Dan Schneider’s Tumbleweeds – Review

Without understanding, the distance of color is what drew me to the window. Such shimmers like spume off the sea of what was. It was close, to me, though; closer than I cared for its reach to go. Yet, it was deceiving in its approach to me. And that was surely what it was doing. I drew no steps, yet my mind could feel the approach of the other, that thing that is always within and without the self. Imagining all that has ever been stationed between each breath, each heartbeat, the murmur of self rustling against its own boundaries. Emotions roll in me not like tides, but a thing more conscious than that. I cannot well convey it, but I know what I feel. Perhaps my own flesh rebels against time? It has used me, not the other way around. I have been chosen as a marker to decay. Yet, I cannot withstand its approach. Like the shell of an atom I am affected by the other in proportion to its propinquity. It is the bonds that are unseen in the micro which rule the macro with such impunity. Yet, both worlds exist within each other. The smaller within the larger on a physical level, yet the larger within the smaller on a psychological level. A quark spins left, not right, and a year that is dead rages from the grave. Whether it is noticed by all, or the other, makes no difference to the percipient, for notice clangs through the cosmos individually, at all times. That which we choose to notice is usually an aspect of our own past or future manifesting itself ever so briefly before the mist makes its union.

The color I saw was, specifically, my cat Harry- orange, black and white. He was engaged by the day outside my 21st Century suburban Texas home. Or was he? Upon moving toward his color I noticed that he was focused upon a balletic scene just outside. It seemed two dragonflies were locked in what seemed mid-air mortal combat- one shimmering yellow and orange, the other a deep navy blue. Their iridescence had always fascinated me, when young, and reminded me of creatures dreamt of in science fiction novels or superhero comic books. Then, as their free tumble crashed into my window’s wire mesh screen I could see it was copulation, not destruction, which possessed the insects. Their legs would frantically, but only momentarily, lock upon the screen mesh as they did their deed, then they would tumble downward, relock their legs, and continue. Perhaps it was just the color scheme, but I felt the blue dragonfly was the male. They did not mind the gaze of me, nor Harry, for the long minutes they tumbled down our sight. This diseros lasted several minutes, as Harry and I were rapt. In fact, they seemed wholly oblivious to us, as if they realized we were unlooked upon, by them, thereby unimportant. Their struggle was somehow primitive, yet understandable. Harry might swipe at the pair, with his paw, and his gesture might cause them to fly off the screen, less than a foot, then tumble back at us, into the screen, to try to fasten themselves again, as if their very mortality were no price for their desire. Desire has little relation to reality- how many of us have desired a person or a thing that was clearly, in retrospect, not worth the effort? Yet, still we desired, just to desire, regardless of our desired thing’s quality, or qualities. So, too, it seemed with the dragonflies. Aimlessly they seemed to tumble, through space alone, at first. Then, of a sudden, as I looked into the vastness behind them, time was also in remission, and the insects were not outside where I thought they were, but I, alone, was back nearly forty years earlier, to my childhood, in an impoverished section of Queens, New York.

The struggle of a pair of mindlessly driven creatures had wedged me back, myself, tumbling through the memories and aridity of years that were not mine, alone, any longer. I was part of a larger scheme- stars, desires, losses, deaths, and trivial moments that framed all the rest. It was the smaller things that roared back into me, as if a first love. It is said that a first love fills the heart even as it empties the head. So it was for me in the return to my past. I was stripped of all presuppositions and rationalizations of that time, even as I was confident of their return. I was me, them, you, others, all things at all times in all ways. I was here there, and beyond, where any soul could read my meager existence like some newly discovered star, or a fossil whose heft weighed the life of its discoverer. It was as if I had fled past the barriers of the known cosmos and was waiting for someone to notice the schism. Having read Abbott’s Flatland, I was reminded of the scene where A Square encounters a testy Sphere, who resents his existence being denoted a hallucination, so sweeps into A Square’s world, and forever shatters his illusions of reality.

The above excerpt comes from the opening of Dan Schneider’s novel Tumbleweeds, the first out of four books of his New York Quartet. This excerpt was posted in a long essay by Dan detailing his dealings with editors, agents, and publishers, among other folks, highlighting the sheer stolidity, imbecility, and plain stupidity of those purveyors of books- at least, during the time when Dan tried getting his own works published. Here’s the agent’s reaction to Tumbleweeds itself, which Dan relates and rebuts within the essay:

I read the material you sent, well that’s not strictly true. Let’s say I read laboriously and found myself lost, continually. As a stream of consciousness it has it’s merits but those thoughts are too idiosyncratic for my tastes. In the end, we have to represent material we can comprehend (not something I am sure I actually achieved with your husband’s writing) and believe in.

So, I am sorry, but we’ll pass. I’ll destroy the sheets you sent.

Thanks for sending the material, sorry it didn’t work out.

Reading this email, after having read the book in its entirety, is terrifying. After all, if such great writing could not make it past the gatekeepers, was not even comprehended by those people who (I assume) have spent their whole lives dealing with books- one wonders how many gems and masterpieces have fallen to the wayside due to the oversight of all these cliché-mongers.

So, having read Tumbleweeds- I can confirm two things. Firstly, Tumbleweeds is indeed one of the greatest novels to ever exist. In a mere 268 pages it is able to sketch out a whole neighbourhood and suffuse it with life, provide amazing depth of characterization for a whole plethora of personalities, and it alternates seamlessly between high poesy and extremely concrete descriptions.

Secondly, Tumbleweeds is not stream of consciousness. The above excerpted opening is a monologue that delves into abstraction, but it is still rooted to a place and a scene, of a narrator staring at two dragonflies with his cat. Furthermore, these peaks of poesy are exactly that- peaks amidst lengthier recollections that are far more concrete and comprehensible than whatever goes on in the writings of those labelled as stream-of-consciousness writers. In fact, exactly two pages after the explosive opening, we get this:

We lived on Conifer Street- a typical urban street with sickly trees in treeboxes too small to prevent the trees from cracking the cement about their roots, just south of Myrtle Avenue, in Ridgewood. That’s what our nabe was called, although few folks nowadays call nabes nabes anymore. Now they’re called hoods, which sounds ‘ghetto’, tough, black, to some. But, to me, Ridgewood will always be a nabe, and it still hasn’t moved. It’s still in the borough of Queens, part of New York City. Yet, when I think of it, I guess, it has moved. It’s never really been where I wanted it to be. You can tell me, ‘Well, that’s life, kiddo,’ but that doesn’t really say anything to me. Anyway, Ridgewood is located opposite a nabe called Bushwick, just on the other side of the Brooklyn/Queens border- which ran mainly down Wyckoff Avenue. Me and Wub, a fat white kid, lived on the Queens side of Conifer Street, only a block off of Myrtle, while our pal Linc, a black kid, who was a few years older than me and Wub, lived on the same street, but a few blocks south, on the Bushwick side, where many other coloreds lived. Black, Negro, colored, Afro-Americans- these are just names people use. To me, he was Linc, just as the old man who named us the Tumbleweeds was merely Al. That’s just the way it was, to me and the rest of the world. I used to think about why blacks and whites lived separately, but had a hard time figuring it out. Then I thought since Brooklyn’s south of Queens it could be because, like in the South of the country, that was just where most blacks came from. Then, I heard about the Bronx, up north, and that alot of blacks lived up there, so my theory went to hell.

It is this that makes me think the above agent probably didn’t even read beyond the first two pages of the book, and was bullshitting about the fact that he “read it laboriously”.

Although Tumbleweeds combines many styles into one cohesive whole, in terms of its overall structure and atmosphere it is closer to a grittier first-person A Tree Grows In Brooklyn than a stream-of-consciousness novel. It is a ‘slice of life’ coming-of-age novel tracking the lives of three boys as they grow up in, as mentioned above, Queens in New York City.

The quick summary of Tumbleweeds is this: Manny Kohl (the literary alter ego of Dan) lives in Queens and hangs out with a fat white kid named Wub and a black kid named Linc. The trio is nicknamed the Tumbleweeds. The entire novel alternates between first-person internal monologues and recollections of the three different characters as they slowly make their way through life, and eventually break off from one another. One of the techniques that Dan uses is he does not openly telegraph the switch in perspective, say, through a chapter title, but forces the reader to guess who is narrating by the milieu they describe. Each narrator’s perspective is limited/unreliable in its own way (although Manny can ‘see’ the farthest), and yet, combined together, they play off each other and help to build up a full portrait of the period. Their combined narration flows and shuttles through memories like real tumbleweeds; the book even opens with a dictionary definition of tumbleweeds, mimicking the technique used to open William Kennedy’s Ironweed.

Besides the perspectives of the trio, sometimes the novel dives into legends based on the neighborhood, recounted by a character called the Legend Teller. These parts are written in a style reminiscent of another one of Dan’s short story collections- Scenes From A City. Every chapter in the novel is so well-sketched that some of them may function as short stories on their own, and yet together they create an even vaster tapestry. Beyond that, it really is hard to condense the novel into any kind of singular plot- the same way Moby Dick is more than just a story about a bunch of sailors chasing a whale.

Dan has said somewhere before that Tumbleweeds is around 95% based on his own life but with deviations, and he would decrease the amount of autobiography with each subsequent novel in the Quartet. This is apparent if you compare the events that happen in the novel with the first volume of Dan’s memoir- True Life. There are similarities in some events, but Manny is an entirely different person from Dan Schneider and makes completely different choices in life, as well as holds different opinion (made clearest in a moment where he talks about how poetry is a lesser artform than prose). In fact, there is a little cameo where Manny bumps into Dan and his pals as depicted in True Life; they live in the same neighbourhood but in different places. This is one of those little metafictional leaps of logic that adds meaning to the work if you reread it with knowledge of the whole of Dan’s corpus. Tracking the small deviations between Manny and Dan opens questions as to how exactly both characters turned out the way they did even though they seem to share similar beginnings. There’s also the fact that Dan has to sketch out two other perspectives, the psychotic Wub, and the idealistic Linc- while in his memoirs it was mostly from his own perspective.

Speaking of repetition of events- Dan’s entire corpus is a great lesson in how to mine the most from a few key scenarios, images, and symbols. Throughout his works, some motifs frequently come up again and again, like cats and insects, or references like Godzilla- and yet they are given new meaning from each context they are placed in. In Tumbleweeds, there is a majestic description of a war between swarms of ants- and this was reminiscent, to me at least, of a sonnet of his dealing with the same scenario. Once again, meaning and lessons on technique can be mined from comparing the multitude of approaches across Dan’s works.

Dan’s novel no doubt draws inspiration from many sources- but he consistently and deftly avoids clichés and goes far beyond previously used tropes. There is a scene in Tumbleweeds that can be paralleled with a scene in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn- dealing with an elitist doctor who looks down on poor kids. While Brooklyn’s depiction of the doctor was more one-off, focusing on Francie’s reaction to the event, Dan adds more depth to this side-character by showing some of his motivations, and merges the scene with a greater poetic rumination on graveyards and human finitude. The ending of the whole novel is a flowing poetic monologue which recalls Loren Eiseley’s All The Strange Hours- and yet it is totally different in execution, while remaining equally exhilarating and emotional.

If there is a limitation to the novel, though, it only appears in comparison to Dan’s later works, when he begins to make use of his ‘Total Immersion’ techniques in full and has a greater daringness of structure. Although Tumbleweeds excels in almost every aspect, from poetics to characterization to detail, it tends to stick to a similar chapter structure across the whole book with some deviations. Every chapter usually ends with a poetic ‘petering out’, and you can sense the end of the chapter coming by the slow elevation of the narrator’s register. This is not an outright flaw, since all of these chapter ends are beautifully executed, but if the chapters as a whole were compared to later novels, such as the chapter Knowing Dick from A Norwegian in the Family, or those that include lengthy excerpts of public domain materials- the latter is clearly superior in the techniques utilized. Yet, Tumbleweeds does have still have variation – which becomes apparent in two particularly important chapters centring around the other two Tumbleweeds, Linc and Wub. In the chapters (34 & 37) where the events take place, they end in anti-climaxes- subverting the impact of the event as perceived even though their consequences resonate throughout the rest of the book.

At this level of analysis, it is hard to say much else about the book without a full scholarly exegesis. After all, with any great novel, the power of the book ultimately comes from how it sketches an entire reality, slowly but surely, subverting on a constant basis, with every single line and piece of characterization given. It is a literary sin that this book is unpublished by any major publishers, but hopefully, as Dan has released many of his works on Amazon as of late, you’ll be able to get your hands on it soon enough, and judge it for what it is yourself.


Dan & Jessica Schneider’s Books Now Available on Amazon


For those of you who’ve gotten a taste of the Schneiderverse from Dan’s Selecteds + the stories that appear on his website, and are hungering for more – Dan recently released a couple of his whole short story collections onto Amazon. Between 6 collections and 4 ‘novels of place’ and a mini-memoir – that adds up to probably around a hundred short stories available for public consumption by the greatest writer who has ever existed in the English language so far. And, of course, let’s not forget the fact that there’s more, and greater things, to come- outside of these collections alone. These collections are all varied in form, content, and are thematically cohesive. Of course, if you are still skeptical, you can use the Amazon Look-Inside function to peruse some of the first few stories of each collection to your own leisure. Many of them cap at 10 pages or less, and yet they still manage to convey a whole sense of a character, or many characters, in that short span.

In addition, Jessica Schneider, a great writer in her own right, has also released her own short story collection – Admissions & Uncertainties – for the world to savor. That 14 stories dealing with, as she describes on her Amazon page, “characters who are in a state of flux, as each attempts to handle some sort of inward lack. They locate pieces of themselves in places they least expect and are ultimately bound by some sort of admission or uncertainty”.

In any case, for anyone who cares about great literature, or anyone who is simply curious about the Schneiders’ literary corpus – these are all amazing entry points into both writers styles.

For easy reference, here’s a link to all their Amazon pages up so far.

Edit: Dan has placed 2 more collections on Amazon – Thirteen Ways of Selling the Self and Ugly Girls; and he plans to release his short story collections and some of his plays over the next few days. Any further releases will be updated in the Amazon page.

Dan Schneider’s Unpublished Poem: The Bumbala

Poetry comes in the approach of the subject, rather than the subject itself. All of Dan’s poetry & works (and all of Art, for that matter) showcase this, but here’s a poem (from Dan’s Le Bestiare 2 series) that’s a particularly striking model of that fact:

Disclaimer: Do not read my analysis until you’ve pondered the poem for yourself. After all, most of the fun and power comes from how you, as a person, orient yourself to the poem before conferring with other views. In the end, much of poetry’s strength comes from intuition – although explanation & analysis can help ground intuition for later readings.

Continue reading

Unfolding a Poem – Dan Schneider’s The Passings

There are years to go before the last perfect day

Read the line above. The beginning of Dan Schneider’s sonnet – The Passings.

If you have never ever read this sonnet before in your life, and have no inkling of what comes after, I advise you to do the following. Read the line above, ruminate on the mood it brings. Then, take a sheet of paper, click the link, and cover up every other line besides the first with that sheet of paper. Try, as much as possible, to avoid the rest of the words as your gaze sweeps across the monitor.

Afterwards, unfold the poem line-by-line, and, with each line, ponder about the atmosphere and narrative of the poem thus far. With every unfolding, reread the poem from the very beginning.

Compared to the other analyses I have done thus far, this one will be slightly different. Rather than a stanza-by-stanza critique, I will be following an unfolding of my own, and I will tell you my thoughts as each line is revealed.

And so, we return to the first line:

                  THE PASSINGS

There are years to go before the last perfect day

Continue reading

How to be a Writer – Dan Schneider’s Elements of a Story

In a perfect universe, Dan Schneider’s short story “Elements of a Story” would be the first thing taught at any Creative Writing class out there. Since we do not live in that perfect universe, those interested in checking it out can buy his Selected Short Stories collection and see it for themselves. As a literary experiment, it is both daring, and, more importantly, an actual success at achieving what it dares – a teaching kit on how to write that is itself a great work of art.

Let’s jump straight into it:

The story is narrated by an unnamed film critic, but it has no straightforward linear plot. It does not begin with the narrator’s voice either, but we get an excerpt of an interview (film commentary to a porn movie) where Dan’s fictional porn director midget Bit Von Rheingold discusses parts of his life and his career. Afterwards, the frame of the story expands and we get the narrator talking about her thoughts on Bit and her history with his films and how much he means to her. Within this exposition, the narrator slips biographical detail about herself and tons more pop culture trivia surrounding Bit. Another slice of an interview is revealed where we get to see more of Bit’s worldview.

From this, the narrator jumps to another thing altogether, revealing how she has a film blog and has started a literary blog. She recounts some especially bad fiction submissions she has received and we get the full text within the story itself. They are as bad as you expect – gimmicky one-off stories with bad modifiers, ridiculous descriptions, pop-culture references that don’t add to anything but novelty, and non-sequiturs. In contrast, the narrator provides us with one of her good, though not great, short stories. The difference is immediately visible – detail used to outline character (even pop culture references), dialogue that isn’t meandering, and a narrative that adds up. A great short story that includes a bad short story and a good short story – daring!

After those excerpts, the narrator reveals to us an email correspondence she is having with a young writer who questions her about what it means to write good stories. The advice she gives is so helpful & on-point that I will excerpt the whole thing here just because I think ANYONE who wants to be a writer worth anything should read it:

This fan named Craig asked me:

Hi, I read your site all the time and enjoy your take on cinema; especially the fact that you realize that film is more of an art where literature is extended to the visual arts rather than being a visual art with a story. After all, wasn’t it John Huston who said that all great films depend on a great screenplay, or something like that?

I responded:

Thanks for the props for my blog. I appreciate good readers who can see what I am trying to do with my explanations of film. I also agree with what you describe as my take on film’s relation to literature, and while I’m not sure of the exact quote, nor whether it was John Huston, nor possibly Orson Welles, who stated it, the sentiment you express re: screenplays’ import to the finished film is correct.

On to your specific ideas, let me address the ideas about what actually goes into a great story, and it’s not really plotting. In fact, most bad writing, in general terms, comes from overplotting, wherein characters act like robots or mannekins to just push along a tale, rather than seeming to have the story emerge organically from the characters. Think of Dan Brown novels or dreadful teen books like Twilight or The Hunger Games, or even supposedly more adult-themed stuff like Fifty Shades Of Grey. Yes, on a sentence by sentence basis, most writing- even of supposed ‘literary merit’ (think David Foster Wallace, Joyce Carol Oates, or Jonathan Franzen) is doomed by the use of clichés, trite characterization, bad dialogue, and an utter banality to the prose line, but, on a more macro scale, it’s almost always the heavyhandedness and predictability of the plot that kills fiction. There is too much of the MFA ‘show don’t tell’ canard, as if showing by great writing is bad.

In fact, character is plot, and characterization is built via observation, meaning that to see from behind the eyes of a character is far more important than knowing the color of the eyes of a character. Ask yourself if any of the overdescribed details of typical fiction lets you think of or understand the character better? Yes, if a character has a scar on their face, explaining how and why they got that scar may be helpful, but if it’s just there to signal that the character is a badass, it may not be worth mentioning, or simply stating, once, that it exists. But, a story can be woven from even the most day to day experiences and observations. Let me give you an example, since you said that you live in the Central Texas region (Florence), as I do (I’m in Georgetown): yesterday, my boyfriend and I drove to a town to have lunch. Among the observed things:

-we went to Copperas Cove, TX- drove through miles of relaxing countryside
-ate lunch at Giovanni’s Italian restaurant
-young waiter, very friendly- left nice tip
-saw a single Oriental man eating by himself and reading a book
-drove toward Lampasas after eating
-stopped in Kempner, TX, a town of 1100
-saw a young boy along a country road and posited him as a future novelist
-redneck in a pickup truck backed quickly out of a driveway and almost hit our car
-my boyfriend yelled at me for not honking horn- I avoid that
-drove by a restaurant run by a guy who used to shop at a store I worked at- the restaurant, Alfredo’s, is closed; a new restaurant opened is there: The Yumm Factory
-my boyfriend wanted to get a menu to read for our next trip this way, but door is locked although sign says open- what of Alfredo? What of the locked door?
-went to Lampasas and got chocolate shake at Dairy Queen
-walked around Lampasas River park
-saw a family of four on scooters
-saw a concrete piece of sidewalk with the names Dean & Maxine in it, with a date. Next to it was a newer concrete block with the names Dean & Janine and a later date. Next to that was a third block with the names Maxine & Robert and an even later date
-we saw ducks in the river
-we crossed a bridge to the other side and saw two big geese on the grass- I pretend to chase one, but she does not move, lowers her neck and starts snapping at me, chasing me away- she called my bluff, and it recalls a time, as kid, in Maine, when I was bitten by a goose and cried
-we saw the scooter family again, on other side, as they crossed bridge on the other end of park
-we crossed that bridge, by a man-made waterfall
-on original side, back near DQ, we saw a small turtle, on a rock, sunbathing in winter- I thought of the sun’s photons traveling 93 million miles to make this wee reptile warm
-as we neared DQ, we heard a siren in the background- an ambulance, cop car, fire engine?
-we drove home and spoke of our little trip

Now, this was about 3.5 hours of my life, yesterday. A typical reader might think that this was a typical boring day because I encountered no vampires, was not involved in any Apocalyptic endeavors, did not have any high melodramatic moments, and had no James Bondian adventures. Yet, to me, this is rife with possibility for a story, or many of them. Just the graffitti with the names of a guy and gal and their future girlfriends and boyfriends trying to outdo the other is enough to make one wonder, and that’s what a story does: it draws you in to learn more of the characters, not what they look like, what they wear, or what silly trouble they can get into.

The stories that last all deal with deeper ideas and situations that communicate what it is to exist, to think, to feel, and these are not opposing things. Mere observations are the key, and the better the observations and ideas about them are, the better the story is.

Again, yesterday, I had no James Bondian adventures, did not learn the secret of the universe, did nor bed down with some Hollywood stud, and was not in possession of a multi-million dollar winning lottery ticket. Yet, the elements of a good story are all here, and in my next short story manuscript, or maybe novel, I’ll use these for a tale or scene digression. In any given day, in any several hour period, are the elements for any good story. One simply must attune oneself to observing the bounty about oneself. When art, in general fails, it is almost always due to a failure in the artist, not the cornucopia of elements the cosmos tosses at the artist to use.

Craig, if you are a writer then you, too, have such writing blocks to be used: just make lists of such events, then explain the basis of these events, how you got to that point, what these things evoke, and then write on each event, and connect them to the others- either linearly or not. This is narrative. Characterization can grow from it or grow it. But it all starts with observation and reflection- that is the prism from which all stories grow.

Craig then replied, via email:

This is a great illustration of mining the normal day-to-day observations for story raw material. I have always struggled with such, and thank you for pointing out what is so obvious, in retrospect. I see dozens of rich details and story tangents here, especially how your boyfriend chastised you for not honking your car horn. The other detail that just knocked me out was the series of sidewalk pieces showing ‘dueling sweethearts’ between Dean and Maxine. The belligerent goose was another really good touch. The key issue is that these inspired and fascinating details are EVERYWHERE, you just have to be aware of them. I know that they abound in my life, too, I just have to get better at noticing them. As I mentioned in a prior email, I’ve got a bad habit of relying too much on my own personal firsthand experiences, and not enough on secondhand observations like this. It’s the second hand observations that can make even the simplest sentence come alive. Thanks for the valuable illustration.

I replied:

Again, thanks for the civil and intelligent email. Too often people just want to argue and not listen to another’s advice. A point worth mentioning, though: note how the goose anecdote, and the bad redneck driver, TIE INTO my own personal experiences; and the dueling romantic adventures of Dean & Maxine is likely a story unto itself, but one that is relatable.

Everyone has gone to lunch, seen a stranger somewhere and wondered why he or she is alone, met a nasty animal, pondered over a moment like the turtle, had an experience with a bad driver, envied a family’s togetherness at some event, heard a siren wail, and on and on. Just note certain things on the next day you go food shopping, drop your car in for a checkup, pick up your kid at school: maybe you see a fat crossing guard who is sneezing? Maybe the auto is making a noise that reminds you of something, or the mechanic smiles in a way that recalls a character from a favorite old sitcom, or there is a woman with a great body down aisle 10, who causes you to lust, then she turns around and her face does not match her body’s beauty.

Then, with these ‘anchors’ for a narrative, you just connect, elaborate: you think of the bodacious woman and how, her whole life, she had to deal with men who came up to her from behind with lust, only to note their face’s expressions when she turned around, or the sneezing crossing guard recalls an incident in 4th grade where you saw snot drip out of the nose of Timmy Collins, or how you swear that mechanic has to be related to the guy who played the first Darren on the old sitcom, Bewitched.

As I’ve said before with a great narrative: Enter one room and you enter all the rooms of that house.

Now, you figure out what that means for you, Craig.

After that correspondence, the narrator dives back into some biographic detail, talking about how she used to work as a porn star. She quotes an excerpt from one of the bad short stories, chastising it again for how badly written it is. Yet, and this is Dan’s parallelism at work, there are parts hidden within this excerpt that connect to greater themes and ideas within the whole of the story. To use an excerpt from a bad short story as parallel to higher themes – this is what it truly means to experiment.

Finally, the narrator returns to talking about Bit Von Rheingold. The ending is maximally poetic, even metafictive, encapsulates the whole story, and brings us to that ineffability that characterizes all great works of art.

Somehow I feel it right leave my analysis at that. I stand by my statement in the opening paragraph. In a perfect world, this story would be taught at the start of any Creative Writing class. Students would be forced to grapple with it on their own, seek the multitudinous lessons within it for themselves, and teachers would never allow them to pen anything down until they could articulate, with their own ideas, why this story deserves to be called great. It deserves to be read in place of any of those other writing guidebooks out there with their limited prescriptions – this one shows all of the steps that have to be taken as a writer, provided your mind is keen enough put everything together. It is also proof that you can create a story out of anything, absolutely anything, in the world.

Review: Jessica Schneider’s The Architecture of Loss

At a mere 80 or so pages, Jessica Schneider’s novella – The Architecture of Loss – manages to achieve much within its short length. Although, being an early work of hers, it sets up many of her favorite tropes and themes that would be further refined in later works – that fact does not prevent it from being singularly unique due to the countless innovations held within and the sheer beauty of the prose. Furthermore, the novella is available for sale on Amazon, which means you can buy it now and get a taste of the future to come when the rest of her novels are published for the public to finally consume.

Since the novella is absolutely dense, and because I don’t want to spoil too much of the experience – I’ll be covering some prose sections, as well as some parts of the book’s structure, to illustrate the many things that this work has to offer. Firstly, here is the summary of the book as posted on Amazon:

Victor Erickson has recently resigned from his position as an architect due to reasons he finds too painful to disclose. His family, worried about his isolation and sanity, take turns monitoring his well-being. Finally, on one snowy winter morning, Victor finds himself enclosed within his own inner world while his daughter Anna visits. As Victor relays a tale about having almost drowned as a boy, the two find themselves discoursing about death, dream and the illusion of perception. With neither able to leave due to the impending weather, Anna too finds herself stuck within her own stillness.

At the core of the novella is the above mentioned ‘discourse’ between Anna, and her father, Victor. You would think that this would turn the book into one of those musty literary experiments centering around clashing voices. Yet, despite a bulk of the book being dialogue (and thus the subtitle ‘A Novella in Three Acts’ – jumping between play/film and prose sections), there is so much revealed in the exchange between Victor and Anna, and it is told so wonderfully, that it does not read like an experiment at all. The novella has many innovations, but they flow and cohere so naturally that the mind is caught in the scenes, of the characters and their world, rather than the artifice.

One such innovation is in how the story opens. It begins with a quick scene between Victor and his wife (initially unnamed) – showing the tension of their marriage combined with some of the lightest wintry prose ever placed on a page:

“I don’t care if it is cold. I don’t want to hear the flame,” Victor responds, still sitting in his bathrobe and pulling his blanket up close to his face. He can feel his body shivering, even though the living room is modestly warm. He is beside the shut window, and outside he can see from his chair the snows rolling into hills of white bedding, appearing almost transparent, and without human tracks. It is supposedly the coldest January the city has experienced for five decades or more.”

The second chapter then jumps to some time in the past, when Victor and his wife (Christabel) first got together – they met as teens because their parents both owned lake houses on Lake Superior. It is a longer chapter and focuses mainly on Christabel’s perspective. The amazing thing is how, after this chapter, we will hardly see Christabel in person (except two other chapters) despite the massive role she seems to play in Victor’s life – because Anna will come in and the long dialogue between Victor and Anna will begin. Yet, we will feel Christabel’s presence sometimes through the dialogue – when she is mentioned and her character slips through the gaps. This is also the only chapter-length third-person narrated flashback in the whole book. In other words, what we get, through this momentary dip into memory – is a mere hint at the foundation of all of Victor’s later suffering through a god’s eye view of his background. Although, certainly, flashbacks aren’t a new thing in an author’s repertoire – the way it is used here is truly innovative, for it where it is chosen and how it plays out. We even get a slight touch of intertextuality with Coleridge’s poem Christabel being used in the chapter itself, to further the overall atmosphere of stillness.

The character of Victor is also extremely interesting. He is a depressed unemployed architect lazing at home in utter solitude, and when you think about this description you can think about all the possible ways that this book could fall into cliché. Works centering around angsty or depressed characters – Plath’s Bell Jar or Dazai’s No Longer Human – have been prevalent throughout the whole of history. Victor is different because the book does not conform to merely his perspective, uses Anna as a foil (although she is full of angst herself), and the melodrama/solipsism/self-pity/self-suffering exists solely within the character and is not submerged into the whole book. The result is that there are moments when Victor is pathetic, and there are moments when he is wise and can see into Anna’s problems while being blind to his own, and there are moments when he glimpses into a higher cosmos of creativity – he is complex and multi-faceted, and he does not fall into the utter anomie like so many other portrayals of depression out there.

Victor also follows the trope of the overly intellectual artist (or artistic wannabe) caught up in his own dreams and abstractions – a character that does not just appear in other works by Jess, but also in the works of other creators like Bergman and Woody Allen. During some parts of the dialogue, he will jump into poetic leaps of fancy and abstract ideas. For example:

“No, it wasn’t. Because I had this overwhelming sense of peace. Granted, when I woke I was in a sweat, but during the dream, it was nice to feel forgotten. Some might say that sounds depressing, but it was a state of otherness that I admired,” he says. She waits for him to finish, pausing just enough to make sure he is not going to speak again.
“Sounds depressing, dad,” Anna says while lifting their empty bowls. They have both finished lunch.
“No, but it’s not. It wasn’t at all. It was just strange, really.”
“It sounds strange,” she says before adding, “Is that what makes you happy? To be forgotten about? Don’t you want people to remember you? I mean that’s the last thing I would have thought you’d find reassuring—to be wiped out of oblivion.”
“You make it sound so melodramatic. But I can assure you, it wasn’t like that.”

This exchange comes when Victor recounts a dream he has of being in a “giant room that was all red, and then it felt like it was swallowing me up”. The interesting thing is how, within the context of Victor’s personality – this exchange outlines his depression and angst – yet, when seen in the context of the whole novella, can be attached to so many different symbols and ideas that are brought up within the book about art and the cosmos. This is a leap of association that never appears in the solipsism of Plath’s Bell Jar – that a character can simultaneously dig internal into himself, and yet outline higher things as well.

Anna, as you can tell from the above extract, serves to viciously pull Victor out of his own head – even though the ferocity she uses to do so outlines her own flaws. So, a chunk of the dialogue focuses on these two self-loathing intellectuals, despite being father and daughter, tearing at each other and trying to assert their own ego. Once again, the novella could have gone in all sorts of wrong cliched directions – were it not for the fact that Jess took the best lessons from creators like Bergman and Allen, and never lets the internal suffering of the characters dominate the work.

In order to achieve this, the prose is absolutely important. Jess inserts little pockets of astounding natural beauty throughout her novella to contrast with the selfishness and angst of the human emotions in the dialogue. Here are just some snippets to give you a taste:

Often on afternoons Christabel would sunbathe with her sisters, reading a collection of poetry, or when her literary father wasn’t around, a romance novel. She would sun all afternoon and shut her eyes and once again pretend to sleep. She would do this until the heated slants of sun caused her skin too much color, where by then she’d force herself into the overwhelming lake large enough to be a fresh water ocean, and walk her nude feet across partly sanded stones not yet soft.

A good hour has passed since they’ve eaten, and the snow still falls with a sense of unceasing persistence. Anna worries a little about her husband, in the hopes that his drive home will be alright. She is standing near the main window, which faces their large orchard, and a small fountain her father installed several years ago for her mother’s birthday looks back at her. Water that once fell freely through it six months ago in summer now stands stubborn and covered in a sheet of ice, buried below a shroud of white. The snow continues to fall everywhere around it, even making a small, pointed cone on the top of the small stone statue’s head. It makes the small naked boy appear to be wearing a hat. Anna watches while her breath makes fog on the glass, and it is upon noticing such, that she realizes she’s been standing there for too long.

Her face is hot, and so Anna rises to excuse herself. Down the hall, the walls are colored with the shades of expired afternoons, not quite night but too late for sun. The sky is gray and the trees laden with snow. Their branches point outward in contrast to the blending forgetfulness of the sky, which appears as one solid separateness, close and contained. A lowness holds her, and so she moves with it across the dimly lighted hallways, across the painted walls that have nothing for her to hold and yet they hold her, ever loosening as an old touch, where the hand she feels ever so briefly for a time then falls away without any sense of loss.

The lighthouse, although stagnant, makes a moving point of light along the length of the sea, growing ever deeper as the aging waves, these waves that greet shores on every point of earth, saturating it and all parts of land till there is blue against all sides. And then he finds himself on the island once again, near his summerhouse, and notices that his hands are not as they are in winter. In winter they appear whiter, when the winter works to wipe away any previous stains from the sun. But now his hands look as he remembers from his youth—copper colored and unclean from having sanded away years of stone, as though he too is a block of something solid. Thinking he sees his young wife, he waves but she does not wave back. She only continues to read and sip her drink in the lukewarm sun, her frame dangling in the hammock, watching while her single toe labors against the ground to move the rest of her. How relaxed she looks, thinking then that it has been so long since he remembers her appearing in such a way.

As you can see from above, the prose is incredibly refined, and also supports the themes by contributing to the sense of wintry stillness the two characters are trapped in. The moments where prose erupts are also smartly chosen, and the lighthouse paragraph above comes from Chapter 7, which is a telling of the red room dream that Victor later mentions to Anna. Though Victor cannot adequately explain it to his daughter, the prose does the work for you and conveys what he wishes he could convey.

Now – all of the above only serves to outline bits and pieces of the work in question, but how everything comes together can only be seen when reading the book itself. I have not touched on one of the most important aspects of the novel, which is the symbols used – especially that of ‘architecture’. I want you to think about what expectations and preconceived notions comes from reading the summary and weighing the title “The Architecture of Loss” in your head. It can refer to both internal and external architecture – and the divide is put into question throughout the novella, as the environment seems to seep into the characters, and vice versa. When I first read the title I was thinking, stereotypically, in terms of the loss of someone close – but the way in which both words – ‘architecture’ and ‘loss’ – are played with, and expectations subverted all the way to the very end, and constant layers of meaning built and overlapping – it is something that I feel has to be experienced rather than explained.

I hope this review will help spur you on to purchase The Architecture of Loss for yourself and experience the journey in full. It is merely an appetizer compared to the rest of Jessica Schneider’s plentiful corpus, but great nonetheless. And, for any publishers out there – you’re missing out on one of the greatest prose writers of our time (and not just one, but two!) – so get publishing!