Friday, July 20, 2018

The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro

She could not turn Patrick down.  She could not do it.  It was not the amount of money but the amount of love he offered that she could not ignore; she believed that she felt sorry for him, that she had to help him out.  It was as if he had come up to her in a crowd carrying a large, simple, dazzling object--a huge egg, maybe, of solid silver, something of doubtful use and punishing weight--and was offering it to her, in fact thrusting it at her, begging her to take some of the weight of it off him.  If she thrust it back, how could he bear it?  But that explanation left something out.  It left out her own appetite, which was not for wealth but for worship.  The size, the weight, the shine, of what he said was love (and she did not doubt him) had to impress her, even though she had never asked for it.  It did not seem likely such an offering would come her way again.

Rose grows up, like all of Alice Munro's characters, in a little town in Ontario, this one called Hanratty.  It's not far from Toronto, but it sure feels far, and the first trip to Toronto is always a moment of mysterious ritual, a moment in which one's life changes for good.  It's a testament, I think, to Munro how similar Rose is to someone like Del Jordan from Lives of Girls and Women, but still so real and alive.  Nothing in her seems like a pale imitation.

The distinguishing mark given to Rose is her poverty.  Not that Del isn't poor, or essentially working class, but this collection of stories revolves around Rose's childhood poverty like an orbiting planet.  Poverty's at the heart of the stories that her stepmother Flo peddles about hard-luck locals: vigilante mobs, cruelly treated dwarves, incestuous siblings.  Reflecting on her stepmother, Rose maintains that poverty is the source of not just horror but also pride: "It meant having those ugly tube lights and being proud of them.  It meant continual talk of money and malicious talk about new things people had bought and whether they were paid for.  It meant pride and jealousy flaring over something the new pair of plastic curtains, imitating lace, that Flo had bought for the front window."

Rose ends up at school in Toronto, where she meets Patrick, the wealthy heir to a set of BC department stores.  Their love is no Romeo and Juliet story; it's an unflinching portrait of people whose capacity to understand each other is so limited as to doom their marriage from the very beginning.  Patrick romanticizes Rose's poverty, likening her to the Beggar Maid in a painting: "She studied the Beggar Maid, meek and voluptuous, with her shy white feet.  The milky surrender of her, the helplessness and gratitude.  Was that how Patrick saw Rose?  Was that how she cold be?"  The novel, or collection of stories, follows Rose through her tumultuous marriage and out the other side, after which she becomes a lonely and single actress and television presenter.  (So much of the latter stage of Rose's life seems like an alternate version of Juliet from the three-story cycle in Runaway.)  I particularly liked this observation about Patrick and Rose's daughter of Anna, a canny insight into the life of children of divorce:

Yet for Anna this bloody fabric her parents had made, of mistakes and mismatches, that anybody could see ought to be torn up and thrown away, was still the true web of life, of father and mother, of beginning and shelter.  What fraud, thought Rose, what fraud for everybody.  We come from unions which don't have in them anything like what we think we deserve.

Eventually, the story returns to Hanratty and Flo.  Of course, Rose's experience outside the world of Hanratty means she can never really go home again.  It's left her behind as much as she has.  Life in Hanratty has been pretty bitter for those who stayed, but it hasn't been a cakewalk for Rose, either.  Flo ends up in a home.  I loved this passage especially, about a blind old woman whose only way of interacting with the world is spelling words that she's given by a nurse:

There she was sitting waiting; waiting, in the middle of her sightless eventless day, till up from somewhere popped another word.  She would encompass it, bend all her energy to master it.  Rose wondered what the words were like, when she held them in her mind.  Did they carry their usual meaning, or any meaning at all?  Were they like words in dreams or in the minds of young children, each one marvelous and distinct and alive as a new animal?  This one limp and clear, like a jellyfish, that one hard and mean and secretive, like a horned snail.  They could be austere and comical as top hats, or smooth and lively and flattering as ribbons.  A parade of private visitors, not over yet.

Too good.  Like this woman, like Flo maybe, stricken with dementia, there is a great and painful loss in losing the knowledge and experience of your youth.  But maybe there's an opening, too, to see life as a child again, to remake and remold oneself.  Or at least, to believe that such a thing is possible.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Revolutionary Song
by Russell Shorto

The past is not as far away as we think.

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 16, 2018

The End of the World and Other Stories by Mavis Gallant

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes," he said perplexed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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

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

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

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler

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

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

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

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

"Crohn's disease."

"Never heard of it.  Is it big?"

"Maybe two hundred thousand Canadians suffer from it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

by Renata Adler

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Manticore by Robertson Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Obasan by Joy Kogawa

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Tlooth by Harry Mathews

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Driving to pick up his son, Bennie alternated between the Sleepers and the Dead Kennedys, San Francisco bands he'd grown up with.   He listened for muddiness, the sense of actual musicians playing actual instruments in an actual room.  Nowadays that quality (if it existed at all) was usually an effect of analogue signaling rather than bona fide tape--everything was an effect in the bloodless constructions Bennie and his peers were churning out.  He worked tirelessly, feverishly, to get things right, stay on top, make songs that people would love and buy and download as ring tones (and steal, of course)--above all, to satisfy the multinational crude-oil extractors he'd sold his label to five yars ago.  But Bennie knew that what he was bringing into the world was shit.  Too clear, too clean.  The problem was digitization, which sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh.  Film, photography, music: dead.  An aesthetic holocaust!  Bennie knew better than to say this stuff aloud.

Writing about music in fiction is almost impossible.  People usually fail at it.  Carson McCullers could do it, but her milieu was classical music, and she was smart enough to eschew describing the music itself in favor of the feeling of it, the complicated torture and ecstasy of it.  Writing about popular music is often dead on the page.  It sounds like nothing, is reduced to a series of cultural signifiers that encode their own transitory nature.  Jennifer Egan, in A Visit from the Goon Squad tackles this problem head-on, not only minimizing the descriptions of the music itself to a few quality moments, but also by setting her sights on that transitory quality.  The Goon Squad of the title is time, which busts in on life, wrecks your body, drives you into the suburbs, kills your friends, and worst of all, replaces the music you loved with shit you don't understand--and turns your music into classic rock.

Egan chases these themes over a series of loosely related vignettes.  She begins with Sasha, a high-level operative at a record label who battles kleptomania, and Bennie, an ex-punk who owns the label.  These are the main characters, such as they are, though the narrative spins backwards and forwards through several generations.  Some of these vignettes are more successful than others.  I thought the middle section of the book, while full of plenty of good ideas--like the disgraced publicist who ends up working, out of desperation, with a brutal dictator--slipped too far from the musical heart of the novel.  It's not until the narrative returns to Bennie and Sasha and pushes past the past and present into the future that the novel really felt of a piece to me.  Along the way, there are several inspired moments and images, like the flakes of gold that Bennie takes for his impotence, or the fish that his down-and-out old bandmate Scott fishes out of the East River, to present like a gift from another world in Bennie's penthouse office.

My favorite chapter, actually, was the one that might seem most gimmicky: a vignette presented in the form of a Powerpoint presentation.  It's from the perspective of Sasha's teen daughter Alison, and it details the life of her family: her mother's past in the music scene, her father's life as a surgeon who works on refugees, her younger brother obsessed with pauses in popular music, life in the desert as a result of climate change.  There's a lot going on in this story, but the silly mode actually works to pull everything together.  The antiquated nature of Alison's slidemaking hobby (it's the 2020's) echoes her mother's nostalgia for her life in the music scene, and the nostalgia of a United States before the ravages of climate change and war.  Several blank slides emphasize the peculiar nature of her brother's obsession.  As Sasha explains, through clenched teeth to her husband, "The pause makes you think the song will end.  And then the song isn't really over, so you're relieved.  But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT.  TIME.  THE.  END.  IS.  FOR.  REAL."  In this detail is the hope of rebirth and recovery, accompanied by the sobering knowledge that time--the goon squad--moves on inexorably.

The novel ends with a bit of sci-fi weirdness, set in a not-so-distant future in which babies use their preverbal ability to point and buy music from ephemeral screens to control pop culture.  (That's a satirical comment on the way that pop culture drifted in the 19th century to teenagers, and preteens, I guess.)  In that strange and somewhat awful future, beset by the twin monsters of payola and the police state, Egan manages to find a way to give the old hope of punk rock a purpose and a future.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Living by Henry Green

What is a town then, how do I know?  What did they do?  They went by lamps, lamps, lamps, each one with light and dark  strung up on it each with streets these were in.  Houses made the streets, people made the houses.  People lived in them, thousands millions of lives.  Each life dully lived and the life next it, pitched together, walls between built, dully these lives went out onto streets promenaded dullness thee.  Ugly clothes, people, houses.  They went along through these, strangers to it, she did not recognize her own form of ugliness in it.

Henry Green's Living tells the story of iron foundry workers in Birmingham, England.  These men struggle, against dangerous and repressive work practices, and the monotony of everyday work, to "make a living."  But the word, when used that way, seems reduced somehow, as if the manifold experience of life has been reduced to the pettiness of living by the tedious horror of industrial labor.  Yet, they shape their lives around this experience, like the antiquated Craigan:

Mr Craigan had gone to work when he was nine and every day he had worked through most of daylight till now, when he was going to get old age pension.  So you will hear men who have worked like this talk of monotony of their lives, but when they grow to be old they are more glad to have work and this monotony has grown so great that they have forgotten it.  Like on a train which goes through night smoothly and at an even pace--so monotony of noise made by the wheels bumping over joints between the rails becomes rhythm--so the monotony of hours grows to be the habit and regulation on which we grow old.

Craigan lives with his friends and coworkers Jim Dale and Joe Gates (try keeping which is which in your head without double-checking each time, I dare you).  Gates' daughter Lily keeps the house, and Craigan sets his hopes on her marriage to Jim Dale, which will ensure the continued existence of this household in the face of the threat of financial instability.  Of course, Lily has plans of her own, and falls in love with another iron worker, Bert Jones.  Lily, too, has a kind of "living," as proscribed by the men in her life as the iron workers are by the demands of their class.  Added to this are numerous other characters of the foundry, managers and manager's toadies and son of Mr. Dupret, the heir to the foundry who's sudden accession threatens the stability of the foundry's small ecosystem.  The rich young Dupret is unhappy and bored in his wealth, and sees something to envy in the lives of the foundry workers:

Standing in foundry shop son of Mr Dupret thought in mind and it seemed to him that these iron castings were beautiful and he reached out fingers to them, he touched them; he thought and only in machinery in seemed to him was savagery left now for in the country, in summer, trees were like sheep while here men created what you could touch, wild shapes, soft like silk, which would last and would be working in great factories, they made them with their hands.  He felt more certain and he said to himself it was wild incidental beauty in these things where engineers had thought only of the use put to them, which you could touch; but when he was most sure he remembered, he remembered it had been said before and he said to himself, 'Ruskin built a road which went nowhere with the help of undergraduates and in doing so said the last word on that.'  And then what had been so plain, stiff and bursting inside him like soda fountains, this died as a small wind goes out, and he felt embarrassed standing as he did in fine clothes.

And yet there's nothing humanitarian about Dupret; his desperate need to exert control over his father's company and wrench it away from the middle managers who treat him like a neophyte produces results both good and bad for the workers.  Yes, he demands that they remove the guard who clocks the workers' bathroom time, but when the foundry comes up against financial straits, he's also the one who suggests sacking its most experienced workers, like Craigan, six months shy of their pension.  Though he envies their ability to create (paging Marx), his life is too far removed from that of the foundry workers for it to affect his decision making (paging Elon Musk).

I struggle with helping my creative writing students find the right amount of exposition.  Most amateur fiction is all exposition, elaborate setups that leave mere paragraphs or sentences for anything like conflict or action.  Green's strategy is to do away with exposition entirely; there are no explanatory paragraphs explaining who any of the novel's many characters are.  It's a bit like walking into a strange room and watching people interact and trying, and often failing, to piece together who they are and what they're about.  Added to that is this novel's particular, difficult style, which often eliminates articles entirely.  "Thousands came back from dinner along streets," the novel begins.  I read that this reflects something about the Birmingham accent, but I'm not sure of that--it certainly gives the novel, a brusque, spiked tone.

Like Loving, which contrasted the lives of nobility with their servants, Living is an effective juxtaposition of classes that reveals hard truths about the nature of the working world.  Reading it can feel a little like work, too.  But for those that can stand it, it's a rewarding labor, full of sharp insight into the world of the working class.

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me.
One was the usual birds and bees. Well, I didn't really get the usual version. My mom, Lisa, is a registered nurse, and she told me what went where, and what didn't need to go here, there, or any damn where till I'm grown. Back then, I doubted anything was going anywhere anyway. While all the other girls sprouted breasts between sixth and seventh grade, my chest was as flat as my back.
The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me.
Momma fussed and told Daddy I was too young for that. He argued that I wasn't too young to get arrested or shot.
The title of Angie Thomas' YA novel is an homage to Tupac's acrostic interpretation of Thug Life (The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everyone), and the book is a call to action against police brutality. In the opening pages, Starr, the heroine is in the car as her friend Khalil is shot to death by the police after a traffic stop. The book tracks her journey as she finds her voice and her place in a hostile, racist world.

Starr is a compelling, thoughtful heroine. She exists in two worlds; her family lives in a neighborhood riddled with police shootings and gang violence, and she attends an elite, white private school 45 minutes away. Before Khalil's death, her need to be one person at home and another at school didn't bother her, but as she watches her two communities react, she begins to feel the strain of a split identity.

This is a thick tome of a YA novel, but I read it in two days. Thomas is an engaging writer and she is able to tackle a brutally depressing topic and make it accessible. It's not easy to read from a content perspective, but Starr is funny and empathetic, and having her as a guide makes it bearable. Thomas's reflections on what it means to be black in America are heart-wrenchingly but also beautifully laid out.

It shook me to realize how rare it is for me to read a book where the bulk of the characters are black, even as I work to read more authors of color. That's part of the point, I realize. Even as a person who engages with social justice and race regularly, this is still a new narrative for me, and it shouldn't be.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

How the Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice by Pat Schneider

When I achieve true waiting, true listening, something happens that I experience as a gift.  Whether it comes from my own subconscious reservoir or from outside myself makes no difference to me.  If I am a creature made in the image of God--and I do accept the teaching of ancient Hebrew prophets and poets that in fact I am so created, and the teaching of some theologians that all of creation, even the rock and the turnip, is an image of God--then the creature that I am partakes in the holiness of the creator.  If I am made in the image of the creator, then I myself am a creator, and my acts of creating participate in mystery.

"This is not a 'How To' book," Pat Schneider writes in the notes to How the Light Gets In, "it is an invitation to a reader to look over my shoulder as I do the thing itself: write as a spiritual practice.  In that way I hope it can act as a guide for individual writers, an example of using one's own life story to trace the presence of mystery and the outlines of grace."  I had planned on reading her how-to book Writing Alone and with Others, in preparation for the fiction-writing class I'll be teaching high school seniors in the fall, but instead I was drawn to this book, which has fewer lessons (but not none) for teachers of creative writing.

At times it borders on straight memoir, actually, giving us a glimpse into the way Schneider uses writing as a way to understand her own past.  The images she returns to in the practice she likens to prayer are all from her troubled upbringing: the peach tree under which she was "saved" into the church, the roaches in the sour bottles of milk in her tenement home in St. Louis, the bed in the orphanage.  And we get to see the construction of some very wonderful poems out of these images in real time.

How the Light Gets In is less a book of instruction than a book of wisdom.  It's separated into chapters that deal with broad experiential concepts--death, the body, freedom, joy--in which Schneider uses the writing process to explore these things and how they touch in her own life.  (The poignancy of which is all amplified by her advanced age--though I am pleased to say she's still around and alive.)  The content overlaps with the practice.  For Schneider, writing itself is a kind of prayer in which she approaches what, having fallen out with her fundamentalist upbringing, calls only "the mystery."  I was particularly struck by the chapter on "Strangeness":

Writing about writing, I have been exploring what I think I already know.  But writing about mystery, I have tried neither to teach nor preach.  I have tried to constantly veer away from that which is familiar and known, toward that which is just beyond my grasp.  In writing, this is most commonly done in story and in metaphor.  I have met strangeness again and again as I have been writing this book.  Trying to describe strangeness is--forgive me!--strange.  It requires story.  It requires metaphor.

What a brief and lucid defense of the entire idea of literature!  I want to frame it and hang it on my classroom wall.  It resonates with Marilynne Robinson's assertion that the universe keeps showing itself to be stranger than we ever imagined.  And this chapter, I think, I hope, presented to me a solution to a problem I had been having with the ending of the novel I've been writing.  When I put it on paper I will let you know.

There are a few key moments I know I'll want to share with my students.  One is Schneider's simple "acid test for the health of any group, class, or workshop one might try: When I leave, do I feel more like writing, or less like writing?"  Another is an exercise in which she encourages her students to begin by considering the language of their own upbringing, because "we must first learn to recognize and value the strengths and the beauty in our languages of origin, and in our ability to tell our own stories in our own voices."  I think that's a beautiful idea, and a spiritual one, linked to the assertion of the God-image in every person, though that's not the language I would ever use in the classroom. 

The lessons I take for my own writing are much more difficult, perhaps impossible, to articulate.  They might begin with admiration for Schneider's bravery in writing about her own experience, and the double bravery of writing about the writing process, which for me is secret and often embarrassingly messy.  They also contain a deep sympathy for the idea of writing as a form of prayer, a way of approaching that for which ordinary didactic language has no words.  This is a book I know I'll return to.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Pet Sematary by Stephen King

Louis and Gage knew him; they had met him and faced him down in New England.  He was waiting to choke you on a marble, to smother you with a dry-cleaning bag, to sizzle you in eternity with a fast and lethal boggie of electricity--Available at Your Nearest Switchplate or Vacant Light Socket Right Now.  There was death in a quarter bag of peanuts, an aspirate piece of steak, the next pack of cigarettes.  He was around all the time, he monitored all the checkpoints between the mortal and the eternal.  Dirty needles, poison beetles, downed live wires, forest fires.  Whirling roller skates that shot nurdy little kids into busy intersections.

(Spoiler alert, folks--if, like me, you've somehow avoided becoming familiar with King's books until now, you might want to turn back.)

The same painful image lies at the heart of Pet Sematary as Lincoln at the Bardo: a father lifting up the body of his deceased son, cradling it, unable to move past profound grief.  For the spirits in Saunders' novel, it's a symbol of shocking compassion and intimacy, a physical embrace past the point where such things can reasonably be expected.  In Pet Sematary, when the bereaved doctor Louis Creed steals his young son's body from the graveyard, the pathos runs the other way.  It's so grotesque that it borders on squeamish black comedy:

Somehow, panting, his stomach spasming from the smell and from the boneless loose feel of his son's miserably smashed body, Louis wrestled the body out of the coffin.  At last he sat on the verge of the grave with the body in his lap, his feet dangling in the hole, his face a horrible livid color, his eyes black holes, his mouth drawn down in a trembling bow of horror and pity and sorrow.

"Gage," he said and began to rock the boy in his arms.  Gage's hair lay against Louis's wrist, as lifeless as wire.  "Gage, it will be all right, I swear, Gage, it will be all right, this will end, this is just the night, please, Gage, I love you, Daddy loves you."

Louis rocked his son.

Louis' plan is to bury his son in the titular pet cemetery, an ancient Micmac burial ground that has the power to bring things back to life.  The scenes in the burial ground are effectively eerie, filled with fog and unidentifiable noises and the great black shape of the Wendigo moving through the mud.  Early in the novel he does the same thing with his daughter's cat Church, guided by an old Mainer who knows the supernatural history of the place.  Distraught folks have been burying their pets there for years--and maybe a few people, too.  Church comes back all wrong: torpid, bloodthirsty, without any kind of feline grace, and with an indelible stench of death.  Chances are Louis's son Gage, hit by a truck in their front yard, will come back changed, too.  But all the rational deliberation in the world can't overcome the depth of Louis' grief, and he goes through with the macabre plan despite knowing that.

Pet Sematary is a about 500 pages of meditation on the way death intrudes upon the banality of life, and another fifty pages of blood-soaked freakout horror.  King paints the life of Louis, his wife Rachel, and his children Ellie and Gage, in painstaking detail.  At times, too much detail--I'm not sure why we need to know, for instance, that "Rachel developed a mild infatuation with the blond bag boy at the A&P in Brewer and rhapsodized to Louis at night about how packed his jeans looked."  But death, like it does, breaks in on the Creeds' life again and again: in the form of a young man hit by a car on Louis' first day of work at the student clinic at the University of Maine, in the form of their elderly nextdoor neighbor, in memories about Rachel's sick and resentful sister, who died as a child.  Gage gets sick again and again, teasing you, almost, with the possibility of his death many times before it really happens.  As a doctor, Louis knows all about death, about the fragility of the body, but against grief such rationalism is powerless.

I was amazed by how painstakingly King builds up the life of this family, and then destroys it breezily and mercilessly.  The end, in which--hey, I meant that spoiler alert above--the toddler Gage comes back possessed by the murderous Wendigo and dispatches his own mother with a scalpel, was a real shock to me.  I guess I had underestimated how much ice runs in King's veins.  The message, I guess, is this: you'd better make friends with death, because you're just going to make it worse if you don't.  In a way, it's not so different from Lincoln in the Bardo, which also tells us that there is a danger in holding on to grief for too long, but with a gentler spirit. 

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

I hailed him by his African name as I walked up the steps to his porch, and he looked up into my face as I stood in the door in surprise.  He was eating his breakfast from a round enameled pan with his hands, in the fashion of his fatherland.

The surprise of seeing me halted his hand between pan and face.  Then tears of joy welled up.

"Oh Lor', I know it you call my name.  Nobody don't callee me my name from cross de water but you.  You always callee me Kossula, jus' lak I in de Affica soil!"

What a wonderful thing, in the year 2018, to have a new book by Zora Neale Hurston.  It makes you wonder what they were thinking, all the people all those years ago, who declined to publish a book like Barracoon, Hurston's interview with the last survivor of the Mid-Atlantic slave trade.  Perhaps they didn't understand what a rare and lucky moment it was, to have such experience still alive in the heart of a man, or perhaps they underrated Hurston's gifts and importance as an ethnographer (way more impressive, in my opinion, than her work as a novelist).  There's some intimation in what I've read that people were squeamish about laying bare the role of African slavers in the Middle Passage, and quite rightly, since that stuff has always been fodder for right-wing trolls.  But whatever the case, it's quite something to have a book like this published at last.

In 1927 Hurston traveled to Alabama to interview a man named Oluale Kossula, who had gone by the Americanized name Cudjo Lewis for over sixty years.  As a teenager, Kossula's village in West Africa was decimated by the Kingdom of Dahomey, who were in the habit of massacring their enemies and selling whom they could to coastal slavers.  The title, Barracoon, refers to the kind of barracks where captured Africans waited to be bought by slavers.  One of the wonders of the book is that it gives a rare glimpse into what it was like on the African side of the slave trade.  Kossula's account of the Dahomey warriors--apparently, traditionally women--is one of the most haunting aspects of his story.

When Kossula was carried away by the Clotilde, it was in violation of  U.S. law, which had prevented new importing of slaves for over fifty years.  The Americans who put the voyage together did so because they could, and because they felt like they were entitled to it.  It was illegal, but no one, of course, got punished for it, except for Kossula.  He actually touches very little on his experience of slavery, focusing on the life he led after emancipation with his wife and children.  Like many former slaves, Kossula found himself needing to apply to his former masters for protection and employment:

"'Cap'n Tim, you brought us from our country where we had lan'.  You mad us slave.  Now dey make us free but we ain' got no country and we ain't got no lan'!  Why doan you give us a piece dis land so we kin buildee ourself a home?'

"Cap'n jump on his feet and say, 'Fool do you think I goin' give you property on top of property?  I tookee good keer my slaves in slavery and derefo' I doan owe dem nothin?  You doan belong to me now, why must I give you my lan'?"

Kossula, then, with a group of fellow Africans, saved for years to buy their own land and found a community called Africatown.  The community still exists in Mobile, and some of its residents still trace their heritage back to the Clotilde and the Dahomey raid.  It's a remarkable story of independence and will, told in Kossula's own voice and idiom.  Hurston deftly gets out of the way of Kossula's story, and records it with faithful care.  Interpolation is smartly minimized to let the power of the story, and the feeling that you are hearing a firsthand account, shine through.

Kossula's experiences after the end of the Civil War were full of hardship.  He talks about the way he and his family were looked on suspiciously by other black communities whose ancestors had come from Africa centuries ago.  He talks about the tragic death of his wife and many of his children, including a horrible story of one son's death at a railroad crossing:

"I go through the crowd and lookee.  I see de body of a man by de telegraph pole.  It ain' got no head.  Somebody tell me, 'Thass yo' boy, Uncle Cudjo.'  I say, 'No, it not my David.'   He lay dere by de cross ties.  One woman she face me and astee, 'Cudjo, which son of yours is dis?' and she pointee at de body.  I tell her, 'Dis none of my son.  My boy go in town and y'all tell me my boy dead.'

One Afficky man come and say, 'Cudjo dass' yo boy.'

I astee him, 'Is it?  If dat my boy, where his head?'  He show me de head.  It on de other side de track.  Den he lead me home.

When Hurston finds Kossula, he is more or less alone.  She does small errands for him and they share small joys, like crabs and a "huge watermelon" they "ate from heart to rind."  She paints a picture of a man slowly abandoned by family, left in a land that never quite felt familiar to him, and who longs to return to "Afficky soil" before he dies.  It's heartrending.  But there is a small consolation in the thought that finally, more than 150 years after Kossula's kidnapping and enslavement, and over ninety years from the time that Hurston recorded his testimony, that the story of this proud and lonely man is finally able to be told.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone

Because God was present with Jesus on the cross and thereby refused to let Satan and death have the last word about his meaning, God was also present at every lynching in the United States.  God saw what whites did to innocent and helpless blacks and claimed their suffering as God's own.  God transformed lynched black bodies into the recrucified body of Christ.  Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus.  The lynching tree is the cross in America.  When American Christians realize they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross.

The central thesis of James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree is exceedingly simple: the symbol in American life that resembles the cross of Christianity most closely is the tree on which thousands of black men and women were lynched.  Cone repeats this simple observation over and over again, if only to make the point that it is obvious, and he shouldn't have to keep saying it.  With it comes a sobering and challenging truth: that white Christianity has had to work extremely hard over the past few centuries to ignore this fact, and build a version of white Christianity that is inured from grappling with its own role in perpetuating atrocity.  How can it be that the people in those old souvenir photos of brutal lynchings would call themselves Christians, when they are reenacting the bloody work of the crucifiers?

This was a difficult read.  I'd like to think I have a kind of objective distance from the evangelical tradition I grew up in, but The Cross and the Lynching Tree made me think about the model of sin and salvation that it promulgated in a new light.  I was taught to believe in a narrow version of sin that existed only between individual people.  I might sin against my wife through adultery, or against a friend by lying to them, but confession and forgiveness might lead to reconciliation.  There was no sense of sin on a social, structural, or national scale--or of Martin Luther King's assertion that justice is what love looks like on a social scale.  There was plenty of charity and hard work, but never a sense that it was necessary in order to atone and correct for structural inequalities perpetuated by the white church in other ways.  Of course, neither did we think of ourselves as the white church.  We had members of color enough to avoid thinking of ourselves that way, but I think that an honest reckoning would situate those traditions in a history of whiteness.  Like Pilate we wash our hands of it.

I'm no theologian.  Brent can probably give you a better sense of how this book is situated in the debates about theology in the 20th century than I can.  I get the sense that Cone, a distinguished theologian at Union Seminary, has chosen to write in a mode where pure theology is minimized.  There is an intriguing suggestion that the cross is not, as I was taught to think about it, the location of a functional salvation but a pure symbol that represents God's alignment with the suffering of the marginalized and oppressed.  (Such a reading would be a deep and brutal indictment of, among other things, mansion-owning hucksters like Joel Osteen.)  Yet that seems only lightly developed or defended to me.

Instead, Cone offers a series of chapters each in a different mode: a historical account of lynching (almost too difficult to recap in any meaningful way), a theological challenge to Reinhold Niebuhr as emblematic of white passivism, a straight-up biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.  My favorite was a chapter of literary exegesis that traces the connection between the cross and the lynching tree in the work of black poets, artists, and musicians.  "It takes a powerful imagination, grounded in historical experience, to uncover the great mysteries of black life," Cone writes.  To him the truest theologians and prophets are poets.  Another chapter approaches womanist critics by meditating on the importance of women in the story of those who suffered lynching and those who attacked it.

The only thing that I wanted more of was a sense of the here and now.  How does the lynching attitude, the dehumanizing of black bodies and lives, inform our understanding of police brutality today?  Cone spares a final chapter to sketch these ideas--"The lynching of black America is taking place in the criminal justice system where nearly one-third of black men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight are in prisons, jails, on parole, or waiting for their day in court"--but the absence of the symbolic lynching tree means this section lacks the force and power of what precedes it.  Perhaps we will never be able to fix the problems in our policing and our criminal justice system without having a reckoning first about the despicable history of lynching.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

The Mortgaged Heart by Carson McCullers

There is a time when everybody wants to run away--no matter how well they get along with their family.  They feel they have to leave because of something they have done, or something they want to do, or maybe they don't know why it is they run away.

There is a story among McCullers' earliest works collected here called "Instant of the Hour After."  It's about a couple who have just had a party, and when all the guests leave, they begin to sharpen their knives at each other.  They're both drunk, and letting the most toxic parts of their relationship hang loose, but being drunk is a sometimes thing for her.  He's a drunk that tonight, like many nights, has drunk to excess.  "Can't a person even think," he says, "without being called obscene or sick or drunk.  No.  No understanding of thought.  Of deep deep thought in blackness.  Of rich morasses.  Morasses.  With their asses."  It's a vivid story, full of telling detail, but it kind of spins in drunk, dizzy circles without progressing.  "I like this the least of anything you have done," writes McCullers' editor Sylvia Chatfield Bates in a note included here.

Compare that to another story, grouped with McCullers' later works, called "Who Has Seen the Wind?"  She presents a similar couple, a little older now, perhaps because McCullers also was when she wrote it.  The drunk husband is now a writer, suffering from an acute sense of writers' block, which is exacerbated by his drinking problem in a way that he refuses to recognize.  The conflict is the same, but suddenly the story is filled with action and agency: he pretends to bang on the typewriter so his wife will think he's working; he drifts to a party where he knows no one and unloads his own anxieties onto an optimistic young writer, he walks through subzero temperatures back home because he doesn't have enough money to call a cab.  By releasing the character from the confines of the bedroom, McCullers turns a closet drama into a piece of convincing realistic fiction.  I was really struck by this comment about writing and war, which reads like a dark inversion of Muriel Spark's assertion that time is never wasted for the artist because all experience is material:

He crossed on D-Day and his battalion went all the way to Schmitz.  In a cellar in a ruined town he saw a cat sniffing the face of a corpse.  He was afraid, but it was not the blank terror of the cafeteria or the anxiety of a white page on the typewriter.  Something was always happening--he found three Westphalian hams in the chimney of a peasant's house and he broke his arm in an automobile accident.  The war was the great experience of his generation, and to a writer every day was automatically of value because it was the war.  But when it was over what was there to write about--the calm cat and the corpse, the lord in England, the broken arm?

"Who Has Seen the Wind?" is the story that "Instant of the Hour After" wanted to be.  It's thrilling, in a way, to see so clearly the progression of an artist.  McCullers' early stories are good, but they're mainly experiments in image and voice, capturing a moment (that titular "instant") rather than telling a story.  And then somehow, through hard work and intuition, facing those same fears about writing as the protagonist of "Wind" (and the same addiction, I'm sad to observe), McCullers became a mature virtuoso of short fiction.  And I enjoyed reading the notes from her editors, who sadly observe that a story she had written was rejected by fifteen different publicationsIt all gives an image of the artist's growth that's only possible because The Mortgaged Heart is a collection of unpublished odds and ends.

Among other things, it includes a brief precis of the plot of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, which was written for I don't know what reason.  It's fun to see what changes McCullers ended up making--in the outline here the novel is called "The Mute" and there are several ancillary characters who ended up getting cut.  A moment where Mick and Harry try and fail to build a working glider is taken straight from another unpublished story, "Untitled Piece," and though that didn't make it into the novel either, you can see a trace of it in the impotent homemade violin that Mick tries to make.

Other pieces--especially McCullers' essays--are pretty inert and I've already forgotten a lot about them.  "Who Has Seen the Wind?" is the cream of the crop, along with some stories about Christmas, which apparently was a big passion of McCullers'.  In one harrowing story that seems like it might be taken from real life, the narrator listens to a story by her black housekeeper about how her son once set down his baby brother near a hearth on Christmas day and it burned alive because of an errant spark.  The narrator, getting the wrong message from this horrible story, places her new infant sibling down on the hearth hoping to get rid of it.  All ends up well in that story, but it's the kind of grotesque gothic detail that McCullers does so well.  She died so young, at fifty--it's great to see how that skill developed, but hard not to feel that we were robbed of seeing where it could go.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Something was lying untoward below us, in a box inside that little house

Untoward    ly

May I tell you something?

It had the face of a worm

A worm, I say!    A worm the size of a boy    Wearing my suit


My first impression upon reading Lincoln in the Bardo was plain gratitude.  I felt gratitude to think that a book like this could be published, for all its weirdness, its unapproachability, its extravagance.  The subject matter is weird enough: Willie Lincoln, the president's son, awakes after his death in a kind of purgatory populated by the spirits of those in his cemetery who refuse to "pass on" to the other side.  But the book is also stylistically weird: it's written in snippets of those spirits' voices, who both speak to each other and narrate what they see, without any clear demarcation between those modes.  It's also interspersed with quoted passages, both eyewitness and historical, about Willie's death and the president's grief.  (Some, I am pretty sure, are made up, but not all--Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals makes an appearance.)  That it all hangs together is a miracle; that it could be published is a testament to the many years of excellent short stories Saunders has produced.  The compactness of stories lends itself to experimentation, but everything in Tenth of December seems now like prologue to me.

The spirits in Georgetown's Oak Hill cemetery all have their reasons for clinging to life instead of passing on to the next world.  Roger Bevins III committed suicide because he was unable to be with his male lover, but at the last minute he realized how much he will miss about the world, just on a sensory level ("swarms of insects dancing in slant-rays of August sun; a trio of black horses standing hock-deep and head-to-head in a field of snow; a waft of beef broth arrive breeze-borne from an orange-hued window on a chilled autumn--").  Hans Vollmann gets hit with a wooden beam before he can consummate his marriage with his much younger wife.  The premise allows Saunders the opportunity to emphasize these stories with Beetlejuice-style comic exaggeration: as Roger waxes poetic, his eyes, noses, and hands multiply into the hundreds.  Hans has an eternally enormous erection.

These two are the protagonists, more or less; it's principally through their (hundreds of) eyes that we see and understand Willie and Lincoln.  But the book is so full of funny, believable portraits of dead folks.  Some I liked especially: the miser woman who collects rocks, sticks, and motes in the afterlife.  The hunter who sits in front of a pile of all the animals he's ever killed, staring at each one until he has given it its proper due before it gets up and walks away.  A cruel slaveowner who gets exponentially taller as he rails against the laziness and perfidy of his slaves.  (Okay, some are less funny than others.)  One of the most chilling is a reverend who has already been judged and sent to Hell by Christ, a fate from which he has run back into this purgatory.  All of these are compelled to repeat their story over and over, speaking themselves into existence.  Their coffins they call "sick-boxes"; their bodies are "sick-forms."

Into this ecosystem comes the spirit of Willie Lincoln.  The president, utterly distraught by Willie's death, comes to visit the body, even going so far as to pick it up and hold it.  This makes Willie a kind of celebrity in the graveyard, and they flock to him to tell their stories, hundreds at a time, as if being held by the living Lincoln makes Willie a little bit closer to resurrection than they.  But children are not meant to stay long in this realm, and the longer Willie stays--he lingers knowing his father might return and pick him again--the more he is at risk for a kind of permanent eternal entrapment.  Hans and Roger do their best to get Willie to let go and pass on, a plot which inspires more of what you might call hijinks than you'd expect.

Though it's a lot of fun, Lincoln in the Bardo is at its best when its in an elegiac mode.  More than anything else, the novel is a meditation on grief and loss.  Lincoln struggles mightily with the loss of his son.  He memorably summarizes the paradox of death this way: "Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another."  And of course, the political context looms large here.  The war is going badly and bloodily for the Union, and Lincoln is deeply aware that he has sent other men's sons to die. 

Saunders recognizes, I'm happy to say, that any novel about the moral implications of the Civil War needs to dwell extensively on black Americans.  Willie's presence helps to bring down a psychic barrier between Oak Hill and the mass grave beyond the nearby fence, letting in a number of the black dead, including former slaves.  These characters provide some of the most profound pathos in the novel.  One man can't figure out why, when his masters were so kind to him, he feels the powerful urge to murder them.  Another meditates that he had his moments of freedom like most men, but is haunted by "[t]he thought, specifically, that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments."  A victim of rape is utterly mute.  These stories are so vital to the novel because as a nation we still reckon with the political valence of black loss and grief, with our attitude toward black bodies quite literally.  Saunders bends the rules of his world a little to let one of these men to literally walk out of the cemetery inside Lincoln's body.

I can say, hands down, this is the funniest novel about a cemetery featuring a man with a comically large penis that I have ever read.  If that praise is too faint, I'll add this: Lincoln in the Bardo is a tremendous exploration of what it means to die, to lose, to grieve.  May all our deaths be as full of joy as Willie Lincoln's, when he finally realizes he is dead:

All is    All is allowed now    All is allowed me now    All is allowed lightlightlight me now

Getting up out of bed and going down to the party, allowed

Candy bees, allowed

Chunks of cake, allowed!

Punch (even rum punch), allowed!

Let that band play louder!

Swinging from the chandelier, allowed; floating up to the ceiling, allowed going to the window to have a look out, allowed allowed allowed!