Monday, December 11, 2017

At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

Prying out a stump reminded him of how deeply a tree clung to the ground, how tenacious a hold it had on a place. Though he was not a sentimental man - he did not cry when his children died, he simply dug the graves and buried them - James was silent each time he killed a tree, thinking of its time spent in that spot. He never did this with the animals he hunted - they were food, and transient, passing through this world and out again, as people did. But trees felt permanent - until you had to cut them down.
The Goodenough family leaves their home in Connecticut for the promise of land and space in Ohio. Instead, they find swampland-damp, barren, and lonely. The novel follows the parents, James and Sadie to Ohio, then their son, Robert, as he forges farther West. Ohio homesteading is brutal; children are lost (to malaria? I think?) each fall, the winters are long and cold, and the land is unforgiving. Through it all, though, it's hard to feel sympathy for Chevalier's characters. James is obsessed with his apple orchard, Sadie is a cruel drunk. Neither seems particularly preoccupied with the work of raising children or of caring for one another. This may be a fairly accurate portrayal of homesteading in the 1800's, but it made for some rough reading.

Chevalier anchors the text in the flora of the Ohio swamps and Northern California, so much so that the trees feel like primary characters. There are James' apple trees, brought over first by ancestors from England, then by James and Sadie to Ohio, and Robert's giant sequoias, towering over the Sierra foothills. Her best writing is about landscapes and nature and how humans move through and within them. Robert and James, neither of them particularly competent at human relationships, are able to form deep, engaging partnerships with their trees; Chevalier writes those connections almost more compellingly than she does human ones.

There's a lot going on here. Chevalier weaves in a variety of narrators and voices and jumps forwards and backwards in time, but it doesn't always feel as seamless as it could. The second half of the book moves quickly and builds suspense well, but the first half was so rough that I had trouble investing. Robert ends up making it worth your while, and the twists and turns at the end are definitely exciting, but the book felt uneven--the pacing, the characters, the tone.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick

'Question they never deal with is, what to remould sick person like.  There is no what, Mister.'

'I don't get you, Helio.'

'Purpose of life is unknown, and hence way to be his hidden from the eyes of living critters.  Who can say if perhaps the schizophrenics are not correct?  Mister, they take a brave journey.  They turn away from mere things, which one my handle and turn to practical use; they turn inward to meaning.  There, the black-night-without-bottom lies, the pit.  Who can say if they will return?  And if so, what will they be like, having glimpsed meaning?  I admire them.'

On the Mars colonies, life forms around water.  Civilization huddles around the great canals, and still water is scarce; the water authority turns a switch that grants water to one homestead this month and another the next.  It is, hilariously, the 1990's.  The man who controls the water, Arnie Kott, is an old-school union gangster in the Jimmy Hoffa mold: unfailingly corrupt and in love with his own power.  He boasts of the steam bath he owns, which lets the excess water seep into the ground, a sign of his own excess.  But as forces on Earth set their eyes on expanding their influence in the colonies, he knows his days are numbered, and turns to an schizophrenic child, Manfred, who might have precognitive abilities--that is, he sees the future--to help him cement his power.  In this task Kott enlists a talented repairman, Jack Bohlen, himself a recovering schizophrenic, to help him create a machine will communicate with Manfred.

I have read what I think are considered Philip K. Dick's most important novels--Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, A Scanner Darkly, Ubik, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, the VALIS trilogy.  But Dick wrote something like fifty novels in his lifetime, and while some are probably in the vein of the pulpy sci-fi of the midcentury, I'm sure there are some hidden gems out there.  But even still, I didn't expect Martian Time-Slip, which I picked up more or less at random, to be so good that it qualifies, for me at least, as one of Dick's very best.

A few things set Martian Time-Slip apart.  I liked the presence of the Bleekmen, native Martians who speak a kind of pidgin English and who have been impressed into the service of the human colonizers.  It's an old story, but that's part of Dick's point: while space exploration promises a new start to the human race, humans are unable to escape their own poisoned qualities.  "Their lives were wasted," a character thinks, "they had simply carried over their old quarrels form Earth--and the purpose of colonisation had been forgotten."

Then there's the visions of Manfred, who really does have precognition.  Manfred is only a child, but he experiences the entire arc of his own life over and over again.  (This is Dick's theory of schizophrenia: it is the result of a mind working on a different time frame that "normal" humans.)  He is tortured because he sees his own future, in which his limbs are amputated and he lives out his last days helplessly in a joyless hospital.  Manfred's visions emphasize the way entropy pervades the universe; an inevitable rot he describes as "gubbish":

Gubbish!  A worm, coiled up, made of wet, bony-white pleats, the inside gubbish worm, from a person's body.  If only the high-flying birds could find it and eat it down, like that.  He ran down the steps, which gave beneath his feet.  Boards missing.  He saw down through the sieve of wood to the soil beneath, the cavity, dark, cold, full of wood so rotten that it lay in damp powder, destroyed by gubbish-rot.

Manfred's visions are terrifying, and they are what Martian Time-Slip does that none of Dick's other books do.  We see the same moments from Manfred's point of view over and over again, each time emphasizing the horrible force of entropy: people dissolve into their own skeletons, buildings rot away.  Kott wants to use Manfred to see the future, but like all good fables about the future, he is unprepared for what he'll see when he does.

And yet, Martian Time-Slip is as action-packed and exciting as any of the novels that have made Dick such a fertile source for movies.  The scene where the plutocrat Kott and the repairman Jack converge at the same point in the desert, obligated by law to help the party of Bleekmen dying of thirst, has a great visual and cinematic sense that helps establish the strangeness of life on Mars.  Ditto for the novel's climax, when Kott takes Manfred on a pilgrimage into the Martian desert to a rock worshiped by the natives, known as "Dirty Knobby."  I love that.  No other science fiction writer has quite that eye for the darkly humorous, or the truly weird.  This really is one of Dick's best books.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Walkabout, by James Vance Marshall

This review contains spoilers, although the nature of the story gives most of them away early. Let the reader beware.

Walkabout is not a complicated book, on the surface. It is written sparsely, a lean adventure story that a 10-year-old could read and (mostly) love. And even below the surface, the subtext is not especially subtle or hard to tease out--the wilderness, whether the American West or the Outback, as here, has long been peopled in fiction by characters exploring who they really are beneath the facile trappings of civilization. Walkabout makes this explicit early on:
In them, the primative had long ago been swept aside, been submerged by mechanization, been swamped by scientific development, been nullified by the standardized pattern of the white man's way of life. They had climbed a long way up the ladder of progress: they had climbed so far, in fact, they had forgotten where the climb had started... the realities of life were something they'd never have to face.
And this is driven home even more by our protagonists, all children. There are, in fact, no significant adults in the entire book until the tail end. Mary and Peter, 14 and 8, don't even have to become yuppies to lose touch with their primitive/real nature. All it takes is a plane crash in the Australian desert to expose their vulnerability in the "real world". Looking for food and water and only days from death, Mary and Peter meet a young aboriginal, never named, who helps them survive and acts as their guide toward civilization. The boy is on "walkabout", a ceremony--which Vance may have invented--in which a young boy must brave the wilderness alone to become a man in primitive cultures.

This trio's relationships form the core of the book, and bring about the thornier things that come with a book starring an aboriginal written in the 50s. There's plenty of noble savage stuff, of course, lots of casual racism--but there's a core of humanity and simplicity that keeps it from ever tipping over into truly offensive territory. This is largely a function of the story's mode: it reads more like a fable or an extended parable than a realist novel, which the ending makes a little more explicit. It could even be taken a sort of off-kilter utopia, with the boy leading the way.

But of course there is conflict, and much of it comes from Mary and Peter's differing reactions to the boy. Where Peter is immediately onboard with their guide--they bond early, over a sneeze--Mary is offended by the boy's nudity and lack of shame. Prim and civil, she reluctantly follows him, gradually growing more and more apprehensive as Peter starts to shed his apprehensions (and his clothes). But, this story being what it is, there is a crisis moment that pulls Mary out of "civilization"--a common cold, transmitted from Peter to the boy (MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW) that eventually kills the boy. Some of the loveliest writing is in this section, as well as some of the heaviest symbolism. Mary, afraid the boy will die and go to Hell, is moved with compassion to baptize him:
She sat down. Stunned. Then very gradually she laid the bush boy's head on to her lap; very softly she began to run her fingers across his forehead.
The bush boy's eves flickered open; for a moment, they were puzzled; then they smiled.
It was his smile that broke Mary's heart: that last forgiving smile. Before, she had seen as through a glass darkly, but now she saw face to face. And in that moment of truth all her inbred fears and inhibitions were sponged away, and she saw that the world which she had thought was split in two was one.
He dies in her lap, described to sound like a pieta, cementing that no, this isn't particularly subtle stuff but yes, it still packs a bit of a punch. The end of the book is a slow comedown and a gentle ambiguity--but this is the heart of the thing.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

She laughed quietly and then she said, "I've had my glory days, Kristin, but I'm not foolish enough to complain because I have to be content with sour, watered-down milk now that I've drunk up all my wine and ale.  Good days can last a long time if one tends to things with care and caution; all sensible people know that.  That's why I think that sensible people have to be satisfied with the good days--for the grandest of days are costly indeed.  They call a man a fool who fritters away his father's inheritance in order to enjoy himself in his youth.  Everyone is entitled to his own opinion about that.  But I call him a true idiot and fool only if he regrets his actions afterward, and he is twice the fool and the greatest buffoon of all if he expects to see his drinking companions again once the inheritance is gone."

Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter novel follow the title heroine throughout her life living in medieval Norway.  She is the daughter of Lavrans and Ragnfrid, a couple who have had to bury three sons before Kristin came along.  For that reason her parents are devoted to her, though in different ways--the steady, kind Lavrans and the neurotic, aloof Ragnfrid are not quite perfectly matched--and Kristin tests their love for her when he decides she cannot marry the capable Simon Darre, who her parents have arranged for her to marry, and instead falls in love with Erlend Nikulausson, a dashing older man with a checkered past.

The Wreath is a story you see again and again, and not just in "bodice-rippers" like this one: a headstrong woman rejects her parent's choice of husband for a man she has chosen herself.  But few novels, or movies or TV shows for that matter, tell that story as well as Undset does.  The story is delicately wrought and genuinely compelling, driven by moments of real tension and drama: the wayward bull that cripples Kristin's sister Ulvhild for life, for instance, or the attempted rape by a local boy that complicates Kristin's reputation among the smallholders in the village when she's only a teenager.  Or when Erlend's former mistress shows up and tries to poison Kristin.

But the thing that makes The Wreath stand out most from those other stories is that it takes all sides of the conflict seriously.  Erlend is not a misunderstood hero; he's a man whose reliability is questionable and whose mistakes have genuinely hurt others, even though Kristin loves him in spite of these things.  Lavrans is not a Capulet who rejects his daughter's autonomy without reason; his fear for his daughter's reputation, honor, and lineage is the surest proof of his love for her.  And yet the power of Kristin and Erlend's love is strong enough to obviate petty things like reason.

Most importantly, Undset takes the ideas of sin and guilt seriously.  If you are unable to accept that Kristin's fornication with Erlend is really a transgression against both her human father and against God, the agony that makes up the central internal conflict of the story probably won't land for you.  Even in the early 20th century when Undset wrote The Wreath, the seriousness of that transgression probably didn't translate easily from the medieval mindset.  But the most powerful parts of The Wreath come when Kristin is forced to confront her sin and make penance for it, and when she tries to both honor the religious commitment she makes to Erlend and the one she owes to Lavrans.  Undset clearly believes that the state of Kristin's soul is something that matters, and that seems utterly foreign to the landscape of modern fiction.

Eventually, Kristin and Erlend marry.  They know that their life may not be an easy one, but they've chosen it, and each other, freely.  Undset ends the novel with a scene not in the bed of the two newlyweds, but of Lavrans and Ragnfrid, the old couple who have tried to do their best for each other and for their daughter.  Kristin's marriage has opened up an old wound in their lives, forcing them to confront their own arranged marriage, the exact sort of union that their daughter has rejected.  It's a tender, sad moment that exposes just how complex the moral choices we are forced to make can be.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

A. (firmly) The Empire will vanish and all its good with it.  Its accumulated knowledge will decay and the order it has imposed will vanish.  Interstellar wars will be endless; interstellar trade will decay; population will decline; worlds will lose touch with the main body of the Galaxy.--And so matters will remain.

Q. (a small voice in the middle of a vast silence) Forever?

A. Psychohistory, which can predict the fall, can make statements concerning the succeeding dark ages.  The Empire, gentlemen, as has just been said, has stood twelve thousand years.  The dark ages to come will endure not twelve, but thirty thousand years.  A Second Empire will rise, but between it and our civilization will be one thousand generations of suffering humanity.  We must fight that.

It's not a stretch to say I owe a lot of my love for literature to Isaac Asimov's Foundation series.  It was a recommendation my Dad made, after I had picked up some of his old sci-fi magazines.  I loved it: the epic sweep of the storyline affected me in the way that Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have affected other kids, in other times, and I was hooked.  I read the whole series all the way through.  I don't read much science fiction anymore.  A lot of what I treasured about it--the inventiveness, the feat of imagination, the gripping plot--could be found, I discovered, in other books as well, and in ways that often ran more deep.

Re-reading Foundation for the first time in decades confirmed a lot of what I remembered loving about the series.  Asimov, like Stephen King, is a writer damned with the faint praise of being the best of the genre writers, and with Asimov, that's probably a fair description: though the prose is often utilitarian and sparse, he knows how to propel a story in ways that other, even more "literary" science fiction authors, struggle with.  Foundation is breezy, but it hurtles forward with great urgency for a book that takes place over a couple centuries.  And every now and then an inspired detail emerges, like the young prince on the planet Anacreon who hunts giant Nyakbirds in his jet-cruiser, or the descriptions of the crowded urban planet Trantor, home of 40 billion people.

Re-reading it also revealed some of its flaws.  The Foundation series, in a nutshell, is the story of a thousand years in future history.  At the height of the Galactic Empire, which stretches throughout the known universe, a mathematician named Hari Seldon predicts a coming "fall" which will plummet the universe into barbarism, and sever communication between planets.  He sets up the Foundation, a society on the far-flung planet of Terminus, which will preserve culture, science, and math in hopes of reestablishing the Empire after a millennium-long Dark Age--as well as a second Foundation, secreted away somewhere on the other side of the universe.  His mathematics allows him to predict the course of history, and over that thousand years a pre-recorded hologram of Seldon on Terminus advises the people of the Foundation on how to approach the problems of spatial geopolitics.

Like all fiction that claims to give a vision of the future, Foundation is most jarring when it betrays a lack of vision beyond its own time period.  At one point, Seldon, on trial before the Empire, balks at their suggestion that he has 100,000 followers at his disposal--they fear an uprising--because they are counting "women and children."  It's striking that even an avowed liberal like Asimov would fail to predict just how antiquated that would sound, even as he was in the midst of the twentieth century's push for women's equality.  Foundation tries to predict thousands of years of history, but it seems passe just seventy years later.

That's a small example that speaks to a larger problem that strikes other science fiction writers: the tendency to extrapolate from contemporary or historical circumstances, which detracts from the sense of prediction or imagination.  Asimov modeled the series after Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and at times it seems like a recapitulation of history than a vision of the future.  In its first century the Foundation moves through a series of recognizable epochs--first, it's a society of scientists, working on an encyclopedia, then, a political entity which cements its power in its region of space by providing atomic power in the guise of a Galactic religion.  From there it moves to a trade-based society whose power is largely economic.  The heroes of the story are always those who see the path of history, and are willing to embrace the new political circumstances rather than clinging to the old ways.

But the truth is that this structure is shallow, like a textbook looking for digestible patterns, and fails to recognize the interplay between science, religion and trade, in the Roman Empire or the Galactic one.  It professes a view of human history that is teleological, and privileges the historical moment in which the book was written--note how the religious society is placed at the beginning of the Foundation's history, at a point which is meant to be the most primeval.  No doubt you can see the movement of history back towards empire, personified not as the Roman Empire but the Atomic Age--it's the use of atomic power that separates the civilized from the barbaric in Foundation, which is strange today, when the technological advances we think of as being most important are largely informational and communicative.

This teleological vision of humanity works for Asimov because he shares Seldon's confidence that large groups of people can be successfully modeled statistically.  That's probably true, to an extent.  But there's little respect for the engines of chance, or chaos, or sheer human individuality.  (Future books, I know, trouble this assumption much more.)  Without taking away from Asimov, whose work has always meant a lot to me, I think it's those who appreciate the strangeness of human beings, their impulsivity and unpredictability, who often do the best job of imagining the future.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Exercises in Style by Raymond Queneau

In the S bus, in the rush hour.  A chap of about 26, felt hat with a cord instead of a ribbon, neck too long, as if someone's been having a tug-of-war with it.  People getting off.  The chap in question gets annoyed with one of the men standing next to him.  He accuses him of jostling him every time anyone goes past.  A snivelling tone which is meant to be aggressive.  When he sees a vacant seat he throws himself onto it.

Two hours later, I meet him in the Cour de Rome, in front of the gare Saint-Lazare.  He's with a friend who's saying: "You ought to get an extra button put on your overcoat."  He shows him where (at the lapels) and why.

Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style tells a banal story, and tells it 99 times: a young man gets into an argument on a bus before taking an empty seat.  Later on, the narrator sees the same man having a conversation with another who suggests putting a new button on his overcoat.  It couldn't be anything but banal, really, because the plot, such as it is, isn't the point; it's the endless variation of style that Queneau wants to emphasize, the number of methods without limit of telling the same story.  The first version, above, is titled "Notation," but others tell the same tale with primarily auditory language, or use the metaphors of gastronomy, or in the fashion of a telegram or official letter, or in the voice of another kind of person, or without the letter E, or according to any number of mathematical word-games.

Some stand out, like "Philosophical," which begins, "Great cities alone can provide phenomenological spirituality with the essentialities of temporal and improbabilistic coincidences."  Or "Apostrophe," which begins, "O platinum-nibbled stylograph, let thy smooth and rapid course trace on this single-side calendered paper those alphabetic glyphs which shall transmit to men of sparkling spectacles the narcissistic tale of a double encounter of omnibulistic cause."  My plan is to use it in my Creative Writing classes to help students look past the particulars of what happens and to think about their own style and tone.  I think a few Queneau-style exercises could go a long way in getting them to reflect on that.

One of the biggest impressions this edition gives is just how difficult this book must have been to translate from Queneau's French.  Translator Barbara Wright has a loose hand--she'd have to--going so far as to change the voice-exercise "Vulgaire" to the English "Cockney," and changing an English-dialect impression chapter to one called " For ze Frrensh."  It also has a number of new homages from writers like Harry Mathews, Ben Marcus, and Jonathan Lethem; my favorite is a send-up of Beat novels by the writer Frederic Tuten:

Whee!  Whee!  The bus curled up to the curb with a mad tragic kind of speech and me and jenny Lou get on behind a guy sporting a baggy blue suit and a blue hat with a hemp band and I can see right away he's not hip but a square fidgeting every time someone jostles him and squirming when more people crowd into the bus but me and Jenny Lou dig being packed in with all the maids and busboys and car wash kids all the the holy ones who work in the dark obsidian laundries and then someone steps on this guy's foot and he lets out a howl like a naked coyote who's seen the invisible night and finally I say to him be cool man and dig the scene dig all the angels here dig the holy chicks and dig the whole ride because the ride is life...

Yeesh. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they belong.

My new wife and I recently went on our mini-moon to Portland, Maine, a lovely but cold town set on the rocky New England coast and ringed with islands.  I've been saving this book for the next time I was in Maine, and as far as local color goes, it didn't disappoint: Jewett's account of a small coastal town in Maine certainly feels unmistakably like a product of its own place and time, as closely tied to its setting as Twain's novels are to the Mississippi River.

The unnamed protagonist of The Country of the Pointed Firs is an older woman writer--probably very closely identified with Jewett herself--who summers in the town of Dunnet Landing, where she rents out an abandoned schoolhouse for her writing and becomes fast friends with another woman named Almira Todd, who is an expert in growing medicinal herbs.  The book unfolds over several summers, as the protagonist gets to know the local denizens of Dunnet Landing better little by little, as well as Almira's simple but loyal family, who live out on one of the harbor islands.  Jewett has a sensitive eye for the habits and personalities of the Mainers of the 19th-century people: proud but unpretentious, friendly but insular, with a propensity for sea travel (they rely on a fishing economy, after all) but unfamiliar with places fifteen miles away by land.

This novel was a challenge for me.  It flouts one of the principles of fiction we hold to be most inviolable: it really has nothing resembling a conflict.  The people of Dunnet Landing undergo hardships, of course; they've buried loved ones and endured harsh winters, which they bear with equanimity, but these things are rarely represented in the narrative.  The protagonist and Almira are friendly with just about everyone; you get the sense that small-town people can't afford to be enemies.  In place of conflict is a series of detailed sketches of Maine life that illuminate the richness in everyday life even as they zero in on characters who are, for lack of a better word, "quirky."

My favorite comes late in the book, when Almira and the protagonist visit a reclusive woman known as "The Queen's Twin," because she shares a birthday with Queen Victoria.  There's a tremendous pathos in the image of the woman, living alone in the Maine woods, but imagining a kind of friendship with a powerful woman across the Atlantic:

"Sometimes I think, now she's older, she might like to know about us.  When I think how few old friends anybody has left at our age, I suppose it may be just the same with her as it is with me; perhaps she would like to know how we came into life together.  But I've had a great advantage in seeing her, an' I can always fancy her goin' on, while she don't know nothin' yet about me, except she may feel my love stayin' in her heart sometimes an' not know just where it comes from.  An' I dream about our being together out in some pretty fields, young as ever we was, and holdin' hands as we walk along."

And yet Jewett is as interested in the walk to the Queen's Twin's house as she is what in what happens there, and lingers for pages and pages over the landscape and the untroubled path of the two visiting friends.  Most of the characters in the novel are women, and older women at that, and the uncomfortable dramalessness of it may reflect a particular mode of existence circumscribed for women in 19th century America.  But I admit to being frustrated by it, and being most interested in the novel when it rises above the quotidian, as with a chilling early tale from a Sea Captain who describes, from secondhand accounts, a terrifying Arctic world of strange shadow-creatures.  It sets a strange tone for the novel that it never returns to, or validates.

My copy of the novel is accompanied by several short stories, most of which tell similar stories about older women visiting older women.  Most of them I have forgotten completely, but a couple stand out: "The White Heron," about a young girl's awakening to the natural world around her in contrast to the rapaciousness of a visiting hunter, and "The Hiltons' Holiday," whose story of a pair of young girls visiting the town for the first time just stands out as being unerringly charming (and which reminds me of a similar account, accompanied by more menace, in Independent People).  But by the time I'd put the book down, I'd had enough of charm, and of local color.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

Life is a hurricane, and we board up to save what we can and bow low to the earth to crouch in that small space above the dirt where the wind will not reach. We honor anniversaries of deaths by cleaning graves and sitting next to them before fires, sharing food with those who will not eat again. We raise children and tell them other things about who they can be and what they are worth: to us, everything. We love each other fiercely, while we live and after we die. We survive; we are savages.
I decided to read Ward's Men We Reaped before I knew it was a memoir. I loved her novel, Salvage the Bones, her newest book has a long waiting list at the library, and a friend loaned this one to me on vacation, so all the stars aligned. I'm somewhat wary of memoirs written by 35 year-olds; obviously it's possible to be a talented, insightful writer at that age (and much younger), but memoir seems like it should be reserved for a longer angle lens than 35 years allows. The exception, for me at least, is when the author has a compelling story to tell--something different and divergent enough to warrant reflection. Ward manages to do the opposite and succeed wildly; she tells a story that is all too common and normalized, but she does it with grace, wisdom, and the same novelistic style that made Salvage the Bones such a pleasure to read. Ward's memoir centers around the loss of five men in her life--to violence, drugs, and poverty--and the horrifying regularity with which these losses occur.

Ward consciously weaves forward and backwards in time, so the ghosts of her lost loved ones reappear after their deaths have happened in vignettes and snippets and memory. Her writing is beautiful and sweeping, her sentences tumble into each other even when she is describing crippling sorrow. She is a gripping writer, and the heartbreak of her story only makes it that much more compelling.

I read this soon after reading Margaret Wilkerson Sexton's A Kind of Freedom, and I wish I'd read it closer to Salvage the Bones. New Orleans and its surrounding towns are a part of the country I have little context for, especially when it comes to poor, overlooked communities. This helped set some of that context for me and gave depth to both of those novels after the fact.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

Fiction seeks out truth.  Granted, it seeks a poetic kind of truth, universals not easily translatable into moral codes.  But part of our interest as we read is in learning how the world works; how the conflicts we share with the writer and all other human beings can be resolved, if at all; what values we can affirm, and, in general, what the moral risks are.  The writer who can't distinguish truth truth from a peanut-butter sandwich can never write good fiction.  What he affirms we deny, throwing away his book in indignation; or if he affirms nothing, not even our oneness in sad or comic helplessness, and insists that he's perfectly right to do so, we confute him by closing his book.  Some bad men write good books, admittedly, but the reason is that when they're writing they're better men than when they beat their wives and children.  When he writes, the man of impetuous bad character has time to reconsider.  The fictional process helps him say what he might not have said that same night in the tavern.

I just started teaching Creative Writing this year, and it's been a real mixed bag.  I decided to start with poetry, and for some students, the results were terrific.  Many were already accomplished poets, but the best moments are when mediocre or unpracticed young writers stumble through experiment and practice into arresting lines or stanzas.  Others have such a disinterest in poetry I think I may have lost them, though I hope that our upcoming unit writing short fiction will help them reengage with writing.

To that end, I've been reading some books on writing like John Gardner's The Art of Fiction and Ann Lamott's Bird by Bird.  Lamott's book is mostly inspirational, an encouragement to writing in the face of all the things that discourage it.  Gardner's is more of a survey of the nature of fiction, and neither are exactly practical.  These books all struggle, I think, because of how difficult it is to speak to each writer at their particular moment; a lot of Gardner's advice seemed obvious to me, and much of it seemed very strange.

The Art of Fiction has a whiff of mothballs to it: For one, Gardner is pretty devoted to the most traditional notion of fiction as an imitation of life and dismissive, even as he claims he isn't, of the kind of "metafiction" that has preoccupied the postmodernists of the past seventy-odd years.  He claims, perhaps rightly, that only those who have mastered fiction are able to write self-conscious metafiction effectively, but you get the sense that he thinks it's probably a mistake, and has little notion of why those writers find metafiction the only possible mode in their particular historical moment.  Elsewhere, there's the unfortunate patina of chauvinism, as when he throws up his hands at the sad fact that the English language prioritizes male pronouns.  He describes as brilliant a treatment of a student's novel he had heard, in which a Native American scholar unwittingly takes a position in an "Indian Studies" department--as in, East Indian--and has to muddle through pretending to be from Delhi, or something.  In a more general way, his insistence that fiction relies most importantly on the accumulation of details that make you feel as if you were really somewhere else seems shortsighted and of another time.

But it's worth embracing, to an extent, the tradition articulated by Gardner here, and not forgetting why those narratives have been so powerful in the first place.  His chapters on crafting individual sentences are exceedingly useful, and would probably help a lot of today's writers whose popular blandness seems like a flaw on the most fundamental level.  Most useful to me were the series of exercises in the back of the book, many of which I'm definitely going to use: "Describe a lake as seen by a young man who has just committed murder.  Do not mention the murder."  Now, that's fun, and I have an inkling it will be a satisfying exercise for a bunch of high schoolers whose idea of fiction always operates at the highest pitch of drama.  But we'll see.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Mr. Fortune by Sylvia Townsend Warner

He should say something like: "Your god, Lueli, was only made of wood, perishable and subject to accidents, like man who is made of flesh.  He is now burnt, and his ashes are lost among the other ashes.  Now will you not see that my God is a better God than yours, and turn to Him?  For my God is from everlasting, even though the earth shake He cannot be moved."

Yes, that was the sort of thing to say, but he felt a deep reluctance to saying it.  It seemed ungentlemanly to have such a superior invulnerable God, part of that European conspiracy which opposes gun-boats to canoes and rifles to bows and arrows, which showers death from the mountains upon Indian villages, which rounds up the negro into an empire and tricks him of his patrimony.

Timothy Fortune is an Anglican missionary who sets out to convert the Polynesian island of Fanua.  The islanders welcome him with open arms; they are charmed by his quirky ways: his apprehension around the scantily-clad women, the strange music he plays on his harmonium.  But even though he stays many years, he gains only one convert, a youth named Lueli, and Lueli's soul is constantly a source of anxiety for Mr. Fortune.  When he discovers Lueli's god--a small wooden idol that is "his" god in the way that all the islanders have their own hand-carved gods--at an altar in the forest, he despairs for his failure to convert Lueli properly.

Mr. Fortune--actually, Mr. Fortune's Maggot, the first of two slim novels collected in this edition--begins as a particularly sharp parody of European colonialism.  Mr. Fortune bumbles around the island, as unaware of his own priggishness as only a condescending white missionary can be.  He notes that Polynesians, even Lueli, have trouble conceiving of Jesus because they are "not sorrowful enough," without, of course, thinking through the logic of that statement.  And yet Lueli, his young protege, is attached to Mr. Fortune with great ardor and intimacy and accepts his teaching with great equanimity, even when the subject is a particularly bungled lesson in geometry.  What I expected, having heard a little about this book from Brent, was a barely sublimated gay romance, a love which Mr. Fortune represses through his own staunch religion.  And it's not exactly not that.  But while Mr. Fortune's blindness is played for laughs, the intimacy between him and Lueli never is.

About two-thirds of the way through, the novel changes in a way that is both obvious and subtle.  A volcano tremor destroys Mr. Fortune's house, crushing everything inside, including the idol that he had demanded Lueli burn.  Lueli's spirit dies with his own god, and he becomes despondent.  But remarkably, Mr. Fortune's faith dies also, and in the passing of a heartbeat he gives up his Anglican mission for good.  What follows is a meditation on love that took my breath away, a long-formulating realization that Mr. Fortune must leave the island to preserve Lueli, whom he loves above all things:

"I loved him," he thought.  "From the moment I set eyes on him I loved him.  Not with what is accounted a criminal love, for though I set my desire on him it was a spiritual desire.  I did not even love him as a father loves a son, for that is a familiar love, and at the times when Lueli most entranced me it was as a being remote, intact, and incalculable.  I waited to see what his next movement would be, if he would speak or no--it was the not knowing what he would do that made him dear.  Yes, that was how I loved him best, those were my happiest moments; when I was just aware of him, and sat with my sense awaiting him, not wishing to speak, not wishing to make him notice me until he did so of his own accord because no other way would it be perfect, would it be by him.  And how often, I wonder, have I let it be just like that?  Perhaps a dozen times, perhaps twenty times all told, perhaps, when all is put together, for an hour out of the three years I had with him.  For man's will is a demon that will not let him be.  It leads him to the edge of a clear pool; and while he sits admiring it, with his soul suspended over it like a green branch and dwelling in its own reflection, will stretches out his hand and closes his fingers upon a stone--a stone to throw into it."

Guh. I'd give my hands to have written a paragraph as perfect as that one.  It reveals something shockingly true about love: when it is real it comes out of a recognition of difference, seeing someone as a discrete person outside of yourself, and yet a difference that affirms its essential similarity.  How crazy it is to encounter another being as full of spirit as yourself, yet so alien.  And the same feeling produces a revulsion, a kind of anger.  Like Oscar Wilde says, "Each man kills the thing he loves."  But Wilde's pithiness is no match for Warner's lyrical elaboration, I think.

Warner felt so attached to Mr. Fortune that she revisited him years later in a smaller standalone novella called "The House of the Salutation."  Mr. Fortune, having left Fanua, travels miserably around the world until he comes upon a widow living with a handful of servants in an old rundown mansion in the Argentine Pampas.  The widow seizes upon Mr. Fortune's appearance with a love that is more recognizably romantic than the one he had with Lueli, but no less strange or reverent.  This angers the widow's young heir, who suspects Mr. Fortune as having designs on the estate.  "The heart is like a dog," she says.  "It barks, and lies down again."  The novella is strange and dense, without the touch of irony that lightens Mr. Fortune's Maggot, but touching, because Warner apparently could not forsake her apostate priest and was compelled to provide him, at last, with love.