Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens.  They carried Sterno, safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticks and statuettes of the smiling Buddha, candles, grease pencils, The Stars and Stripes, fingernail clippers, Psy Ops leaflets, bush hats, bolos, and much more.  Twice a week, when the resupply choppers came in, they carried hot chow in green mermite cans and large canvas bags filled with ice beer and soda pop.  They carried plastic water containers, each with a 2-gallon capacity... They shared the weight of memory.  They took up what others could no longer bear.  Often, they carried each other, the wounded and the weak.  They carried infections.  They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards, imprinted with the Code of Conduct.  They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery.  They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds.  They carried the land itself--Vietnam, the place, the soil--a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces.  They carried the sky.

Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried is probably the most famous literary book about the Vietnam War, of which there are surprisingly few.  (Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, a vastly different book, comes to mind.)  Is it that the Vietnam War was so psychologically injurious to so many that it became difficult to write or talk about?  O'Brien is clear throughout this series of connected, semi-fictional stories, that he feels as if writing about his experiences in Vietnam saved him from the kind of rootless madness that destroyed so many of his friends after the war--like Norman Bowker, whom he describes driving around his Iowa hometown, wanting but unable to tell his story to anyone he sees.  Bowker, we learn in a subsequent chapter, hanged himself shortly after.  But we also learn that one of the linchpin moments of Bowker's story--his inability to save his friend who is dragged down and suffocated in a feces-filled river, where they had mistakenly set up camp--is O'Brien's own, grafted onto Bowker's experiences.

So what's the deal?  Are these stories fiction, or non-fiction?  O'Brien writes:

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a life-time ago, and yet the remembering makes it now.  And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever.  That's what stories are for.  Stories are for joining the past to the future.  Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are.  Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

Norman Bowker is no more, but O'Brien's appropriation of him, in a way, I think, is meant to keep him alive, to subsume his own story into O'Brien's in a way that justifies what he must have felt was the sad wastefulness of his life.  In other places, O'Brien is cagey about what "really happened," as when he hedges on whether or not he was actually responsible for the death of a young Vietnamese man.  The death rattles him; he sits in shock over the man's body and imagines a life in which he has a girlfriend, wants to teach math--not a true story, of course, he knows nothing of the man, but a story which serves an important purpose amid the abject purposelessness of war and death.  In the same way, O'Brien suggests that it doesn't matter if he pulled the pin on the grenade which killed the man; he must take responsibility for his death in the same way that, writing his story, he takes responsibility for his life.  (It reminds me also of the scene in All Quiet on the Western Front when Paul Baumer kills a man in his foxhole, and then has to stare at him for hours until he goes nearly mad with regret.)

Still, there's no doubt the details are rooted in fact.  The Vietnamese who died died, the man who drowned in shit drowned in shit.  The bullet in O'Brien's rear was real.  Even in their slipperiness, these stories make the reader face the really awful reality of war, as well as any book I've ever read (with the exception perhaps of The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front).

This, like the next few books I'm going to review, I read because I'm supposed to teach it next year.  That's going to be hard.  Partly because it is graphic, and so horrific, but I expect my students will be frustrated also by its anti-realistic elements, too.  It'll probably be good for them.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

At Freddie's by Penelope Fitzgerald

'If you choose to go on the stage,' he said, still pondering, 'you pass your life in a series of impersonations, some of them quite unsuccessful.'

'Of course they're bound to fail sometimes.'

'They earn their money that way, and in fact they want to earn it that way.  Do you know Hannah that causes me some astonishment.  It seems to me a sufficient achievement to be an individual at all, what you might call a real person.'

Man, I love Penelope Fitzgerald.  She draws characters so minutely but so perfectly.  At Freddie's barely cracks 150 pages but in that space it manages to pack in five or six really memorable, quite human characters and the complex relationships between them.  Ford Madox Ford called it "getting a character in," and I can think of few writers who do it better.  There's Freddie, the proprietor of the Temple School that provides the theaters of London with a steady supply of child actors.  A charismatic older woman, she's one of those people who somehow always get what they want:

Certainly she could create her own warmth, a glow like the very first effects of alcohol.  As to what she wanted, no mystery was made.  She wanted to get the advantage, but on the other hand human beings interested her so much that it must always be an advantage to meet another one.  When she smiled there was a certain lopsidedness, the shade of a deformity, or, it could be, the aftermath of a slight stroke.  Freddie never tried to conceal this -- Take a good look -- she advised her pupils -- I'm not nearly so amusing as you're going to be when you imitate me. -- But the smile itself was priceless in its benevolence, and in its amusement that benevolence could still exist.  One had to smile with her, perhaps regretting it later.

There are the child actors themselves, especially Mattie and Jonathan, who Freddie points out as the difference between talent and genius.  Mattie is highly successful, snagging several high profile roles, but is fascinated by and obsessed with Jonathan's mercurial genius.  Their relationship is defined by Mattie's mix of love and resentment, and Jonathan's indifference:

He could not be satisfied until Jonathan had got into some sort of trouble.  Then would be the moment to rush luxuriously to his assistance.  But there were so few opportunities, one must be continually on the watch.  Prompting, for instance, was never needed.  If Jonathan didn't know his lines (and he was not a quick study) he smiled, and read them from the book.  If he had no dinner money, the girls gave him Fruity Snack.s  Once or twice, however, he complained of a stomach ache, although in a detached way, as though the pain was the responsibility of someone else.  Then Mattie was in his glory.  Lay him down near the radiator, Miss, and keep him warm.  I know just what he has to have, I'll go down to Miss Belwett for the Bisodol, you want to be careful, he might get a lot worse quite suddenly, we had to get a stomach pump to one of the cast on Saturday. -- He was thanked, of course, but never enough.  He could not master the half-sleepy mysterious gum-chewing little rat of a Jonathan, or exact the word of approval he wanted.  Later he rolled him over on the washroom floor and banged his round head on the concrete as though cracking a nut.  'Has that cured your bellyache?' -- Jonathan considered, and said he would tell him later.  Mattie was outraged.  And yet his dissatisfaction showed that he was not quite lost.  It was the tribute of a human being to the changeling, or talent to genius.

I especially liked reading about these two, and the other child actors, because I have a lot of students who fancy themselves actors, and though mine are much older than Mattie and Jonathan, I recognized a lot of them here: their habit of breaking into impressions, or song, and the frequent theatrical air that suggests they are not being quite sincere.

Then there are the teachers: Hannah, who is attracted to the glamor of the theater world, and Pierce, who is utterly aware of his lack of talent, sociability, or sheer competence, but who approaches his own shortcomings with stolid resignation.  He is a bad teacher, cannot understand or relate to the children, though Jonathan takes a liking to him.  He is, of course, in love with Hannah.  That's him at the top of the review, struggling to make sense of those who can act like any number of people when he is so profoundly bad at being himself.

These characters are so interesting and vibrant that it feels as if, rather than devising a plot, Fitzgerald merely put them together so she might record what happens.  And indeed, there's not much of a plot--Hannah falls for a roguish actor, breaking Pierce's heart; Mattie tortures Jonathan; Freddie charms her way through the financial insolubility of the school.  And yet At Freddie's is always surprising, because people are surprising.  The novel resolves in a way that feels deeply sad, though in such a low-key way that it's hard to pinpoint where the sadness comes from, wringing more pathos out of the everyday than even the final paragraph of The Bookshop, when Florence Green boards a bus carrying the burden of her shop's failure.

The central idea of At Freddie's is a well-worn one: our selves are theatrical performances of a kind, and to be an actor is to master the self in a way.  Pierce doesn't understand it, but is naturally himself in a way that other characters in the book cannot be; perhaps that's why he appeals to the enigmatic Jonathan, whose acting genius is tied up with his aloofness and detachment.  Freddie's charm is a kind of bravura performance, a more comprehensive and assured one than any of her students can conjure.  In the end, she makes a surprising move--deciding to dedicate the school to training students to act in commercials--that seems out of character, but suggests that like any performance, it can be stopped, or changed, if the performer knows what he or she is doing.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

Perhaps there is a distance that is the optimum distance for seeing one's father, farther than across the supper table or across the room, somewhere in the middle distance: he is dwarfed by trees or the sweep of a hill, but his features are still visible, his body language still distinct.  Well, that is a distance I never found.  He was never dwarfed by the landscape--the fields, the buildings, the white pine windbreak were as much my father as if he had grown them and shed them like a husk.

A Thousand Acres is the other Iowa book I read on my trip, though by the time I started it, we were driving through the red rock formations of southern Utah and it no longer made much sense.  Interestingly, it shares more with Marilynne Robinson's Home than just a setting.  Like Home, it is in part the story of a black sheep's homecoming, except Jess Clark isn't an alcoholic like Jack Boughton--worse, he's a draft dodger, and a vegetarian.  Like Home, A Thousand Acres is concerned with the difficulty of coming home again, and the way that putting things back together can be as disruptive as tearing them apart.

But where Home takes its literary archetypes from the Bible, A Thousand Acres is a straight up re-telling of King LearJess is the Edmund figure, come home to threaten his brother's inheritance, but the focus of the story is on Ginny, whose name is an echo of "Goneril."  The plot is set in motion when Ginny's father, like Lear, prematurely leaves his immense farm (the thousand acres of the title) to his three daughters, Ginny, Rose, and Caroline.  (Guess which one is which.)

I have said before that adapting Shakespeare is a dangerous move, because it's not likely that you're going to be able to do it better, and even when you do it well half the time the reader is simply reminded of how good Shakespeare is.  What makes A Thousand Acres work in spite of this is a simple tweak Smiley makes in the story: all of the "good" characters from Lear are bad, and the "bad" characters are good.  Ginny's father, Larry, is a cruel and inscrutable old man, who quickly realizes that he has given away his livelihood and responds by lashing out at everyone and driving around Iowa piss drunk.  He rediscovers his love for the distant Caroline only because her demurral of his offer means that she doesn't share in his resentment.  Ginny, on the other hand, does her best to please her tyrannical father, who responds with this parodic version of Lear's epic "Suspend thy purpose if thou didst intend / To make this creature fruitful" speech:

He leaned his face toward mine.  "You don't have to drive me around any more, or cook the goddamned breakfast or clean the goddamned house."  His voice modulated into a scream.  "Or tell me what I can do and what I can't do.  You barren whore!  I know all about you, you slut.  You've been creeping here and there all your life, making up to this one and that one.  But you're not really a woman, are you?  I don't know what you are, just a bitch, is all, just a dried-up whore bitch."

[Spoiler alert for this paragraph.]  This soliloquy hits especially hard because Ginny has tried and failed for years to have a child, suffering through multiple miscarriages, and her father's accusation that she is a slut becomes tragically ironic when Rose helps Ginny remember late in the novel that their father sexually assaulted them both as children.  The switched valences don't end there--even Ty, Ginny's husband and the Albany figure, is reimagined so that his sympathy with Lear is conceived as a kind pusillanimous avoidance of conflict, and a failure to support his wife in any meaningful way.

Smiley is no Robinson, and the writing itself is nothing to speak of, but the plot spirals out of control in an especially Shakespearean, and violent, way that was refreshing after the plodding pace of Home, which is mostly about people crying around a kitchen table.   I'm not sure, though, what a reader who wasn't familiar with Lear would get out of it--half the fun for me, or even most of it, was seeing the way that each of the characters was flipped. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Home by Marilynne Robinson

What does it mean to come home?  Glory had always thought home would be a house less cluttered and ungainly than this one, in a town larger than Gilead, or a city, where someone would be her intimate friend and the father of her children, of whom she would have no more than three.  Then she could learn what her own tastes were, within the limits of their means, of course.  She would not take one stick of furniture from her father's house, since none of it would be comprehensible in those spare, sunlit rooms.  The walnut furbelows and carved draperies and pilasters, the inlaid urns and flowers.  Who had thought of putting actual feet on chairs and sideboards, actual paws and talons?

She had dreamed of a real home for herself and the babies, and the fiance, a home very different from this good and blessed and fustian and oppressive tabernacle of Boughton probity and kind intent.  She knew, she had known for years, that she would never open a door on that home, never cross that threshold, never scoop up a pretty child and set it on her hip and feel it lean into her breast and eye the world from her arms with the complacency of utter trust.  Ah well.

Until my recent road trip, I had never been to those corn-strewn centers of the American Heartland: Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa.  I decided that I would only take with me books that took place in those states that were new to me, to immerse myself in them twice over.  I brought Willa Cather's O Pioneers, which I did not read, and two books that take place in Iowa: Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres and Marilynne Robinson's Home.  I was reading the latter when we drove through the southwest corner of Iowa on our way to Omaha from Kansas City.  We were there for only about five minutes before entering Nebraska.  Ah well.

Home tells the same story as Robinson's amazing novel, Gilead: Jack, the alcoholic black sheep of the Boughton family, comes home at last, carrying the burden of his estrangement from his wife in St. Louis, who is black.  But instead of telling the story through a first-person narrative, as with the Boughton's friend and neighbor Reverend Ames in Gilead, Home uses the third person, focused on Jack's sister Glory, who has herself recently "come home."  But Ames' voice and reflection were the strength of Gilead, and their absence drains the story of what was most appealing.  Glory, while sensitively and carefully rendered as a character, cannot make up the lack.

I'm not sure what the point of this novel is.   Gilead is the Abraham story, I suppose--the old man blessed with a child late in life, concerned with what kind of inheritance and legacy he will leave.  Home offers the prodigal son story that is ancillary in Gilead, the main focus instead of a B-plot.  And yet, outside of the (pretty vanilla) relationship between Jack and Glory, Home fails to offer any fresh viewpoint on what's already been told.  The most interesting gap in Gilead--the relationship between Jack and his wife in the racially charged St. Louis of the 1950's (sad to say that it seems not much has changed on that front)--remains a gap.

Robinson's writing is characteristically stellar, but the humble Heartland nature of the story bleeds into the prose, which is lacking in the kind of show-stopping pyrotechnics of Housekeeping and, to a lesser extent, Gilead.  Ultimately, however, it's a frustrating read, unsatisfying and unnecessary.  The good news is that Robinson's newest novel, which is about Reverend Ames' wife Lila, comes out in October.  Her character is so mysterious and lightly sketched in these novels that a whole book about her should be illuminating in the way that Home wants and fails to be.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Boris--mildly--cleared his throat and lifted his water glass. "Sorry, may I say something?"

"Is it speechmaking time?  Were we meant to prepare toasts?"

"I thank you all for your company.  And I wish us all health, and happiness, and that we all shall live until the next Christmas."

In the surprised silence that followed, a champagne cork popped in the kitchen, a burst of laughter.  It was just past midnight: two minutes into Christmas Day.  Then my father leaned back in his chair and laughed.  "Merry Christmas!" he roared, producing from his pocket a jewelry box which he slid over to Xandra, and two stacks of twenties (Five hundred dollars! Each!) which he tossed across the table to Boris and me.  And though in the clockless, temperature-controlled casino night, works like day and Christmas were fairly meaningless constructs, happiness amidst the loudly clinked glasses, didn't seem quite the doomed or fatal idea.

Theo Decker is in an art museum when a bomb, placed by terrorists, blows up.  In the confusion immediately following, and at the behest of a dying old man, Theo grabs a painting, the Goldfinch (pictured below).  He takes it home, hides it, and then later learns that his mother died in the blast.

After his mother dies, Theo has to deal with child services while they try to figure out what to do with him.  Not wanting to admit that he took this painting (for fear that he would get into trouble), Theo tells no one.  Of course, the longer he does not tell anyone, the more difficult it is for him to come clean. The painting begins to represent Theo's failure to confront and overcome the tragedy of his mother's death.

Although the plot points are not exactly surprise-turns, I nonetheless don't want to spoil anything because much of the dramatic tension of the novel is witnessing Theo's life progressively spiral out of control.  Instead, I'll focus on two points about Tartt's writing that deserve extra attention.

I was pleased to see that this
is an actual painting.
First, Tartt is excellent at writing a character's experience in a way that the character is unaware of something that's going on while the reader is aware.  That's to say, much of this novel revolves around the devastation Theo feels because of his mother's death--however, Theo only rarely narrates his thoughts on his mother's death.  Usually he is narrating whatever is happening, with the reader to interpret how his mother's death is affecting his choices.  This applies too, with other characters in the novel--Theo may be too young, too in self-denial, or too naive to know what other characters are doing, but the reader isn't.

Thus, Brittany told me she heard a podcast where they criticized this book because it's really "young adult" literature.  And, it's true: this is a coming of age novel about a young boy growing up.  However, the "young adult" label is inappropriate here because I think most young adults would fail to understand much of the backstory that Tartt presents.

Second, this novel reminded me of her first novel (and the only other novel of hers that I've read, The Secret History, a novel I adore).  In both, the protagonists lack the self-confidence to assert/affirm their own lives; rather, they need to fall in with other, more assertive characters.  This following of others leads to much of the dramatic tension.  I'm not sure why this speaks to me, but in both novels I sympathized with the protagonists while disagreeing with many of their life choices.  I make this point because often I hate reading novels with bad-life-choices-protagonists.  This novel (and The Secret History) are exceptions to this rule; the quality of Tartt's writing deserves the credit for this.

I can't speak for most Pulitzers, but this book certainly deserved special recognition: it is one of the finest novels I've read in years.  Highly recommended.