Thursday, October 18, 2018
It's 1968 and man is on his way to the moon. Artur Sammler is living on the Upper West Side, a Polish emigre. His daughter, perhaps unwittingly, steals a manuscript by an Indian cosmologist named V. Govinda Lal in order to share it with Sammler, to use in a memoir he's writing about H. G. Wells. They were once friends, Sammler and Wells, and Wells' optimism about humankind's ability to remake itself provides vital context for the novel. Mr. Sammler's Planet is one of those talky, thinky Bellow novels like Herzog and Seize the Day, full of meditations on Max Weber and Julius Caesar and Freud and god knows what else, but the manuscript caper gives it a bit of the shaggy feeling of more plotty novels like Augie March. While Sammler dreams about the moon, his daughter is hiding manuscripts in a locker in Grand Central Station.
At the same time, Sammler faces the impending death of his beloved nephew Elya, who has had a hemorrhage in his neck. The moon landing, and the dream of the future, is contrasted with the finality of death. As Sammler tells Elya's daughter, Angela, "But we don't have to decide whether the world is ending. The point is that for your father it is the end." Bellow beautifully captures one of the fundamental ironies about the tale of human progress: while mankind has a future, individual men and women can only partake in the smallest part of it. Sammler envisions the future person, "a colossal figure, a beautiful green color, with a hand that had evolved into a kit of extraordinary instruments, tools strong and subtle, thumb and forefinger capable of exerting thousands of pounds of pressure." But this future man (he sounds like the Jolly Green Giant) is no one you know.
Sammler knows about death. He survived the Holocaust; his wife did not. He dug her grave; he survived by hiding in a mausoleum. He leapt out of the grave twice over. He has faced death, and it provides him a kind of wisdom and moral authority that he is reluctant to use. Sammler can only observe: again and again he sees a pickpocket on the Riverside Drive bus, but he rejects the possibility of action. The whole world, he feels, is sliding into a kind of barbarism, into crime and sex. The green men of the future may be different, but who's to make things better now?
Okay. Now let's talk about this: the pickpocket, who is black, sees Sammler seeing him. He chases Sammler into the lobby of his building, where he corners him and shows him his penis. It's a show of masculine force, of course, an assertion of manhood meant to menace Sammler. The pickpocket is nattily dressed in a violet suit and Dior sunglasses, but his penis is coded as animal, barbaric--and starkly black. It's upsetting to see such a rankly racist symbol in the work of Bellow, who is often so perceptive. The fear of a black man's dick is so shallow, so juvenile, so sadly familiar. And of course, it's Sammler, the meticulous Jew, that gets to stand in for the forces of civilization. The ugliness of the scene poisons the whole book.
Or maybe it just reveals a conservative paranoia at the heart of the novel. It certainly makes me more suspicious of the way the novel deals with sex, which is always dangerous and always female. Elya's daughter Angela is a free-love advocate in the 60's mold, and an abortive swing in Mexico has Elya livid. When Sammler chastises her, are we supposed to read that as him finally recovering his moral voice? And why is Sammler unable to look at her without thinking about sex, as if it's something that radiates from her body, like stink-lines? "Smearing all," as he says, "with her female fluids."
I had a tough time with this novel. At the level of the sentence, the word, there might not be a better prose stylist in the English language than Bellow. He certainly knows how to describe a penis with flair. But why does he have to do it at all? Augie March calls himself a "Columbus of the near at hand," a man interested in exploring the depth of life all around him, but Sammler shrinks from it, fears it, and here at least so does Bellow. Why is Bellow able to extend a sympathetic eye to the green giant of the future, but not the black New Yorker of the present? The dream of the moon is the dream of a better human; but it's a dream of a better, kinder novel, too.
Sunday, October 14, 2018
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
In the first book of The Odyssey, Telemachus tells his mother not to criticize the bard for singing stories about his father, now more than twenty years gone from Ithaca: "You must know / the newest song is always praised the most." So it is with Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey, the first ever by a woman in the English language. Somewhere (I can't find it!) she says that each generation must produce its own translation, because a translation is as much about the contemporary world as it is about Homer's, and by that standard, Wilson's translation is very good indeed. It avoids the elevated language of former translations, that sought--wrongly, she thinks--to elevate the story also, choosing the simple language that reflects the simple vocabulary of the Greek and speaks with a simplified voice to the modern reader.
Compare the different versions of the opening line. "Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story / of that man skilled in all ways of contending," writes Robert Fitzgerald. Lattimore calls him a "man of many ways." Fagles, "the man of twists and turns." Fitzgerald's is a big clod of a sentence, but the other two perhaps get more to the heart of the Greek word, yet it's Wilson's rendering--Odysseus is a "complicated man"--that brings to life something essential about Odysseus' character. Yes, he's cunning, but his cunning does not always coincide with wisdom, and sometimes Odysseus' character shocks or alienates us. His boasts to the cyclops Polyphemus are clever, but they end in the death of all his men. At the end of the poem, he shows less mercy than he might. He kills women, he kills the parents of the suitors. Jonathan Shay saw in Odysseus a Vietnam veteran who can't leave the world of the battle behind, and lashes out at innocents--a complicated man. And maybe it's a stretch, but Wilson's translation seems quite appropriate for our moment, in which we are meditating daily on what exactly we should do with the complicated men in our lives.
Wilson's translation reminds us that The Odyssey, though it's about a king, favored by the gods, is in many ways the story of ordinary people. Unlike the Iliad, it sees and illustrates the lives of slaves, servants, sailors--and women, who even when exceptional are aligned with the ordinary hearth. It also makes for breezier reading. There are certain parts of this story I think I glossed over, having read both Fitzgerald and Fagles, that now appear clearly because of Wilson's lucid poetry. There's a whole B-plot where Telemachus picks up a prophet hiding on the shores of Ithaca and invites him into the household. I think I pretty much missed that every other time I read it.
Sometimes the plainspokenness becomes silly, like when Athena gives Odysseus a "tote bag." I miss some of the more poetic jolts, like when Fitzgerald says, "Of mortal creatures, all that breathe and move, / earth bears none frailer than mankind." Wilson writes, "Of all the creatures / that live and breathe and creep on earth, we humans / are weakest." Plainer, yes, but more prosaic. Much of the poetry gets thrown into high relief--especially Homer's metaphors and descriptions--but some of it gets lost, too.
Mostly, it's great. I envy people like Brent, who never had to read anything else. This ought to be the translation that's used in every school, for a generation, at least. Because, like Wilson notes, translations are a product of their own time as much as they are a document of antiquity, and it's hard to get students to appreciate the weird wonder of stepping into ancient Greece when they have to pass through the language of Victorian England, or early 20th-century Oxbridge. The next generation will have to make their own, but for this one, it's true that the "newest song" is most worthy of praise.
Thursday, October 11, 2018
My Year of Rest and Relaxation
by Ottessa Moshfegh
The carefree tranquility of sleep gave way to a startling subliminal rebellion - I began to do things while I was unconscious. I'd fall asleep on the sofa and wake up on the bathroom floor. Furniture got rearranged. I started to misplace things. I made blackout trips to the bodega and woke up to find popsicle sticks on my pillow, orange and bright green stains on my sheets, half a huge sour pickle, empty bags of barbecue-flavored potato chips, tiny cartons of chocolate milk on the coffee table, the tops of them folded and torn and gummy with teeth marks.
This is a most unusual, entertaining and ultimately beautiful book. While it not without precedent – there are echoes of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City, it is ultimately unlike anything I have read – totally lucid while still being largely hallucinogenic, solidly character driven while still feeling experimental. Wallowing in despair while still being laugh out loud funny and, somehow, getting beyond despair.
Moshfegh gives us an unnamed character who, at the start of the novel has already given up on life. She is young, financially independent (Moshfegh goes to great lengths to make her sure her finances never get in the way) and beautiful, but has decided life has nothing to offer her and plans to handle her ennui by sleeping for a solid year. While she visits a wonderfully comic psychiatrist who doles out psychotropic drugs and new-age advice with equal hysteria, her narrative moves back periodically to fill us in on the death of her parents, her soul-crushing work in a downtown art gallery and the vapid, useless support she gets from her one friend, Reva.
Much of the novel is taken up with lists of pills she is taking – some familiar, commercially available meds like Ambien and Nembutal, others apparently created by Moshfegh to underline her point (Infirmiterol). There are also long lists of the late 20thcentury movies the narrator watches on her old VCR while drifting in and out of sleep – Working Girl, Tootsie, Air Force Onethat convince you that it is not just the drugs that are putting her to sleep. There are also vivid descriptions of sleep, of dreams she has and dreams she makes up to feed her psychiatrist in order to secure more prescriptions.
The only real relationship is with her friend Reva. Reva is, in fact, the only other real character in the book. There are bodega owners and gallery owners and a hot downtown artist and two truly hideous boyfriends, but these characters are largely cartoons that flit in and out of the narrative as comic relief. The narrator’s relationship with Reva is marked by both concrete love – Reva continues to visit and cajole the narrator towards life despite dozens of rejections – and shallow competition over looks and weight.
Because Reva is a self-pitying alcoholic who quotes self-help books, I recognized her as vapid. Because she is almost endlessly loyal to the narrator I rooted for her. I was rooting for the narrator as well, though I often wondered whether that meant hoping she would take more sleep medication or less. She is whiny and endlessly self-involved, but totally honest about both those traits.
While the relationship with Reva gives the novel some substance, its plot is generally shapeless. Instead, it gets its shape from its setting. The novel opens in the fall of 2000 when the narrator hatches her plan to reboot her life by spending a year in drug-induced sleep. Which makes this a portrait of self-centered and self-destructive New York seemingly sliding towards despair while it is actually sliding towards 9-11. Of course no one knows that but the reader, and I was constantly reading Reva’s devotion to Oprah and the narrator’s hysterical drug use in the context of the oncoming planes. There is no discussion of politics whatsoever, but we do get a glimpse of some things the narrator encounters on television, like the Bush inauguration. Tiny details like that set up a rather surprising ending and turn the novel into one more full of heart and soul than any of its characters.
If I have a complaint it is that Reva disappears – the loyalty and care she showed the narrator, even if it was largely self-serving, deserved more closure than she got. But note I am reacting to her as if she were real, as if the relationship was real. That is something.
Posted by JPLoonam at 11:37 PM
Thursday, October 4, 2018
In the third book of Cormac McCarthy's "Border Trilogy," John Grady Cole, the protagonist of All the Pretty Horses, and Billy Parham, the protagonist of The Crossing, are working as cowboys at a ranch outside Alamogordo. It's a crossover episode! Both men, isolated and long-suffering as they are, like being cowboys. But it's a life that might not be long for this world; the federal government wants to turn the land they graze on into a military installation (today's White Sands Missile Range, probably). In the middle of the century, cowboys are a dying breed. One character, I forget who, remarks that the war changed everything.
It's not clear how the war changed cowboying, but it does remind me of the terrific ending of--which?--I think The Crossing, with its reference to the Trinity nuclear bomb test. And it aligns with McCarthy's notions of history, all of which he believes was written at the beginning of time, down to the life and death of a single man. For McCarthy, the arc of history is the same as entropy, it bends toward destruction and chaos.
The end is hastened by John Grady's falling in love with a Mexican prostitute. Their love poses its difficulties: she's fifteen, but that's nothing compared to the fact that she lives over the border in Juarez and is kept by a madman pimp who is also in love with her. Oh, and she has epilepsy, but she hasn't told John Grady that. It all unfolds in a recognizably violent fashion, remarkably recorded but with very few surprises.
At one point, Billy says:"I damn sure dont know what Mexico. I think it's in your head. Mexico." Which of course, is true. Both Billy and John Grady, despite fluent Spanish and extensive experience in the country to their south, understand Mexico as a kind of reflection of their own inner darkness. That's because McCarthy thinks about it as a reflection of their own inner darkness as well. Going to Mexico, especially in The Crossing, is something like the descent into hell in Greek epics. It's easy to excuse the way McCarthy exoticizes Mexico because he does that to America too, in a different way. After all, it's under a Texas overpass that the long epilogue takes place, in which an aged Billy meets a wise beggar who tells him about a mysterious dream.
I can accommodate that, but did I need another Mexican waif to fall in love with? I certainly didn't need her to be fifteen years old. Her age, her illness, all add up to extreme vulnerability and powerlessness, mark her for violence and death, make her the center of male rage, whether Eduardo's in keeping her or John Grady's in defending her. Her relationship with John Grady seems borrowed from his love for Alejandra in All the Pretty Horses, but with more mythology and more blood. In McCarthy's books, tragedy repeats itself as even darker tragedy.
The most well-wrought relationships in Cities of the Plain are between men. Between John Grady and Billy, outcasts and pilgrims who end up finding each other, and the other cowboys, who are mostly of the same stock. McCarthy has an ear for their language that sits in lovely tension alongside the mythopoetic gibberish he likes so much. (I don't mean that as an insult--I like that stuff, even when it's gibberish.) His belief in an irrevocable destiny, as violent as it is, ennobles these plainspoken cowboys.
Tuesday, October 2, 2018
I wish I hadn't read the back cover of Ice. I read the first few pages expecting something like Stephen King's The Stand--the world is throw into disarray by a castclysmic disaster, in the case, a new ice age, and the survivors have to... survive. And the first few pages reinforced this idea, with the protagonist (never named) picking up extra petrol for his drive in anticipation of "the cold" causing him problems.
But only paragraphs later, he's watching a girl, pale as the snow and underdressed for the weather, materialize in front of his car then be subsequently crushed by the ice, which is almost a living being throughout the book. But this doesn't surprise our intrepid driver--in fact, rather than being horrified, he's not at all sure how to react. And I felt the same, wondering if this really happened or not. And then he's at a house--I imagined a gothic-style manse--visiting presumably the girl and her husband (guess she didn't die). The husband is jovial and friendly, the girl cold and distant, until they go for a walk in the woods and the husband dangles our hero over a cliff while taunting him.
Then he leaves the house for some reason that now escapes me, and as he goes, he sees a dark, giant hand reaching out of the house and pulling the girl into it screaming.
This is the first 15 or 20 pages, and they set the tone (and the plot) for the whole novel. Variations recur over and over, as some man--sometimes a husband or lover, sometimes another person known only as The Warden--take the girl with them wherever they go, often imprisoning her in ways that intimate sexual violence, and our hero, such as he is, attempting to rescue her, only to run away or be taken away before he succeeds. There are a lot of hallucinations, though the book never tips its hand and tells us what's real. Often the hero swears he'll never look for her again, but always, his mind goes back to this strange woman (though the book always calls her a girl). As these cycles continue though, we start to see that our hero isn't exactly heroic, as he finds himself relating with the Warden and treating the girl just as violently and cruelly. It's very disturbing to read.
I asked for the keys, saying I would have a duplicate cut for the outer door: I had to be independent. She brought the two keys, but gave me only the key of my own door, hiding the other one in the palm of her hand. I told her to hand it over. She refused. I insisted. She became stubborn and retreated into the kitchen. I followed and took the key from her forcibly. I did not much care for this sort of behavior, but a principle was involved. She would not oppose me again.
Anna Kavan was an enigma of a writer. After an earlier career, under a different name, writing domestic dramas, she adopted the nom de plume Anna Kavan--a name from one of her own books--and proceeded to write several novels featuring, but not exactly starring, the pale girl from Ice. Throughout her life, she struggled with heroin addiction and mental illness, and it's very hard to read Ice without addiction in the foreground. And yet, to cast the men throughout the book as being simple standins for substances or illnesses seems overly simplistic. How to explain, for example, the almost James Bondesque government conspiracies that underly the movements of the protagonist and the Warden, or the outsized importance that the pale girl, who never really exists except as an object of desire and abuse? Ultimately Ice is a sad, disturbing novel by a woman who seems to have lived a rather sad, disturbing life. But it's a singular work, with a surreal tone--and subzero temperature--I've never seen anywhere else.
Posted by Brent Waggoner at 5:30 PM
Sunday, September 30, 2018
My favorite depiction of teaching is in D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow: the sensitive Ursula takes a job as a schoolteacher only to find herself pressed between the needs of students, parents, and administrators. The pressure acts on her geologically, transforms her into something she doesn't want to be, and she quits because she can't accept the transformation. Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey, about a young woman who becomes a governess, understands that pressure, too, though she's far too sure of herself to give into its transformative powers:
But either the children were so incorrigible, the parents so unreasonable, or myself so mistaken in my views, or so unable to carry them out, that my best intentions and most strenuous efforts seemed productive of no better result than sport to the children, dissatisfaction to their parents, and torment to myself.
Agnes first takes a job with a family whose children are avowed troublemakers, and whose character is perpetuated by their parents, who foist responsibility for their actions onto Agnes. (There's a familiar dynamic for you.) They set her papers on fire, throw them out the window, then escape when she goes to retrieve them. The little boy has captured a nest of baby birds and is saving them to torture; Agnes smashes them with a rock in a stone-hearted act of kindness, much to the boy's displeasure. Agnes loses the job, because the job itself is impossible; in fact, Agnes has served her purpose exquisitely, which is to serve as a convenient scapegoat for both children and parent.
Her second job is much better, but comes with its own difficulties. Her charges are two women, both a little older than the monsters in her previous gig: Matilda, a stubborn tomboy, and Rosemary, a shameless flirt. Agnes tries her best to rein in Rosemary's tendency to play with the hearts of local men, whose hopes she inflames, then discards. When Rosemary sets her sight on Mr. Weston, the kindhearted local sexton, Agnes suffers silently and represses the love she feels for him.
But Weston is too wise and generous not to see through Rosemary's attempts at flirtation. Rosemary herself comes to a bad end, married to a man she chooses for social status rather than character. Agnes, though humbler, is wiser, and though both her love and Mr. Weston's is slow to kindle, it seems inevitable. The love affair, like the one in Persuasion, happens at a distance through a kind of subatomic force. Unlike the one in Persuasion, though, it's a little boring; since Rosemary is no real threat, the only barriers to it are time and a tedious reticence to express their feelings that both Agnes and Weston share. It's Rosemary, actually, venal and thoughtless Rosemary, who is the most interesting character in the novel. Her wealth and beauty allow her to flout social sense with impunity, and even though we're convinced that Agnes' slow and steady practicality is wiser, Rosemary's just a lot more fun.
Being a governess, like being a teacher, was a job reserved for young, unmarried women with little wealth. Agnes Grey shows how soul-squeezing it can be, especially for those who are of stiff moral fiber and deep sensitivity. But in the end, marriage comes for Agnes, to rescue her from labor, without the menacing threat of a loss of independence. Weston reminds me of St. John Rivers from Charlotte's Jane Eyre in many ways, but perhaps the way St. John himself, as a good and generous man who offers stability and a shared service to God. Jane considers that and rejects it, returns to the wildness and strangeness of a life with Mr. Rochester; for Agnes, and seemingly for Anne, that kind of bourgeois piety is both safety and success.
Saturday, September 29, 2018
Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin begins with the title character, a Russian professor and emigre in America, on the wrong train to deliver a guest lecture. He chases down another train, a bus, hitches a ride, and the whole time you feel like Pnin is headed to some blackly comic disaster, the kind of thing that cruel-hearted novelists do to punish minor flaws: a car accident or a mugging, maybe. But Pnin makes it to the college all right, a little later. Later on in the novel, we see Pnin from above, in his new car, having just learned to drive, moving like a beetle, ineptly trying to find the house of a fellow emigre. But ultimately, Pnin lucks out and finds a sign, which he follows to the house. At the novel's end, Pnin is washing his dishes--yes, this is a novel where the climax is a man washing his own dishes--when he drops a nutcracker and hears the crack of glass. Heartsick, he reaches in to find it's only a goblet that's broken, not the expensive and beautiful punch bowl given to him as a gift by his dear stepson.
It's not that nothing bad can happen to Pnin. He's a refugee from the Russian revolution, after all. We find out about an early beloved who became a victim of the Nazis, and in some of Nabokov's most heart-stopping prose:
One had to forget--because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman, with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car to an extermination camp and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one's lips in the dusk of the past. And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one's mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burned alive in a pit on a gasoline-soaked pile of beechwood.
But for better or worse, there's no country for forgetting the past like America. Pnin seems so vulnerable--his English is poor, he's been abandoned by his wife, he lives in a succession of rented rooms--but he is also charmed. Disasters loom but never happen, the house appears, the punch bowl doesn't break. Though his transition into America is long and difficult, he seizes it with a kind of gusto. When he has to have his teeth replaced, he is first sad at the loss, but comes to love the new false teeth, which he calls a "firm mouthful of efficient, alabastrine, humane America." And while Nabokov positions himself as a "friend" of Pnin's, inserting himself at rare moments into the narrative, it seems clear that Pnin is a kind of idealized version of Nabokov himself, for whom America is a kind of unalloyed blessing.
Hardly anything happens in Pnin. Scenes are set, and then seem to stall. His ex-wife, Liza Wind, begs him to take in her son for a while, and the scene between the teenager and Pnin, both equally bewildered, is very touching, but by the next passage the teen is shuffled off somewhere else. (He's the one that later sends the beautiful punchbowl.) Mostly, Pnin is a series of character sketches. They show us a Pnin who is a little absent-minded, mostly ignorant of the threat of disaster, who speaks English poorly but with great charm, who is somehow both roundly mocked and well-liked, who is a bad but well-respected teacher. Nabokov was certainly capable of writing a gripping plot (both Lolita and Despair are pretty tense!) but here he seems content to sit with his creation in the small rooms he occupies on the edge of a Northeastern college, and trusts that Pnin is charming enough that we'll feel the same way, too. And mostly he's right.
Wednesday, September 19, 2018
The truth is that things do not work out, that there are no solutions, and you can go a year, a whole year, and be no better, no more healed, maybe even worse, be so skittish that if you’re walking down the street with Anna, and if someone opens a car door and gets out and slams the door you turn around, honest-to-god ready to kill them, turn around so fast that Anna, who knows what is happening, cannot even open her mouth in time and then you’re standing there, crying, and there’s some guy in a leather jacket and a fedora getting out of his Volkswagen Rabbit staring at you like, is this girl all right? and you want to be like, this girl is not all right, this girl will never be all right.I picked up this novel after my sister recommended the movie; I watched the preview, inferred that the book was about a father and his daughter living off the grid, challenging the status quo, etc. I could not have been more mistaken. Tallent's novel is the most brutally violent book I have ever read. It is a story of abuse more than anything else, and nothing prepared me for the gore and specificity of the violence Tallent lays out. Turtle (or Julia), the heroine, is interesting enough that you want to keep reading to see whether she emerges on the other end, but I had to repeatedly put the book down because the prose was so graphic.
The writing itself was bizarrely uneven. In some places, Tallent's descriptions are lyrical and beautiful. This was especially true when he was describing Turtle as she moved through the lush forest surrounding her home:
She holds her breath and sinks to the bottom and, drawing he knees to her shoulders with her hair rising around her like weeds, she opens her eyes to the water and looks up and sees writ huge across the rain-dappled surface the basking shapes of newts with their fingers splayed and their golden-red bellies exposed to her, their tails churning lazily.Moments like this are scattered throughout, a welcome relief to the graphic violence. But then he does things like using the phrase "gathering rain" three times on the same page; sometimes his prose was so stilted that it took me out of the story entirely. Turtle (and, I can only assume, the author) has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of firearms, and the sections detailing the maintenance, care, and use of guns read almost like instruction manuals which I also found distracting. The many, many moments of violence are so incredibly sharp and precise that they feel almost pornographic in their specificity. Overall, the writing felt choppy and disconnected and the brutality of the text made it almost unreadable.
Overall this was just too much for me. It wasn't paritcularly redemptive, it wasn't beautiful or interesting enough to make the violence worth enduring. Maybe that's the point? Sound and fury signifying nothing, etc, etc, but Tallent tries for a resolution that he doesn't quite land which muddles the whole thing.
Posted by Chloe Pinkerton at 8:42 PM
Sunday, September 16, 2018
(The second in my totally coincidental "C______ __ the Country" series.)
"Poor Undine!" Ralph Marvell thinks of his wife, "She was what the gods had made her--a creature of skin-deep reactions, a mote in the beam of pleasure." Formerly Undine Spragg, she appears on the New York social scene as a teenager fresh from the Midwestern town of Apex City, having cajoled her parents into relocating, desperate to climb her way into the ranks of the elite. She marries Ralph, a socialite and poet, but soon realizes that his social status doesn't coincide with wealth, and that he's unable to keep her in the style she requires, or keep up their social calendar.
Undine's need to be in the right "set" obliterates everything else: compassion, decency, Ralph himself. She melts down when she finds out she's pregnant, wailing the loss of "a whole year out of life!" She abandons Ralph and her son Paul, absconding to Europe as the mistress of a richer and more well-connected man, but he abandons her. She divorces Ralph, but later blackmails him for custody of Paul so that she might pay off the pope, have their marriage annulled, and marry a French count. But the French count is in much the same position as Ralph, and the needs of his estate prevent exactly the same kind of social life that Undine's marries in an attempt to secure. This section of the novel is a Jamesian comparison of American and European social mores, and Undine's French husband savages her for her crass American social-climbing:
'And you're all alike,' he exclaimed, 'every one of you. You come among us from a country we don't know, and can't imagine, a country you care for so little that before you've been a day in ours you've forgotten the very house you were born in--if it wasn't torn down before you knew it! You come among us speaking our language and not knowing what we mean; wanting the things we want, and not knowing why we want them; aping our weaknesses, exaggerating our follies, ignoring or ridiculing all we care about--you come from hotels as big as towns, and from towns as flimsy as paper, where the streets haven't had time to be named, and the buildings are demolished before they're dry, and the people are as proud of changing as we are of holding to what we have--and we're fools enough to imagine that because you copy our ways and pick up our slang you understand anything about the things that make life decent and honourable for us!'
Undine is a terrific character, one of Wharton's best. But she is a difficult character to love. Ralph isn't wrong about the narrowness of her mental life, and her expanding capacity for cruelty is buttressed by a willful blindness toward her own actions. The dissolution of her marriage with Ralph is thanks only to "dark machinations," and she feels no need to consider the pain and labor involved in the creation of the money she consumes because it is only what she feels she deserves. In other books, Wharton provides characters who feel trapped by the cloisters of the upper class even as they crave moneyed society, like Newland Archer and Lily Bart. Undine doesn't have those kind of compunctions.
But consider: What kind of sympathy is owed to Ralph, the poet who is tortured because he has to go into business to support his wife's profligacy? There are poets everywhere who do much duller work. And isn't Undine a prime example of the way that capitalism intertwines with patriarchy, rewarding women for being beautiful, idle, and well-married? We want Undine to be a better person, but the kind of person Undine wants to be is the kind of person newspapers tell her she ought to want to be every day.
In the end, Undine returns to her first husband: an American from Apex named Elmer Moffatt. Their marriage is a secret to almost every one, even after he turns up in New York to use his cunning as a financier to strike it rich. Years ago, Undine gave up Elmer because he was a no one from a nowhere place, the embodiment of the provinciality of the Midwest. By the book's end, he's one of the wealthiest men in America. His money intelligence does it for him, but also his utter disregard for the complex systems of politesse that govern society. When he's amassed enough money, he floats above them. Undine has believed that money is incidental to social standing--that's the kind of lie your Marxist friends might call a false consciousness--but the truth it, when you have enough of it, you can buy all the standing you want. Elmer becomes a collector of the kind of European treasures that the French count Chelles hoards, and he re-collects Undine along with the Count's ancient tapestries.
Do we want Undine to win, in the end? America certainly wins; all of Europe's history and society and manners crumble before the good old American dollar. But Undine is only on the precipice of understanding what so many characters in American fiction have to learn: money will buy you everything you want, and in the end, you discover the things you want don't scratch whatever primal itch is there inside you.
Friday, September 14, 2018
The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks
by Jeanne Theoharis
This fable - of an accidental midwife without a larger politics - has made Parks a household name but trapped her in the elementary school curriculum, rendering her uninteresting to many young people. The variety of struggles that Parks took part in, the ongoing nature of the campaign against racial injustice, the connections between Norther and Southern racism that she recognized, and the variety of Northern and Southern movements in which she engaged have been given short shrift in her iconization. Park's act was separated from a community of people who prepared the way for her action, expanded her stand into a moment and continued with her in the struggle for justice in the decades ht followed.
This is an excellent piece of scholarship and an important contribution to our understanding of history. Theoharis has done a monumental amount of research and synthesized it carefully in the service of her central thesis: that Rosa Parks was a committed political activist, radical in her thought and consistent in her activism; that the myth of the tired seamstress who just wanted to sit down is designed to re-imagine her in a way that is safe for America to embrace; that that re-imagining of Parks is part of a larger project designed to defang the civil rights movement - to make it seem safe by making it appear peaceful, inevitable, and - most importantly - over.
Theoharis makes clear that Parks had been involved in radical politics since her teen years. She was a longstanding member of the NAACP and her husband was closely associated with the Communist Party, though never himself a member. She gives a detailed accounting of previous protests and movements Parks had been involved in - especially around the Scottsboro Boys case, during which the CPUSA was a driving force of resistance. She also makes clear that the NAACP decision to focus attention on Parks' arrest grew out of a years long search for an appropriate, politically viable case - a search that Parks herself had been involved in. Her portrait of Claudette Colvin, a Montgomery teenager who got arrested for refusing to give up her seat on the bus a few months before Parks' arrest is at least as compelling as the Parks story itself.
Theoharis gives a very serviceable account of the bus boycott that grows in response to Parks' arrest, though she makes clear that Parks was only peripherally involved in its leadership. She goes on to account for Parks' continued activism in their final months in Montgomery and her many years living in Detroit. In the end, her thesis appears not just valid, but unassailable.
In fact, if the book has a flaw it is that it is too thesis driven. While Theoharis complains that there has been no scholarly full biography of Parks, she herself has essentially used the Parks story to make her point about the nature of the civil rights movement. We come away with a clear understanding that Parks was not some naively gentle old lady with sore feet, but we don't get a clear picture of who she was. Theoharis does recount other episodes of defiance Parks engaged in - refusing previous orders from bus drivers to enter through the back door or drinking from white water fountains. She quotes Parks discussing her refusal to take part in her own humiliation.
That is a striking phrase - both in that it characterizes Jim Crow so effectively as a system requiring African Americans to participate in their own humiliation and that it offers the clearest window into the character of Rosa Parks. I ended the book wondering what it would be like to live a life under those circumstances and refuse to take part in your own humiliation. Unfortunately, it is not a central focus of the book. Ultimately, Theoharis is more interested in expressing her own ideas about history than in capturing Parks' character.
Posted by JPLoonam at 10:12 PM
Wednesday, September 12, 2018
I read Pat Schneider's How the Light Gets In a few months ago. The summer--or the beginning of it at least--is time for my writing, and I really loved Schneider's thoughtful meditations on how writing is connected to the inner spiritual life of the writer. But fall is back, which means school is back, which means I'm returning to the more didactic Writing Alone and With Others to prepare.
Even though the book is instructional, not fictional, Schneider's style reminds me most of Marilynne Robinson. Schneider's vision of the workshop is full of the same kind of generosity, borne out of a deep regard for the intrinsic value of people. Schneider draws deeply on her experience leading workshops for women in housing projects in western Massachusetts, and while she insists that writing "isn't therapy," she sees it as a vital step in recognizing one's own voice. "You are a writer," she reminds the reader. She encourages her participants to reflect on the ways they have been writing their whole life, and on the power of their own voice. I was touched by a story in which a black woman, highly educated, writes a poem in the vernacular of her close family, a voice truer to her childhood than the one which she has painstakingly learned, and says, "No one has ever wanted that from me before." I have been thinking for the past few weeks about how those kind of moments can happen in the crucible of the high school classroom.
A lot of what's in Writing Alone and With Others gets developed more fully in How the Light Gets In. There's a shorter version of the story in which her writing teacher tells her a bare lightbulb hanging from the ceiling of her impoverished home is "cliche," even though that's the way it really was for Schneider growing up poor in the Ozarks. I was more affected by the personal touch of How the Light Gets In, because it gives a convincing model for how self-actualization can actually happen through writing, but the practical side of Writing Alone has already made it an invaluable tool for my classroom. Among other things, she's convinced me not to give grades on writing assignments, and to allow students to deviate more from assignments when they feel empowered to.
Her collection of exercises is mostly pretty commonplace--write using a photograph, write to someone you haven't seen in a long time--but others are so bizarre I can't help but bookmark them for future use. I like the one where she invites her students to imagine a person with whom they have unfinished business as an animal, and then themselves as an animal, and then they meet, as animals. I also really liked the comment from a participant who relishes in simpler prompts, saying that they'd rather describe "God's hat" than reflect on God. I'm excited to ask my students to describe God's hat.
Tuesday, September 11, 2018
John McPhee's 1976 book about Alaska, Coming into the Country, is divided into three sections. The first is about canoing the tributaries of the Kobuk River, which begins on the western coast at the city of Kotzebue. The second is about the attempt, now aborted, to replace Juneau as the state's capital with a new city in somewhere more centrally located. The third, title essay, and the longest, is about those who live in the bush country of the Yukon River, in old pioneer towns like Eagle and Circle, and out in subsistence-level cabins miles and miles from other human beings. Where McPhee canoes the Kobuk is about six hundred miles from Eagle, and from Eagle to Juneau is another six hundred. Coming into the Country is not so much about Alaska but Alaskas, the several landscapes that, when laid over the continental United States, would stretch from Florida to California.
The three essays capture a specific Alaskan moment. It's been a state for less than two decades. The Native Claims Act has entitled to the federal government millions of acres for the use of future national parks, none of which has been established yet. (Two years after the book's publication, that land on the Kobuk River would become part of Kobuk Valley National Park.) The white settlers in the title essay feel threatened by the parceling of land, and cling to the belief that by building cabins on the remote creeks that lead into the Yukon, they exert more claim to the land than the government that owns it but administers it from five thousand miles away.
McPhee sympathizes with them, and there is a kind of admirable extravagance in the settler who rails about the Fed, "They think they own this country." In 2018, after the anti-B.L.M. terrorism of folks like Cliven Bundy, however, these views seem less charming. But in 1976 they are emphasized by the surprising impossibility of the task of finding the perfect site for a state capital: the needs to avoid permafrost, to construct roads, to be centrally located, they eliminate so much of the state that you come away shocked by how precious land is in this wilderness. In Eagle, a town bordered by nothing for a hundred miles in every direction, you can barely buy a plot of land.
Much has changed in Alaska since Coming into the Country was published. McPhee's assertion that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline means that "for the first time in human history, it will be possible to drive a Winnebago--or, for that matter, a Fleetwood Cadillac--from Miami Beach to the Arctic Ocean," has proved true. But his assertion that you would be able to drive also to Kotzebue has not. I wonder what he would say, or Alaskans would say, about the fear that something is close to being lost with the development of Alaska:
And a very few will then jump free, going deep into the roadless world. By the time they reach Eagle, their momentum is too great to be interrupted by an act of Congress, even if they know of it and understand what it says. What the law now calls for is the removal of the last place in the United States where the pioneer impulse can leap from confinement.
It's a cliche, almost, to call Alaska our last frontier, but in doing so, McPhee argues that we claim something psychologically vital to our national character. He really hates the attempt to bring to Alaska the modes and patterns of urban America, as represented by Anchorage. He says, not quite fairly, I think: "Almost all Americans would recognize Anchorage, because Anchorage is that part of any city where the city has burst its seams and extruded Colonel Sanders."
I don't read a lot of non-fiction, but I really enjoyed the ease and subtlety of McPhee's style. He has a knack for sarcasm that's so light, you can almost miss it, and he goes out of his way to trust his reader's intelligence. There are several moments, like this one, when he discusses a settler's pet dog Tara, who's half-wolf: "She once got out, and slit the throat of Andrea's pet dog, Lazarus. Lazarus survived." I love how he refuses to make the irony plain. I can barely resist doing it now, writing this sentence. But McPhee is so self-effacing, so eager to get out of the way that he manages to capture the size of the landscape and the peculiarity of the characters living within it with a special grace. And when he does make himself seen, freaking out about grizzly bears, say, or meditating on the claims of the white settlers against the federal government, it comes as a small, human, surprise.
Saturday, September 1, 2018
That's what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It's geometrically progressive - all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.Juliet Ashton is a writer and lover of books and stories who made a name for herself writing a column about life in London during World War II. After the war, she finds herself searching for new book ideas and stumbles upon the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club that arose out of necessity on the island of Guernsey during Nazi occupation. Her letters back and forth to its various members form the bulk of this novel, along with her correspondence with her various love interests.
There is nothing new or groundbreaking here, but it was very adorable and just what my addled brain needed. There are several love triangles, some mysteries, enough tragedy to make you feel like your reading a "serious" book (when really you aren't but that's okay too...). The strongest bonds between the characters come from their mutual love for and appreciation of literature, and while the human love stories are engaging, everyone's love affairs with their various favorite books were even more endearing.
It's now a movie on Netflix (yes, I do have it playing in the background right now) and it's absolute perfect fodder for that. Even as an epistolary novel, it's vivid and cinematic, and Juliet is funny and acerbic and makes for a very relatable female lead. 10/10 would read again while emerging from the fog of motherhood!
Posted by Chloe Pinkerton at 12:57 PM
My only previous experience with Angels in America was watching some of the HBO miniseries while home on Christmas break from college. I can admit now that most of the nuance was completely lost on me, and that I didn't make it far. As an older, more careful reader (and not casual TV watcher), I still feel like some of the nuance was lost on me, but I was blown away by Kushner's poetic ease and the layers upon layers upon layers in each and every scene.
Angels in America is, on the surface, a play about the AIDS crisis. It centers around a gay couple in the late 80's, one of whom has AIDS, and it spirals out to touch on everything from the national politics of AIDS to faith, religion, race, and what it means to belong. There is a lot going on here, both thematically and physically--scenes often involve two or more geographically and even temporally separate conversations happening simultaneously and weaving in and out of one another. The many narratives of the play, some fictional, some pseudo-biblical, and some historical, are all tumbling out onto each other and lending new dimensions to one another as they go. I feel like I could read it three more times and still pick up on more subtlety.
The primary reason why I feel the need to re-read (or at least watch) this at least once more is that I really struggled with the various layers of religion/spirituality/subconscious that are woven throughout. Only one character, Harper, is portrayed as mentally ill; her (many) visions and dreams were relatively easy for me to process and fit into the context of the play, but there is an entire "angels" plot arc that seems to push in and out of reality and draws in even the most pragmatic of the characters. It's clearly a narrative arc that is central to the theme of the play, and it's interesting, but it really threw me for a loop. I like knowing what's real and what isn't, and when literature or film messes with that line, I have trouble engaging (magical realism and I are not always the best of friends). That particular issue was not a good one to have while reading this play where everything descends into a grey area of spirituality/drug and illness-enduced madness that leaves a lot up to the reader/viewer to interpret.
Despite the fact that this is a play written nearly thirty years ago about an epidemic which is largely under control (at least in the white gay community), it still feels relevant (explaining why audiences are still willing to sit through seven and a half hours of theater to watch it). The characters, even when they were hallucinating, were relatably flawed and Kushner is able to portray shades of personality impressively quickly and concisely (this is something I'm always impressed by with plays. I should read them more).
Posted by Chloe Pinkerton at 12:36 PM
Friday, August 31, 2018
It's happening to me again.
The soft-drink stand fell to bits. Molecules. He saw the molecules, colorless, without qualities, that made it up. Then he saw through, into the space beyond it, he saw the hill behind, the trees and sky. He saw the soft-drink stand go out of existence, along with the counter man, the cash register, the big dispenser of orange drink, the taps for Coke and root beer, the ice-chests of bottles, the hot dog broiler, the jars of mustard, the shelves of cones, the heavy round metal lids under which there were different ice creams.
In its place was a slip of paper. He reached out his hand and took hold of the slip of paper. On it was printing, block letters.
If I read one Philip K. Dick book every year, I won't finish them all for 36 years. I'll be 68. There's a comfort in that, I think, the idea that there's an author you'll (nearly) always be able to return to, like Mom's cooking. And Dick's books are comforting in that way exactly: plotty, fast-paced, engaging, even when they're truly weird. Time Out of Joint is one of the less weird ones I've ever read (though still, surely, much weirder than 99% of the books that have ever been written) but it's got that flavor, for sure.
Ragle Gumm makes his living solving a newspaper contest called "Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?" The contest comes with a set of clues, knotty word puzzles like cryptic crosswords. He doesn't use them. His method is purely aesthetic: he has a machine that helps him scan for patterns over the course of many days. He makes a living that way, on the prize money, and his success at the contest makes him a famous man. He lives comfortably with his sister, Margo, and her husband, Vic, and their son, Sammy, and he's got his eyes on the wife of their next door neighbor.
Hallucinations begin to unravel his life. Things that seem to be real, like the soft-drink stand, suddenly disappear. In their place are pieces of paper, mere words where once there were things:
Central problem in philosophy. Relation of word to object... what is a word? Arbitrary sign. But we live in words. Our reality, among words not things. No such thing as a thing anyhow; a gestalt in the mind. Thingness... sense of substance. An illusion. Word is more real than the object it represents.
Word doesn't represent reality. Word is reality. For us, anyhow. Maybe God gets to objects. Not us, though.
On Sammy's crystal radio, he begins to pick up conversations from a nearby military installation, conversations which seem to be about him. "Passing over him now," says an airplane pilot over his radio, and an airplane booms overhead. Ragle's used to fame, because of the contest, but this is new. He starts to think of himself as the most famous man in the world, so famous, in fact, that reality seems to be structured around him, to sustain him, and perhaps to trap him. His attempts to escape the town where he lives, to get out of the illusion along with his brother-in-law, are foiled by people who seem suspiciously like actors. There's a whole Truman Show thing to it.
When he finally does escape, he finds himself in a strange dystopian place. The world government calls itself "One Happy World," but it seems to be at war with a set of colonists on the moon. A group of teenagers--who dress like West Africans and talk in a strange, possibly racist, pidgin dialect--finger him as a "lunatic": a moon colonist, from Luna. (These teenagers are the best omen of just how bonkers Dick's later books would become.) The year is not 1959, but 1998, and Ragle's newspaper contest is somehow part of the war against the moon.
So much of Time Out of Joint is recognizable in Dick's later works. He became obsessed with the idea that the time wasn't what it seemed, eventually coming to suspect he himself was trapped not in an illusion of the past but an illusion of the future, and that time really stopped in ancient Rome. This is one of the key aspects of the VALIS trilogy. It's explained to Ragle that they only capitalized on his own regression; it was him that wanted to return to the 50's of his childhood, they only helped him complete the illusion. The irony is that the author himself became very much like the character. I wonder if the Dick of the 1980's ever looked back at Time Out of Joint and recognized his own fantasies of regression, which became the shape of his own late mental illness.
Part of the charm of Time Out of Joint is that it was written in 1959, and has a 1959 idea of what 1998 would be like. We've advanced far enough to have colonies on the moon, but we're still talking over the radio, which is what allows Ragle to discover the truth about himself. And we're still using telephone numbers with the old style two-letter exchanges, like Klondike and Butterfield; part of Ragle's investigation involves calling 1998 exchanges found in a contraband phone book that don't yet exist. The novel becomes an artifact of retrofuturism that it was not quite meant to be, anticipating the kind of white-bread nuclear family 1950's nostalgia that would become widespread in at the end of the century. Like that movie Pleasantville, which, of course, came out in 1998.
Thursday, August 30, 2018
Why does someone become a terrorist? I think we're allergic to a question like that, even in the post -9/11 era, perhaps especially in that era. It's easy to compartmentalize political violence away as a kind of evil that springs from evil, but harder to face the truth that those who commit terrorism think they're doing the right thing. They're wrong, of course, but what difference could we make if we were more willing to understand that frame of mind? And how might it make us rethink the kinds of violence we consider necessary or salubrious?
One thing that Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, about an English communist named Alice who assists in a bombing by her commune, makes clear is that the decision to commit political violence is rarely made from ideological convictions alone. There are interpersonal pressures that push toward violence, just as there are those that pull away from them, but they only work when there's a kernel of belief that the act is good. The Good Terrorist is a study in how our convictions intersect with our more personal, human needs, to create violence that might otherwise seem unthinkable.
Alice is not really ideological. Her understanding of Marx is muddy and her grasp of radical feminism considered scandalous. Her mode of communism is, at least at first, about building, not destroying. She and her boyfriend (or maybe it's just a crush?) Jasper move into a "squat," an abandoned building run by the Council Estate (like a housing project) occupied by the indigent, drifters, and by Communist types who have checked out of capitalist society. There's no heat or water. The squat is a mess. The Council has filled the toilets with concrete, so the upstairs is full of buckets of urine and feces. Alice makes it her mission, as she has apparently done in the past, to rehabilitate the house: burying the feces, cleaning the house, fixing it, convincing the Water people to turn on the water and the Council to approve their habitation. All of it requires money, which she begs for from family, then steals. Slowly it becomes a livable place again.
But that's not what everyone wants. Some inhabitants of the house refuse the improvements, claiming that they have chosen anonymity and squalor. Jasper and another member of the house, Bert, think that Alice's home improvement project is more or less a distraction from the "Cause," even though their overtures to become a political cell for the IRA, and then the KGB, have been rejected. "The Cause suffers," Jasper tells her, "while you play house and gardens." Only when the house and the inhabitants begin to fall apart--undone by petty infighting, police harassment, Council indifference--does violence seem like a possible path for Alice, an apt expression of anger and hopelessness.
Alice is deluded. She's quick to understand other people, and get what she wants from them, but she has no understanding of the way her own political self comes out of her cruel rejection of her bourgeoisie parents, whom she torments. Her love for the cruel and foolish Jasper is self-annihilating. But she, unlike her fellow comrades, has a spark of human empathy for the marginalized:
She was thinking that this is what happened to marginal people, people clinging on but only just. They made one slip; something apparently quite slight happened, like the Greek, but it was part of some downward curve in a life, and that was that--they lost their hold and fell.
And yet it's awfully easy, when the time comes, to redirect all her energy for building into a capacity for destruction. The final scene of the bombing, which goes more or less awry, is deflated by the blank stylelessness of Lessing's prose, which can make the book seem, at times, monotonous. But the novel's great strength is its understanding of the revolutionary psyche, how it's formed and operates. Lessing understands how our best instincts can be transformed, twisted into our worst ones.
Sunday, August 26, 2018
The happiness and serenity of the South disconcerted him. He had felt good in the North because everyone else felt so bad. True, there was a happiness in the North. That is to say, nearly everyone would have denied that he was unhappy. And certainly the North was victorious. It had never lost a war. But Northerners had turned morose in their victory. They were solitary and shut-off to themselves and he, the engineer, and got used to living among them. Their cities, rich and busy as they were, nonetheless looked bombed out. And his own happiness had come from being onto the unhappiness beneath their happiness. It was possible for him to be home in the North because the North was homeless. There are many things worse than being homeless in a homeless place--in fact, this is one condition of being at home, if you are yourself homeless. For example, it is much worse to be homeless and then to go home where everyone is at home and then still be homeless. The South was at home. Therefore his homelessness was much worse in the South because he had expected to find himself at home there.
Will Barrett is a Southerner, by way of Louisiana and Alabama, living in New York City. He is intelligent, kind, and diligent, but Percy tells us that "he looked better than he was" and that in him "something was missing." He suffers from psychological maladies both specific and abstract: he suffers from amnesia and fugue states, sometimes forgetting who he is, and more general ennui. He engages a psychiatrist, and does everything prescribed to him, but in years of therapy has made no progress. Still he wants to know, why does he feel so bad when he ought to feel good? Why do good environments make him feel bad and bad environments make him feel good? A detail shows that he suffers from the same modernism that Binx Bolling does in Percy's The Moviegoer: he visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the Velazquez looks dead and inert to him until a worker falls through a ceiling light. Suddenly it is "glowing like a jewel"--proximity to tragedy elevates life, though momentarily. For Binx it's the movies that make things real; for Will it's his telescope, that makes the bricks on the buildings across Central Park suddenly alive. Both of them have the same problem: How is it possible, they ask, to live from one moment to the next?
Though existential angst must be universal, for Percy it's always tied to geography. Will's self-imposed exile from the South is a kind of self-abegnation:
New York is full of people from small towns who are quite content to live obscure lives in some out-of-the-way corner of the city. Here there is no one to keep track. Though such a person might have come from a long line of old settlers and a neighborhood rich in memories, now he chooses to live in a flat on 231st Street, pick up the paper and milk on the doorstep every morning, and speak to the elevator man. In Southern genealogies there is always a mention of a cousin who went to live in New York in 1922 and not another word. One hears that people go to New York to seek their fortunes, but many go to seek just the opposite.
I don't feel that way--I feel quite at home in New York--but as an ex-pat Southerner I recognize some of the shape of Will's life. Hell, I finished the novel on a plane this morning headed back to New York from visiting my own ancestral home. The South is central to Will's identity; he embraces it, right down to college football and golf (Percy is the novelist of golf), but he runs from it because embracing it doesn't make him feel any better. It makes him feel worse because the embrace of it does so little.
Will's return to the South happens this way: using his telescope, he spies a beautiful girl retrieving a secret message on a bench in Central Park. He follows her to a hospital in Washington Heights (Columbia Medical School, where Percy himself once studied) to find her attending to her terminally ill teen brother, Jamie. Will ingratiates himself into the family, who turn out to be old-school Alabamians, too, fellow aliens. The family's patriarch, Chandler Vaught, employs Will to be a kind of caretaker for Jamie, and return to Alabama with them. His daughter, Kitty, falls dutifully but difficultly in love with Will. Added to these are Rita, a dutiful sister-in-law who manages Jamie's care and is suspicious of Will; Val a sister to Jamie and a sister of the cloth (she's a nun), and Sutter, a disgraced doctor and self-professed pornographer whose influence on Jamie is considered slightly less dangerous than his illness.
Left in New York by the family, Will hitches a ride with a John Howard Griffin-style photographer disguised as a black man. Together they're ambushed in Levittown by a mob thinking they've come to "bust the block," meaning sell a house to a black man. It's a weird and funny digression, meant to highlight, perhaps, the rottenness at the heart of the century of the American suburb (Levittown is America's first), and deflect the idea that racial tension is the property of the south. There's a touch of real gallantry in Will when he snaps at his companion not to give in to the mob by showing them the remaining spot of Caucasian skin. It's a nice moment, especially because Percy, like Will, often keeps his black characters at arm's length.
When Will is finally reunited with the Vaughts, the plot remains comic and frenzied, and sometimes borders on nonsense. There's an inherent but understandable silliness in the way the family hinges on Jamie's wishes: when he wants to go to school, Jamie, Will, and Kitty all enroll at the University of Alabama; when he wants to jet off to New Mexico, Will's got withdraw from school and climb in the camper van. Take a step back and you'll see how wild it is that this family invites this genial stranger into their life this way at all. But perhaps they know, like Will, that in the proximity of danger and death everything changes, even as they uphold the banners of the rectitudinous country-club South.
Will's return to the South might have played like Milkman's in Song of Solomon: an expedition to an ancestral home that allows the protagonist to discover who they are. And Will does go home: to his uncle's, who lives in a weird hermit state with his black servant, and to his childhood home, where his father once committed suicide. But he doesn't see his aunts who still live there, he sneaks in and sleeps in the attic. And it's his house--he owns it! But there are no answers there, and the same old problems return. Kitty becomes exactly the kind of old-fashioned southern sorority girl that he thinks he desires, and it repulses him. Deracination--uprootedness--hurts more when the roots are deepest, as they are in the American south, Percy tells us. The intensity of its myths and manners are no match for the modern condition.
The final section of the novel takes place outside Santa Fe, where Jamie has decamped to live out the last days of his life. As a setting, New Mexico does strange work in this novel. It means an abandonment of the dialectic of North and South, an escape to a place that has nothing to do with those old polarities. It represents the possibility, perhaps, of a kind of transcendence, and a death for Jamie on his own terms. My wife and I had our honeymoon in New Mexico. We talk sometimes about moving there for good. Our relationship to the place isn't very strong, or knowledgeable, but I understand how it functions as the idea of a place. And it's strange, the way this novel seems to share a kind of mental map with me, and which made it meaningful to me in particular. The ending, which centers on the question of whether a delirious Jamie will allow himself to be baptized by the hospital chaplain, resolves nothing, but it is funny, strange, ragged, and deeply sad.
The Last Gentleman is a novel I wish I could go on talking about. What do you make, for instance, of the fact that Will is typically identified as "the engineer," though it refers to his title as a custodial engineer in the basement of Macy's, a job he gives up in the first 100 pages? What's he making, what's he fixing? Much of it seems like it ought to fail, but it hovers somewhere outside the realm of rational sense, and does so beautifully. More than any of the other novels I've read of Percy's, it shares the kind of madcap logic and unexpected prose of The Moviegoer. It's a book that, when I was done with it, I wanted to turn it over and start it again, to prod it into some kind of structure and sense. But to do that, to make a thesis statement of it, might rob it of the brilliance of its mystery.