Friday, March 30, 2018

The Rifles by William T. Vollmann

You came to another lake whose shore was paved with white slabs (and the sky was barred yellow, red, and orange).  But that was not the source of the river, either.  You arrived at the shore of a wide, grey, ankle-deep lake, over which a single bird twittered.  Bands of muted color rippled across that lake.  It flowed steadily in the cool breeze you barely felt.  Black rocks stuck up in it like birds.  The water was pure and good to drink.  Two birds chased you, screaming through the sky.  And you went over another little rise and there was a lake whose waters rippled black and blue and orange and silver, and there was a jet-black ridge behind it topped with blue clouds, and the lake went on and on and on and there was another lake behind it and streams ran out of that lake in all directions and at last you understood that the river you had followed had no one source, that these lakes were permafrost melt; the whole island was permafrost; when you were on the island you were on a world of rivers that came from everywhere.

In the 1840's Sir John Franklin made a final attempt to reach the Northwest Passage aboard the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus.  It was his final attempt because he and his crew got stuck in ice for three years just off of King William Island and died.  It seems to have been a baroque and nightmarish experience: some slowly died of lead poisoning from improperly canned food, others of tuberculosis; some starved on their way trekking across the ice in a last ditch attempt to cross thousands of miles of arctic tundra on foot.

William T. Vollmann's The Rifles tells the story of Franklin's expedition, intertwined with a modern narrative centering around a character called Captain Subzero, a name given to him by some local Inuit children when he first arrives in the Canadian arctic.  Subzero is a stand-in for Vollmann himself, and seems to share a lot of Vollmann's experiences, including accidentally setting his own sleeping bag on fire during an ill-advised attempt to spend a week in the harsh winter in the far north.  Your guess is as good as mine whether, like Subzero, falls in love with an Inuit girl whom he continually returns to visit, impregnates, and abandons to commit suicide.  You'd think the answer is no, but with Vollmann, whose whole schtick is immersing himself in whatever he's writing about, who once joined the mujahideen to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, there's no telling.  I'm going to assert that the "Reepah" parts of the story are mainly fictionalized, because otherwise The Rifles would be very difficult to read.

Subzero believes himself to be the reincarnation of Franklin: a European on a doomed arctic voyage.  But that description doesn't really capture what Vollmann does here, skipping from Franklin to Subzero as if they really are the same person, sometimes in the space of a single sentence.  The whole thing induces whiplash:

Then too there was the matter of his own preferences.  A gentleman puts these aside in favor of others whenever he can, of course, but by GOD he did think that he too had some right to complete the Passage! -- A gentleman is a gentleman: he gave way to Sir John, or rather to his wife. -- As for this matter of Reepah, here I must confess to have been indulging in historical reconstruction.  Such thoughts could only have occurred to Sir James if time works both ways -- that is, if simply because Subzero had become the reincarnation of Franklin, Franklin must then have become (to however slight an extent) identified with Subzero in some manner.  Ask yourself: are you behaving differently at this very moment because someone not yet to be born for a century or more will someday think about you?  You cannot prove the contrary.  -- What's the difference anyway whether it's so?  Ice-floes, no matter how white, and water, no matter how blue or grey, eventually reach the same color in the distance.

Vollmann's become a hot commodity lately thanks to the popularity of Europe Central and The Dying Grass, a 1000-page novel about the Nez Perce that's part of the same series as The Rifles investigating European interactions with Native Americans.  But most of what I could find people saying about The Rifles was largely negative.  I understand why people might feel that way: Vollmann's immersive tactics can seem precious, rather than innovative, and the metafictional stuff might seem tedious.  To those voices I add: I wish that we would stop using victimized women as symbols of colonized lands, which is something that The Rifles' Reepah has in common with the Pocahontas of Argall.

But I think there's a remarkable honesty in Vollmann's project.  Subzero mistreats Reepah fabulously, refusing to leave his wife for her or vice versa.  He loves to entertain the radical idea of moving to the Canadian arctic and settling down with an Inuit woman, but when provided the opportunity, he finds that he can't take the other foot out of the old U.S. of A.  In this way, Vollmann aligns himself not with the beleaguered Inuit, but the Europeans who introduced the rifles to them, which ended up devastating their hunting practices.  It's no coincidence that Reepah kills herself with a shotgun.

One reviewer complains that Vollmann has nothing insightful to say about the Inuit, but I think that's the point; it's impossible, Vollmann argues, for the descendants of white Europeans to really understand the First Nations whose historical oppression they have inherited.  By aligning himself with Subzero, Vollmann doesn't shy away from that inheritance or minimize it.  That's one of the reasons that this book, which takes so many weird liberties in other ways, is so scrupulously researched and footnoted: all the knowledge and research that Vollmann/Subzero possesses cannot stop him from reenacting the calamities of colonialism over and over.

Other things I really admired about this book are: the sharp, observant descriptions of the Arctic landscape, which do a great job distinguishing one island from another.  Not all Arctic islands, it seems, are created equally, which is something the Inuit found out who were forcibly removed to the far northern outposts of Grise Fiord and Resolute by the Canadian government.  I loved the description at the top of this review, which emphasized their status as terra incognita, which obviate any attempt at wayfinding, and which echoes just how lost the Franklin expedition becomes.

And though her fate in the book is tragic, I thought the depiction of Reepah was charming and lovingly drawn.  I have no way of telling if her unstudied English is an accurate depiction of how an Inuit woman might talk, but it felt real.  "Someone stole my secrets," she says, poetically, and only several paragraphs later we find that she means that someone stole her cigarettes.  She has a real life on the page that contrasts to the dead-eyed foolishness and selfishness of Subzero, or the obsessive fatalism of Franklin.

Ultimately I really liked the unpredictable seesawing of time in The Rifles, which added an element of novelty to the hyperhistorical slog that is Argall, a book I also really liked.  There are three more of these books, most of them big bricks nearing or passing a thousand pages, and I'm afraid I'm going to have to read those, now, too.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark

‘One should always be kind,’ Lise says, ‘in case it might be the last chance. One might be killed crossing the street, or even on the pavement, any time, you never know. So we should always be kind.’ She cuts her sandwich daintily and puts a piece in her mouth.

Even for the notoriously cold and sometimes nasty Spark, The Driver's Seat is a bleak piece of work. Slim--barely 100 pages--all in present tense and never cutting away from its protagonist, the story starts on a shopping trip and ends with Lise dead behind a pavilion at the end of her perfect death day.

The above paragraph might seem like a spoiler but it isn't, really, since we learn most of this by the second chapter. The only real mysteries are either insignificant (Who will kill her?) or completely opaque (Why does she want to die?). And the story moves at such a breakneck pace, at such an impersonal register, that we never connect to Lise or any of her supporting cast in any meaningful way. Indeed, except for a brief moment at the very end, there's no pathos to this tale at all. From a writer with Spark's skill, this can't be accidental, not that Dame Muriel is senitmental at her softest, but it makes for a chilly read.

Is it fun? Well, parts are, and of course the potboiler structure, however predestined the ending, can't help but light up the whodunnit centers of the brain, though as Lise says of the unnamed book she carries around for the duration of her story, it's more of a "whydunnit" and that's an answer we never get. Parts are infused with Spark's merciless humor, as when one of Lise's temporary traveling companions talks about her husband getting a little too cocksure:

‘They are demanding equal rights with us,’ says Mrs Fiedke. ‘That’s why I never vote with the Liberals. Perfume, jewellery, hair down to their shoulders, and I’m not talking about the ones who were born like that. I mean, the ones that can’t help it should be put on an island. It’s the others I’m talking about. There was a time when they would stand up and open the door for you. They would take their hat off. But they want their equality today. All I say is that if God had intended them to be as good as us he wouldn’t have made them different from us to the naked eye. They don’t want to be all dressed alike any more. Which is only a move against us. You couldn’t run an army like that, let alone the male sex. With all due respects to Mr Fiedke, may he rest in peace, the male sex is getting out of hand. Of course, Mr Fiedke knew his place as a man, give him his due.’

Or when a man spends an entire plane ride trying to seduce Lise, telling her how he's her type and forcing his hydroponics obsession on her. But mostly, the tone is dry and disorienting as Lise picks up one piece of her plan after another and finally enlists the help of a psychotic she vibed with to do the killing.


The killing is the only part of the story with any real weight, and it is nasty. Lise instructs him on how to tie her up, where to stab her, what to tie with the scarf and what to tie with the tie--but ultimately, even her death is taken out of her hands as he refuses--perhaps cannot not refuse--her command not to hae sex with her, and rapes her before following the rest of her instructions to the letter. So, sadly, for all her effort to exert control over her fate, she dies knowing it was all an illusion. Sad.

Spark is no stranger to aggressive foreshadowing, if what she does can even be called that, but this book, so concise and so focused on theme, strips away everything but the fatalism until the whole book begins, in retrospect, to look like an ironical joke. What was the point of the planning, the work, the actions taken, when Lise was dead before the story even started? Spark doesn't go in for explicit metafictional games but as she often does, her artistic vision includes the author as a God who is either absent, inscrutable, or cruel, but nevertheless cannot be resisted.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Alexander Rostov was neither scientist nor sage; but at the age of sixty-four he was wise enough to know that life does not proceed by leaps and bounds. It unfolds. At any given moment, it is the manifestation of a thousand transitions. Our faculties wax and wane, our experiences accumulate and our opinions evolve--if not glacially, then at least gradually. Such that the events of an average day are as likely to transform who we are as a pinch of pepper is to transform a stew.
In the early days of the Soviet Union, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to spend the rest of his life confined in the Metropol hotel. He is banished to an attic room and spends the next thirty years witnessing history through the microcosm of hotel guests. Early on he befriends Nina, a young hotel guest "with a penchant for yellow," and later, when she disappears into the Soviet machine, he raises her daughter, Sofia. His relationship with both these young women forms the emotional core of the novel.

Towles is a masterful creator of worlds; almost the entire novel takes place within the walls of the Metropol, but the detail infused to both the setting and the characters makes it feel like an entire universe. There is some heavy handed use of simile (as in the quote above), but once I got into the rhythm of Towles' prose, it didn't bother me as much as it sometimes does.

As a member of the aristocracy, Count Rostov has a unique perspective on the changes going on around him. While the novel does a fabulous job of building up the world of the Metropol, the reality of the world outside is a thinly developed presence. On some level, I'm sure this was purposeful: Rostov's only exposure to the events of that world is heavily influenced by the filter of the hotel. He encounters dignitaries and higher ups in the Party as well as international visitors, and his only experiences with everyday citizens come through his interactions with the staff (whose ranks he eventually joins). The experience of those characters as citizens under an oppressive regime is only vaguely alluded to at best. Rostov loses loved ones to the purges, and wives of hotel employees wait in bread lines, but those are the only real references to the various indignities of life in the Soviet Union that we get.

Overall, this was an immersive, enjoyable read. Rostov's ability to grow and change without ever leaving the confines of a hotel is both impressive and believable, and his love for both Nina and Sofia is endearing. Towles created a universe here that is captivating and appealing, but the fact that it existed within the horrors of the Soviet Union without fully engaging with them gave me pause.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout

Those who were musical still remembered the melodies of all songs, all dances; here they used still the small copper cymbals of Ceram, the "land at the other side"; there they blew on the Triton shells, which are shimmering orange inside; and once she had made a long trip to hear someone sing "the song of the dying fishes" as only a man could sing it.

The Ten Thousand Things is a magical novel. It takes place on a mythical island where the mystical and the mundane live side by side. The first place we visit is the Small Garden, not really small, and there we learn a bit of the island's mythology: of the leviathan that lives in the big shell on the beach, which Felicia, the novel's ostensible heroine, is afraid to touch as a child; of the three children's graves, whose occupants often play on the beach and can be seen as long as they don't know; of the house that burnt down with a family inside and can never be rebuilt; of snakes with glowing stones that can only be possessed in their iridescent state if they are given freely; of other things as well.

And the first section of the book lures you into thinking you know what kind of book this is going to be: something light, escapist, fantastical; but there are dark colors too. The blood when the big crabs eat the little ones; the murders and violence that won't quite stay in the past; the separations and estrangements that haunt the citizen of the island, Felicia most of all.

We meet her at birth, and the story moves quickly through her childhood with her grandmother, her departure to the mainland, and her return, newly single, with a baby, Himpies. But where we might expect the narrative to slow, it keeps moving, through Himpies' childhood, teenager-hood, young adulthood, through to (SPOILER) his eventual death by ambush as a soldier. In one of the novel's most sriking passages, his death is poetically--cryptically--presaged:

Suddenly there were three young turtles, all three the same size, their shields gleaming, almost pink, with a symmetrical pattern of dark brown and yellow and black stripes and spots; each with its four fins waving up nd down, young and yet with the same old man's bald head on a wrinkled neck, with little gleaming eyes under sleepy lids and a large yellow beak like a bird's.

They let themselves drop, their fins upright, as if they were drowning, rose again; they kept together, swan over and under each other, carefully, not touching, with a strangely thoughtful and yet casual gaze.

Then as unexpectedly as they had risen, they dropped down into the deep and did not reappear.

The language here is typically sensuous, lush, and minimal at once. Dermout's images are like pastel dreams, representative but not concrete, and what do they represent? Mostly death, it seems.

And then, at the apex of Felicia's grief, almost exactly the midpoint of the novel, we leave her to visit the other side of the island and, in a series of vignettes, learn about three more murders: a colonol killed by his wife and her handmaidens, a cook killed by her ex-lover and his death at the hands of her best friend (probably) and the death of a professor who's visiting the island to study wildflowers.

When I hit the second half, I was confused, but as the stories go on, there are the slightest of connections: the small garden appears, a tribe recurs, an author of tavelogues is referenced. And at the end of the professor's tale--perhaps it is better called the tale of his assistant Raden--we return to Felicia, and everything is tied together in a mystic circle that evokes fate, mystery, and the somber beauty of death, and the liminality of life that avoids tidy conclusions:

She pressed the tips of the fingers of one hand against her forehead just above the eyebrows--how many murderers there were! It made her dizzy, and at the same time she was astonished about something: while thinking of them she did not feel the anger, the disgust of always, but pity almost: not the large and burning pity that came for those who were murdered, but a small feeling of impatience, of sadness--oh why, why, you fools!--without the desire for revenge, without hatred now. As if they were not murderers but also among the murdered.

And then there were no more murderers and murdered. After all, it was one-and-the-other, as her son had wanted it.

And so it all comes around and the novel ends with an affirmation of the continuance and inevitablity of life, as Felicia is called by the islanders to end her annual night of mourning:

Then the lady of the Small Garden whose name was Felicia stood up from her chair obediently and without looking around at the inner bay in the moonlight--it would remain there, always--she went with them, under the trees and indoors, to drink her cup of coffee and try again to go on living.
Image result for blood at the root

Blood at the Root
Patrick Phillips

Phillips grew up in Forsyth County, Georgia, an old farming community that had lately become more suburban as the city of Atlanta grew.  He remembers being told that no blacks lived in Forsyth County because they had all been chased out.  Some 40 years after hearing that rumor, he has written a compelling history of the violent racial cleansing Forsyth school children bragged about in the 1970s.

Over a period of just a few weeks in 1912, white residents of Forsyth responded to the murder of a white woman by lynching one black man and railroading several others who would be legally hung although they clearly had nothing to do with the crime.  The racist furor continued and night riders, many who would go on to form the county's large Klan population in the 1920s, terrorized the other black residents into leaving the county.  Hundreds of black families abandoned farms and property under threat of lynching.  The property was often burned and the land claimed by white families who, slowly over the next decade, took possession of the abandoned farms and filed claims for deeds in the county courthouse.

The lynchings and the thefts remained open secrets for generations - Forsyth residents freely bragged that their county was all-white but none of the crimes behind the claim were ever investigated.  For decades wealthy Atlantans knew not to drive through Forsyth if their chauffeurs were black, companies making deliveries knew to have black workers hide under tarps if they had to stop in Cumming or Oscarville.  African Americans were not simply denied the right to live in Forsyth:  they were violently prevented from even driving through.

Phillip continues the history through contemporary crimes against unwitting African Americans in the 1980s, protest marches that are met with large and vicious counter-protests in 1987, and the slow changes wrought by full-scale suburbanization in recent years.  He takes us on side-trips to Detroit and other locations that show that this is not a Southern problem even as he keeps the focus tightly on the specifics of this Southern location.

The sheer size and viciousness of the crimes is appalling, even to one well-read in American racial history, and the slow pace of change - indeed the meager changes that get counted as advancements - are shaming.

The research here is impressive and, while some of the prose is less than thrilling, Phillips never gets in the way of his story, which is well worth telling.

Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies

Given taste, you can go as far as you like with your big stage effects. Hundreds of people milling around if you like. Fill the stage with horses and dogs. Pageantry in a big way. Make it complex! Let it fill the eye! Let it be enriched, bejeweled, Byzantine! The parrot-cry that simplicity is one with good taste comes from people who cannot trust their own taste in anything that is not simple! Shakespeare demands all the opulence we can give him!


Robertson Davies is an author of unusual warmth and humanity. Though his style isn't really "cool", lacking any sort of postmodern trickery, dramatic formalism, or dense modenist allusion, his novels are peopled with characters who talk, act, and hurt like real people. Not exactly like real people, of course, but, much like the characters in a good play make you think "these people sound just like us!" even though your conversations aren't nearly as erudite and funny, the citizens of Davies' Salterton feel real.

The Salterton community theater is staging Shakespeare's The Tempest. The community theater isn't a setting that encourages very serious examination, on the whole, and here again Davies shows his deft touch, taking on archetypes from the professional out of town director, the zany conductor, the overserious local thespian, the airheaded "hot chick" and so on and sketching them out to, well, not always three dimensions, but at least more than one. Valentine, the director, is flattered in the end by a compliment from a teenager; the conductor shows great insight into relationships beyond his mantra of "marry a mezzo-soprano"; the local thespian is... well, thinly-drawn but very funny; and the "hot chick", actually nicknamed The Torso for her, uh, torso, gets one of the most empathetic gestures of the entire novel.

And yet, in spite of the greatness of those characters, they aren't the focus. Instead, the central character is middle-aged math teacher Hector Mackilwraith, and the central conflict is his newfound infatuation with the high-school ingenue Griselda Webster. Hector is a star teacher at the local high school, an office that carries prestige only in his small pond.

The potential pitfalls are obvious. Make Hector dashing, or dashingly awkward, and the whole thing falls into an unsettling cliche. But make him too pitiful and the novel loses the delicate lightness and turns creepy--but Davies does neither, instead maintaining Hector's innocent, conflicted banality without arousing our contempt, even when his actions get dramatic and fail spectacularly. This is a mild spoiler but Hector ending the novel without Griselda by his side feels like a bold move, even though it's really the only one available by the end. But even in failure--and a lot of characters in Tempest-Tost fail in one way or another--everyone preserves their dignity and essential humanity. That's no mean feat.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

LaRose by Louise Erdrich

There are five LaRoses.  First the LaRose who poisoned Mackinnon, went to mission school, married Wolfred, taught her children the shape of the world, and traveled that world as a set of stolen bones.  Second, her daughter LaRose, who went to Carlisle.  This LaRose got tuberculosis like her own mother, and like the first LaRose fought it off again and again.  Lived long enough to become the mother of the third LaRose, who went to Fort Totten and bore the fourth LaRose, who eventually became the mother of Emmaline, the teacher of Romeo and Landreaux.  The fourth LaRose also became the grandmother of the last LaRose, who was given to the Ravich family by his parents in exchange for a son accidentally killed.

In all of these LaRoses there was a tendency to fly above the earth.  They could fly for hours when the right songs were drummed and sung to support them.  These songs are now waiting in the leaves, half lost, but the drumming of the water drum will never be lost.  This ability to fly went back to the first LaRose, whose mother taught her to do it, when her name was still Mirage, and who had learned this from her father, a jiisikid conjurer, who'd flung his spirit all the way around the world in 1798 and come back to tell the astonished drummers that it was no use, white people covered the earth like lice.

Landreaux Iron goes out one day to shoot a buck he's seen wandering around his property.  He misses the buck and instead shoots five-year old Dusty, the son of his neighbor and friend, Peter.  Overcome with guilt, Landreaux and his wife Emmaline return to the traditional ways of their Ojibwe community--the sweat lodge--and are given a solution: they must give their son LaRose, who was Dusty's friend, to Peter and his wife.

That's a killer setup, and it all happens in the first ten pages of so of Louise Erdrich's novel LaRose.  The boy at first is confused, unsure why he's suddenly been exiled from his family and absorbed into another.  But as it turns out, LaRose has a gift for kindness and rehabilitation, given to him as part of a long line of LaRoses, whose stories are woven throughout the book.  It is LaRose that helps Dusty's sister Maggie comprehend her grief, and LaRose who studiously watches over Dusty's mother Nola to make sure that she doesn't commit the suicide she is contemplating.  It doesn't take long before the two families work out an uneasy arrangement that essentially makes LaRose the shared son of both, and LaRose seems to accept it as his duty as peacemaker.  It's a long process, but you can see where it's going: it's LaRose that will bring these two families together and help them reintegrate, both within themselves and each other.

LaRose asks, how can we atone for what we've done?  It is, to borrow a Christian word that doesn't always fit the traditional Ojibwe religion of the novel, about grace.  The question plays out in the central narrative, but also in a number of subplots, including the sexual assault of Maggie and the jealous contrivance of a loner named Romeo to wreak revenge on Landreaux for a decades-old act of crueltyThe point gets made, but it's hard not to feel like the novel is overstuffed with these variations on a theme.  Would the novel have worked equally well without the presence of Hollis, Romeo's son, who Landreaux has raised for unclear reasons?  Probably.

I find that I like Erdrich's work best when it's historical in nature.  LaRose is set in the early 2000s and it reminds you of that fact by making repeated distracting allusions to the Iraq War.  Peter is a Y2K doomsday prepper, which might have been, but is not, a useful angle.  But most importantly, a tone of falsity creeps into the novel because of the material culture of the new millennium, perhaps because it accentuates an essential mundanity to the lives of these characters.  I mean, there's a whole passage that milks the drama of a girl's high school volleyball game, and it just doesn't work for me.  I don't know what makes that happen, but I don't think Erdrich is the only novelist who struggles to make the contemporary work.

In fact, the section of LaRose I found most compelling was the interstitial chapter that tells the story of Romeo and Landreaux, who escape from a white-run school for Native Americans and live with the homeless on the streets of Minneapolis in the 1970's.  Landreaux sees one of their teachers everywhere, thinking she's come to drag them back to the school which seeks to erase their identity, as if she stalks the earth like the spirit of white paternalism.  There's a lot about "Indian schools," actually; all the incarnations of LaRose seem to have been forced to attend one.  Perhaps the most powerful thing about the novel's investigation of grace is the idea that it might be projected onto a national scale, and applied to the broken and bloody relationship between the United States and her native peoples.

But at its heart, LaRose is about the possibility of healing between two families in the face of the most profound tragedy that any family can face.  It avoids bromides and easy answers even as it affirms that such healing really is possible.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Sign of the Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

“My mind," he said, "rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants. But I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation. That is why I have chosen my own particular profession, or rather created it, for I am the only one in the world.”
For a few years when I was a kid, my dad gifted me a Sherlock Holmes book every year on my birthday. As a result, I have the entire collection (in fancy hardback form with spines printed in various tie patterns), and have been dutifully packing it up and moving it from home to home over the course of the past 20 years or so, but I never actually cracked one open.  Turns out that was probably for the best.

In this, Doyle's second account of Holmes and Watson's adventures, a woman comes to them with a mystery. After her father's death many years ago, she started receiving anonymous valuable gifts in the mail, and she suspects foul play. Holmes and Watson investigate and uncover a complicated web of deceit tracing back decades and across continents. The tale unfolds in a style I've come to associate with Sherlock Holmes from various screen adaptations adaptations; the case seems to be following a particular path and then Holmes has some flash of completely random insight, and immediately everything falls into place. Even though this was my first foray into reading a Holmes mystery, the format already felt a little trite.

Far more concerning, however, was the rampant sexism and troubling Orientalism at the core of the story. Holmes actually says the words: "Women are never to be entirely trusted--not the best of them" and the story is entirely devoid of women who are not damsels in distress or token wives included to move the plot along. The depictions of India and various other British colonies are even more problematic and stereotypical, and it reads like an incredibly racist ethnocentric account of colonial superiority. Inhabitants of the various islands are described as "savages" and are generally dehumanized and reduced to animalistic features and tendencies. No one, not even Watson (the rational and often more enlightened of the pair), seems to bat an eyelash.

I realize that this must have been par for the course at the time, but it does not age well, and the mystery was not worth the constant racist and sexist undertones (and often overtones!). I'm not feeling particularly inclined to dig into any of the rest of my collection any time soon.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

In early autumn the farm recruiters arrived to sign up new workers, and the War Relocation Authority allowed many of the young men and women to go out and help harvest the crops. Some came back wearing the same shoes they'd left in and swore they would never go out there again. They said they'd been shot at. Spat on. Refused entrance to the local diner. The movie theater. The dry goods store. They said the signs in the windows were the same wherever they went: 'No Japs Allowed.' Life was easier, they said, on this side of the fence.

The Japanese internment during World War II may be the least-discussed major shame in American history. In spite of resistance from some fronts, there is at least a general recognition that slavery was bad and we shouldn't have killed all the the Indians. The Japanese internment, on the other hand, I didn't even learn about in high school. Right-wing shill Michelle Malkin wrote a book in defense of internment, no doubt hoping it would spur a smililar movement toward her own group non grata, Muslims. And Asians, now treated as a model minority by the "I'm not racist but" crowd, are often spoken of as though their American experience has been smooth sailing, never mind that even high profile figures like George Takai were actually in these camps. This isn't ancient history.

I'm not confident I've read anything about the internment in the course of Fifty Books, and When the Emperor Was King did a good job whetting my appetite for more. It's a terse, unsentimental little novel that doesn't even name its characters even as it follows them through the arrest of their father, their own move to and life in an internment camp, and their eventual return home, where they are finally, after several years, reuinited.

When I say this book is unsentimental, it's no joke. The first section--the book is split into five--follows the unnamed mother as she prepares their house for their indefinite absence. Some of the preparations are benign--packing things aways, making sure the faucets are off. Others are more chilling and speak to uncertainty and permenance of their dislocation, like when we follow her to the store where she purchases a new shovel with which to kill and bury the family dog. Does this make her sad? Angry? Resigned? We're never told, just as the children are never told why White Dog isn't coming when she's called.

The train ride to the camp and life in the camp itself is endless monotony punctuated by the terror of being completely powerless and surrounded by those who are indifferent. The girl thinks she seems some humanity on a guard's face, but the reader has no reason to think its real. Shades are kept low lest a passby lob a brick through a window upon realizing the bus is full of 'the enemy'.

And finally, the family returns home, to a house that's been destroyed by tenants who paid no rent or respect; they are greeted, or not greeted, by old friends who now see them as the enemy; they sleep every night with the threat of vandalism, arson, or worse; and they wait for their father to come home. But when he does, he's not the man they remember:

As the days grew longer our father began spending more and more time alone in his room. He stopped reading the newspaper. He no longer listened to Dr. IQ. with us on the radio. "There's already enough noise in my head," he explained. The handwriting in his notebook grew smaller and fainter and then disappeared from the page altogether. Now whenever we passed by his door we saw him sitting on the edge of his bed with his hands in his lap, staring out through the window as though he were waiting for something to happen. Sometimes he'd get dressed and put on his coat but he could not make himself walk out the front door.

In the evening he often went to bed early, at seven, right after supper - 'Might as well get the day over with' - but he slept poorly and woke often from the same recurring dream: It was five minutes past curfew and he was trapped outside, in the world, on the wrong side of the fence. "I've got to get back,' he'd wake up shouting.

'You're home now,' our mother would remind him. 'It's all right. You can stay.”

That "You can stay" breaks my heart. It communicates so much that has been surpressed in the book and in history itself. The heartbreak of disassociation, the despair of rejection, the pointless brokenness resulting from racism and fear. And it's a message that can't help but resonate now in the age of Trump, with Muslim bans, mosque bombings, "the wall", and the desire to Make America Great Again--when the question that really needs to be asked is, "Was there ever a time when America was really great?" The least of these would probably answer "no." But maybe instead of repeating history, there is a faint hope that we can learn.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Beetle Leg by John Hawkes

It was a sarcophagus of mud.  It filled the gap between the lesser hills and prevented, by raising spit and shoals to sight, the flag flying traffic of river boats where a few had glittered in the night and crawled before.  The dam caused to be beached the homemade leaking skiffs of ranchers whose land backed up to the mud colored misty fathoms trailing seaward.  Where once bleak needles and spines had popped crookedly from the banks and a few flowers increasingly withered into the plain and disappeared, only the dust from the southward slope, swirling into the air, and a few animal bones and tin cans from a still deeper generation, survived.  One small city of the plain lasted to welcome the tourist trade and issue reports on the depth of the almost foreign, dark pan of water.

The beetle leg of The Beetle Leg is the infinitesimal tilt of the dam outside the western town of Government City: "Visitors hung their mouths and would not believe, and yet the hill eased down the rotting shale a beetle's leg each several anniversaries."  The dam has come to define the lives of the people living in the area.  Its mutability is a threat, a reminder that the settlements they have built are impermanent on a less than cosmic scale; eventually the dam will fall and the towns will be destroyed.  It's already claimed one life: that of Mulge Lampson, who is obsessively remembered by not only his brother Luke, who spends his days spreading flower-seeds upon the hill that swallowed up is brother in the Great Slide, and Mulge's widow Ma, but everyone in town.

McCarthy fans will recognize in The Beetle Leg an appealing combination of the Western and the grotesque.  One character is a thirty-year old man beset by so many deformities that he looks three times his age.  His grotesqueness, we understand, is because he was cut out of the belly of his deceased mother, and he is "drawn to the expressionless genitals of animal."  Okay.  Another character, Cap Leech, is a quack medicine man who travels around in a baroque red wagon that serves as office and home.  There is a menacing group of bikers called the Red Devils around town, gunning their motorcycles and generally up to no good.  Like a good Western, The Beetle Leg culminates with the Sheriff rounding up a posse to take out the Red Devils, though it's never clear whether the Red Devils deserve to be taken out, or whether the posse is a manifestation of senseless animal violence spurred by the existential vacuity of life beneath the dam.

But I found a more meaningful similarity between Hawkes and Djuna Barnes, whose Nightwood, like The Beetle Leg, often left me with the singular response, What the fuck did I just read?  The language, while spare and sere in the familiar McCarthy style, is deliberately obscure, eliding obvious referents, throwing up clauses like boulders fallen on desert roads, and focusing on the evocative at the expense of the realistic.  But Barnes' tricky, slippery novel has at its heart a real human yearning.  Hawkes, who famously said that the "enemies of the novel" were "plot, character, setting, and theme" refuses to provide any recognizable human motivations to anyone.  The realest emotions belong to the women: Mulge's mother Hattie, who is buried at her request upside down in the hill so that she can look down at her son lost in the earth, and Ma, who wanders the hill trying to find her lost husband's burying place: "Miles from the Lampson place, seated quietly in the middle of acres which only Luke dared tread upon in daylight, Ma moaned and nodded as if she had lost him only the day before."

Too often I found myself unsure of the very basic facts of what I was reading.  Is a scene late in the book when Luke, fishing, hooks a dead infant, meant to be taken literally?  I'm not even sure why he's fishing in the first place, or how he got to the lake from where he just was.  I guess this is what is meant by "experimental fiction."  I don't mean to be snide.  I think if you read The Beetle Leg ten times, you might come to a fine appreciation of its sheer weirdness, its slippery prose, its bleak vision of a Western frontier bleached of the mythological grandeur of the human spirit we often apply to it.  But the first reading left me frustrated more than fascinated.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

All her knowledge is gone now. Everything she ever learned, or heard, or saw. Her particular way of looking at Hamlet or daisies or thinking about love, all her private intricate thoughts, her inconsequential secret musings – they’re gone too. I heard this expression once: Each time someone dies, a library burns. I’m watching it burn right to the ground.
I loved Nelson's I'll Give You the Sun, so I added this to my stockpile of nursing reads before giving birth. Nelson seems drawn to tragedy; this novel centers around the sudden death of Lennie's sister, Bailey, and charts Lennie's progression through both her grief and her first brush with romance. In true YA fashion, her two love interests are the New Kid in Town (a French musician with an infectious smile), and her dead sister's boyfriend (tall, dark, brooding...).

Nelson does (slightly melodramatic) teen-in-crisis internality well. Lennie's deluge of emotions are believably laid out, and even her most outrageous behaviors--almost sleeping with her sister's boyfriend!-- have an internal logic that makes them understandable. She also has a supporting cast of delightfully odd family members who make the book a little more interesting than your standard YA drama, including an uncle focused on reviving dead bugs and plants with scale replicas of Mayan ruins while embarking on marriage number six and a grandma who paints only green women and whose roses are famous for making people fall in love.

Along with an engaging inner monologue, Nelson also gives us a series of poems, scattered throughout the novel, that Lennie has written on scraps of paper and backs of napkins and abandoned.  These are mostly snippets of memories of her sister--conversations they had as they fell asleep, ruminations on grief. Some of them are unimpressive teenage drivel, but some of them make up the best writing in the book. As a device for building up the sister as a character and for showcasing their relationship, it could have fallen flat, but it works.

Overall, this was a great YA venture. It was a little white and a little heteronormative (a disappointment after Nelson's last novel), but it was emotionally engaging and well done. I'll be adding it to my classroom library in the fall!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Flying Home by Ralph Ellison

I wanted to be sure and review Ralph Ellison's Flying Home. Unfortunately, I can't find my copy of the book, and there's not much in the way of excerpts online. Which is a real shame because Ellison is an author that can hardly be summed up via review. Certainly there's plenty thematically in Invisible Man and this collection to unpack, plenty of modernist allusions to decipher, and plenty of stylistic tricks to dissect. But ultimately, Ellison is a visceral author, an ostensible modernist who mocks the often mock-chaos of modernist prose with some of the most fiery verbiage I've ever experienced.

That experience, in Flying Home, kicks in right away, with 'A Party Down at the Square'. Said party is a lynching, observed by a young white kid--the only white protagonist in the book--and the story is absolutely harrowing. Some authors paint pictures for the reader to observe--Ellison in high drama mode is Jackson Pollack, throwing paint wildly and in control, and daring the reader to look away. As things escalate, a woman is electrocuted, immolated really, a plane crashes, a riot nearly breaks out, and yet Ellison manages to keep the lynching, an event so sadly common in American history that it can almost seem mundane, as the real horror. And this isn't as simple as a man hanging from a tree either. Ellison literally burns it down as a miscarriage of justice descends into an infernal orgy of violence and fear.

But most of the collection finds Ellison in a more pastoral mode. There is a several story cycle in the middle following the same characters, friends Buster and Riley, which form a loose Bildungsroman spanning their grade school years discussing the omission of black war heroes from their cirriculums until Riley's first sexual encounter, with the "town witch". Presented in chronological order, Ellison's voice grows more assured, reaching it's apex in the witch story and one where a young Riley decides to tie parachutes to chickens, a vignette that swings from humor to tragedy quickly and innocently.

The rest of the collection is worthwhile, but apart from 'Party', the only story here that really captures the controlled burn of Invisible Man is 'King of the Bingo Game', a frenzied fever dream that follows a poor black man as he plays bingo to win money to survive. But the prose is mad, jumping back and forth in time, swooping woozily through the head of a desperate man whose susperstition has fixated on a bingo wheel in front of an unsympathetic crowd. When the police show up, there's only one possible ending. But like the "boxing" scene in Invisible Man, Ellison ratchets up the tension, madness, and sympathy in equal measure so the anticlimax hits like a chick hitting a barn floor from 20 feet.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson

Beauty is grandly present in the architecture of the cosmos, minutely present in the structure of the atom, and yet we humans can seem capable of utter indifference to it.  But I have begun to feel that our ability to do wrong is the basis of our moral nature, that our bias toward error gives meaning and urgency to our seeking after truth, that our blindnesses make the beautiful, pervasive as it is, always an object of discovery, a thing to be yearned for.  Just as the norms of our experience of existence are radically untypical of the universe of Being we can reasonably infer, with its entanglements and indeterminacies, its dark matter and antigravity, so we are singular among creatures precisely in our capacity to refine and elaborate our understanding in the awareness of its shortfall.  It is this in us that has made tiny blue earth a singular, seraphic presence in the great cosmos, watching and pondering, rapt with wonder.  We can feel deficiency in what we know or do, we can hear inadequacy in our most painfully considered phrases.  And gracious and chimerical beauty will bless us with the certainty that there is more to be hoped for, more to be tried.  The theologian can say all this implies divine intention and also continuous, loving engagement.  Because God created the universe, humankind is at the center of it all.

I was listening to a quartet of students in my Creative Writing class the other day complain about their English classes.  What's the point of it, they wanted to know.  They felt simultaneously that the things they were asked to do, like literary analysis, were too demanding and not rigorous enough, that they were asked to see what was not there while ignoring the skills that might actually be useful.  I didn't say anything.  For one, I was flattered that they felt comfortable enough to have that conversation when I was sitting right next to them.  For another, I feel, perhaps ironically, that those kind of conversations are exactly the ones that a good English or Humanities curriculum ought to make possible.  I didn't feel that I could articulate that to them in that moment in a way that wouldn't overwhelm the conversation they were having.  I also did not feel that I could pull out Marilynne Robinson's new collection of lectures, What Are We Doing Here? and find the passage I really wanted to share with them.  But I've found it, and I share it with you:

The contemporary assault on the humanities has something of the same objective and would employ similar methods.  Workers, a category that seems to subsume us all except the idlest rich, should learn what they need to learn to be competitive in the new economy.  All the rest is waste and distraction.

Competitive with whom?  On what terms?  To what end?  With anyone whose vigor and good fortune allows them to prosper, apparently.  And will these competitors of ours be left to enjoy the miserable advantage of low wages and compromised health?  And is there any particular reason to debase human life in order to produce more, faster, without reference to the worth of the product or to the value of the things sacrificed to its manufacture?  Wouldn't most people, given an hour or two to reflect, consider this an intolerably trivial use to be put to, for them and their children?  Life is brief and fragile, after all.  Then what is this new economy whose demands we must always be ready to fill?  We may assume it will be driven by innovation and by what are called market forces, which can be fads or speculation or chicanery.  Oh yes, rowdy old capitalism.  Let it ply its music.  Then again, in the all-consuming form proposed for it now, it is a little like those wars I mentioned earlier.  It is equally inimical to poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought.  It is equally disinclined to reward gifts that cannot be turned to its uses.  The urgency of war or crisis has been brought to bear on our civil institutions, which is to say, on the reserves and resources of civility we have created over many generations.

The answer I would give my students is not an answer but a question: what are your Math and Science classes "good for?"  I don't meant to diminish those fields, and neither does Robinson, who makes repeated allusions to the twentieth century's great scientific discoveries.  But we never ask the question what those classes are good for because we think we know: they help us get jobs, to be competitive, whether on the personal or national scale, and to make money.  The intuitive leap from the money to the happiness goes unsaid, even as we say we believe that money can't buy happiness.  But Chemistry and Biology and Algebra won't tell you how to cope when you wake up in the middle of the night with your wife or husband beside you in a California King bed in your beautiful, well-apportioned home and wonder why you feel so deeply unsatisfied.  A painting or a book or a poem might help you, or it might help you understand why and how such a thing could come to pass, or it might merely give you a kind of satisfaction that has eluded you.  We find it difficult to think of art as an end rather than a means, even as we take it as evidence of a flourishing culture.

The "here" in Robinson's title is the university.  But it serves also for the cosmos.  The questions, why are we here at school, and why are we here in the universe, are not unrelated.  Robinson holds up the American university system, with its roots in the Puritan belief that education is for all people, as an institution created in accordance with the basic worth of the human being.  That's her big subject: the special position of the human being in the universe, a quality which she reveals as self-evident despite the many millennia we have spent trying to diminish or conceal that fact.  She offers up old-time religion as a mode of thinking that accommodates this special position, at odds with the positivism and determinism that have characterized 20th-century thinking.  She saves a special rage for the attitudes, like Freudianism, Darwinism, and neurobiology, which would eliminate ideas of the soul or the mind, and thus, she feels, the human being.  I'm not sure I agree with the particulars all the time (Freud gets dragged a little too much these days, I think) but the central argument seems to me to be one of the truest things I have ever read.

All this sounds familiar because it's the same general thrust of her last collection of essays, The Givenness of ThingsIf it's repetitive, I don't mind; most of it bears repeating.  What Are We Doing? is repetitive within itself.  As a series of lectures given at disparate moments, a pattern of key ideas begins to emerge.  It will be difficult to forget, after reading these, that no one was put to death under Oliver Cromwell for religious reasons, or that Einstein's remark that the universe is remarkable in the fact that we can comprehend it ought to suggest that we are equally remarkable.  Robinson hammers especially hard a point that she begins making in Givenness, that the Puritans are in need of a critical and cultural rehabilitation.  I spent too much time in graduate school writing about John Milton to disagree with that.

With Robinson, it's hard to complain about more of the same because the same comes from a place that strikes me as deeply wise.  What this collection adds to the previous might be a knife's-edge awareness of our particular historical moment.  Besides the full-throated defense of the American university, there's an encomium to President Obama, who famously interview Robinson a few years ago.  There's a single reference to Trump, at the end, and it's a dismissal of theories of Russian collision.  But there's no ignoring her critique of nativists, "these lovers of country, these patriots," who "are wildly unhappy with the country they claim to love and are bent on remaking it to suit their own preferences, which they feel no need to justify or even fully articulate."  And the final lecture, called "Slander," Robinson tells the story of how her mother's obsession with Fox News caused them to be alienated from one another.  "She went to her rest before she would have had to deal with the ignominy of my conversation with the president," Robinson writes.  What a deeply sad sentence to have to write.  But it underscores the ways in which a return to the humanist ideals of our early modern forebears might present an antidote to our parochialism, our fear, our ennui, and our profound feelings of diminution.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

“Sometimes I believe that love dies but hope springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that hope dies but love springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals love, and sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals good sex. Sometimes I believe that love is as natural as the tides, and sometimes I believe that love is an act of will. Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it. Sometimes I believe that love is essential, and sometimes I believe that only reason love is essential is that otherwise you spend all your time looking for it.”

I suspect that everyone reading this blog likes at least one of the big three Nora Ephron movies: When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You've Got Mail. I like all three. They don't comprise her entire ouvre, but they do demonstrate her best qualities in the best way. In a way, watching only Ephron movies can give you a mistaken impression about the Romantic Comedy genre as a whole--at her best, Ephron captures real people saying impossibly witty things in ways that seem believable. There's real intelligence and humanity in her work that 2nd tier RCs like Sweet Home Alabama just don't possess.

I had no idea Ephron also wrote a novel, and if I had, I'm not sure I would have been interested in reading it. As much as I like the aforementioned movies, it's very easy to attribute their success to their charismatic leads and give the script the short shrift. But the weird cover drew me in when I passed by at the library and I'm glad it did. Heartburn is one of the most fun books I've read in years, and, like she does with her movies, Ephron manages to squeeze pathos out of a screwball comedy about her divorce.

I say "her divorce": it seems well known that Heartburn is Ephron's fictionalized version of her own divorce from Carl Bernstein, of Woodward and Bernstein, but she's mostly uninterested in the politics aside from some DC-centric one-liners. Indeed, a reucrring theme is her desire to be back in New York, where Ephron spent most of her life. And she does indeed have a New York voice, and a heavily-Jewish one at that. In fact, more than anything else, I was often reminded of a more madcap, funnier (yep) Philip Roth. When I read the blurb for Portnoy's Complaint, this is the sort of thing I was expecting.

The story opens with an 8-months pregnant Rachel Samstat learning that her husband, Mark, has been having an affair with a mutual friend since she got pregnant. Upon confronting him, expecting an apology, she's taken aback when he tells her he's in love, he's going to continue seeing her, and that she needs to accept it. And there she is, about to be single at 30-something, 8 months pregnant with a 3 year old.

Now, this all sounds like rather dour stuff, and at times, Ephrom takes a break from all the wisecracking to let us get a peek at the sadness that underlies even the silliest bits in this story. And there is a lot of (very witty) silliness mixed in:

That's the catch about betrayal, of course: that it feels good, that there's something immensely pleasurable about moving from a complicated relationship which involves minor atrocities on both sides to a nice, neat, simple one where one person has done something so horrible and unforgivable that the other person is immediately absolved of all the low-grade sins of sloth, envy, gluttony, avarice and I forget the other three.

There is a bit of a twist at the midpoint, wherein Mark seems interested in reconciliation, but it doesn't seem like much of a spoiler to say that they don't end the book together--their last interaction is a pie thrown at a dinner party. More surprisingly, perhaps, given Ephron's filmography, is that Rachel ends the book definitively alone. Her aloneness is hopeful--she's in good spirits, cracking wise in the last pages--but it does underscore how even a comedic book about separation is really no picnic underneath, and that in the end, there are always pieces remaining to pick up.

And then the dreams break into a million tiny pieces. The dream dies. Which leaves you with a choice: you can settle for reality, or you can go off, like a fool, and dream another dream.

It occurs to me now that most of the passages I marked were serious, sad observations, but I laughed out loud repeatedly while reading. I'll leave you with this, gentle reader:

There was a time when I thought galloping neuroses were wildly romantic, when I longed to be the sort of girl who knew the names of wildflowers and fed baby birds with eyedroppers and rescued bugs from swimming pools and wanted from time to time to end it all. Now, in my golden years, I have become very impatient with [this] in others. Show me a woman who cries when the trees lose their leaves in autumn and I'll show you a real asshole.


Thursday, March 8, 2018

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

This is what Pop does when we are alone, sitting up late at night in the living room or out in the yard or woods. He tells me stories. Stories about eating cattails after his daddy been out gathering them from the marsh. Stories about his his mama and her people used to collect Spanish moss to stuff their mattresses. Sometimes he'd tell me the same story three, even four times. Hearing him tell them makes me feel like his voice is a hand he's reached out to me, like he's rubbing my back and I can duck whatever makes me feel like I'll never be able to stand as tall as Pop, never be as sure. 
Sing, Unburied, Sing was a real gut-punch of a novel; I'm not sure what I expected, having read Salvage the Bones (which also won the National Book Award), and, last year, Men We Reaped --both of which are gorgeously written and heart wrenchingly sad. In this, her most recent National Book Award winning effort, Ward gives us another Southern epic which revolves around Jojo, a 13 year old being raised by his grandparents. His white father, Michael, is in prison, presumably on meth-related charges, and his black mother, Leonie, drifts in and out of his life. The novel chronicles the days after his 13th birthday as he, his mother, and his baby sister, Kayla, drive to prison to pick up his father.

There is a cacophony of narrative voices here. Jojo is at the center, but we also hear from Leonie, Pop (through a fragmented haunting story from his own young adulthood broken up and presented throughout), and Richie, a ghost from from Pop's past. It's an almost Faulknerian cast of narrative figures, and it layers nuance on artfully. Leonie, who initially seems an incredibly unsympathetic character and awful mother, manages to emerge as a complicated, broken person whose poor choices are more a result of her circumstances than her character.

While Leonie and Michael's relationship with their children is violently heartbreaking and difficult to read, there are pockets of redemption throughout. Jojo's love and devotion for his younger sister is beautiful, and Pop's gruff care for his grandson makes you think the boy may emerge from this whole disaster at some point.

This was a rough read, especially as a newly minted mother. There is endless heartbreak here, for almost every character, but Leonie's neglect and lack of care for her children was especially hard to wade through. Ward is a powerful writer, and this novel is written to her standard of excellence, but I don't know that this was the right time for me to read it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

And then it was that my brother Rwzfs, an infant at the time; at a certain point I felt him--who knows?--slamming or digging or writhing in some way, and I asked: 'What are you doing?'  And he said: 'I'm playing.'

'Playing?  With what?'

'With a thing,' he said.

You understand?  It was the first time.  There had never been things to play with before.  And how could we have played?  With that pap of gaseous matter?  Some fun: that sort of stuff was all right perhaps for my sister G'd(w)n.  If Rwzfs was playing, it meant he had found something new; in fact, afterwards, exaggerating as usual, they said he had found a pebble.  It wasn't a pebble, but it was surely a collection of more solid matter or--let's say--something less gaseous.  He was never very clear on this point; that is, he told stories, as they occurred to him, and when the period came when nickel was formed and nobody talked of anything but nickel, he said: "That's it: it was nickel.  I was playing with some nickel!"

Each of Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics begins with an assertion about the earth or the universe before the advent of human beings: once, the moon was much closer to the earth, or, the more distant a galaxy is from us, the farther away it moves.  Then the voice of the narrator, an immortal named Qwfwq, chimes in to tell us exactly what it was like in those days.  Sure, he says, the moon was much closer; we used to row our boats out to it and jump on to harvest moon milk.  The stories are both fanciful and charming, melding speculative science with a casual and playful voice.  Qwfwq has been a single-celled organism, a mollusk, a dinosaur, a camel.  Qwfwq's immortality is not explained; the cosmicomics aren't those kinds of stories.  In mode they hew closer to the tall tales of the American frontier than hard science fiction, like the unbelievable tales of Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill.

The subtle brilliance of the Cosmicomics, collected here in total, is that they encourage us to enlarge our view of the universe in its entirety, temporally as well as spatially.  It's all well and good to be told that everything that exists used to be crammed into a single infinitesimal point, but it's quite another to imagine what that was actually like, when everyone's all ass-to-elbows on top of each other like a crowed tenement building.  Of course, it wasn't like that at all; there is no way to describe what it would be like to be alive before the Big Bang because the circumstances would permit neither human existence nor sensory experience, but that's not the point.  The point is that the very thought that you could imagine it is breathtakingly bold.

But the Cosmicomics rely also on a canny set of observations about contemporary human nature.  One of the best stories, "The Aquatic Uncle," provides a sketch of a fish who refuses to adapt once everyone else in his family has grown legs and started living on the land:

This business about warts was a widespread prejudice among the old fish: a notion that, from living on dry land, we would develop warts all over our bodies, exuding liquid matter: this was true enough for the toads, but we had nothing in common with them; on the contrary, our skin, smooth and slippery, was such as no fish had ever had; and our great-uncle knew this perfectly well, but he still couldn't stop larding his talk with all the slanders and intolerance he had grown up in the midst of.

Qwfwq's great-uncle is an image of every uncle whose prejudices are indulged at the Thanksgiving table; no one wants to upset him too much by insisting that his worldview is antiquated.  But it also extends a great sympathy toward the uncle, whose world has changed very rapidly, and presents an understanding of how and why particular atavisms can be so beguiling (Qwfwq's land-raised fiancee ends up running off with his aquatic uncle).  In "All at One Point," the universe begins to expand because a single beloved woman laments that she does not have enough space to "make tagliatelle for all you boys," and the very conception of such generosity pushes the limits of the known universe.  These are finely drawn portraits of human nature, even as they find their setting in places and times that no human ever was.

The Cosmicomics were a life's work for Calvino, and they are perhaps not best read all in a row--they too can get to feeling like a universe's worth of knowledge pressed into a single point.  Later logic experiments with probability and time get very tedious, borrowing from Borges with less purpose and clarity.  But when Qwfwq's voice is strongest--casual, insightful, funny, but a little smug--the stories are really inspired.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Granny looked sad.  "I've never been able to see anything wrong with your being--"

"Don't say it," I said, "don't say that word."

"Nobody else who is one feels this way about it," gran said in the aggrieved voice she always uses for this particular conversation, the conversation about our condition, so to call it.  I'm sorry to grieve her or deny her the pleasure, but I have to make things clear, because no one of my grandmother's temperament and sensibilities can understand what it's like to be bound to a way of life like ours--a situation we inwardly glory in, but one we have to protect at every turn from the menacing mass of cliches that are thrust on us from the outside.  To be like us isn't easy, it requires a constant attention to detail.  I've thought it out; we've thought it out together.  I've tried to explain to my doctor that it's a question of working ceaselessly at being as different as possible because there must be a gap before it can be bridge.  And the bridge is the real project.

The first time we see Cassandra Edwards in Dorothy Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding, she's alone in her apartment in Berkeley, looking out over the Golden Gate Bridge.  "The sun was on it," she tells us, "and it took on something of the appeal of a bright exit sign in an auditorium that is crowded and airless and where you are listening to a lecture, as I so often do, that is in no way brilliant."  It's her alone-ness that brings on these thoughts of casual suicide; we come to find out that several months ago her identical twin sister Judith absconded to New York, leaving her with two halves of a shared piano, and coming back with a fiance.

Cassandra drives out to her family's ranch outside of Bakersfield for the wedding, which she is determined, though perhaps in a way that remains buried in her subconscious for much of the novel's first half, not to let it happen.  But the book isn't a farce; Cassandra doesn't go around plotting like she's in a sitcom.  Rather, she's convinced that her connection with her sister--the kind of fabled tie that identical twins have, and which is so perfectly rendered in this novel--will allow her to convince Judith that it's all a mistake, and the two of them are really meant to go on living together as a unit, as they've always done.

The complexity of Cassandra and Judith's relationship provides Cassandra at the Wedding with most of its tremendous energy and believeability.  Cassandra bristles at the "menacing cliches" that come along with being an identical twin, and both sisters have long resisted their bougie grandmother's encouragement that they dress alike.  It turns out that Cassandra has purchased the exact same dress for the ceremony that her sister has, a symbolic development that sends her into a psychic tailspin.  Yes, the sisters have a preternatural bond, but the bond is predicated on their difference; if they are truly identical, then one is superfluous.  And yet the other extreme--her sister's unexpected flight from her to New York and to marriage--seems equally threatening to the preservation of Cassandra's ego.  It helps that Baker's dialogue is so full of life and well-rendered.  The sisters don't speak a private language, as the common trope about identical twins goes, but they do have a shared voice.

Ultimately, what the opening foreshadows comes true: Cassandra tries to take her own life with a bottle of pills.  (I don't think that's really a spoiler--it happens smack-dab in the middle of the book.)  Baker captures Cassandra's inner voice so well; I don't think I've read an account of suicide that seems as believable as this one.  There's no high melodrama; instead, Baker depicts the suicide as an inevitability, a decision that was made before Cassandra realizes herself that she has made it.  For a moment the first-person voice jumps over to Judith--a wry suggestion, perhaps, that when one identical twin is incapacitated, the other will have to do--but I wanted to highlight this bravura passage from Cassandra's perspective.  She's recovering from the attempt, and imagining, in a still-drugged state, a wedding of her own: 

It was quick, I think--a treat deal of it but soon finished, and then, though it's not simple, or even sensible, to try to reconstruct nothingness, I believe I almost achieved it for a while--a great stretch of purest black velvet, smooth, soundless, the very piece of black velvet I'd been looking for for so long.  I can remember feeling it drop, weightless, over me, swathing and swaddling me and then becoming one with me so that there was no way to tell which was velvet and which was Cassandra.  But I never made it all the way to nowhere; there was a dogged spark of consciousness, very small, very feeble, but dogged, and it could just as well be called conscience, damn it, as consciousness, because I knew in some beating depth that I was engaged in illicit communion with the one great howling beauty of them all, and that there would have to be what there always has to be in this kind of affair--repercussions.  There would be jealousy, accusations, recriminations, the full deck of threats and noises.  I couldn't stay all night, I'd have to leave by an inconspicuous exit and try not to kick anything over on the way out, and remember to pick up my things--my bag, my lipstick, all marks of identification, including the ostentatious monogrammed items my friends are forever giving me.  Collect them and leave without lingering, because nobody will bless this union, not even granny, who will bless practically anything if you set it up right.  No chance for me and the one of my choice, my calm sweet quiet black-velvet love--no receiving line, no friends to wish us all the happiness and success in the world in our new life, which of course is the wrong world, but how would they know enough to believe I could prefer the opposite number?  How could they, when the best thing they can think of is life?  And wish you all success and happiness in it, unless they happened to be tipped off that you want to marry a bolt of black velvet and you like it that way.  Then they don't wish you anything; they shake their heads, they pity you, they say you jumped the gun.  Cassandra Edwards too her own life, because the headlong fool could not quiet down and wait for a natural cause.

That's one of those passages that really is too long to include in a review, but is so good that I just can't stop myself.  I don't know where to cut it off.  I love the black humor of Cassandra imagining that she's marrying a "bolt of black velvet," this representation of death itself.  I love the "dogged spark of consciousness."  Most of all I love the strength of Cassandra's voice, so similar to Judith's but wilder, somehow, bigger.  Cassandra's presence is so big, so real, yet so strange, it's easy to sympathize with her--of course there's no one else out there that can make a companion to it but that of her sister, and if not that, than obliteration.  It's that voice that gives Cassandra at the Wedding its power.