Sunday, December 4, 2016

Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild

An empathy wall is an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent or even hostile to those who hold different beliefs or whose childhood is rooted in different circumstances.
Strangers in Their Own Land takes a sociological lens to Hilary's "basket of deplorables" and attempts to scale the empathy wall that divides Us (coastal, urban liberals) from Them (the entire middle of the country). Hochschild spends five years visiting a community in Southern Louisiana and getting to know its residents--most of them ravaged by industrial waste and entrenched in systematic poverty. Her goal is to figure out why these Americans fall into what she calls the Great Paradox: those who need the benefits of "good government" (welfare of all kinds, environmental protections, education, and healthcare) the most are those most likely to reject it. After some initial research, she decides to hone in on a "keyhole issue," and base her conversations around the environmental impact of industry in the South. She focuses on individual peoples' experiences and tries to tease out their "deep stories:" the emotional roots of their political preferences.

This was a hard book to read, but one that I really needed. Hochschild started her research in 2010, long before a Trump presidency was any kind of a reality, and published earlier this year before it was a guarantee. The path from Tea Party supporter to Trump supporter is not extensively discussed, but it can be inferred from the observations Hochschild makes. There are pieces missing (among others, she grazes over the ways in which misogyny has become the norm), but this book goes a long way towards explaining how kind, generous, thoughtful people hold political views that make them seem (to liberal elites at least) ignorant and racist. I wasn't fully brought over the empathy wall, and there were times where I wanted to climb into the book and scream at the subjects, but it added a much-needed layer of humanity to my understanding of the lives of Tea Party supporters.

Hochschild's choice to focus on Southern Louisiana made for horrifying descriptions of the environmental devastation brought on by the oil industry. Beyond the obvious tragedy of oil spills destroying coastlines along with fishing and shrimping industry, we are told of entire bayous eliminated by toxic sludge; cyprus trees felled after hundreds of years by poisonous runoff; an entire community collapsed into a giant sinkhole because of careless drilling. The list goes on and on, and in each case people's lives are very concretely affected--they lose their jobs, their homes are ruined, they get cancer, their horses fall into pits of noxious goo that solidifies into rubber and kills the horse in days (an actual thing that actually happened). All of this clearly and explicitly because Louisiana refuses to regulate the oil industry, and more and more companies are moving in to process and store chemicals, produce plastic, and extract oil and gas from the bedrock. And yet, with one or two exceptions, everyone Hochschild talks to is opposed to environmental regulation. It's never said explicitly, but the general idea seems to be that environmental regulation exists now, and has done nothing to help. With environmental disasters as with social issues, the sense is that people should be caring for their own communities--that money and effort should be spent within the confines of their own spheres of influence because they know better than people in the state house or in DC what their communities need.

That seems to be a piece of the root of the "deep story" that Hochschild uncovers: there is a belief that if people work hard enough and are given control over the fruits of their labor, that they can fix all the problems both in their own lives and in their communities. On top of that, they feel that while they're working hard and trying to get ahead, the government is not only holding them back, but pushing others ahead of them. She uses the metaphor of a long, slow moving line with the American Dream at it's end, over the crest of a hill:
In that story, strangers step ahead of you in line, making you anxious, resentful, and afraid. A president allies with the line cutters, making you feel distrustful, betrayed. A person ahead of you in line insults you as an ignorant redneck, making you feel humiliated and mad. Economically, culturally, demographically, politically, you are suddenly a stranger in your own land. The whole context of Louisiana--its companies, its government, its churches and media--reinforces that deep story. So this--the deep story--was in place before the match was struck. 
The match, in this case, is the Trump candidacy, and Hochschild goes on to explain the ways in which many of her subjects got on board (some reluctantly, others less so).

Hochschild does a good job of acknowledging her own biases, which was especially helpful for me since they are very similar to mine. I think if she had just presented this as a case study without comment, I would have had a lot more trouble processing her findings. She points out the ways in the underlying logic is flawed while still gently encouraging herself (and you) to practice empathy. She has entire appendix in the back where she debunks some of her subjects' statements like "The more environmental regulations you have, the fewer jobs" or "Black women have more children than white women." This section was very cathartic (it was all the yelling I had wanted to do while reading!), but it also left me frustrated. I wanted so badly for the people in the book to see the logic that was so obvious to me, but that wasn't the point of the book. The point, which is well taken, is that we make our decisions (both political and personal) based on our perception of reality: a perception that is shaped not just by facts and research but also by personal experience, family history, faith, and cultural context. By pulling back the curtain on some of the less empirical but just as crucial elements of our decision making, Hochschild makes clear how angry and displaced these people are feeling, and why that anger has led them to the far right.

This was a challenging emotional read, but an important one. If you find yourself reeling after the election and struggling to understand how we possibly got here, this is a great place to start. It won't necessarily convince you that people are making the right decisions, but it will help illuminate why they've made the choices they have, which is an important first step to seeing them as human beings and not as the basket of deplorables it has been so easy to characterize them as.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

You think when you wake up in the mornin yesterday dont count. But yesterday is all that does count. What else is there? Your life is made out of the days it's made out of. Nothin else. You might think you could run away and change your name and I dont know what all. Start over. And then one mornin you wake up and look at the ceilin and guess who's layin there?
If you can get through the opening pages of Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men without giving up, you can probably get through the whole book. McCarthy pulls no punches, and he starts out with a description of a crime so graphically violent it could almost be a Monty Python sketch:

The deputy was flailing wildly and he'd begun to walk sideways over the floor in a circle, kicking the chair across the room. He kicked shut the door and wrapped the throwrug in a wad about them. He was gurgling and bleeding from the mouth. He was strangling on his own blood. Chigurh only hauled the harder. The nickleplated cuffs bit to the bone. The deputy's right carotid artery burst and a jet of blood shot across the room and hit the wall and ran down it. 
This level of detached, matter of fact violence continues throughout the book as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell tries to pick up the pieces after a drug hand-off in the desert leaves several men dead and two million dollars missing. Llewellyn Moss, who happens to stumble on the crime scene and takes the money, is pursued by both Bell and Chigurh, a hit man sent by a drug king pin to retrieve the cash. McCarthy's prose is stripped down; it isn't flowery or ornate, but it zooms in on the minutiae of scenes so that small moments take up entire pages. He lists actions in long, run-on sentences that are almost hypnotic in their repetitiveness, but they draw you in and build a cinematic picture of every sequence. Sometimes it feels like you're reading the detailed stage directions for an incredibly violent and well thought-out play:
He opened the screen door and punched out the cylinder and walked in and shut the door behind him and stood listening. There was a light coming from the kitchen and he walked down the hallway with the flashlight in one hand and the shotgun in the other. When he got to the doorway he stopped and listened again. The light came from a bare bulb on the back porch. He went on into the kitchen.
A bare formica and chrome table in the center of the room with a box of cereal standing on it. The shadow of the kitchen window lying on the linoleum floor. He crossed the room and opened the refrigerator and looked in. He put the shotgun in the crook of his arm and took out a can of orange soda and opened it with his forefinger and stood drinking it, listening for anything that might follow the metallic click of the can. He drank and set the half-empty can on the counter and shut the refrigerator door and walked through the diningroom and into the livingroom and sat in an easy chair in the corner and looked out at the street. 
The sentences go on and on and draw you forward, punctuated by shorter fragments. McCarthy uses "then" and "and" over and over and over again so that these men's actions (violent or otherwise) become almost mechanized.

One of the more bizarre narrative tics that came out in this book was McCarthy's tendency to combine words together. It's seen in two of the quotes above with "diningroom," "livingroom," and "throwrug," but it happened constantly: "sockfeet" "windowglass, "bulletholes." This lent an almost child-like, e.e. cummings style to the prose, and it slowed me down each time it happened.

The monotony of violence and long drives is broken up with retrospective asides from the Sheriff, written years later. In them he reflects on his career, his relationship with his long suffering wife, and the idiosyncrasies of human behavior. These meandering asides give you a break from the constant, plodding violence of the rest of the book and give humanity to Bell that most of the other characters are not afforded. He considers himself a protector and an advocate, and the stark contrast between the brutality of the rest of the novel and Bell's ruminations make him seem that much more human. He goes through somewhat of an arc in those asides--at first he is fairly optimistic about the human condition, then he lapses into a darker phase, but he comes out on the other side by the end. The last few pages of the book provide some redemption after a long, dark slog through the worst that people have to offer:

It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up.
I loved this ending. It's beautiful, but ambiguous enough to keep us from tying everything together in a neat little bow. We don't know which version of the world (or himself) Bell wakes up to, but we're left with an image of hope after an entire novel of despair.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dermoot Lipsky and Connie Burk

If we lived in a society where equity, respect, access, and justice were realized, and unearned privilege and inequality and oppression were transformed, the impact of trauma exposure in our lives would look dramatically different. Suffering would still occur. People would sustain injuries and contract illnesses and even hurt each other. The difference is that we would only have to confront that suffering at face value: an injury, an illness, a hurtful act. We would not have to wonder if disparities between rich and poor, white people and people of color, heterosexual people and gay/lesbian/bi/transgendered people, and so on contributed to the suffering. We would not have to wonder if we personally benefit from the disparity that underlies the suffering. We would not have to wonder if we are vulnerable to the same disparity. We would not have to decide whether we should act to change the disparity, or if we should blame the person suffering for the disparity, or if we should ignore the disparity altogether.
A friend of a friend sent me this book after overhearing me talk about how exhausted I was. We were at lunch with a big group, and I had spent most of the meal talking to the person across from me about how drained I was by the injustices my students face on a daily basis--how hard it was to listen and support and love them without getting so personally involved that I felt their pain myself. This girl (who I had only met once or twice before) leaned over and asked for my address. When we got home from our trip, this book was waiting on our doorstep. I waited months to read it, partly because I was in denial about how hard school would be once it started up again, partly because the word "trauma" in the title put me off: was I really a trauma steward? I'm not an E.R. doctor or an army psychologist; I could think of dozens of jobs more traumatic than mine.

Eventually, school got stressful again (it took about two days), and when I finally had room in my reading schedule, I picked it up. I only wish I'd found it years ago. While initially I was afraid that I wouldn't recognize myself as part of the book's intended audience, I ended up rereading passages over and over because of how deeply they resonated with what I had been feeling. Lipsky and Burk carefully outline their definition of trauma stewardship--tending to the pain and suffering of others while still tending to oneself--and then walk readers through what they call "trauma exposure response." This section was a little overwrought: they describe sixteen different signs that you might be suffering from trauma exposure (sixteen is too many anythings to list), but each of the symptoms felt so real and familiar, that I forgave them for a few redundant descriptions.

After convincing you you have a problem, the authors outline their path to effective trauma stewardship. In brief, they encourage people who do this kind of work to engage in inquiry around their jobs, both to renew their passion for what they do and to reconsider whether they are in the best line of work. They encourage us to find microcultures of support and positivity, to practice gratitude, to engage actively with our lives outside of work, and to engage in some kind of centering practice--they recommend mindfulness, but provide other options as well. This part of the book is clear, concise, and to the point. They use some new agey metaphors from Eastern religions and spiritual practices that might induce the occasional eye roll, but overall the advice felt real and relevant. This is helped by the fact that they have scattered narratives throughout of people who have come through traumatic jobs and found themselves on the other side, either by making small shifts or leaving entirely.

I think the thing I appreciated the most about this book is that it didn't provide one clean, neat solution. Lipsky and Burk acknowledge that for some people the best solution is to leave, while for others a renewed engagement in the work is all that is needed. For each end of the spectrum and everything in between they provide kind, gentle, not judgmental guidance; I felt better each time I picked the book up, and it's helped me come to terms with the toll my work has taken on my mental health, my ability to be present in my relationships, and my sense of optimism for the future. I haven't made any big, dramatic changes yet, but being given the permission to do so has already made a difference.

Side note: they use a TON of New Yorker cartoons as comic relief and section breaks which I very much appreciated.

If you're feeling tired or burnt out and your job involves caring for others, this could be the book you need to read. Send me your address, and I'll pay it forward.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti by Milton Rokeach

The three Christs met for the first time in a small room off the large ward where they live.  The date was July 1, 1959.  All three had been transferred to Ward D-23 of Ypsilanti State Hospital a few days before and had been assigned to adjacent beds, a shared table in the dining hall, and similar jobs in the laundry room.

In 1959, a psychologist named Milton Rokeach brought three schizophrenic patients from hospitals across Michigan to a state hospital in the city of Ypsilanti.  All three patients suffered from the same delusion: they thought they were Jesus Christ.  Rokeach wanted to see what would happen if the three men's identities were challenged by the assertions of others who claimed to be the same person.  In a larger sense, he was testing certain theories about the way we create, protect, and manage our images of ourselves.  Could a delusional man be brought to sense through a carefully managed exterior environment that challenged his delusions?

The Three Christs of Ypsilanti isn't an academic research paper; its methods really aren't scientific.  (We're told there was a control group of three schizophrenic women, abandoned because it was useless, and relative to the group of Christs, boring.)  Rather, it's a compelling non-fiction story that is at times profound, bitter, and funny.  You would think that a book consisting greatly of dialogue between three schizophrenics would be almost unreadable, but Rokeach's plain style and simple insights into the men's ravings make it surprisingly easy to follow.

The three Christs are: Clyde, an older man whose delusion is the most simplistic, and the most resistant to change; Joseph, a French Canadian man who aspires to be a writer; and Leon, the youngest of the three, a repressed homosexual who hates his mother and spins out grandiose theories about "Yetis" and "squelch chambers" and, of course, God.  The three men are wary of each other at first, going at each others' throats for what they perceive as lying claims to their identity, but ultimately settle into a functional, but strange, relationship.  Their exchanges can be funny, and Rokeach is careful to get out of the way and not patronize them by underlining the humor, as when Leon insists that God is everywhere, even in "my dung and urine and farts and burps and everything," or in this small moment:

Group meeting.  Joseph puts a book on the window sill "to give it some air."  This, he says, will make the book healthier for him to read.  Leon reads aloud from an article in the Reader's Digest about voting to select a national flower.  Leon votes for dandelions, Joseph and Clyde for grass.

But it can also be deeply sad in a way that makes us confront a part of society that we try our best to ignore.  Sometimes the pathos comes from how little the men know or understand about themselves, as when Rokeach shows them a news clipping about a speech he gave about the three Christs.  Joseph successfully paraphrases the article--three men think they are the same person--but has no idea that it is about himself.  Other times, it comes from the surprising amount of insight they do have, as when Leon, in the first stages of the experiment, cannily pegs it as a kind of manipulation:

On one occasion, following an argument, Leon abruptly stood up and said that he didn't want to discuss the matter any further, and that he was wasting his time here.  With a little effort he was persuaded to stay, but as he sat down he proclaimed: "I know what's going on here.  You're using one patient against another, and this is warped psychology."

Leon is perhaps the saddest of the three Christs.  During the course of the experiment, he retreats into a kind of self-deprecation that will allow him to hold on to his identity in a strange, circuitous way: He renames him self R. I. Dung, and refuses to respond to any other name.  (At the beginning of the book, he responds only to "Rex"--that is, "Rex Rexorum," the King of Kings.)  An experiment where he receives letters from his invented wife, compelling him to go by his birth name, leads to a scene where Leon lingers outside of the ward doors, waiting for a wife who doesn't exist.  The manipulation torpedoes their relationship, one which wasn't real, except, perhaps, to Leon.

In the post-script, written years after the book's initial publication, Rokeach says that he came to realize there were really four Christs in the room, including himself.  It was a mistake, he thinks, to have assumed the responsibility for manipulating a man's life in such a way, even with the noble intention of expelling his delusions.  Leon was right, he concedes, those years ago: it was a kind of "warped pyschology."  As an experiment, it didn't succeed, but as a book, it's gripping.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Other by Thomas Tryon

Do you know about the well?  That dark and secret place where the accident happened--one of the accidents, I should say.  The hanging.  No, not that kind, but in its way nearly as horrible.  Can oyu hear it, the noisy grating of the pulley as the rope travels through, spinning the rusty wheel, dropping its burden down, down into the blackness?  The savage cries; terrible, shocked, outraged cries of fury, of horror.  No.  I said it was not that sort of hanging, not one of those state executions--well, yes, execution of sorts, but only because Holland didn't like cats.  Hated them, in fact.  Yes, it was a cat; didn't I mention that?  Trouble, the old woman's animal, her pet.  Got this rope around Trouble's neck--he could make a noose with ease--dragged it through the drive and hanged the cat in the well.  For spite.  The trouble was--excuse the pun--he darn near hanged himself.  Poor Holland.

Holland and Niles Perry are twins, living in the quiet Connecticut town of Pequot Landing.  Niles is the quiet one, the sensitive one.  Holland is the one that murders cats.  Early on in Tom Tryon's The Other, Holland moves from petty cruelties toward animals to straight-up murderousness, leaving a sharp pitchfork hidden in the hayloft where his annoying cousin, Russell, likes to dive into the hay.  Niles struggles to understand his brother with the compulsive attachment of the twin, but Holland is increasingly distant and prone toward evil.

The beginning of The Other is intriguing and mysterious, and the end--spoiler alert--is terrific.  It's not so much the realization that Holland has really been dead for nearly a year (he drowned himself killing the cat), and that Niles has been trying to keep his brother alive by committing horrible deeds in his stead, but the power of a single, final image: Niles' sister's infant child, having disappeared, found finally floating in a cask of wine.  A certain kind of book (or film, which The Other became--Tryon was a middlingly successful actor and turning it into a movie was probably always the goal) might have shied away from that last bit, saving the child at the last minute, but The Other doesn't want to pull that punch.

The middle of The Other, though, is quite a slog.  It's over-stuffed with symbols: a ring, a severed finger, the wine cask, a mysterious cellar, a Chinese magic trick, a pin shaped like a moon, a lamp, a hat, a doll--all of them imported from the tropes and vocabulary of the small town with a dark secret.  It's over-stuffed, too, with characters: a neverending troupe of aunts and uncles and townspeople who are meant to give the novel a sense of life but mostly provide tedium.  Tryon's method is to write long interstitial scenes of Niles' life at home, and to forecast moments of horror, only to pull away at the last minute and let the truly interesting parts happen "off-screen."  In a film, a sense of foreboding might make these scenes work, but I was too frustrated with The Other to really appreciate the pulpy nastiness of the way it ended.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Humbled as he now is, I cannot forgive him such an instance of pride, and am doubtful whether I ought not to punish him by dismissing him at once after the reconciliation, or by marrying him and teizing him forever.  But these measures are each too violent to be adopted without some deliberation; at present my thoughts are fluctuating between various schemes.  I must punish Frederica, and pretty severely too, for her application to Reginald; I must punish him for receiving it so favorably, and for the rest of his conduct.  I must torment my sister-in-law for the insolent triumph of her look and manner since Sir James has been dismissed; for in reconciling Reginald to me, I was not able to save that ill-fated young man;--and I must make myself amends for the humiliation to which I have stooped within these few days.  To effect all this I have various plans.

I saw Whit Stillman's movie Love and Friendship a few months ago.  It's an excellent adaptation of Austen's novella Lady Susan (with a title stolen, inexplicably, from another of her juvenile works) that understand the black humor at the heart of her fiction.  But it helps that Lady Susan bares that black humor like none of Austen's other novels; the title character is, unlike the various prigs and snobs that people her major works, unapologetically nasty.

Part of that may be due to Austen's choice to write the novella in the epistolary form, as a series of letters.  There's no social code of conversation that restrains her letters to her friend Mrs. Johnson, wherein she describes just how much she hates her daughter, and her manipulative glee in forcing the brother of her late husband's brother's wife (I know) to fall in love with her.  She does it just for the pleasure of it; she's really in love with a man named Manwaring--you can tell by his name how much masculinity he exudes--whose current wife kicked Susan out of their house for carrying on an affair under her nose.

Susan wants her "stupid" daughter Frederica to marry the loathsome Sir James Martin:

Upon the whole, I commend my own conduct in this affair extremely, and regard it as a very happy instance of circumspection and tenderness.  Some mothers would have insisted on their daughter's accepting so good an offer on the first overture, but I could not answer it to myself to force Frederica into a marriage from which her heart revolted; and instead of adopting so harsh a measure, merely propose to make it her own choice, by rendering her thoroughly uncomfortable till she does accept him.  But enough of this tiresome girl.

The fun of Lady Susan stems from the way in which we get to see the characters in their private confidences.  We are so used to "reading between the lines" to see the vanities and malices at work in her novels, but here we get to see those interior motives at their fullest expression.  It would have been nice for a character as terrific as Lady Susan to have a more substantial novel in which to work her schemes, which, while nefarious, fail quickly and spectacularly.  Stillman's film does a good job of filling out the narrative to accomplish that--especially by beefing up comic actor Tom Bennett's role as Sir James.  You should see the movie--but if you're strapped for time, the novella is probably quicker!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

The old man shaped his mouth how to answer.  Finally he said that among men there was no such communion as among horses and the notion that men can be understood at all was probably an illusion.  Rawlins asked him in bad spanish if there was a heaven for horses but he shook his head and said that a horse had no need of heaven.  Finally John Grady asked him if it were not true that should all horses vanish from the face of the earth the soul of the horse would not also perish for there would be nothing out of which to replenish it but the old man said that it was pointless to speak of there being no horses in the world for God would not permit such a thing.

John Grady Cole is a sixteen year old rancher, living and working on his grandfather's ranch is all that he's ever known.  When his grandfather dies, leaving the ranch to his mother, who insists on selling it, he is unmoored, alienated from his former life, and sets out with his friend Lacey Rawlins across the Mexican border looking for work and a new life.  They are accompanied by a young stranger, calling himself Jimmy Blevins--probably a fake name, taken from a popular radio show host--who seems to be another runaway, but who is more anxious and immature than John Grady and Rawlins, and less capable.

The Mexican landscape these men--boys, really--explore is beautifully and carefully portrayed by McCarthy.  It's a mysterious, unfamiliar land, only a day's ride from their Texas home but culturally and spiritually distant.  It offers luxury and satisfaction, as on the hacienda where John Grady finds work as an expert in horses, but also the threat of violence and death.  Like in all of McCarthy's works, these twin evils are part of the unknowable, unchanging nature of the universe:

In history there are no control groups.  There is no one to tell us what might have been.  We weep over the might have been, but there is no might have been.  There never was.  It is supposed to be true that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.  I don't believe knowing can save us.  What is constant in history is greed and foolishness and a love of blood and this is a thing that even God--who knows all that can be known--seems powerless to change.

(How's that for a reflection on the week of Trump's election?)  And yet All the Pretty Horses is, surprisingly for McCarthy, a conventional kind of love story.  John Grady falls in love with the beautiful Alejandra, the daughter of the rich haciendado who employs him.  They can't be together, of course, and McCarthy's paratactic style, like the love child of Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver, is surprisingly well-suited to capturing the bittersweetness of this well-worn story:

They stood on the platform and she put her face against his shoulder and he spoke to her but she did not answer.  The train came huffing in from the south and stood steaming and shuddering with the coach windows curving away down the track like great dominoes smoldering in the dark and he could not but compare this arrival to that one twenty-four hours ago and she touched the silver chain at her throat and turned away and bent to pick up the suitcase and then leaned and kissed him one last time her face all wet and then she was gone.  He watched her go as if he himself were in some dream.  All along the platform families and lovers were greeting one another.  He saw a man with a little girl in his arms and he whirled her around and she was laughing and when she saw his face she stopped laughing.  He did not see how he could stand there until the train pulled out but stand he did and when it was gone he turned and walked back out into the street.

In fact, McCarthy's idiosyncratic style--which is perfectly attuned, here, to the numbness of loss--struggles sometimes with the sturm und drang of his moral philosophy.  Sometimes, he reaches too far, and ends up sounding silly, like a parody of himself:

The browsing horses jerked their heads up.  It was no sound they'd ever heard before.  In the gray twilight those retchings seemed to echo like the calls of some rude provisional species loosed upon that waste.  Something imperfect and malformed lodged in the heart of being.  A thing smirking deep in the eyes of grace itself like a gorgon in an autumn pool.

A Gorgon in an Autumn Pool--the new album by Necromancer, in stores Friday.

But McCarthy is more versatile than he gets credit for.  The arguments between Rawlins and Jimmy Blevins, whose childishness is written with glee, are funny and charming.  Elsewhere, as in the long stretch where John Grady must navigate the dangers of a Mexican prison, or a character's assassination at the hands of rural police, McCarthy is as chilling and unsettling as his reputation suggests.  Mostly, All the Pretty Horses succeeds because, unlike the apocalyptic dreamscapes of Blood Meridian and The Road, it's a small, believable, human story.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

She recognized the undeniable satisfaction of the first emotional fissure because an unraveling was still something grown-up and, therefore, life affirming. See? the broken heart signaled. I loved enough to lose; I felt enough to weep. Because when you were young enough, the stakes of love were so very small, nearly insignificant. How tragic could a breakup be when it was part of the fabric of expectation from the beginning?
The family at the center of The Nest is awful. We're not talking run of the mill Tolstoy unhappy but interestingly awful family, we're talking dripping with privilege, oblivious to the world around them awful. That's important to get out of the way immediately, because if you can't get through books with self-centered, unsympathetic protagonists, this book isn't for you. The story revolves around the Plumbs, a set of four adult siblings coming to terms with the loss of The Nest, the inheritance their father put aside for them. Each of them has built a life around the additional privilege The Nest was going to afford them, and each manages the loss of that reality with differing levels of self absorption.

I enjoyed hating the Plumbs, but D'Aprix Sweeney also gives us some more likeable and nuanced secondary characters with actual problems. She weaves in a rich variety of stories and characters, each moving in and out of the lives of the siblings, and contrasting their realities with those of the Plumbs. There is a set of teenaged twins grappling with their individual identities for the first time, a neighbor who lost his wife when the Twin Towers went down, and a successful single mother, managing her own isolation. There is real pain and growth and living going on in the novel, but very little of it is done by the Plumbs; this cast of secondary characters serves to highlight the privilege and disconnection each of the siblings embodies.

The novel moves quickly and doesn't stop much for reflection. Because there are so many storylines and so many perspectives, D'Aprix Sweeney doesn't spend much time on any one of them. She moves quickly from one to the next and builds tension and suspense along the way. This also makes it easier to live with the Plumbs; you never have to deal with them for too long, and the story is always moving forwards.

Without giving too much away--there are a lot of twists, many of them riveting--the ending is a little frustrating. The storylines tie up just a little too neatly, especially for a novel that seems okay alienating its readers. They don't all resolve perfectly, but the last chapters take on a tidyness that doesn't show up anywhere else in the book, and feel less genuine and real.




Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

"But he isn't dead?"

"No, he isn't, as you can very well see. Instead of striking him between the sixth and seventh left rib, as your compatriots usually do, you must have struck higher or lower; and these lawyers, you know, are not easy to kill off. Either that or else everything you told me is untrue, a product of your imagination, a hallucination of the mind. Perhaps you fell asleep while inadequately digesting your revenge. It weighed down on your stomach and you had a nightmare nothing more."

Like Edmond Dantes plunged into the depths of the Chateau D'if, trapped for fourteen years, I plunged into the depths of this 1,200 page novel, unable to blog (for lack of finishing books). And, like Mr. Dantes, who waited and hoped until he escaped, I eventually escaped myself, ready to re-enter society.

This is the third time I've read this novel; and fourth if you count reading the abridged version in high school. I (obviously) enjoy reading this novel, and, apparently, on a long enough timeline will return to it. This is, a bit surprising. As the translator noted in her introduction, this novel--though universally recognized as entertaining--is not considered literary. And it would not be unfair to accuse this book of being a simple page-turner. Unsophisticated writing; easy characters; plot devices that are almost too convenient (not to mention the awkward racism/sexism common to books from earlier epochs).

Some adaptations, unfortunately
were not as good as others.
Nonetheless, I am drawn to this story. There is a very short list of books I've read so many times, and no books this long that I would even consider re-reading. And I am not the only one drawn to this novel. It has about a million adaptations (including a rather good anime version). I know no one who dislikes the novel.

But why? What is special about it?

Two explanations make sense to me: the plot may sometimes feel too convenient, but it's also very well thought out. Dumas characterizes the major players early and is faithful to these characterizations throughout--with the one possible exception being Dantes himself, who undergoes two major transformations throughout the novel. But, even the changes of Dantes contribute to the quality of the plot. Thus, I would suggest the plot seems convenient, but is actually thoroughly planned. In this regard, I think the plot's ostensible simplicity is in some ways an illusion. One can read the plot as simple, or one can read the plot as being layered.

The other explanation is that this is a righteous revenge tale. Thus, it is satisfying at a fundamental level. I think readers (myself included) love that the villains get theirs, and get it slowly and painfully.

This looks awesome.
One last thought, because, as I said, there are very few novels I've read so many times. It has consistently been a strange experience for me to read a novel in my late 20s or early 30s that I originally read as a teenager or as a person in his early-20s. This was particularly so for this novel. This reading was the first time I noticed how...unsophisticated the writing is. I managed to read this novel three times without noticing that one of the major characters is a lesbian (even though in one late scene, this character is found in a bed with her ostensible girlfriend). This was also the first time I read the novel and considered how much of a jerk the Count is. This adds to my sense that one is never really finished reading any novel. I'm not sure how I feel about this.

I'd recommend this book for anyone who wants to spend 1,200 pages reading something very, very fun, with interesting things happening in terms of plot structure.

This book also has one of my favorite closing thoughts, which perfectly accomplishes what the last page should accomplish: represent what the entire novel is about.
So, do live and be happy, children dear to my heart, and never forget that, until the day when God deigns to unveil the future to mankind, all human wisdom is contained in these two words: 'wait' and hope'!
Indeed, Count. Indeed.


Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick

I don't exist, he said to himself.  There is no Jason Taverner.  There never was and there never will be.  The hell with my career; I just want to live.  If someone or something wants to eradicate my career, okay; do it.  But aren't I going to be allowed to exist at all?  Wasn't I even born?

Jason Taverner leads a charmed life: he's a six, one of an elite group of genetically engineered humans, and he stars in his own television variety show.  He's famous around the entire world until, one day, he wakes up and he isn't.  His girlfriend, his manager, his lawyer--none of them have ever heard of him.  His music no longer exists in jukeboxes, or anywhere else.  He doesn't exist.

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said is another in Dick's canon of books which look askance at our reality, and thus, ourselves--which asks, who are we really and what is this place we live in?  Taverner is the spiritual cousin of someone like Bob Arctor in A Scanner Darkly, whose drug-addled mind results in a psyche so fractured he ends up pursuing himself as both policeman and criminal.  Dick sets Flow My Tears among the context of a massive police state, where not having identification can result in getting sent off to the forced labor camps in Alaska.  As always, Dick was sensitive to the ways in which the modern world threatens and impinges on the fragility of our selves.

But, like all of PKD's best books, that hardly explains the strangeness that happens at the margins.  It doesn't help us understand, for instance, the presence of the Jesus-freak Jehovah's Witness policeman who arrests Taverner, or the strange racial politics of the novel (black Americans have been nearly eradicated by eugenics policies, "like the last flock of whooping cranes).  Flow My Tears is about all that well-worn PKD stuff--the spuriousness of reality, the unreliable nature of the self--but like his most affecting novels, including Timothy Archer and VALIS, it ends up being about much more.

The most captivating part of the novel is not the police chases or the drug trips but the low-key conversation Taverner has with an old lover, Ruth, in the middle of the book, where they meditate on the nature of love and grief.  Ruth tells a story about a rabbit who grew up with a group of kittens and learned to act as a kitten did, but met violence when it tried its playful kitten-act on a German Shepherd:

And the part of him the dog bit, he kept that part hidden behind the drapes because he had no hair there and was ashamed.  But what was so touching about him was his pushing against the limits of his--what would you say?--physiology?  His limitations as a rabbit, trying to become a more evolved life form, like the cats.  Wanting all the time to be with them and play with them as an equal.  That's ll there is to it, really.  The kittens wouldn't' stay in the nest he built for them, and the dog didn't know the rules and got him.  But who would have thought a rabbit could develop such a complete personality... A little life trying.  And all the time it was hopeless.  But the rabbit didn't know that.  Or maybe he did know and kept trying anyhow.

Is Taverner a rabbit, trying to be a cat?  Or a cat, turned by some magic into a rabbit?  Ruth argues against Jason's cynicism, extolling the virtues of both love and grief:  "Grief causes you to leave yourself.  You step outside your narrow little pelt.  And you can't feel grief unless you've had love before it--grief is the final outcome of love, because it's love lost."  In the end, we discover that Taverner's upheaval is not the result of him losing touch with reality, but someone else--a fan taking a mysterious drug which slips the bonds of reality, and drags others with it.  There's something profound about the strength of Taverner's presence in the mind of someone else, something like the love that Ruth talks about, and something in the loss of his familiar life like the sobering grief that Ruth praises.

Brent told me he thought this was one of the better Dick books; I think I agree.  It doesn't quite reach the depth of the three VALIS novels, but it comes pretty close, and you can see the more human touch that Dick employs in those books beginning to form.