Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Revolutionary Song
by Russell Shorto

The past is not as far away as we think.

Shorto is an interesting historian whose previous books have leaned heavily towards how ideas help shape history.  He is most well known for his history of New Amsterdam and the dawn of freedom of religion in the Flushing Remonstrance, The Island at the Center of the World.  In that volume, Shorto related the political battle between Adriaen van der Donck and Peter Stuyvesant that culminated in the Flushing Remonstrance - the first document to declare freedom of religion a part of the American experience and the first time ordinary citizens challenged government and won.  The book makes an excellent case to think of New York/Amsterdam rather than Puritan Boston as the birthplace of American ideals.

In his new book, Shorto builds a complex transAtlantic view of the American Revolution by weaving together 6 biographies:  George Washington (the only one that needed no introduction for me); George Germain, a British aristocrat and cabinet member responsible for the strategies behind George III's war effort; Abraham Yates, a fiery patriot who becomes one of New York's leading representatives on various rebel committees; Cornplanter, a Seneca Indian who tries to lead his people through the complex political and military thickets thrown up by the war; Venture Smith, an enslaved African who is brought from his native Guinea to New England and works to free himself; and Margaret Moncrieffe, the strong-willed daughter of a British officer who tests the limits of the new ideas about freedom by applying them to her own life.

The war itself becomes a complicated battle of ego and idea, with loyalty and self-interest, ideology and adventure all impacting people's lives.  The flatter and more generic ideas of freedom and rebellion that generally inhabit our discussion of this period become lively and vital.  Each character is both sympathetic and hard-headed and the legacy of the revolution is deepened immeasurably.  Shorto does a fine job of enlarging our view of the period to include race and gender issues that rarely get this kind of sustained treatment.  Most importantly, he has not set Venture Smith, Cornplanter or Margaret Moncrieffe apart to create a competing Black or Native American or Woman's History, but showed their stories woven into the fabric of the standard history.   This is an American Revolution for all Americans.

While Shorto has the incredible capacity to gather and synthesize information that one expects of a historian, it is his writing that is the real strength of this.  Each of the biographies becomes a page turner and as I moved from the life of Ms. Moncrieffe back to Washington my excitement to catch up with George was tempered by being a little sorry to leave Margaret for a few pages.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The End of the World and Other Stories by Mavis Gallant

She lugged her suitcase as far as the road and sat down beside it.  Overnight a pocket of liquid the size of a lemon had formed near the anklebone.  Her father would say it was all her own fault again.  Why  Was it Sarah's fault that she had all this loving capital to invest?  What was she supposed to do with it?  Even if she always ended up sitting outside a gate somewhere, was she any the worse for it?  The only thing wrong now was the pain she felt, not of her ankle but in her stomach.  her stomach felt as if it was filled up with old oyster shells.  Yes, a load of old, ugly, used-up shells was what she had for stuffing.  She had to take care not to breathe too deeply, because the shells scratched.  In her research for Professor Downcast she had learned that one could be alcoholic, crippled, afraid of dying and of being poor, and she knew these things waited for everyone, even Sarah; but nothing had warned her that one day she would not be loved.  That was the meaning of "less privileged."  There was no other.

Walter, the protagonist of "An Unmarried Man's Summer" lives rent-free in a bungalow in Nice with his manservant Angelo.  He knows that one day, when the owners of the house retire, he'll be forced to move somewhere, do something else, but that day is fifteen years down the road.  His sister visits and forces him to see how deeply happy Angelo is--that, despite the poverty from which he comes, the life of endless vacation he shares with Walter comes at the cost of separation from his family, from human companionship.

In "The Accident," a woman is on a long honeymoon on the Italian Riviera with her husband when he is killed in a freak accident, hit on a bicycle by a car door.  Before his death, she reflects on the nature of their vacation:  "So real life, the grey noon with no limits, had not yet begun.  I distrusted real life, for I knew nothing about it.  It was the middle-aged world without feeling, where no one was loved."  After the accident, she stays in Italy, getting a job as a translator for a pharmacy.  You can't exactly say that she's on an infinite vacation--there's that job, after all--but like Walter, she's stuck in some kind of world that is eternally foreign and exotic to her, using it to fend of the "grey noon with no limits" that is life at home in Canada.

Gallant presents, over and over again, a kind of arrested development incarnated in the vacation that won't end.  Her characters are typically Canadians in Europe, as Gallant herself was, living as an ex-pat in Paris.  I picked the book up at a bookstore in Edmonton on my most recent vacation, and let me tell you, that feeling of the "grey noon," captured perfectly the feeling of letdown after vacation was over.  In "In the Tunnel," a young woman impulsively agrees to move in with a dashing English ex-officer for a month, again on the Riviera.  He and his neighbors prove to be churlish, prickly, difficult to understand; their conversation vacillates between accommodation and hostility that seem very real.  But the lesson for Sarah is not that the experience might have been better if the officer had been kinder, but that enacting our fantasies means inevitably rupturing them.

Almost every one of these stories offers a variation on  these themes, sometimes an inversion.  In "New Year's Eve," the Riviera is traded for the Bolshoi theater in Moscow, and follows the lines of thought of three people who are incapable of really communicating with or understanding each other.  In "The Other Paris," it's a woman who gets engaged to a fellow Canadian in Paris in a misguided attempt to force the romantic Paris of her dreams to become reality.  In "About Geneva," it's a pair of children who return to their mother after having visited their estranged father, and whose scattered impressions fail to tell the mother what she really wants to know "about Geneva":

But how can they be trusted, the children's mother thought.  Which of them can one believe?  "Perhaps," she said to Colin, "one day, you can tell me more about Geneva?"

"Yes," he said perplexed.

But, really, she doubted it; nothing had come back form the trip but her own feelings of longing and envy, the longing and envy she felt at night, seeing, at a crossroad or over a bridge, the lighted windows of a train sweep by.  Her children had nothing to tell her.  Perhaps, as she said, one day Colin would say something, produce the image of Geneva, tell her about the lake, the boats, the swans, and why her husband had left her.  Perhaps he could tell her, but, really, she doubted it.  And, already, so did he.

Even the story least like these, "My Heart is Broken," has something in common with them.  In a remote road-construction camp in northern Quebec, an older woman is talking with a younger woman, both of whose husbands work for the camp.  Over the course of the conversation, we come to understand that the younger woman has been raped by a worker at the camp.  But the rape is less a threat to the cohesion of the small, faraway community than the knowledge of the rape:

"Don't say who it was," said Mrs. Thompson.  "We don't any of us need to know."

"We were just talking, and he got sore all of a sudden and grabbed my arm."

"Don't say the name!" Mrs. Thompson cried.

As an image of rape culture, it's sharp and black-hearted.  But even this Quebec camp, like Nice, like the Riviera, seems like a collective illusion that is precariously balanced, and must constantly be defended against the forces of the "grey noon" of the real world.

Gallant's stories are strange; they seem to violate some of the traditional practices of short story writing.  They're circuitous, choked with detail, and refuse to present logical progressions of character.  Conversations are knotty and difficult to follow.  Comparisons to Gallant's fellow Canadian Alice Munro seem natural, but though I think Munro is many times more complex than she gets credit for, her stories have a satisfying completeness that Gallant rejects.  They resemble more than anything ten pages plucked randomly from the middle of a novel.  I found myself wondering what next? when each was over, but that's part of the endless vacation, I guess: there are no resolutions.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

If Teddy ever cried when he was younger, Ursula could never bear it. It seemed to open up a chasm inside, something deep and dreadful ad full of sorrow. All she ever wanted was to make sure he never felt like crying again. The man in Dr Keller's waiting room had the same effect on her ('That's how motherhood feels every day,' Sylvie said).
Ursula, the heroine of Life After Life, dies three times in the first fifteen pages of this novel. She is destined to live the same life over and over again, each time taking a slightly divergent path. In some ways this is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, with all the pathways delineated one after the other--the literary equivalent of those "Path to Victory" infographics. The first death gives us a hint at where all those paths may be leading: she dies shooting a young Adolph Hitler in a Berlin tavern before he has a chance to unleash chaos on Europe. Then we flashback to the beginning: she dies at birth, then as a toddler, then as young girl. As Ursula lives longer, she seems to carry vestigial memories of her past lives, and slowly builds up to her final purpose.

Atkinson artfully weaves these lives into a coherent whole. This could easily have been a very choppy, very disorienting novel, but Atkinson is able to ease the reader through the transitions using common moments and language as anchors. We relive some of the days seven or eight times, but each is a little (or drastically) different, and Atkinson builds suspense beautifully by layering these experiences over each other.

Ursula's lives are uncommonly violent. I was taken aback and how difficult it was to process the death of a child, and the shock didn't ever really wear off. Even the moments in between death are violent--Ursula is the victim of rape and assault; she works as a rescue volunteer in London during the WWII bombings; she endures the deaths of brothers, friends, partners. The revolving door of death and devastation is virtually constant. Perhaps because of this, I had trouble sticking with this one the whole way through. I put it down and picked it back up three separate times, and while I enjoyed it and ended up finishing it, it took me much longer than normal to read.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

My Tassie,I am watching you through the pane. You sit at the table scribbling--scribbling, then erasing, biting, chewing the unfortunate pencil's extremity as you contemplate. I share your chore. I might be your portico twin, in perch upon this fresco-chaise, performing same, were it not for glimpsing you through the glass. Such a beguiling sight--your long auburn tresses falling as a cataract in shimmering filamentous pool upon the tabletop, gathering in swirl upon your notepaper--obscuring? framing? your toil. 
Ella Minnow Pea is both an epistolary novel and a lipogram. A lipogram, I learned in the book's opening pages, is a piece written to purposely avoid one or more letters of the alphabet. The conceit here is the residents of Nollop, an island nation off the coast of South Carolina, are a people of letters devoted to their former islander, Nevin Nollop. Nollop is the author of the famous pangram (another word I learned on the first page) "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." When the forces of gravity start to act on a statue of Nollop and the letters of his masterpiece begin to fall, the Nollopian government slowly outlaws one letter after the next in both spoken and written speech. As the novel unfolds, its characters have the use of fewer and fewer letters until they are reduced to an almost indecipherable mess.

The titular Ella, her cousin Tassie, their parents, and Tassie's love interest Nate make up the bulk of the letter-writers, but other notes and formal announcements are sprinkled throughout. Even as their ability to communicate dwindles, the characters' voices are distinct and their attempts to survive in their ever more draconian society while searching for a new pangram (their government has set this as their challenge if they want their letters back).

There are a lot of overly obvious messages here about the power of words and what happens to people when their speech is controlled; I found myself rolling my eyes a few times at how explicit that message became--not only through the metaphor of restricted speech, but through the characters' commentary. In some ways it felt like a cheap Handmaid's Tale with a technical twist.

Overall, this was a fun read as an experiment in style and form. I was impressed with how much Dunn was able to do within the constraints he set for himself. There were times when it felt like I was reading a high schooler's essay who had recently discovered the power of the thesaurus, but generally the character's retained their voices and the plot moved forward.

As a nod to the spirit of the lipogram, I wrote this review without the first three letters to disappear from Nollop: Q, Z, and J (with the exception of the pangram which would have been incomplete without them). J was the hardest! 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler

In a nutshell, I am not unaware of my failings.  Neither am I a stranger to irony.  I realize that I -- who took the Second Mrs. Panofsky's rambling conversation to be an abomination -- have consumed hundreds of pages, piling digression upon digression, to avoid getting to that seminal weekend in the Laurentians that all but destroyed my life, rendering unto me my reputation as a murderer, which is believed by some to this day.  Enter Sergeant-Detective Sean O'Hearne.  And I'm willing to swear that what follows is the truth.  I am innocent.  Honestly.  So help me God, as they say.

Okay, let's stick with the Canadians for a bit.

Barney's Version was the last novel of Montreal writer Mordecai Richler, and it reads like the novel a man writes as he faces down his own obsolescence.  Barney Panofsky, a successful television producer, wants to write and publish a firsthand account of his own life.  When he has been in the public eye, it's always been as part of someone else's sordid account: his first wife, Clara, who committed suicide before her poetry and art could make her a feminist icon; the memoir of Canadian novelist Terry McIver, who knew and despised Barney during their youth in Paris; and especially the lurid newspaper accounts of Barney's trial for killing his best friend Boogie after finding him in bed with his wife.  What Barney wants to do is not so much "set the record straight"--there's a lot of admitted culpability here--but to provide the human context that makes every story seem a little bit more deserving of empathy.  Barney's tendency to forget basic facts and details in his advanced age tends to complicate this project.

The novel is a riot, in many senses: it's extremely funny; it's propelled along by a kind of manic energy; it manages to capture the spirit of the political tension in Quebec in the latter half of the twentieth century.  At times it reads like a much funnier Philip Roth novel, preoccupied as it is with the place of the aging male in the world of sex.  The cast of characters is immense, and borrows from several of other Richler books, which make a kind of Montreal Cinematic Universe (MCU).  I was particularly happy to see Duddy Kravitz, all grown up and having finally struck it rich, needling a doctor for an underheralded disease he might become a patron of, admitting him at last into high-toned Westmount society:

"Crohn's disease."

"Never heard of it.  Is it big?"

"Maybe two hundred thousand Canadians suffer from it."

"Good.  Now you're talking.  So tell me about it."

"It's also known as ileitis or ulcerative colitis."

"Explain it to me in laymen's terms, please."

"It leads to gas, diarrhoea, rectal bleeding, fever, weight loss.  You suffer from it you could have fifteen bowel movements a day."

"Oh, great!  Wonderful!  I phone Wayne Gretzky, I say, how would you like to be a patron for a charity for farters?  Mr. Trudeau, this is D.K. speaking, and I've got just the thing to improve your image.  How would you like to join the board of a charity my wife is organizing for people who shit day and night?  Hey there, everybody, you are invited to my wife's annual Diarrhoea Ball."

Juxtaposed against colorful characters like Duddy, Barney himself pales a little.  That's by design, I think: part of Barney's deal is that he has always been adjacent to famous and outsized personalities, writers and artists, without ever becoming one himself.  Even Boogie, on the fateful day when Barney did or did not murder him, cruelly accuses Barney of being a kind of sponge on the more talented.  But Barney has his talents, including a razor sharp wit, amplified by a hot temper.  He spends much of his life writing and sending fake letters designed to get people in trouble, a bit I'm confident is borrowed at least in part from that other Canadian Jew, Saul Bellow.

One thing that troubled me a little about Barney's Version is its depiction of feminists and other liberal activists.  Barney's involvement, and supposed cruelty toward, his first wife Clara sends feminist writers his way, talking about "penis-power."  At times Barney's version seems to paint him as the victim of a kind of liberal orthodoxy that echoes a lot of modern right-wing meme culture.  These tensions are inextricably tied up with liberal support for Quebecois independence and French language laws, which Richler saw as inseparable from Francophone anti-Semitism.  But even when you think you have Richler's politics pegged, he comes into undercut them, as when Clara's father, a Canadian Jew who has recently been tossed off the board of his daughter's foundation by two black women, admits that "These women forced me to take a good look at myself."  It's a relatively minor moment in the book, but the novel's whole ethos demands that kind of criticism.  If Barney deserves his own account of his life, doesn't Clara, who never got to tell her own?  Who is it in this world whose stories aren't being told?

Barney's Version exists on shifting ground.  Barney's incipient Alzheimer's makes every detail suspect, and his account is supplemented by a series of corrective footnotes by his son, Michael.  The effect is to make Barney seem more or less trustworthy, but to inject the slightest doubt into his narrative, and to emphasize the subjectivity of our own versions of ourselves.  What do we do with a man who can remember "Velazquez's portrait of that royal family" but not that it's called Las Meninas?  Barney talks about the moment where his friend Boogie disappears as that "seminal weekend in the Laurentians that all but destroyed my life," but that's not true.  The trial succeeds in alienating Barney from his wife, whom he hates, and allowing him to marry the true love of his life, Miriam.  (In a nice comic touch, they meet for the first time on the night of Barney's wedding to the woman he calls only "The Second Mrs. Panofsky.")  It's a smaller, tawdrier moment, a night of drunken cheating, that separates him from Miriam thirty years later and really marks the ruin of his life.  It lacks the high drama of the murder charge, but it is enough to make you wonder how much Barney really understands about himself.

Richler's not really a postmodernist.  The mystery of what happened to Boogie is resolved in a way that's as satisfying as any Agatha Christie novel.  But he understands, with a comic realist's eye, just how much of what we tell ourselves about own lives is fiction, or at least fictionalized.  He understands, too, the idea that Barney's Alzheimer's, diagnosed at the very end of the narrative, represents the loss of that fiction, and it's tragic: the loss of "Barney's Version" of himself, no less meaningful because it's not entirely true.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

by Renata Adler

By now, there have been many years of accepted assurances that the water’s fine – quite warm actually – once you get into it; many years insane passings on of such an assurance.  And here we all are.  All that is, except Barney, whose sailboat overturned two years ago last November. It is probably that he had been drinking.  When Jim and I took him to dinner the preceding August, he said he was bored with his job.
This is among the most curious books I have read in a long time.  It follows the life and times of Jen – for much of the time it feels as if it could be her diary.  It consists of seven chapters (at least some of which were originally published as stories). The chapters are close to identical in tone with very slight changes in what might pass for plot.  While a great deal happens in each one, there is nothing that feels like a conventional plot arc.  We don’t get a narrative about Jen so much as a collection of events and her reactions to them.  They tell us something about her time and place (late 1960s New York) and her observations about that time and place.  Jen comes across as a slightly depressed, sardonic and passive observer of those around her.  Her life seems to be happening to her and to us as we read.

Each event is told in crisp, sometimes descriptive prose that lasts for a paragraph or two – very few are longer than a page in length – followed by another chunk of similar length and detail discussing a new event that has little or no connection to the previous one.  For example, the first six paragraphs of the novel might be summarized this way:  a discussion of Jen’s social scene, sailing, rats in New York, an unnamed father’s birthday party, the funeral of a union leader, the peculiarities of motel beds.

Along the way the sentences themselves become seductive – not least because so many stand out without context.  Yet also because they express Jen’s consciousness which, for all its passivity, is full of sharp observations and satiric judgment.  While the novel is of its time – full of references to Hair, and Janis Joplin and the Vietnam War it has a certain “Mad Men” sensibility – its captures the vapid emptiness that always seems to be part of cultural trends and judgments – perhaps especially in New York.  It is a vapidness that fights against itself and the medium of the fight is language – we seem eternally sure that we can make life meaningful if we simply describe it well.

It could be that the sort of sentence one wants right here is the kind that runs and laughs and slides, and stops right on a dime.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Manticore by Robertson Davies

It is this; however fashionable despair about the world and about people may be at present, and however powerful despair may become in the future, not everybody, or even most people, live fashionably; virtue and honour will not be banished from the world, however many popular moralists and panicky journalists say so.  Sacrifice will not cease to be because psychiatrists have popularized the idea that there is often some concealed, self-serving element in it; theologians always knew that. Nor do I think love as a high condition of honour will be lost; it is a pattern in the spirit and people long to make the pattern reality in their lives, whatever means they take to do so.  In short, Davey, God is not dead.  And I can assure you God is not mocked.

Robertson Davies' Fifth Business ends with the death of Boy Staunton, the millionaire politician who set the novel's action in motion as a child years before by hitting a pregnant woman with a rock buried in a snowball.  He dies, mysteriously and provocatively, by driving into that lake with that same rock held in his mouth.  The sequel, The Manticore, is about the effect of Boy's death on his son David, described in Fifth Business as a weak and sullen child who grows up in the difficult shadow of his father.  David, visiting a traveling magician--whom we know to be the other Deptford, Ontario native mixed up in the events of the first novel, and possibly Boy's killer--who claims to be able to answer any question.  David calls out: "Who killed Boy Staunton?" but escapes before he can hear the cryptic answer, surprised at his own outburst, and submits himself to Jungian analysis in Switzerland.

The form of the novel is that very analysis, recorded in notebooks and conversations between David and his analyst, Dr. Johanna von Haller.  She forces David to confront the complicated history of his lfie: his adulation for his father, who really was an asshole, coupled with his attempt to excel in a field (criminal law) separate and distinct from Boy.  David is cold and repressed.  He hasn't had sex in decades, and he's a thoroughgoing alcoholic.  Dr. von Haller tells him that he is an excellent thinker, but he is severely deficient in the arena of feeling.

Even more than Fifth Business, The Manticore says something interesting about the relationship between Canada and the UK.  David's real name, after all, is Edward David, after the Prince of Wales who Boy idolized and whose reign as king ended in abdication.  (Spoiler alert, he was also a Nazi sympathizer, so there's that.)  David recounts how he paid a genealogist to investigate his family's Canadian lineage, hoping to find a coat of arms, instead discovering that the Stauntons are most likely descended from a victimized servant who escaped her village with a child to form a new life in Canada.  Boy suppresses this information, knowing it will affect his chances to become Lieutenant-General, the Queen's representative in Ontario.  The irony, as Davies' genealogist hammers home for us (Davies doesn't really do subtlety), is that the heritage that well-to-do Canadians like Boy Staunton crave, marked by unbroken connection to English nobility, pales in comparison to the Canadian heritage of exploration and frontiersmanship, of the New World.

More than anything, The Manticore is a love letter to Jungian psychology.  David's therapist gives a layman's education in its principle terms: the Shadow, the Anima, the Persona.  These are aspects of David's own psyche, expressed in mythological terms, and he must venture inside himself to understand them.  At the end of the novel, reunited with Ramsay (from Fifth Business) and Eisengrim (the magician), David is forced to crawl into and out of a harrowingly narrow cave, inside of which lie the remnants of ancient bear worship.  It's not subtle, symbolically, but it is effective.

All this Jungian stuff is a little retrograde.  It made me feel a little icky, because the contemporary person I associate most with Jungian archetypes is Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and provocateur who peddles a lot of anti-feminist garbage.  I don't think Peterson himself describes what he does as Jungian, but his focus on broader mythological patterns certainly shares an ethos with Jung.  David himself seems to be echoing Peterson when he tells von Haller, "That's the pattern, and we break patterns at our peril.  After all, they became patterns because they conform to realities."  But then again, it's hard to imagine Peterson endorsing something like what von Haller says to David about men and women, with regards to the feminine aspect of the psyche called the Anima: "Oh, men revenge themselves very thoroughly on women they think have enchanted them, when really these poor devils of women are merely destined to be pretty or sing nicely or laugh at the right time."  For von Haller, the point of therapy is to interrogate the ways that the archetypes present in our own psyches stand in for the realities of other people, and to eliminate them.  Only then can we see people as they really are.  For a flimflam man like Peterson, the archetype is the reality; for Davies, it's a projection, and that's a worthy distinction.

The Manticore is fun, and I really enjoy the kind of antiquated, didactic mode that Davies uses.  It's interesting to see the characters from Fifth Business from another angle.  Like Ramsay, David's place in the mythopoetic battle between Boy and Eisengrim is on the sidelines, and like Ramsay, part of his lesson is to figure out how to accept not being a principal in the "big story."  But it misses something of the grandeur and scope of Fifth Business.  Like Jungian therapy itself, it feels a little deflated in shrinking the grand narratives of myth to the therapist's couch.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Obasan by Joy Kogawa

Where do any of us come from in this cold country?  Oh, Canada, whether it is admitted or not, we come from you we come from you.  From the same soil, the slugs and slime and bogs and twigs and roots.  We come from the country that plucks its people out like weeds and flings them into the roadside.  We grow in ditches and sloughs, untended and spindly.  We erupt in the valleys and mountainsides, in small towns and back alleys, sprouting upside down on the prairies, our hair as wild as spider's legs, our feet rooted nowhere.  We grow where we are not seen, we flourish where we are not heard, the thick undergrowth of an unlikely planting.  Where do we come from, Obasan?  We come from cemeteries full of skeletons with wild roses in their grinning teeth.  We come rom our untold tales that wait for their telling.  We come from Canada, this land that is like every land, filled with the wise, the fearful, the compassionate, the corrupt.

Naomi Nakane is a schoolteacher in rural Alberta, where her Japanese ancestry makes her--well, not unique, exactly, but it provokes comments from her students, largely the children of white farmers.  Naomi is prickly with her students, resentful toward their ignorance and prying.  Behind the discomfort--behind the central fact of her life in Alberta--is a history that Naomi wants to move past, unlike her Aunt Emily, including her own childhood in Canada's Japanese internment camps and her own separation from her mother and father.  When her great-uncle--Obasan's husband--dies suddenly, she's forced to confront the truth of her internment and the Japanese-Canadian experience as a whole.

Obasan's dive into Naomi's memories is often impressionistic, and though chronological, can be difficult to arrange into a coherent narrative that helps the reader understand exactly where the Japanese were sent and why.  She relies on overheard conversations between adults to fill in the gaps, but the method makes sense--what can a child understand of the reasons that she has been taken from her mother and sent to the British Columbia mountains?  Kogawa renders these scenes with an eye for strong detail, like the orange that Obasan, her aunt, presents to a destitute and desperate mother on the train toward internment, or the treasured doll that gets left behind.  A deep dive through a set of documents provided by her Aunt Emily helps Naomi discover at last what happened to her mother, who returned to Japan instead of being sent to the camps, and Kogawa's description of the destruction by atomic bomb of Nagasaki is an unflinching portrait of pure and honest horror that few real horror books could ever match.

There are few books that are set in Alberta, where I recently went.  At least half of Obasan actually takes place in British Columbia.  But what I didn't expect was that Obasan would feel so relevant and fresh to my own place and time.  It is, at its heart, a story of what happens when you separate families in the name of abstract notions of national security.  What happens is you fuck them up forever.  Naomi's separation from her family--even though much of Obasan is a story of perseverance and strength in the face of adversity--has provided her with nearly insoluble trauma.  Facing it, as her aunt encourages, can bring her to a kind of detente with it, but it is ineradicable.  And as Aunt Emily reminds us, about a different country but not less true: "What this country did to us, it did to itself."  The trauma we inflict on those seeking asylum at our own southern border we inflict on ourselves, and sooner our later, it will come back around to us.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I missed only Lila, Lila who didn't answer my letters.  I was afraid of what was happening to her, good or bad, in my absence.  It was an old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance.  And the fact that she didn't answer emphasized that preoccupation.  However hard I tried in my letters to communicate the privilege of the days in Ischia, my river of words and her silence seemed to demonstrate that my life was splendid but uneventful, which left me time to write to her every day, while hers was dark but full.

The most surprising and satisfying moment in My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante's critically lauded "Neapolitan" novels, is when Lina Cerullo, the shoemaker's daughter, calls the narrator, Elena Greco, "my brilliant friend."  It surprises because over the course of the novel, you assume that the "brilliant friend" of the title is not Elena but Lina: darkly beautiful, preternaturally confident, sharply intelligent, exceptional, detached, frightening.  It's Lina who, as a child, forces Elena to face her greatest fears by dropping her doll down a sewer grate, or making her walk up to the apartment of the terrifying mafioso who runs their working-class Naples neighborhood:

Not too long before--ten days, a month, who can say, we knew nothing about time, in those days--she had treacherously taken my doll and thrown her down into a cellar.  Now we were climbing toward fear; then we had felt obliged to descend, quickly, into the unknown.  Up or down, it seemed to us that we were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us yet had always going down toward something terrible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us.

When Lina proves to be the most intelligent student in the school, it's Elena's admiration for her that forces her to push herself in her studies.  Eventually, Lina leaves school to work in her father's cobbler's shop, but Elena stays on.  All of her success is, in a vague but meaningful way, attributable to Lina, either borrowed from her or achieved in competition with her, or perhaps both.  Ferrante manages to take a very basic idea--jealousy toward an exceptional friend, and the way that it can be mixed with admiration and love--and build from it a detailed and convincing life.  Elena's complex feelings toward Lina strike both positive and sour notes.  It's clear that Lina drives Elena to be exceptional herself, but there is something tragic about Elena's obsessive comparison with her friend, and with others: she can't even bring herself to believe in the Trinity because she can't conceive that the three aspects of God wouldn't be hierarchically ordered.  It's an obsession that manifests itself in the repeated, desperate accounting of how Elena compares to the other students in her school, and even well after Lina leaves school, it's Lina she's always comparing herself to.

Lina's exceptionalism drives Elena to imagine a world outside the poor Naples neighborhood in which they were born.  But Lina, while exceptional, is unable to propel herself out of the orbit of the neighborhood.  It's Lina who is drawn into the petty squabbles of local boys, and attracts the interest of the tinpot tyrants who basically run the community.  The reversal of fortunes happens slowly but convincingly, so that when Lina calls Elena her "brilliant friend," it alerts you, for the first time, that it is Elena who has been able to resist the punishing effects of poverty.

Ferrante's novels--my understanding is that they really are a single novel split into four parts--are very much the "it" books of the moment.  I usually react negatively to stuff like that, because I am a snob, and descriptions of the series didn't make them seem appealing.  But there's a darker streak running through these novels that I didn't expect and that I love: a streak of poverty, and death, and intergenerational hatred, all of which is somehow incarnated in the figure of Lina.  In many ways, too, reading My Brilliant Friend reproduces the feeling of sinking your teeth into a big fat Russian novel with a bunch of characters, or George Eliot at her best.  The accolades are, in this case, well-deserved.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Tlooth by Harry Mathews

Sister Agnes: There is no inch in the world without God.  I breathe him, the birds of heaven breathe him, fish breathe him in the deepest waters where air cannot be seen or felt, but where air is.  Man walks and dies; he breathes and becomes breath--as if a dolphin flying skyward were snatched forever into a net of air.

It is the Mother Superior's turn to speak.  Sipping a glass of water, she sighs, "Sister Agnes, show me your ass."

Harry Mathews' Tlooth begins in a Siberian prison camp, where the prisoners are split into "sects" based on their religious beliefs.  The Defective Baptists are playing the Fideists in baseball.  The narrator has secretly packed a baseball with dynamite, and is planning to use it to kill Evelyn Roak, the surgeon who accidentally, or perhaps maliciously, removed the narrator's middle two fingers, ruining a promising career as a violinist.  The plan doesn't work, thanks to a wild pitch, but when Roak is released from prison, it sets off a long chase across several continents.

Like The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium, Tlooth is full of gratuitous wordplay and puzzles of all sorts.  But it's not always easy to tell what is and what isn't a puzzle, something to be figured out.  When the narrator's traveling band is accosted in the Eurasian steppes by a group of nomad kings who offer a kind of repetitive poem-song, is that a puzzle?  Is there a solution lurking in there somewhere that makes the whole thing satisfying on a level beyond the exotic strangeness of the scene?  Or is it all like the poem traced on the labyrinth of their animal-shaped derby racer (another tradition of the prison camp, like the baseball games), which leads to the same spot where it began?  There's a Nabokov-like suggestion running throughout the book that the puzzles, whatever they are, are to no purpose, and that deciphering the wordplay is a kind of fool's game.

In Odradek, I didn't mind the wordplay because, even when it seemed self-referential or circuitous, it was grounded by the relationship between the two main characters, who have overcome their linguistic differences to fall in love, or so they think.  The revenge narrative of Tlooth seems to offer something similar, but less successfully.  Mostly, it seems to offer a set of open-ended questions.  What am I supposed to make of the long digression in which the narrator pens a scene for a pornographic "blue movie?"  (I did like the bit of dialogue I quoted up at top, though.)  What's the point of giving most of the characters ambiguously gendered names, and only revealing that the narrator--and Roak--are female toward the very end of the novel?  It certainly toys cleverly with my sense of character, and chastises me for coding the revenge plot as male.  But I couldn't shake a feeling of boredom, a sense that the answer to these questions is that there is no answer.  I admit that I didn't always "get" Tlooth, but neither am I sure what there is to get.

Along the way, at least, Tlooth offers up a bunch of fun little vignettes.  The title comes from a moment when the protagonist sticks her foot in a prophetic bog, which tells her fortune in a gas bubble: "Tlooth." Her prison training as a dentist is what allows the protagonist to finally get her revenge.  But it's a reference also to the "truth," something which the novel is not very forthcoming with, and when it does offer something like it, it's slightly off, put through the wringer of wordplay: Tlooth.