Fiction Friday: Tough Defense Part 4

Tough Defense Part 1

Tough Defense Part 2

Tough Defense Part 3

Charlotte hustled herself out of the building that housed her office downtown. The southern sun beat down, and the humidity felt like a weight growing heavier on her chest. She clipped along to the parking garage.

“God, I gotta get out of here,” she thought, knowing full well that if he really wanted to know where she was going or what kind of car she drove, he could find out. He always seemed to be one step ahead of her, a characteristic that unnerved Charlotte in all clients, particularly clients of this ilk.

More than anything Charlotte just wanted to get out of there. Why is it that on the days she most needs to get away, the parking lot becomes an obstacle course, a maze with no exit? She drove around in circles a few more times and headed towards home. Andre Lester smiled through the office window at her effort.

“Where ya been, Sis? I been waitin’ for ya,” Kip said when she walked through the door. She had that silly spool of wire of the table in front of her, attempting, it seemed, to shape it into something artsy. She looked like she hadn’t been awake for too long.

“Did you just get up?” Charlotte asked. She was hoping whatever Kip had done that day would take her mind off her meeting with Lester.

“I been up since one. I’m an artist, not a bum.” Kip smiled through her feigned indignation. “Beauty doesn’t create itself, ya know.”

As Kip dove into the details of her day, Charlotte’s mind began to wander into tomorrow. She was confident that she had thoroughly memorized her arguments for tomorrow, including the parts she didn’t believe. That’s most of it, she thought, and shook her head. But what would happen to her afterwards? What would happen to Lester?

* * * *
To be continued…

Text only ©2011 Jessica Cocita. All Rights Reserved

Novel Thoughts: The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

Nonfiction is a different kind of literary beast in terms of both reading and writing. The story is still there, waiting to be released, but the author’s job transforms from that of storyteller to that of fact checker. It is often (although not always) a much more sterile writing task, one that Allison Hoover Bartlett has attempted to tackle in her book The Man Who Loved Books Too Much .

Bartlett’s book relates the history of a man, John Gilkey, who is so consumed with his desire to possess rare books that he resorts to stealing them from those to whom they (rightfully?) belong. Bartlett also writes of Gilkey’s nemesis, Ken Sanders, who makes it his mission to thwart Gilkey and visit upon him the proper consequences. By the end of the book, readers are able to see that while the men operate on opposite sides of the good/evil dichotomy, they are both equally voracious in their attempts to obtain their goals.

As nonfiction books are inclined to be, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is slow to start, and the reader is often left wondering what the thesis of the work is to be. We are constantly left with open-ended questions that are evaded in subsequent chapters. By the end of the book, we still can’t be sure that we understand Gilkey and his motives anymore than we did in the beginning, as Bartlett doesn’t actually draw the connections between Gilkey, Sanders, and even herself until chapter eleven. Then the connection is tenuously explained.

Creative description of the setting seems contrived in this text, which is a common problem in creative nonfiction. Writers are only allowed so much poetic license before they are admonished for not adhering to facts. Bartlett’s case is no different. While her attempts to creatively render a factual setting are commendable, they still fall short of the descriptive vigor to which readers of fiction are accustomed. For example, Bartlett writes, “On the late spring day I drove there, the sky was a dull blue, the wind fierce, and the hills well on their way to a dry shade of brown. Off the highway, the frontage road was bordered by Harley-Davidsons, powerboats, and off-road vehicles in various states of disrepair.” While this description does paint what we can assume is an apt picture, it is rather generic in feeling.

As nonfiction books go, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is an interesting story, even if it doesn’t answer any profound questions about thieves, their motives, or ways to rehabilitate them. Bartlett has done a good job of integrating anecdotal with factual material which helps keep the reader entertained. She makes both Sanders and Gilkey seem relatable to her readers in a way that aligns us with her confusion as to why the men behave the way they do, and ultimately readers will be left with questions regarding not just the rare book trade but themselves as well.

No Such Thing As No Strings Attached

Benevolence is a cultivated quality. We all like to think of ourselves as generous and supportive. We like to think we go beyond the necessary, doing whatever it takes to accomplish what life and other people throw our way. We convince ourselves that we live unconditionally, that we love unconditionally. But deep down, lurking in the dark and musty corners of who we really are, dwell the provisos, the conditions for our approval and our acceptance.

We don’t generally entertain these stipulations; we prefer for other people to remain ignorant of their existence. In fact, we disown them altogether if ever accused of harboring them in the first place. But there they are, inescapable and passive-aggressively unwavering. We use these conditions for access to ourselves; we engage them at our own discretion. We transpose them onto those surrounding us for better or for worse. They become an element of control or manipulation. We don’t like them, but we tolerate them.

Some of us rebel against them. We are able to see when they surreptitiously take control of our conversations, and though we may at times be in agreement with them, we stifle them for the sake of the unconditional. Others of us are in denial regarding their existence. We cry absolute when we really mean quid pro quo. Those of us who indulge these provisos will inevitably end up feeling nasty and tainted when all is said and done. But that is their magic, not that we have allowed them to rear themselves, but that we still will not give them a name.

So what are the conditions of unconditional? When we say that we are giving or loving or supporting unconditionally, do we always expect to get something in return? How much of this life is give, and how much of it is take?

If I’m Me, Then Who Are You?

In general, we like to sing the praises of individuality. Let each be his own, or something similar. We applaud the efforts of those who seek to distinguish themselves from the masses, and we designate whole months of the year to celebrate diversity and revel in the distinct attributes every person brings to the cultural table.

But to what extent do we actually believe in the positivity of the differences we like to praise? Do we celebrate individuality only so long as someone else is performing it? Is our championing of individual self-expression conditional, limited to those who couldn’t conform if their lives depended on it? And if we are subconsciously reinforcing this double-standard, what does this do to an adolescent’s capacity for self-expression?

Shopping malls are full of innumerable incarnations of the same teenager. This teenager wears skinny jeans and retro sneakers. He has borrowed a hairstyle from a cleverly marketed pop culture pawn, and he bears the look of befuddled indifference popularized by teenagers long ago. This teenager bumps into himself at every corner and refuses to say “excuse me” for fear of damaging his borrowed ego.

When two embodiments of this teen converse, those of us cognizant of what’s happening expect some sort of metaphysical breakdown of the archetype. We expect, perhaps naively, that the mask will dissolve, and what will be left behind is the true individual. And that would be ok. It is, in fact, what we want. Right?

What happens in reality is that the clones embrace their identically constructed selves and march on together, still believing they are doing something unique, still presenting themselves as the individuals they think they are. And still believing this is how it’s supposed to be.

I wonder where they got that idea.

Fiction Friday: Tough Defense Part 3

Tough Defense Part 1

Tough Defense Part 2

Charlotte exhausted that wave of positivity, riding it straight into her afternoon. Her next meeting, though, was looming in front of her, and she was going to need more confidence than today’s brief interlude with Stuart had allotted her.

“Charlotte?” her intercom crackled.

“I know, Lisa. You can tell Mr. Lester I’m headed to the conference room.”. Lisa, that was it, Charlotte thought, glad she finally remembered someone’s name without having to consult the placard on the desk.

Charlotte took a deep breath and sighed out the window for the second time that day. Without dwelling too much on where she was going or to whom she was going to speak, Charlotte forced herself to the conference room.

As she approached, her stomach began to twist. She could see him lounging in his chair as though waiting for an old friend. The gaudy gold jewelry he wore contrasted sharply with his crisp white linen suit. That, Charlotte thought, is a poorly executed disguise, and it is all you need to know about a man like that. His overwhelming cologne felt like a sucker punch when she walked through the door.

“Ms. Malloy, it’s so good to see you,” Mr. Lester leered. His accent was thick, an amalgamation of languages gleaned around the world. Charlotte tried not to think about how he’d acquired it.

“And you, Mr. Lester. Now, I spoke with the prosecution this morning, and they-”

“Ms. Malloy,” Lester tutted. “So formal. There will be time for business. Life, well, life is too short. I want to talk about more pleasant things. Like you.”

It was this part of the conversation that Charlotte dreaded the most. Despite her novice status as a defense attorney, she understood that no client should know anything more than her name and office location. She’d known Andre Lester long enough to know that she wasn’t about to volunteer anything. He could probably find out for himself if he wanted it badly enough. The thought crossed her mind that he probably had. Suddenly the conference room began to feel smaller. Charlotte tried not to look panicked, but the plate glass separating her from the her colleagues seemed to be getting thicker and thicker until the forms of errand boys and paralegals began to blur.

“Ms. Malloy, is something the matter? You look ill.” Lester appeared concerned, and indeed he was. He needed his defense in top condition. A change in attorneys would disorient the jury, and he couldn’t afford that. Not again. Besides, he hated to see an attractive woman in distress. It never occurred to him that he might be the source.

“Yes, I mean, no, Mr. Lester. I’m perfectly well. Now if we could discuss your case, I have a meeting across town in an hour. And you know the traffic here.” Charlotte faked the confidence she didn’t feel.

“But of course, Ms. Malloy. Fine, we can discuss this, what you call, situation.”

* * * *

To be continued…

Text only ©2011 Jessica Cocita. All Rights Reserved.

Novel Thoughts: The Steps Across the Water

The Steps Across the Water by Adam Gopnik is an illustrated children’s chapter book that chronicles the adventurers of a young girl, Rose, as she tries to battle evil in two parallel worlds. Rose is an adopted member of her family, and throughout the story she confronts and overcomes the limitations of the term family. Gopnik uses the city of New York as an anchor to reality while constructing for his readers the fictional realm of U Nork, a city modeled on New York but much larger in scope and vision. In the beginning.

Readers familiar with fairy tales and other fantasy literature will immediately see the influence of other popular works in The Steps Across the Water. For example, the Ice Queen is able to control people when they get a piece of ice lodged in their eye, a detail the story shares with the fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” We also see the influence of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Rose, much like Lucy, is a very sensitive girl. It is she to whom the steps are revealed at the beginning. After crossing them and learning of U Nork’s dire existential circumstances, she decides to proceed by offering whatever assistance she can. We also see the element of the Ice Queen, a woman who desires only winter and leads a very cold, hard life, a woman whose mission has become the destruction of U Nork.

Gopnik’s use of sarcasm throughout the book is successful at keeping adult readers entertained, albeit until the next page. For example, when Rose arrives in U Nork, she sees people paying for various goods and services by pulling coins out of their nose. Later after she and Louis have finished having lunch, he bites down on the check and tells her that they have his teeth marks on file. He explains, “That’s the way you charge a bill here…You either gotta pay through the nose of pay through your teeth.” Rose later learns that U Nork’s problems are its foundation and who controls it. Louis tells her, “I told ya U Nork was built on money.” Gopnik uses U Nork as a vessel of critique for New York in such a way that the cynicism is recognizable but not overwhelming.

The intended audience of the story has been obscured by both the language and the actions of the characters involved. Rose is a ten-year-old girl, but she is presented in a way that causes the reader to forget her age and focus on her maturity. For example, when she first visits U Nork, Louis takes her to a nice lunch (nice in the U Norkian sense). This lunch involves being seated in a vertical human pyramid. Rose climbs up and up and tries to comfortably situate herself on someone else’s shoulders, and Gopnik writes, “She looked down, then quickly looked back up. It was so precarious!” In this case, the narrative voice seems to have slipped from that of our protagonist to the author himself. Gopnik doesn’t shy away from incorporating minor four-letter words throughout the text, and although they are not overwhelming, they do cause confusion when trying to determine an appropriate audience.

The author’s own familiarity with New York serves to create a more realistic experience; however, for readers unfamiliar with the size and scope of that city, the over-exaggerated features of U Nork will seem less tangible, less significant.

The Steps Across the Water is a mildly entertaining story, and younger readers are sure to appreciate the illustrations, which have a nostalgic quality. However, older readers are likely to be bored by the author’s insistence on the vast difference between New York and U Nork. While the issue of family and its parameters is commendably dealt with and while Rose is somewhat a sympathetic character, The Steps Across the Water is likely to be a more poignant story to a local audience, one familiar with the setting and its possibilities.