Saturday, November 16, 2019

Gef! The Strange Tale of an Extra-Special Talking Mongoose by Christopher Josiffe

Whatever Gef's true nature--whether spirit, animal, imaginary companion, or something else--it is evident that an entity with a distinct, fully-realised personality is being described by James Irving's and other's accounts of their encounters with Gef.

On the one hand, we have the playful, affectionate and fun-loving little being who enjoyed singing, dancing, and games.  But on the other, there are his threats of violence.  Against the Irvings: "You don't know what damage or harm I might do if I were roused.  I could kill you all if I liked but I won't."

In the 1920's, James Irving, a once-successful piano dealer in the UK and Canada, moved to the Isle of Man to become a subsistence farmer with wife Margaret and daughter Voirrey.  It was a step down in life for Irving, and one he hoped would not be permanent, but what he lost in prestige and money he gained in, I guess, companionship and notoriety: the Irvings' house, Doarlish Cashen, soon proved to be haunted by a talking mongoose named Gef.  (That's pronounced like "Jeff.")

Life with Gef, as described in Christopher Josiffe's extensive investigation into the strange story, could be exhausting.  At first, Gef displayed nothing but malice toward the Irvings, but after a while he became something like a member of the family, singing, gossiping, and joking with them.  He throws things (he has great aim); he travels speedily across the Isle of Man and brings back news that no one else could know; he steals sandwiches, apparently, from the workers at a nearby bus stop.  Sometimes, his attentions are unwanted: he keeps the Irvings up for hours at night asking questions and chattering behind the walls of the farmhouse.

Gef's aversion to being seen--those who claim to have seen him have done so only briefly, and the blurry Bigfoot-like photos that purport to be Gef sitting on a post outside Doarlish Cashen are so inscrutable that some have guessed they're of a coiled scarf or stole--seems like a very good point in evidence of his being a hoax.  And yet the picture of Gef that Josiffe paints--needy, mercurial, short-tempered, playful, ribald--is so complex that Gef appears on the page as a very real character.  And although Josiffe enumerates, in great detail, the numerous possibilities about Gef's identity (Is he a hoax put on by the Irvings?  A trick played by Margaret and Voirrey against Jim?  A pukka, a poltergeist, or a witch's familiar?), it's clear he wants very much to believe that Gef is real, or at least interpret the evidence in the most Gef-friendly light.  That's a positive feature, I think, of the book; a more skeptical narrative about the Irvings might be a fairer book but it certainly wouldn't be a more fun one.



It's a fun story, but also a tragic one: Gef's resident attracts the attention of spiritualists and parapsychologists all over the world, but if Gef is a hoax put on by Jim Irving for money, it's a dismal failure.  A book is written by visitors, much more critical of Irving than he'd believed, and for which he receives nothing.  Through it all he insists he's actually a very private individual, not desirous of the attention that Gef brings;  Gef's obsessive and outrageous attentions to the Irvings looks positively friendly and loving when compared with the attentions of writers and ghost-seekers who want to hunt Gef down but shunt the Irvings aside in the process.  And Josiffe does such a convincing job bring Gef to life it's sad to read a late interview with an elderly Voirrey, saying she wished that Gef had never visited them at all.

The book didn't leave me with a real clear idea of who or what Gef was.  I don't really believe in talking mongooses, or spirits in the shape of mongooses.  My guess is that it was an elaborate prank perpetrated by Voirrey that got out of hand for everyone involved.  But that's hardly a fun thought.  Better to think of Gef as alive still, zipping around the Isle of Man, making (and torturing) new friends.

Monday, November 11, 2019


Image result for eightball elizabeth geoghegan



Eightball by Elizabeth Geoghegan

I stare at him, barefooted, a thread-worn prayer rug beneath his bony, veiny feet.  Still tan from last summer.  I remember the rug from his bedroom.  It was antique even then, but today in the striated sunlight through his blinds it appears ragged.  The bright red and turquoise geometry faded to soft coral swirls, the threadbare melancholy of no longer blue.  He leans from the sofa over the low coffee table.  Slow ballet.  Razorblade in hand, cutting lines on a framed black and white photograph, an early one of mine.  The beach.  Our beach.  Those grassy dunes that poked us, the soft white sand that soothed us, the cold gray sea we loved so well.

A young art student falls in love with an unusual distant and noncommittal peer and he uses her for crude sexual satisfaction.  A woman builds her life around a man with a checkered history of leaving girlfriends, then gets left by him.  A woman falls in love on a first date, loses track of her love and then discovers she is pregnant.  A woman tries to get a man to leave his girlfriend for her and ends up alone.  A woman follows her brother to college and sacrifices endlessly for him, only to have him use her and abandon her.

Eightball is a collection of stories about women who make poor choices regarding men and then pay a price for them.  The stories are set in Seattle, Boulder, Rome, Paris and Bali.  The characters are carefully and drawn to feel like organic members of these communities – so one woman in Boulder is an outdoor enthusiast who loves dogs, the woman in Paris has a deep appreciation for the romance of that city, the young student is surrounded by hipsters and trying to be authentic.  Her descriptions of places – often focused on smaller details like the prayer rug above, are evocative and become talismans of these characters.  

Geoghan also has a solid ability to mix lush visuals with blunt and crude prose and the tension between the two can be exciting.  These woman are not shy, retreating victims, though they are virtually all victims.  They are strong, independent people.  They have goals and the talent and means to achieve them.  They are sexually independent and often curious.  Yet at crucial moments they put their faith in males and are let down.

The strongest work here is the title novella, which tells the story of Quinn, who has followed her brother to college in Boulder, Colorado.  The story moves back and forth between the tale of a drug-soaked night in Boulder and a series of scenes from their childhood and life with their alcoholic parents.  The balance of these is taut and musical and both worlds are drawn vividly.  In the flashbacks, we see the toll alcohol takes on their family as they grow up and Patrick begins to center his own life around drugs.  While these scenes could have been more holistically organized – alternating two fully drawn narratives instead of one narrative and a collage of incidents – they do steadily move west, from the sun-drenched beach of their childhood, to an adolescence near Chicago after their father is promoted, to the dark hedonism of Colorado, so that setting helps form an arc in the flashbacks even if plot does not.

The problem here is that we are rooting for Quinn throughout – against her parents and against her brother. It is absolutely clear from the opening scene in Boulder that her devotion to him is a mistake, so we are neither surprised nor particularly moved when her urge to save him ends in failure.  This weakness affects all the stories and becomes multiplied if you read the collection straight through.  Among the most effective moments is the end of the first story, when the narrator’s home for romance is dashed as the man she is attracted to – Tree-Boy – takes his pleasure with rough selfishness.  It is not just bad sex because there is a hint that this woman has gotten what she deserved, for not seeing this man for who he really was.  There are three stories in which the key male figures are given these reductive nicknames – “Tree Boy,” “Cricket Boy” and “Dog Boy.”  The stories build on each other, but they do not build on the power of the first encounter.

There is an unfortunate tendency towards obviously literary touches.  “eightball,” for example, ends with an extended encounter with butterflies and the sudden intrusion of literary symbolism in a story of such gritty realism is off-putting, even while the descriptions of the butterflies are beautiful.

There is powerful writing here, and characters that seem real.  I would love to say that I will miss them, but they are real without being attractive.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I had a feeling like I was still moving, still flying up and up toward the surface.  The stars greeted me like a second challenge.  After months of the bad feeling--months of the sensation that I was evaporating, of practicing for wrestling shows we were never going to perform again--I could taste the old Bigtree victory.   Suddenly I remembered: I am an alligator wrestler.

Ava Bigtree lives with her family on an island off of the Florida Everglades where they run a theme park called Swamplandia!  (Exclamation point original.)  It's a strange but pleasant life: her father, Chief Bigtree (not really an Indian) runs the place; her mother is the star alligator wrestler.  Ava herself is training to be an alligator wrestler; her sister Osceola and brother Kiwi are a little more on the conventional side.  But then her mother dies suddenly, and the future of the park is thrown into question.

The Chief leaves suddenly for business on the mainland, leaving his children to fend for themselves in the park.  This starts a chain of adventure for each of the Bigtree kids: Osceola, who dabbles in spiritualism, is convinced she has fallen in love with the ghost of a dredger whose boat they discover floating among the sawgrass.  When she leaves, Ava must find her, searching for a mysterious location marked by piles of shells that may or may not be the literal opening to the underworld.  She's accompanied by the "Bird Man," a kind of professional Pied Piper of buzzards who keeps island dwellers safe from avian molestation.  Kiwi has the most normal storyline: he travels to the mainland to work at the newly opened World of Darkness, a hell-themed park that has sapped Swamplandia!'s business.

There's a kind of connection between the "mouth of hell" Ava and the Birdman are searching for and the theme park version at the World of Darkness, with its dyed-red swimming pools.  The World of Darkness is a Disneyfied version of the real spiritual locus that Ava and Ossie are seeking; is Swamplandia!, too, a Disneyfied version of the real wild Everglades?  Ava feels safe with the Bird Man, but his trustworthiness is not assured, and perhaps he is leading her into a real darkness, with real dangers for which, unlike the alligators, she's not trained.

The best thing about Swamplandia! is how painstaking Russell's sense of the Everglades is.  It's packed to the margins with knowledge and experience of South Florida, from the grass-covered chickees of the Ten Thousand Islands to the invasive meleleuca trees that threaten everything.  The best part of the novel, actually, is the story of the Dredgeman Louis, with whom Ossie has fallen in love: a chilling story of the folly of human engineering on the Everglades in the early 20th century.  Swamplandia! is nothing if not evocative of a very specific place, a place that is unique in the world, and thus deserves evocative accounts.

But it's also incredibly overstuffed.  There's no reason for this book to be 400 pages.  Like a canoe in the sawgrass, it moves at a plodding pace, and I never felt it was able to pick up a worthy momentum.  The parts at the World of Darkness start from a place of tremendous inspiration (a hell-themed park is a clever inversion of capitalist value) but in practice, they're rarely funny.  The humor is too broad, too reliant on that first idea, and the crass machismo of Kiwi's coworkers ("Bro!") is particularly grating.

And what about Ava?  (Spoiler alert time!  And uh, trigger warning!)  She's captivated by the Bird Man in the same way that her sister is captivated by ghosts; even blurting out that she loves him at one point.  His protests that she can't tell anyone about what they are doing--because Child Protective Services might take them away from their absent father--begin to seem awfully suspect, and these suspicions are confirmed when he rapes her.  She's thirteen, and her sections of the book are written in the first person.  It's an awful, horrible thing to read, but I couldn't figure out what made such a horror necessary.  Doesn't it confirm exactly what the Bigtrees' skeptics might say, that a life out on the swamp with a neglectful father encourages disaster?  Isn't it, among other things, an affirmation of the banal, soul-crushing world of the mainland, where at the very least vagrants aren't out here kidnapping and raping children?  I don't know--I just feel like the narrative reward for a rape scene has to be very high, and I'm not sure it's met here.

Swamplandia! can be clever, lush, and fun.  But it wasn't those things frequently enough for me to really enjoy it.  I've heard Russell's stories are much better, and I can see how that might be true--in a more concentrated format, these aspects of her fiction might be more concentrated.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Catherine Wheel by Jean Stafford

With his announcement to Cousin Katharine, it had reached a fever pitch, hotter and hotter until there was in his very heartbeat a voice that constantly said, "Charles Smithwick, die."  And the worst of it was that he did not care any longer whether Charles Smithwick lived or died or became the President; he wanted only to be free, to be able to read Mark Twain and play poker with Honor and Harriet and have a little fun, for pete's sake, but the voice would not let him be.  It was an undertone when he was with other people, but when he was alone, it was a roar and he had come to think that if Charles didn't die, this would go on for the rest of his life.

School has ended and Andrew Shipley has returned to the small Maine town where his mother's cousin Katharine lives in a stately manor.  He has been looking forward to seeing his cousin, but mostly to seeing his friend Victor, a strange and ugly boy whose friendship is the best thing in Andrew's life.  But the very day he arrives, he learns that Victor's brother Charles is home from the army, and sick: Victor, who idolizes his brother, will be too sick to spend time with him.  Andrew passes the summer in boredom and near-violent resentment; inside him, a voice--the kind of voice that only children, who have not lost the belief that their thoughts can have a physical effect in the world--commands Charles to die.

Meanwhile, Cousin Katharine, a beautiful and eccentric spinster, has her own inner turmoil.  Andrew's father John, who long ago chose their friend Maeve (Andrew's mother) over her, has changed his mind after decades of unhappy marriage.  Katharine knows that her love won't solve John's existential misery, but the lost past tortures her.  She plans a big party that reenacts the moment she realized that John was in love with Maeve, a party with big fireworks.  The Catherine wheel--that's a firework--becomes a symbol of the vanishing summer, the fleeting happiness that both Katharine and Andrew wish they could recover:

A crimson girandole mounted with a hiss to the sky and fell, a fountain of blinding orange fire; the fine, showering colors were unreal and chemical, plangent pinks and purples, sharp blues and violent greens, and the rapidity with which the rockets vanished, leaving for only an instant afterward the image of their course and the echo of their explosion, so excited her that she had been lightheaded and tears had started to her eyes.  As the last Catherine wheel revolved insanely on its separate planes of scarlet and green, sizzling and thundering as the wild spokes fired each other, Katharine, in ecstasy, turned to face John Shipley.  No longer than it took the Catherine wheel to spin itself to nothing and leave the summer sky to the stars did it take her to see that he could not, could never see her.

All the drama in The Catherine Wheel is purely psychological.  Andrew and Katharine's preoccupations become obsessions, useless and painful, but neither of them can let go, and each becomes convinced that the other knows exactly what's going on in their heads: Andrew childishly, and Katharine because she believes that Andrew has read her diary.  (Isn't that a recognizable truth: how often we worry that the shameful things we are thinking are readable on our face?)

The Catherine Wheel moves the action from wild Colorado to genteel Maine, but the novel works on the same formula as The Mountain LionIn both novels, Stafford reveals a canny ability to capture the strange mental universe of children, which seems as real as any physical thing.  And like The Mountain Lion, The Catherine Wheel is all mind-drama until it isn't, hurtling toward a final brief moment where the psychological really does manifest itself in the world in a flash of horrific violence.  But whereas the end of The Mountain Lion felt inevitable and terrible, the end of The Catherine Wheel felt gratuitous to me.  It was all out of proportion, I thought, to the more painstaking grief of lost summer happiness that is the novel's topic otherwise.

On a macro level, I'm not sure The Catherine Wheel worked for me. But man, can Jean Stafford write a sentence.  In the context of Northeastern gentility her prose loses something of the Western sparseness present in The Mountain Lion; these sentences bloom like flowering vines.  Here you can really see the influence, I think, of D. H. Lawrence (maybe the best sentence writer in 20th century English).  Stafford is a master of the specific detail--whole lives get crammed into sentences and phrases with stunning realness--and a skilled articulator of mental states: "his loneliness," she says of Andrew, "stayed like a bone in his heart."  You leave the book feeling scorched, singed, as if by fireworks.




Manchild in the Promised Land
By Claude Brown



Mama and Dad and the people who had come to New York from the South about the time they did seemed to think it was wrong to want anything more out of life than some liquor and a good piece of cunt on Saturday night.  This was the stuff they did in the South.  This was the sort of life they had lived on the plantations.  They were trying to bring the down-home life up to Harlem.  They had done it.  But it just wasn’t working.  They couldn’t understand it, and they weren’t about to understand it.  Liquor, religion, sex, and violence – this was all that life had been about to them.  And a prayer that the right number would come out, that somebody would hit the sweepstakes or get lucky.


I have long had a sweet spot in my reading heart for the street memoir.  Growing up in the suburbs, the tales of boys like me who had to make it in the tough neighborhoods of urban America provided a vision of heroism laced with social reality;  it made my humdrum existence seem all the more humdrum, but since I was just a train ride away from Manhattan, since I could find the neighborhoods on a map, since their stories were so similar to the ones my father told, I felt I had some purchase on the larger world through reading them.  Down These Mean Streets, by Pedro Pietri;  Hawk, by Connie Hawkins; The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll:  I somehow thought reading books about being street smart made me street smart.

Claude Brown’s work was kind of the ur-text of the genre for me:  the tale of a young boy in Harlem who fights, steals, runs from the cops, has sex, gets shot, and does drugs just a few years before I was born, told in prose that captured his intelligence while never apologizing for his lack of heart.  Re-reading it now has been a kind of nostalgia – for a crime-ridden New York, but also for an innocent me that believed I could read my way out of privilege.  

Brown’s prose is clear and straightforward.  His style is the refusal to have a style:   he tells you what happened, how he reacted immediately and then how it affected his longer term thinking about Harlem, family life, crime, being black in America and growing up.  While obviously this book is about being black in 1950s America, it strikes me (now that I am so much older than the protagonist and the author) as being largely about growing up.  Growing up in the chaos of urban poverty, growing up without guidance, growing up Black, but mostly about growing up.  Making mistakes and learning from them.

Granted, Brown’s mistakes were much more dramatic than most people’s:  he is involved in gangs and their requisite violence, he is getting drunk and high before he is a teen, he is in and out of juvenile facilities and he is shot in a robbery attempt.  He lives by his fists and his willingness to hurt people before they hurt him.  But then he begins to read.  While at the Warwick youth facility, the wife of the director of the facility begins to lend him books and while he only reads the first couple to be polite, he soon becomes hooked and reads whatever he can get his hands on.

Reading gives him the capacity to question his surroundings in ways that are both political and self-reflective.  He had previously refused to go to high school, but now returns to Washington Irving at night.  He had been dedicated to a life on the streets of Harlem, but now he moves downtown to get away from the craziness of his family and his friends.  He takes up the piano. In short, his intellectual journey becomes a physical journey as he begins to learn how to live in the world.

There are several moments in the novel that make me think about present social conditions.  His taking up reading offers a moment of reflection about education.  He has never had any use for school yet he is curious and longs for greater education.  His reading is a kind of ultimate student-centered pedagogy and reflects that idea’s strengths and weaknesses.  His long period of incarceration – his early teen years are spent shuffling among juvenile “reform” schools – are a warning to our politicians who love to cut social programs like basketball and community centers.  These are the places that, for all their weaknesses – Brown regularly reports how much better a criminal they made him by giving him a chance to get to know the slightly older more experienced criminals from around the city – slowly but surely steer Brown back to school and on to college.  Finally, the war on drugs was much on my mind while reading this.  One turning point in the narrative is when Brown, after much scheming and maneuvering, gets to try heroin for the first time, gets sick and swears the stuff off.  That decision colors the rest of the plot as we watch heroin devastate Harlem.  Brown’s younger brother and many of Brown’s friends become junkies.  Much of Brown’s later success (he graduates high school in this volume and will go on to get a degree from Howard University and do years towards a law degree) is attributable to his avoiding heroin addiction.  The picture this gives of heroin as a scourge that does not simply destroy individuals, but guts entire communities is a powerful rejoinder to our current thinking about legalization.  

There is a slight tone of the self-congratulatory here:  though Brown refuses to give himself much direct credit for being almost the last one of his childhood peers that avoids jail and/or drug addiction, he does reflect on how his path is different from his many prison-bound friends.  More disturbing than the immodesty on display here is the amorality of his attitude.  While Brown is very upset when his brother becomes addicted to heroin, gets caught in a robbery, and gets sent to state prison for three years, his brother simply takes this ruinous turn of events as his fate.  When Brown discovers one former girlfriend is a junkie and another is a sex worker, he wishes this were not the case, but tells himself (and us) that this is their decision – they have the right to live their lives their own way.  While he reflects on the weakness of his parents and the disconnect in their rural cultural values, he seems to think this is an inevitable cost of growing up.

 Finally, while Brown acknowledges towards the end that the women of Harlem have it tougher than the men, there is a casual sexism to this that is unnerving in 2019.  Brown regularly refers to women as bitches and whores – he seems incapable of expanding his vocabulary beyond these two.  Interestingly, the only woman he does not see as a casual sex object is the white girl he dates at the end of his time at Washington Irving.

Still, these are minor points.  The book is endlessly informative and entertaining and provides a gripping, first-hand account of the Harlem of legend, those years between Renaissance and gentrification.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019



Nightwood by Djuna Barnes


Jenny leaning far over the table, Robin far back, her legs thrust under her, to balance the whole backward incline of the body and Jenny so far forward that she had to catch her small legs in the back rung of the chair, ankle out and toe in, not to pitch forward on the table – thus they presented the two halves of a movement that had, as in sculpture, the beauty and the absurdity of a desire that is in flower but that can have no burgeoning, unable to execute its destiny, a movement that can divulge neither caution nor daring, for the fundamental condition for completion was in neither of them; they were like Greek runners, with lifted feet but without the relief of the final command that would bring the foot down – eternally angry, eternally separated, in a cataleptic frozen gesture of abandon.


This is a book I read in my first cycle of graduate school and it is the kind of thing that excites people in MFA programs. I remembered little more than a blur of language and I had to read carefully to clarify the plot and characters.  As we can see in the sentence above, there is real mastery of imagery and sentence structure, but the image is manipulated to tell us what the characters are not able to communicate rather than to actually communicate.  It tells the story of Robin Vote, her marriage to Felix Volkbein, a fake Baron, and her relationships with Nora Flood and Jenny Petherbridge.  The idea here is that Robin is irresistible – all three of these characters fall in love with her and when she abandons them spend the rest of their lives trying to deal with the trauma of having lost her.

On this reading, at least, Robin did not seem irresistible to me.  Her personality consists entirely in the fact that these characters find her attractive and in her ability to destroy their lives.  We learn little else about her and what we do learn is information, she lives on the page only as this vaguely threatening absence in the lives of others.  She is written in the kind of abstraction modernist writers love and that I increasingly find meaningless.  Of course, her primary power is clearly sexual – anyone who meets her seems to want to sleep with her and anyone who sleeps with her falls apart.  The problem then becomes that it is 1937 and there is no sex or even sexuality here at all – for the most part the reader has to infer that these relationships are sexual.  To be fair, TS Eliot, who championed the book and wrote the introduction, seems to have edited out the dirty parts and a new edition restores some of Barnes’s missing content.  I chose to re-read the famous version of the book, though I am curious to see if any of my issues are affected by the restoration of the deleted portions.  

For all its daring, Nightwood accepts some of the worst of its era’s images of lesbianism.  Robin is referred to as an “invert,” a Freudian term for mis-organized sexuality.  She is an astonishingly unfit mother – at one point she seems to contemplate dashing her child’s head to the ground, but instead abandons him.  Her sexuality is seen as unnaturally powerful and destructive.  Again, to look at the end of the sentence above, lesbians are seen as missing some vital part of their selves, leaving them “eternally angry, eternally separated, in a cataleptic frozen gesture of abandon.”


While she is the center of the novel, Jenny appears relatively little.  The bulk of the novel focuses on Felix and Nora as they try to deal with having lost Robin – she is an absence for these characters and that absence is felt by the reader directly, since for so much of the novel she is an absence to us as well.  In order to process and articulate their grief and longing, Felix and Nora spend a great deal of time with Dr. Matthew O’Conner – a transgender doctor-without-training who is the most prevalent character in the novel.  He helps Felix and Robin deal with loss by talking – he is an unstoppable talker.  He discusses sexuality with them (briefly), reports on Robin’s other relationships, explains the power of night at great length and generally talks for pages on end, in terms that are complex, flowery and not clearly on point.  It is worth noting that he presents as different genders, is a fake doctor, and seems to withhold information when it suits him.  There are a lot of fake people in this book.  

In the end, Dr. O’Conner – who clearly has a drinking problem – talks himself into insanity:  we last see him raving in a café about the pressure to keep talking.  By that point, Felix has withdrawn from society to care for the mentally disabled son he had with Robin and Nora is trying to move on from some kind of nervous breakdown.   Finally, we see Robin after she has left both Nora and Jenny:  she wanders back onto Nora’s property, to a chapel, where she crawls around on the floor with a dog, the two of them barking at each other before they snuggle together to go to sleep.  It is an exaggerated and strange ending, one that does not hold out hope for a healthy lesbianism to come.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Lancelot by Walker Percy

How strange it is that a discovery like this, of evil, of a kinsman's dishonesty, a wife's infidelity, can shake you up, knock you out of your rut, be the occasion of a new way of looking at things!

In the space of one evening I had made the two most important discoveries of my life.  I discovered my wife's infidelity and five hours later I discovered my own life.  I saw it and myself clearly for the first time.

Lancelot Andrewes Lamar is a scion of the old Louisiana guard: he lives in his family's plantation house outside New Orleans, a house open to tourists, having become a kind of theme park version of its old self.  His wife, Margot, has offered it to a group of filmmakers to stage a movie she's appearing in; the movie, too, is a symbol of the way that old traditions survive only in nostalgic simulacra.

Lance himself is a victim of the hollowing-out of the modern world.  Once he was a star football player.  In a particularly Percy-esque detail, he set the NCAA punt return record against Alabama.  (Southerners in Percy's fiction can never keep from including things like golf and football in the list of disappearing values.)  For years he lived on autopilot, until, as he tells his mysterious conversation partner, he discovered that his daughter Siobhan was not really his daughter at all.

Lancelot takes the form of an interview or confession: Lance, speaking from a cell at an institution called the Center for Aberrant Behavior, recounts how he ended up murdering the film director who was his wife's lover before blowing up his plantation home, killing his wife and a pair of other actors.  He speaks to an old friend, a psychiatrist and priest, who may not really exist.  Certainly his name, "Percival," and Lance's obsession with a lost golden age of mythic virtue, reflected in the names of those knights, suggests he's not really there.  Oh, and Lance also tells him about the woman in the room next to his, a mute rape victim who can only communicate through taps, and with whom he plans on starting a new Eden.

Reading Lancelot is... upsetting.  There's a black heart to it that isn't present in any of Percy's other novels.  Lance's megalomania, racism, sexism, and violence, make it difficult.  He enlists a clever black servant named Elgin to help him bug a hotel where his wife is staying, and every time he talks about Elgin's technical acumen he sounds like a man describing a dog who learned to talk.  Lance describes his reputation as a "liberal lawyer" defending black clients, but his politics are reactionary to the extreme.  He idolizes Robert E. Lee and talks about the Civil War as the "Second Revolution," a failed attempt to beat back the forces of modernization.  (That's why, in his fantasies, he and the mute woman next door move to Virginia, the locus of the first two revolutions and the third, which he imagines himself at the center of.)

What am I supposed to do with a narrator like this?  What makes it complicated is that Lance doesn't seem so different from Percy's other protagonists.  For Percy, the alienation of modernism always manifests as mental illness.  Like Will Barrett in The Second Coming and Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, Lance seeks wholeness through companionship with a woman who is also mentally ill.  Lance's complaints about modern society--commercialism, pornography, the lost sense of history and myth--are reflected in the parodic dystopia of The Thanatos SyndromeAnd doesn't this sound like a really sharp diagnosis, by Lance, of The Moviegoer's Binx, who can't feel he really lives somewhere until he sees it in a movie?:

The world had gone crazy, said the crazy man in his cell.  What was nutty was that the movie folk were trafficking in illusions in a real world but the real world thought that its reality could only be found in the illusions.  Two sets of maniacs.

But it's also hard to imagine Binx Bolling, Will Barrett, or Tom More, saying a thing like this:

What the poor dears discovered is the monstrous truth lying at the very center of life: that their happiness and the meaning of life itself is to be assaulted by a man.

Yes, that's right: at one point in this novel, Lance says that the point of life is to rape and be raped.

The destabilizing effects of modernism in Percy, along with the cobbled-together language of mysticism and self-help, make them very knotty and difficult to tease out.  I find this statement particularly difficult to reconcile, even among Lance Lamar's nasty opinions.  But at the very least I'm sure it's connected to Lance's sublimated anger at his wife's infidelity, which becomes transmuted into an apocalyptic fantasia about a new world order.  In fact, Lancelot seems prophetic in a way: don't incel murderers like Elliot Rodger follow this pattern exactly when they transform their frustrations with women into fantasies of social upheaval?

What's most difficult about Lance is the way he seems to take things Percy genuinely believes, based on a wide reading of his novels, to murderous extremes.  Percy clearly agrees that modernity breeds alienation and mental illness, and I think his nostalgia for the old South is genuine to some degree.  It's possible that Lancelot is one of those rare novels in which an author looks critically at their own darker impulses.  (Doesn't Ford Madox Ford do something similar with his own Toryism in Parade's End?)

But it's not very pleasant.  I don't think Lancelot is a book made for anybody to love.  You can survive it, maybe, as Lance's wife and her lover do not.  But this is the last of Percy's novels for me, and I'm disappointed to know that my experience with them ends in such a discomfiting place.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Each owner seemed to be saying good-bye to his bird in his own way.  Some were calling their names, others rubbing them against their cheeks, still others giving them a treat, mouth to beak.  But once these little ceremonies were finished, they opened up the cages and held them to the sky.  The little creatures, confused at first, fluttered for a moment around their owners, but they soon were gone, as if drawn away into the distance.

When they were gone, a calm fell as though the air itself were breathing with infinite care.  The owners turned for home, empty cages in hand.

And that was how the birds disappeared.

On a small island things have been disappearing.  When they disappear, they are quite literally forgotten--not entirely, at first, but when people wake up feeling that something has disappeared they must search their memories for the gaps.  As a collective ritual, they dispose of whatever it is that has disappeared from memory: they burn calendars and ribbon, they trash emeralds, they let all their birds go free.  The nameless narrator's friend, referred to only as on old man, still lives in the rusty old boat that once was the ferry to the mainland, but the ferry itself has disappeared.

Ogawa walks a very tight line here; it's never really clear what it means when something has "disappeared."  The objects themselves don't vanish, and sometimes if the islanders try hard enough they can dredge the word up from memory: the narrator remembers, for instance, that "birds" are what her father once studied before his death.  She explains it as a kind of loss of emotional or resonant attachment; she looks at the emerald her mother has hidden away and feels no associations with it at all.  These disappearances are enforced by a totalitarian force called the Memory Police, who search homes for contraband and even hunt down people who seem to have a genetic ability to remember everything.  The narrator's editor, R--she's a novelist--is one of those people, and the narrator hides him in a special hidden room she's rigged up in her house to protect him from the Memory Police.

There's a line, spoken by the egotistical narrator of Martin Amis' Money, that I have never forgotten, although I'm sure I'm only paraphrasing it: "Don't you think memory is fascinating?" he says; "Me neither."  That sticks with me because I think it's true; a lot of literary meditations on memory fall short of saying anything interesting.  (Proust excepted.)  So it's even more impressive that The Memory Police ends up so compelling and thoughtful.  For Ogawa, memory is a vital constituent part of our identity, and to lose memories means to lose oneself.  It's one thing to lose birds and calendars, but what happens when novels disappear?  Later on, this problem becomes quite literal, when everyone's left leg disappears:

I pulled back the quilt and made a bizarre discovery--something was stuck fast to my hip.  And no matter how much I pulled or pushed or twisted, it would not come off, just as though it had been welded to me.

It's possible to read this politically, as a parable about how totalitarian regimes adjust memory and history for their own purposes.  1984 gave us the term "memory hole" for this kind of intentional memory loss, and Ogawa, too, describes the process as a kind of cavity opening up.  But The Memory Police is too eerie, too fantastical, to have any kind of political teeth; it seems more like an existential, even phantasmagoric, kind of horror novel.  R remains chipper and tries to guide the narrator through the process of recovering her memories.  He massages her leg when it disappears, encourages her to sit at the typewriter banging out words until the novel reforms.  But these efforts always seem in vain, and perhaps even slightly sinister.  If the narrator is only whole in R's memory, can't he make of her what he wants?

Ogawa's language is sparse, controlled, ironic.  It's funny and strange in a very subdued way.  I wanted to pair it with Kobo Abe's The Woman in the Dunes, and I can see a bright line of influence between them, passing through Orwell and, like, Fellini or something.  What impressed me most about the book, I think, is that the strangeness of it might have come at the cost of emotional realism, but the narrator feels human, real.  The ending is elegiac and sad, and as affecting as anything I've read this year.  Ironically, this is a book I won't quickly forget.

Friday, October 25, 2019




In The Woods by Tana French

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective.  Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.  It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealments and every variation on deception.


Re-reading that opening, I have to admit that while this crime novel was terribly enjoyable, it did not quite live up to its own hype.  It promises a great deal and falls a bit short on delivery, though, in truth, if it had only promised what it did ultimately delivered, that would be plenty.

Twenty years before the book starts, twelve-year-old Adam Ryan was playing in the wooded area of a Dublin suburb with two friends, Jamie and Peter.  The three were in some way attacked:  Adam was found covered partially in blood and in such shock that he was unable to remember what had happened; Peter and Jaime disappeared and were never seen again.  Despite the best efforts of detectives, Adam was never able to remember any part of the incident, Peter and Jamie were never seen again, and their killers were never caught.  Adam’s parents moved him to a private school in England and moved themselves to a different suburb.  He began using his middle name, Robert, to avoid publicity and moved on with his life, with almost everything that happened to him before age twelve erased from his mind.

Now, Robert Ryan is a successful detective with the murder squad in Dublin.  No one knows of his past.  However, another grisly murder has been committed in the same suburb, in the same woods.  A twelve-year-old girl is found dead, and keeping his obvious emotional connection to the site secret, Rob and his partner Cassie accept the assignment to the case.  It becomes clear fairly quickly that solving the two cases is the secondary issue in the novel – what we are really following is the slow destruction of Rob Ryan’s character and career as he proves unable to handle the stress of solving one crime and trying to remember the other. 

That story is powerful and sad – I found myself rooting for Rob and hoping he would overcome his returning memories and the insecurities they have given him – that he would pull himself together.  I was also rooting for his relationship to Cassie, the powerfully intelligent and quirky woman who is his partner.  Their relationship is at the heart of the book and the idea that their uniquely perfect partnership will blossom into love is on everyone’s mind – Rob’s parents, Rob’s roommate, the other detectives on the case, and of course mine while I was reading.  Her character is strong and fascinating and gives the novel an strong undercurrent of feminism.

It is difficult to discuss both the pleasures of the novel and its disappointments without giving away the ending – though it is foreshadowed in the opening and throughout as Rob, our narrator, points out moments of failure and laments that his entire life would be different if at these key points in the narrative he had made other choices.  Suffice it to say that he is not the hero that solves these cases.   One of the powerful impacts of the story is that he does not transcend his limitations:  that while a kind of perfection is held out to him – justice, the recovery of his own past, true love – he is left with a rather mundane life, slogging through a rather mundane career as a civil servant.

What is ultimately disappointing in the novel is in the details of the detective work.  The contemporary case is made very complex, with the possibility that it involves political corruption, family dysfunction, occult mysticism and a twenty-year dormant serial killer all held out at one point or another.  We get deep and intricate details of Dublin police procedure (the combination of French’s research and her imagination made me feel I could work for the Dublin police) and see Rob and Cassie follow a number of important areas of investigation much further than is usual in fictional police procedurals.  Then the case ends up hinging on a fairly obvious detail that (though French does not present it this way) should have been dealt with in the first hours of the investigation.  While there is an element of surprise, it comes more from French’s misdirection than complexity.  The denouement of Rob and Cassie’s relationship also seems to come from nowhere.  Rob, who has been so original and fully fleshed out, has issues with relationship and commitment that are at least ordinary, if not actually clichéd.  

This is French’s first novel, and in the dozen years since its publication she has written six others and become a regular resident of the best seller lists.  That success is well-deserved:  this novel transcends the limitations of its genre through crisp and visual writing, a truly impressive gift for character, and an unusual approach to resolution in a crime novel.  I missed the characters when the book was over and I have noted that Cassie Maddox appears in another of her novels.  I look forward to seeing what she has been up to.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

Suddenly a horrible sound interrupted him.  As the woman had predicted the night before, the brow of sand on the north side had lost its moisture and collapsed.  The whole house seemed to let out a soulful shriek, as if mortally wounded, and a gray blood began to drop down with a rustling sound from the new gap between the eaves and the wall.  The man began to tremble, the mouth full of saliva.  It was as if his own body had been crushed.

This entire nightmare could not be happening.  It was too outlandish.  Was it permissible to snare, exactly like a mouse or an insect, a man who had his certificate of medical insurance, someone who paid his taxes, who was employed, and whose family records were in order?  He could not believe it.  Perhaps there was some mistake; it was bound to be a mistake. There was nothing to do but assume that it was a mistake.

An entomologist named Jumpei travels from the city to the Japanese coast, looking for rare insects that live among the sand.  He stumbles upon a strange village that seems almost half-buried in the dunes: houses lie at the bottom of great pits of sand.  The villagers kindly let him stay the night at one of these houses, where he's lowered into the pit by means of a great rope ladder, and hosted by a beautiful but distant woman who seems to live alone there.  Soon, he realizes that he hasn't been hosted, but kidnapped, and the villagers expect him, like the woman, to spend his life scooping up the shifting sand around the house and placing it into buckets, keeping not only the house safe from the moving dunes but also the village, for which houses like these are the first line of defense.

Most of the narrative of The Woman in the Dunes concerns Jumpei's various attempts to escape.  He's clever, and approaches the task from a scientific angle, but sand is unpredictable and the villagers watchful.  At the same time he finds himself drawn to the strange woman, who is never given a name, and who seems to accept her lot blithely.  (Among other things, The Woman in the Dunes gives a frightening picture of what it's like to have sex in a place where you can never get the sand off of your body.)  If he escapes, what will happen to her?  Does he have an obligation to her, or is she part of the same forces that have trapped him?

Sand, as Jumpei thinks of it, is a strange and dangerous thing.  It is a collection of small stones, about an eighth of a millimeter, but it emerges when the forces of wind and water separate these small stones from larger ones.  It is forever moving, and in fact, it may be more appropriate to think of sand as the movement rather than the stones that are moved--an action, rather than an object.  The shifting sands will never stop threatening the house or the village; Jumpei's story is a variation of Sisyphus'.

The sand is a symbol for--what?  Death and life, at least, and maybe the natural passage of time that scares the shit out of everyone who's old enough to figure out what it means.  Set against these forces are the pathetic systems of bourgeois society: when Jumpei cleverly advises planting a hedge of trees to keep the sand at bay, the woman notes that it's just cheaper to keep up a system of forced labor.  Jumpei, in the passage above, can't believe that the rewards of civilized society have failed to protect him: the medical insurance, the tax bill.  But medical insurance can't stop deterioration and disease, and being a good citizen can't fend of realities that shift like the sand.  What he fails to realize is that the things he hopes will keep him safe are of the same order as the things the village will hope keep them safe: bureaucratic, short-sighted, systematic, unequal.

Spoiler alert: ultimately, Jumpei escapes, only to be caught and brought back to his sand-prison.  He throws himself into scientific experiments with the sand he thinks will help him escape, but when luck arrives--a rope ladder is thoughtlessly left by the house--he chooses to put off his escape, to better go on with his experiments.  At a subconscious level he acknowledges that there he has no more control over his life out there than he does at the bottom of the sand pit; who can blame him for choosing to go on with his experiments--the small things he can control--a little bit longer?

The Woman in the Dunes recalls classic dystopias like 1984 in that the forces that dominate are always outside the individual's understanding.  But it also has one foot in the world of fantasy and allegory; it reminds me of a book like TloothThe sand landscape is as terrifying as any horror novel, and you can totally see how it was turned into a classic of Japanese new wave cinema.