Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Benjamin Hale

Benjamin Hale is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, where he received a Provost's Fellowship to write The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, which went on to win a Michener-Copernicus Award. He has been a night shift baker, a security guard, a trompe l'oeil painter, a pizza deliverer, a cartoonist, an illustrator and a technical writer. He grew up in Colorado and now lives in New York.

His new novel is The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.

Last month I asked Hale what he was reading. His reply:
I just finished reading the collection of Saul Bellow’s letters that came out recently. I am a Bellow completist. Bellow is one of the few writers whose process and personal life I’m curious enough about to actually go out and read his letters. As far as getting into the nuts and bolts of writing fiction, they’re not as insightful as say, Flaubert’s famously are, but the characteristically cantankerous swagger and energy of his prose that’s in his letters as much as it’s in his fiction makes up for it. Typical to a collection of a writer’s letters, there’s plenty of bitching about money and woe-is-me-ing over catastrophic marriages, but there’s also a great deal of truly touching emotion—it’s particularly sad to watch Bellow’s sense of sympathy and uneasy foreboding grow over the course of his friendship with John Berryman.

There are only a few other writers whose work I’ve spent more time trying to reverse-engineer, to open up the hood and see what’s inside, try to figure out how it works. When I first seriously got into Bellow, I noticed there was something about the texture of his prose that felt completely different from the usual feeling of contemporary “literary” fiction. It isn’t that Bellow is old-fashioned. He’s not—there’s a relaxed wildness in his writing that’s thoroughly new-feeling: defensively American, erudite but colloquial, smart but distrustful of sophistry. After a lot of thought, I decided I’d realized what it was: here’s a writer who writes books as if they’re books, not TV shows. His prose effortlessly weaves in and out of “showing” and “telling.” He’ll circle over the world, drop in for a few disembodied lines of jangly dialogue and swoop back up again, float in the ether awhile, dive back down for an extended “scene” and in the next sentence advance time by a matter of months without slipping out of the paragraph, without breaking the rhythm. He lets a character talk as if he’s sitting across the dinner table from me. He speeds up time and slows it down as necessary, mixes the sacred with the profane, the concrete with the abstract, the general with the particular. The prose encompasses life as lived, given to us not in discrete, erratic snippets, but fully and fluidly. He is not a digital storyteller; he’s analog all the way. And it’s not visual, it’s oral: quite often Bellow doesn’t even bother describing where his characters are in space before they rattle off a few lines of dialogue—a quick stop on the bank, and then we’re back to rafting down the river of story. Augie March is just—talking. He’s talking to me. He’s not in a hurry, but he’s certainly not boring me, nor is he trying to present a perfectly transparent narrative window for me to gaze through without noticing the music of his words—and hearing his opinions, his digressions—a little philosophy here, a little politics there, a joke now and then—all the personality, that is, all the honest charisma of a human voice.
Learn more about The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore and its author at Benjamin Hale's website and blog.

The Page 69 Test: The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.

--Marshal Zeringue