Sunday, December 30, 2018

ALL THE BOOKS

So it turns out that baby plus new full-time job plus life means no time for reviewing books. Who knew? As 2018 draws to a close, here is my frantic attempt to finish reviewing the (not even close to 50) books I haven't gotten around to reviewing yet. Maybe I'll get around to a top 10 by the time Nathan turns 1 in February. Maybe.


An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
This novel tracks the unraveling of a marriage after the husband is wrongfully convicted of a crime and sent to prison. It was well paced and exciting while still asking some big, juicy questions about marriage and commitment. I was pleasantly surprised with the depth Jones is able to achieve while writing what amounts to a romantic thriller.





The Book of Essie by Meghan Maclean Weir
I have an unhealthy obsession with ultra-conservative religions in America, and this book delivered a deliciously engrossing look into the inner-workings of both a fire and brimstone Christian family and a creepily orchestrated reality TV show. The Hicks family has been the focus of a reality TV show for Essie's entire life, and when she becomes pregnant (gasp!), her parents and the show's producers scramble to fit her into the narrative of their squeaky clean ethos. This was a very fun, very immersive read that took me only a few hours. It didn't hold any earth-shattering revelations about mankind or religion or our love of reality TV, but it had some good, fairly unexpected twists and was accessible enough for my currently addled brain.

Rising Strong by Brene Brown
This was my first foray into the cult of Brene Brown, and I was impressed with how genuine and not self-helpy the whole process felt. The central idea of Rising Strong is that by confronting our failures and shortcomings and examining the ways in which we tell ourselves stories about ourselves and our realities, we can emerge stronger and better able to face the world. Brown relies heavily on her own experience as well as extensive interview-based human data, but she weaves in a massive range of other sources from pop lyrics to Dostoevsky, and I was won over by her willingness to make herself vulnerable paired with an unusually sharp understanding of humans and how they tick. This never felt condescending or trite (which is the tone I get from most books that preach some kind of life-altering hot take on the human condition), and I was left willing to read more Brene Brown if I ever have time again.

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Wolitzer is really good at building interesting, multi-dimensional, only partially likable characters, and this was no exception. The novel tracks Greer Kadetsky (great name!) from her fumbling first sexual experience in high school, through college (at her safety school because her parents wouldn't file the financial aid paperwork), and into adulthood as she falls into a career with a feminist superstar. There is a lot of good here, but most interesting was Wolitzer's portrayal of Faith Frank, a Gloria Steinham-esque icon on the decline.

Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
I unabashedly love Barbara Kingsolver and will read basically anything she writes, but it helps that she seems to be getting better with age. Unsheltered shifts between a Trump-era middle-class family slowly circling the financial drain and struggling to hold it all together and a 19th-century family facing many of the same struggles, 200 years earlier. The centuries-wide split between narratives can often be jarring, but Kingsolver weaves the stories together well, and I found myself totally engrossed.




The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This was my YA guilty pleasure read this summer, and I loved it. It's a YA spin on the Black Lives Matter movement, but it's well written and the narrator, Starr, is thoughtful and incisive without being overly precocious. Thomas has her heroine straddling two worlds: the largely black, lower-income neighborhood she calls home and the largely white, expensive private school she attends. The book is centered around a shooting that Starr witnesses in the opening pages, and there is a ton of social commentary woven throughout. Thomas has written a book that is accessible while still being brutally honest and open.

Becoming by Michelle Obama
I cried four separate times reading this book, all in public, and all totally uncontrollably. The autobiography tracks Obama's life from her start on Chicago's South Side all the way to her last days in the White House, and was totally gripping. She (and, I assume, her team of very talented ghost writers), writes beautifully and evocatively about race and education and poverty, but I was most struck by her reflections on motherhood and partnership: the heart-wrenching challenges of being a working mother, the sacrifices and compromises that came with agreeing to let Barack run for office, and the overwhelming strain that being in the public eye put on both of those roles and her sense of self and identity. I didn't it was possible for me to miss the Obamas more than I already did, but apparently, there was room for more.


...and one more for the road
Come with Me by Helen Schulman
I got this one in at the buzzer and was very pleasantly surprised. Come with Me takes place in Silicon Valley and tracks a crumbling marriage as it explores the limits of VR. It takes place in Palo Alto and weaves in the horrors of life in modern day Silicon Valley. Schulman crafts a startup, manned largely by insufferable Stanford undergrads, where the CEO's side project is a VR experience where one can explore all the "what ifs" in life: what if you never broke up with that first boyfriend, took one job over another, never lost that pregnancy? In what could have felt like a trite device, the main character Amy is thrust down these alternate paths throughout the novel, and it's surprisingly engaging.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Christopher's Top Ten of 2018

Is it possible?  Is it top ten time already?

I had two resolutions this year: I wanted to read 75 books in total, and for half of those to be by women.  (I stole this second resolution from Brent.)  The 75 turned out not to be so hard--making the commitment is half the effort, I think, and it certainly helps that I don't have any kids.  In fact, I had enough time left over at the end of the year to read that great big brick of English-language lit, Ulysses.

Making half of those women turned out to be even harder.  I would say more of my favorite authors are women than men--Muriel Spark, Alice Munro, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Marilynne Robinson are probably all in my top five--but like most people I end up reading more books by men than women.  My strategy was to alternate, to the best of my ability, women and men, but what I found was that I depleted my shelf of women long before I depleted it of men.  I ended up at the Strand many times this year because I had run out of books by women, while I still had a big stack of men's books left to go.

But in the end the resolution turned out to be worth it.  Without making myself do it, who knows if I would have read Jean Stafford's The Mountain Lion, or Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room, or Mavis Gallant's terrific collection of stories?  I'm completely sure I never would have read the first of those Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, which I had been avoiding.  My reading life was much richer this year for having done it, and not just because it exposed to me to a wider variety of voices: I think women are better writers, on average.

That sounds like a performatively woke thing to say, I know.  I don't say it to burnish my feminist ally cred.  But I think it's true: it's quite easy to hear, as a man, nothing but male voices.  It's why men have such trouble writing convincing portraits of women.  But women must be more awake to the multiplicity of voices in the world, because they have to be fluent in their own private voice as well as the voice of the male world.  That's pretty reductive, I think, but I think you can see evidence of it in The Mars Room, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Mountain Lion, and in Gallant's stories: all stories which weave multiple voices and perspectives together, male and female, with skill.

Anyway, I'm claiming victory on this one: If you count Emily Wilson's translation of Homers's Odyssey as half written by a man and half written by a woman, I read 37.5 books by each.  I think it's a good habit to have, and I'm going to try to keep it going.  Here's my top ten, with some honorable mentions, from a year of reading.

Honorable Mentions 2018:

The Aunt's Story by Patrick White
Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler
The Comforters by Muriel Spark
The End of the World by Mavis Gallant
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
How the Light Gets In by Pat Schneider
July's People by Nadine Gordimer
Kiss of the Spider Woman by Manuel Puig
Miguel Street by V. S. Naipaul
Ulysses by James Joyce

Top Ten 2018:

10. Warlock by Oakley Hall - Up until like 30 seconds ago, I put Ulysses in this spot.  But it's hard for me to tell if I'm responding to Ulysses the book or the idea of Ulysses, with all its cultural baggage and heft.  I'm not sure how to balance out the parts of it that seemed astoundingly brilliant with the parts that seemed tedious.  So I switched it for Oakley Hall's Warlock, a book of narrow ambitions that does what it does with perfection.  All the pieces of Warlock are recognizable from other Westerns--the conflicted sheriff, the sympathetic rustler, the challenge of establishing law in the lawless West--but few combine them in such a gripping and compelling way.

9. Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munro - Munro's The Beggar Maid, with its overarching narrative, closer resembles her best work, The Lives of Girls and Women.  But I liked this collection, which contains some of Munro's stranger, more experimental work even better.  Published in 1974, its big theme is the disorienting feeling of generational change--these stories are obsessed with "hippies"--but they're structurally novel and layered with modernist tricks that make them sneakily avant-garde.  Munro gets knocked for her domesticity, but deep down she's got a radical heart, both artistically and socially, as the standout story "Material" suggests.

8. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante - Of course, Munro's not the only woman whose work is much darker and nastier than they're given credit for. Who knew that Ferrante's uberpopular novel was so savage?  It's a testament to female friendships, yes, but those are darker and nastier than they're given credit for too.  My Brilliant Friend is really about psychological trauma, violence, and the way they are produced by poverty and social unrest.  It does an especially good job of capturing the fear and anxiety of childhood, and while I'm excited to read the rest of these, I'll miss that aspect of the book as Elena and Lina grow up.

7. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker - What's it like to be an identical twin?  According to Baker, who had identical twin children, it does strange and violent things to your own sense of self.  The weird, knotty Cassandra at the Wedding is about a woman whose identical twin's impending marriage leaves her feeling as if she's lost a part of herself.  Baker's account of Cassandra's attempted suicide is one of those bravura passages of writing that is going to stay with me for years and years.

6. The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy - Walker Percy is like Patrick White in that sometimes I can't decide if his writing his brilliant or terrible.  It sure is audacious, and strange, even as it seems to be invested in some of the most banal banalities of Southern life: college football, golf, cheerleading, etc., etc.  The hero of The Last Gentleman, Will Barrett, returns to his home in the South from New York by way of his attachment to a family seeking treatment for their critically ill son, before launching him out into New Mexico.  Percy's heroes always have the South in their bones, even as they became increasingly estranged from it.  Georg Lukacs calls that feeling "transcendental homelessness," and few authors talk about it as well as Percy.

5. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald - The synopsis of H is for Hawk--a woman turns to falconry to help her process the sudden death of her father--doesn't capture the complexity of this memoir, which is by turns urbane, witty, and desperate.  Macdonald weaves a whole history of falconry in literature and history with her own experiences training a goshawk named Mabel, and never once does it feel anything but honest and sincere.  It's rare to see someone write about themselves so nakedly as Macdonald does here, buoyed by her skill as a poet.

4. Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson - I asked the seniors in my fiction writing elective to read Denis Johnson's story "Out on Bail" for next week.  I hope they like it.  Like all the stories in this collection, it's written from the perspective of a junkie identified only as "Fuckhead," and it's as empathetic as it is filthy, fractured, and bizarre.  For Johnson, capturing the off-kilter understanding of an addict is an act of radical understanding, and these stories continue to light off fireworks in my head for months after reading them.  There's always a book that starts toward the bottom of my top ten list and works its way up in retrospect; this year it's this book.

3. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders - I'm such a snob when it comes to contemporary literature; I hardly read anything new.  I don't trust it.  But I'm grateful to know that books like this are still being written.  Lincoln in the Bardo is stylistically innovative and brutally honest about its big subject, death.  Saunders' version of the afterlife, a limbo-like place filled with comically exaggerated spirits, reminds me of both Beetlejuice and The Good Place in its creativity and scope of vision, but with a powerful sense of the reality of grief and loss.

2. The Rifles by William T. Vollmann - Here's another book that feels like it should just not work, in which Vollmann, working from his own harebrained experiences visiting Inuit communities and isolated nowheres in the Canadian Arctic, fashions himself into a character known only as Captain Subzero, who is also somehow the same character as the ill-fated Arctic explorer John Franklin.  Vollmann's work is always a weird mix of fact, sometimes too much fact, and fiction, but here I think it works tremendously.  The story of the Inuit woman Subzero gets involved with, Reepah, is heart-crushingly sad.  Novels by white writers about indigenous people are always a dicey proposition, but I think Vollmann's writing works because he doesn't absolve himself of guilt or shame.  It's a weird balance, but somehow it works.

1. The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford - I love books that really get how weird it is to be a kid.  The Mountain Lion is one of the best.  It's got something of the grotesquerie and horror of The Man Who Loved Children.  In a nutshell, it's about two kids, Ralph and Molly, who grow apart as Ralph grows closer to his uncle, a rancher in Colorado.  Like his uncle, Ralph wants to hunt and kill a mountain lion that prowls through their property as a way of affirming his manhood, his adulthood.  Molly, trapped in the weird solipsism of adolescence, burns with resentment toward Ralph.  The end of The Mountain Lion is so shocking I had to to close the cover and take a deep breath.  What a tremendous book.

There it is!  Another year "in the books!"  As always, we'd love to have more people join us on this weird wild quest, so if you'd like to join us, shoot me an e-mail at misterchilton at gmail dot com.  Happy new year, everyone!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Ulysses by James Joyce

What past consecutive causes, before rising preapprehended, of accumulated fatigue did Bloom, before rising, silently recapitulate?

The preparation of breakfast (burnt offering): intestinal congestion and premeditative defecation (holy of holies): the bath (rite of John): the funeral (the Rite of Samuel): the advertisement of Alexander Keyes (Urim and Thummim): the unsubstantial lunch (rite of Melchisedek): the bookhunt along Bedford Row, Merchants' Arch, Wellington Quay (Simchath Torah): the music in the Ormond Hotel (Shira Shirim): the altercation with a truculent troglodyte in Bernard Kiernan's premises (holocaust): a blank period of time including a cardrive, a visit to a house of mourning, a leavetaking (wilderness): the eroticism produced by feminine exhibitionism (rite of Onan): the prolonged delivery of Mrs Mina Purefoy (heave offering): the visit to the disorderly house of Mrs Bella Cohen, 82 Tyrone street, lower, and subsequent brawl and chance medley in Beaver street (Armageddon): nocturnal perambulation to and from the cabman's shelter, Butt Bridge (atonement).

I did it.  I read Ulysses.  I carried it on the train, where I read from it, impressing many.  I understood, on the level of mere plot-and-character understanding, perhaps half of it.  I was in delighted, frustrated, amused, and bored, in about equal measure.  Now I will try to review it, which is probably only a little bit less sensible than having written it in the first place.

First: Actually having read The Odyssey helps immensely.  Joyce takes the pattern of the epic quite seriously, but applies it with clever humor: the cyclops becomes a bigot who throws, not a giant boulder, but a biscuit tin; Nausicaa, the beautiful young maiden Odysseus flirts with and cannot have, is a woman on the sea shore who provides the pretext for Leopold Bloom's afternoon masturbation session.  (Like Nausicaa, Gerty has "white arms," which is especially ironic because Bloom fails to notice her legs, which are "lame.")   The suitors are, alternately, one college asshole who wants to crash at Stephen Dedalus' place, and a series of adulterous lovers that Bloom knows his wife is having.  The pattern is used to elevate the tawdriness, the ordinariness, of everyday life, to collapse the difference between high myth and the life of normal people.  It's inseparable from the stream-of-consciousness methods that track the inner lives of Stephen, Bloom, and most famously, Bloom's wife Molly.  Life is in your head, Joyce says, and that's as meaningful as any grand narrative that's ever existed.

Like The Odyssey, Ulysses is a story about anxious relationships between parents and children.  Telemachus is unable to become a man until his father returns to Ithaca and validates his power.  Stephen Dedalus' relationship to Bloom, a kind of would-be paternal surrogate, is an ironic version of this.  Unlike Telemachus, Stephen is pretty ambivalent about being "adopted" by Bloom, though they spend an evening drinking and carousing together, and their relationship doesn't seem to provide meaning, power, legitimacy, anything.  Both part with their own anxieties about their parenthood intact: Stephen's depressed by the recent loss of his mother; Bloom has never gotten over his father's suicide or his young son's death.  Stephen, in a speech at the National Library, calls the entire idea of fatherhood into question:

Fatherhood, in the sense of conscious begetting, is unknown to man.  It is a mythical estate, an apostolic succession, from only begetter to begotten.  On that mystery and not on the madonna which the cunning Italian intellect flung to the mob of Europe the church is founded and and founded irremovably because founded, like the world, macro and microcosm, upon the void.  Upon incertitude, upon unlikelihood.  Amor matris, subjective and objective genitive, may be the only true thing in life.  Paternity may be a legal fiction.  Who is the father of any son that any son should love him or he any son?

Fathers, Stephen says, don't have the same relationship to their children that mothers do.  You once had a physical connection to your mother, quite literally, but what is the real nature of your relationship to your father?  It is "a mythical estate, an apostolic sucession"; it's nothing at all.  It's this thought that makes his mother's death especially painful.  It also connects to the old themes of sex and adultery.  What does Bloom lose, exactly, when Blazes Boylan sneaks into Molly's bed in the middle of the day (as he well knows)?  What is it exactly he desires when he masturbates to the vision of Gerty on the strand?  What's lost in what Joyce calls the "Rite of Onan?"  One of the thing that undermines Ulysses' claims to universality is its singular obsession with the male sex drive and masturbation, though Molly famously gets her own account of her sex drive in the final chapter.  But all of it, Joyce contends, is "founded... on the void," and the way we connect sex and generational succession is really a con that distracts us from the meaninglessness of our own sexual desires.  I don't think Ulysses is actually very pessimistic, but I do think, for Joyce, the pattern of myth supplies something that traditional marriage, sex, and family, fails to supply.

Okay, but is it any good?  There's that old joke about the local weather, that gets told everywhere but San Diego: If you don't like it, wait ten minutes.  Ulysses is a little like that.  Each of its eighteen chapters is stylistically discrete and distinct, presenting some different gimmick or satire.  And while the story itself is unwieldy, the chapters break it down helpfully.  Some of my favorites are: chapter three, "Proteus," in which Stephen expounds his theories on Hamlet (and fatherhood) to some friends at the National Library; "Cyclops," the mock-heroic that tells the story of Bloom's encounter with the anti-Semitic bigot and the biscuit tin through the language of world myth; and "Circe," which is formatted like a play.  "Circe" especially seems like the missing link between Faust and Beckett; it's an extended drunken vision where Bloom is accosted by the mental images of his dead father, is put on trial, becomes a woman.  A bar of soap reads a little poem.  ("We're a capital couple are Bloom and I. / He polishes the earth.  I brighten the sky.")  You know, stuff like that.  "Ithaca" takes the form of a traditional question-and-answer catechism, "Penelope" is the famous single sentence stream-of-consciousness inside Molly Bloom's head as she drifts off to sleep.  (Who knew that would be one of the easiest chapters to read!)

But I didn't love all of it.  I was particularly frustrated by the chapter "Eumaeus," which was evidently Joyce's attempt at bad, circuitous, ponderous writing.  "Aeolus," done in the language of the contemporary news, is too far from my conception of that style to really make much sense.  And while I enjoyed sussing out the different parodies in "Oxen of the Sun," which I'm told is meant to mimic the development of the entire English language, I couldn't tell you what happened in it.  I think someone had a baby.

Is Ulysses the best book ever written?  Well, it certainly is the most book ever written.  Not that it's the longest, though it might feel that way, but that it has a totality to it, a breadth that nothing else can touch.  As much as it meets its reputation for stylistic difficulty, it's beauty is in the sheer capaciousness it has for language, and the way it contains multitudes.  I never want to read it again.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Mistress of Husaby by Sigrid Undset

It seemed to her that when her weary body at last was rotting under a tombstone, her restless spirit would still be doomed to wander about somewhere near by, as an unhappy ghost wanders lamenting round the tumble-down houses of a ruined farm.  For in her soul sin still had its being, as the root tissue of the weeds is inwoven in the soil.  It flowered and flamed and scented the air no long, but 'twas still there in the soil, bleached, but strong and full of life.  In despite of all the tenderness that welled up in her heart when she saw her husband's despair, she had not will or strength to stifle the voice in her that cried out, in bitterness and anger: Can you speak thus to me?  Have you forgotten the time when I was your dearest love?  And yet she knew that as long as this voice questioned thus within her, so long would she speak to him as though she had forgotten.

The Mistress of Husaby, the sequel to The Wreath, the first book in Sigrid Undset's series about the medieval Norsewoman Kristin Lavransdatter, picks up as Kristin moves into her husband Erlend's ancestral home, Husaby.  Husaby is a wreck: it's filthy, poorly managed, largely neglected.  Kristin makes it her mission to whip the house and its servants into shape, and to turn it into a home as noble and warm as the one she's left behind.  (It's a fascinating glimpse into the strange domestic habits of the medieval Norse household, arranged, Beowulf-style, around a great hall, and where everyone sleeps together on benches for some reason.)  For Kristin, the remaking of Husaby offers a chance to make things right, to forge respect and harmony out of a tumultuous courtship and marriage.  Soon, the house is completed by the addition of six--six!--young boys that Kristin bears.

But Kristin has trouble leaving the past behind.  She continues to be haunted by the way she and Erlend got together: the initial affair, the loss of virginity, and the ultimate suicide of Erlend's first wife.  The marriage is largely an unhappy one, complicated by Erlend's recklessness and diffidence, but Kristin makes things worse by keeping the original sin of their marriage polished and ready, like a dagger, to wound both Erlend and herself.  Her brother-in-law, a priest named Gunnulf, chides her:  "Kristin... dare you think in your wicked pride that sin of yours can be so great that God's loving-kindness is not greater?"  While The Wreath seemed to me an honest and empathetic depiction of the complexity of living out a life of honest faith, Kristin's obsession with her sin in The Mistress of Husaby can be tedious and dour.  The Wreath showed that reconciliation and forgiveness are possible; The Mistress of Husaby suggests that they're never quite complete enough, and that moving past our own failures takes an almost impossible strength.

The political subtext of The Wreath gets amplified in Husaby.  It's easy to forget that these characters, whose lives seem so close to the earth compared to our own, are really a kind of nobility.  I hadn't remembered that Erlend is related to the queen regent, Ingebjorg.  He spends a lot of this novel away from Husaby, serving as a Warden on a distant island.  Symbolically, Erlend continues to spend a lot of time with men--his integration into his own home never quite seems complete.  But he's also embroiled in a lot of political intrigue that happens almost completely out of narrative vision, which is focused narrowly on Husaby.  The distance emphasizes how the political world pressures the domestic sphere without being totally seen or understood; Kristin is a victim of political turmoil she cannot see.  Erlend, apparently, gets implicated in a scheme to usurp the throne and redivide Norway and Sweden (a political crisis I never totally understood) and spends the last third of the book in prison, on trial for his life.

The possibility that Erlend will die seems very real.  It would be a fitting subversion of the fairytale narrative in which love overcomes everything: family, religion, and politics.  But it's family that saves the day, in the form of Simon Darre, the man once betrothed to Kristin and who has since married her sister Ramborg.  Darre puts his own life and reputation at risk to defend Erlend, a man he despises.  Just like The Wreath's last chapters are overtaken by the point-of-view of Kristin's parents, the last chapters of Husaby belong, surprisingly, to Simon Darre, his complex goodness, his feelings of obligation and revulsion.  These chapters are a glimpse into the life that Kristin might have had, and a reminder that there are more good things in the world than passion.  And like The Wreath, the addition of Simon's voice to a larger multitude of voices emphasizes the complex social fabric that Undset explores so well.  She doesn't let you forget that Kristin's life is not lived in a vacuum, that as tedious as her obsession with her sin can be, it reflects meaningful obligations to her family and her community.

In the end, Erlend is saved, but not changed.  The last thing he does is make a reckless joke about how, if he had died, Simon could swoop in and marry Kristin.  It's maddening: Erlend forgets that Simon is married to Ramborg; he misunderstands Simon's motivations; because he had become resigned to the prospect of losing his life he underestimates the pain and effort others have taken on his behalf.  It's an unsettling place to end the story, but there's a kind of steely-eyed realism to it.  Erlend won't change, and Simon is a better man, but the love between Erlend and Kristin is not nothing, and neither is Simon's effort on Erlend wasted.  It's enough, all of it, because it has to be.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Bury Me at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

"The Great Spirit raised both the white man and the Indian," Red Cloud said.  "I think he raised the Indian first.  He raised me in this land and it belongs to me.  The white man was raised over the great waters, and his land is over there.  Since they crossed the sea, I have given them room.  There are now white people all about me.  I have but a small spot of land left.  The Great Spirit told me to keep it."

Two days ago, on Thanksgiving, the Huffington Post ran a story about the attempt to decertify the Mashpee Wampanoag of Massachusetts as a Native American tribe.  The justification is a technical one, but the motive is as old as Columbus: the desire to claim land belonging to the Wampanoag, this time because they want to build a casino on it that is a threat to the interests of local developers.  The idea of decertifying the Wampanoag is especially ironic; it was a Wampanoag man, Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, who helped the first Pilgrims survive the winter and inspired the holiday of Thanksgiving.

When I read that story, I thought about Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which I've been readingAs Brown shows, it's the same story, over and over: the dispossessed Wampanoag, the Taino obliterated by Columbus, the forced march of the Cherokeee.  Brown's history focuses on a relatively small fraction of the history of conflict between white and native Americans: the period of 1860 to 1890, when westward expansion compelled the U.S. government to force Western tribes onto ever-smaller reservations, uprooting their ways of life, and killing thousands by violence, disease, and starvation.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is subtitled "The Indian History of the American West."  In a lot of ways it reads like a typically history book, objective to the point of dryness, but in each case the typical lens of the story is reversed so that we are asked to look at the events through the eyes of the Native Americans at the center of the conflict.  Reframed that way, the story of the American West, of political and economic expansion, becomes the nightmare of invasion and forced removal.  There are no tirades and few passages that might pass for commentary, mostly, Brown is content to let the eloquence of leaders like Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Crazy Horse speak for itself.  But he also undermines our biases in subtle ways, like using the appellations given by Native Americans to their white military rivals: Three Stars Crook, Long Hair Custer, Old Man of the Thunder Hancock.

One of the saddest takeaways of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is that it didn't really matter what approach Native leaders took in these matters.  Brown makes clear that Native communities were deeply divided on how to respond to white removal policies; many of the stories here are about peace-seeking chiefs who are caught between the demands of the U.S. government and more military factions within their own tribe.  But whether, like Kicking Bird or Black Kettle, they argue for submission to these policies, or like Geronimo and Cochise, they are willing to fight to the death, each tribe ends up dispossessed of their lands and often violently reduced.  Peaceful tribes, like the Utes in Colorado, find that they are the victims of newspaper smear campaigns meant as a pretext to drive them out of their lands and make room for white settles.  The Nez Perce of Idaho boasted that they had never had a disagreement with white men--until the white men wanted their land.  Cheyenne chief Black Kettle raises an American flag to convince American soldiers that he wants only friendship; what he gets is the Sand Creek Massacre, in which 148 Native Americans were killed.

Someone really ought to make a movie out of the story of Modoc chief Kintpuash, who was so friendly with white ranchers around Tule Lake in Oregon that he called himself by the nickname they gave him: Captain Jack.  The government moved the Modocs to a reservation with their much larger rivals, the Klamath tribe, where they were mistreated and decided to retreat to California's Lava Beds.  Captain Jack avoided conflict at every turn, but his lieutenant Hooker Jim led an aggressive faction who mocked him so mercilessly that they extracted a promise to kill the American General, Edward Canby, when they met one-on-one.  Captain Jack went reluctantly through with his promise, made in rash anger, only to end up captured and turned over by Hooker Jim, the very man who had spurred him to do it, and later sold out the American troops.  As for the Modocs?  Most of them were forcibly moved to the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma--a far cry from Tule Lake, Oregon.

At this Thanksgiving season, I'm thankful to be able to hear the stories of people I haven't known about, like Captain Jack.  And like Donegohawa, the first Native American to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and who tried to fight rampant corruption in order to keep peace in the West.  And Standing Bear, who fought in U.S. courts to be recognized as a legal person, with concomitant rights of free movement.  Standing Bear wasn't able to make the American legal system extend the ruling to the rest of his Ponca tribe on the reservation in the Indian Territory, but amid a bleak and sordid history, his is story worth remembering.  "Now, a century later," Brown writes about his subjects, "in an age without heroes, they are perhaps the most heroic of all Americans."

The book ends in the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, which Brown calls the "symbolic end of Indian freedom."  Wounded Knee was the culmination of a pan-Native syncretic religious movement called the Ghost Dance, which promised to erase white men from the United States and revive thousands of Native dead.  It was essentially a Christian movement, Brown notes, though the U.S. government could not recognize it as such.  It was also, in its appeal to many Native cultures, self-evidently a response to the wholesale decimation of Native peoples.  The U.S. killed Sitting Bull because they were afraid he might lend his prestige to the movement, and they massacred hundreds of innocent, unarmed people.  Its symbolism comes from, beyond the massive loss of life, the refutation of this religious vision.

Three years after Brown wrote Bury Me at Wounded Knee, a group of activists in the American Indian Movement captured Wounded Knee in an attempt to force political change.  I don't know enough about it to be able to call it heroic; it probably was.  But it's a reminder that, despite the tragic success of the United States' policy of forced removal and eradication, Native people are still here, and their autonomy is still drastically limited.  I hope that, after the events of the last couple of years at Standing Rock, white Americans like me won't let their consciousness of Native issues drop away.  We can start by defending the rights of people like the Mashpee Wampanoag, and Bury Me at Wounded Knee should be required reading.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Countrymen of Bones by Robert Olen Butler

The King was free.  He lay on his pedestal and his feet were tight together and angled like a diver's.  The earth around him was smoothed and leveled and Darrell could not cast off the impression that the King had not been reached by digging but, rather, had himself risen on the narrow platform through a corridor in the earth.  The cape of shells seemed only recently shrugged from the King's shoulders.  He'd come now when he was needed.  One King to succeed another.

New Mexico, 1945.  Two scientists are working in the desert.  One, Lloyd Coulter, is a high-ranking scientist in the Manhattan Project, responsible for creating the mechanism that focuses the energy inside the atomic bomb and causes it to detonate.  The other, Darrell Reeves, is an archaeologist at the University of Santa Fe excavating a burial mound that contains a breakthrough discovery: a king from the mound-building cultures of the Midwest, buried far away from the region where he might be expected.  The Trinity explosion will eradicate Reeves' burial site, and the Manhattan Project scientists are pressuring him to finish his work and remove the skeletons, and the conflict between them is amplified by Lloyd and Darrell's rival interest in Anna Brown, a young army officer who is assisting both projects.

At first, Lloyd and Darrell are difficult to distinguish.  Both are men of science, intensely obsessed with their own projects at the expense of all other things.  Darrell is a little older, once married, and his archaeological outlook on the world has failed to help him understand the world of living human beings.  When FDR dies, he imagines "Roosevelt's skeleton being unearthed--a long age from now--Roosevelt's bones being brushed clean, the pelvis measured, the signs of his paralysis visible in the joining of his bones."  He thinks back on how all his knowledge failed to save his marriage:

Once, he had come home and found her gone to the store.  He went into the subterranean stillness of their bedroom and he looked around, trying to read their life together.  He went to the dresser to see her artifacts.  One at a time he picked up the objects there; he turned them over in his hands, trying to read the clues.  Her hairbrush, the bristles worn and bent, black hair tangled there: how thrilling this would be in an excavation, how much he could deduce.  From the hair of the woman he could learn about the chemical balances of her body, her age, her health, perhaps her diet.  From the brush itself he could learn about the artisans of her society, her economic status, whether she was right-handed or left-handed.  But he could not say from this brush why his wife had married him or why she would soon leave him.  Perhaps if I could see her bones, she thought.  If I could touch her bones.  But he knew nothing and he put the brush down.

But soon differences between the two men become clear.  Darrell is single-minded and hapless, but in the service of bringing the dead back to life and telling their story; Lloyd projects onto the bomb his fantasies of control.  Darrell is sheepish and forthright with Anna; Lloyd stalks her and imagines that the successful test will usher in a new age in which he has the power to bend Anna to his will in the that he's bent the atom.  Butler loves the image of the circle: for Lloyd, the circle is two halves of a sphere of plutonium being forced together to make the bomb's powerful core.  For Darrell, it's the symbolic circle of the burial mound, meant to describe the whole universe for the King.  That circle is a mistake, the representation of the erroneous belief that everything can be known and understood.

Butler dives deep into the psychology of the two men.  Lloyd is always thinking about his father, who abused his mother, and the Freudian implications are that this relationship made Lloyd the way he is.  But the psychology has the ironic effect of flattening the men and subordinating them to the novel's Big Ideas, like the perpetuation of violence on cosmic and historic scales.  Much more interesting, I think, are characters like Anna, who exudes both confidence and uncertainty, a fundamental goodness that isn't impeded, as it might be in some novels, by naivete.  She professes to be in awe of the scientist's expertise, but has more wisdom than they do.  She's more interesting because Butler doesn't feel the need to psychologize her, only to let her exist.

Similarly, Countrymen of Bones presents a fascinating portrait of Robert Oppenheimer: an aloof genius, with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita always ready (much to the annoyance of everybody else).  In one particularly clever moment that expresses an ironic playfulness and a chilling self-awareness, he cameos as a corpse in the Los Alamos amateur theater production of Arsenic and Old Lace.  A rancher who, angered at the Manhattan Project for encroaching upon his land, projects that anger onto the archaeologist, also seems especially prescient.

The buried king from the Midwest is a member of a Death Cult, Darrell explains, inspired by reports of the brutality of Spanish conquest.  The King had no idea that as he traveled into the Southwest that he was running into the arms of the very violence that terrified his people.  And as Darrell unearths more and more of the mound, he finds more bodies, violently killed: trophies, women, that the King took along with him into the earth.  We may not have had tools like the atomic bomb, Butler argues, but we have always turned our fear of death into a tool of death.

Ultimately, Countrymen of Bones suffers under the weight of those Big Ideas.  It reaches out to try to incorporate Roosevelt, the end of the European war, the revelation of the Holocaust, in ways that feel perfunctory even as it seems like they must have been on the minds of people in 1945. And I don't think--spoiler alert--that it's necessary to have Lloyd rape Anna, or to present the act in detail from Lloy'ds perspective.  I don't think his last act, to save them from the atomic blast while sacrificing himself, is a meaningful atonement.  But it's a gripping story, and the way that Butler careens from one man's point of view to another's even in the same paragraph is remarkably subtle.  Countrymen of Bones has a sharp eye for the way that history, as a story of violence, is incarnated in the lives of individual men and women.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

July's People by Nadine Gordimer

When it all happened, there were transformations of myth or religious parable.  The bank accountant had been the legendary warning hornbill of African folk-tales, its flitting cries ignored at peril.  The yellow bakkie that was bought for fun turned out to be the vehicle: that which bore them away from the gunned shopping malls and the blazing, unsold houses of a depressed market, from the burst mains washing round bodies in their Saturday-morning garb of safari suits, and the heat-guided missiles that struck Boeings carrying those trying to take off from Jan Smuts Airport.  The cook-nanny, Nora, ran away.  The decently-paid and contented male servant, living in their yard since they had married, clothed by them in two sets of uniforms, khaki pants for rough housework, white drill for waiting at table, given Wednesdays and alternate Sundays free, allowed to have his friends visit him and his town woman sleep with him in his room--he turned out to be the chosen one in whose hands their lives were to be held; frog prince, saviour, July.

How would apartheid end?  It must have seemed both impossible and inevitable, until it did.  And when it did end it came in political shape, in the form of legislative repeal, bilateral conferences, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Successes like that one led to the (pretty misbegotten) conception of the 90's as the "End of History," a terminus achieved by liberal democracy.  But it might have been otherwise, and Nadine Gordimer's July's People offers a vision for one such end: a violent overthrow of white society by native South Africans.  They storm banks; they kill white Afrikaners; they shoot down planes to prevent escape.  In this scenario Maureen and Bam Smales escape, along with their three children, into the bush, under the protection of their longtime servant July, who takes them to his native village.

In the village, everything is turned upside down for the Smales.  Once they lived in a posh Johannesburg house; now they sleep in a hut on the seats removed from their Jeep-like Bakkie.  Their youngest child begs to be taken to a movie--how to explain to him what has happened to the world?--and their oldest absconds from them, drifting so far into the world of her new friends that Bam and Maureen cannot follow her.  But the most difficult change is the reversal of roles between the Smales, especially Maureen, and July.  July has been well-treated, well-paid, cannot complain, and his protection of the Smales is in recognition of it.  But he is in charge here, and both he and his (former?) employers struggle to understand the new nature of their relationship.  Is it right for Bam to be angry, when July takes the bakkie without asking?  Does it even belong to Bam anymore?  Is it July's?  The car itself is not so important, but it is the center of the new ambiguity, which is deeper and stranger than any party has expected.  The questions run deeper than, who is in charge: Who is July when he is in charge?  And who is Maureen when she is not the master?

It is July, not Maureen, who insists past the point of reasonableness that their relationship remains unchanged.  There is a fear in him: by accepting the change in South Africa, will he ally himself with the people who would turn the Smales in, or murder them?  To whom is July now responsible?

But as magnetic and mysterious as July is, July's People is about whites.  It is about white liberal South Africans, like the Smales, who have always been in favor of political equality for black South Africans.  Yes, there's a measure of old-fashioned liberal pigheadedness that the turmoil cures them of, but for the most part, both Bam and Maureen see the inequity of South African society clearly.  In fact, that's the root of their sympathy and kindness toward their servant.  But seeing clearly does not extricate them from the system itself.  They don't question the reasonableness, or the moral rectitude, of the revolution, but they don't know what to do when it puts them in the crosshairs.  How can a white person be, Gordimer asks, when the roots of inequity are so deep that their very existence perpetuates it?  Gordimer strips the novel of the kind of hopey-changey centrist pap that dominates our own discourse about political equality, and replaces it with lucid fear, even despair:

The humane creed (Maureen, like anyone else, regarded her own as definitive) depended on validities staked on a belief in the absolute nature of intimate relationships between human beings.  If people don't all experience emotional satisfaction and deprivation the same way, what claim can there be for equality of need?  There was fear and danger in considering this emotional absolute as open in any way; the brain-weighers, the claimants of divine authority to distinguish powers of moral discernment from the degree of frizz in hair and conceptual ability from the relative thickness of lips--they were vigilant to pounce upon anything that could be twisted to give them credence.  Yet how was that absolute nature of intimate relationships arrived at?  Who decided?  'We' (Maureen sometimes harked back) understand the sacred power and rights of sexual love are as formulated in master bedrooms, and motels with false names in the register.  Here, the sacred power and rights of sexual love are as formulated in a wife's hut, and a backyard room in a city.  The balance between desire and duty is--has to be--maintained quite differently in accordance with the differences in the lovers' place in the economy.  These alter the way of dealing with the experience; and so the experience itself.  The absolute nature she and her kind were scrupulously just in granting to everybody was no more than the price of the master bedroom and the clandestine hotel tariff.

July's People is about a race war, a phrase you see these days only on the scummiest parts of 4chan.  And it's easy to see how a right-winger might respond to a book like this: Even a liberal thinks that race war is inevitable, and their ready to betray their own, even give up their own lives.  But Gordimer rejects the easy partisanship of racist "brain-weighers" in favor of a more honest, and complicated perspective.  How can we achieve political equality when our understandings of the world are so different?  She's speaking about the great divide in the way she and July think about love and marriage, but she might as well be speaking about other kinds of desire and other kinds of duty.  How can the Smales accommodate July's desires, July's duties, when they can't conceive of them, and ow can July, when power is thrust upon him, accommodate theirs?

July's People is a big old shrug of a novel, as certain that South Africa's problems are intractable as it is that Maureen, at the novel's end, will rush toward the coming helicopter not knowing if she's headed toward rescue or death, just because the state of uncertainty is untenable.  It's easy to be shaken by it, especially in these times of ethnonationalist revanchism.  But it's worth remembering that, as far as we have yet to go, apartheid ended not with the bang of a plane being shot down, but with a whimper.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

My Education by Susan Choi

I'd like to say that I defied gravity as often as feeling its snare, but my efforts were more likely spent clinging on with white knuckles not to be dislodged.  Still, that was my heroism--my tenacious fidelity to her, though it was based on a grave misconception.  I thought desire was duty.  No trial could not be endured nor impediment smashed in desire's holy service, or so I believed, with naive righteousness.  I didn't grasp that desire and duty could rival each other, least of all that they most often do.

I thought I knew where Susan Choi's My Education was headed when the narrator, first-year literature grad student Regina Gottlieb, sets eyes on the professor Nicholas Brodeur.  Brodeur is strikingly handsome, but a reputation for sexual coercion precedes him.  But Regina doesn't tumble headlong into bed with Brodeur--at least, not at first and not the way I was expecting--instead tumbling headlong into bed with Brodeur's wife, first glimpsed pregnant and sailing past the classroom door.  (I think Choi conspires with her editor and cover artist to lay that trap--check out the indeterminate blond head on the pillow on the cover.) The relationship is a tempestuous one: it breaks up the professorial couples' marriage, or, as Brodeur's wife Martha would have Regina believe, coincides with the dissolution of it.  For Regina, it's like the appearance of a comet: burning, destructive, and since it's her first and only relationship with a woman, rare.  When it finally falls apart, as the older Martha has always insisted that it must, it drives Regina from academia and into existential crisis that only time, figured here as a fifteen-year gap in the narrative, can cure.

I read a lot of Munro in Choi's prose.  Like Munro, Choi has a love for the abstract noun; words like desire and duty drive the conflict inside Regina.  But Choi trades Munro's kitchen-vocabulary for the ergot of academia: impediment, demimonde, tutelage, quotidian.  I was a little annoyed by it until I realized that of course those are the kind of words that Regina, anxious to seem like she belongs in the jargon-heavy world of humanities grad school, would use.  (I am still annoyed by the frequency of adverbs!)  She drops them as pointedly as she drops "Djuna Barnes" and "Andre Gide."  And it's this person--the anxious academic--that unravels twice, first in what seems to be the primal heat of love/lust, and then in heartbreak.

Like lots of passionate relationships, Regina and Martha's seems to consist mostly of fighting.  The sex is torrid, but the width between their worldviews proves too great to overcome.  Regina can't conceive of a duty to anything besides love--see how often she demands that Martha tell her she loves her--but Martha has a newborn son, and even an ex-husband to whom she owes a great deal.  Martha understands Regina's feelings but cannot meet her in them.  Their relationship ends up bitter and toxic; maybe it's because I can't empathize with the intensity of the same-sex attraction, but I was turned off by how sour it became.  And maybe it's because I'm not in my twenties anymore, but I was more impressed by the novel's final third, which finds a wiser, more mature Regina:

Flying west, I became middle-aged.  All the cowardly, derisive ideas I had somehow absorbed in my youth of what middle age meant fell away, as can sometimes occur to cliches for mysterious reasons.  The poor hunchbacked jargon stepped out of its clothes and stood uprightly naked and plain.  It meant just what it said, nothing else.  It wasn't a need for face cream or an interest in stocks or conservatism.  It meant that one now touched both ends: that is what middle is.  Middle age only meant that the least reconcilable times of one's life would in fact coexist until death.  My youth--the demands of my young, able body, and my young understanding, whether able or not--was not going to shrink in perspective while allowing superior ripeness to gently replace it.  My youth was not the most stubborn, peremptory part of myself.  In my most relaxed moments, it governed my being.  It pricked up its ears at the banter of eighteen-year olds on the street.  It frankly examined their bodies.  It did not know its place: that my youth governed me with such ease didn't mean I was young.  It meant I was divided, as if housing a stowaway soul, rife with itches and yens which demanded a stern vigilance.

The end of My Education pulls a kind of switch that Ishiguro would be proud of.  It undermines Regina's sense of the specialness of her relationship with Martha, but it also resonates with a larger wisdom about what love is, and desire, and duty.  I ended up enjoying it more than I expected, and maybe my exasperation with the young Regina is meant to coincide with the older Regina's exasperation with her younger self.

One final note: Why exactly are we told that Brodeur is known as a sexual harasser, when he turns out not to be?  That choice is mirrored in the end: Regina's friend Dutra, who plays a central role in her affair with Martha, is maliciously accused of sexual assault by his hospital bosses, who want to push him out.  Two dots make a line, and it's hard to shake the impression that Choi is especially suspicious of accusations like that, which makes it an especially strange read in the #metoo era.  And that reading lines up with the well-meaning comic jabs it takes at the university world in general, like the cadre of students who taunt a professor with the name of Joseph Conrad, meant as a stand-in for literary colonialism and racism, but whom none of the protestors, including Regina, have ever read.  (Choi also drops some pretty funny fake class titles, like "Aesthetic/Prosthetic," which is really being taught somewhere, I'm sure.)  I think Choi means to suggest that the narratives we used to think about sex are also reductive, but it still seems weird.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Haunted Dolls' House and Other Stories by M. R. James

I was at supper at his house, and he was not inclined to let me leave him at my usual time.  'If you go,' he said, 'there will be nothing for it but I must go to bed and dream of the chrysalis.'  'You might be worse off,' said I.  'I do not think it,' he said, and he shook himself like a man who is displeased with the connexion of his thoughts.  'I only meant,' said I, 'that a chrysalis is an innocent thing.'  'This one is not,' he said, 'and I do not care to think of it.'

I read M. R. James' collection of ghost stories, Count Magnus, around last Halloween, and figured I might as well take this Halloween as an opportunity to read its companion collection, The Haunted Dolls' House.  These stories have the same hallmarks as the first collection: they're set among stuffy British country houses and boarding schools; their ghosts and ghouls are linked to ancient and medieval objects and lithographs and old folderol like that; yet the ghosts and ghouls themselves are quite creepy.  The monsters of The Haunted Dolls' House begin to bear a tedious similarity to the ones in Count Magnus--James has a thing for monsters made of nothing but hair--but still they are in effective contrast to the stories' gentility.  James has a real knack for breaking through a fussy Victorian scene with the briefest glimpse of a horrible vision, like the friend above who admits, without any prior context, "I must go to bed and dream of the chrysalis."  The chrysalis.

My favorites in this collection all center on the British countryside.  The countryside, in British literature, is picturesque and historical, a setting for wanderers and tourists like Wordsworth.  "A View from a Hill," plays on both of those expectations: it centers on a pair of binoculars, constructed by a mad experimenter using a dead man's eyes, that allows the viewer to see the particular towns--and the gallow's pole--as they were hundreds of years ago.  Another, "A Warning to the Curious," repurposes an old legend about Anglo-Saxon crowns buried on England's eastern shore, which have kept the island safe from invasion, and which are guarded by a relentless spirit.  The best story, "A Neighbour's Landmark," is no more inventive than a spirit who haunts a certain grove of trees, but the story's protagonist learns about it first as an aside in a historical pamphlet.

James knew that monsters are scariest when they're at arm's length, not just in space, but in time.  Ghosts are the past come back to haunt us, as it haunts, in a manner of speaking, the classicist and the historian.  The stories pile veil upon veil; every single one is in some way a story reported by a friend about a friend of theirs, or some other kind of multi-layered contrivance.  There's a metaphor in there for the process of historical understanding, which passes through so many generations of understanding that you're never quite sure if you've got your eyes set on something real.  In James, the horribleness of the beasts slices through these layers of interpretation, too awful to be legendary, and too ridiculous to be real.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

"Don't you get dreams?" I asked him.  "Don't you get scared reading those at night?  They're supposed to scare you."

"Hey, nit squat!  These are written by norms to scare norms.  And do you know what the monsters and demons and rancid spirits are?  Us, that's what.  You and me.  We are the things that come to the norms in the nightmares.  The thing that lurks in the bell tower and bites out the throats of the choirboys--that's you, Oly.  And the thing in the closet that makes the babies scream in the dark before it sucks their last breath--that's me.  And the rustling in the brush and the strange piping cries that chill the spine on a deserted road at twilight--that's the twins singing practice scales while they look for berries."

Olympia Binewski comes from a family of sideshow geeks.  Her mother, Crystal Lil, bites the heads of chickens; her father Al is the ringmaster.  By "experimenting with illicit and prescription drugs, insecticides, and eventually radioisotopes," they produce a brood of children with sideshow-ready deformities.  There's Arturo, the Aqua Boy, with flippers for hands and legs, and the conjoined twins Electra and Iphigenia.  Olympia, the narrator, is an albino with a hump.  The youngest child, Chick, surpasses even these: although he looks like a "norm," he's got telekinetic powers.  Together, they cross the country as the Binewski Family Fabulon.

One thing I like about Geek Love is this: it understands both the appeal and the danger of being unlike everyone else.  The Binewskis are proud of their strangeness, and pity the norms who come to gawk at them before returning to their painfully normal lives.  But that pride comes at a heavy cost; just ask the dozens of children who didn't make it, who were stillborn or died because of the effect of Al and Lil's experiments, and who are now collected in glass jars.  The central plot of the novel centers on Arty, a megalomaniac who uses his charisma to turn his sideshow act into a following, then a cult, demanding that his followers slowly chop off their fingers an toes, then their limbs, to become more like him.  Normal life is painful, Arty contends; if you want to be happy, you've got to be a freak.  I don't think it's a coincidence that these days you see that same kind of language--"normies"--on the most toxic, Pepe-loving internet cesspools.  The compulsive rejection of normal life can become its own kind of horrible groupthink, as Arty proves.  His magnetic personality overwhelms not just his thousands of followers, but his family, too; he forces Olympia and Chick and one of the twins (Iphy) to do his bidding.

But a lot of it I didn't like.  Geek Love is overstuffed and overwritten, and loaded with mixed metaphors ("'Truth' was Elly's favorite set of brass knuckles, but she didn't necessarily know the whole elephant").  That might be all right, considering that the baroque language reflects the ornate weirdness of the Binewskis and the grotesque silliness of the plot.  But I think Dunn makes a mistake choosing to write in the voice of an older, wiser Olympia.  That helps make sense of the secondary "present" narrative, in which the older Olympia saves her beautiful daughter from being disfigured by a woman who believes (in the spirit of Arturism) that disfiguring beautiful women helps unleash their potential.  But it gives too much authorial distance in the main narrative, and makes it difficult to understand why exactly Olympia, and everyone else, is in Arty's thrall so much.  It's a given that Arty is nasty, self-serving, and has delusions of grandeur, and Oly's insistence that she would do anything for him isn't sufficiently grounded.  A more immediate voice might have helped me make sense of, for instance, Olympia's choice to use her telekinetic brother to lift Arty's sperm out of his balls and impregnate her.

Yeah, that's the other thing.  I thought the book was mostly pretty unpleasant.  It's the twins who get the worst of it: Arty, incensed at their nascent experimenting with sex, "gives them" to a horribly disfigured follower who impregnates them, then lobotomizes the more rebellious of the two so that she won't go through with her plan to abort the child.  That image--the remaining twin carrying her child in one arm and propping up her lobotomized sister in the other--really is the stuff of nightmares.  Arty gets his comeuppance, but the twins are carried off with it, too, and the pointless cruelty of this torture never seems to be assuaged or redeemed.  It feels to me like the twins are sacrificed for sensationalism.  In a book about deformity, that struck me as the ugliest thing.

Sunday, October 21, 2018
















Gay New York by George Chauncey
Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers by Lillian Faderman

The twentieth century inherited a penchant for classification from the nineteenth century, with its delirious enthusiasm for the new science and its conviction that everything - even affection and sexual feeling - was unquestionably categorizable.

I read Chauncey's history of gay life in New York City first and found Faderman's earlier work in the endnotes.  I was driven by curiosity about New York City history and not-quite-idle speculation about the lives of family members and loved ones.  The two histories make excellent companions, approaching similar territory from different angles and reinforcing each other's general point of view even while looking at very different specifics.

The central idea both works is that the defining gay and lesbian life by what Chauncey refers to as "sexual object choice" is a relatively recent idea and one that may be fading.  Both historians point out that sexual activity with members of the same sex was neither unknown nor particularly shocking in 19th Century America.

Within the strict, silent parameters of Victorian era prudishness, it was an accepted fact that some men released their sexual tension with other men - and that there were well known parts of town and commercial establishments known for such liaisons.  The practice was not exactly accepted, but it was not the gender issue that New Yorkers got incensed about.  What got a man condemned in the 19th Century was perceived effeminacy - abandoning socially acceptable male behaviors involving work, dress, makeup, voice and assertiveness.  Chauncey uses the now offensive term "fairy" to describe the kind of man who faced hatred and ostracism from 19th Century society.

For lesbians, acceptance in 19th Century America was tied up with economics as much as sexual object choice.  Women could form romantic or spiritual friendships and live together in ways that might remind people of marriage - sharing a bed for example - without raising eyebrows, provided they had the means to live independent of male support.  Faderman discusses several such relationships, Jane Addams for one, that were built on the women's upper class status allowing them to pursue independent lives and unconventional relationships without social condemnation.  There was no such freedom for working class lesbians because there was no way to live in society without a man's support - not because love between women was not acceptable.

What changes for both groups is the ascendence of a certain view of psychology, post-Freud, that argues that sexual object choice is a permanent, defining characteristic of a person's life.  Whether it was viewed as a disease or simply a sin, sexual activity with a person of the same sex in 20th Century America is seen as defining who a person is.  Walt Whitman could declaim on the power of male affection, "the manly love of comrades," without being labeled because the label gay does not really exist.

This does not mean that life was better for gays or lesbians 150 years ago.  Sexual freedom of any type was frowned upon and there was no possibility of a gay or lesbian community or even of a long-term same sex relationship within any community.  The Twentieth Century chapters in both books tell the story of how men and women survived and occasionally thrived within the context of social condemnation.  They tell the story of communities that grew slowly and fitfully, supporting their members, sometimes publicly, sometimes secretly, but consistently.

Chauncey's writing is livelier and by focusing his study on NYC, he allows room for greater specificity, so there is fascinating material here about the difference between the gay community that grows up in Greenwich Village and that of Harlem.  Faderman is more strictly academic and ends with a stronger thesis about the social nature of sexuality.

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

The man hanging out of the wrecked car was still alive as I passed, and I stopped, grown a little more used to the idea now of how really badly broken he was, and made sure there was nothing I could do.  He was snoring loudly and rudely.  His blood bubbled out of his mouth with every breath.  He wouldn't be taking many more.  I knew that, but he didn't, and therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person's life on this earth.  I don't mean that we all end up dead, that's not the great pity.  I mean that he couldn't tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn't tell him what was real.

Denis Johnson's story "The Other Man" begins: "But I never finished telling you about the two men."  And sure enough, you recall: earlier in the collection Jesus' Son, there is a story called "Two Men," but it's really just about one man: a deaf-and-dumb giant of a dude who ends up in the narrator's car, signaling that he'd like to be taken somewhere.  He's a stranger, but somehow his inability to speak fends off a fight, and compels the narrator to comply.  The man in "The Other Man" is a tourist who pretends, convincingly, to be a Polish tourist until he admits it was a prank all along.  Yet the reveal doesn't reveal all:

When I've told others about this man, they've asked me, "Did he make a pass at you?"  Yes, he did.  But why is that out come to this encounter obvious to everyone, when it wasn't at all obvious to me, the person who actually met and spoke with him?

What's the connection between the two men?  Are they both liars?  And why does it take the narrator so long to remember to finish the story?  All of Jesus' Son is like that, within and across stories: obscure connections are made and broken; time skips unpredictably and without warning.  In "Out on Bail," the narrator is at a bar commiserating with a friend about to go to prison, until he remembers that the moment was actually one of celebration, because the friend was acquitted.  In the virtuosic "Emergency," he tells us a story about getting stuck in a car in the snow, and accidentally kills a nest of newborn rabbits he'd been trying to protect.  Then he says, "Or maybe that wasn't the time it snowed."  This moment that he's thinking of, "The bunnies weren't a problem yet, or they'd already been a problem and were already forgotten, and there's nothing on my mind."  The fractured nature of the narrative reflects the drunken, drug-addled mindset of the narrator--nicknamed, unfortunately, "Fuckhead."

Does that sound frustrating?  Does it sound like the worst excesses of our most masculine hacks?  Our Bukowskis, our Palahniuks, our Bret Easton Ellises?  Certainly you can their shadows in a story like "Car Crash While Hitchhiking," which spares little in the way of violence or gore, or the black humor of the moment in "Emergency" when the strung-out orderly glibly removes the knife in a man's eye while prepping him for the surgery that's supposed to do exactly that.  Denis Johnson is the writer those guys all wish they could be, or maybe think they are.  For one thing, he can write circles around them, as in this drugged-out vision of the Iowa countryside:

Glaciers had crushed this region in the time before history.  There'd been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains.  The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed , wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground like rows of underthings.  Most of the farmers didn't even plant anymore.  All the false visions had been erased.  It felt like the moment before the Savior comes.  And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time.

But also, Jesus' Son has a kind of warmth and generosity those authors can't match.  Johnson has a sincere affection for those who are down and out, like Fuckhead, which is all the more remarkable because it doesn't require the kind of gritty realism that we usually think of us being the hallmark of empathetic literature about the lowest strata of our society.  Dreams and visions, induced by pills or otherwise, are respected as part of human creativity and ingenuity.  And both Johnson and Fuckhead are aware that much of human life is the product of circumstance and luck:

"You just don't realize.  Being a cheerleader, being on the team, it doesn't guarantee anything.  Anybody can take a turn for the worse," said Richard, who'd been a high school quarterback or something himself.

About Dundun, a sadistic man who tortures a friend of Fuckhead's, he writes:

Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart?  His left hand didn't know what his right hand was doing.  It was only that certain important connections had been burned through.  If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into something like that.

The collection zips from Iowa to Chicago to Seattle, but it ends in Arizona, where Fuckhead is all cleaned up and trying to live a sober life as an orderly in an old folk's home.  He spends his afternoons and evenings spying on a Mennonite couple who live nearby, trying to peer into their inner life.  He's interested in them before he knows they are Mennonite, but the story says something like this: even the most straitlaced of us have inner lives that are unique, perhaps even bizarre, that we are all as weird as the drifters and addicts of Jesus' Son, thought not all of us live close enough to risk for that part of us to emerge.  "All these weirdos," Fuckhead writes serenely at the end, "and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them.  I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us."

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow

And soon everything must change.  Men would set their watches by other suns than this.  Or time would vanish.  We would need no personal names of the old sort in the sidereal future, nothing being fixed.  We would be designated by other nouns.  Days and nights would belong to the museums.  The earth a memorial park, a merry-go-round cemetery.  The seas powdering our bones line quartz, making sand, grinding our peace for us by the aeon. Well, that would be good--a melancholy good.

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

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

Tell me about a complicated man.
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
back home.

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

Image result for my year of rest and relaxation

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.