January 28, 2008
He did not want to be here. Here was the past, a place Frank disliked visiting. . . . No messages could be sent there, and none came out. All that was left of his own time there were images, memories like blank postcards with no captions, nothing to remind him of the color of the days, or how he’d passed the time, or why he had even been there.
— David Michael Kaplan, American fiction writer b. 1946
from Skating in the Dark, 1991
I’ve changed the logo that has marked January’s posts, and will remove it entirely come the first of February. I can now label myself a Winner in the National Just Read More Novels Month challenge (an event known only to probably a small segment of the blog-reading world). This is actually important to me, because it proves that I did indeed accomplish one of the things I set out to do this month despite my increasing lack of interest in daily activities and an inability to follow through on plans.
It was not the novel I’d planned to read when I announced my participation in these reading and writing challenges. On January 3 I was said I was going to read two Elizabeth Berg novels. But when the morning came that I wanted to read a novel, the two Berg titles were upstairs in my study and I opted for plucking another book from my seemingly inexhaustible supply of unread items.
I have Skating in the Dark in paperback that has a sticker indicating I bought it in March of 1994 for “Sale Price $1.00.” I was probably drawn by its Pennsylvania connection. Some of the stories are set in Pennsylvania, where the central character has grown up, and the author thanks the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for their support. He was born in New York, went to Yale, and now teaches at Loyola University in Chicago, but some time during the years he worked on this collection he must have been a Pennsylvania resident. Prose writers can apply for grants in even-numbered years. In 1998 I got an “honorable mention,” which carries no cash and precious little mention, but nothing in the four rounds since then. I get another shot this summer, and I like to keep reading the stuff that impressed the jury before.
The twelve stories chronicle moments in the life of the central character from his unpleasant piano lessons at age seven to a night when he is forty-six that he engages in a telephone call from the woman he is involved with who typically calls when she is sleepless or otherwise distraught. I looked up reviews of Skating in the Dark only today, after I’d completed the reading. Most confirm what I had been thinking — that the collection is heavy on the melancholy moments and that what is supposed to be conveyed as Frank’s sensitivity actually comes across as self-absorbed moping. Speaking as someone who is pretty self-absorbed and mopey right now, I’d have to say it makes for an unattractive character, especially sustained over a dozen stories covering thirty years.
I’ve quoted from this collection several times as I read it. It contains a lot of food references, passages that jump out at me because there is a food reference or an eating scene in every piece of fiction I write. My favorite story in the group is the one that had the sharing of the hunks of cheese and bread that so delighted me because it showed me people just eating food without worrying about the ratio of fat to fiber or how many Weight Watchers points it contained. It’s a coming-of-age story about trying to write a coming-of-age story. Frank is twenty-five years old here, drifting without focus and direction, much as I was at twenty-five:
I would go live on an island, like Nicholas Urfe in The Magus, a favorite book. I would grow a beard, have love affairs in the Mediterranean sun. And I would write a novel. Even though I’d only written a few poems in college, and nothing since then, I felt in my soul that I might be a writer. All I needed was time and a place away from my life as it was.
I, too, wrote a few poems in college, and then nothing for twenty years longer than Frank stayed away from the page. I had begun to feel again that I might be a writer. When we last see Frank he is the age I was when I started writing again, which also happens to be the age when David Michael Kaplan published his last fiction in book form. I’ve recently had that no-obligation time in a place away from my real life. I accomplished a lot there, far more than Frank did, but I’ve struggled since then to reach the same level of productivity, indeed, to attain any level of achievement in fiction writing. I don’t know what has kept Kaplan from writing more fiction — maybe he’s written it but has had seventeen years of rejection, maybe he’s too busy teaching, maybe he has nothing left to say through an invented character.
I know what’s keeping me back. This was a good selection to read in this gray and melancholy January. In today’s mail came a new collection of exercises for the creative writer, Naming the World, compiled and edited by Bret Anthony Johnston, the teaching fellow in my group at Bread Loaf last year. He was a skilled teacher and an encouraging critic, and just paging through the book (which contains some of Bret’s own teaching exercises) and reading the introduction, I hear his voice again and feel his enthusiasm. It will be the first thing I see when I go to my writing table tomorrow.
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