Sunday, August 30, 2009

Male Writers

By Laura P. Valtorta

Men. What are they seeing? What are they feeling? Why is Woody Allen a sports fan? They act so bombastic and inscrutable that I must read their fiction to understand them. Here are three of my favorite writers:

RICHARD FORD. For the past 20 years he has led us through the life of character Frank Bascombe, the hero of the books The Sports Writer, Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land. He won the Pulitzer Prize. He also has written several short stories, some of them in collections. His latest short story appeared in The New Yorker magazine about a year ago.

When Richard Ford came to speak at USC as part of the Jeanette Turner Hospital program, I wondered if he would be snobby after so much success. He is a Louisiana native who writes about New Jersey, a child dying, two divorces, and growing old in the real estate business. Funny and poignant. I thought maybe he wrote about himself. Turns out, Frank Bascombe is not much like Richard Ford, who has been married to the same woman for many years, has no children, and divides his time among homes in Colorado, New Jersey, Ireland, and Louisiana. His talk was entertaining and never condescending. He seemed happy with himself and his life.

Richard Ford is short and compact, unlike his writing which is sprawling and unedited. He is about 60, has clear blue eyes and is part Native American. He talks to his fans; he talked to me! As the studio executive once said about Carole Lombard: “Me likee.”

HARUKI MURAKAMI (say it fast) is the master of existential fiction. I can’t get enough of him. Luckily, all of his novels and short stories have been translated from Japanese to English.

The best way to meet Haruki is through the short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Reading and re-reading the same stories. They draw the reader along. The characters are rich, the metaphors come to life. The intrigue is that these stories are difficult to understand. "The Poor Aunt" is a good place to start. The narrator doesn’t just feel like he has a poor aunt on his back. He actually does, which makes life cumbersome. I see the poor aunt as a metaphor for depression. The other stories are more complex. What happens in “Birthday Girl?” What does “The New York Mining Disaster” have to do with New York? Why the obsession with cats?

Haruki Murakami has written an autobiography called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which doesn’t shed much light on his stories but says a lot about being Japanese and loving jazz.

TOM PERROTTA. This writer is not someone I want to meet. He is too preppy and reminds me of the frat boys in college. He probably drinks beer and uses pick-up lines. He might think he’s good-looking. Maybe he is.

What strikes me about Perrotta’s writing (Election, Joe College, Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher) is that he has mastered the art of creating characters through alternating points of view. In The Abstinence Teacher, he writes from two minds: a woman, a sex education teacher, who wants to be able to teach freely about birth control in public schools, and a man who has been “saved” by a fundamentalist Christian Church. The characters clash. Perrotta makes them both likeable. How does he do this? He understands how women think. How? Maybe men and women are not so different after all.

1 comment:

Columbia Writers Workshop said...

Laura, thanks for mentioning Haruki; I've been meaning to check out his work. I thoroughly enjoyed The Abstinence Teacher & yes, Perrotta did an amazing job inhabiting the female character; I want to study how he showed his characters' idiosyncrasies and ironies. However, I seem to remember the ending as being either too abrupt or too unwieldy.