horse was grateful the man turned on the hose, with the forest’s stream flowing lower. The man was kind with gifts of carrots and brushing, saying, “You shouldn’t run so much on these hot days. Where ya runnin’ to, anyway?” The horse coughed out some water. In asking, the man would never know. Especially with his mere two legs never showing hurry. He’d never know the wind on your skin, the sound in your ears. Muscles working their glorious purpose. Outrunning the shadows of the clouds. Even though they are slow, the clouds know as they laugh at the fence. Freedom.
This year’s National Book Festival kicks off today!
The U.S.-based festival started back in 2001, formed by Laura Bush and the Library of Congress. It’s been running every year since.
When my daughters and I first went to the festival, it was held on the National Mall, during a weekend in early September. Tented pavilions held author talks for categories: fiction, poetry, history, science, etc. (The photo above is from that visit — I can’t remember what year.)
Afterwards, the festival moved inside, to the DC Convention Center and still took part on a full weekend. Then it was reduced to one day. Last year, the festival was just online. Author talks still happened, but with screens.
Through the various changes of the festival, my family has really enjoyed attending the festival. My daughters have festival posters — a new one each year — hanging on their bedroom walls. You can check out the poster gallery from all the festivals here — and you can download high-resolution PDFs of them.
A very big thank you to all the folks who put together the festivals. I’m always impressed by the organization of the rooms for author talks, lines for book signings, banners, and so on. I’m sure a lot goes into making the festival hum along.
This year, the festival’s theme is “Open a Book, Open the World.” And the festival happens over a whopping ten days. I don’t typically use “whopping” but it seemed appropriate. That’s a whole lotta love for books! YESSSSSSSSSS! That’s with ten S’s, so you don’t have to count them.
Video chats with authors are unleashed! — as of 10:00 ET. The list of those is here.
The authors participating in this year’s festival are listed here. On that page, you can click on an author’s name to jump to their page with a description of them, the title of their most recent work, and a link to their video conversation.
I’m planning to check out video chats with Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Martha Wells, LeVar Burton, Charles Yu, George Saunders, and Kazuo Ishiguro.
Also, as a kind of contribution to the celebration of books, I’ll be posting book quotes on Twitter throughout the ten days. If you’d like to see them each day, my Twitter name is @dwilliamswriter. I’ll probably also group the quotes and post them here on my blog — I might not have a schedule for those posts, though.
Happy reading, and I hope you enjoy the festival’s offerings!
Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is a bleak read, as it centers on a man and boy’s experiences in a post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s rough for what some survivors do to keep surviving.
The novel’s last paragraph stunned me. That doesn’t happen often as I read, but a handful of writers have had that affect on me with the emotional impact and precision of their language. Besides McCarthy, other authors include Karen Russell, Ray Bradbury, Kelly Link, and Harlan Ellison.
Let’s steer back to The Road. After reading the novel, I felt inspired to draw my interpretation of the last paragraph. The above drawing is the result. Apologies for the watermarks. I spent a lot of time on this drawing, and I didn’t want someone to grab it and use it in their own project.
I won’t quote the last paragraph here, since I believe a large part of its impact comes from the journey of reading all the paragraphs before it. A full journey on the road, rather than flying to the end.
But if you want to skip all those other paragraphs, you can read the last one here.
A power of stories is their ability to transport readers to other places and times. Murakami does this very well for me — his stories are mesmerizing. And Kafka on the Shore is his latest book to have that effect on me.
An overview of the book …
At 15 years old, one of the main characters disguises his first name (to be called Kafka Tamura) and runs away from home. He wants to get away from his father and tries to escape the Oedipus Rex prophecy that his father put on him. Talk about a heavy burden to carry. Kafka wants to find his mother and sister, who left the family when Kafka was four.
Kafka’s chapters alternate with those of Satoru Nakata, who is quite an interesting character. During World War II, Nakata was in school when strange event happened. He and his schoolmates were hunting for mushrooms in the woods. All the kids lost consciousness and fell to the ground. However, the teacher was not affected. After the teacher ran to get help and returned to the kids, they started waking up. But not Nakata. He remained in a comatose state for a while. And when he eventually woke up, he could neither read nor write.
From that background, leap to the time of the book’s main action. Nakata is in his sixties and still can’t read or write. But he can talk to cats. Which helps him find lost cats for people in his neighborhood.
Back to Kafka Tamura: he journeys to the island of Shikoku, to the city of Takmatsu, where he finds a private library. He enjoys reading in the peaceful place and befriends the librarian Oshima. Miss Saeki runs the library and spends much of her time in her office. Miss Saeki also has an interesting background, which Oshima tells to Kafka.
Murakami’s stories typically contain oddities. In this book: fish and leeches fall from the sky … spirits appear in the form of Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders … soldiers from World War II haven’t aged … another world/alternate reality opens up.
Also, this book contains portions that may cause some to not pick up this book: incest by the main character, and another character eats still-beating hearts of cats. As for the second action, that character has a reason for doing it. Still, it’s a rough chapter. Murakami doesn’t gloss over gruesome parts.
Kafka on the Shore has many portions that are food for thought. The quote below is from Kafka’s alter ego (“the boy named Crow”), who gives advice to Kafka in the beginning of the book. I thought the message was moving. To me, the message is about growth after enduring a struggle — it’s when you are either forced out of a comfortable place or you choose to venture out of that comfort.
“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine.
And you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You’ll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.
And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
Quote from: Murakami, Haruki. Kafka on the Shore. Alfred A. Knopf. 2005. pp. 5-6.