Monday, July 15, 2019




North and South (1854)
By Elizabeth Gaskell

 For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay.  It was all the darker from contrast with the pale gray-blue of the wintry sky; …Nearer to the town the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke; perhaps, after all, more a loss of the fragrance of grass and herbage than any positive taste or smell.  Quick they were whirled over long strait, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick.  Here and there a great oblong many-windowed factory stood up , like a hen among her chickens, puffing out black ‘unparliamentary’ smoke, and sufficiently accounting for the cloud which Margaret had taken to foretell rain.

Gaskell is an important 19thcentury social realist and her work is standard fare in the equivalent of high school in the UK.  I chose to read this at the behest of a British friend because I was touring the North of England and he recommended it as an introduction to the differences between North and South England.  These differences are more subtle than the North/South distinction in the US – their wars are far further in the past than our own Civil War, but there are broad similarities:  the center of economic and cultural power was in one region (in England it was the South, centered around London, but including Oxford and Cambridge.   The North is Manchester, Leeds, York and many smaller industrial centers.  It is the region of England’s working class and is very much aware of its second-class image in English life.

Gaskell’s work was championed by Charles Dickens and North and Southwas serialized in Dickens’s magazine, Household Wordsat the same as his Hard Times, which is similar in its look at class issues.  It tells the story of Margaret Hale as she works her way through young womanhood towards marriage while her family loses its place in the South and moves to the factory town of Milton in North Yorkshire.  This allows Gaskell to move among London, a small country town near Oxford, and industrial Milton, populating these settings with characters from a variety of classes and attitudes.  Like Dickens, Gaskell borrows tropes from sentimental Victorian literature, then explodes some of those with careful criticism of social relations.   As a result, the novel follows familiar paths but occasionally surprises with new destinations.  

To begin with, Margaret is beautiful, despite not being as flashy or flirtatious as her cousin Edith, who is getting married as the novel opens.  Edith is from the wealthy corner of the family and has sort of adopted Margaret, whose father is a poor minister assigned to a small, unimportant church in Helstone  (Milton? Helstone?) in order to give Margaret a greater chance of finding a suitable (rich) husband.  This would work beautifully as Edith’s brother Lennox returns from law school and falls in love with Margaret and proposes quickly.  But Margaret is shocked that he thinks of her in such a way – she views marriage as a hopelessly practical and material status. She intends something more spiritual and natural for her life.  She rejects Lennox with shock and anger and he disappears from the novel for about 500 pages.

This prompts Margaret’s return to Helstone and she is looking forward to a life of intellectual contemplation in the natural beauty surrounding an idealized rural village while being of service to her father in his ministry.  However, her father has had a crisis of faith and has left the church. His crisis was initiated by his bishop’s offer of a more prestigious and lucrative position at a larger church and the very idea of ministry as a career with advancement opportunities turns him off on The Church of England.  His response is to leave beautiful, peaceful, verdant Helstone for an industrial town in the North where he can tutor the children of the newly wealthy captains of industry.  It is a decision that makes no more sense to the reader than it does to his long-suffering wife.

In Milton, Margaret meets John Thornton, a self-made industrial leader and owner of the town’s largest factory who has hired her father to help him catch up on the education he never got. She also gets to know the impoverished Higgins family.  Higgins is a local labor leader and one of the masterminds behind a strike for better wages and working conditions.  This gives Haskell a perfect opportunity to stake out some of the intellectual currents of the day:  Thornton is a laissez-fairecapitalist who pities the workers who are too ignorant to understand that the industrial system is good for them; Higgins is a proto-socialist who believes that the Thorntons of the world have some responsibility to the workers and the community; Margaret is sympathetic to both positions – she is opposed to the confrontational nature of strikes and believes that industrialists should adopt reforms voluntarily.

At any rate, Thornton falls madly in love with Margaret and again she rejects him as if the very nature of the proposal is a disrespectful insult.  The shock and disgust with which Margaret responds to these proposals with is puzzling – it is not just that she is opposed to marriage, but she seems shocked that others are not opposed to it.  Here we see Haskell working out her own strain of feminism.  Margaret is reminiscent in this way of Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart in House of Mirth.  But Lily even as Lily resists the pressure to marry, she knows she lives in a world where the only career open to most women is marriage.  Margaret seems to think these men have misunderstood the world.  

However, Margaret’s attitude proves well-placed when a wealthy friend of her father dies and leaves her a vast fortune.  (He has also fallen in love with Margaret, though as an old bachelor his love is more spiritual – he never contemplates proposing).  By this time Margaret’s mother and father have died, as well as members of the Higgins family.  Their deaths are sped along by the terrible pollution of the industrial setting.  She is facing the prospect of being a kind of maid to her cousin Edith – who by now has two children and is happy in her shallow, materialist life.

Around the time that Margaret inherits enough money to be independent, Thorton is driven out of business.   His debts have gotten too severe and he cannot remain open without new capital, but he cannot attract investors because after Margaret introduced him to Higgins their conversations and debates have made Thornton a reformer – he now insists that his factory will provide meals for the workers and grant them some time when they can step out for fresh air.  

I won’t go into all the subplots and incidents that bring the two back together, but when Margaret learns that Thornton is trying to change the nature of factory work (or at least alleviate its worst aspects), she decides to use her new wealth to  become an investor in Thornton’s factory and the two are finally and suddenly equals.

As equals, Thornton and Margaret are free to fall in love and the novel ends with them trying to find the language that will allow them to marry without Thornton having to ask or Margaret having to be asked.  

The novel is long and tedious – I have left out a dozen important characters and several involved subplots.  Margaret is a thoroughly unbelievable character of the type that 19thcentury readers seem to have loved.  As a novel of ideas it is shallow – country is better than city, shallow wealth is inferior to intellectual subsistence, but poverty is really bad. It doesn’t get much more complex than that.  It is slightly better as a novel of social class and a document about the industrial revolution, but even here it is surprisingly undetailed for such a long novel.  The factories are hastily sketched, the actual work going on in them is left to the imagination and the economics that drives people to work for them and makes a small number of entrepreneurs wealthy is taken for granted.  Even the social upheaval caused by this class of nouveau riche captains of industry is merely hinted at.

However, as a feminist document I thought it was fascinating.  Margaret is not as complex as Lily Bart but she is more consistent: she completely rejects the notion that she needs to get married and is happily willing to accept whatever circumstances independence leaves her.  Of course, these are not the dire poverty, back breaking labor and prostitution that millions of 19thcentury women actually faced – Gaskell has created a little wrinkle in the class system so Margaret is protected from the worst possible outcomes of her independence.  And, of course, she does end the novel wealthy and about to marry.  In 19thCentury sentimental novels steadfast faith in a set of moral precepts is virtually always rewarded with wealth and comfort – often the very wealth and comfort the character had been rejecting, so in that way this is a thoroughly conventional novel.  But Gaskell has found a way to get that ending without it involving Margaret bowing to the dictates of her sexist society.  Thornton is much more the beneficiary of this marriage than Margaret is and her desire to be treated as an equal extends to the language the two are wrestling with at the novel’s close.  

Margaret has her moral purity tested in the course of the novel and is forced to bring her pride down a notch – in ways that are similar to Jane Austen’s Emma or Elizabeth Bennet, but never loses her independence – she learns lessons, but is not broken or changed fundamentally.  A reader can almost feel Gaskell’s testing out ways to keep her protagonist both faithful to her self and alive and happy.  The way she finds is contrived and not terribly believable, but it is a fascinating spin on this trope.


Friday, July 12, 2019

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

These waters, thought Quoyle, haunted by lost ships, fishermen, explorers gurgled down into sea holes as black as a dog's throat.  Bawling into salt broth.  Vikings down the cracking winds, steering through fog by the polarized light of sun-stones.  The Inuit in skin boats, breathing, breathing, rhythmic suck of frigid air, iced paddles dipping, spray freezing, sleek back rising, jostle, the boat torn, spiraling down.  Millennial bergs from the glaciers, morbid, silent except for waves breaking on their flanks, the deceiving sound of shoreline where there was no shore.  Foghorns, smothered gun reports along the coast.  Ice welding land to sea.  Frost smoke.  Clouds mottled by reflections of water holes in the plains of ice.  The glare of ice erasing dimension, distance, subjecting sense to mirage and illusion.  A rare place.

On the other side of the island of Newfoundland from Witless Bay, far up the Great Northern Peninsula, where you can look out at the shores of remote Labrador, and past the very tip of the area known as Iceberg Alley, there's the town of St. Anthony, a couple thousand strong.  This is the place that becomes, in Annie Proulx's novel The Shipping News, the town of Killick-Claw.  A killick is a kind of anchor, and a claw is a claw: it's this town that finally anchors the hapless protagonist Quoyle, and roots him claw-like to the place of his ancestors.  Of course, The Shipping News is the first novel you might think of, if you're an American at least, when you think of Newfoundland, and on our trip we each brought our own copy like the tourists we are:


The novel begins when Quoyle's wife, the horrible and absurdly named Petal Bear, is killed in a car accident, leaving him alone with his equally absurdly named daughters, Bunny and Sunshine.  At about the same time, his aging parents kill themselves in a suicide pact.  This draws his aunt Agnis back into his life, who suggests that they leave dreary upstate New York for Newfoundland and Killick-Claw, where the Quoyles lived before moving to America.  In Newfoundland Quoyle gets a job at a local paper, The Gammy Bird.  His duties there ply his deepest fears: although he's terrified of water, he does the shipping news (hey--that's the name of the book), and on top of that, he's tasked with writing up local car wrecks, which stokes the trauma of Petal's death.

The arc of the novel is easily anticipated.  In Newfoundland, Quoyle finds the home he never had, and a community where he had none before.  Visiting Newfoundland, you can see why it's the right setting for a book like this one.  Its geography, all fingers and fjords, naturally creates hundreds of small and self-sufficient communities; even the smallest towns feel like real places in a way that isn't possible, say, on the prairie.  The Shipping News deals in that comforting myth of home, the notion that, if you can just return to the place you once drifted away from, your life will fall into meaning and order.  (Of course, before Newfoundland, the Quoyles came from Ireland, and before Ireland, who knows, but those details have to be elided for these kinds of stories to make sense.)  It's a story as old as The Odyssey, and The Shipping News isn't immune from the kind of sentimentalism that these stories tend toward.  But it also does a little healthy deconstructing of it.  Yes, Quoyle's friend Partridge calls from California to report on the earthquakes and riots, but The Gammy Bird specializes in car wrecks and sex abuse stories.  Home for Quoyle might be hell for someone else.

When I was eighteen, I would have told you this was my favorite novel.  I was really captivated by Proulx's writing, with its outre metaphors and sentence fragments, from the very beginning of the novel:

Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.

Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence.  Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing.  he ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.

I didn't know you could write like that.  The Shipping News, maybe more than any other book, alerted me to the width of ways the English language could be used, and the idea that a sentence could surprise just by the way it's written.  Reading it fifteen years later (yikes), I found the writing a little precious, aligned with the twee character names: Tertius Card, Wavey Prowse, Nutbeem, Benny Fudge.  I have other gripes, chief among them the feeling that Quoyle's love interest, Wavey, is criminally underdeveloped for a novel about a man who learns that love, in the words of the novel's final line, "sometimes occurs without pain or misery."

But honestly, the novel quickly charmed me for a second time.  The people are so vivid, and the love of Newfoundland and its inhabitants warms the novel.  I love reading books in the places they're set, and few have been as rewarding as this one.  It's steeped in local culture in a way I couldn't have fully appreciated before going there, and it's all integrated in a way that feels organic to the story, which is no small feat.  (Small details abound: the paper's gossip column, "Scruncheons," is named for the pork drippings Newfoundlanders put on cod cheeks.)  I hate saying the idea that we have to "root for" fictional people, but you really do root for Quoyle, whose haplessness becomes competence, and for whom love chases out desperation.  The end comes a little too easy, but it's hard to complain, because it's so richly deserved.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Bird Artist by Howard Norman

I was convinced that birds were kinds of souls.  Not the souls of people but of previous birds whose mystery and beauty were so necessary on earth that God would not allow them to be anything in their second life but birds again.

One of the highlights of the trip I took last week to Newfoundland was a visit to the puffin colony just beyond town of Elliston on the Bonavista peninsula.  Thousands of puffins sit on a rock, separated from the mainland by a narrow straight, and if you can stand the chill and wind, they'll fly over your head before returning to the rock.  I wouldn't say they're majestic--they have to flap their wings very quickly to stay in the air, and it makes them look endearingly clownish--but there's something fascinating about how they have an existence of their own, separated from the human life of the island by only a hundred feet.

A similar colony--an even larger one--exists just off the shore of Witless Bay, the setting of Howard Norman's novel The Bird Artist.  Fabian Vas, the young son of a Witless Bay fisherman, draws and paints them, along with other familiar Atlantic birds: ducks, gulls, gannets, cormorants.  This is in the early 20th century, before photography was widespread, and so Fabian's drawings show the birds of Newfoundland to a wider world.  But life in Witless Bay itself can be insular and stifling, as Fabian's mother Alaric well knows, and she presses him into an arranged marriage with a cousin in New Brunswick named Clara Holly, even though Fabian has long been entangled with a local girl named Margaret Handle.  Alaric herself struggles with what she calls the "sameness" of Newfoundland life, and when her husband leaves for a long fishing trip, she begins an affair with the aloof lighthouse keeper Botho August, an affair which drives Fabian--and I guess I buried the lede here, since we learn this in the first paragraph of the book--to kill Botho.

The Bird Artist is about the circumstances leading up to, and the consequences of, Fabian's crime.  It's also about the complex relationship we have to the place we call home.  Alaric pushes Fabian to leave Newfoundland because she is afraid that he will fall into the kind of loveless marriage she has, but she fails to see how the arranged marriage is exactly the kind of thing she worries about.  Both women, for Fabian, represent a compromise between safety and risk: Clara is the unknown, but she is his mother's choice, sensibly and practically arranged; Margaret is the familiar, but she's an unstable alcoholic prone to fits and grievances.  Margaret, who is addictive, sardonic, and unpredictable, is the best part of The Bird Artist, and the only character who has a kind of convincing life.  Botho August, the lighthouse keeper, is dimly fascinating, but he's too far removed from the life of Witless Bay, and the narrative, to be really convincing.

Fabian is acquitted of the crime, but becomes notorious and ostracized in Witless Bay.  As a path to restoration, the local priest hires him to paint a mural of the local community, birds and people alike.  It's the first time that we see him paint people, rather than just birds, and it's meant to represent, I think, Fabian's way of truly integrating himself back into Witless Bay, of making a choice between home and the larger world.

The Bird Artist is a novel that seems tailor-made for me, personally: it's got birds and lighthouses and remote Canadian islands.  Even still, I only moderately liked it.  It's clever and often funny, but never quite clever or funny enough to be memorable.  It can be weird, but it can also be weirder.  The central moment of the book--Fabian's murder of Botho--never quite makes character sense, but is so vital to the book that it exists as a matter of necessity.  But if you find yourself on a flight from LaGuardia to St. John's, you could do worse.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Island by Alistair MacLeod

The hopes and fears of my past and present jostle and intertwine.  Sometimes when seeing the end of our present, our past looms ever larger, because it is all we have or think we know.  I feel myself falling back into the past now, hoping to have more and more past as I have less and less future.  My twenty-six years are not enough and I would want to go farther and farther back through previous generations so that I might have more of what now seems so little.  I would go back through the superstitions and the herbal remedies and the fatalistic war cries and the haunting violins and the cancer cures of cobwebs.  Back through the knowledge of being and its end as understood through second sight and spectral visions and the intuitive dog and the sea birds' cry.  I would go back to the priest with the magic hands.  Back to the faith healer if only I had more faith.  Back to anything rather than to die at the objective hands of mute, cold science.

I'm going to Newfoundland tomorrow, a trip I've been long planning, both literally and in the corner of my mind where you think about the trips you'd one day like to take.  I've been holding on to Alistair MacLeod's collection Island for years, thinking that when I actually made it, I'd take it with me, only to pull it down to show a friend and for her to point out that the stories in it are about Cape Breton Island, the northern part of Nova Scotia, not Newfoundland.  Oh, well.  But Newfoundland is only a ferry's ride away from Cape Breton--or a fishing boat's hop, as many of the stories in the collection make clear--so let's think of it as a way of launching off.

These stories, which were written from 1968 to 1999, are almost all about the small Gaelic communities that dot the shore of Cape Breton Island.  They're communities where Gaelic is still spoken, at least by older generations, and MacLeod's prose seems to borrow something of the language's oral traditions, or at the very least, it has a slightly antiquated voice that seems in keeping with the disappearing language.  Comparing it to Acadian French and the language of the Mi'kmaq First Nations, MacLeod describes all of them "trapped in the beautiful prisons of the language they loved."  In the last story, "Clearances," a young man travels to the Scottish communities of his ancestors, where the language, and the way of life that accompanied it, have nearly died.  He is Canadian because the traditional sheepherding life died out and sent its would-be inheritors to Canada (and Australia, and elsewhere), and such tragedy repeats itself later in the man's life when, as an old man, he confronts the pressure to sell of his land in the face of mounting clear-cutting and tourism interest in the Cape Breton shore.

Many of these stories, in fact, recount the troubled relationship that Cape Bretoners have with the interest of tourists and folklorists: In "The Boat," the narrator recalls the way his traditional mother was shamed by his father's eagerness to sing old Gaelic songs for tourists.  In "The Tuning of Perfection," the CBC comes around wanting to record the Gaelic songs of man whose sung them all his life, but their demands--to cut them short, to sing them fast--rankle, because they are laments, stories that must be told in full.  Almost all the characters in MacLeod's stories find themselves, even at what feels like the most remote edge of the earth, on the precipice of change, like the lighthouse keeper of the title story who is ultimately replaced by an automated light.

These characters are lighthouse keepers, fishermen, farmers, coal miners.  They work with their bodies and have deep knowledge about animals.  A lot of the best stories, actually, are about relationships with animals: the big gray dog, for example, who gets pregnant and disappears, only to return and accidentally provoke her many grown puppies to kill her owner when he embraces her.  For many decades afterward--in a narrative that borrows naturally from the Gaelic oral tradition--the members of that family believe that sighting a "big gray dog" is an omen of impending death.  Or, more lightheartedly, the story "Second Spring," about a young boy with dreams of breeding his prized cow to a prized bull, only to have her waylaid on the journey by a horny halfbreed he can't stop.  You really get the sense from these stories that MacLeod knows what he's talking about when it comes to the lifeways of Cape Bretoners; the stories aren't just immaculately researched, but really lived.  He convinces with stories like the one of the cow who swallowed a broken beer bottle, which was found in her stomach "completely surrounded by a strange almost translucent knob of gristle," which "seemed to glow like a huge, obscene pearl."

As they live close to the land--and sometimes under it, in the case of the coal miners--they live close to death, also.  MacLeod writes about death with clear-eyed honesty and sincerity, unclouded by irony or black humor.  A story like "The Road to Rankin's Point," in which the young narrator confesses to his dying grandmother that he's been given months to live, might seem mawkish or sentimental, but MacLeod manages to strike exactly the right tone.  His stories often stretch over long periods of time, kind of like Alice Munro's, but he's more interested in seeing his characters at the very end of their lives.  Death and loss here are always not just privately tragic but generationally so, they mean the slow death of languages and communities and traditions, even as death becomes part of the landscape as it does in "The Road to Rankin's Point":

The sharp, right-angled turn and its ascending steepness has always been called by us "The Little Turn of Sadness" because it is here that my grandfather died so many years ago on a February night when he somehow fell as he walked or staggered toward his home which was a steep two miles away.  He had already covered the six miles from the village when he lost his footing on the ice-covered rock, falling backwards and shattering the rum bottle he carried within his safe back pocket.  Now I feel my own blood, diseased and dying, I think of his, the brightest scarlet, staining the moon-white snow while the joyous rabbits leaped and pirouetted beneath the pale, clear moon.

The question, only hinted at here, is: If grandma, living at the top of the hill, will be gone soon, and the young narrator is dying before his time, how long will there be someone left to call the "sharp, right-angled turn" the "Little Turn of Sadness," and thereby remember the man who died there?  MacLeod is interested in that kind of loss, but the stories themselves never seem melodramatic or distraught.  In truth, they're more pastoral than elegiac, interested in the way that people live with the seasons, the bright summers and difficult winters, and the way that such lives breed both joy and tragedies.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Republic of Lies by Anna Merlan

To understand why people believe things that are at odds with all provable truths is to understand how we form our views about the world and the resultant world we have made together.  The riotous profusion of conspiracy theories in America shows us something about being American, even about being human--about the decisions we make in interpreting the complexities of our surroundings.  Over and over, i found that the people involved in conspiracy communities weren't necessarily some mysterious "other."  We're all prone to believing half-truths, forming connections where there are none to be found, finding importance in political and social events that may not have much significance at all.  That's part of how human beings work, how we make meaning, particularly in the United States today, now, at the start of a strange and unlikely century.

In her book about conspiracy theories, Anna Merlan makes two core observations: One, conspiratorial thinking is commonplace.  It goes back long before JFK, to the very foundations of the American idea, like the early settlers who feared a sinister Native "superchief" who is orchestrating attacks on whites across tribes and over thousands of miles of frontier.  And she's careful to note that conspiratorial thinking isn't always incorrect: The MKUltra program, for example, is just one crazy conspiracy--in this case, the allegation that the CIA was experimenting with LSD as a mind-control drug on unsuspecting people--that turned out to be true.  Other conspiracy theories, like the one that says the government introduced cocaine into black communities to destroy them, are very likely to be untrue, but it's not hard to see why one would believe them, given the other terrible things the government has perpetrated on those communities.  Sometimes, conspiratorial thinking is a rational response to the ways in which ordinary people are alienated from power.

The second core observation is that, despite their commonness, our current political moment is unique.  Never before in the history of the United States has traditional political power been so wedded to conspiracy theory, and wielded by the very powers who are traditionally the object of its suspicion.  Merlan's examples include Pizzagate, the insane theory that the politically powerful, especially the Clintons, were using the basement of a DC-era pizza chain to operate an international child molestation ring.  You might not find President Donald Trump tweeting about Pizzagate, but he sure is happy to lead the "Lock her up" chants that rely on its continued survival.  Trump's modern political career, of course, is rooted in the conspiracy theory of birtherism, and his "some are saying" allusions continue to pay political dividends.  You only have to look to his recent allegations that doctors and mothers are executing live children after birth.  We live in an era of accelerated information and disinformation, which has facilitated the rise of conspiratorial power.

One of my takeaways from Merlan's book was that it was all depressingly familiar.  The chapters are a laundry list of conspiracy theories, from the stupid to the pernicious, that continue to be litigated on Twitter every day: Pizzagate, false flag attacks at Sandy Hook and Parkland, the murder of Seth Rich.  I was almost relieved to read about a conspiracy theory I had never heard of: redemption theory, which maintains that the federal government backs the dollar by depositing a specific amount of money into the Federal Reserve for each birth, and that with a mastery of arcane and complex tax law, a person can legally withdraw and use their specific funds.  This particular chapter is heartbreaking--it tells the story of a couple of redemption theorists who end up charged with tax evasion and fraud, and who continue to believe in it even as they face bankruptcy and prison time.  And yet, the familiar rears its ugly head: redemption theory turns out to be a pet cause of Oregon militia leader Ammon Bundy, whose illegal occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2015 was gleefully taken advantage of by all sorts of mainstream right-wing ghouls.

Another takeaway: Do you know who pops up in every single one of these chapters?  The one person who seems to be involved with UFOs, Pizzagate, false flags, vaccine anxiety, and secret cancer-curing supplements?  You'll never guess:


It's sort of amazing.  The man is everywhere.  Republic of Lies made me think that we haven't yet reckoned with just how crucial a figure Alex Jones is in our modern political landscape, perhaps not as an agent but a representation of our conspiracy-loving id, and the way it gets entangled with real political power and financial gain.

Republic of Lies might be sobering for the reader who hopes that the Trump presidency ends with the nation, collectively, coming to its senses.  The conspiracy theories themselves are here to stay.  But maybe, before it's too late, we might learn how to distinguish not just between fact and fiction, but power and powerlessness, and stop letting those who have power convince us that it's the powerless who are conspiring against them.  It would also be nice if we could convince people that vaccines are safe and apricot pits can't cure cancer.  One day.

Saturday, June 22, 2019



A Little History of the English Country Church, by Roy Strong

I grew up in a Long Island town that was predominantly Catholic and Jewish, but with a small smattering of Protestants.  The church I went to (as a Catholic) was a grand gothic affair (though I suppose it was really a kind of faux, neo gothic) complete with flying buttresses, a spire, a choir loft, stained glass and side chapels dominated by sculpture and painting. There was an Episcopal Church down the street – a plain white clapboard building.  I was never inside (why not?) but it was, for my limited experience, the embodiment of New England simplicity that represented one tradition of Protestantism.  There were several temples – all of them modernist in style, low-slung and squat with odd, idiosyncratic abrupt angles.  

Though no one in my childhood ever talked about aesthetics or architecture, I figured out very young that these buildings represented something of the theology of their sects.  The fact that the Catholics had a gothic cathedral and the Protestants had a white clapboard meeting hall meant something, even when I was unclear what it meant. This was reinforced by later study of the Reformation, by visits to New England to see more authentic clapboard churches and travels that let me experience more authentic gothic architecture.  I never really thought any of this was so important, but realized it was a physical sign of the variations of community that surrounded me.  

As a result, Roy Strong’s A Little History of the English Country Church is not a book I would have read under normal circumstances.  I thought I already understood what I wanted to get out of church architecture.  I picked up the book because it was given to me as a gift.  I will be travelling to England and Scotland this summer and my son bought me this book as a preparation.  I thought it was a travel book and expected quaint descriptions of churches worth visiting.  I was wrong. It is a dense, scholarly history of the physical structures and accoutrements of the English church over the period of 500 years that saw the splintering of the old Catholic hegemony, the rise of Puritan separatism, the Glorious Revolution, the Restoration of the monarchy and the dawn of the industrial age.  

When I realized how dense and specific it was, I almost put it down.  I am glad that I did not.

I realized while reading this that I have approached this question of architecture and theology in a very American way:  we live in a pluralist society and there is a plethora of architectural manifestations of ideas.  Not surprising.  I realized early on in Strong’s narrative that in England (the book almost exclusively focuses on England, though Strong acknowledges that bringing in Scotland and/or Ireland would complicate his narrative in fascinating ways) this is not the case.  England was, in 1500, an entirely homogenous society.  Particularly outside London (and the emphasis here is on the “country” church: we never hear a word about London), the church was a dominant community force in every English person’s life – second only, in some communities to the manor house and the family it housed.  Even in the case of villages dominated by a wealthy landlord family, that family often controlled the church.

Of course, when I say that the church was a dominant force, I am talking about the church as an institution – its communal, educational, financial and spiritual place in the community. But I am also talking about the church as building.  Mass and religious services were held there, but so were naming ceremonies, weddings,  and funerals – Everyone in the village went to the same place to mark the important moments of transition in their lives.  The church was the center of annual holidays and festivals.  The community was physically centered on that building. That building bridged the spiritual and secular needs of the community.   While Strong is clear-eyed about the abuses of the pre-Reformation church, he also is clear that many of the abuses grew from this role as a bridge:  feast day celebrations were important times for the community to come together; churches brewed their own ales (priests being among the most scientifically minded in those days) and sold them at festivals and in rooms that were similar to pubs.  

This divide was represented in the physical church: medieval churches had a “porch” that may have been highly decorated with religious icons, but did not have an altar and was not consecrated.  For the most part that porch is where weddings, funerals and community events took place – the consecrated, religious sanctum of the interior of the church building was off limits to most of the congregation.  

That built environment embodied theological and institutional ideas about the relationship of the church to the community.  As the Reformation took hold, those ideas changed radically, and for 500 years the relationship of the church to the community has undergone fairly regular, radical changes.  There was a natural need for those changes to be reflected in the built environment, but even communities that were prosperous enough to build large, elaborate churches could not afford to build or rebuild several of them.  So the history of violent and spiritual conflict is embedded in church buildings all over England.  Strong tells the story of these violent and chaotic changes through examining what the buildings would have looked like in each period, what was destroyed as the trends in architecture, design and decoration changed, and what survived despite the changes.  

From this he speculates on the lives of parishioners and their feelings about these changes.  One value he finds in these churches is that these changes (or many cases, refusals to change) offer insight into the reactions of ordinary parishioners to changes in the church that were largely played out without their input.  He discusses stained glass, the inclusion and position of altars, the use of decorated screens in front of or behind altars, the size, shape and positioning of pews and lecterns.  He discusses places where church interiors were destroyed with enthusiasm and attempts to hide icons and art works in hopes that they could be brought back later (hopes that were often realized).  His work on the evolution of church music is fascinating.  Often the community church was the center of musical culture and when music was banished from churches, or churches took control of music, the whole community’s relationship to art was affected.

The prose was dense and specific enough that I am not sure how well I will remember it when I am in England next week.  I will undoubtedly see specific details that Strong discussed and not remember their significance.  But the sweep of history he finds located in these buildings will surely be powerful.



Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

According to legend, Father Earth did not originally hate life.

In fact, as the lorists tell it, once upon a time Earth did everything he could to facilitate the strange emergence of life on his surface.  He crafted even, predictable seasons; kept changes of wind and wave and temperature slow enough that every living being could adapt, evolve; summoned waters that purified themselves, skies that always cleared after a storm.  He did not create life--that was happenstance--but he was pleased and fascinated by it, and proud to nurture such strange wild beauty upon his surface.

Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth.

In the world of N. K. Jemisin's Broken Earth novels, people have an adversarial relationship with the earth.  Volcanic and seismic activity is a fact of life; earthquakes are likely to strike at any time, though every few centuries these periods of upheaval are so severe they are considered a "fifth season."  The continent is littered with the remains of dead civilizations, or "deadciv," who tried to maintain order in the face of chaos, and lost, like the strange garnet obelisks that float silently over cities.  In the present day, the Empire is kept safe by "orogenes," powerful people who can control the rocks and minerals of the earth, but the power of these orogenes is so fearful that they are kept enslaved, and shunned by regular folks, who call them "roggas."

The first novel, The Fifth Season, follows three different orogene women: Damaya, a "grit" taken from her home to train at the orogene base, called "Fulcrum"; Syenite, a woman tasked with having another orogene's child to perpetuate their lineage; and Essun, a woman whose orogeny is a secret until her husband discovers their son's power and beats him to death, then absconds with their daughter.  These parallel stories occur at different time periods.  We know this because in Essun's, the fifth season, another apocalyptic seismic upheaval, as finally begun.  (And I won't spoil it, but this makes the big reveal about these characters, I think, fairly obvious.)  In each storyline the protagonist chafes under the oppressive system that controls the orogenes while discovering, little by little, the truth about how the earth came to be so hostile, and about the obelisks and the mythical stone eaters who are somehow connected to them.

Friends, I really wanted to like this book.  The success of the series--three straight Hugo best novel awards, a first for anyone, let alone a woman author or an author of color--is really something, especially in the face of some ugly extremism.  But I did not.  It seemed to me to embody a lot of what I find tedious about most science fiction, like the way "worldbuilding" overtakes narrative.  The tension between the earth and humankind is interest and clever, but it leads into overly familiar tropes.  Here's another society with a rigid caste system that a very special hero must confront.  The images and set action are cool, but they'd be better in a graphic novel or a comic book, or even a television series.  The term "rogga" felt to me unfortunately on the nose, and reflective of the book's flattened ideology, both as a parable about ace or about climate change.  There is some signficant polyamory and a trans character, but I felt that the opportunity to say anything interesting or profound about sex and gender was largely squandered.

I like science fiction, or at least, I think I do.  But when I read some of the really acclaimed recent stuff in the genre, like this or Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, I feel a little like I'm reading a language whose idioms aren't made for me.  I can buy that this book is exceptional, but it's like eating an exceptional pineapple pizza: it's just not for me.  Am I wrong to feel like lots of science fiction doesn't live up to its potential to push boundaries?  I don't know.  I'm willing to be wrong, and I'd love for one of the many people who love this series to tell me what they like about it.  Me, I'll wait for the TV show to find out what happens next.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

World of Wonders by Robertson Davies

'In those years I formed a very low idea of crowds.  And of all those who pressed near me the ones I hated most, and wished the worst luck,were the young, the lovers, who were free and happy.  Sex to me meant terrible bouts with Willard and the grubby seductions of Charlie.  I did not believe in the happiness or the innocence or the good will of the couples who came to the fair for a good time.  My reasoning was simple, and of a very common kind: if I were a hoor and a crook, were not whoredom and dishonesty the very foundations on which humanity rested?  If I were at the outs with God--and God never ceased to trouble my mind--was anyone else near Him?  If they were, they must be cheating.  I very soon came to forget it was I who was the prisoner: I was the one who saw clearly and saw the truth because I saw without being seen.  Abdullah was the face I presented to the world, and I knew that Abdullah, the undefeated, was worth no more than I.'

Robertson Davies' Fifth Business tells the story of three men whose lives are intertwined, thanks to a single act done when they were boys: Boy Staunton throws a snowball with a rock in it; Dunstan Ramsay ducks, and the rock hits the pregnant mother of Paul Dempster, leading to her premature birth and mental decline.  We learn in that novel that Dempster grows up to be the famous magician Magnus Eisengrim, and when Boy and Magnus meet again for the first time since their childhood, Boy ends up dead in a river with the offending rock in his mouth.  It's a great, fitting circle, and a victim of its own success: the two subsequent novels in the trilogy, The Manticore and World of Wonders, seem extraneous to the completeness of Fifth Business.  They try to extend that novel in two very different, neither considerably successful, ways: The Manticore by following Boy's son David, and World of Wonders by backtracking and filling in the life of Paul, who disappeared and became Magnus.

Davies sets that story up this way: Magnus, living with Ramsay and their shared lover (!) Liesl in a Swiss castle, is asked to star in a movie about the legendary French magician Robert-Houdin.  The filmmaker, a Swede named Lind, pushes Magnus to divulge his own history as "subtext" for the film, and so over the course of several nights, Magnus finally tells his own story.  As a setup, it reminds me of the kind of "gaffing," or contrived trickery, that is used in the circus world that Magnus describes, or perhaps the elaborate clockwork of Robert-Houdin's tricks, which Magnus criticizes.  The parts between Magnus' tales, during which Lind, Ramsay, Liesel, and other characters associated with the film, discuss and reflect on what they've heard, are stiff and talky.  Davies' writing always has a stage-y quality to it; characters easily become ciphers in a Socratic dialogue rather than people.

But Magnus' story can be compelling.  He describes how, having snuck out of the house to visit the circus, he becomes enamored with the illusions of a sideshow magician named Willard the Wizard.  He hangs around the tent so he can show his own magic trick to Willard, and Willard responds by guiding the young Paul Dempster to a bathroom where--yes, yikes, wait for it--he sodomizes him.  This brutal act is Paul's initiation into the circus world, into which he is kidnapped by a fearful Willard and a bunch of hardscrabble associates, who don't approve of Willard's actions, exactly, but who have their own kind of investment in making sure the traveling act doesn't unravel, and so look the other way.  Paul is taught to control a giant papier-mache automaton named Abdullah who does card tricks, and it's in the darkness of Abdullah that he learns to hone his skills at magic.

The World of Wonders is a compelling but frightening operation, filled with well-drawn characters: the cruel Willard, the profligate barker Charlie, a masturbating orangutan named Rango, the kindly fortune teller Zingara, and a fat woman named Happy Hannah who berates her audience (and the poor victimized Paul) with Bible verses.  I found most of them far more clever, and more chilling, than any of the characters in Geek LoveTogether they provide young Paul with an unconventional, often horrifying childhood, but one with its own lessons about evil and human nature, and it's through the eyes of Abdullah that he learns how to observe people, and deceive them.

But the World of Wonders is only one half of the novel.  When Willard finally dies and the circus dissipates, Paul--who over the course of the novel goes by at least a half-dozen pseudonyms, and is never really "Paul" again--is scooped up by a troupe of English actors, where he acts as a "double" for a famous but aging actor.  He walks tightropes, for example, when the no-longer-spry actor cannot, but he must be so convincing that he ends up being absorbed, or perhaps absorbing, the actor's existence.  We're meant to see it as another Abdullah--a kind of existence behind a mask or costume, a kind of disappearing act.  I didn't find this section nearly as engaging as the first; the patrician actor Sir John just isn't as interesting as the ghouls who fill the circus.

World of Wonders never finds the same kind of convincing circular logic as Fifth Business.  The part of Magnus' life in which he, with the help of Liesl, becomes the world-famous magician he is today, is sort of left out; detailed enough, perhaps, in the first novel.  Davies seems more interested in bringing the whole trilogy to a close, and ends by forcing us to revise our understanding of Fifth Business--namely, the suggestion that Magnus killed Boy.  The truth turns out to be more complex, but less interesting, and not really satisfying.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Eternal Life by Dara Horn

She had done well, she thought, in this version.  "Version" was the word she used when thinking of it--nusach, the liturgical term, like a melodic variation on a theme.  That's what they were, these different versions: different tones, different moods, melancholic, joyful, anxious, calm, hectic, fast, slow.  This version was one of the best, the happiest, which was why she hadn't wanted to leave.  But she couldn't stay forever.

Rachel is pushing eighty.  Her life is quite happy: she runs a gem business, and she has several children and grandchildren.  Most are quite successful.  Her granddaughter Hannah, for example, is researching telomeres, the little caps on the end of our chromosomes that may hold the secret to extending human life.  Her son Rocky, however, gives her trouble; he's one of those people that just can't seem to get their life together.  Recently he's been getting into that trendy business among such folks: mining Bitcoin.  But Rachel has a secret of her own--thanks to a vow she made to save the life of her son two millennia ago, she's actually immortal.  Every few generations, she regenerates by burning, and must leave the family she's created behind.  Through all these lives she is stalked by an old lover, her first child's father, who sees their immortal lives as an opportunity to really be together forever, and to whom she is equally, dangerously, drawn.

There's a lot to like about Dara Horn's Eternal Life.  I'm a sucker for fictional representations of historical folks, and although I am not incredibly familiar with the Jewish history of the destruction on the Second Temple, this is an especially clever one.  Rachel's first son Yochanan, the one she saves by her vow, is the Jewish scholar Yochanan ben Zakkai, who, according to legend, is smuggled out of the besieged city of Jerusalem to beg with the Romans to spare, not the temple or the city, but the Torah.  This act, the preservation of the word of God, finds its analog in Rocky and the blockchain record that makes crypto mining possible.

This is a very clever connection, or an extremely goofy one, depending on your perspective.  Much in the novel is goofier--like Rachel's ancient lover Elazar getting into Twitter fights about the value of immortality, where he claims to have been flayed by the Inquisition, punctuated by the words "epic fail!"  But its cleverness is a weakness as much as a strength.  (What are the odds that Rachel's granddaughter would be one of the world's leading anti-death researchers?)  The conclusion especially falls into place a little too neatly

 But the novel's biggest weakness, I thought, was its lack of breadth.  It's not that it's too short, necessarily, but that it feels pared down in a way that doesn't work for a story of eternal life.  (Think about Orlando--a novel that isn't very long, but somehow manages to convince you that Orlando has lived a very long time.)  Rachel alludes to her many children--her sixtieth son, her forty-second daughter--and claims that watching them die, over and over, is the great trauma of her eternal life.  But for the novel's purposes there are really only two time periods: Rachel's first life in the era of the Second Temple and the present day.  The intervening years, while not a mystery, fail to establish a sense of reality.  Nor did the prose, which struck me as relatively blond, seem matched to the subject.  I didn't really think that Eternal Life really lived up to the promise of its first page:

If her father had described it--it was his job to write, or at least to copy, though he liked to add his own details--he might have written: These are the generations of Rachel, keeper of vows, who bargained with God and lived.  If her son had written it--her first son, the wise one, the reason for everything that followed--he would have put it differently.  If all the heavens were parchment, and all the seas ink, such would not suffice to record the days of Rachel, whose years are no more than an eyeblink to the Master of the World.  If her twentieth son had written it--he was a panderer, a bootlicker, but that had been worth something then--he would have sprinkled it with rose petals til it reeked.  O mother of thousands, she who escaped the sword; most loved, most honored, most blessed of the lord!  Or something equally trite.

This suggests to me a novel that might have been, a novel that was really interested in recording those multiplicity of voices, and showing how Rachel has become a product of each nusach that she's lived.  But for all its inventiveness, and some very moving meditations on life and God and the problem of death, it all felt a little too of the moment for me.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

St. Urbain's Horseman by Mordecai Richler

Sitting with the Hershes, day and night, a bottle of Remy parked between his feet, such was Jake's astonishment, commingled with pleasure, in their responses, that he could not properly mourn for his father.  He felt cradled, not deprived.  He also felt like Rip Van Winkle returned to an innocent and ordered world he had mistakenly believed long extinct.  Where God watched over all, doing His sums.  Where everything fit.  Even the holocaust, which, after all, had yielded the state of Israel.  Where to say, "Gentleman, the Queen," was to offer an obligatory toast to Elizabeth II at an affair, not to begin a discussion on Andy Warhol.  Where smack was not habit-forming, but what a disrespectful child deserved; pot was what you simmered the chicken soup in; and camp was where you sent the boys for the summer.  It was astounding, Jake was incredulous, that after so many years and fevers, after Dachau, after Hiroshima, revolution, rockets in space, DNA, bestiality in the streets, assassinations in and out of season, there were still brides with shining faces who married in white gowns, posing in the Star social pages with their prizes, pear-shaped boys in evening clothes.  There were aunts who sold raffles and uncles who swore by the Reader's Digest.  French Canadians, like overflying airplanes distorting the TV picture, were only tolerated.  DO NOT ADJUST YOUR SET, THE TROUBLE IS TEMPORARY... They were ignorant of the arts, they were overdressed, they were overstuffed, and their taste was appallingly bad.  But within their self-contained world, there was order.  It worked.

Jake Hersh is a successful television director living in London.  He's an outsider twice over, as a Canadian and a Jew, both a colonial and a stranger, but despite that, he's risen to wealth and comfort.  He has a tony house, a beautiful shiksa wife, several children.  In fact, if he hasn't achieved more, it's because he has an irritable streak and a chip on his shoulder, and often looks at his comfortable life with a kind of suspicion.  That is, until he finds himself accused of raping a young woman while his wife is out of town.  His co-defendant in the case is Harry Stein, an accountant from London's lower classes, who is like Jake's shoulder-chip personified, and mirrored by Mother England.  He's crass and perverse; he makes prank calls to starlets because he seethes with incel-ish anger that they reject, or would reject, him.  What attracts Jake to Harry may be that familiar resentment, write comically large, or perhaps there's something sobering about the way that Harry looks with jealous rage at Jake's life.  Either way, Richler implies that it's this attraction that has caused Jake's legal and marital troubles.

Harry's not the only foil that Jake has in the novel.  Jake spends much of his spare time trying to track down his cousin Joey, a charismatic ne'er-do-well who disappeared from Montreal's St. Urbain Street Jake was very young.  In Jake's memory, Joey is the only one who stood up to the escalating racial hatred of the French Canadians who boxed them in.  In his search, he's always narrowly missing him, in Israel, in Germany.  Reports of Joey differ--is he a gambler and a criminal, or the avenger of Jake's memory?  Jake believes he's tracked him to the jungles of Paraguay, where he believes that Joey--St. Urbain's horseman, tracking through the banks of the Parana River--is searching for the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in order to exact revenge on behalf of the Jews of the world.  Like Harry, the Horseman is a foil for Jake: he is the thing Jake wishes he could be, the alternative to his pampered life of ordinary compromises.  He is another manifestation of resentment, channeled into righteous anger--the opposite of Harry's bootless pranks.

St. Urbain's Horseman has something sophisticated to say about the position of Jewish folks in the 20th century.  Clearly they have a lot to be resentful about, but is there a way to channel that resentment and make it useful?  If it is to be released, how is that done?  When a person from an oppressed group achieves success, or even bourgeois satisfaction, should they feel joy?  Guilt?  Is his father right to rage about his marriage to the gentile Nancy?  Jake has difficulty with these questions: he largely separates himself from his Jewish Canadian family, and invents another kind of family--the Horseman--in his head.

On the other hand, I cringed a little reading about the trumped-up accusations against Jake.  The "victim," a would-be starlet named Ingrid, is a character vacuum, briefly seen through a drunken haze and then sequestered behind the dais of a courtroom.  In the novel, it works, but I always feel squeamish about the way false rape narratives bolster, in even small ways, real-world suspicions about rape.  Put it alongside the joky anti-feminism of Barney's Version, and the Borscht Belt-comedian schtick of Richler's novels begins to seem hoary.

That said, St. Urbain's Horseman is very funny.  It is the most frenetic of the three Richler novels I have read, to the point of dizziness.  I was amazed by the relentlessness of the satire; I feel like most "funny" novels get credit for getting around to a joke every few pages, but in St. Urbain's Horseman, every paragraph has some incisive cutting remark or character beat.  (One of my favorite characters is a recurring cousin who's in the toilet business, and spends his whole visit to London examining, and praising, the commodes at places like Harrod's.)  I didn't think it had quite the same human element as Duddy Kravitz or Barney's Version, possibly because at heart those novels are tragedies, and St. Urbain's Horseman is about the ways in which a good tragedy can end up spoiled.  In the end, Jake gets off, his marriage a little dented, but his happy home intact--and that's something he'll have to learn to live with.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

She felt herself choking and tore at her frilled lace collar.  'Miranda!'  The strangled cry came out as a whisper.  To her horror all three girls were fast moving out of sight behind the monolith.  'Miranda!  Come back!'  She took a few unsteady steps toward the rise and saw the last of a white sleeve parting the bushes ahead.

'Miranda... !'  There was no answering voice.  The awful silence closed in and Edith began, quite loudly now, to scream.  If her terrified cries had been heard by anyone but a wallaby squatting in a clump of bracken a few feet away, the picnic at Hanging Rock might yet have been just another picnic on a summer's day.  Nobody did hear them.  The wallaby sprang up in alarm and bounced away, as Edith turned back, plunged blindly into the scrub and ran, stumbling and screaming, towards the plain.

The girls at Appleyard College in the state of Victoria, Australia, go on a Valentine's Day picnic to a famous geological formation called Hanging Rock.  Among them are Irma, a noted beauty, Miranda, very popular, and Marion, the brainy one.  The three of these, followed by a homely and unpopular girl named Edith, set off for one last look at the rock and never come back.  Edith returns in hysterics, but can provide no information about what happened; a math teacher, Miss McCraw, is pronounced missing also.

There's something recognizable about this setup: it sounds like any number of prestigious police procedurals that begin with a murder or a missing girl, or a whole troop of missing girls, like this one.  (Unsurprisingly, Amazon recently made a series out of Picnic at Hanging Rock, which was also made into a cult movie in the 1970's.)  But those series are inevitably backward-looking: they are interested in uncovering a past that has been hidden behind quaint towns and admired families.  Picnic at Hanging Rock, by contrast, is interested in the progressive effects of the girls' disappearance: a young man named Mike, enamored by a single backwards glance from the otherwise unknown Miranda, begins to obsess over finding the girls; the headmistress Miss Appleyard begins to fret about the financial health of the college as girls' guardians have them withdrawn; conflicts between teachers and students are intensified and laid open.  Lindsay describes the process a drop in water that radiates outward, irrevocably changing everything in its wake:

The reader taking a bird's eye view of events since the picnic will have noted how various individuals on its outer circumference have somehow become involved in a spreading pattern: Mrs Valange, Reg Lumley, Monsieur Louis Montpelier, Minnie and Tom--all of whose lives have already been disrupted, sometimes violently.  So too have the lives of innumerable lesser fry--spiders, mice, beetles--whose scuttlings, burrowings and terrified retreats are comparable, if on a smaller scale.

Ultimately, Lindsay decided not even to include the chapter she wrote describing what happened to the girls.  (Although, judging from the description I've read of it, it's so bizarre and fantastical it doesn't seem like it would have explained much!)

The picnic described occurs in 1900, and though Lindsay wrote it in the 60's, the novel often feels like it's contemporaneous to its events.  It has a kind of Victorian stuffiness, and a willingness to lead the reader along imperiously ("The reader taking a bird's eye view...") that went out of fashion with modernism.  Because of that, its weirdness often catches you off guard: Mike's dreams and visions of a white swan taking off, for example, or the Grand Guignol final scene in which Miss Appleyard brings the whole thing to a kind of eerie, circular conclusion.  And as much as Lindsay insists that the novel's plot has a kind of inevitability to it that the girls' disappearance sets into motion, what happens often seems only tenuously connected to it.  Is it enough to say that if something might not have happened without the disappearance, that thing happened because of it?  There's something strange about the novel's conception of causation that gets hidden behind the antique style.

I was intensely interested in The Picnic at Hanging Rock, although I'm not sure I enjoyed it, exactly.  It's unsettling.  It's unsettling in a way that is hard to describe after you're finished reading it.  It's unsettling because it seems uninterested in committing to its own weirdness, as if weirdness itself is too predictable or ordinary.  Like the disappearance of the girls, it's the kind of book that, when you're done with it, makes you wonder what the hell happened.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

We drew lots to see who would be the first to sneak below while the captain slept and wrench open a plank to peer inside.  Tommy O'Toole, the cabin boy, pulled the shortest length of string.  He shinnied down a rope reef-knotted round his waist so we could pull him up.  After ten minutes Squibb tugged and found the rope broken.  We were about to lower him when the boy crawled back on deck with only half his mind--or could be it was twice the mind he had before.  His skin was cold, all one bluish color as if he had been baptized in the Deep.  His face was blank as a pan.  And his words, as his mouth spread and closed like a fish's, were strange: a slabber of Bantu patois, Bushman, Cushitic, and Sudanic tongues, and your guess where he learned them is as good as mine.  His eyes glowed like deck lights, less solid orbs of color, if you saw them up close, than splinters of luciferin indigo that, like an emulsion, had caught the camphor of a blaze once before them.

Charles Johnson's novel Middle Passage follows Rutherford Calhoun, a freedman living in New Orleans who hops aboard a ship in order to evade his creditors, and a girlfriend who has offered them restitution of his debts in exchange for a forced marriage.  The ship is called The Republic--whoop whoop, there goes the symbol siren--and it's bound for West Africa to pick up a group of slaves taken from the mysterious and ancient Allmuseri people.  Rutherford is understandably conflicted about the ship's goal, but all his life he's been self-serving, a drifter, a petty thief who looks out for himself.  But he can't stop himself from getting entangled in the drama of the crew: the prim, aloof mate Cringle, the mad genius captain Ebenezer Falcon, and especially the Allmuseri, who are themselves of several minds about how to deal with their newfound captivity.  Rutherford has a kind of mobility between the captives and the crew, but as a result, he's isolated: the crew doesn't trust him (he is a stowaway after all) and the Allmuseri consider him a "cooked barbarian" as opposed to the white slavers, who are "raw barbarians."

But that's not all that's on board: a secret crate Falcon hides deep in the galley is rumored to contain the Allmuseri's god.  A young cabin boy, sent to investigate, returns mad, and speaking in several African languages.  Later, when Rutherford is tasked to feed the god--by the Allmuseri who have taken over the ship--it transforms, like that Harry Potter creature that presents as your greatest fear, into an image of the father who abandoned him.  The mysterious nature of the Allmuseri god drives the intrigue of the novel, but in the end, it turns out to be mostly irrelevant; it's the violent conflict between the ship's crew and the Allmuseri, the reality of starvation, the pistol, and the guinea worm, that lead the plot to its conclusion.

I wasn't totally satisfied by the way the novel concluded.  Once the Allmuseri dispatch most of the crew, Johnson sets up a number of conflicts that don't get fully explored: the compassionate Ngonyama versus the bloodthirsty Diamelo, both of whom must grapple with the way that the Middle Passage has already altered their character without ever stepping foot on American soil.  When the divisions between the Allmuseri reach a head, Rutherford is catatonic, having been stunned by his interaction with the Allmuseri god, and as a result the novel feels distant when it might have tackled disaster head on.  Nor did I think the following sea rescue, with its neat resolutions, match the weirdness and mystery of the preceding novel.

But ultimately, Middle Passage manages to juggle a lot of balls at once, and mostly successfully: it's an adventure novel, a comedy, a fantasy novel, and a political novel, interested in the ways the slave trade shapes and deforms our national character.  It's worth reading just for Rutherford's voice, associative and erudite, which rejects any expectation that a former slave must be undereducated, or have a heart of gold.  Like the Allmuseri, who explain that they have traded and intermarried with Dravidians in India and Olmecs in the new world, Rutherford is far more than the narrative his former owner, or his creditors, or the captain of The Republic, would tell.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019



My Young Life
by Frederic Tuten

     One late snowy afternoon we got married in Brooklyn in a justice of the peace's no-frills office.  The wedding music cost five dollars extra.
     Simona said, "Thank you, but we will not need music."
     "I like you kids," the justice said.  "I'll throw it in free."
     We said our "I do's" to the accompaniment of Dvorak's New World Symphony.
     We had gone to Brooklyn by subway and returned to Manhattan the same unceremonious way.  We stayed happy for several years.

Fred Tuten is an acclaimed avant-garde novelist (and a former professor of mine), author of 5 novels, including Tintin in the New World and The Adventures of Mao on the Long March.  This is his deceptively sweet and romantic memoir, narrating the story (as the title tells us) of his youth.  He grew up in dire poverty in the Bronx, was abandoned by his irresponsible father to live with his depressive mother, barely made his way through high school and City College.  Along the way he falls in love with sex, romance, art and literature - though not necessarily in that order.

The book is constructed around short snippets of narrative, some that string together to tell a longer chapter of his life, some that tell of one, brief episode.  While he is serious about his poverty and portrays himself as a serious, almost frantic young man, the tone here is generally light.  Tuten is bracingly honest about his own youthful insecurity and fecklessness.  He is more than slightly pretentious.  For example, as a relatively young teenager he decides to become a painter and move to Paris.  His model is Van Gogh and he spends pages dreaming of his life as a struggling artist in Paris, a far more romantic situation than being a struggling non-artist in the Bronx, which is what he is.  He spends several years of his adolescence planning to become an artist, but almost no time painting.  He quickly drops out of the one art class he takes and while he curses himself for his procrastination and fear of failure, he does not change.

Until, after dropping out of high school and then returning, he decides to be a writer.  He spends several years imagining himself as a politically committed writer - a Hemingway or an Orwell, his destination now Mexico or the hills of Cuba, where Castro is waging revolution.  He does almost no writing during this period, but weaves an even more pretentious and frantic portrait of a young man in search of something to make his life meaningful.  He is just as feckless and just as frantic - he has simply changed the medium he is not practicing.

The portrait, and many of the incidents narrated, is sweetly humorous.  We root for young Fred, even if what we are rooting for is for him to get off his ass and do something.  Spoiler alert:  he doesn't.  The book ends with the marriage scene quoted above and Fred is 25, working in a bookstore and thinking about a job with the welfare department.  He has dropped out and then re-enrolled in high school, flunked out and then re-enrolled in City College, and failed out of graduate school.  He has published one play in a City College literary magazine (which is deemed obscene and almost gets him thrown out again).  He has had several dozen sexual experiences, most of them masterbatory.  His approach to women, repeated with virtually every women in the book, is to extoll their beauty, worship their sexual appeal and convince himself he is in love with them.

The romance and comedy are satisfying, but even more satisfying is the way Tuten undercuts this sweet innocence with little glimpses into the future.  These come in footnotes that are oddly placed - often several pages after the person they refer too.  In these he fast forwards to tell the latter details of relationships of his youth and virtually all of these carry dark undertones.  His estranged father dies, his estranged mother dies, he narrates how he cavalierly lost touch with close friends.  Along the way he slips in details of his novels, of time he spends in his beloved Paris and of more than one failed marriage.  So we don't get to see him lose his innocence, but we are constantly reminded that it is lost.

I have a tendency to romanticize other people's youthful New York experiences - my own apparently not having been romantic enough.  Tuten had me wishing I had lived in the Bronx of the late 1940's even while it was clear that he hated it.  He made me wish I had gone to CCNY in the 1950's (instead of the 1980s), believing that everything about both New York and youth was better than.  And the portrait that emerges in the footnotes, of a solitary, successful and slightly acerbic adult reinforces that belief.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019




Maybe-boyfriend then said 'Stop.  Stop, chef.  We can't do this .  We can't keep doing this."  Then, in support of his words, his hand came up and again pushed chef's hand away.   So he pushed, but he returned, then maybe-boyfriend pushed again, not strongly.  Then he halted.  There was no cursing, no "Fuck off, chef, What are you doin?  I'm not like that."No surprise either between them, the surprise and unexpectedness at what was happening in that kitchen between those men were turning out to be only so for me,  And now maybe-boyfrine, after pushing chef off, stopped and he took hold of this other man's arms and with his own eyes still closed, he held them.  He leaned into them, into chef's middle, with chef bending over till his face was in maybe-boyfriend's hair.  

As Christopher and Chloe have already discussed, much of the tension around this book centers on things we don't know - most prominently the names of the characters.  They are given names based on their activities (either to reveal activities like "chef" or "real Milkman" or to hide activities like "Milkman" who is not a milkman, but an IRA gunman) or on their relationships to each other ("middle sister," "wee sisters," "almost boyfriend").  Clearly, this is an excellent set-up for a bildungsroman and it is what people come to know that matters in the end.

Our narrator has tried hard not to know things, but is constantly having to admit that she does know.  She knows the distance between parts of the city and knows enough to measure that distance in both time walked and moral uncertainty.  She knows that her mother is unhappy and that it is her clinging to the community values of false piety that are making her unhappy.  And she knows there is no apparent way for her to avoid that piety.  The community and the church will ignore the violence and corruption of Milkman and his ilk, but condemn any woman who dares imagine something other than marriage and children.

In the end it is what she has not known that brings the book its most satisfying plot point - and it is full of satisfying plot points.  She goes to maybe-boyfriend to finally agree to get rid of the maybe and walks in on him with his strange friend, chef, to discover that their friendship is not strange at all, but loving.  By then she has helped her mother see her mother's long-repressed love for real Milkman - the only character in the book with the courage to stand up to Milkman and the paramilitaries.  This unites her with her mother (given their life-long argument, it can hardly be called a reunion) as she has also reconciled with her sisters and her brother-in-law.  It is not a coming-of-age story in which a child learns and leaves the family, it is a coming of age story in which a child learns how to live with her family.

Just a note on the style and its pleasures:  this is a voice driven novel and the voice is wonderful.  It is all digression and tangent, characters are not named, and neither is their dialogue accurately reported either:  when she is feeding the wee sisters dinner too slowly, they complain "Middle sister!  Please hurry.  Will you not hurry?  Modes amounts please.  But cannot you be more instanter than that?"  There are delights like that throughout - touching details and awkward moments of affection juxtaposed with macabre and frightening hints of violence.  We come to see the community so clearly because we see it through this one totally unique consciousness.

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Public Image by Muriel Spark

She responded then, and did it well, and was genuinely glad to cry; and then was driven home through intertwining dark-lit streets, under the high-flying white flags of washing that swayed from window to window of the old palaces.  The poisoner behind the black window-square, a man flattened against a wall with the daggers ready... she wondered how the film would end, and although she wanted to leave the cinema and go home, she wanted first to see the end.

Annabel Christopher is an up-and-coming actress.  She's more popular in Italy than in her native England, and her popularity depends on the careful cultivation of her public image.  In the Italian tabloids she's called "The Lady-Tiger," meaning someone who seems ladylike in public, but in private is passionate, demanding, strong-willed.  It isn't true, but it is funny: her public image has a public image of its own.

Her public image is also that of a married woman, part of a power couple in which she is the dominant figure.  Her husband Frederick, a not-very-talented screenwriter and small-time actor, seethes with jealousy at her popularity and acclaim.  He thinks that an "actor should be sincere in the part he play[s], and should emotionally experience whatever he was to portray, from the soul outward."  To him, Annabel is shallow and superficial, and people wouldn't think her acting was any good if they knew her like he did.  He's a hypocrite, of course, and his notions of public vs. private life are cartoonish.  Spark herself seems to agree with the director, Luigi Leopardi, who is "not at all concerned or cynical about the difference between her private life and her public image; he did not recognise that any discrepancy existed."

Spark relates the history of the Christophers' marriage from a birds-eye view, playing, perhaps, with the idea of superficiality itself.  That is, until Annabel learns that Frederick has thrown himself off a scaffolding at a church, killing himself inside a crypt of martyrs.  (The symbolism is as overwrought as Frederick himself, who sees himself as a martyr to Annabel's career, and who imagines that by this particular suicide he might penetrate into the reality of things, like falling into the crypt.)  His suicide is an elaborate attempt to undermine Annabel's public image: he has arranged for several guests to show up to a party at the time of his suicide, unbeknownst to Annabel, and has written several letters accusing her of throwing orgies.  His death is a bitter parody of Lise's death in The Driver's Seat, scrupulously planned and executed, an ironic attempt to control life through death.

The drama of The Public Image consists of Annabel's attempts to reassert control over her public image, and to fend off Frederick's jealous attack from the grave.  For the most part, it seems that she'll be successful: she collects the letters, denies that Frederick could ever have committed suicide, and tells the press that he was chased off the scaffolding by some number of lovesick fans.  Truth, of course, is never relevant, only the battle between two different narratives.  That's what's so hypocritical about Frederick's suicide: if he really wants people to see how Annabel really is, he fails utterly.

I found myself wishing the novel had unfolded in a more unexpected manner; after Frederick's suicide, The Public Image has few genuine surprises.  Annabel is able to control the narrative until the character who we always expected to betray her, does--another question of public versus private life.  Frederick's spectacular death stands at the center of the novel, comic and foolish, but making everything before and after it seem a little humdrum.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

When we traded the results of our fantasies, it seemed to us--and rightly--that we had proceeded by unwarranted associations, by shortcuts so extraordinary that, if anyone had accused us of really believing them, we would have been ashamed.  We consoled ourselves with the realization--unspoke, now, respecting the etiquette of irony--that we were parodying the logic of our Diabolicals.  But during the long intervals in which each of us collected evidence to produce at the plenary meetings, and with the clear conscience of those who accumulate material for a medley of burlesques, our brains grew accustomed to connecting, connecting, connecting everything with everything else, until we did it automatically, out of habit.  I believe that you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing.

As a teacher, I get to hear about the Illuminati a lot.  Teenagers gravitate toward the idea of an all-powerful cabal of sinister folks, perhaps because they rarely find that they are able to exert control over their own lives, and it's easier to think that someone, somewhere is in charge.  But the truth is it's probably not a teenager thing; after all, you only have to spend a few minutes on Twitter to find folks who believe that an anonymous official called Q is leaving a trail of crumbs to a massive conspiracy to perpetuate child abuse at the highest levels of government, and the counter-conspiracy working to take it down.  That, too, is probably a response to a lack of agency, to the need to believe someone is really in charge.

Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum is about that mindset, which has survived for thousands of years.  Eco places its origins in conspiracy theories surrounding the Knights Templar, a group of medieval crusaders who were forced to disband by a French king, and who some believe only disappeared underground.  The novel's protagonist, Casaubon, is an academic studying the Templars.  Eco's choice of name is pointed; like the Middlemarch reverend, this Casaubon is going to devote his life to a massive tome that connects all knowledge into a master theory.  With his associates Belbo and Diotallevi, who work at a vanity press, he composes a "Plan" which explains the links between the Templars and their later analogues: Rosicrucians, the Illuminati, Satanist, cabalists, Assassins, Mormons, Hitler.  They use the newfound power of computing to help them find unseen connections.  It's all in fun, for them, a way of mocking the kind of people who engage in such beliefs, and for whom nothing can ever be disproven because contradictory information is just a testament to how dangerous and hidden the knowledge really is.

The Plan says, in a nutshell, that the Templars knew of a secret power source related to the earth's magnetic field that could give those who wield it control over the entire earth.  They hid the information until it could be researched and harnessed properly, arranging over the course of nearly a thousand years to pass the knowledge to secret groups in several countries.  Somewhere along the way, the "handoff" was botched, leading to centuries of agitation and rivalry between neo-Templar groups.  But the actual nature of the Plan doesn't matter.  What does matter is that, while creating the Plan for laughs, the trio find themselves blurring the line between belief and disbelief, committing to the fantasy in ways they did not anticipate.  And then, when Belbo disappears, it seems that the Plan itself has come to life, or at least, those who genuinely believe in Templarite conspiracies have found them out and are hellbent on finding out what they know, even to the point of death.

All that drama happens in the last fifty pages of a 500-page book.  Most of the novel, although interspersed with convincing scenes of character history and drama (at one point, Casaubon moves to Brazil?) is devoted to the creation of the Plan, and even that doesn't really get named and explained until several hundred pages in.  What's impressive about the novel is that Eco doesn't make anything up that Casaubon doesn't also; the scraps of conspiracy theory and historical writings he uses to concoct the plan are all taken from historical sources.  The plot is secondary to Eco's attempt to create the conspiracy theory of all conspiracy theories, one which bridges thousands of years and hundreds upon hundreds of sources.  And while it doesn't make for gripping reading, exactly, it's breathtaking, and it makes Dan Brown look like a child scribbling on a placemat maze.

Casaubon's search for the missing Belbo leads him to the Foucault Pendulum at a Paris museum, a giant pendulum which, by its rotations, proves the rotation of the earth.  The pendulum rotates because, unlike the moving earth, it is hung from a truly fixed point, as immovable and fundamental as the name of God searched for by cabalists.  But even this is a kind of cheat:

"You see, Casaubon, even the Pendulum is a false prophet.  You look at it, you think it's the only fixed point in the cosmos, but if you detach it from the ceiling of the Conservatoire and hang it in a brothel, it works just the same.  And there are other pendulums: there's one in New York, in the UN building, there's one in the science museum in San Francisco, and God knows how many others.  Wherever you put it, the Foucault's Pendulum swings from a motionless point while the earth rotates beneath it.  Every point of the universe is a fixed point: all you have to do is hang the Pendulum from it."

"It promises the infinite," they go onto say, "but where to put the infinite is left to me."  What matters to Eco in Foucault's Pendulum is not the fixed point, but the need to fix a point at all, and the psychology that goes into choosing where to put it.