Saturday, September 23, 2017

Mystery and Manners by Flannery O'Connor

It is when the individual's faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life; and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the supernatural is apt to be lost.  Fiction, made according to its own laws, is an antidote to such a tendency, for it renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions.

Mystery and Manners, a carefully curated collection of Flannery O'Connor's prose, opens with a hilarious article she wrote about raising peacocks.  "Most people, I have found," she writes, "are congenitally unable to appreciate the sight of a peacock.  Once or twice I have been asked what the peacock is 'good for'--a question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none."  O'Connor's rapidly multiplying peacocks eat everything in the garden, blow dust over what they don't eat, collapse fences, and fill the air with their loud, screeching calls, but as the title says, they remain "King of the Birds."  It's the kind of affectation one might expect of a personage like O'Connor (it contains, among other interesting things, the admission that she likes to knit clothes for her chickens, including one in a "white pique coat with a lace collar" named Colonel Eggbert), but it's also possible to read it as an oblique statement on the nature of art, which is useless outside of its aesthetics and its mysterious nature.

Most of Mystery and Manners is an elaboration on that theme.  The pieces are collected from various speeches and articles O'Connor wrote on the art of writing, and they have a limited and repetitive set of points to make.  There's the degenerate relationship between the burgeoning social sciences and literature, which O'Connor claims has come to embody a kind of narrow and despiritualized realism that fails to appreciate the particularity of human life.  Literature, she says, should be about "possibilities, not probabilities."  Another is the relationship between the writer and her geographical region; O'Connor says that any writer worth her salt is steeped in the traditions of folklore of where they come from.

Much is made of the proper relationship between the Catholic and art.  (O'Connor mostly rejects the label Christian, because "the word Christian is no longer reliable.  It has come to mean anyone with a golden heart.  And a golden heart would be a positive interference in the writing of fiction.)  She pushes back at the idea that an orthodox Catholic is too limited to write fiction:

...the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe.  He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural.  And this doesn't mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.

Mystery and Manners wasn't meant to be a single piece, so when it feels repetitive, it's hard to blame O'Connor.  Every now and then pithy aphorisms appear, and it's these you're likely to hear in other locations (as I did in Bird by Bird).  When asked why she writes, O'Connor replies, "Because I'm good at it."  She strikes at the heart of teaching when she says, "Like the college student who wrote in her paper on Lincoln that he went to the movies and got shot, many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday; their studies began with the present and dipped bakward occasionally when it seemed necessary or unavoidable."  Preach.

The most interesting parts perhaps are where O'Connor talks about her own work.  She talks, for example, about the wooden leg in "Good Country People," which is, yes, a symbol, but started out merely as a quirk.  (Do writers really do this stuff on purpose?, my students ask.  O'Connor shows the answer is, yeah, sort of.)  She also insists that she didn't know the Bible salesman would run off with the leg until a few lines before he did so.  Tolstoy said the same thing about his characters, that they were always surprising him.  In this case I'm not sure I believe her.  But it's interesting, and encouraging, to know that some of the greats are making it up as they go like the rest of us.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Medusa Frequency by Russell Hoban

There are two ways to tell a story *.

The first is to come up with a plotline--boy meets, loses, regains, mutates girl--and play it out beat by beat until it reaches its natural endpoint. This is a great method! Most books are like this, in my experience.

The other, of which Hoban seems to be a fan, is to take a concept like, say, the ephemerality of life or the reality of real aloneness or the permenance of loss, and pick a seemingly arbitrary entry point and follow it through to an equally arbitrary endpoint, and make the reader do the hard work of making an end-to-end narrative out of it. In The Medusa Frequency, he cops directly to this tendency, or maybe just to its origin:

Page one? I didn’t think so. Suddenly the idea of turning one’s experience into a story seemed not only bizarre but perverted. Where was the beginning of anything, how could I draw a line through endless cause and effect and say, 'Here is page one?’

And Hoban sometimes seems to fully embrace the quixotic nature of that question in the novel, starting with half-made-up conversation with the mythical Kraken that takes place on the green and black screen of an old Apple II, and ending with a comic book adaptation about a monster who is the plug in the plughole of the universe. Its name is The Great Snyukh. Oh, and the decapitated head of Orpheus, which manifests as any rounded object, probably has more dialog than anyone else in the book.

But in between, and often during, these fantasias, Herman Orff, the epically (lol) named protagonist of the book struggles to come to terms with the loss of Luise, an ex who acts as his own incarnation of the mythical Eurydice. With his act of looking at her too soon, he has lost her--although, as Orpheus informs him, the real crime is looking away. And the cyclical nature of the world means this story will happen again and again, with different details but the same prosaic, banal ending--loss and some form of either death or rebirth. As Herman says:

"The death of a moment's longer than the moment. The goneness is what we're left with. It's very hard to have anything, isn't it?"

In summation, this doesn’t sound like the kind of book that would be much fun to read. But Hoban has a light touch and squeezes a lot of humor--often actual jokes--into less than 150pp. I enjoyed his explanation of why villains in pulp stories never get inappropriately sexual with the heroines:

“For the same reason they can never shoot straight: they’ve got no self-confidence. That’s why they’re the bad guys--repeated failures have made them bitter and antisocial.”

And, of course, as in the equally strange Riddley Walker, Hoban nails the moments of pathos, making real flesh-and-blood out of Herman, Orpheus, and a number of delightfully-named minor characters (surely Pynchon is a fan--Melanie Falsepercy, Gom Yawncher). What could have been a tedious meta exercise in navel gazing instead functions almost like poetry in the end.

When Herman, rapidly falling apart in his confusion and post-breakup malaise, says, "It seemed so little to ask, that the next moment should come." it feels real, even when he’s saying it to a talking cabbage.

*I know there are a lot more than two ways, but this is a rhetorical device, dear reader.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy

You will see.  It is difficult even for brothers to travel together on such a voyage.  The road has its own reasons and no two travelers will have the same understanding of those reasons.  If indeed they come to an understanding of them at all.  Listen to the corridos of this country.  They will tell you.  Then you see in your own life what is the cost of things.  Perhaps it is true and nothing is hidden.  Yet many do not wish to see what lies before them in plain sight.  You will see.  The shape of the road is the road.  There is not some other road that wears that shape but only the one.  And every voyage begun upon it will be completed.

Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing opens with a vagrant Native American--an Indian, in the language of young Billy Parham, the young rancher's son who is the novel's protagonist--coming upon Billy and his brother Boyd out in the wilderness around their New Mexico home.  He demands under threat that Billy and Boyd steal food from their parents and bring it to him, which they do.  That is to say that it begins more or less like Great Expectations.

But the Indian never returns.  He never comes back to pay his respects or to menace further; when Billy's parents are murdered by horse thieves there's no intimation that it's the Indian who's responsible.  He comes on the page and plays his part and then leaves.  Don't look for coincidences, McCarthy seems to say; don't expect the shapeliness of a literary story, even as one of the themes of the book is the way that we use stories to shape our knowledge about the world which is essentially unknowable.

The Crossing is really three separate crossings.  In the first, Billy traps a pregnant shewolf that has been terrorizing his family's cattle and resolves to bring her, muzzled in a homemade strap, back to her home in the mountains of Mexico.  But she ends up being taken hostage by a traveling feria and made to fight dogs.  Billy, unable to secure her freedom, ends up shooting her.  It's a Ned Stark-level surprise, because to this point it seems as if the thrust of the novel is about Billy and the wolf, but just like the opening episode with the Indian, McCarthy enjoys dashing our narrative expectations.  The second crossing is when Billy returns with his brother Boyd to Mexico in order to hunt down the horses that have been stolen from his family's farm when his parents were murdered--an event that Boyd stayed home to witness, hardening him and making him alien to Billy, whose priority is protecting him.  The third is when Billy returns to Mexico to find Boyd, who has been shot in the chest and run off with a young Mexican girl.

Each of these plays like a dreamscape, or a nightmare.  The Parhams' adventures in Mexico are episodic and lyrical, containing hundreds of characters who may appear for no more than a page or two.  There's a blind man whose explanation for his blindness is straight out of a more baroquely violent McCarthy novel like The Road or Blood Meridian, the primadonna of a traveling theater company, a band of gypsies towing a downed airplane.  It reads something like a cross between Dante and Don Quixote.  Oh, and most of the dialogue is in untranslated Spanish. 

I've found that reading McCarthy is more fun when you approach it with a sense of humor.  It keeps you from rolling your eyes when he writes sentences like, "Dreams of that malignant lesser god come pale and naked and alien to slaughter all his kin and rout them from their house."  Paradoxically, I think it makes me more receptive when McCarthy is most profound, when he deals with his major theme, which is the essential unknowability of the universe:

Finally he asked him why this was such a blessing and the blind man did not answer and did not answer and then at last he said that because what can be touched falls into dust there can be no mistaking these things for the real.  At best they are only tracings of what the real has been.  Perhaps they are not even that.  Perhaps they are no more than obstacles to be negotiated in the ultimate sightlessness of the world.

Stories, for McCarthy, are also "tracings of the real," as the corrido ballads which strike Billy as being about his missing brother's courageous and tragic exploits.  As someone explains to him, the stories are older than his brother, but his brother has become a part of them, and that is a kind of truth that is as real as any other we might trust in.  That is, not very real at all, but whatever reality is we don't have access to it.  McCarthy's at his best--and his scariest--when thinking about these things.

The book ends with Billy alone in an abandoned building back in New Mexico.  He shoos away a dog, and wakes up to a false dawn before the real one and weeps.  I could be wrong but my guess is that this is meant to be the Trinity Test, the testing of a nuclear bomb in the New Mexico desert months before it was used on Japan.  It's as ominous an ending as any of McCarthy's novels has, a suggestion of the grandeur of evil beyond the reckoning of any individual human being, and a foreshadowing of a novel like The Road. 

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer.  Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.  You wait and watch and work: you don't give up.

I can't name any of Anne Lamott's books; I think a lot of people who know Bird by Bird can't.  There's a special irony to that, that an author's book on writing could so completely eclipse the fiction that they have written.  Budding writers turn to this book again and again despite having no real proof that Lamott is a worthy person to be giving advice.  What could be the reason for it?

It certainly doesn't contain the most practical advice.  There are few exercises, and what there are of concrete suggestions are idiosyncratic.  Don't write on Mondays, she says.  Start by just writing about your childhood.  The magic of Bird by Bird, I think, is how perfectly it captures the neurosis and trauma that visits writers.  Lamott understands neurosis and trauma pretty well, but especially that kind that visits writers.  She writes about it with a dark but assuring sense of humor, managing somehow to provide optimism while reminding the reader that what they write will probably never be successful.  Lamott's powerful, sardonic voice gives the impression of sympathy; there's someone out there who understands what it's like to want to write and have it not come easy.

Ultimately, Bird by Bird makes good on its subtitle: "Some instructions for writing and life."  The writing advice is good, if not always pragmatic, but the most powerful parts are when Lamott talks about the death of her witty, intelligent father from brain cancer, or the death of her close friend Pammy, also from cancer.  She talks about writing their stories as a kind of gift to give to them and it doesn't seem at all maudlin.  She's able to get to the heart, I think, of why writing is so appealing: its ability to transcend, or feel as if it transcends, the narrowness of the world, and even the banal inevitability of dying.  And yet the book is so lighthearted.

I'm teaching creative writing--four sections of it, my gosh--for the first time this year.  I don't know what I'm doing.  I returned to Bird by Bird for some advice that might be useful to my own budding writers, but I also found a lot of good advice about dealing with not knowing what you're doing in general.  Most of writing is just showing up and doing it, she says.  Hopefully that's true for teaching writing, too.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich

He knew from sitting in the still eye of chance that fate was not random.  Chance was full of runs and soft noise, pardons and betrayals and double-backs.  Chance was patterns of a stranger complexity than we could name, but predictable.  There was no such thing as a complete lack of order, only a design so vast it seemed unrepetitive up close, that is, until you sat doing nothing for so long that your brain ached and, one day, just maybe, you caught a wider glimpse.

What does a Native American fiction look like?  Louise Erdrich's terrific The Bingo Palace answers that question with a lot of what seem like cliches: first, the Indian casino, here a bingo parlor where the protagonist, Lipsha Morrissey, works when he returns to his reservation town and rides an incredible streak of luck.  Second, there's a lot of mysticism, including dreamcatchers and a spirit animal in a vision--a skunk telling Lipsha, who's scheming to sell a plot of land where his grandmother lives to casino interests, this ain't real estate.  Oh yeah, that's the third thing: the importance of land, a theme imported from Erdrich's Tracks.

But those things aren't mere cliches; the idea of the Native American being close to the land is the cultural reward given to her for the wholescale theft of Native lands and the bottling-up of her people in reservations on little islands of land.  The spirit-skunk reminds Lipsha that Native land is important because it's what they've managed to hold on to, despite all odds, through centuries.  And the mysticism is not so different from the magical realism of Latin American writers (though more palatable for me personally), yet it imbues the old stale canards about Native Americans with new vitality and specificity.


When Lipsha returns home, he falls in love with an old acquaintance, Shawnee Ray.  Unfortunately for him, Shawnee Ray is living with Lipsha's uncle Lyman, the proprietor of the Bingo Palace, though she, too, feels a surprising attraction to the vagabond Lipsha.  He makes his money riding that luck-streak at the bingo parlor, and his luck is part of the same force that drives him and Shawnee together, despite the unlikely odds:

Fateful coincidence.  Things happen you can't deny.  Good advice speaks from graves and love hints from the hearts of trees.  Bags of light float through open windows on a summer night.  Horses count with the knock of their hooves.  Children are born who can add up unbelievable numbers.  These things happen.

Chapters narrated by Lipsha alternate with chapters about the "luck" of various members of Lipsha's family--Shawnee, Lyman, Shawnee's toddler son, Lipsha's dead mother, his convict father, his grandmother Fleur, one of the characters from Tracks--in which the luck, good or bad, is not always clear.  But the message seems to be that the spiritual forces that animate Lipsha's luck and his love for Shawnee are ones that run deep through one's ancestors, that they are enacted by the passing of generations.  There's little elegance to this structure--the book is a mess.  (It would be easier, perhaps, if one were to read the series from beginning-to-front, starting with, I think, Love Medicine.)  And it ends weirdly, cut off in a strange moment with little closure.  But it's unified by the subtle beauty of Erdrich's prose, often hovering just past the mark of clarity, and the sharpness of her insight.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Expecting Better by Emily Oster and Bringing up Bébé by Pamela Druckerman

But, to put it mildly, I'm not crazy about the implication that pregnant women are incapable of deciding for themselves--that you have to manipulate our beliefs so we do the right thing. That feels, again, like pregnant women are not given any more credit than children would be in making important decisions. 

I'm pregnant (I'm pretty sure I've told the three people I know who read this...if not...surprise!), and I'm a planner, so my first move after my first doctor's appointment was ALL OF THE RESEARCH on what pregnancy books I needed to read. I feel incredibly lucky that this is the first book I stumbled on; it's basically the only book you need (although I also have the classic What to Expect for reference), and it is absolutely fabulous.

Oster is an economist and when she got pregnant, she was understandably overwhelmed by the volume of advice and rules surrounding her pregnancy. She set out to compile and analyze all the research that those restrictions came from and this book is a clear, cogent summary of her work. She divides it up into sections: conception, each semester, and delivery. In each, she provides a readable summary of the scientific research behind all the most common pieces of pregnancy advice, and then distills it down to clear recommendations. When there isn't a black and white rule, she explains her own logic and decision-making process and often gives a counterpoint to consider.

The book drew some controversy when it first came out, mostly because it argues that responsible drinking during pregnancy (roughly a drink a week in your first trimester and a drink a day in your second and third) will not destroy your unborn child, but I found it to be incredibly reassuring. There really is a completely ridiculous amount of rules to keep track of, and Oster helps you cut through to the small handful you really should follow. It made a very scary, foreign landscape much more manageable, and even though there are a few places where I have or will make decisions that deviate from Oster's, I found her insight invaluable in navigating these first few months of the process. She treats pregnant women like adults capable of rational thought (an underlying assumption that does not seem to permeate much of the advice given during pregnancy), and gives you the information you need to make educated, safe choices.

If you are pregnant (or planning on/trying to get pregnant), this is the first and arguably only book you should buy. The handful of questions I've had that haven't been answered here were very specific to my own pregnancy and required an email to my doctor. I haven't picked up What to Expect more than a couple of times, and the research behind this made it much more reassuring.


When I ask French parents what they most want for their children, they say things like "to feel comfortable in their own skin" and "to find their path in the world." They want their kids to develop their own tastes and opinions. In fact, French parents worry if their kids are too docile. They want them to have character.

But they believe that children can achieve these goals only if they respect boundaries and have self-control. So alongside character, there has to be
cadre.
Druckerman's daughter, "Bean," was born in France, and as Druckerman began to navigate the world of parenting abroad, she noticed a stark difference between American and French children. French babies seemed to sleep through the night earlier, toddlers ate their vegetables younger, and children were independent sooner.

In Bringing up Bebe, Druckerman outlines the basics of "French" parenting. It can be boiled down to one overarching idea: boundaries. According to Druckerman, setting clear, firm boundaries, and then giving children freedom within them is the secret to well behaved children. On some level, it's the antidote to helicopter parenting: draw the frame and trust that your child can operate within it.

While my kid is still safely inside my uterus, this all seems great. I'm sure the reality of raising a child is infinitely more complicated than Druckerman admits here, and cultural context makes things like perfectly balanced French meals more than a little challenging, but I did really enjoy the premise: that it is possible to have children and an adult life simultaneously, that children benefit from boundaries, that toddlers can be expected to follow basic instructions. Check back with me when I have a screaming, terribly behaved two year old who only eats beige food.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Image result for dragonfish vu tran



Dragonfish by Vu Tran

If you ever read this, you should know that everything I write is necessary to explain what I later did.  You are a woman now, and you will understand that I write this not as your mother but as a woman too.

Robert Ruen is an Oakland Police Officer who arrives home to his one bedroom apartment one night and realizes someone else has been there., There is no sign of forced entry and nothing is disturbed, but there is something in the air – a smell, a sense of a former presence.  The sense continues for several nights until finally he comes home to find two men with guns waiting for him. 

None of us is exactly surprised by this, we already know Ruen has some sort of a past – he has demoted himself from detective back to patrol cop for reasons that are never explained to us.  His past, however, will never be our real concern – Ruen and we are sent looking for his ex-wife, Suzy or Hong – a Vietnamese refugee prone to depression and wild behavior who divorced Ruen some years earlier and married a fellow Vietnamese refugee named Sonny.  Sonny is a violent gangster from Las Vegas who is now recruiting Ruen to find a missing Suzy. It is their past Ruen will learn he has become part of.

Tran has absorbed the tropes of noir fiction quite effectively.  His detective is not actually a detective (anymore).  The pursuit of Suzy will take us into a complex and morally ambiguous past that will force Ruen to face his own moral ambiguity – to test the code he seems to have lived by until now.  That past will involve the legacy of the Vietnam War and the horrors refugees faced surviving communist Vietnam and the escape to Australia and America. 

That is the real subject of this novel – that legacy, its affect on individuals who survived it, and how the next generation deals with that legacy.  Both Sonny and Hong have children and their relationship with their children is bound up with their need for survival.  In this novel the familiar stereotype that Asian parents live for their children, that this generation sacrifices everything for the next generation, is at least partially upended:  Sonny and Hong need their children to validate their own survival and ask more from the next generation than they sacrifice for it.  Tran is using the violent and ambiguous world of detective fiction to examine the complex emotional and moral ambiguity that plays out in those relationships all over America, but without the violence.

Robert Ruen is somewhat limited messenger for this purpose.  He knows and cares little for Vietnamese culture or history, and is constantly surprised by the power of the past over the people he meets.  We know little of his past (and what we do know feels as if it is there to set up future novels) and never see him in a morally upright light.  As a result, when the darkness of the world he has entered starts to cast a shadow upon him, we do not have a strong sense of contrast.  Certainly he does things he did not imagine doing before, but we do not know enough about his past for this to fall to seem tragic.  However the fact that these events impact him at all separates this novel from much of American detective fictions.  Ruen is, like Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe or Easy Rawlins, a lone wolf.  But unlike those detectives he seems less than fully committed to solitude.  Relationships are not extraneous to him, he is just not very good at them.  This adds to his moral ambiguity, but leaves that ambiguity… ambiguous.


There is a realism about that however – while Ruen checks off some of the marks of a noir hero, he does not stop being human.  This works well in the very realistic portrait of a Las Vegas with a strong immigrant community.  That realism is also reinforced by the depiction of violence in the novel.  There is plenty of it, but it is all limited.  With the exception of one minor character – a giant Mexican thug who exists solely to intimidate Ruen and who seems to have walked in off the set of a James Bond movie – these are not men who revel in violence.  They accept its necessity in their world, but seemed determined to limit it.  They seem to understand its impact in a way that is refreshing in this genre.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg

When the days are numbered, everything seems clearer, as if the time between preparation and departure possessed a particular magic. The endless stretch of time on the other side always struck me as evasive and treacherous. But the very limited period between now and then held a liberating peace and quiet. This allotment of time was an island. And the island became, later, a measurable moment. 
Sjöberg is a Swedish entomologist, and this is the first of three installments of essay collections. He writes about hoverflies (his specialty), collecting, and (Swedish) island living, but the most notable thread throughout is his fascination with Rene Malaise. Malaise, another Swedish entomologist, was also an avid explorer and art collector; Sjöberg weaves his own experiences collecting on his island with Malaise's adventures in Kamchatka and throughout the world.

The books that are hardest to review are those that you feel ambivalent about. I love essays but am often bogged down by essay collections, and this one wasn't any exception. Sjöberg has interesting observations to make, and he described worlds I know nothing about: Sweden, the art and science of entomology, Kamchatka, Burma. I enjoyed exploring new horizons, and was especially taken with Sjöberg's descriptions of his island and the intricacies of collecting, but I found him somewhat repetitive. Malaise, while interesting, didn't quite seem worth the obsessive attention Sjöberg pays him (although there is mystery-ish piece at the end about his art collecting later on that I enjoyed). His adventures are chronicled with just the wrong level of detail; they go one for a little too long with not enough scenery or personal relationships to keep the reader hooked.

The best essay by far "The Man Who Loved Islands." Named after a D.H. Lawrence short story, it details Sjöberg's love of his own island and his general fascination with them:
Whichever way I go, sooner or later I come to the sea. That's a banal observation, but within it, I think, lies a security that for many islanders is greater than the feeling of being trapped. Maybe it's no more remarkable than sleeping better with the door closed. 
Sjöberg is at his best describing his own work and life. He is understated and funny, has an eye for detail, and makes an odd profession (collecting flies?) accessible. He writes about things he loves, and that love shines through in his writing. His deviations into history are less readable and more frustrating, although my sense is that this would have been more enjoyable read in installments rather than all at once.

Passing by Nella Larsen

Security.  Was it just a word?  If not, then was it only be the sacrifice of other things, happiness, love, or some wild ecstasy that she had never known, that it could be obtained?  And did too much striving, too much faith in safety and permanence, unfit one for these other things?

It's estimated that hundreds of thousands of black Americans in the first few decades of the 20th century "passed"--that is, they took advantage of their light skin and mixed heritage to pass for white.  Nella Larsen's Passing is a novel about the allure that passing presents, and the consequences it exacts.  Clare Kendry has been passing for white for decades, ever since the death of her father, a poor janitor, and is even married to a man who crows about his pride in his unblemished white heritage.  He jokingly and unsuspectingly calls her "Nig," because she's growing darker as she grows older.

Clare is alluring; men fall for her, both black and white.  Is she alluring because her actions are transgressive, or does her willingness to transgress racial barriers come from the special quality of her daring?  Clare's foil is the protagonist Irene, a well-off Harlem woman, once a friend of Clare's in high school.  They chance upon each other when Irene herself is engaged in a kind of passing herself, dining at an upscale Chicago restaurant knowing that no one will question her racial identity:

Absurd!  Impossible!  White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot.  They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy.  Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro.

Ironically, Irene's ability to "pass" in Chicago before returning to her life in Harlem among blacks makes her freer, in a way, than Clare, who has come to see her white life as a kind of prison she can't escape.  She begins to insinuate herself into her old friend's life so that she might vicariously return to the black communities she left behind long ago.

The drama in Passing is largely sexual and psychological.  Clare thinks of herself as a prisoner, but Irene fears Clare's transgressive nature and convinces herself that her unhappy husband has fallen in love with Clare.  Some critics (the intro to this copy says) find a repressed homosexual desire in Irene's anxiety over Clare; I find that plausible but not totally necessary.  Clare's passing has positioned her at the exotic edge of both whiteness and blackness; I read Irene's obsession as a fear borne out of her own committed domesticity.  All this comes to a head when Clare's husband shows up to a party to confront her with his discovery about her racial identity, and she falls--or is pushed--out the window.  Larsen allows Clare's death to be ambiguous: did she kill herself, because she realized she no longer had a place in the world, white or black?  Or was she pushed?  And if so, was it her white husband or her black friend?  The ambiguity serves to underscore the precarious positioning of the "passing" woman, threatened on both sides by expulsion and rejection.

Passing is very slim, and stuffed with minor characters whose uselessness undermine the elegance of the central narrative.  Irene's conflict with her husband is underexplained and unconvincing, even as her obsession and anxiety over Clare makes perfect sense.  It reminded me most of the kind of Wharton novel where rich women--Irene and Clare are well-off black women, rare birds in fiction--come to see their social situations as confining, though perhaps with more reason than those Wharton women.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.
I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography - to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience.
This was my third time reading The English Patient. I have a handful of books that I re-read over and over, and this one ages beautifully. Ondaatje's novel weaves between a present day in Italy at the end of World War II and flashbacks to each character's experiences before and during the war. Hana, a nurse, tends to a nameless patient in an abandoned villa after Allied forces have left the town behind. As the novel progresses, they are joined by Carvaggio, a former thief, spy, and friend of Hana's father, and Kip, a bomb diffuser dismantling bombs and land mines left in the wake of battle. It's a love story--Kip and Hana quickly become involved, and the nameless patient reveals his own saga through stories and flashbacks--but it's also a story about memory and history and the marks we leave on each other.

The love stories are particularly sad and beautiful, and Ondaatje has a gift for the tiny moment. The reason I keep coming back to this novel how artfully Ondaatje can be with a sentence. He writes largely in the present tense, but slips backwards (and sometimes forwards) in time seamlessly. Each character gets a chance at these moments of introspection, and each gets their own voice. This, from Carvaggio as he watches Hana and remembers his wife: "Nowadays he doesn't think of his wife, though he knows he can turn around and evoke every move of her, describe any aspect of her, the weight of her wrist on his heart during the night." His sentences are spare--often void of conjunctions or adverbs--but still evocative and descriptive. This isn't Hemingway leaving us to fill in the emotionality of a scene. Another slip through time when the patient and his lover part for the last time:
From this point in our lives, she had whispered to him earlier, we will either find or lose our souls.
How does this happen? To fall in love and be disassembled.
I was in her arms. I had pushed the sleeve of her shirt up to the shoulder so I could see her vaccination scar. I love this, I said. This pale aureole on her arm. I see the instrument scratch and then punch the serum within her and then release itself, free of her skin, years ago, when she was nine years old, in a school gymnasium. 
I love everything about this. The tiny moments of intimacy, the last sentence tripping through fragments and time. There are hundreds of flashes like this throughout the novel, and each time I read it I find a new one.

One of the relationships that really struck me this time through was Hana's and her father's. He appears only in bits and pieces, but Ondaatje gives their bond the same love and attention he gives the romantic relationships. This one cracked me up:
In Canada pianos needed water. You opened up the back and left a full glass of water, and a month later the glass would be empty. Her father had told her about the dwarfs who drank only at pianos, never in bars. She had never believed that but had at first thought it was perhaps mice. 

And this one:
A novel is a mirror walking down a road. She had read that in one of the books the English patient recommended, and that was the way she remembered her father--whenever she collected the moments of him--stopping his car under one specific bridge in Toronto north of Pottery Road at midnight and telling her that this was where the starlings and pigeons uncomfortably and not too happily shared the rafters during the night. So they had paused there on a summer night and leaned their heads out into the racket of noise and sleepy chirpings.
Ondaatje's handles memory skillfully--over half of the book is made up of flashbacks or people's own accounts of their pasts. The details are smaller, more fleeting than those in the present tense, but they're that much mroe evocative.

One of the joys of this blog has been discovering new books; it has reminded me of the thousands of books out there for me to fall in love with. I almost felt guilty reading this over with so many others on my list this summer, but it was fully worth it. It reminded me why I love writing and words and sentences, and of the power of the tiny moment.