Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya

You gulp down the usual thin soup, spitting the claws out into your palm, and start thinking, looking at the feeble, bluish flame of the candle, listening to the scuttering and scurrying under the floor, the crackle in the stove, the wail just outside the window, begging to me let in; something white, heavy, cold, unseen.  You suddenly imagine your izba far off and tiny, like you're looking down at it from a treetop, and you imagine the whole town from a far, like it was dropped in a snowdrift, and the empty fields around, where the blizzard ranges in white columns like someone being dragged under the arms with his head arched back.  You imagine the northern forests, deserted, dark, impassable; the branches rock in the northern trees, and on the branches, swaying up and down, is the invisible Slynx--it kneads its paws, stretches its neck, presses its invisible ears back against its flat, invisible head, and it cries a hungry cry, and reaches, reaches for the hearth, for the warm blood pounding in people's necks: SSSLYYYNNXXX!

Benedikt lives in a town that used to be Moscow, centuries after The Blast, an apocalyptic event that killed many and left most others with bizarre Consequences: the ability to breath fire, or cockscombs over the eyelids, or a tail, like Benedikt.  Those who have it worst are the four-legged Degenerators who are hooked up to sleds and used by the mighty Murzas to travel around.  Benedikt, being a simple peasant, survives on the mice he finds in his humble izba and has a modest job recording the works of their fearless leader, Fyodor Kuzmich.  He scrupulously avoids the woods, where the terrifying worm-like Slynx prowls.

It's not a bad life.  But Benedikt begins to suspect that the voluminous poetry and prose supposedly written by Fyodor Kuzmich may not be his own work at all.  A pair of Oldeners--immortals who were alive before The Blast--commission him to create a wooden sculpture they call "the pushkin," hinting at a rich literary legacy that precedes even Kuzmich.  When he marries the beautiful Olenka, her father, the head of a thought-police like organization called the Saniturions, introduces him to an immense library of books.

The structure of The Slynx seems at first to play along familiar lines.  We expect that Benedikt's newfound passion for books will lead him to a larger wisdom, and perhaps give him the courage to overthrow the reign of Fyodor Kuzmich.  And that happens, sort of.  ("Why, why are you ousting meeee?" whines the dwarf Kuzmich.  "You're not nice!")  But Tolstaya cynically suggests that bibliophilia and high culture don't necessarily translate into wisdom or empathy.  ("I see you love culture," says Benedikt's father-in-law as he finds him reading a book.  "I adore culture," Benedikt replies.)  Benedikt is as happy reading The Plague of Domestic Animals: Fleas and Ticks as he is reading Pushkin, and he assumes from the tatteredness of his copy of Chekhov that the playwright was a sloppy, careless man.

One of the funniest bits in the novel is a long catalog of books, organized by Benedikt, who has no conception of an ordered alphabet.  He groups The Red and the Black with Baa Baa Black Sheep, Appleton with Bacon and Cooke, Beerbohm with Drinkwater and Dryden, Coffin with Dyer.  Marinetti--the Ideologist of Fascism is grouped with Marinating and Pickling.  Anais Nin is grouped with Mutant Ninja Turtles Return.

Tolstaya's vision of the future is frightening, funny, a little silly and gross.  It's also perfectly realized.  But far from being a warning, like 1984 or Brave New World, Tolstaya equivocates over the qualities of the Dark Age future and the enlightened past.  Benedikt's Oldener friends cherish a relic they've found, which turns out to be instructions for a meat grinder:

The wheel has been reinvented, the yoke is returning to use, and the solar clock as well!  We will soon learn to fire pottery!  Isn't that correct, friends?  The time of the meat grinder will come.  Though at present it may seem as mysterious as the secrets of the pyramids--we don't even know if they still stand, by the way--as incomprehensible to the mind as the canals of the planet Mars--the hour will come, friends, when it will start working!

But while they dream of "the time of the meat grinder," the local peasants are using the pushkin to hang their laundry.  The Slynx itself becomes a symbol of the inescapable meanness and emptiness of humanity, which frequently fails to be softened or ennobled by literature or tradition.  It's a cynical book, I think, more cynical than even Orwell was.  But it's a hell of a lot funnier.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Summer.  The speedboat was serious.  The young tycoon was serious about it, as he was serious about his factories, his wife, his children, his parties, his work, his art collection, his resort.  The little group had just had lunch, at sea, aboard the tycoon's larger boat, a schooner.  The speedboat, designed for him the year before, had just arrived that day.  The tycoon asked who would like to join him for a spin to test it.  The young American wife from Malibu, who had been overexcited about everything since dawn, said she would adore to go.  Her husband, halfway through his coffee still, declined.  The young Italian couple, having a serious speedboat of their own, went to compare.  In starting off, the boat seemed like any other, only in every way--the flat, hard seats, the austere lines--more spare.  And then, at speed, the boat, at its own angle to the sea, began to hit each wave with flat, hard, jarring thuds, like the heel of a hand against a tabletop.  As it slammed along, the Italians sat, ever more low and loose, on their hard seats, while the American lady, in her eagerness, began to bounce with anticipation over every little wave.  The boat scudded hard; she exaggerated every happy bounce.  Until she broke her back.

Why is this anecdote so central to this book, more or less a collection of anecdotes, that it provides the title: Speedboat?  It is certainly typical of the book's style.  There are characters, only tangentially connected to the narrator, who appear only to tell this specific story.  It is brief, minimalist, and the twist of shocking and violent.  It's wry and ironical.  The miniature stories that make up Speedboat come quickly, with their own hard thuds.  Is that what life is, a series of anecdotes lived out at breakneck speed?

There is a narrative arc to Speedboat which takes us through the story of the narrator, a New York journalist named Jen Fain, as she passes through assignments, apartments, groups of friends, boyfriends.  But this narrative arc seems less important than the small, crystalline stories that gather around it, many of which have little or nothing to do with Jen herself.  You might say the book itself is journalistic, in function and in style.

I loved Speedboat.  I dog-eared almost every other page.  Some of the stories are just funny:

In a public school in a run-down section of Brooklyn, Mrs. Cavell, under a grant for special projects, was conducting her kindergarten civics class.  "What are you?" she would say to her little people, right after the bell each weekday morning.  "I'm free," they learned to say, as one.  On a particularly cold, bleak morning of midwinter, Mrs. Cavell tried a variation.  "Today, we are going to say it in our individual voices," she said.  "When I call on you , I want you to stand and say it proudly.  All right.  Jefferson Adams, what are you?"  Jefferson Adams got it.  "I'm free," he replied.  "Right.  What are you, Franklin Atell?"  "I'm free," Franklin Atell said.  Mary Lou Jones had to me asked to speak up, but then she said it frimly, "I'm free."  Up and down the rows of carved and gum-stuck desks in the pre-school classroom, the words rang out, but Mrs. Cavell, a good soul, who had taught for thirty years in Brooklyn, saw a look of somehow disquieting revolution on Billy Martin's face.  "What are you, Billy Martin?" Mrs. Cavell asked.  "I am four," he said.

Others seem powerfully true:

Last week, I went to a dinner party on Park Avenue.  After 1 a.m., something called the Alive or Dead Game was being played.  Someone would mention an old character from Tammany or Hollywood.  "Dead," "Dead," "Dead," everyone would guess.  "No, no.  Alive.  I saw him walking down the street just yesterday," or "Yes.  Dead.  I read a little obituary notice about him last year."  One of the little truths people can subtly enrage or reassure with is who--when you have looked away a month, a year--is still around.

I love this oblique meditation on what I understand as the moneyed class in NYC:

The camel, I had noticed, was passing, with great difficulty, through the eye of the needle.  The Apollo flight, the four-minute mile, Venus in Scorpio, human records on land and at sea-- these had been events of enormous importance.  But the camel, practicing in near obscurity for almost two thousand years, was passing through.  First the velvety nose, then rest.  Not many were aware.  But if hte lead camel and then perhaps the entire caravan could make it, the thread, the living thread of camels, would exist, could not be lost.  No one could lose the thread.  The prospects of the rich would be enhanced.  "Ortega tells us that the business of philosophy," the professor was telling his class of indifferent freshmen, "is to crack open metaphors which are dead."

Sometimes Adler tosses up a stark and affecting image:

Sometimes a stupid child would tie a firecracker to a crayfish or a frog just once, and light the fuse.  Or give a piece of sugar to a raccoon, which in its odd fastidiousness would wash that sugar in a brook till there was nothing left.

And I can't tell you how much I love this description of television commercials, the last sentence of which I am officially inducting into the Great Sentence Hall of Fame:

A lady lifted the lid of her toilet tank and found a small yachtsman, on the deck of his boat, in the bowl.  They spoke of detergents.  A man with fixed dentures bit into an apple.  A lady in crisis of choice phoned her friend from a market and settled for milk of magnesia.  A hideous family pledged itself to margarine.

Speedboat is one of those books where I find myself not having much to say, preferring just to show you my favorite bits and get out of its way.  These little stories never really cohere into anything, but they give a unified impression, true perhaps to the frenetic pace of life in the city--instantly recognizable to me, even forty years after the book's publication--and the dizzying speed of the passage of life.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Thanatos Syndrome by Walker Percy

Old-fashioned shrinks are out of style and generally out of work.  We, who like our mentor Dr. Freud believe there is a psyche, that it is born to trouble as the sparks fly up, that one gets at it, the root of trouble, the soul's own secret, by venturing into the heart of darkness, which is to say, by talking and listening, mostly listening, to another troubled human for months, years--we have been superseded by brain engineers, neuropharmacologists, chemists of the synapses.  And why not?  If one can prescribe a chemical and overnight turn a haunted soul into a bustling little body, why take on such a quixotic quest as pursuing the secret of one's very self?

Walker Percy is one of the last authors I ever expected to turn to science fiction, if that's what it is.  And to be sure, for the most part, the Louisiana of The Thanatos Syndrome resembles that of The Moviegoer: lovingly rendered, at times both exotic and banal, as full of country clubs as it is swamps.  But Percy infrequently reminds us that this world is not our own.  There are the qualitarian centers, for example, that engage in euthanasia for the very old and the very young, if they are disabled or unfit.  The modern psychopharmaceutical industry of The Thanatos Syndrome is much like ours, though it cast its shadows just a little longer.

Tom More, the "failed but not unhappy" therapist who is the novel's protagonist (and the protagonist of Percy's previous novel Love in the Ruins--why do I keep accidentally picking up his sequels?) is a traditional doctor in world that no longer seems to have a place for them.  But in his practice he begins to notice what others have not: that the people of Feliciana Parish are acting strangely.  They are taciturn, obedient, less troubled, but computer-like.  Ask them where St. Louis is, and they might tell you that it is 600 miles north of New Orleans.  And the women, for some reason, keep coming on to Dr. More by turning around and presenting their butts.

With the help of his sexy cousin (I know) Lucy Lipscomb, an epidemiologist, Tom unravels a conspiracy, concocted by his hospital associates, to flood the water supply with "heavy sodium," which reduces people to a more primitive psychological state.  The benefits are manifold: lower crime, lower drug use, fewer unplanned pregnancies.  Okay, so that last one comes about because women no longer menstruate, instead going into heat once a month like a farm animal.  But it's hard to argue with results.  But even the well-meaning conspirators are unaware that their solution is being used at the local boarding school to stupefy children, making them more amenable to sexual abuse.

The details of the child abuse Tom and Lucy uncover are as detailed as they are grotesque.  They are a reminder that The Thanatos Syndrome is more serious than a pulpy Dean Koontz novel, which the plot at times resembles.  Like The Moviegoer and The Second Coming, the novel alerts us to the importance of human psychological fragility.  Anger, hatred, lust, anxiety, and the other spiritual beasts the heavy sodium is meant to eliminate are as much a part of what it means to be human as our better angels.  A long interlude, in which a minor character talks about his experience with the Hitler Youth in Germany, reminds us that our best intentions can lead to our most monstrous actions, a criticism which is pointed directly at the Ritalin- and Prozac-hawkers of the 20th century.

The Thanatos Syndrome is tonally bizarre.  The minor characters never quite come into their own, and the sexual relationship between Tom and Lucy seems as contrived as the romances in more commercially contrived conspiracy novels.  It doesn't quite work as pulp, and it doesn't quite work as a Percy novel.  But, like its protagonist, it's happy despite, or perhaps because of its failures:

What is failure?  Failure is what people do ninety-nine percent of the time.  Even in the movies: ninety-nine outtakes for one print.  But in the movies they don't show the failures.  What you see are the takes that work.  So it looks as if every action, even going crazy, is carried off in a proper, rounded-off way.  It looks as if real failure is unspeakable.  TV has screwed up millions of people with their little rounded-off stories.  Because that is not the way life is.  Life is fits and starts, mostly fits.  Life doesn't have to stop with failure.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


These people slumped on their distracted circuits, looking this way and that, never in front as if to avoid the eyes of all the ghosts, the dead ones who had built their town. Colored labor had erected every house on the par, laid the stones in the fountain and the paving of the walkways. Hammered the stage where the night riders performed their grotesque pageants and the wheeled platform that delivered the doomed men and women to the air. The only thing colored folks hadn't built was the tree. God had made that, for the town to bend to evil ends. 
The conceit of Colson Whitehead's novel is that the Underground Railroad was not a metaphor but an actual railroad built underground. Actual steam engines barrel down narrow tunnels and stop under the homes of sympathetic whites. Cora, the protagonist, escapes the plantation were she was born and navigates the South on the railroad's various spurs. The South Whitehead has created is a haunting and bizarre variation on reality. South Carolina, for example, initially seems like the promised land for freed salves, until Cora discovers the dark motivation behind their warm welcome. North Carolina's streets are lined with hanging bodies--the state has virtually eradicated black men and women of any variety. Whitehead flips the narrative of pre-Civil War America on its head: his version of each state's treatment of blacks offers a metaphor for the atrocities of slavery and racism in America while the metaphorical Railroad has become real. 

This book was, predictably, difficult to read. Rape, brutal beatings, hangings, and endless abuse are all documented in graphic detail. Metaphor may play a central role in the book, but literal violence also runs throughout. Where other novels documenting and critiquing slavery gloss over the more horrific qualities of racism, Whitehead does not spare his reader any detail. The vividness of the violence makes the book hard to read, but never feels gratuitous. 

The novel isn't quite as relentlessly depressing as it sounds. Cora experiences a series of victories (some tiny, some massive), and, at one point finds herself on a farm in Indiana filled with free black men and women that offers the kind of community, friendship, and romance for Cora that you spend the novel wishing she could have. 

The Underground Railroad offers up an appropriately brutal critique, not just of slavery, but of the state of racism in America today. The graphic violence makes it hard to recommend to everyone, but it's a book everyone should read. It's hard to get through, but that's kind of the point. 

(This book doesn't come out until September...you'll have to wait until then for your dose of metaphorical reality). 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier


I wanted to go on sitting there, not talking, not listening to the others, keeping the moment precious for all time, because we were peaceful all of us, we were content and drowsy even as the bee who droned above our heads. In a little while it would be different, there would come tomorrow, and the next day and another year. And we would be changed perhaps, never sitting quite like this again. Some of us would go away, or suffer, or die, the future stretched away in front of us, unknown, unseen, not perhaps what we wanted, not what we planned. This moment was safe though, this could not be touched. Here we sat together, Maxim and I, hand-in-hand, and the past and the future mattered not at all. This was secure, this funny little fragment of time he would never remember, never think about again…For them it was just after lunch, quarter-past-three on a haphazard afternoon, like any hour, like any day. They did not want to hold it close, imprisoned and secure, as I did. They were not afraid.

I first read Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca when I was in middle school. I remember enjoying it at the time, but upon re-reading it as an adult, I wonder how much of the book I really understood at thirteen. On the surface, Rebecca is part gothic romance and part mystery, but it delves a little deeper than either of those genres usually allows. Our unnamed narrator meets the dashing widow Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo; the narrator is there as a "companion" for a wealthy American--a job that seems to entail eating meals with the old woman and taking her verbal abuse in stride--and de Winter is vacationing, seemingly to recover from the recent loss of his wife. On their last day in Monte Carlo together, Maxim unexpectedly proposes and the narrator is snatched out of a depressing life of service and thrown into the deep end of running Manderly, a large British estate in the shadow of Rebecca, Maxim's dead wife. 

Rebecca, though dead, is a brighter, more vivid character for most of the novel than the narrator. Not only is Rebecca named and the narrator anonymous (we know only that her name is "very lovely and unusual"), but Rebecca's possessions fill Manderly, her style and opinions are referred to constantly. The narrator (and the reader) are constantly reminded of her poise, her beauty, her impeccable taste. This helps set up the tension and suspense, but it also makes the narrator that much more human. She spends the whole novel competing with a ghost, judging herself against her and worrying about how others are judging her. While I think I enjoyed the tension more when I first read it, I really appreciated the neurotic insecurities this time around. Rebecca provides a nice metaphor for the prototypical woman we all fall short of, and I felt for the narrator as she worked through the mess she got herself into. 

The gothic creepiness of the book is also really fun. Everything from the setting to the structure builds the sense of horror, and the descriptions and pacing are almost cinematic. The book opens with an extra gothic description of Manderly from a dream:
At first I was puzzled and did not understand, and it was only when I bent my head to avoid the low swinging branch of a tree that I realized what had happened. Nature had come into her own again and, little by little, in her stealthy, insidious way had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers. The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. 
Nature is constantly creeping into the edges of this novel, and du Maurier uses it effectively to build suspense and tension; scenes that would otherwise be bucolic and peaceful always have a detail that's just a little bit off--a color that's a little too rich, a scent that's a little too overpowering. 

The novel moves at a brisk clip with some easily navigable flashbacks and some Nancy Drewesque chapter endings that kept me hooked. The mystery of Rebecca's death takes most of the novel to resolve itself (no spoilers...but you definitely don't see it coming), but even more engaging were the narrator's foibles (some darker than others) as she tries to assume her role as head of Manderly. Watching her simultaneously try to take Rebecca's place and figure out what happened to Rebecca is totally riveting. When the book ended I wanted more!

Overall, Rebecca is a great read. The suspense and the mystery are enough in and of themselves, but the narrator provides a character who is flawed and interesting enough to keep you invested and put a little more meat on the story than I usually expect from murder mysteries. 




Monday, June 6, 2016

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey

Or maybe this half-finished story was fiction and only the details bore a resemblance to their family. For all Raquel knew, her mother's drafts always broke off this way at a difficult moments until her mother figured out what she wanted to do next. In the restaurant scene, just when it seemed as though the woman and her husband were about to have it out with each other, the woman would flee into some surreal description of the fish on her plate winking up at her with its oly eye, or of the man seated at the next table reading a yellowed newspaper from seventy-three years ago. Or her mother would simply write CHECK ON THIS, as if the date of the newspaper or the kind of fish staring up at the woman from her plate mattered tremendously. 

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey is the story of Brazilian author Beatriz Yagoda and her sudden disappearance. In the first few pages of the novel, Yagoda climbs into a tree with a cigar and a suitcase and then disappears. The rest of the novel follows her translator and two children as they try to track down Yagoda ahead of some terrifying loan sharks.

I had high hopes for this one. The beginning is just odd enough that I thought it might go down a super weird magical realism path and delight me with its oddness, but it didn't quite deliver. The plot takes some odd turns, but mostly just normal mystery novel turns...not Gabriel Garcia Marquez turns, which was what I was hoping for. 

Emma, the translator and protagonist, is a little too desperate to be likeable. She leaves chilly Pittsburgh (and her job teaching "Portuguese to Spanish speakers" to apathetic undergrads, a crazed fiance who forces her on daily pre-dawn runs, and seemingly no friends or interests) for Brazil unannounced, and spends much of the chase seducing or being seduced by Yagoda's son, Marcus. Her seeming obsession with Yagoda (who she refers to almost exclusively as "her author"), borders on the crazy, but not quite crazy enough to make her interesting crazy.

There are some stylistic quirks that Novey pulls off well--chapters separated by little meditations on single words, sections of Yagoda's final, unpublished, and unpublishable novel--and the ways in which she draws attention to diction and language made the prose engaging, but I often found myself enjoying individual sentences more than I was enjoying the book as a whole. There were other jumps in narration that worked less well: increasingly frantic emails from Emma's fiance, excerpts from a radio host's monologues, and some bad poetry.  She also doesn't separate out characters' speech with quotation marks, which I realize is a socially acceptable thing to do, but it drives me crazy. 

I didn't love this one. It was trying to be too many things at once, and as result didn't do any of them well. It's fast paced and exciting--you do want to find out what happens to Yagoda--but all the different voices and little sidenotes left me frustrated. 


Friday, June 3, 2016

The Selection Series by Kiera Cass

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If I'm going to be super honest, and I am, I once used the covers of these books in a presentation about gender and young adult novels. I wasn't trying to criticize them or make fun of them - I was just trying to point out how girls in dresses dominated the covers of Amazon's Girls and Women - Teen and Young Adult category and how those covers contrasted sharply with Amazon's Boys and Men - Teen and Young Adult category. Although I was raised by an avid romance reader and occasionally picked them up if I literally had nothing else to read, I am not into the romance genre. I like romance in my literature, but I have a prejudice against books whose titles are spelled out in raised shiny letters. 

I have a new job as a middle school librarian and that job comes with an hour of driving each day. I've been using that time to listen to audiobooks, specifically those for middle schoolers, specifically the kinds of books I wouldn't pick up on my own. On  my 4 hour drive to LA I realized I cannot listen to serious fiction while driving (sorry All the Light We Cannot See - I'll get to you some day), so I popped on The Selection. I did not finish the book on the drive. An examination of my twitter feed reveals the following: 
May 30: Shoutout to @Target for being open on Memorial Day with the box set of the Selection series by @kieracass I can't believe I'm addicted [crown emoji, dress emoji, kiss emoji, diamond ring emoji, heart emoji] 
May 31: The problem with buying the box set of @kieracass Selection series is at 3am you can totally start book three. 
June 2: Ran into a former student's mom @Target. She asked what I was up to...Buying more @kieracass novels obviously 
The addiction is real. I'm a feminist, I don't read romance, I don't watch reality TV, I am neither recovering from a breakup nor entering a new relationship, so why was I crying yesterday as I finished the last pages of Crown? 

The premise is spelled out clearly on the cover: 35 girls. 1 crown. The competition of the lifetime. You also need to know we're in a future America called Illea that has really struggled after WWIII and WWIV to make sense of it all, and this world relies on a caste system, where the Prince gets to choose a wife a la The Bachelor from a random selection of girls from different provinces and castes. Like the Hunger Games, except instead of fighting to the death you have to catch a man. 

Our heroine, America Singer, is a low caste girl who ends up being Selected by a sort of accident and then wants to stay at the palace because for once she isn't hungry - at least, that's what she tells Prince Maxon after yelling at him for being conceited, pampered, and privileged. 

So what makes this series refreshing? Instead of cutthroat girl fights, the girls develop friendships among themselves (after all, only 10% of their time is spent actually dating the Prince and the other 90% is them hanging out and learning how to run a country) and while there are jealousies and fights and even some backstabbing, they are going through a weird experience that only the others understand and can give advice about. Instead of lessons in walking in heels and elocution, the girls are challenged to host foreign dignitaries, learn about history and culture, and choose political issues as platforms. And of course instead of trying to win the crown, America offers the Prince a deal where she'll be his honest friend if he'll let her stay and eat and send money home and hide from her exboyfriend. Instead of cheesy perfect princess/prince romance, we get fights, miscommunication, jealousy, family drama, and other real issues that all relationships have to navigate - we just get it all in fabulous ballgowns with updos everyday. It's sweet and funny and filled with a lot of longing and a little bit of politics. 

I would not recommend this to every reader, but I would definitely recommend it to the young adult crowd who is interested in futuristic societies and/or romance. I really do wish the covers were different though because I think it stops a lot of readers (myself included) are reluctant to pick up the books because of them. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Human Stain by Philip Roth

At Howard he'd discovered that he wasn't just a nigger to Washington, D.C.--as if that shock weren't strong enough, he discovered at Howard that he was a Negro as well.  A Howard Negro at that.  Overnight the raw I was part of a we with all of the we's overbearing solidity, and he didn't want anything to do with it or the next oppressive we that came along either.  You finally leave home, the Ur of we, and you find another we?  Another place that's just like that, the substitute for that?  Growing up in East Orange, he was of course a Negro, very much of their small community of five thousand or so, but boxing, running, studying, at everything he did concentrating and succeeding, roaming around on his own all over the Oranges and, with or without Doc Chizner, down across the Newark line, he was, without thinking about it, everything else as well.  He was Coleman, the greatest of the great pioneers of the I.

I took a disliking to Philip Roth's The Human Stain immediately.  I had been excited to read it; the synopsis sounded intriguing: a respected professor is hounded out of his job because he uses the word "spooks" to refer to two absent students he has never met, students who turn out to be black and take his wording as a slur.  Despite his public flaying, the professor, Coleman Silk, is secretly a black man passing as white.

What I didn't like was the way that Roth, writing in the 90's, began by situating Coleman's story in the context of the Clinton impeachment trial:

...in America the summer of an enormous piety binge, a purity binge, when terrorism--which had replaced communism as the prevailing threat to the country's security--was succeeded by cocksucking, and a virile, youthful middle-aged president and a brash, smitten twenty-one-year-old employee carrying on in the Oval Office like two teenage kids in a parking lot revived America's oldest communal passion, historically perhaps its most treacherous and subversive pleasure: the ecstasy of sanctimony.

Maybe it looked different then, but Roth's account of the impeachment seems tediously facile today--the same old smug line about Puritanism.  Coleman, too, becomes embroiled in a sex scandal, with an illiterate janitor named Faunia, which heaps more scandal upon him, though the affair is consensual and satisfying for both parties.  Ham-handedly, Roth wants us to draw a parallel between the Clinton-Lewinsky and Coleman-Faunia.  Furthermore, he wants to set the novel in the larger context of American shaming, with its bogeymen: nosy parkers and buttinskis, armed with pitchforks.  If that's the way you remember Bill Clinton, then The Human Stain is here to validate your feelings.

Luckily, it's not only that.  At its best, The Human Stain is a book about the difficult process of self-making in the public eye.  As a young man--Coleman tells his story to Nathan Zuckerman, Roth's erstwhile stand-in--Coleman is smart, athletic, and popular, but bristles under the yoke of blackness.  He doesn't reject being black, per se, but rather the claims that blackness lays on him; the adoption of a community and an identity in which he has no choice.  Passing as white is a way of liberating himself from these claims.  In some ways, it's successful; certainly being a white man allows him more freedom to create himself, even though it costs him his relationship with his family.  But in others, it's futile; all identities are a negotiation between an individual and the world at large, and the twin scandals Coleman faces late in life show that even he, "the great pioneer of the I," can't run from that kind of negotiation. 

When The Human Stain is that novel, it's terrific.  But Roth loves getting distracted by petty details and minor characters.  We get the story of Coleman's entire life, with all its minutiae, and the life stories of several other people to boot.  Its hard to shake the impression that Roth throws up all this indiscriminate detail to create the illusion of life, as if we won't buy Coleman or any of the other characters unless they're fleshed out as fully as possible.  But this seems like the most novelistic, and the least modernist, thing about Roth's books.  Among the bewildering detail there's some pretty bad writing, too--clunky sentences and bad cliches.  Roth devotes huge swaths to Faunia's violent, Vietnam-vet ex-husband, Lester, and when they're not useless or boring, they're ludicrious.  Here's how Roth ends one of Lester's flashbacks:

The fear intense, the anger intense, no helicopter willing to land and the terrible smell of Drago's blood there in his own fucking house.  He did not know how bad it could smell.  EVERYTHING SO INTENSE AND EVERYBODY FAR FROM HOME AND ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY ANGRY RAGE!

That is possibly the worst thing I have ever read.

But like I said, sometimes The Human Stain is terrific.  Coleman is magnetic, and the tortured relationship he has with his own background is compelling, rich, and infinitely more thoughtful than Roth's bad opinions about Bill Clinton or cartoonish ideas of Vietnam Veterans.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

"Where we are from,'" he said, "stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change." Here, Dr. Song took a sip of juice, and the finger he lifted trembled slightly. "But in America, people's stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters."

Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son tells the story of Jun Do, a North Korean whose life follows a a path so improbable it almost becomes believable again...but not quite. We meet Jun Do in an orphanage where his father, as the book's title suggests, is an orphan master and treats his son only slightly better than the orphans under his charge. After his fellow orphans starve or freeze to death, Jun Do moves from one bizarre job to the next for the Dear Leader. He kidnaps a Japanese opera singer, trains as a soldier who fights exclusively in the pitch black warren of tunnels beneath North Korea, and after being sent to language camp to learn English, is given a "listening post" on the East Sea where he spends his nights transcribing radio broadcasts aboard a fishing boat. In one of my favorite scenes, a member of the crew figures out that a transmission Jun Do had thought was coming from a submarine plotting against North Korea is actually coming from the International Space Station: 
They watched the Second Mate track the point of light to the horizon, and when the light went around the curve of the earth, the broadcast vanished. The crew kept staring at the Second Mate, and the Second Mate kept staring at the sky. Finally, he looked down at them. "They're in space together," he said "They're supposed to be our enemies, but they're up there laughing and screwing around." He lowered the directional and looked at Jun Do. "You were wrong," he said. "You were wrong--they are doing it for peace and fucking brotherhood."

After the fishing boat, Jun Do's life takes a turn into the extremely bizarre. After being caught in a lie, Jun Do is sent to a series of prison camps, each more horrifying than the last. At his final posting, he is tasked with carrying radioactive rocks out from the depths of a mine. When a government official (and close friend of the Dear Leader) confronts him in one of the tunnels, Jun Do kills him and assumes his identity. Then the book spirals into insanity. 

Johnson starts each section with loudspeaker "announcements," many of which tell a version of Jun Do's story that has been sanitized for public consumption. It also weaves in the perspective of one the detectives investigating Jun Do after he has been found out. Especially at the end of the book, these sections become more and more tongue in cheek and the transition between propaganda and realty becomes more and more fluid and fuzzy. After the murder in the tunnels, the line between the reality that Jun Do is living and the reality that The Party is willing to accept gets more and more blurred, and it becomes impossible to tell who knows what. This builds suspense (at any moment, you expect the Dear Leader to turn on the man impersonating his best friend), but also requires a fairly large suspension of disbelief. It also creates a tension between story telling and reality that is a central theme of the book and the backdrop for some of the more haunting vignettes. Jun Do and his interviewer--who becomes somewhat of a second narrator--seem to spend most of their energy trying to resolve this tension and separate out the strands of what is real and what is not. As they struggle to sort their understanding of the world into real and not real, the blurriness of the line between the two becomes more obvious, and it becomes harder for the reader to differentiate between the two. 

In interviews about his writing process, Johnson revealed that it was relatively easy to find primary sources describing the horrific lives of the average citizen in North Korea, but harder to learn about the inner workings of the Party and its elite supporters. Defectors tend to have experienced the prison camps and the day to day oppression that is commonplace in the majority of North Korea; the lives of the elite in Pyongyang, however, are harder to investigate. Visitors are able to see a very curated version of life in Pyongyang, but there is little access into what life is actually like. Similarly, members of the various policing organizations rarely defect, so information about what goes on in their ranks is hard to come by. This comes through somewhat in Johnson's writing. Passages describing the prison camps were jarring and awful, but felt more grounded than those describing the mechanics of the Party or the Secret Police. 

I'm fascinated with North Korea, so I enjoyed this book as a window into life (even imagined life) within its walls. The bizarre co-existence of the constant propaganda and deep oppression comes across as appropriately awful, and Johnson chooses details that illustrate this tension well. The sections describing Jun Do's life at sea were especially beautiful and poignant, although I think I'm especially fond of stories where people sit on boats and ruminate on life. That being said, I struggled a lot with the end of the book. It's violent and dark (possibly excessively so), but it's also hard to figure out what's motivating each of the characters, especially Jun Do. Johnson's writing keeps you interested and hooked, and he balances beautiful details with tension building and action, but I wanted to know more about what was going on inside the characters' heads. The women in the book are especially one dimensional, despite having interesting and well thought-out back stories.

Overall, if you're a North Korea addict, this is well worth the read. If magical realism/suspension of disbelief is your thing: also worth it.  If not, the story doesn't quite work well enough to hold together. 





Thursday, May 26, 2016

On Violence by Hannah Arendt

Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is "in power" we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name. The moment the group, from which the power originated to begin with (potestas in populo, without a people or group there is no power), disappears, "his power" also vanishes. In current usage, when we speak of a "powerful man" or a "powerful personality," we already use the word "power" metaphorically; what we refer to without metaphor is "strength."
...

Violence is by nature instrumental; like all means, it always stands in need of guidance and justification through the end it pursues. And what needs justification by something else cannot be the essence of anything.

Recognizing that "[t]he technical development of the implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential or justify their actual use in armed conflict," Hannah Arendt has decided to reflect on violence: its meaning, purpose, and goals. What she finds is significant conceptual confusion about the nature of violence. This confusion over violence, in turn, has led to confusion over power.

Indeed, much of this book is about the confusion between these two concepts. For Arendt, the distinction between violence and power is important. Power refers to the potentiality of group action and cooperation. Or, at least the ability to motivate/persuade/compel group action or group cooperation. Thus, insofar as we follow the law of the government, the government has power. This is an example of power compelled (at least in the abstract) by violence. But not all power is compelled by violence: the non-violent protests exemplified by Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are examples of power without violence.

Violence, in contrast to power, is a means to an end. (Arendt believes power is an end in itself--an idea she develops in her other works, but mostly takes for granted here). Violence is a tool of power, but it is never self-justifying. For Arendt, this distinction is important because one should not ask how to end violence, but rather, why violence is being pursued.

Her answer is that violence is almost always used because of an absence of power. Violence is the means that the powerless employ to attempt to gain power. And insofar as one would seek to prevent violence, one would have to attempt to empower.

Thus, Arendt takes issue with the general erosion of the U.S.'s separation of powers, the concentration of power in the executive branch, and more specifically, the replacement of political participation with bureaucratic management. Bureaucracy, for Arendt, is particularly dangerous because it replaces power-by-all with power-by-no-one. As she explains, in a bureaucratic state, there is no one to argue against, because the faceless and efficient bureaucracy is inherently un-democratic.

Nonetheless, Arendt is critical of violence:
Moreover, the danger of violence, even if it moves consciously within a nonextremist framework of short-term goals, will always be that the means overwhelm the end. If goals are not achieved rapidly, the result will be not merely defeat but the introduction of the practice of violence into the body politic. Action is irreversible, and a return to the status quo in case of defeat is always unlikely. The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world.
 Violence may effect the change one seeks; violence always makes the world more violent.

All in all, a great book. As with her other works, it was informative and thought-provoking. It's also the most accessible of her works--other than Eichmann in Jerusalem, which is reads more like news reporting with commentary. With that said, the book is also quite short, coming in at almost ninety pages. It may serve the purpose of introducing others to her work; for me, though, it did not serve the purpose of satiating my itch to read another work by Arendt. I think I'm going to have to pick up The Origins of Totalitarianism. Alas.