Sunday, October 28, 2018

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 21, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow

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

It's 1968 and man is on his way to the moon.  Artur Sammler is living on the Upper West Side, a Polish emigre.  His daughter, perhaps unwittingly, steals a manuscript by an Indian cosmologist named V. Govinda Lal in order to share it with Sammler, to use in a memoir he's writing about H. G. Wells.  They were once friends, Sammler and Wells, and Wells' optimism about humankind's ability to remake itself provides vital context for the novel.  Mr. Sammler's Planet is one of those talky, thinky Bellow novels like Herzog and Seize the Day, full of meditations on Max Weber and Julius Caesar and Freud and god knows what else, but the manuscript caper gives it a bit of the shaggy feeling of more plotty novels like Augie March.  While Sammler dreams about the moon, his daughter is hiding manuscripts in a locker in Grand Central Station.

At the same time, Sammler faces the impending death of his beloved nephew Elya, who has had a hemorrhage in his neck.  The moon landing, and the dream of the future, is contrasted with the finality of death.  As Sammler tells Elya's daughter, Angela, "But we don't have to decide whether the world is ending.  The point is that for your father it is the end."  Bellow beautifully captures one of the fundamental ironies about the tale of human progress: while mankind has a future, individual men and women can only partake in the smallest part of it.  Sammler envisions the future person, "a colossal figure, a beautiful green color, with a hand that had evolved into a kit of extraordinary instruments, tools strong and subtle, thumb and forefinger capable of exerting thousands of pounds of pressure."  But this future man (he sounds like the Jolly Green Giant) is no one you know.

Sammler knows about death.  He survived the Holocaust; his wife did not.  He dug her grave; he survived by hiding in a mausoleum.  He leapt out of the grave twice over.  He has faced death, and it provides him a kind of wisdom and moral authority that he is reluctant to use.  Sammler can only observe: again and again he sees a pickpocket on the Riverside Drive bus, but he rejects the possibility of action.  The whole world, he feels, is sliding into a kind of barbarism, into crime and sex.  The green men of the future may be different, but who's to make things better now?

Okay.  Now let's talk about this: the pickpocket, who is black, sees Sammler seeing him.  He chases Sammler into the lobby of his building, where he corners him and shows him his penis.  It's a show of masculine force, of course, an assertion of manhood meant to menace Sammler.  The pickpocket is nattily dressed in a violet suit and Dior sunglasses, but his penis is coded as animal, barbaric--and starkly black.  It's upsetting to see such a rankly racist symbol in the work of Bellow, who is often so perceptive.  The fear of a black man's dick is so shallow, so juvenile, so sadly familiar.  And of course, it's Sammler, the meticulous Jew, that gets to stand in for the forces of civilization.  The ugliness of the scene poisons the whole book.

Or maybe it just reveals a conservative paranoia at the heart of the novel.  It certainly makes me more suspicious of the way the novel deals with sex, which is always dangerous and always female.  Elya's daughter Angela is a free-love advocate in the 60's mold, and an abortive swing in Mexico has Elya livid.  When Sammler chastises her, are we supposed to read that as him finally recovering his moral voice?  And why is Sammler unable to look at her without thinking about sex, as if it's something that radiates from her body, like stink-lines?  "Smearing all," as he says, "with her female fluids."

I had a tough time with this novel.  At the level of the sentence, the word, there might not be a better prose stylist in the English language than Bellow.  He certainly knows how to describe a penis with flair.  But why does he have to do it at all?  Augie March calls himself a "Columbus of the near at hand," a man interested in exploring the depth of life all around him, but Sammler shrinks from it, fears it, and here at least so does Bellow.  Why is Bellow able to extend a sympathetic eye to the green giant of the future, but not the black New Yorker of the present?  The dream of the moon is the dream of a better human; but it's a dream of a better, kinder novel, too.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home.

In the first book of The Odyssey, Telemachus tells his mother not to criticize the bard for singing stories about his father, now more than twenty years gone from Ithaca: "You must know / the newest song is always praised the most."  So it is with Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey, the first ever by a woman in the English language.  Somewhere (I can't find it!) she says that each generation must produce its own translation, because a translation is as much about the contemporary world as it is about Homer's, and by that standard, Wilson's translation is very good indeed.  It avoids the elevated language of former translations, that sought--wrongly, she thinks--to elevate the story also, choosing the simple language that reflects the simple vocabulary of the Greek and speaks with a simplified voice to the modern reader.

Compare the different versions of the opening line.  "Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story / of that man skilled in all ways of contending," writes Robert Fitzgerald.  Lattimore calls him a "man of many ways."  Fagles, "the man of twists and turns."  Fitzgerald's is a big clod of a sentence, but the other two perhaps get more to the heart of the Greek word, yet it's Wilson's rendering--Odysseus is a "complicated man"--that brings to life something essential about Odysseus' character.  Yes, he's cunning, but his cunning does not always coincide with wisdom, and sometimes Odysseus' character shocks or alienates us.  His boasts to the cyclops Polyphemus are clever, but they end in the death of all his men.  At the end of the poem, he shows less mercy than he might.  He kills women, he kills the parents of the suitors.  Jonathan Shay saw in Odysseus a Vietnam veteran who can't leave the world of the battle behind, and lashes out at innocents--a complicated man.  And maybe it's a stretch, but Wilson's translation seems quite appropriate for our moment, in which we are meditating daily on what exactly we should do with the complicated men in our lives.

Wilson's translation reminds us that The Odyssey, though it's about a king, favored by the gods, is in many ways the story of ordinary people.  Unlike the Iliad, it sees and illustrates the lives of slaves, servants, sailors--and women, who even when exceptional are aligned with the ordinary hearth.  It also makes for breezier reading.  There are certain parts of this story I think I glossed over, having read both Fitzgerald and Fagles, that now appear clearly because of Wilson's lucid poetry.  There's a whole B-plot where Telemachus picks up a prophet hiding on the shores of Ithaca and invites him into the household.  I think I pretty much missed that every other time I read it.

Sometimes the plainspokenness becomes silly, like when Athena gives Odysseus a "tote bag."  I miss some of the more poetic jolts, like when Fitzgerald says, "Of mortal creatures, all that breathe and move, / earth bears none frailer than mankind."  Wilson writes, "Of all the creatures / that live and breathe and creep on earth, we humans / are weakest."  Plainer, yes, but more prosaic.  Much of the poetry gets thrown into high relief--especially Homer's metaphors and descriptions--but some of it gets lost, too.

Mostly, it's great.  I envy people like Brent, who never had to read anything else.  This ought to be the translation that's used in every school, for a generation, at least.  Because, like Wilson notes, translations are a product of their own time as much as they are a document of antiquity, and it's hard to get students to appreciate the weird wonder of stepping into ancient Greece when they have to pass through the language of Victorian England, or early 20th-century Oxbridge.  The next generation will have to make their own, but for this one, it's true that the "newest song" is most worthy of praise.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Image result for my year of rest and relaxation

My Year of Rest and Relaxation
by Ottessa Moshfegh

The carefree tranquility of sleep gave way to a startling subliminal rebellion - I began to do things while I was unconscious.  I'd fall asleep on the sofa and wake up on the bathroom floor.   Furniture got rearranged.  I started to misplace things.  I made blackout trips to the bodega and woke up to find popsicle sticks on my pillow, orange and bright green stains on my sheets, half a huge sour pickle, empty bags of barbecue-flavored potato chips, tiny cartons of chocolate milk on the coffee table, the tops of them folded and torn and gummy with teeth marks.

This is a most unusual, entertaining and ultimately beautiful book.  While it not without precedent – there are echoes of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener and McInerney’s Bright Lights Big City, it is ultimately unlike anything I have read – totally lucid while still being largely hallucinogenic, solidly character driven while still feeling experimental.  Wallowing in despair while still being laugh out loud funny and, somehow, getting beyond despair.

Moshfegh gives us an unnamed character who, at the start of the novel has already given up on life. She is young, financially independent (Moshfegh goes to great lengths to make her sure her finances never get in the way) and beautiful, but has decided life has nothing to offer her and plans to handle her ennui by sleeping for a solid year.  While she visits a wonderfully comic psychiatrist who doles out psychotropic drugs and new-age advice with equal hysteria, her narrative moves back periodically to fill us in on the death of her parents, her soul-crushing work in a downtown art gallery and the vapid, useless support she gets from her one friend, Reva. 

Much of the novel is taken up with lists of pills she is taking – some familiar, commercially available meds like Ambien and Nembutal, others apparently created by Moshfegh to underline her point (Infirmiterol).  There are also long lists of the late 20thcentury movies the narrator watches on her old VCR while drifting in and out of sleep – Working Girl, Tootsie, Air Force Onethat convince you that it is not just the drugs that are putting her to sleep.   There are also vivid descriptions of sleep, of dreams she has and dreams she makes up to feed her psychiatrist in order to secure more prescriptions.  

The only real relationship is with her friend Reva.  Reva is, in fact, the only other real character in the book.  There are bodega owners and gallery owners and a hot downtown artist and two truly hideous boyfriends, but these characters are largely cartoons that flit in and out of the narrative as comic relief.   The narrator’s relationship with Reva is marked by both concrete love – Reva continues to visit and cajole the narrator towards life despite dozens of rejections – and shallow competition over looks and weight.  

Because Reva is a self-pitying alcoholic who quotes self-help books, I recognized her as vapid. Because she is almost endlessly loyal to the narrator I rooted for her.  I was rooting for the narrator as well, though I often wondered whether that meant hoping she would take more sleep medication or less.   She is whiny and endlessly self-involved, but totally honest about both those traits.

While the relationship with Reva gives the novel some substance, its plot is generally shapeless. Instead, it gets its shape from its setting.  The novel opens in the fall of 2000 when the narrator hatches her plan to reboot her life by spending a year in drug-induced sleep.  Which makes this a portrait of self-centered and self-destructive New York seemingly sliding towards despair while it is actually sliding towards 9-11. Of course no one knows that but the reader, and I was constantly reading Reva’s devotion to Oprah and the narrator’s hysterical drug use in the context of the oncoming planes.  There is no discussion of politics whatsoever, but we do get a glimpse of some things the narrator encounters on television, like the Bush inauguration.  Tiny details like that set up a rather surprising ending and turn the novel into one more full of heart and soul than any of its characters.

If I have a complaint it is that Reva disappears – the loyalty and care she showed the narrator, even if it was largely self-serving, deserved more closure than she got.  But note I am reacting to her as if she were real, as if the relationship was real.  That is something.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy

The wind outside and the cold in the room were like those winter nights on the north Texas plains when he was a child in his grandfathers house.  When the storms blew down from the north and the prairie land about the house stood white in the sudden lightning and the house shook in the thunderclaps.  On just such nights and just such morning in the year he'd gotten his first colt he'd wrap himself in his blanket and go out and cross to the barn, leaning into the wind, the first drops of rain slapping at him hard as pebbles, moving down the long barn bay like some shrouded refugee among the sudden slats of light that stood staccato out of the parted board walls, moving through those serried and electric prosceniums where they flared white and fugitive across the barn row on row until he reached the stall where the little horse stood waiting and unlatched the door and sat in the straw with his arms around its neck till it stopped trembling.

In the third book of Cormac McCarthy's "Border Trilogy," John Grady Cole, the protagonist of All the Pretty Horses, and Billy Parham, the protagonist of The Crossing, are working as cowboys at a ranch outside Alamogordo.  It's a crossover episode!  Both men, isolated and long-suffering as they are, like being cowboys.  But it's a life that might not be long for this world; the federal government wants to turn the land they graze on into a military installation (today's White Sands Missile Range, probably).  In the middle of the century, cowboys are a dying breed.  One character, I forget who, remarks that the war changed everything.

It's not clear how the war changed cowboying, but it does remind me of the terrific ending of--which?--I think The Crossing, with its reference to the Trinity nuclear bomb test.  And it aligns with McCarthy's notions of history, all of which he believes was written at the beginning of time, down to the life and death of a single man.  For McCarthy, the arc of history is the same as entropy, it bends toward destruction and chaos.

The end is hastened by John Grady's falling in love with a Mexican prostitute.  Their love poses its difficulties: she's fifteen, but that's nothing compared to the fact that she lives over the border in Juarez and is kept by a madman pimp who is also in love with her.  Oh, and she has epilepsy, but she hasn't told John Grady that.  It all unfolds in a recognizably violent fashion, remarkably recorded but with very few surprises.

At one point, Billy says:"I damn sure dont know what Mexico.  I think it's in your head.  Mexico."  Which of course, is true.  Both Billy and John Grady, despite fluent Spanish and extensive experience in the country to their south, understand Mexico as a kind of reflection of their own inner darkness.  That's because McCarthy thinks about it as a reflection of their own inner darkness as well.  Going to Mexico, especially in The Crossing, is something like the descent into hell in Greek epics.  It's easy to excuse the way McCarthy exoticizes Mexico because he does that to America too, in a different way.  After all, it's under a Texas overpass that the long epilogue takes place, in which an aged Billy meets a wise beggar who tells him about a mysterious dream.

I can accommodate that, but did I need another Mexican waif to fall in love with?  I certainly didn't need her to be fifteen years old.  Her age, her illness, all add up to extreme vulnerability and powerlessness, mark her for violence and death, make her the center of male rage, whether Eduardo's in keeping her or John Grady's in defending her.  Her relationship with John Grady seems borrowed from his love for Alejandra in All the Pretty Horses, but with more mythology and more blood.  In McCarthy's books, tragedy repeats itself as even darker tragedy.

The most well-wrought relationships in Cities of the Plain are between men.  Between John Grady and Billy, outcasts and pilgrims who end up finding each other, and the other cowboys, who are mostly of the same stock.  McCarthy has an ear for their language that sits in lovely tension alongside the mythopoetic gibberish he likes so much.  (I don't mean that as an insult--I like that stuff, even when it's gibberish.)  His belief in an irrevocable destiny, as violent as it is, ennobles these plainspoken cowboys.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Ice by Anna Kavan

I was oppressed by the sense of universal strangeness, by the chill of approaching catastrophe, the menace of ruins suspended above; and also by the enormity of what had been done, the weight of collective guilt. A frightful crime had been committed, against nature, against the universe, against life. By rejecting life, man had destroyed the immemorial order, destroyed the world; now everything was about to crash down in ruins.

I wish I hadn't read the back cover of Ice. I read the first few pages expecting something like Stephen King's The Stand--the world is throw into disarray by a castclysmic disaster, in the case, a new ice age, and the survivors have to... survive. And the first few pages reinforced this idea, with the protagonist (never named) picking up extra petrol for his drive in anticipation of "the cold" causing him problems.

But only paragraphs later, he's watching a girl, pale as the snow and underdressed for the weather, materialize in front of his car then be subsequently crushed by the ice, which is almost a living being throughout the book. But this doesn't surprise our intrepid driver--in fact, rather than being horrified, he's not at all sure how to react. And I felt the same, wondering if this really happened or not. And then he's at a house--I imagined a gothic-style manse--visiting presumably the girl and her husband (guess she didn't die). The husband is jovial and friendly, the girl cold and distant, until they go for a walk in the woods and the husband dangles our hero over a cliff while taunting him.

Then he leaves the house for some reason that now escapes me, and as he goes, he sees a dark, giant hand reaching out of the house and pulling the girl into it screaming.

This is the first 15 or 20 pages, and they set the tone (and the plot) for the whole novel. Variations recur over and over, as some man--sometimes a husband or lover, sometimes another person known only as The Warden--take the girl with them wherever they go, often imprisoning her in ways that intimate sexual violence, and our hero, such as he is, attempting to rescue her, only to run away or be taken away before he succeeds. There are a lot of hallucinations, though the book never tips its hand and tells us what's real. Often the hero swears he'll never look for her again, but always, his mind goes back to this strange woman (though the book always calls her a girl). As these cycles continue though, we start to see that our hero isn't exactly heroic, as he finds himself relating with the Warden and treating the girl just as violently and cruelly. It's very disturbing to read.

I asked for the keys, saying I would have a duplicate cut for the outer door: I had to be independent. She brought the two keys, but gave me only the key of my own door, hiding the other one in the palm of her hand. I told her to hand it over. She refused. I insisted. She became stubborn and retreated into the kitchen. I followed and took the key from her forcibly. I did not much care for this sort of behavior, but a principle was involved. She would not oppose me again.

Anna Kavan was an enigma of a writer. After an earlier career, under a different name, writing domestic dramas, she adopted the nom de plume Anna Kavan--a name from one of her own books--and proceeded to write several novels featuring, but not exactly starring, the pale girl from Ice. Throughout her life, she struggled with heroin addiction and mental illness, and it's very hard to read Ice without addiction in the foreground. And yet, to cast the men throughout the book as being simple standins for substances or illnesses seems overly simplistic. How to explain, for example, the almost James Bondesque government conspiracies that underly the movements of the protagonist and the Warden, or the outsized importance that the pale girl, who never really exists except as an object of desire and abuse? Ultimately Ice is a sad, disturbing novel by a woman who seems to have lived a rather sad, disturbing life. But it's a singular work, with a surreal tone--and subzero temperature--I've never seen anywhere else.