Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Driving to pick up his son, Bennie alternated between the Sleepers and the Dead Kennedys, San Francisco bands he'd grown up with.   He listened for muddiness, the sense of actual musicians playing actual instruments in an actual room.  Nowadays that quality (if it existed at all) was usually an effect of analogue signaling rather than bona fide tape--everything was an effect in the bloodless constructions Bennie and his peers were churning out.  He worked tirelessly, feverishly, to get things right, stay on top, make songs that people would love and buy and download as ring tones (and steal, of course)--above all, to satisfy the multinational crude-oil extractors he'd sold his label to five yars ago.  But Bennie knew that what he was bringing into the world was shit.  Too clear, too clean.  The problem was digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh.  Film, photography, music: dead.  An aesthetic holocaust!  Bennie knew better than to say this stuff aloud.

Writing about music in fiction is almost impossible.  People usually fail at it.  Carson McCullers could do it, but her milieu was classical music, and she was smart enough to eschew describing the music itself in favor of the feeling of it, the complicated torture and ecstasy of it.  Writing about popular music is often dead on the page.  It sounds like nothing, is reduced to a series of cultural signifiers that encode their own transitory nature.  Jennifer Egan, in A Visit from the Goon Squad tackles this problem head-on, not only minimizing the descriptions of the music itself to a few quality moments, but also by setting her sights on that transitory quality.  The Goon Squad of the title is time, which busts in on life, wrecks your body, drives you into the suburbs, kills your friends, and worst of all, replaces the music you loved with shit you don't understand--and turns your music into classic rock.

Egan chases these themes over a series of loosely related vignettes.  She begins with Sasha, a high-level operative at a record label who battles kleptomania, and Bennie, an ex-punk who owns the label.  These are the main characters, such as they are, though the narrative spins backwards and forwards through several generations.  Some of these vignettes are more successful than others.  I thought the middle section of the book, while full of plenty of good ideas--like the disgraced publicist who ends up working, out of desperation, with a brutal dictator--slipped too far from the musical heart of the novel.  It's not until the narrative returns to Bennie and Sasha and pushes past the past and present into the future that the novel really felt of a piece to me.  Along the way, there are several inspired moments and images, like the flakes of gold that Bennie takes for his impotence, or the fish that his down-and-out old bandmate Scott fishes out of the East River, to present like a gift from another world in Bennie's penthouse office.

My favorite chapter, actually, was the one that might seem most gimmicky: a vignette presented in the form of a Powerpoint presentation.  It's from the perspective of Sasha's teen daughter Alison, and it details the life of her family: her mother's past in the music scene, her father's life as a surgeon who works on refugees, her younger brother obsessed with pauses in popular music, life in the desert as a result of climate change.  There's a lot going on in this story, but the silly mode actually works to pull everything together.  The antiquated nature of Alison's slidemaking hobby (it's the 2020's) echoes her mother's nostalgia for her life in the music scene, and the nostalgia of a United States before the ravages of climate change and war.  Several blank slides emphasize the peculiar nature of her brother's obsession.  As Sasha explains, through clenched teeth to her husband, "The pause makes you think the song will end.  And then the song isn't really over, so you're relieved.  But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT.  TIME.  THE.  END.  IS.  FOR.  REAL."  In this detail is the hope of rebirth and recovery, accompanied by the sobering knowledge that time--the goon squad--moves on inexorably.

The novel ends with a bit of sci-fi weirdness, set in a not-so-distant future in which babies use their preverbal ability to point and buy music from ephemeral screens to control pop culture.  (That's a satirical comment on the way that pop culture drifted in the 19th century to teenagers, and preteens, I guess.)  In that strange and somewhat awful future, beset by the twin monsters of payola and the police state, Egan manages to find a way to give the old hope of punk rock a purpose and a future.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Living by Henry Green

What is a town then, how do I know?  What did they do?  They went by lamps, lamps, lamps, each one with light and dark  strung up on it each with streets these were in.  Houses made the streets, people made the houses.  People lived in them, thousands millions of lives.  Each life dully lived and the life next it, pitched together, walls between built, dully these lives went out onto streets promenaded dullness thee.  Ugly clothes, people, houses.  They went along through these, strangers to it, she did not recognize her own form of ugliness in it.

Henry Green's Living tells the story of iron foundry workers in Birmingham, England.  These men struggle, against dangerous and repressive work practices, and the monotony of everyday work, to "make a living."  But the word, when used that way, seems reduced somehow, as if the manifold experience of life has been reduced to the pettiness of living by the tedious horror of industrial labor.  Yet, they shape their lives around this experience, like the antiquated Craigan:

Mr Craigan had gone to work when he was nine and every day he had worked through most of daylight till now, when he was going to get old age pension.  So you will hear men who have worked like this talk of monotony of their lives, but when they grow to be old they are more glad to have work and this monotony has grown so great that they have forgotten it.  Like on a train which goes through night smoothly and at an even pace--so monotony of noise made by the wheels bumping over joints between the rails becomes rhythm--so the monotony of hours grows to be the habit and regulation on which we grow old.

Craigan lives with his friends and coworkers Jim Dale and Joe Gates (try keeping which is which in your head without double-checking each time, I dare you).  Gates' daughter Lily keeps the house, and Craigan sets his hopes on her marriage to Jim Dale, which will ensure the continued existence of this household in the face of the threat of financial instability.  Of course, Lily has plans of her own, and falls in love with another iron worker, Bert Jones.  Lily, too, has a kind of "living," as proscribed by the men in her life as the iron workers are by the demands of their class.  Added to this are numerous other characters of the foundry, managers and manager's toadies and son of Mr. Dupret, the heir to the foundry who's sudden accession threatens the stability of the foundry's small ecosystem.  The rich young Dupret is unhappy and bored in his wealth, and sees something to envy in the lives of the foundry workers:

Standing in foundry shop son of Mr Dupret thought in mind and it seemed to him that these iron castings were beautiful and he reached out fingers to them, he touched them; he thought and only in machinery in seemed to him was savagery left now for in the country, in summer, trees were like sheep while here men created what you could touch, wild shapes, soft like silk, which would last and would be working in great factories, they made them with their hands.  He felt more certain and he said to himself it was wild incidental beauty in these things where engineers had thought only of the use put to them, which you could touch; but when he was most sure he remembered, he remembered it had been said before and he said to himself, 'Ruskin built a road which went nowhere with the help of undergraduates and in doing so said the last word on that.'  And then what had been so plain, stiff and bursting inside him like soda fountains, this died as a small wind goes out, and he felt embarrassed standing as he did in fine clothes.

And yet there's nothing humanitarian about Dupret; his desperate need to exert control over his father's company and wrench it away from the middle managers who treat him like a neophyte produces results both good and bad for the workers.  Yes, he demands that they remove the guard who clocks the workers' bathroom time, but when the foundry comes up against financial straits, he's also the one who suggests sacking its most experienced workers, like Craigan, six months shy of their pension.  Though he envies their ability to create (paging Marx), his life is too far removed from that of the foundry workers for it to affect his decision making (paging Elon Musk).

I struggle with helping my creative writing students find the right amount of exposition.  Most amateur fiction is all exposition, elaborate setups that leave mere paragraphs or sentences for anything like conflict or action.  Green's strategy is to do away with exposition entirely; there are no explanatory paragraphs explaining who any of the novel's many characters are.  It's a bit like walking into a strange room and watching people interact and trying, and often failing, to piece together who they are and what they're about.  Added to that is this novel's particular, difficult style, which often eliminates articles entirely.  "Thousands came back from dinner along streets," the novel begins.  I read that this reflects something about the Birmingham accent, but I'm not sure of that--it certainly gives the novel, a brusque, spiked tone.

Like Loving, which contrasted the lives of nobility with their servants, Living is an effective juxtaposition of classes that reveals hard truths about the nature of the working world.  Reading it can feel a little like work, too.  But for those that can stand it, it's a rewarding labor, full of sharp insight into the world of the working class.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.
One was the usual birds and bees. Well, I didn't really get the usual version. My mom, Lisa, is a registered nurse, and she told me what went where, and what didn't need to go here, there, or any damn where till I'm grown. Back then, I doubted anything was going anywhere anyway. While all the other girls sprouted breasts between sixth and seventh grade, my chest was as flat as my back.
The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me.
Momma fussed and told Daddy I was too young for that. He argued that I wasn't too young to get arrested or shot.
The title of Angie Thomas' YA novel is an homage to Tupac's acrostic interpretation of Thug Life (The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone), and the book is a call to action against police brutality. In the opening pages, Starr, the heroine is in the car as her friend Khalil is shot to death by the police after a traffic stop. The book tracks her journey as she finds her voice and her place in a hostile, racist world.

Starr is a compelling, thoughtful heroine. She exists in two worlds; her family lives in a neighborhood riddled with police shootings and gang violence, and she attends an elite, white private school 45 minutes away. Before Khalil's death, her need to be one person at home and another at school didn't bother her, but as she watches her two communities react, she begins to feel the strain of a split identity.

This is a thick tome of a YA novel, but I read it in two days. Thomas is an engaging writer and she is able to tackle a brutally depressing topic and make it accessible. It's not easy to read from a content perspective, but Starr is funny and empathetic, and having her as a guide makes it bearable. Thomas's reflections on what it means to be black in America are heart-wrenchingly but also beautifully laid out.

It shook me to realize how rare it is for me to read a book where the bulk of the characters are black, even as I work to read more authors of color. That's part of the point, I realize. Even as a person who engages with social justice and race regularly, this is still a new narrative for me, and it shouldn't be.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice by Pat Schneider

When I achieve true waiting, true listening, something happens that I experience as a gift.  Whether it comes from my own subconscious reservoir or from outside myself makes no difference to me.  If I am a creature made in the image of God--and I do accept the teaching of ancient Hebrew prophets and poets that in fact I am so created, and the teaching of some theologians that all of creation, even the rock and the turnip, is an image of God--then the creature that I am partakes in the holiness of the creator.  If I am made in the image of the creator, then I myself am a creator, and my acts of creating participate in mystery.

"This is not a 'How To' book," Pat Schneider writes in the notes to How the Light Gets In, "it is an invitation to a reader to look over my shoulder as I do the thing itself: write as a spiritual practice.  In that way I hope it can act as a guide for individual writers, an example of using one's own life story to trace the presence of mystery and the outlines of grace."  I had planned on reading her how-to book Writing Alone and with Others, in preparation for the fiction-writing class I'll be teaching high school seniors in the fall, but instead I was drawn to this book, which has fewer lessons (but not none) for teachers of creative writing.

At times it borders on straight memoir, actually, giving us a glimpse into the way Schneider uses writing as a way to understand her own past.  The images she returns to in the practice she likens to prayer are all from her troubled upbringing: the peach tree under which she was "saved" into the church, the roaches in the sour bottles of milk in her tenement home in St. Louis, the bed in the orphanage.  And we get to see the construction of some very wonderful poems out of these images in real time.

How the Light Gets In is less a book of instruction than a book of wisdom.  It's separated into chapters that deal with broad experiential concepts--death, the body, freedom, joy--in which Schneider uses the writing process to explore these things and how they touch in her own life.  (The poignancy of which is all amplified by her advanced age--though I am pleased to say she's still around and alive.)  The content overlaps with the practice.  For Schneider, writing itself is a kind of prayer in which she approaches what, having fallen out with her fundamentalist upbringing, calls only "the mystery."  I was particularly struck by the chapter on "Strangeness":

Writing about writing, I have been exploring what I think I already know.  But writing about mystery, I have tried neither to teach nor preach.  I have tried to constantly veer away from that which is familiar and known, toward that which is just beyond my grasp.  In writing, this is most commonly done in story and in metaphor.  I have met strangeness again and again as I have been writing this book.  Trying to describe strangeness is--forgive me!--strange.  It requires story.  It requires metaphor.

What a brief and lucid defense of the entire idea of literature!  I want to frame it and hang it on my classroom wall.  It resonates with Marilynne Robinson's assertion that the universe keeps showing itself to be stranger than we ever imagined.  And this chapter, I think, I hope, presented to me a solution to a problem I had been having with the ending of the novel I've been writing.  When I put it on paper I will let you know.

There are a few key moments I know I'll want to share with my students.  One is Schneider's simple "acid test for the health of any group, class, or workshop one might try: When I leave, do I feel more like writing, or less like writing?"  Another is an exercise in which she encourages her students to begin by considering the language of their own upbringing, because "we must first learn to recognize and value the strengths and the beauty in our languages of origin, and in our ability to tell our own stories in our own voices."  I think that's a beautiful idea, and a spiritual one, linked to the assertion of the God-image in every person, though that's not the language I would ever use in the classroom. 

The lessons I take for my own writing are much more difficult, perhaps impossible, to articulate.  They might begin with admiration for Schneider's bravery in writing about her own experience, and the double bravery of writing about the writing process, which for me is secret and often embarrassingly messy.  They also contain a deep sympathy for the idea of writing as a form of prayer, a way of approaching that for which ordinary didactic language has no words.  This is a book I know I'll return to.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

Louis and Gage knew him; they had met him and faced him down in New England.  He was waiting to choke you on a marble, to smother you with a dry-cleaning bag, to sizzle you in eternity with a fast and lethal boggie of electricity--Available at Your Nearest Switchplate or Vacant Light Socket Right Now.  There was death in a quarter bag of peanuts, an aspirate piece of steak, the next pack of cigarettes.  He was around all the time, he monitored all the checkpoints between the mortal and the eternal.  Dirty needles, poison beetles, downed live wires, forest fires.  Whirling roller skates that shot nurdy little kids into busy intersections.

(Spoiler alert, folks--if, like me, you've somehow avoided becoming familiar with King's books until now, you might want to turn back.)

The same painful image lies at the heart of Pet Sematary as Lincoln at the Bardo: a father lifting up the body of his deceased son, cradling it, unable to move past profound grief.  For the spirits in Saunders' novel, it's a symbol of shocking compassion and intimacy, a physical embrace past the point where such things can reasonably be expected.  In Pet Sematary, when the bereaved doctor Louis Creed steals his young son's body from the graveyard, the pathos runs the other way.  It's so grotesque that it borders on squeamish black comedy:

Somehow, panting, his stomach spasming from the smell and from the boneless loose feel of his son's miserably smashed body, Louis wrestled the body out of the coffin.  At last he sat on the verge of the grave with the body in his lap, his feet dangling in the hole, his face a horrible livid color, his eyes black holes, his mouth drawn down in a trembling bow of horror and pity and sorrow.

"Gage," he said and began to rock the boy in his arms.  Gage's hair lay against Louis's wrist, as lifeless as wire.  "Gage, it will be all right, I swear, Gage, it will be all right, this will end, this is just the night, please, Gage, I love you, Daddy loves you."

Louis rocked his son.

Louis' plan is to bury his son in the titular pet cemetery, an ancient Micmac burial ground that has the power to bring things back to life.  The scenes in the burial ground are effectively eerie, filled with fog and unidentifiable noises and the great black shape of the Wendigo moving through the mud.  Early in the novel he does the same thing with his daughter's cat Church, guided by an old Mainer who knows the supernatural history of the place.  Distraught folks have been burying their pets there for years--and maybe a few people, too.  Church comes back all wrong: torpid, bloodthirsty, without any kind of feline grace, and with an indelible stench of death.  Chances are Louis's son Gage, hit by a truck in their front yard, will come back changed, too.  But all the rational deliberation in the world can't overcome the depth of Louis' grief, and he goes through with the macabre plan despite knowing that.

Pet Sematary is a about 500 pages of meditation on the way death intrudes upon the banality of life, and another fifty pages of blood-soaked freakout horror.  King paints the life of Louis, his wife Rachel, and his children Ellie and Gage, in painstaking detail.  At times, too much detail--I'm not sure why we need to know, for instance, that "Rachel developed a mild infatuation with the blond bag boy at the A&P in Brewer and rhapsodized to Louis at night about how packed his jeans looked."  But death, like it does, breaks in on the Creeds' life again and again: in the form of a young man hit by a car on Louis' first day of work at the student clinic at the University of Maine, in the form of their elderly nextdoor neighbor, in memories about Rachel's sick and resentful sister, who died as a child.  Gage gets sick again and again, teasing you, almost, with the possibility of his death many times before it really happens.  As a doctor, Louis knows all about death, about the fragility of the body, but against grief such rationalism is powerless.

I was amazed by how painstakingly King builds up the life of this family, and then destroys it breezily and mercilessly.  The end, in which--hey, I meant that spoiler alert above--the toddler Gage comes back possessed by the murderous Wendigo and dispatches his own mother with a scalpel, was a real shock to me.  I guess I had underestimated how much ice runs in King's veins.  The message, I guess, is this: you'd better make friends with death, because you're just going to make it worse if you don't.  In a way, it's not so different from Lincoln in the Bardo, which also tells us that there is a danger in holding on to grief for too long, but with a gentler spirit. 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

I hailed him by his African name as I walked up the steps to his porch, and he looked up into my face as I stood in the door in surprise.  He was eating his breakfast from a round enameled pan with his hands, in the fashion of his fatherland.

The surprise of seeing me halted his hand between pan and face.  Then tears of joy welled up.

"Oh Lor', I know it you call my name.  Nobody don't callee me my name from cross de water but you.  You always callee me Kossula, jus' lak I in de Affica soil!"

What a wonderful thing, in the year 2018, to have a new book by Zora Neale Hurston.  It makes you wonder what they were thinking, all the people all those years ago, who declined to publish a book like Barracoon, Hurston's interview with the last survivor of the Mid-Atlantic slave trade.  Perhaps they didn't understand what a rare and lucky moment it was, to have such experience still alive in the heart of a man, or perhaps they underrated Hurston's gifts and importance as an ethnographer (way more impressive, in my opinion, than her work as a novelist).  There's some intimation in what I've read that people were squeamish about laying bare the role of African slavers in the Middle Passage, and quite rightly, since that stuff has always been fodder for right-wing trolls.  But whatever the case, it's quite something to have a book like this published at last.

In 1927 Hurston traveled to Alabama to interview a man named Oluale Kossula, who had gone by the Americanized name Cudjo Lewis for over sixty years.  As a teenager, Kossula's village in West Africa was decimated by the Kingdom of Dahomey, who were in the habit of massacring their enemies and selling whom they could to coastal slavers.  The title, Barracoon, refers to the kind of barracks where captured Africans waited to be bought by slavers.  One of the wonders of the book is that it gives a rare glimpse into what it was like on the African side of the slave trade.  Kossula's account of the Dahomey warriors--apparently, traditionally women--is one of the most haunting aspects of his story.

When Kossula was carried away by the Clotilde, it was in violation of  U.S. law, which had prevented new importing of slaves for over fifty years.  The Americans who put the voyage together did so because they could, and because they felt like they were entitled to it.  It was illegal, but no one, of course, got punished for it, except for Kossula.  He actually touches very little on his experience of slavery, focusing on the life he led after emancipation with his wife and children.  Like many former slaves, Kossula found himself needing to apply to his former masters for protection and employment:

"'Cap'n Tim, you brought us from our country where we had lan'.  You mad us slave.  Now dey make us free but we ain' got no country and we ain't got no lan'!  Why doan you give us a piece dis land so we kin buildee ourself a home?'

"Cap'n jump on his feet and say, 'Fool do you think I goin' give you property on top of property?  I tookee good keer my slaves in slavery and derefo' I doan owe dem nothin?  You doan belong to me now, why must I give you my lan'?"

Kossula, then, with a group of fellow Africans, saved for years to buy their own land and found a community called Africatown.  The community still exists in Mobile, and some of its residents still trace their heritage back to the Clotilde and the Dahomey raid.  It's a remarkable story of independence and will, told in Kossula's own voice and idiom.  Hurston deftly gets out of the way of Kossula's story, and records it with faithful care.  Interpolation is smartly minimized to let the power of the story, and the feeling that you are hearing a firsthand account, shine through.

Kossula's experiences after the end of the Civil War were full of hardship.  He talks about the way he and his family were looked on suspiciously by other black communities whose ancestors had come from Africa centuries ago.  He talks about the tragic death of his wife and many of his children, including a horrible story of one son's death at a railroad crossing:

"I go through the crowd and lookee.  I see de body of a man by de telegraph pole.  It ain' got no head.  Somebody tell me, 'Thass yo' boy, Uncle Cudjo.'  I say, 'No, it not my David.'   He lay dere by de cross ties.  One woman she face me and astee, 'Cudjo, which son of yours is dis?' and she pointee at de body.  I tell her, 'Dis none of my son.  My boy go in town and y'all tell me my boy dead.'

One Afficky man come and say, 'Cudjo dass' yo boy.'

I astee him, 'Is it?  If dat my boy, where his head?'  He show me de head.  It on de other side de track.  Den he lead me home.

When Hurston finds Kossula, he is more or less alone.  She does small errands for him and they share small joys, like crabs and a "huge watermelon" they "ate from heart to rind."  She paints a picture of a man slowly abandoned by family, left in a land that never quite felt familiar to him, and who longs to return to "Afficky soil" before he dies.  It's heartrending.  But there is a small consolation in the thought that finally, more than 150 years after Kossula's kidnapping and enslavement, and over ninety years from the time that Hurston recorded his testimony, that the story of this proud and lonely man is finally able to be told.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

Because God was present with Jesus on the cross and thereby refused to let Satan and death have the last word about his meaning, God was also present at every lynching in the United States.  God saw what whites did to innocent and helpless blacks and claimed their suffering as God's own.  God transformed lynched black bodies into the recrucified body of Christ.  Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus.  The lynching tree is the cross in America.  When American Christians realize they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross.

The central thesis of James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree is exceedingly simple: the symbol in American life that resembles the cross of Christianity most closely is the tree on which thousands of black men and women were lynched.  Cone repeats this simple observation over and over again, if only to make the point that it is obvious, and he shouldn't have to keep saying it.  With it comes a sobering and challenging truth: that white Christianity has had to work extremely hard over the past few centuries to ignore this fact, and build a version of white Christianity that is inured from grappling with its own role in perpetuating atrocity.  How can it be that the people in those old souvenir photos of brutal lynchings would call themselves Christians, when they are reenacting the bloody work of the crucifiers?

This was a difficult read.  I'd like to think I have a kind of objective distance from the evangelical tradition I grew up in, but The Cross and the Lynching Tree made me think about the model of sin and salvation that it promulgated in a new light.  I was taught to believe in a narrow version of sin that existed only between individual people.  I might sin against my wife through adultery, or against a friend by lying to them, but confession and forgiveness might lead to reconciliation.  There was no sense of sin on a social, structural, or national scale--or of Martin Luther King's assertion that justice is what love looks like on a social scale.  There was plenty of charity and hard work, but never a sense that it was necessary in order to atone and correct for structural inequalities perpetuated by the white church in other ways.  Of course, neither did we think of ourselves as the white church.  We had members of color enough to avoid thinking of ourselves that way, but I think that an honest reckoning would situate those traditions in a history of whiteness.  Like Pilate we wash our hands of it.

I'm no theologian.  Brent can probably give you a better sense of how this book is situated in the debates about theology in the 20th century than I can.  I get the sense that Cone, a distinguished theologian at Union Seminary, has chosen to write in a mode where pure theology is minimized.  There is an intriguing suggestion that the cross is not, as I was taught to think about it, the location of a functional salvation but a pure symbol that represents God's alignment with the suffering of the marginalized and oppressed.  (Such a reading would be a deep and brutal indictment of, among other things, mansion-owning hucksters like Joel Osteen.)  Yet that seems only lightly developed or defended to me.

Instead, Cone offers a series of chapters each in a different mode: a historical account of lynching (almost too difficult to recap in any meaningful way), a theological challenge to Reinhold Niebuhr as emblematic of white passivism, a straight-up biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.  My favorite was a chapter of literary exegesis that traces the connection between the cross and the lynching tree in the work of black poets, artists, and musicians.  "It takes a powerful imagination, grounded in historical experience, to uncover the great mysteries of black life," Cone writes.  To him the truest theologians and prophets are poets.  Another chapter approaches womanist critics by meditating on the importance of women in the story of those who suffered lynching and those who attacked it.

The only thing that I wanted more of was a sense of the here and now.  How does the lynching attitude, the dehumanizing of black bodies and lives, inform our understanding of police brutality today?  Cone spares a final chapter to sketch these ideas--"The lynching of black America is taking place in the criminal justice system where nearly one-third of black men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight are in prisons, jails, on parole, or waiting for their day in court"--but the absence of the symbolic lynching tree means this section lacks the force and power of what precedes it.  Perhaps we will never be able to fix the problems in our policing and our criminal justice system without having a reckoning first about the despicable history of lynching.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Mortgaged Heart by Carson McCullers

There is a time when everybody wants to run away--no matter how well they get along with their family.  They feel they have to leave because of something they have done, or something they want to do, or maybe they don't know why it is they run away.

There is a story among McCullers' earliest works collected here called "Instant of the Hour After."  It's about a couple who have just had a party, and when all the guests leave, they begin to sharpen their knives at each other.  They're both drunk, and letting the most toxic parts of their relationship hang loose, but being drunk is a sometimes thing for her.  He's a drunk that tonight, like many nights, has drunk to excess.  "Can't a person even think," he says, "without being called obscene or sick or drunk.  No.  No understanding of thought.  Of deep deep thought in blackness.  Of rich morasses.  Morasses.  With their asses."  It's a vivid story, full of telling detail, but it kind of spins in drunk, dizzy circles without progressing.  "I like this the least of anything you have done," writes McCullers' editor Sylvia Chatfield Bates in a note included here.

Compare that to another story, grouped with McCullers' later works, called "Who Has Seen the Wind?"  She presents a similar couple, a little older now, perhaps because McCullers also was when she wrote it.  The drunk husband is now a writer, suffering from an acute sense of writers' block, which is exacerbated by his drinking problem in a way that he refuses to recognize.  The conflict is the same, but suddenly the story is filled with action and agency: he pretends to bang on the typewriter so his wife will think he's working; he drifts to a party where he knows no one and unloads his own anxieties onto an optimistic young writer, he walks through subzero temperatures back home because he doesn't have enough money to call a cab.  By releasing the character from the confines of the bedroom, McCullers turns a closet drama into a piece of convincing realistic fiction.  I was really struck by this comment about writing and war, which reads like a dark inversion of Muriel Spark's assertion that time is never wasted for the artist because all experience is material:

He crossed on D-Day and his battalion went all the way to Schmitz.  In a cellar in a ruined town he saw a cat sniffing the face of a corpse.  He was afraid, but it was not the blank terror of the cafeteria or the anxiety of a white page on the typewriter.  Something was always happening--he found three Westphalian hams in the chimney of a peasant's house and he broke his arm in an automobile accident.  The war was the great experience of his generation, and to a writer every day was automatically of value because it was the war.  But when it was over what was there to write about--the calm cat and the corpse, the lord in England, the broken arm?

"Who Has Seen the Wind?" is the story that "Instant of the Hour After" wanted to be.  It's thrilling, in a way, to see so clearly the progression of an artist.  McCullers' early stories are good, but they're mainly experiments in image and voice, capturing a moment (that titular "instant") rather than telling a story.  And then somehow, through hard work and intuition, facing those same fears about writing as the protagonist of "Wind" (and the same addiction, I'm sad to observe), McCullers became a mature virtuoso of short fiction.  And I enjoyed reading the notes from her editors, who sadly observe that a story she had written was rejected by fifteen different publicationsIt all gives an image of the artist's growth that's only possible because The Mortgaged Heart is a collection of unpublished odds and ends.

Among other things, it includes a brief precis of the plot of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which was written for I don't know what reason.  It's fun to see what changes McCullers ended up making--in the outline here the novel is called "The Mute" and there are several ancillary characters who ended up getting cut.  A moment where Mick and Harry try and fail to build a working glider is taken straight from another unpublished story, "Untitled Piece," and though that didn't make it into the novel either, you can see a trace of it in the impotent homemade violin that Mick tries to make.

Other pieces--especially McCullers' essays--are pretty inert and I've already forgotten a lot about them.  "Who Has Seen the Wind?" is the cream of the crop, along with some stories about Christmas, which apparently was a big passion of McCullers'.  In one harrowing story that seems like it might be taken from real life, the narrator listens to a story by her black housekeeper about how her son once set down his baby brother near a hearth on Christmas day and it burned alive because of an errant spark.  The narrator, getting the wrong message from this horrible story, places her new infant sibling down on the hearth hoping to get rid of it.  All ends up well in that story, but it's the kind of grotesque gothic detail that McCullers does so well.  She died so young, at fifty--it's great to see how that skill developed, but hard not to feel that we were robbed of seeing where it could go.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Something was lying untoward below us, in a box inside that little house
 

Untoward    ly

May I tell you something?

It had the face of a worm

A worm, I say!    A worm the size of a boy    Wearing my suit

Horrors.

My first impression upon reading Lincoln in the Bardo was plain gratitude.  I felt gratitude to think that a book like this could be published, for all its weirdness, its unapproachability, its extravagance.  The subject matter is weird enough: Willie Lincoln, the president's son, awakes after his death in a kind of purgatory populated by the spirits of those in his cemetery who refuse to "pass on" to the other side.  But the book is also stylistically weird: it's written in snippets of those spirits' voices, who both speak to each other and narrate what they see, without any clear demarcation between those modes.  It's also interspersed with quoted passages, both eyewitness and historical, about Willie's death and the president's grief.  (Some, I am pretty sure, are made up, but not all--Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals makes an appearance.)  That it all hangs together is a miracle; that it could be published is a testament to the many years of excellent short stories Saunders has produced.  The compactness of stories lends itself to experimentation, but everything in Tenth of December seems now like prologue to me.

The spirits in Georgetown's Oak Hill cemetery all have their reasons for clinging to life instead of passing on to the next world.  Roger Bevins III committed suicide because he was unable to be with his male lover, but at the last minute he realized how much he will miss about the world, just on a sensory level ("swarms of insects dancing in slant-rays of August sun; a trio of black horses standing hock-deep and head-to-head in a field of snow; a waft of beef broth arrive breeze-borne from an orange-hued window on a chilled autumn--").  Hans Vollmann gets hit with a wooden beam before he can consummate his marriage with his much younger wife.  The premise allows Saunders the opportunity to emphasize these stories with Beetlejuice-style comic exaggeration: as Roger waxes poetic, his eyes, noses, and hands multiply into the hundreds.  Hans has an eternally enormous erection.

These two are the protagonists, more or less; it's principally through their (hundreds of) eyes that we see and understand Willie and Lincoln.  But the book is so full of funny, believable portraits of dead folks.  Some I liked especially: the miser woman who collects rocks, sticks, and motes in the afterlife.  The hunter who sits in front of a pile of all the animals he's ever killed, staring at each one until he has given it its proper due before it gets up and walks away.  A cruel slaveowner who gets exponentially taller as he rails against the laziness and perfidy of his slaves.  (Okay, some are less funny than others.)  One of the most chilling is a reverend who has already been judged and sent to Hell by Christ, a fate from which he has run back into this purgatory.  All of these are compelled to repeat their story over and over, speaking themselves into existence.  Their coffins they call "sick-boxes"; their bodies are "sick-forms."

Into this ecosystem comes the spirit of Willie Lincoln.  The president, utterly distraught by Willie's death, comes to visit the body, even going so far as to pick it up and hold it.  This makes Willie a kind of celebrity in the graveyard, and they flock to him to tell their stories, hundreds at a time, as if being held by the living Lincoln makes Willie a little bit closer to resurrection than they.  But children are not meant to stay long in this realm, and the longer Willie stays--he lingers knowing his father might return and pick him again--the more he is at risk for a kind of permanent eternal entrapment.  Hans and Roger do their best to get Willie to let go and pass on, a plot which inspires more of what you might call hijinks than you'd expect.

Though it's a lot of fun, Lincoln in the Bardo is at its best when its in an elegiac mode.  More than anything else, the novel is a meditation on grief and loss.  Lincoln struggles mightily with the loss of his son.  He memorably summarizes the paradox of death this way: "Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another."  And of course, the political context looms large here.  The war is going badly and bloodily for the Union, and Lincoln is deeply aware that he has sent other men's sons to die. 

Saunders recognizes, I'm happy to say, that any novel about the moral implications of the Civil War needs to dwell extensively on black Americans.  Willie's presence helps to bring down a psychic barrier between Oak Hill and the mass grave beyond the nearby fence, letting in a number of the black dead, including former slaves.  These characters provide some of the most profound pathos in the novel.  One man can't figure out why, when his masters were so kind to him, he feels the powerful urge to murder them.  Another meditates that he had his moments of freedom like most men, but is haunted by "[t]he thought, specifically, that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments."  A victim of rape is utterly mute.  These stories are so vital to the novel because as a nation we still reckon with the political valence of black loss and grief, with our attitude toward black bodies quite literally.  Saunders bends the rules of his world a little to let one of these men to literally walk out of the cemetery inside Lincoln's body.

I can say, hands down, this is the funniest novel about a cemetery featuring a man with a comically large penis that I have ever read.  If that praise is too faint, I'll add this: Lincoln in the Bardo is a tremendous exploration of what it means to die, to lose, to grieve.  May all our deaths be as full of joy as Willie Lincoln's, when he finally realizes he is dead:

All is    All is allowed now    All is allowed me now    All is allowed lightlightlight me now

Getting up out of bed and going down to the party, allowed

Candy bees, allowed

Chunks of cake, allowed!

Punch (even rum punch), allowed!

Let that band play louder!

Swinging from the chandelier, allowed; floating up to the ceiling, allowed going to the window to have a look out, allowed allowed allowed!

Warlock by Oakley Hall

"Bitter?" he heard Kate say. above the humming in his ears. "Why yes I am bitter! Because men have found a way to crucify every decent man, starting with Our Lord. No, it is not even bitter--it is just common sense. They will admire him because he killed a man they wouldn't've had the guts to go against. But they will hate him for it, because of that."

I cut my grown-up reading teeth on Westerns, mostly Louis L'Amour and numerous knock-offs. I can recite the structure of those books now. It's a bonding ritual amongst those who've read many. A loner comes to town, usually with a dark past. The town is run by the seemingly benevolent but actually malevolent "largest rancher in the valley". There's a grudging gunfight as a cowboy who's had too much to drink can't help but throw iron on the stranger. There's at least one fistfight that usually ends with the stranger taking his bruises, and then a final gunfight against overwhelming odds. And there's usually a girl there to help pick up the pieces. Within this framework, there's a lot of fun stuff that can happen, but the structure is sacrosanct.

Warlock, one of the numerous award winners that NYRB has rescused from obscurity, has a full-length blurb from the rarely terse Thomas Pynchon on the back cover, and that might lead you to believe that it's the sort of book that would wildly buck those conventions--an ambiguous ending, perhaps? Historical characters behaving anachronisitically? Or, at a minimum, a modernistic nihilism like Unforgiven. But you'd be wrong, because in many ways, Warlock follows the aforementioned structure to a T. The way it follows it is sometimes surprising, sometimes moving, sometimes predictable, but after finishing and taking a step back, it's not hard to see the contours of L'Amour and John Wayne.

Where it bests most Westerns though, is the thoroughness with which it examines the mining town of Warlock and its denizens. Although most of the book focuses on hired-gun sheriff Clay Blaisdell, black-sheep former outlaw John Gannon, amoral drifter Morgan, and the mysterious Kate, plenty of other citizens get moments of focus to make them more than the cardboard cutouts that tertiary characters in these sorts of books tend to be. We get a side-plot about the organizers of a miner's strike, a look at the politics in the little big Bright's City and their uncaring--and half crazy--beauracracy, and about 1/4 of the book is told through the diary entries of Henry Holmes-Goodpasture, a put-upon store owner who, in a clever bit of metacommentary on the genre, keeps getting his front window smashed.

But Gannon and Blaisedell form the beating heart of Warlock. Blaisdell has killed so many men that he can't seem to stop, in spite of the wear on his spirit. And Gannon reluctantly but unwaveringly takes up the office of deputy after Blaisedell steps down early in the novel, after killing Gannon's brother. Though the gunman-stranger is usually--and even here, is--the magnetic center that holds everything together, Gannon gets the most character work, starting the book regretting a massacre he participated in and ending it... well, there's a fistfight and a gunfight, but anything more would be telling.

Warlock is able to sustain its tight-broad paradoxical focus because Hall recognizes that the town itself is too small for anyone or anything to really be a sideplot. Often we learn about events after the fact second-hand, and while there's no real unreliable narrator here, that level of remove is engaging in a way that a straightforward telling might not be. There are plenty of frontier ruminations on the nature of society, and of man, but in the end, it comes down to guns and fists because the land, the people, the government, the mines, they are brutal. It takes a certain constitution to make it through with both life and soul intact, and Hall expertly breaks down his archtypical characters until they feel like real people. Then, in an epilogue, he tells what ultimately became of them all, bringing the archetypes to the foreground and showing us that the cycle never really ends. It's only the geography that's different.
To my mind, Blaisdell is only a small and temporary blight on the body politic; with all else healthy and aright he will automatically disappear. Like the rest of us, but perhaps for different reasons, he too is no longer interested in the Citizens Committee. I am apathetic of his ambitions; I am contemptuous of his optimism. The old, corrupt, and careless god has been replaced in his Heaven, and so, he feels, all will be well with the world, which is, after all, the best of all possible ones. It is a touching faith. But I am more drawn to those who wander the night not with excitement but with dread for it.

I see many of them through my window, unable to sleep now that the fire is out. For what fire is out, and what is newly lighted and what will burn forever and consume us all? How can men live, and know that in the end they will merely die?