In my first year as a book critic, I read about 150 books. Of those, I remember a small handful, and regularly recommend even fewer. But George Choundas’s story collection, The Making Sense of Things, is one of them. It was one of the only books I read that year that awed and astonished me, that left me excited about the possibilities of the short story.
Choundas’s career as a writer is something of a second act. Prior to publishing books, he worked as an FBI agent. His first book, in 2007, was a Writer’s Digest guide to pirate language (no joke). Perhaps it’s surprising, then, that his short stories have garnered a slew of awards, including the Sukenick Innovative Fiction award from FC2, placement in the Best Small Fictions, and recognition from the Katherine Anne Porter and Robert C. Jones prizes.
Someone with that CV has surely thought a lot about what he reads. I asked him to be grumpy about books, and he obliged.
Tell me about your hatred of books. Do you hate certain kinds of books, certain authors, or just particular books when they come along?
I hate compound offenses. Books are like furnaces and customer service representatives. Do me one wrong, I’m annoyed. Do me two wrongs and I feel free to release the hounds of hate.
Most books I hate are guilty of a specific kind of double offense. They are trivial and they are conventional. By trivial, I mean not much meaningful happens. By conventional, I mean the not-much-meaningful happens in coffee shops. If you’re going to make me plod through a story line I’m not likely to care about, then at least put it in a jungle or suspend the laws of gravity or make the characters’ necks see-through. Give me something.
There are lots of books set in elite boarding schools and colleges. I’ve wondered why for so long and I think I’ve finally cracked it. (By “cracked” I mean indulged in wild unaccountable speculation in regard to.) It’s how you take a trivial and conventional story and slap on a coat of significance. There are plenty of folks unwilling or unable to write from imagination or insight, and so they fall back on raw experience, and if they’re young then maybe childhood and adolescence are all they have in the hopper. In order to make the contrived drama, frivolous goings-on, and non-existential challenges matter, they shove them inside a centuries-old institution so that pompous tradition, imperious faculty, and polished wood will impart to their story the attention-worthiness that the narrative itself cannot command.
To be clear: I have nothing against young writers. The sin isn’t youth; it’s stinginess. I have everything against writers who are unwilling or unable to write from imagination or insight.
The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. (See supra re elite boarding schools and colleges.)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.
Charterhouse is exhausting and pointless and exhausting. You don’t need to read the book. Just arrange to have someone’s six-year-old nephew over to your house, keep him up past his bedtime by feeding him bowls of sugar, and make a big show of ignoring him—maybe by holding in your hands and appearing to read an actually good book—to goad him into getting in your face and clamoring for attention, whereupon he’ll say something along these lines:
“First this thing happened with these two people, then this other thing happened with three other people, and then two more things happened with the first two, and then another thing, no, two more things happened with entirely different people plus the first one of the first two, and then one more thing and then a thing after that. With lots of horses. And then more things happened with more people and more horses.”
You’ve now read The Charterhouse of Parma.
Brideshead: Why do I care about a wine-tasting session described in smug, indulgent, embarrassingly fatuous detail? Why do I care that the so-tragic Sebastian is drinking himself to death if I have not been told enough about what he means to Charles Ryder? Why do I believe that Charles falls in love with Julia if all I know is that she is beautiful and sad? Why is this book narrated retrospectively by a World War II soldier other than to imbue the protagonist-narrator with credibility, to force-inject gravitas into an otherwise light, hyper-dramatized, mountain-out-of-molehill bullshit piece about overprivileged kids making problems?
The more times I was told in the course of reading Brideshead Revisited that Sebastian Flyte’s teddy bear Aloysius was charming, the readier I was for a scene wherein Sebastian is beaten senseless and his tears dried with handfuls of cotton wadding jerked out of the lengthwise gash in his disemboweled bear.
[George’s words about Kundera were so harsh that I cut them for his sake. I’m sorry, George, but I don’t want you getting death threats from the Kundera contingent. -Ed.]
Do you think it’s altered anything about your writing? Obviously writing a story set in an elite college or boarding school is out, but do you also have a poison eye for sentiment in your own writing?
I like your word “sentiment.” It can refer to two totally different writing problems. In the first, the writer tells a lame story, and can’t possibly expect any reader payoff. In the second, the writer tells a pretty good story, but then ruins it by drawing from it more feeling or consequence than can reasonably be expected from the reader.
I hope I don’t have to worry about the first. But the second is definitely a trap. It’s insidious. Sometimes it happens because you’re thinking about the story as it exists in your head, not (yet) on the page. Sometimes it happens because you’ve trained or lulled yourself into accepting B as a satisfying follow-on to A because you’ve read A and B, in that order, four hundred times. If you see the sun rise four hundred times after it sets you start thinking that’s the way it has to be. Two good antidotes are the same trusty favorites for other writing snags: Cut the bottoms of things (paragraphs, scenes, stories). Put the story away a while and come back to it cold.
Other strategies I’ve stumbled on: Eliminate passages featuring “how” as a preposition (“He hated how __.” “She thought about how __.”). Demote some dialogue to paraphrase. Eradicate sunsets.
What was the last book you read that you recommended to someone?
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. I recommended it to my son’s cello teacher.
It’s probably the best novel I’ve ever read. Dunn overwrites a little, and takes the story lines in super-dark directions, and concludes the story of the family in a way I don’t think I fully understand. But when you multiply craft and technique by sheer originality and risk-taking, you get a product that no book I know has exceeded.
This is the lesson I’ve lately learned about great literature, really about all great art. It isn’t flawless. In fact, it’s usually plenty flawed. It’s great notwithstanding the flaws, and the ambition and conviction and abandon that fuel innovation and fire transcendence almost always leave stray burn marks.
My son’s cello teacher is a real admirer of Middlemarch, though. So I don’t know how far Geek Love will fly with him.
Do you keep books or give them away?
I mostly read library books. I keep a list of books I want to read. Currently 73 pages, with some notes reminding me why I thought they’d be good to read. But I’m constantly reading books not on the list because serendipity is sweet and she can’t be denied.
I’m at the library on a Saturday experiencing maximum contentment—unfettered by obligation, immersively abrowse, my daughter harassing the children’s librarian into hunting for volumes of a non-existent genre called Unspeakable Horror for Eight-Year-Olds, my son hunched like an old man and perusing a car magazine in one of the periodicals section chairs—and the sun pours through the skylights and turns the book in my hands to candy. How, given this confluence of perfections, do I not bring home the object in question?
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room?
No. It’s not the book’s fault. It’s the author’s. The author has caused me pain and usurped my consciousness for however many unjust hours. I’ve flipped forward to the author’s photograph and said, “You are like death.” I’ve flipped back to the blurbs, the traitorous blurbs, and said nothing, because those liars know what they’ve done.
I also have impolitic opinions about blurbers from time to time. What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
I’m reading Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. I’m fifty pages in. I like it a lot. I’ve read a couple of her stories in the past, and the first part of the novel confirms my past impressions: She’s as good a wordsmith as any American writing today. She packs so much story in just a few pages (and in a way that reads easy notwithstanding the rounds and rounds of revision that surely were needed to yield that density of narrative).
She also gives magic Florida its due. I’m from Florida, and I love Florida, and so if you can weave Weeki Wachee mermaids into a Victorian mystery or a sci-fi romp or an essay about caul fat, you are most of the way to my lasting and fulsome admiration.