Reviewer challenge: Hunting down Metaphor & Subtext in HOUSE OF LARGE SIZES

Authors, when asked questions about subtext in their books, claim all sorts of things about their intentions. The truth is that subtext usually occurs for the writer at some point after the discomfort and rambling of the first draft; seldom is there much intentionality in place.

What exactly is ‘subtext’?

The devoured big fish or the policeman’s raised baton at the end of two famous Hemingway novels are examples of  metaphor that the reader is supposed to gain pleasure from ‘reading.’ By reading I don’t mean just reading, but full being-present-to…like a clever ironic hint at a snooty party.

Because I’ve been teaching this stuff all my life and had grown rather sick of obvious and overblown use of symbolism and metaphor in fiction, I set out from the beginning of House of Large Sizes to use New Orleans, and more particularly Voodoo, as a metaphor for the decadence into which America seems to have fallen.

This isn’t the only subtext in the book by any means. I would love to have some fun with potential reviewers who would like to write about what they think the pattern of subtext in the book is accomplishing. I won’t enter in at any point to correct anyone, mostly because, frankly, your opinion is as good as mine.

Come on–play!


Each Hero’s Journey

“My book will be praised by highbrows and can be read by lowbrows…”-Ernest Hemingway (about In Our Time).

Well, I know I ain’t no Hemingway. Nor Joyce or Greene or Lawrence or Woolf or any of those giants. No delusions of grandeur here. But I believe l accomplished what I intended with House of Large Sizes. On my last editorial read-through I found that I liked it; it was a book I wanted to read. That was the first time I had felt that way about it, and I grew more confident that most literary readers will praise it, and that readers of popular fiction will find it a page-turner. Of course, I hope that graduate students will study it at some point; it is after all meant for them.

Why is it meant for them? Because it’s loaded with a lifetime of study about the form and content of the novel, and the form and content which underlies an author’s expression of the culture that produced him. It’s loaded with Lord Raglan, Robert Graves, Percy Lubbock, E.M. Forster, Eric Auerbach, Carl Jung, Northrup Frye, Joseph Campbell, Rolande Barthes; a perpetual orgy of influences from the dead white males who as yet have not been surpassed. None of them will emerge in the reading; they are intended to turn to milk in the flow of the exposition.

In my previous blog about Dunkirk I mentioned the hero’s journey, an age-old, seminal structure popularized by Joseph Campbell, which reflects most of our stories in an attempt to mirror our sometimes humdrum lives. I mentioned “Piggybank” (a story in my short story collection The Wounded), which was constructed in an episodic circle, self-contained, and able to be consumed in one sitting; the diametric opposite, let’s say, of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

House of Large Sizes was a challenge because I wanted to write a big novel about the hero’s journey that ordinary readers could lose themselves within, but that would also be recognized for its ambitions by specialists in mythic structure. I loved the hard work it took to outwit the opposing forces in my own psyche, which pull me on the one side toward intellectualism and on the other toward popularism. I hope I have successfully unified all my bits here and that you will enjoy my House of Large Sizes.


Dunkirk and all That

This is the ‘Endeavour’–the last of the cockle boats that made the rescue run to Dunkirk early in World War 2–one of the reasons I always make a pilgrimage to the Peterboat Inn, in Leigh-on-sea, Essex, where I spent part of my youth.

The gentleman in the picture is my old schoolmate Simon Osborne, the son of a very lucky cockle fisherman. Leigh is the center of the cockle industry in the UK. The pub is mentioned in my story “Piggybank” which is collected in The Wounded and other stories about sons and fathers. If you’ve read that story and wondered what’s true in it, I really did pull a blind boy out of the sea. It was nothing really, but for about an hour I was hailed as a hero. It’s weirdly connected in my mind to the heroes of the cockle boats, all mixed up with sadness, pride and loss.

The evacuation from Dunkirk was one of those ‘finest hours’ wherein all the small boats of southern England risked the treacherous English Channel to rescue the soldiers trapped on the beach as the Nazis advanced. It was both a British defeat and British victory. As William Manchester says it, “…English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s bleeding sons…”

There are only a few people left in the world who remember this ‘glorious’ defeat at Dunkirk. My friend’s father banged his head as the cockle boats from Leigh-on-sea prepared to leave to bring back their share of ‘pongos’. The military wouldn’t let him go because he had a concussion. The cockle boat he would have sailed in, Renown LO88, hit a mine on the way back and all were killed. His son, my pal Simon Osborne, wouldn’t be here if not for that bumped head. And if so many of those men had not been rescued from that beach, maybe none of us would be here.

The lost crew, Lukie Osborne , Frank Osborne, Harry Noakes and Harold Porter are all memorialized in the graveyard of St. Clements Church, a lovely Elizabethan building which overlooks the estuary. As a kid I would sit on the tombs, look out to the great river in the distance and the rising land of Kent beyond, and dream of being a hero. Such is the fate of little boys who become men. You’ll find that proverbial hero’s journey in nearly all my work, including the recently published House of Large Sizes.


How HOUSE OF LARGE SIZES finally found print

In the late Nineties my writing students, not content that I had written and published The Wounded and other stories about sons and fathers, in part at least, to demonstrate a wide range of “point of view” for them, insisted that I write a novel. The trouble was I had little kids and had always suffered a debilitating fear of destitution–the result of a wobbly upbring (another story)–and I struggled to justify applying the necessary time.

I worked long hours teaching writing classes and coaching one-on-one to make sure my kids wouldn’t suffer the same fate I had. I grew used to the role of teaching artist rather than that of a full-time writer. After I managed to create some semblance of economic security I turned my attention to an idea that had been hovering in my consciousness for a long time. This would become House of Large Sizes.

The Wounded drew largely from my own life and the lives of those close to me. It was inspired by Joyce’s Dubliners and Hemingway’s In Our Time and the connected modernist stories could collectively be categorized as a fragmented roman a clef. Despite the pleasure that book gave me to write, I didn’t want to repeat the technique. I wanted to write a novel that was completely drawn from my imagination, and my training in archetypal structures, which has fascinated me since being introduced in college to that seminal structuralist work by Northrup Frye, An Anatomy of Criticism. Hence, my book would somehow echo the first extant Occidental story: ‘Gilgamesh’.

I visited New Orleans, which has always seemed to me like a good analogy for the underworld, and began looking for elements to support the story of a younger brother who follows his older brother to Hades to stop him undergoing unsanctioned gender reassignment. I had no idea what I was in for! After barely sleeping for a week, and having extraordinary dreams, I got myself back to Minneapolis, and, during an intense period of marital upheaval, marathon running and teaching, I banged out a draft. It was always titled House of Large Sizes.

I wasn’t particularly pleased with the draft so set it aside to cool off. Then Hurricane Katrina devastated the town I had grown to love, and either killed or dispersed most of my Voodoo sources. Not wanting to exploit that disaster I set the book aside and then fretted about it for a decade. Then, in 2014, after starting Calumet Editions–a very new kind of publishing house–my wise partner Gary Lindberg asked me how long I thought it was since Katrina, and I realized that time enough had passed and that I felt comfortable working on the book again.

Luckily House of Large Sizes was in pretty good shape, but the work to bring it up to the highest editorial standard was intense. I’m pleased with the result and feel like an anvil has been lifted from my shoulders, allowing new work to start roaring out of me. Writing makes me happy; I’m happy again, and I hope you enjoy reading House of Large Sizes.


Spring Writing Surprise from Leaskian

So, with the advent of my novel HOUSE OF LARGE SIZES due out soon, it is time to start blogging about my own writing, and also about this mad profession that I have managed to thrive in for most of my life.  The first drafts of HLS were written in Minneapolis, London and New Orleans in the years just prior to the Katrina Disaster, which devastated the Gulf Coast. I had worked hard on researching the book’s background, but after so many died in New Orleans, where most of the action takes place, I didn’t feel comfortable finishing it, let alone publishing it.

In the late summer of 2014, I went into partnership with Gary Lindberg to create a new kind of publishing house, Calumet Editions, L.L.C., which we operate very differently from what we see as moribund traditional publishing and out-of-control self-publishing. I have been a publisher and literary consultant for a long time and as a result of that workload had neglected my own writing for a decade. But HOUSE OF LARGE SIZES never left my consciousness, and, now that sufficient time has elapsed since Katrina, I have decided to put my money where my mouth is and publish it through Calumet. Re-entering the mindset of the book and slaving through multiple drafts was a wild ride. That story will emerge anon, but suffice to say I was amazed at all the unintentional fictional predictions that came to pass after Katrina—all of them sad.

The main character Gilbert Pym, whose behaviour is loosely based on Gilgamesh, goes to New Orleans to stop his older brother having unsanctioned gender reassignment, finds his legitimate father, and in so doing discovers that his soul is under threat from a dangerous and self-styled voodoo priestess. I started sending an uncorrected proof to authors who write material similar to mine, in order to garner some endorsements, and the first one back was from successful Belgian novelist Bob Van Laerhoven, author of Baudelaire’s Revenge and a story collection Dangerous Obsessions: “An extraordinary family story, rendered with delicious irony, mingled with kinky sex, Haitian magic, and suspense. It takes a great author to do that with style. Ian Graham Leask did.”

I thanked Bob for being so prompt and writing such a catching blurb. And he wrote back:

“I’m glad you like it. And I truly liked your novel. What a masterful mélange of genres, history, and, of course, magic that sounds plausible….The more I read, the more I tend to think that the truly interesting names are not to be found “out there” with the Big Six…”

Thanks again, Bob, and here we go into the fray.

Available June 1, 2016