Request, inventory, disappearance, lushness, charisma. You probably won't find these terms in any writing tutorial. But in the set of sparkling essays that make up "Wonderlands," celebrated Minnesota author Charles Baxter draws on this vocabulary to show how writers can put flesh on the bones of a good tale. Baxter's self-effacing though always entertaining prose calls attention to how writers build fiction.
In "The Request Moment," for instance, Baxter explains how suggestions may be easily ignored and how commands compel obedience, but how requests give a character a free choice and therein lies the slim root of many intricate plots. Hamlet, Oedipus and Don Corleone (on the day of his daughter's wedding) all are confronted with requests as we first meet them, and the "something I want you to do" leads each of them into troubling larger concerns about the governing social order. We also hear about a request that Baxter receives from his long-gone mother via a psychic (dismissable?) and his response to it.
Elsewhere, Baxter shows us how inventories construct character. As every television policeman knows, you are what you own, what you wear, what's in your pocket. "Fiction," he says, "loves to pile things up." And what you have, all your lovingly compiled inventories, can disappear. Baxter establishes Job as the biblical archetype of a man whose good life does not protect him from suffering loss. In response to loss, many writers (Baxter cites Samuel Beckett, Edith Wharton, Henry James) attempt to "curate the past," to hold onto what will vanish. As a writer, Baxter says, "you are the walking, living memory of your own time, and you are writing it all down."
Baxter tells us that he thought to write on charisma after the election of 2016, and he offers a set of bulleted items to define this suspect dimension of personality. Charisma, he says, is always a quality projected by onlookers. People meeting the young Elvis in person often described him as merely a quiet, polite man. Charismatic characters need obsessions rather than love (think Gatsby), and these obsessions can become boring if scrutinized.
Baxter has a Midwestern disdain for razzle-dazzle, but as in most of the essays, he is willing to poke holes in his own generalizations. He concludes this section with a tribute to James McBride's rendering of John Brown — charismatic excess in the abolitionist cause.
What is fictional lushness? Baxter samples works by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Malcolm Lowry and others: lengthy, emotionally charged descriptive paragraphs that run the risk of wearing out the reader. We like things short nowadays (text messages!), Baxter explains, and we tend to mistrust such heated prose. It is too insistent, too close to the passionate declarations of political rhetoric.
The alternative, though, Baxter points out, is the cool irony of many of today's writers, which can become "lazy and unfeeling." To write fiction in the lush style, Baxter tells us, "one must believe in something."
If you are a fiction reader, "Wonderlands" will take you on some fascinating jaunts and you will reconnect with some of your favorite writers who may seem enhanced. Not least of the volume's pleasures are the autobiographical essays that make up the "Two Interludes" section, where Baxter describes his failures as a young writer and his near-constant feelings of fraudulence, but also his conviction that he chose the right path in life.
Tom Zelman is professor emeritus at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature
By: Charles Baxter.
Publisher: Graywolf Press, 252 pages, $17.
Event: Book launch, 6 p.m. Aug. 2, Next Chapter Booksellers, St. Paul.