Saturday, July 28, 2018

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Not just wicked, no, I never even managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect.  And now I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and utterly futile consolation that it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything, and only fools become something.  Yes, sir, an intelligent man on the nineteenth century must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being; and a man of character, an active figure--primarily a limited being.

Last week I had an infected wisdom tooth, because I, a 32-year old man, never had them removed like I should have.  It was a bad infection, and the worst toothache of my life.  But it's hard to disagree with the narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, who tells us there is even pleasure in a toothache.  The pleasure comes from the "moaning" and "craftiness" that continues even after the toothache has abated, a moaning which no one believes but the injured party persists in anyhow.  Our gripes are artificial, Dostoevsky says, but our own knowledge of their artificiality, and our rottenness in persisting in them, is a kind of gripe also.  The moan of the man with the toothache is as much about his spirit as his body.

Notes from Underground is split it into two sections: "Notes," which purports to provide reasons for why the narrator has shut himself up underground--literally--for twenty years, and "Apropos of the Wet Snow," which gives the actual narrative, or at least part of it, for how he ended up there.  Philosophically, both are a reaction to the leading philosophies of the day, which have arrived in Russia from Europe.  The Underground Man rails against the trendy notion that man can be "anatomized" by scientists and his society engineered by utopians to fulfill his every want.  For the Underground Man, free will is the essence of man's existence.  If you could mathematically anticipate and cater to his every want, what he would end up wanting is to be free of the "little table."  Wanting is for wanting's sake, even to the point where it is unfulfillable, and our unfulfillable desires redound to make us sick of our own needy selves.

That's about as much as I can say about the novel's philosophy.  I don't really have enough background in it, and I'd need to read the thing again at least once to really say much more.  The Underground Man's style is frenetic and digressive--as far away from the "little table" or the "crystal palace" as one can get, stylistically.  What interested me more, on this single reading, was his strange character, especially as evidenced in the second section.  His story goes basically like this: he goes to visit an old friend on a whim, whom he discovers is trying to throw a farewell dinner for a man the narrator hates.  The narrator insists on being included, even though he can't pay for the dinner and doesn't like anyone involved, and he ends up making a complete ass of himself.  Later, he wanders into a brothel where his intelligence impresses a prostitute, but when she does what he asks and comes to visit him at home, he's embarrassed of his weakness and his poverty and lashes out at her.

The Underground Man is not nice.  He's not admirable, he's not a hero, though these are things he'd very much like to be.  Before going underground, he lives a life of fantasy, imagining himself standing up to bullies and more successful people and commanding their respect.  When these fantasies peter out, or bump up against the hard wall of reality, he goes on long jags of self-loathing.  He considers himself to be intelligent, but his intelligence is a curse, because he knows how futile and meaningless social success really is, even as he envies those who have it.

The Underground Man is an incel.  That's what I couldn't help thinking the whole time.  His regard for his own intelligence becomes a pretext for removing himself from society.  His hatred for successful civil service officers is not so different from hatred of "Chads."  His ideology doesn't have quite the same contours when it comes to gender, although he does end up projecting his failures with other men onto a woman.  And philosophically, it's all backwards, because it's the utopians who come up with schemes like government-mandated girlfriends.  But the psychology, the way that self-loathing is tied up with hatred of systems, well, that seems not so different to me.

If that comparison seems weak, I think it's because the "incel" is very much a creature of our time.  There are other creatures, no less timely, that share similar traits--4channers, Pepe frogs, god, the whole bunch--but in the end, Notes seems to me to suggest that these beasts are manifestations of a kind of animal that can be seen throughout modern history.  That Dostoevsky is sympathetic toward his Underground Man (he's right about the utopians, and the civil service officers are pretty shallow) is only right; it's an acknowledgement, perhaps, of what our most shameful and pathetic impulses can lead to if unchecked.  The despair that the Underground Man feels in the face of modernity is genuine, but the way that it is enacted--making a scene at the dinner, going out of your way to bump a guy in the shoulder on the street to prove you're there--is pathetic.  And the fact that you know it's pathetic doesn't make it less pathetic.  Our world might be better if the Underground Men retreated into their own holes, and wrote undelivered manifestos, instead of finding each other on Reddit.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Sun King by Nancy Mitford

By day it had a different aspect, serving as the main street or market place of that City of the Rich.  It was packed with people; servants hurrying to and fro with messages, courtiers button-holing each other for a chat, or dashing at top speed from one ceremony to the next; cows and asses on their way to provide fresh milk for little princes--all this was occasionally pushed aside so that some royal sedan chair could get by, like the ministers' motor cars in a modern capital.  Here, too, could be seen foreign visitors and tourists, easily recognizable by their strange clothes and aimless gait, looking round them in wonder.  Versailles was more truly open to the public then than nowadays; anybody could wander in at any hour.  There were seldom fewer than two hundred fiacres waiting outside, where the car-park is now.  Hardly any of the rooms were banned to the ordinary citizen, but if by accident he should stray into one that was, a servant would quietly follow him, pretending that it was to draw a curtain or make up a fire, and point out his mistake in a low voice so that he would not feel humiliated.  The kings at Versailles, almost unguarded, lived in a perpetual crowd, and yet, in a hundred years there was only one half-hearted attempt at assassination.

Louis XIV reigned longer than any European monarch has to this day--nearly 72 years.  In that time, he oversaw the completion of the enormous palace known as Versailles, and the wholesale transfer of the French political class from Paris into it.  He also fought several wars, including the nearly ruinous War of the Spanish Succession, and witnessed the death of his son and his son's son, his two heirs, in close succession.  He's remembered today as an avatar of the divine right of kings, and the apotheosis of the symbolic power of use of wealth.

I think I thought Nancy Mitford's biography of Louis was a historical novel when I bought it.  It's not that; it's a straight history, but it doesn't read like a historical biography today might.  Though it's steeped in primary sources--mostly the letters and diaries of Louis' courtiers--there's minimal hand-wringing over how to balance or analyze or look through them.  The tone is breezy and casual, and enhanced by Mitford's keen eye for baroque detail, like the King's doctor who, "[w]hen obliged to go out, he covered himself with a morocco robe and mask and wore six pairs of stockings and several fur hats.  He always kept a bit of garlic in his mouth, incense in his ears, and a stick of rue sticking out of each nostril."  Mitford's account of L'affaire des Poisons, in which dozens of people, mostly women, including many courtiers and Louis' paramour Madame de Montespan, were accused of using poison and witchcraft to punish their rivals and, often, their spouses, is as lurid as it deserves to be.  I also did not know that the "Man in the Iron Mask"--a mysterious prisoner shuttled between French prisons, and kept in a mask all his life, thought by Voltaire to be the king's twin brother--was real.

Here's the thing: Louis XIV was a piece of shit.  I'm not sure how you can avoid this conclusion in 2018.  One of the big themes of his life, according to Mitford's account, is his shift toward piety after his second marriage to the devout Madame de Maintenon.  Louis regretted his early sexual escapades, and sought to live a more upright life, but that vision of piety never extended to a more conscientious treatment of France's poor.  In fact, Mitford frequently emphasizes that the Sun King hated hearing about the poor, and banished people that talked excessively about their plight from his presence.  The symbolism of Versailles, both in its ostentatious wealth and its pointed isolation from the common life, underscores the rottenness of the divine right of kings.  It hardly seems mitigated by the fact that Louis, at the height of the economic crisis of the War of Spanish Succession, "melted his gold plate and ate off silver gilt."

Mitford doesn't hide these aspects of Louis' character.  She calls his sense of religion that of a "clever child."  She goes out of her way to point out those who tried, and failed, to bring the poor to Louis' attention.  But mostly, The Sun King seems to admire Louis, and to believe that his shortcomings are balanced by the beauty of his existence.  The King's agony over the death of his wife, his lovers, his heirs, is the object of tremendous sympathy.  It's hard to shake the sense that Mitford, a socialite from a well-known British family, sees an essential beauty in Louis that reflects on her own station.  Maybe that's unfair--I don't know much about her, or her sisters.  But The Sun King definitely left me with a sense that the revolutionaries who sacked Versailles in 1789 came about 100 years too late.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

On Writing by Stephen KIng

"What I don't understand, Stevie," she said, "is why you'd write junk like this in the first place.  You're talented.  Why do you want to waste your abilities?"  She had rolled up a copy of V.I.B. #1 and was brandishing it at me the way a person might brandish a rolled-up newspaper at a dog that has piddled on the rug.  She waited for me to answer--but I had no answer to give.  I was ashamed.  I have spent a good many years since--too many, I think--being ashamed about what I write.  I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent.  If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, i suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that's all.  I'm not editorializing, just trying to give you the facts as I see them.

The great charm of Stephen King's On Writing, much like Ann Lamott's Bird by Bird, is that it feels like it's been written by a real person.  And a real person of no tremendous insight or brilliance.  I don't mean that as a slight against King, who clearly possesses more than an equal share of talent.  But the moments of greatest wisdom about writing clearly come from a lifetime of hard work and dedication, of trying and failing over and over again.  Much of the book is autobiographical, a memoir in short, and sometimes it seems only tangentially related to writing, as with King's account of his own alcoholism.  King wants to puncture the myth of the drunk genius, to show that his writing was actually impeded by his drinking, not enhanced by it, but the overall effect is mostly the impression that Stephen King, millionaire superstar writer, is a pretty normal guy with normal flaws and failings.

Some of his advice on writing is laughably unhelpful.  For example, he suggests that you ought to able to write the first draft of a 180,000 word novel in about three months.  The math is simple: write two thousand words a day, every day.  He even wonders what those authors who only write one book in their lives are doing with the rest of their time.  But, of course, not all chunks of two thousand words are created equal, and few of us are going to be able to reproduce Stephen King's level of dedication, even as he protests that there are those who are much more prolific than he is.  HE writes while listening to "AC/DC, Guns 'n Roses, and Metallica," which sounds impossible to me.  There is also some general skepticism of writing classes in general, and a conviction, shared by most other writing guides, that some people just don't have the goods.  (Which, while it might be true, is not helpful for the teenagers in my creative writing class.)

But a lot of the advice is really terrific, and delivered in a blunt, conversational style that makes it hard to argue with.  For my purposes it's nice to see some of the things that I have said to my students emphasized and echoed, and usually in better, more convincing language:

If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but "didn't have time to read," I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner.  Can I be blunt on this subject?  If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write.  Simple as that.

This isn't the Ouija board or the spirit-world we're talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks.  Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three.  If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later, he'll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic.

Plenty of writers resist this idea.  They feel like revising a story according to the likes and dislikes of an audience is somehow akin to prostitution.  If you really feel that way, I won't try to change your mind.  You'll save on charges at Copy Cop, too, because you won't have to show anyone your story in the first place.  In fact (he said snottily), if you really feel that way, why bother to publish at all?  Just finish your books and then pop them in the safe-deposit box, as J. D. Salinger is reputed to have been doing in his later years.

Other things that I think are extremely helpful about On Writing are: King is pretty candid as to which of his novels he thinks turned out not to be that good.  What an amazing thing, to hear a novelist say that about his own work!  He also includes two brief pieces of writing at the end: an original and an edited version of his story "1408."  That's bold, I think, not just to talk about the process, but to show it.

The last section of the book is an autobiographical account of how, in the middle of writing On Writing, King was hit by a car while taking a walk near his house in rural Maine and nearly died.  A half-dozen surgeries, learning to walk, to sit, to write again--it's an account as harrowing as any in his horror novels.  "Writing did not save my life," King writes at the end, "Dr. David Brown's skill and my wife's loving care did that--but it has continued to do what it always has done: it makes my life a brighter and more pleasant place."

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Revolutionary Song
by Russell Shorto

The past is not as far away as we think.

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 16, 2018

The End of the World and Other Stories by Mavis Gallant

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Yes," he said perplexed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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

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

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

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler

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

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

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

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

"Crohn's disease."

"Never heard of it.  Is it big?"

"Maybe two hundred thousand Canadians suffer from it."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

by Renata Adler

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Manticore by Robertson Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Obasan by Joy Kogawa

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

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

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

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