Books, movies, videos, oh my!

March 21, 2012, by

In the age of YouTube and other video hosting sites, it’s easier than ever to watch movie previews. These previews give you a feel for the film, its cinematography, its characters, and its plot. This idea of video based previews is now seeping into the literary world.

Gary Shteyngart, who is appearing as part of the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series on March 26th with Orange Prize winner Téa Obreht, has some of the funniest book promo videos around for his novel Super Sad True Love Story. We had to share them.

This video has James Franco in it, who was a student of Gary’s at Columbia.  Other literary notables featured are Mary Gaitskill, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Jay McInerney. It doesn’t tell you what the book is about, but definitely gives you a glimpse into Shteyngart’s wacky sense of humor. Click here to watch the Super Sad True Love Story promo video.  Continue reading

An Open Book is now open

March 5, 2012, by

Welcome to Inprint’s new blog An Open Book. For close to three decades Inprint has been lucky enough to provide Houston with readings, writing workshops, fellowships for emerging writers at the University of Houston Creative Writing Program, and much more. We’ve witnessed other literary initiatives take root and flourish, and we’ve seen Houston develop into a great city for readers and writers. So much is happening in Houston’s literary scene, we can barely keep up ourselves.

Not only is there exciting local news, but Houston’s literary community has a synergistic relationship with national literary events and trends. We’re influenced by what is happening nationally, but Houston writers and our events are having a direct impact on shaping the global literary scene too, and that is something we are very proud of. We are part of it, not just a result of it. Continue reading

Lessons and The Marriage Plot

October 31, 2011, by

At Wednesday’s reading, Jeffrey Eugenides said he was genuinely surprised that he wrote a book that at all contained Jane Austen or George Eliot or the Victorians at all. Eugenides said that at Brown in the ‘80s, he was enamored with the modernists—Joyce, Proust, Faulkner—anyone or anything that was “taking apart consciousness.” But then, he said, he graduated and read Tolstoy (which exemplifies the kind of writing the modernists were reacting to) and discovered the “narrative drive and vividness of characters so compelling that they shouldn’t be left behind in the drive toward something new.” Thus, The Marriage Plot, in which deconstruction and tradition both have their place.

What Eugenides said in the post-reading interview with Alex Parsons really put the book in an articulate perspective for me. He said in writing this book he was interested in the moments in our lives when “our head and our heart are in conflict.” The head, in this case, is the sense-making deconstruction of Barthes and Derrida, the necessary acknowledgement that everything, even love, is a construct. The heart, then, is the passion Madeleine feels for Leonard, the dependence on the purity of feeling for truth. Of course, Leonard, a scientist with manic depression, is constantly negotiating head troubles and heart troubles. And Mitchell, a gifted philosopher in pursuit of religious purpose, is also grappling with head and heart, the known and the unknown.

Though many have criticized this novel for not being as epic in scope as Middlesex or as narratively risky as The Virgin Suicides, Eugenides’s comments on Wednesday gave words to why this book is still successful. In short, because it’s about—as many great novels are—the things that linger over our real selves for years and years after they take seed and ruin our graduation, or our trip across Europe, or our first love.

On Wednesday, Eugenides gave a bit of advice for first-time novelists: give yourself limitations. Don’t try to write the whole world your first time out. Sounds like excellent advice to me, but in a recent post over at
The Millions
, Eugenides articulates a slightly different lesson. He discussed why and how he sat down to write this novel, and tried to name what he learned from all of it. His lesson is the lesson I want to remember when I sit down to write mine:

But you don’t write a novel from an idea, or at least I don’t. You write a novel out of the emotional and psychological stuff that you can’t shake off, or don’t want to. For me, this had to do with memories with being young, bookish, concupiscent, and confused. Safely in my 40s, married and a father, I could look back on the terrifying ecstasy of college love, and try to re-live it, at a safe distance. It was deep winter in Chicago when all this happened. Every day I looked out my office window at snow swirling over Lake Michigan. After separating the two books, I put one in a drawer and kept the other on my desk. I ran off with The Marriage Plot and didn’t look back. I changed completely, became a different person, a different writer; I started a new life with a new love, and all without ever leaving home.

Boys Writing About Girls

October 25, 2011, by

The other day I was telling a friend that I thought maybe Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot was a kind of feminist novel. As a reminder: Madeleine, a senior at Brown University, is trying to reconcile her adoration of Victorian novels that employ the marriage plot (an antiquated courtship narrative) with the changing landscape of literary criticism. In the midst of her academic consternations, she gets involved in a love triangle of her own with the enigmatic but depressive scientist, Leonard, and the geeky but tender religious studies major, Mitchell. The beautiful heroine, Madeleine, must choose between a man of science and a man of faith (a familiar plot trope we’ve seen as recently as the television show, Lost). I don’t want to give anything away about the ending of the novel, but Madeleine releases herself from that love triangle with a surprising epiphany that feels more third wave feminism than anything else.

How nice, I thought when I read it and closed the book. A novel where the heroine “wins” in spite of the men who love her, though not at their expense.

So I was telling my friend this and she asked if I’d read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom last year. I haven’t, but I know what it’s about—the troubled girlhood and college life of the character of Patty, and the love triangle she’s a part of. My friend thought it was interesting that both Freedom and The Marriage Plot are both recent celebrated novels about young women finding their way through romance and contemporary life, but that both of them were written by men.

We wondered over our brunch if the same praise would be lauded if women had written those novels. In fact, Ann Beattie’s latest new work (the novella, Walks With Men) is a chronicle of the love life of the twenty something Jane in 1980s Manhattan, and tackles similar issues: how to be young, how to be in love, how to make sense of the world. But Beattie’s novella wasn’t given nearly the same attention. It was, however, given a bright pink and black cover bearing a photograph of a woman’s naked back.

I don’t mean to say I think The Marriage Plot is doing anything wrong. I think it’s doing so many things right. Not only did I enjoy reading it, but I also thought it was smart. Really smart, unashamedly, thrillingly smart. I’m excited that it exists. I’m also excited to see someone like Jean Thompson or Joy Williams or Mary Gaitskill write the same kind of novel and get the same kind of consideration.

How Did I Get Here?

October 24, 2011, by

I wrote about Madeleine in my last post, and since The Marriage Plot is really about a love triangle, I want to give some time to the two male characters. First we have Mitchell, the Detroit-bred Greek-American Tom Waits-lookalike who is so torn apart when Madeleine rejects him that he has to go on an aimless post-grad backpacking trip to forget her. Where Madeleine’s struggles are with the construction of love, Mitchell’s are in wrestling with faith. One semester, he writes such an impressive paper for a class called “Religion and Aleination in 20th Century Culture” that the professor all but promises him an in at Harvard Divinity School. Mitchell instead flees to holy grounds in Italy and India.

Mitchell’s mostly solitary storyline is treated tenderly, and his crisis is much less dramatic than Madeleine’s. Mitchell quietly realizes that his search is for faith in 1982–in the wake of ‘60s lit crit, the midst of materialism, and the onset of a recession—might not be quite as simple as it once was. At one point, he considers how the all the blither blathering done by the deconstructionists still don’t answer the questions put forth by the Talking Heads: “No one had an answer for the riddle of existence. It was like that Talking Heads song, ‘And you may ask yourself, ‘How did I get here?’…And you may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful house. And you may tell yourself, ‘This is not my beautiful wife.’” Mitchell goes on to write his religious studies paper, “bending his answers toward their practical application,” but finding no real practical application when it comes to his own life.

Leonard, the character to whom many have drawn David Foster Wallace comparisons, is the enigmatic, bandana-wearing, manic depressive semi-genius that Madeleine is hopelessly in love with. He’s a scientist, but his explorations have very little to do with Mitchell’s riddle of existence or Madeleine’s myth of love. Toward the end of the novel, he tries to describe to Madeleine what it feels like to be depressed. He says, “What happens is that the brain sends out a signal that it’s dying. The depressed brain sends out this signal, and the body receives it, and after a while, the body thinks it’s dying, too.” Leonard’s search is less for something to believe in than for just a way to be alive.

In a way, though, Madeleine is looking to be alive through love. Mitchell is looking for a way to be alive through faith. And Leonard is looking for a way out of madness, toward life. So we have the trifecta of love, faith, madness, and who’s to say what the difference is between any of them.

A Novel for Writers, and Everyone Else, Too

October 17, 2011, by

I once read an article by an editor of a literary magazine that predicted the death of fiction would be writers who navel-gaze, writers who write stories about writing, or writers, or academia, or domestic affairs, or love. I’ve always had a problem with that argument—the idea that inward-looking content can’t be important—and luckily it seems like Jeffrey Eugenides has ignored it altogether. His new novel, The Marriage Plot, is about writing, writers, academia, domestic affairs, and love, among other things. Mostly it’s about how to grow up, how to reconcile your way of seeing the world after the thrilling scaffolding of college vanishes. And, by being about all those things, it is anything but navel-gazing.

We met the heroine of the novel, Madeleine, hungover and full of regret on the morning of her graduation from Brown in 1982. But we meet her first via her bookshelf. “To start with, look at all the books,” Eugenides writes in the first line, before cataloging the novels she’s used to write her senior thesis on the marriage plot in the works of Austen, Eliot, and James. The traditional marriage plot, usually a three-way courtship dance between one maiden and two suitors, plays out in interesting ways with Madeleine, her hunky and manic depressive boyfriend Leonard, and her geeky best male friend, Mitchell.

Madeleine is perfectly preppy, from a well-to-do WASPy family in New Jersey, a fangirl of Victorian literature, and completely undone when she takes a class on semiotics and deconstruction. Though it critiques her beloved marriage plot, she becomes obsessed with Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse. When boyfriend Leonard swings between manic extremes, Madeleine turns to Barthes’s deconstruction of love: “And it was in this period that Madeleine fully understood how the lover’s discourse was of an extreme solitude…It was extreme because you felt it while in the company of the person you loved. It was extreme because it was in your head, the most solitary of places.”

In The Marriage Plot, books both illuminate and crumble the characters’ worldviews. Books allow them freedom, books give language to their limitations, and books keep them company. In my favorite passage from the book, Madeleine has first read A Lover’s Discourse and is immediately struck:

What made Madeleine sit up in bed was something closer to the reason she read books in the first place and had always loved them. Here was a sign that she wasn’t alone. Here was an articulation of what she had been so far mutely feeling. In bed on a Friday night, wearing sweatpants, her hair tied back, her glasses smudged, and eating peanut butter from a jar, Madeleine was in a state of extreme solitude.

This is my favorite passage because though it’s 1982, and it’s Brown, and it’s a rich girl, and it’s an erudite book, it’s also what happens to a lot of us. It’s what we wish to happen every time we crack open a new book: complete transportation, revelation, communion.

The Marriage Plot isn’t just for English majors or MFA students or academics. It’s for people who have ever felt the slight echo of something they’ve read when they’ve fallen in love, or fallen out of love, or pined for love. This book doesn’t want you to ask yourself what you know about semiotics and the marriage plot in Austen novels. This book wants you to ask yourself how much of what you know about love—how much of the way you love—is affected by what you’ve read. I’ll leave it to Eugenidies’ epigraph from French writer Francois de La Rochefoucauld to explain why this book is important: “People would never fall in love if they hadn’t heard love talked about.”