Homework: Hard-boiled

My guess is that a lot of writers now and then assign themselves homework, reading-wise. There are so many books out there and you don’t always want to grab, say, one of the Russian novels, or Dickens, or Updike, or whatever, and so you force yourself to read something and you take your vitamins and it’s almost always good for you. Not long ago I began on The Brothers Karamazov and I vow to get back to it (soon!), but for my most recent homeMalteseFalcon1930work assignment for myself, I went the other way, to hard-boiled crime. The Maltese Falcon, along with The Big Sleep, are the two hard-boiled crime novels you most hear about. And I’d never read much of this kind of story at all. Movies, of course, but not in books.

And so I finally (doesn’t that word apply to so much in terms of reading, especially books?) picked up The Maltese Falcon and am three-quarters through it. What I noticed first (and on the first page) is Dashiell Hammett’s (owner of one of my all-time favorite writer names) descriptions. They can be a lot to get around, at times. He loves to describe mouth expressions and the sets of eyes and the sparkle of eyes and different kinds of smiles. And there’s a lot of description of clothes.

But, for me, with this kind of book (as in a lot of big-budget, very fast-moving movies), it’s the profusion of characters that gives me the toughest time. It’s always: Who’s Archer again? A detective or the guy who was killed on page 20 or maybe a reporter? Maybe my medium-term memory’s not great. Not sure. So that’s been a challenge with this one.

But it’s a fun book. Very fast, with a new complication every chapter. It moves briskly and pulls you into the next chapter. Not much wasted movement. No internal stuff. All external. He kisses girls or he slaps them. And then he smiles in a certain way and that’s what happens.


On a Little Bit of Weirdness in Stories

Every now and then a story comes in to Baltimore Review (where I’m an editor) containing an element of the supernatural and when I see one, my eyes widen a little. I don’t mean supernatural as in Mars or rocket-ships from 2114 or really any kind of full-on fantasy. What I mean is stories in which one thing is off but in which everything else—the earth and probably the force of gravity but mostly the human heart with its endless emptyings and endless desires to be filled up again—acts normally, as it does in all good stories. I’m thinking of much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fiction or Haruki Murakami’s story “The Ice Man” or many of Steven Millhauser’s stories or, more personally, in Rachel Lyon’s “The Installation” (in our own Spring 2013 issue), a story I rooted for. Of course there are many others.

To all those fiction writers who want to do their own experimenting with stories where just one thing is odd, or supernatural, or somehow beyond what we think of as possible, I’d like to recommend Margot Livesey’s lovely, haunting Eva Moves the Furniture. I am, as I am in so many things, late to this 2001 novel, but I’m glad I found it.

It becomes apparent very early that our Eva sees two people who, to everyone else, are invisible. And once you swallow that, which Livesey makes easy, you’re off and running into the story of a girl’s first loves, her later loves, her triumphs, her tragedies. At no point does Livesey address the plausibility of these two, well, ghosts or whatever they are, but she doesn’t need to, of course. What Livesey does is much more difficult than explaining away the impossible or at the very least the implausible. What she does is bring a character fully to life, letting us feel her doubts, her loves, her contradictions, her failures, which is really what the best kinds of stories are about.

If anybody out there wants to write a story in which there’s a little of the supernatural, please do, and if you can do it while still writing a story that makes us feel something, send it our way. I’m rooting for you.