Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Out of the house my mother steps,
Returned from the ride of her life,
Studies pavement cracks for half-empty vials,
Then looks back at bricked-over windows
As though what else mattered -
A family, a dinner, a car, nothing
But this happiness so hard to come by

Leaving Saturn  by Major Jackson

Jackson is at his best evoking a teenager's view of the  streets of Philadelphia - a view that includes basketball, blunts, cars, girls and angst, but also Sun Ra and The Roots, Joe Frazier and Sonia Sanchez.  He also takes us to the cornfields of Kansas and small-town Alaska.  Jackson seems to capture the here and now with disarming ease, but keeps pushing for a theory of history that will explain that here and now.

The book is divided into 4 sections and some are better than others.  Virtually every poem in section 2 grabbed me, and Section 4 closes strong, but there are stretches of abstraction here that are less compelling.  This is the first collection by a now recognized poet.  It is clear that his earliest accomplishments were worthy of recognition.  This is a volume that will bear re reading.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai.

When you build on lies, you build strong and solid.  It was the truth that undid you.

The Inheritance of Loss looks at the world of post-colonial India and the South Asian diaspora with a loving satirical eye.  The characters are all hopelessly wounded by the way British – and increasingly American - culture continues to dominate Indian life and politics.  We get to live with Indians hopelessly besotted with scones and tea or Talisker whiskey, ex-pat Brits who love to complain about the limits of life in India, Gorka revolutionaries who have little agenda beyond getting their share of corruption and New York restaurant workers discovering that the American Dream involves sleeping in the basements of the restaurants that are the only places that will hire them.

The author approaches these characters with a loving kind of humor that begins to seem cruel as their situations become more desperate and tragic.  While it seems to tell the story of the toppling of old colonial ideas – decades after the British left India – it is not clear that there is any real idea of what will replace that culture, let alone whether it will be worth the upheaval it causes.

Desai looks soberly at a wide variety of points of view regarding post-colonial culture and politics.  She does not find any anything any side can cheer about.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium by Harry Mathews

I shall reminder, and do you, that the life in time is a wheel, and one point sole of the rim touching the earth, a creature is alive but at the point, the rim's points gone by are death, the points coming are not alive, when they come the now will be dead.  It shall be new creatures.

Zachary McCaltex is a librarian living in Miami; his wife Twang Panattapam, a native of the fictional Southeast Asian country of Pan-Nam, is living in Florence, Italy.  The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium is composed of their letters to each other, discussing a lost Italian treasure they believe has disappeared off of the Florida coast, and how much they miss each other.

Harry Matthews was known as the only American member of Oulipo, a French writing collective whose authors set for themselves strange linguistic games.  In Odradek Stadium that manifests in Twang's letters, which are a kind of pidgin-English meant to reflect a half-successful translation from the fictional language of Pan:

I've the memry of your to-come in my town.  Our dog in the under-house likes you, he make the strange woof of tendernes and sensure--then, I have interest in you.  And hiss.  Do not put a way your memery of the litlte money you will send.  Do not think, the of-Nau things be roots, they are tirds, yet are OK if you act only little.  I & you; harmnony; peace.

The mistakes, such as they are, have regularity because they come from a clearly conceived linguistic structure.  Pan, you might infer, has no gerund but only infinitives; see Twang's memory of Zachary's "to-come" in her small town, rather than his coming.  She mixes up "c" and "h," suggesting something about the pronunciation of Pan.  Mathews uses her unfamiliar English vocabulary to make a number of small pomo jokes: she describes a radio program describing a fire as a "pogrom," rather than a program; a beautiful blue geranium becomes a "cranium."

A scheme like this would easily devolve into condescension and Orientalism, but Mathews makes Twang self-evidently intelligent and wise.  From her place in Florence she is the chief researcher regarding the treasure; she uncovers the story of its inheritance bit-by-bit.  She tries to recommend a kind of Buddhist wisdom to Zachary, though her zen koans tend to be lost entirely in translation.  And what's more, her English gets progressively better over the course of the novel--so slowly that it's actually difficult to notice.

Even still, the main theme of the novel is how much gets lost in translation.  Zachary and Twang, though they know each other better and more intimately than they do anyone else in the world, frequently misunderstand each other.  A secret letter, in which Twang confesses that she knows her associates in Italy are reading her mail and so she is going to salt her letters with misinformation, gets lost in the mail, muddying the linguistic waters even more.  They get so mixed up, in fact, that Zach boards a plane to Florence at the same time Twang boards one to Miami, and so they miss each other completely.

In his letters, Zachary tells the story of his induction into Florida's premier secret society, the Knights of the Spindle.  He accepts in part because he wants to get close to the head of the society, who bankrolls treasure-hunting expeditions, but he's also flattered to be admitted into arcane truths (itself a kind of postmodern commentary on the theme of the accessibility of knowledge and communication).  These scenes borrow their comic wildness from The Crying of Lot 49, and can be really funny.  They play rec-league baseball against other secret societies, and at one point their libidinous party in their secret sewer lair is interrupted by municipal workers, who join them in their revels.  The Miami of Odradek is a fanstasia of occult Carnival festivities that seem more appropriate to New Orleans, but exaggerated to riotous lengths.  It's better, I'm sure, than being in the real Florida.

In the end, The Sinking of Odradek Stadium achieves the most difficult thing that a postmodern language-obsessed can achieve: it strikes an emotional chord.  After their relationship seems to have utterly dissolved--Zachary, going slightly mad, loses all the hair on his body--Twang discovers the missing letter, marked return to sender, and says some very beautiful things in her newfound English:

It is as that which was tumbled is raised or what was hidden is unclosed, some yellow rose, like the right road pointed to she who was lost or a light brought into the dark for those who have eyes to see.  Yes my cheeks are wet.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

Nobody chased her. But that was nobody's fault, really, not in a city of this size. It was only the callousness of four hundred thousand people, blending into a single blue-black pool of unconcern. That's what we copper stars are for, I think... to be the few who stop and look.
I was given Gods of Gotham by a friend, years ago, during an extended sick leave. I didn't read it then (I did, however, watch four seasons of Scandal in about a week), and I wish now that I had. It's the perfect book for being sick or otherwise somewhat addled (summer vacation, for example!). Faye gives us the story of Timothy Wilde, a grizzled (literally grizzled: half of his face is burned off in a fire in the opening pages) member of New York's brand new police force. Wilde stumbles upon a haunting mystery in his first days on the force, and the novel unspools around his attempts to solve it.

There is nothing particularly meaty or revolutionary here, but Faye has written a great mystery with an added layer of historical fiction. I enjoyed her portrait of poverty in New York in the 1840's, and while her attempts to recreate "flash" (Irish-American slang) were a little jolting at times, she captures the xenophobia and fear mongering of both that age and ours as the citizens of New York are stirred into an anti-Catholic frenzy by a series of increasingly gruesome crimes.

The novel is fast paced and full of colorful, interesting characters. There were twists I didn't see coming (I've read enough mystery novels over the years that this is rare), and Timothy's various lady friends--some romantic interests, some not--are a cast of strong, independent women. Not a single damsel in distress to be found here.

This was a fun, fast read, and I think I might have vaguely learned something about New York history by accident along the way. I'm not sure I'm invested enough to read the sequels, but it was a great, immersive experience.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Girl with Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace

Also because she went around calling herself a post-modernist.  No matter where you are, you Don't Do This.  By convention it's seen as pompous and dumb.  She made a big deal of flouting convention, but there was little to love about her convention-flouting; she honestly, it seemed to us, couldn't see far enough past her infatuation with her own crafted cleverness to separate posture from pose, desire from supplication.  She wasn't the sort of free spirit you could love: she did what she wanted, but it was neither valuable nor free.

Girl with Curious Hair is my first crack at David Foster Wallace.  It's hard to come at him with fresh eyes; he's become so quickly legendary--something his suicide probably encouraged.  It's hard to ignore the way in which he became like a character in one of his own stories, navigating the reality of celebrity and the problems it poses to sincerity and mental integrity.  In the story "My Appearance," Wallace asks, is David Letterman really the same person he seems to be?  Are any of us?  The modern maelstrom of television, pop culture--we would say social media, which Wallace never really got to weigh in on, I think--exacerbates those kinds of questions.

As in "My Appearance," one of Wallace's tried-and-true methods is to depict a real-life celebrity.  Besides Letterman, there's Alex Trebek in "Little Expressionless Animals" and Hawaii Five-0 star Jack Lord in "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way."  Some of these depictions are more insightful than others.  Wallace's Trebek and Letterman in particular seemed to me to be treading the same ground, and canceling each other out in a way.  The most successful of these, for me, is "Lyndon," an account of LBJ's intimacy with a loyal and fictitious gay staff member.  Unlike the satirical edge of "My Appearance" or "Animals," "Lyndon" plays it mostly straight, which is why its investigation of the overlap between sexual love and other kinds of intimacy is so powerful.  It helps that Wallace's LBJ really seems like LBJ--not like a parodic simulacrum, which is the case for the others.

You can see the young Wallace trying his hand at several other strategies over and over.  There are at least three stories here from multiple viewpoints, two of which are about a failing relationship, and neither of which is very successful.  There's a lot of mimicry in different shades.  One story, "John Billy," adopts a Shakespearean kind of West-Texas drawl that produces lines like,

How Chuck Nunn Junior's color was that of the land and how his sweat smelled like copper and how the good ladies of Minogue got infallibly behooved to sit down whenever he passed, walking as walks a man who is in communion with Forces, legs bandy and boots singing with the Amarillo spurs he won himself at the '65 State Fair in O. City for kicking the public ass of a bull without but one horn, but a sharp one.

The title story is a parody of Bret Easton Ellis, in which a Yuppie sadist pals around with a group of crusty nihilist punks making violent havoc at a Keith Jarrett concert.  (It might be the reason why Ellis hated Wallace so much.)

The collection ends with a long novella, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way."  The plot is difficult to summarize, because it's so self-consciously stupid: A pair of creative writing students fly to central Illinois to take place in a massive reunion for everyone who's ever been in a McDonald's commercial.  The adman responsible for the reunion is also bankrolling a series of Funhouses based on their creative writing professor's story "Lost in the Funhouse" (an actual postmodernist story by John Barth, on whom the professor is modeled).  "Westward" is meant to be a parody, too, of Barthian postmodernism, with its obsession with form and its suspicion of realism or sentimentality.  But while Wallace craves a literature without irony, that can communicate human truths without illusive games of feints, these stories show little ability to provide it.  The problem with "Westward" is that the parody is at times indistinguishable from Wallace's own work.  The novella ends up being largely tedious and obscure, and its observations about fiction are mostly a loop of postmodern anxieties with no exit ramp.  It is neither, as Wallace writes about one of the characters in "Westward," valuable nor free.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Here were a mother and her daughter, nothing less.  A mother and child--in a world that could barely be bothered with mothers and children--who were going to be taken apart.  Everybody believed it.  Possibly Turtle believed it.  I did.

Taylor Greer leaves home in a beat-up car, vowing to take it as far as it will carry her away from the hills of Kentucky.  She wants to escape the cycle of poverty and pregnancy that dogs people in that hardscrabble part of Appalachia.  But in Oklahoma, something strange happens: a Native American woman in a diner follows her out to her car and bestows a three-year old child on her.  Taylor takes the child with her, not knowing what else to do, before the car finally gives out in Tucson, Arizona.  She names the kid Turtle because she clings to her "just like a mud-turtle."

Conflict in The Bean Trees is rarely near-at-hand. The trauma that Turtle faced is back in Oklahoma, the torture that Taylor's newfound friends Estevan and Esperanza faced in Guatemala is, well, back in Guatemala.  There's an episode where Turtle is nearly snatched by a predator in a park because Taylor leaves her in charge of a freaking blind woman, but it reads as if Kingsolver is too guarded to actually imagine what such a person might look like.  The Bean Trees has little to say about the sociopolitical unrest that would lead people to abandon their home in Central America, and less to say about domestic conflicts--beyond a vague sense that Taylor, like the two refugees, is in danger from bureaucratic forces who would be so mean as to separate her from Turtle.

Arrayed against these forces are the powers of sisterhood and motherhood.  Taylor and Turtle lead a not-perfect but heartwarming life in Tucson with Lou Ann, another single mother who's been abandoned by her husband, and various other (mostly female) well-wishers.  The novel conveniently forgets that Taylor escapes Kentucky for the express purpose of avoiding becoming a mother.  Or, I hope it forgets, because the other option is that The Bean Trees wants to suggest that Taylor's independence is misguided, and what she really needs is the purpose that motherhood brings.  Kingsolver masks these troubling conclusions with cloying cuteness and schmaltz.  Here's the last paragraph of the novel, which refers to Turtle's precocious knowledge of plant life:

But it didn't seem to matter to Turtle, she was happy where she was.  The sky went from dust-color to gray and then cool black sparked with stars, and she was still wide awake.  She watched the dark highway and entertained me with her vegetable-soup song, except that now there were people mixed in with the beans and potatoes: Dwayne Ray, Mattie, Esperanza, Lou Ann and all the rest.

And me.  I was the main ingredient.

This novel should have been titled Love Soup.  Or maybe Vegetable Soup for the Single Mother's Soul.  That would give an accurate impression of its intellectual and spiritual depth, as well as its pathological avoidance of anything like real conflict.  Sisterhood and motherhood--and, for that matter, un-motherhood--deserve better.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

This is one of the cruelties of the theatre of life; we all think of ourselves as stars and rarely recognize it when we are indeed mere supporting characters or even supernumeraries.

As a young boy, Dunstan Ramsay carefully evades a snowball thrown by a rival.  The snowball hits Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of the small Ontario town's minister, and causes her to go into labor early.  She comes out of the labor in a state some might call "touched"--a kind of simplicity en route to madness that makes her the subject of the town's whispers.  Dunstan grows up feeling protective of her, and her son Paul, whom he teaches the rudiments of stage magic.  Paul grows up and leaves home to become a famous magician, while Ramsay becomes convinced that the near-mad Ms. Dempster is a kind of saint, complete with three miracles.  Meanwhile, the boy who actually threw the snowball, a rich kid actually called Boy, suppresses the act past remembrance.

Writing all that out, I'm struck by the fragile complexity of Robertson Davies' Fifth Business.  All that is really the set-up; the novel follows Ramsay through his entire life, first as an accidental war hero in World War I (one of Mrs. Dempster's "miracles" is appearing in the face of a Madonna at the battlefield at Passchendaele) and then a respected teacher and scholar on the saints.  But Davies has a true novelists' touch in plotting, and though it takes a long time for the form of the narrative to take shape, the snowball turns out to have serious and far-reaching consequences for both Paul and Boy that resonate throughout their lives.

And for Ramsay, too, but in a different way.  A woman tells him that he is a part of the "Fifth Business": the fifth character in an opera, separate from the two main couples, without whom the plot cannot function.  It's a sad idea, to think of yourself as a minor character in the story of your own life, but it comes with it a kind of power and a kind of freedom from the mechanisms of fate.  The novel ends as it begins, with Paul, Boy, and Ramsay, but Ramsay's peculiar position means he comes out of the scenario relatively unscathed by the ponderous history the two others share.

Fifth Business speaks also to the importance of myth and legend in the world.  Ramsay isn't really a war hero, except by accident, but he accepts the role when he wakes up in a European hospital, sans one leg, and tries to occupy it the best he can.  There's a moment where, having a medal pinned on him by the King of England, he feels a twinge of recognition and sympathy for the King: neither is quite what myth demands of them, but they recognize the importance of sustaining the myth for others.  This regard for myth becomes Ramsay's interest in the saints, and his desperate need to have Mrs. Dempster's sainthood recognized by others.  A priest tells him:

Oh, miracles!  They happen everywhere.  They are conditional.  If I take a photograph of you, it is a compliment and perhaps rather a bore.  If I go into the South African jungle and take a photograph of a primitive, he probably thinks it a miracle and he may be afraid I have stolen a part of his soul.  If I take a picture of a dog and show it to him, he does not even know what he looks like, so he is not impressed; he is lost in a collective of dogginess.  Miracles are things people cannot explain.  Your artificial leg would have been a miracle in the Middle Ages--probably a Devil's miracle.  Miracles depend much on time, and place, and what we know and do not know.

Miracles are conditional, Davies tells us, but that does not cheapen their value.  Instead, it should alert us to the possibility of miracles in the everyday, and resist the kind of shallow realism that thinks it can escape the importance of context.  Even when you're the fifth business--a supernumerary in your own story--miracles can still happen for you, and their meaning need not be validated by anyone else.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

Duddy trudged up and down through the snow with an owner's sharp eye for fire hazards and signs of mischief.  He tried the ice on the lake with his foot.  It cracked.  He urinated into a snowbank, writing his name.  It's my land, he thought.  But the wind began to cut quicker across the fields, suddenly the sun went out like a light, it was dark, and Duddy began to shiver.  Jeez, he thought, why didn't I leave the car lights on?  He buttoned up the collar and began to strike matches.  Duddy was able to trace his footsteps until the snow began to fall again, and then he was in bad trouble.  He circled round and round, his teeth chattered, and twice he began to run.  He ran and ran to no purpose until he collapsed panting in the snow.  His feet burned from the cold, his eyes felt as if they were stuffed with sand, and he began to think what in the hell am I doing lost in a blizzard, a Jewish boy?  Moses, he recalled from Bible Comics, died without ever reaching the Promised Land, but I've got my future to think of.

Duddel Kravitz is what you might call an "operator": a man with his hand in many money-making schemes, from selling pinball machines to filming bar mitzvahs.  He has his eyes set on a pristine tract of land surrounding a lake in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains, because as his grandfather tells him, "a man without land is nothing."  He buys up the parcels of land, one by one, using his older girlfriend Yvette's name because he's still too young to buy property legally--somewhere, over the course of the book, between sixteen and twenty.

I picked up this book because it's set in Montreal, where I was about to spend a couple of days.  Richler is well-known in Montreal, but his legacy is controversial because he was a longtime critic of the Quebec language policies that are designed to affirm the city's Francophone character.  As an Anglophone Jew who grew up in Montreal's Mile End neighborhood (now, like the Lower East Side, a trendy neighborhood), Richler was highly attuned to the way that the language laws enshrined Quebecker Jews as Other.  The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is steeped in Jewish culture and mannerisms, like a Malamud novel or a Woody Allen film.  It has the kind of self-deprecating humor that seems so characteristic of Jewish writing: observe how Duddy, having made friends with a goyische millionaire, can't understand why soliciting his new friend for the contract collecting scrap at his factories would be considered gauche, or that the millionaire has never heard of a Jewish criminal magnate known in Duddy's community as "the Boy Wonder."

The book is often wildly funny; at one point Duddy hires a blacklisted filmmaker to help him make his bar miztvah movies.  The filmmaker insists on total artistic control, and the film ends up a cut-rate Un Chien Andalou:

NARRATOR: Today you are a man, Bernard son of Moses.

18.  (Montage) Lightning.  Close shot of Michelangelo's statue of David.  Cartoon of a Thurber husband.  African tribal dance.  Close shot of a venereal disease warning in a public urinal.

Duddy's lust for money could, in the hands of a non-Jew or a less capable writer, make him seem like a walking stereotype.  But Duddy's greed is counterbalanced by a boyish simplicity and a sensitivity for others that even he seems not aware of.  When an epileptic he employs as a driver--a great, absurdly earnest character who considers Duddy the "Branch Rickey of epileptics" for giving him a chance--is paralyzed in an accident, he is crushed with guilt and lets his business empire go to ruin--at least temporarily.  But these qualities are often in direct competition with his greed, and his obsessive need for the land.  As his uncle writes him, "A boy can be two, three, four potential people, but a man is only one.  He murders the others."  The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, for all its excellent humor, gets is pathos from the overriding question of what man Duddy will choose to be, and which of his two selves he'll murder.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it, this downward motion: so lovely, like flying, and yet at the same time so dire, so extreme, so unlikely. God is love, they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.

And sometimes it happened, for a time. That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past, and you would be filled with a sense of wonder, because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done; and you would know too why your friends had been evasive about it, at the time.

There is a good deal of comfort, now, in remembering this.

There’s been so much written about The Handmaid’s Tale recently, that this review hardly felt necessary. Atwood calls the novel “speculative fiction,” and the speculation feels that much harrowing with every passing day of the Trump administration. One of the (few) things I’ve enjoyed about the slow decline of our democracy is how much airtime Atwood is getting, with pieces in the Times and a profile in the New Yorker. The New Yorker story quotes a letter she wrote to a Texas school district who had just banned The Handmaids Tale: “If you see a person heading toward a huge hole in the ground, is it not a friendly act to warn him?” That, more than anything I could write, sums up why you should stop everything and read the book if you haven’t already (no, watching the Hulu miniseries isn’t enough). Atwood emphasizes over and over that nothing in her novel is fully made up. Her alma mater in Canada hosts the cartons of newspaper clippings she used when researching the book, documenting the subjugation and enslavement of women everywhere from Puritan New England to Saudi Arabia to North Korea. This isn't science fiction.

I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale several times now and taught it twice, but this reading, my first since 45’s election, definitely felt different. The gentle slip into an authoritarian regime was especially haunting: Atwood’s narrator flashes back to the time before Handmaids and remembers the moments that connect forward to where she has ended up: the day they did away with paper money, the day any bank account with an “F” associated with it was shut down, the day the government is taken over. Throughout it all, the familiar complacency: "There were marches, of course, a lot of women and some men. But they were smaller than you might have thought." Atwood is a master of the disconcerting detail that shifts the reader from reality into nightmare. Here the narrator describes the day she (and all other women) lost her job to her husband: 
I described the director coming in, blurting out his announcement. It would have been funny if it wasn't so awful, I said. I thought he was drunk. Maybe he was. The army was there, and everything.
Then I remembered something I'd seen and hadn't noticed at the time. It wasn't the army. It was some other army. 
Her prose is peppered with moments like this with details so small and so disturbing that you can’t get them out of your brain. I'm sure I've wondered this each time I've read this novel, but it feels so much more imminent now: What would I do? I want to imagine myself into a rebellious heroine (and there are several in the novel), but it seems more likely that I would Wait and See, much like the narrator, until it is too late.

One of the new things that stuck out to me this reading was the prominence of all-female spaces. I've made an effort this year to read more female authors and have been rewarded with more female protagonists and storylines, but I can't think of a book that is so full of purely female gatherings. Of course the gatherings here are monstrous--betrothals of child brides, collective lynchings, and births of babies immediately stolen from their mothers--but it's shocking that it took a dystopian tale of female subjugation to give me a room full of women that passes the Bechdel test. 

Atwood is such a fabulous writer that the ending of the novel, a "Historical Notes" section that provides some reflection, has always disappointed me a little. You have to read it--I accidentally skipped it the first time and was very confused by what I thought was the last scene--but it's an odd departure from the rest of the novel and it feels didactic and heavy-handed after an entire novel that is artfully oblique. Perhaps the most jarring is that the bulk of the addendum is a speech delivered by a male academic. 

In one of my favorite redemptive moments in the text, the narrator finds a message left behind by her Handmaid predecessor. Scratched into the baseboard of a closet she reads: Nolite te bastardes carborundurum. She later learns that the phrase is Latin (sort of) for "Don't let the bastards grind you down." Even with the mansplained ending, Atwood manages to stay away from anything resembling oversimplification, but she does weave in flashes of hope, moments of women supporting each other and pulling each other through the depths. They aren't big or dramatic, they're messages scratched on baseboards, but they do make you think that we may make it through. 

A Death in the Family by James Agee

"Look at me, Poll," he said.  She looked at him.  "That's when you're going to need every ounce of common sense you've got," he said.  "Just spunk won't be enough; you've got to have gumption.  You've got to bear it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice.  You've got to keep your mind off pitying your own rotten luck and setting up any kind of howl about it.  You've got to remember that things as bad as this and a hell of a lot worse have happened to millions of people before and that they've come through it and that you will too.  You'll bear it because it isn't any choice--except to go to pieces."

Jay Follet is headed home to his wife and kids in the early hours outside Knoxville, Tennessee, when a pin comes lose from the steering mechanism of his car, he crashes, and dies.  A Death in the Family is the story of the days just before and after this accident, and follows the reactions of Jay's wife and his young son.  The story is autobiographical: it happened to Agee's father when he, like the boy Rufus, was only six years old.

That kind of firsthand experience brings, obviously, a subtlety of feeling and observance that only the most imaginative could supply secondhand.  But I wonder if it doesn't make Agee too close to the central moment of the story, too willing to imbue it with mythopoetic meaning about the nature of God and existence.  Agee goes on long discursive jags of free association that get mired in high-flown but disorganized prose.  Does it help explain the inscrutability of death to you if we call it "that inconceivable chasm of invulnerable silence in which cataclysms of galaxies rave mute as amber?"  Even good observations, such as, "Where grief and shock surpass endurance there occur phases of exhaustion, of anesthesia in which relatively little is left and one has the illusion of recognizing, and understanding, a good deal," pale when you realize that Emily Dickinson has already said them more pithily: "After pain a formal feeling comes..."  Agee considers but can't really effectively communicate Auden's observation that suffering "takes place / When someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along."

The mix of overwriting and sincerity is deadly.  What A Death in the Family reminded me of the most was the tediousness of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, AngelThe sections with Jay's widow are the worst: her husband's death poses a serious crisis of faith which is somehow resolved in a matter of days.  Much better are the sections that see the death through the eyes of the boy Rufus, trying to understand death through the limited viewpoint of a child.  Agee gives Rufus a much younger sister, even less prepared to understand death than her brother, and perceives the subtle differences between the mind of a four year-old and a six year-old.  And these sections provide some much-needed levity and irony, as when Rufus and Catherine try to understand the man in black--the priest--who seems to be causing their mother so much grief, but for which she seems to be grateful.  Or Rufus' confusion as to the cause of death--was it God, or a concussion?  And how can it be both?  A novel entirely like this, in the mode of What Maisie Knew or other books narrated from a child's perspective, might have worked much better.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

"Never love a wild thing, Mr. Bell," Holly advised him.  "That was Doc's mistake.  He was always lugging home wild things.  A hawk with a hurt wing.  One time it was a full-grown bobcat with a broken leg.  But you can't give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do, the stronger they get.  Until they're strong enough to run into the woods.  Or fly into the woods.  Or fly into a tree.  Then a taller tree.  Then the sky.  That's how you'll end up, Mr. Bell.  If you let yourself love a wild thing.  You'll end up looking at the sky."

There's a funny moment in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's where the narrator, Fred, and Holly Golightly are talking about Fred's stories, and Fred asks her to name a work that means something to her.  Wuthering Heights, she says.  That's not fair, says Fred, that's a work of genius.  "It was, wasn't it?," Holly replies.  "My wild sweet Cathy.  God, I cried buckets."  She's talking about the movie.

It's funny because it's difficult to talk about Breakfast at Tiffany's without reference to the Audrey Hepburn film.  I've never seen it (I know) so I was able to read the novel with fresh eyes; Brent, on the other hand, tells me that he saw the movie before reading the novel and the difference between them really soured the book for him.

But it's also a great character moment that gets to the heart of who Holly Golightly is, and why she's so captivating, not just for Fred, but for the reader.  She's sensitive and intelligent, but somehow also incredibly obtuse and naive; she's defensive about her own sophistication--a trait which stems from her childhood as a rural child bride, of all things--but with a deep philistine streak.  In today's ergot she'd be a manic pixie dream girl, one of those characters defined by their endearing quirkiness, though I think Capote's queerness keeps him from turning her idiosyncrasies toward sexual objectification.  Ultimately, she's a tragic figure: a woman whose outsized personality and charm attracts everyone around her, including assholes and criminals.  The character she reminds me of most is actually Jay Gatsby, another provincial whose self-transformation into a glamorous icon is derailed by the shallow and the venal.

It's a slim novel with a handful of standout moments--my favorite kind.  There's the appearance of Holly's former husband, Doc, a horse farmer from Tulip, Texas, who Fred mistakes at first for Holly's father.  There's the sudden death of Holly's brother, also named Fred, in the war--despite her multitude of attachments, the only man who has her entire devotion.  There's the moment at the end o the novel where Holly, running to the airport to escape prosecution on charges of criminal conspiracy, abandons her nameless cat, a wild thing, only to make the cab stop ten blocks later and go back so she can find it again.  These moments work because Holly is such a confidently and clearly drawn character, up there, I think, with folks like Holden Caulfield in the truest characters of 20th century American novels.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys

As he bore a vague resemblance to the Emperor, the sailors on board the Hermann-Augustus Stoeffer had nicknamed him Napoleon.  And so, for convenience, that is what we shall call him.

Besides, he was Napoleon.

It's the mid-19th century and Napoleon has escaped from his exile on St. Helena, leaving behind a lookalike.  He's planning to return to France under the name Eugene with the help of a complex network of supporters.  On the ship where he's disguised as a sailor, his peers nickname him Napoleon because of his resemblance to the emperor, but the Emperor's most devoted followers on the ship are taken aback that anyone could compare this clumsy and ugly little man to their idol.

Simon Leys' small and funny novel explores the nature of identity.  Who is Napoleon, if he's walking around disguised as someone else?  Is he still Napoleon, or is Napoleon really defined by the uniform, and the adulation of his followers?

At the very moment, it was an obscure army sergeant who was cast in the role of the wounded eagle, of the solitary prisoner, of the tragic exile, while the true Emperor existed only as a vision of the future.  Between the persona he had shed, and the one he had not yet created, he was no one.  For a time, Eugene would have to fill this blank interval with his mediocre existence; he had no right to a destiny of his own; at most he could be granted inglorious little misfortunes and a few petty pleasures.

The ship is blown off course and Napoleon enters Europe without his network of supporters to help him reclaim his identity.  He visits the battlefield at Waterloo, where every inn advertises, "Napoleon slept here," and fraudsters try to regale him with their first-hand accounts of the "battle."  He makes it to Paris, but instead of starting a revolution, becomes attached to the widow of an old fruiterer.  The Paris sections of the novel produce two great, funny moments: One is when a jealous rival traps Napoleon in a mental hospital where everyone thinks they're Napoleon.  The second is when Napoleon rediscovers his strategic skill and charisma, only to use it in service of selling the widow's stock of melons:

1. The time factor
The heat wave which we are now experiencing does not, on the face of it, favor our campaign, since it makes the melons ripen quickly.  In reality, it also contains an element that could benefit us, one we should exploit to the full, and that is the thirst it creates in the townspeople.  If we act swiftly there is nothing to stop us form turning these weather conditions to our advantage.  Indeed, swiftness of action will allow us to make use of the inherent advantages of the situation (i.e., the increased thirst of potential customers), and to avoid the harmful effects (progressive stock loss through spoilage).

Napoleon's melon-strategy is funny, but also sad in the way that all mock-heroics are sad.  Do grand actions have to take place over a grand scale?  Could every successful fruiterer be, in his way, a Napoleon?  Is every Napoleon at heart no more admirable than a successful fruiterer?  These are old, old questions, but Leys manages to imbue them with a fresh sense of humor and a simple pathos that makes The Death of Napoleon affecting.