Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

Suddenly a horrible sound interrupted him.  As the woman had predicted the night before, the brow of sand on the north side had lost its moisture and collapsed.  The whole house seemed to let out a soulful shriek, as if mortally wounded, and a gray blood began to drop down with a rustling sound from the new gap between the eaves and the wall.  The man began to tremble, the mouth full of saliva.  It was as if his own body had been crushed.

This entire nightmare could not be happening.  It was too outlandish.  Was it permissible to snare, exactly like a mouse or an insect, a man who had his certificate of medical insurance, someone who paid his taxes, who was employed, and whose family records were in order?  He could not believe it.  Perhaps there was some mistake; it was bound to be a mistake. There was nothing to do but assume that it was a mistake.

An entomologist named Jumpei travels from the city to the Japanese coast, looking for rare insects that live among the sand.  He stumbles upon a strange village that seems almost half-buried in the dunes: houses lie at the bottom of great pits of sand.  The villagers kindly let him stay the night at one of these houses, where he's lowered into the pit by means of a great rope ladder, and hosted by a beautiful but distant woman who seems to live alone there.  Soon, he realizes that he hasn't been hosted, but kidnapped, and the villagers expect him, like the woman, to spend his life scooping up the shifting sand around the house and placing it into buckets, keeping not only the house safe from the moving dunes but also the village, for which houses like these are the first line of defense.

Most of the narrative of The Woman in the Dunes concerns Jumpei's various attempts to escape.  He's clever, and approaches the task from a scientific angle, but sand is unpredictable and the villagers watchful.  At the same time he finds himself drawn to the strange woman, who is never given a name, and who seems to accept her lot blithely.  (Among other things, The Woman in the Dunes gives a frightening picture of what it's like to have sex in a place where you can never get the sand off of your body.)  If he escapes, what will happen to her?  Does he have an obligation to her, or is she part of the same forces that have trapped him?

Sand, as Jumpei thinks of it, is a strange and dangerous thing.  It is a collection of small stones, about an eighth of a millimeter, but it emerges when the forces of wind and water separate these small stones from larger ones.  It is forever moving, and in fact, it may be more appropriate to think of sand as the movement rather than the stones that are moved--an action, rather than an object.  The shifting sands will never stop threatening the house or the village; Jumpei's story is a variation of Sisyphus'.

The sand is a symbol for--what?  Death and life, at least, and maybe the natural passage of time that scares the shit out of everyone who's old enough to figure out what it means.  Set against these forces are the pathetic systems of bourgeois society: when Jumpei cleverly advises planting a hedge of trees to keep the sand at bay, the woman notes that it's just cheaper to keep up a system of forced labor.  Jumpei, in the passage above, can't believe that the rewards of civilized society have failed to protect him: the medical insurance, the tax bill.  But medical insurance can't stop deterioration and disease, and being a good citizen can't fend of realities that shift like the sand.  What he fails to realize is that the things he hopes will keep him safe are of the same order as the things the village will hope keep them safe: bureaucratic, short-sighted, systematic, unequal.

Spoiler alert: ultimately, Jumpei escapes, only to be caught and brought back to his sand-prison.  He throws himself into scientific experiments with the sand he thinks will help him escape, but when luck arrives--a rope ladder is thoughtlessly left by the house--he chooses to put off his escape, to better go on with his experiments.  At a subconscious level he acknowledges that there he has no more control over his life out there than he does at the bottom of the sand pit; who can blame him for choosing to go on with his experiments--the small things he can control--a little bit longer?

The Woman in the Dunes recalls classic dystopias like 1984 in that the forces that dominate are always outside the individual's understanding.  But it also has one foot in the world of fantasy and allegory; it reminds me of a book like TloothThe sand landscape is as terrifying as any horror novel, and you can totally see how it was turned into a classic of Japanese new wave cinema.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Trinity by Louisa Hall

Then the earth under our feet lurched toward the mountains, and the mountains tilted a foot to the right, and the trees leaped off the sides of the mountains.

I grabbed for somebody's arm, and I saw that the women around me had turned into X-rays, and that my own arm was an X-ray as well, our bodies having become in an instant nothing more than revelations of the bone cages we'd lived our whole lives in.

Louisa Hall's Trinity, is, at least on the dustjacket, about Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who spearheaded the development of the atomic bomb.  It takes a wide view of Oppenheimer's life, not just focusing on the narrow period of his work at Los Alamos, like Countrymen of Bones, another great fictionalized version of Oppenheimer, but before and after: in Berkeley, where he goes to meet his mistress who will eventually die by drowning herself in a bathtub; in Princeton, later in life, as he suffers through the slings and arrows of McCarthyism and agitates for nuclear control.  Oppenheimer had a fascinating life that often bordered on tragedy, with plenty of rich details.  (Hall repeats Countrymen of Bones' account that Oppenheimer played a corpse in a Los Alamos production of Arsenic and Old Lace, which I'm not sure I realized was a true detail.)

But in practice, Oppenheimer moves through the book like a shadow, or a background character, hardly ever seen face-on.  The novel comprises seven first-hand accounts of people of varying closeness to Oppenheimer: a friend, a secretary, a Secret Service investigator, even a college student whose only experience with Oppenheimer is seeing him speak in public.  Trinity shares a strategy with John Williams' Augustus: when a figure seems too broad, too loaded with stature to look at straight on, give as many different accounts as you can.  But unlike the Emperor Augustus, Oppenheimer never really gets a chance to speak for himself.

Trinity has exceedingly little to say about who Oppenheimer really was.  In some of these accounts, he's little more than a minor character who moves in the background of the narrator's immediate life.  The thesis of the novel, actually, is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to really know another human being.  The Secret Service investigator admits he has no way of knowing why people do the things they do--which seems like a weird thing for a detective to admit--and later sections extend that anxiety to their husbands, family, and friends.  Trinity is not just the name of the Los Alamos nuclear bomb test but a representation of the essential multiplicity of human character.  I absolutely knew we were going to get a paragraph like this one, which applies the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to human relations:

You never know, absolutely, what another person was feeling, just as we never know the velocity and the position of a particle at any moment, all knowledge being by nature incomplete, all studies missing an aspect at least of the object they study.

I'm not complaining.  When Trinity is at its best, it makes this anxiety seem freshly horrifying.  The novel is really kept up by three tentpole stories among the seven, each of which is narrated by a young woman in Oppenheimer's orbit.  The first is a Woman's Army Corps worker at Los Alamos who has recently been abandoned by her lover, a married scientist in Oppenheimer's orbit; the second is a secretary of Oppenheimer's whose eating disorder comes to symbolize, I think, the escalating rot in the 20th century social order; the third is a magazine writer who sees the offer to interview
Oppenheimer as an opportunity to pin down a great wrongdoer in the way she was never able to do for her cheating husband.  These woman are all victims of broken marriages, of husbands and men who pay too little attention to them.  Like Oppenheimer, who makes his secretary run back to get his copy of the Bhagavad Gita so he can get the quote just right, they use myth and literature to help them understand their own situations.  The first imagines herself as the murdered woman in Crime and Punishment, the second as Persephone in the summer.  How can they know other people?  They barely understand themselves.

The best of these may be the final section with the interviewer, because of all the stories in Trinity it does the most to really grapple with Oppenheimer's legacy, and to do more than throw up its hands at the impossibility of knowing anyone else.  Its attempts to bring the various threads of the novel together are fairly timid, but the narrator's brash inquisitiveness is an effective way to end the novel.  "Shouldn't we live all our lives," she says, "knowing it's our responsibility to account for ourselves with precision?"  If Oppenheimer can't give a reasonable accounting of a life that resulted in hundreds of thousands dead and more permanently mutilated, why should we bother with them?

The other four narratives range from entertaining to seemingly irrelevant.   I don't know what we're supposed to get out of the college student, for instance, whose insight into Oppenheimer is mostly watching him walk under a row of trees outside the lecture hall.  It can seem a little like padding, but I guess that's okay, because what it pads is so precious, and dangerously fragile.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

He stood up and poured himself a drink.  "You know," he said, "now that I've got used to the idea, I think I'd rather have it this way.  We've all got to die one day, some sooner and some later.  The trouble always has been that you're never ready, because you don't know when it's coming.  Well, now we do know, and there's nothing to be done about it.  I kind of like that.  I kind of like the thought that I'll be fit and well up till the end of August and then--home.  I'd rather have it that way than go on as a sick man from when I'm seventy to when I'm ninety."

Dwight Towers is an American naval officer in command of a nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Scorpion, on an extended mission with the Australian navy.  The Scorpion has to work closely with the Australians because it's the only U.S. submarine left, and the Australians are the only navy: nuclear war has ravaged almost all of the northern hemisphere, as far as anyone can tell, and poisonous radioactive wind is creeping farther and farther down into the Southern hemisphere where it kills everyone it reaches.  For Towers and others in the area around Melbourne, the southernmost major city in the world, the world's end comes as a slow ebbing away of communication: they lose communication with Montevideo, then Cape Town, then northern Australian cities like Darwin and Cairns.  Towers' wife and children in Connecticut are almost certainly dead, just as he'll be in about six months.

On the Beach tackles similar existential fears as Dr. Bloodmoney and Station Eleven: what will the world be like after widespread disaster?  Dick and St. John Mandel both imagine that mass death will create a kind of sea change in human culture, including a return to pre-technological practices and structures.  But what's scary about On the Beach is that it believes that, in the face of human extinction, almost nothing will change at all.  People in Melbourne still go to work; they go to church.  People shop and plant gardens and have dinner parties.  Of course, it's more like Children of Men than it is those novels, because what is facing these characters is not new birth but certain destruction, but the contrast there is instructive, too.  Here, extinction brings not violence, not new religion, but repression and denial.

On the Beach seems like such a product of its time.  It's an artifact not just of the nuclear paranoia of the 50's (it was written in 1957), but the bourgeois variety of repression that's so recognizable from mid-century fiction.  Release does come in strange and subtle--but sometimes explosive--ways: Towers' romantic interest, a young Melburnian named Moira Davidson, drinks and drinks and drinks, but even she ends up enrolling in a typing-and-shorthand course.  Submarine science officer John Osborne chases his dream of being a grand prix auto driver, and the races he enters are wild bloodbaths that kill driver after driver, an expression of a sublimated death wish.  But release never overcomes the will to keep things going as normal: Towers not only refuses to sleep with Moira out of loyalty to his certainly dead wife, he persists in imagining that when the radiation sickness takes him, he'll be going "home" to Connecticut, even going so far as to buy gifts for his children.  His Australian hosts, the Holmeses, are busy planting next year's tulip bulbs; the Mrs. Holmes reacts with violent denial when her husband tries to show her exactly what they'll need to do to euthanize their infant daughter when the time comes.

Other apocalyptic novels are scary and showy, but I'm not sure I've read one as bleak as this one.  Little by little, optimism and denial turn out to be misplaced: the Scorpion sails all the way to Seattle to check out a mysterious radio signal that turns out to be a busted window frame rocking on a panel of buttons.  A scientist's insistence that the radioactive wind will dissipate before reaching the southern latitudes proves, as expected to be wishful thinking, and it's hard not to think about the many deniers of climate disaster who are with us today.  We're just not wired for apocalyptic thinking, Shute says, not really, and few human qualities are as strong as inertia.  Not that it matters; there's nothing to do.  But unlike Dick and St. John Mandel, both of whom seem to believe that disaster might at least free us from our bourgeois attachments, Shute thinks we're likely to whimper into the grave.  That's what makes it maybe the scariest post-apocalyptic novel of all.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt

Damien told Shettles that the sheriff's deputy who'd transported him from the jail to the courthouse and back had been "very kind" to him.  Damien chuckled that the media had wanted to take his picture, but that the photographers had seemed to be afraid of him.  Recalling how, upon his arrival to court, a "circle of guards" had surrounded him, one with a sawed-off shotgun, Damien marveled to Shettles that he was considered so dangerous.  As tactfully as she could, Shettles let Damien know that rather than protecting people from him, the guards had been protecting him.

The crimes at the heart of the story of the West Memphis Three are truly horrible: three young boys whose bodies were dredged out of a drainage ditch, their hands tied to their legs.  The genitals of one boy were cut off and removed.  It is difficult to read or even think about three boys whose lives were snuffed out in such gruesome fashion, and difficult, too, for different reasons, to read about three slightly older boys, teenagers, who were tried and convicted of the crime despite a lack of physical evidence.

The West Memphis Three were, for a long time, a cause celebre.  Amateur sleuths and celebrities insisted that the trials had been essentially unfair, and agitated for their release until it finally and miraculously happened in 2011.  Police focused immediately on the supposed "ringleader," Damien Echols, they say, because he was a "weird" kid.  He wore black, he listened to Metallica, he self-identified as a Wiccan.  Along with Damien two other boys were convicted, Damien's friend Jason Baldwin and an acquaintance named Jesse Misskelley.  Arkansas officials insisted that, contrary to the claims of the innocence campaign, anyone who took a long and honest look at the evidence and the trial would see that the case was a solid one.  Mara Leveritt's book The Devil's Knot is meant to take the officials' word at its face, going through the murders, the evidence, and the trial with painstaking meticulousness.  It can seem, at times, like a dry and clinical exercise--much of the book is a complete blow-by-blow of the legal wrangling at the two trials that convicted them--but it ought to leave anyone who reads it with no doubt that the convictions were a miscarriage of justice.

It shares several recognizable elements with the daycare abuse allegations that caused a similar "Satanic panic" around the same time.  For one, the case relies on the testimony of a single person, typically a woman, whose paranoia about abuse is outsized enough to mask concerns that ought to be had about her reliability.  Here, it's Vicki Hutcheson, a woman who self-appoints herself an "amateur investigator" in the boys' death, and insists that Misskelley took her to a Satanic ritual known as an "esbat."  Those claims are bolstered by the unethical and leading interrogations of children, here Vicki's son Aaron, a friend of the victims whose story becomes--like the ones in the daycare abuse stories--more outlandish and unbelievable as time goes on.  That interrogation is mirrored, in a way, in the interrogation of Jesse Misskelley, a young man with an I.Q. hovering around intellectual disability.  As detailed by Leveritt, Misskelley's interrogation turns on a single act of police malfeasance: a cop tells Misskelley that he has failed his polygraph, when he hasn't, making him panic to the point where he's willing to tell the cops whatever they want to know.  And what they want to know is that Damien Echols is the killer.

Leveritt notes that one of the police inspectors in this case kept a list of about eight teenagers he suspected of Satanic activity, and on whom he wanted to keep an eye.  When the child murders occurred, Damien Echols was the first person he thought of.  Damien's notebooks were taken from his room, and his poetry used against him, lines as innocuous as "I want to be in the middle, / in neither the black nor the white, / in neither the wrong nor the right."  In Jason Baldwin's case, investigators noted that they took from his room "eleven black t-shirts."  Faced with an act of great evil, Arkansas investigators turned immediately to the typical and most banal signs of teenage rebellion.

What is it that these investigators most misunderstood?  Was it how teenagers react, in relatively modest ways, to poverty, marginalization, and a stiflingly conservative atmosphere?  Or was it the real nature of evil, that doesn't usually announce itself with pentagrams and metal t-shirts?  In the case of Jason, who appears to have been convicted mainly because of his friendship with Damien and nothing else, the investigators' belief that evil can be counted in black t-shirts prevented them from seeing a person of tremendous character: pressed to accuse Damien for a reduction in his sentence, Jason refused.  "It was wrong," Jason said, "It was against everything I was brought up to believe in... even if you said you'd let me go right now."  Jason was eventually convicted of life in prison.  Can you imagine having that kind of integrity?

Some might ask: How can you be sure they aren't responsible?  The fact is, Satanic ritual murder just doesn't seem to be real at all.  It wasn't real in the daycare abuse allegations, and it's not real here.  One thing that became clear to me in reading this and Satan's Silence is that there is no coherent theory of what Satanic worship is or looks like.  Aside from the vague intimation that drinking blood is believed to provide power, investigators here have no clue why a ritual sacrifice like this would take place or what it's meant to accomplish.  Their understanding of Satanism requires sketchiness, it has to reduced to a set of signs and symbols for the charges to stick.  The mystery of it contributes to the hysteria; the vagueness enables their accusers to see what they want to see in Damien, Jason, and Jessie.  And it allows for things which are harmless--non-traditional religion, rock music, and a general unwillingness to be and act like everyone else--to get pulled into the dragnet with everything else.  In this case, it robbed three men of nearly two decades of their life.  And let's not forget, it also let whoever killed the three boys go free.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

"I still think you invented the parallel-universe theory," she said, but one of the few things that August didn't know about her was that sometimes when she looked at her collection of pictures she tried to imagine and place herself in that other, shadow life.  You walk into a room and flip a switch and the room fills with light.  You leave your garbage in cans on the curb, and a truck comes and transports it to some invisible place.  When you're in danger, you call for the police.  Hot water pours from faucets.   Lift a receiver or press a button on a telephone, and you can speak to anyone.  All of the information in the world is on the Internet, and the Internet is all around you, drifting through the air like pollen on a summer breeze.  There is money, slip[s of paper that can be traded for anything: houses, boats, perfect teeth.  There are dentists.  She tried to imagine this life playing out somewhere at the present moment.  Some parallel Kirsten in an air-conditioned room, waking from an unsettling dream of walking through an empty landscape.

As a child, Kirsten Raymonde is a a child actor appearing in a production of King Lear.  She watches the lead actor, a film star named Arthur Leander, have a heart attack and die on stage.  This human-sized tragedy is soon overshadowed by a colossal one: an epidemic called the Georgia Flu decimates the world's population--actually, much more than decimates, killing 99% of people--and soon the world as we know it has disappeared.  Twenty or so years later, Kirsten becomes part of a Traveling Symphony who wanders the shores of Michigan playing music and performing Shakespeare for the small communities that remain.

The Traveling Symphony is an attempt to salvage something of the old world.  Audiences seem to respond to Shakespeare specifically, because it reminds them of the long thread of tradition and history that in many other ways seems to have been completely severed.  In a parallel plotline, another man, residing in the airport to which is plane had been diverted those two decades ago, builds a Museum of Civilization in the glass cases of a food kiosk, full of cell phones and iPads.  I didn't intend it, but it made an interesting companion piece to Philip K. Dick's Dr. Bloodmoney, which is also about the way civilization might remake itself in the face of nuclear disaster.  For Dick, what is held onto most desperately is not Shakespeare or orchestral music but something more like a midcentury version of the glass cases of the Museum of Civilization: radio, cigarettes, VFW halls.

But the collapse of civilization also means, among the survivors, darker impulses go unchecked by the social order.  "Ferals" wander through the woods, and Kirsten herself has two knives tattooed on her wrist to memorialize two men she has had to kill.  The Symphony encounters a "prophet" who collects wives and rules his small community by violence, and when one of his pre-teen "wives" stows away with them, they find themselves stalked by his malevolence.  The prophet, spoiler alert, in a "twist" I really hated, is actually the actor Arthur Leander's son, who was on a plane en route to Toronto for his father's funeral when it was diverted.  Like Kirsten, his worldview is informed by a series of comic books written by Arthur's first wife Miranda about a brilliant scientist who lives in a satellite, estranged from his home.  (Symbolism time!)

I'm sad to say I just didn't buy the prophet at all.  Besides the hokey "we're all connected" nature of the timeline, it's never clear exactly what animates him, beyond malice and greed.  His mother, Leander's second wife, is intensely religious in a way that rubs off on her son, Tyler.  They both insist on believing that "things happen for a reason," and it's a short jump from there to the belief that those who survived the Georgia Flu are in some way blessed.  This felt like a missed opportunity, to me, to explore the self-serving elements of modern Calvinism that encourage people to imagine their luck or privilege as a kind of divine providence.  But even a zealot would be forced to acknowledge it's true of all survivors, so the prophet Tyler's exclusionary violence don't really make sense.  Nor is it clear what exactly the nature of his "prophecy" is.  In the place of a coherent theology that responds to the end of the world Mandel offers a collection of "cult" markers drawn from pop culture sources: the multiple wives, a smattering of Revelation, marking acolytes by scarification.  None of this followers seem to be true believers, and who can blame them?  There's not really a belief here.

That was one of my two major misgivings about Station Eleven.  The other one is this: only about a quarter of the narrative takes place after the collapse of civilization.  The rest of it is the story of Arthur Leander's life, told in flashback.  The conflicts of these sections--intrusive paparazzi, serial divorce, the difference between Leander's life as a star and his childhood in small town British Columbia--seem so divorced from the post-apocalyptic sections that it's hard to believe the plotlines really "tie together," as the novel seems to want.   Worse, it makes the novel seem fatally uninterested in its own story, as if, like the audience of the Traveling Symphony, it wants to luxuriate in the past instead of living in the present.  Brent said something about modern science fiction being "ashamed of science fiction," and that's not too far off here: Station Eleven often seems like a jejune realist novel about bourgeois dissatisfaction posing as a sci-fi adventure. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit by Elmore Leonard

"I knew it," Clement said.  "You got no higher motive'n I do, you talk about laying things on the table, see where we stand.  You don't set out to uphold the law any more'n I set out to break it.  What happens, we get in a situation like this and then me and you start playing a game.  You try and catch me and I try and keep from getting caught and still make a living.  You follow me?  We're over here in this life playing and we don't give a shit if anybody's watching us or not or if anybody gets hurt.  We got our own rules and words we used and everything else.  You got numbers, all these chicken-fat dicks that'd rather play the game than work; but I got the law to protect me and all I got to do is keep my mouth shut, don't associate with stupid people and there's no way in hell you're gonna lay this one on me... or any of the others."

A judge is killed in his car near the northern border of the city of Detroit.  He's hated by almost everyone, this judge: criminals, lawyers, cops.  He's capricious and cruel, and prone to make suggestive sexual remarks to women.  But the judge's death is a McGuffin, and the mystery of his death is easily solvable; he got into a rage road tiff with a man who just happened to be notorious killer and "Oklahoma wildman" Clement Mansell.  Dedicated cop Raymond Cruz quickly ties Clement to the murder, but Clement's walked on similar charges.  Soon the two men find themselves hurtling toward a violent confrontation, one that threatens not just them but also Clement's beleaguered girlfriend Sandy, the sexy defense attorney Carolyn Wilder, a bunch of Albanian gangsters, and a pot dealer named Sweety.

Driving around Detroit, you can get a sense of how Wild West narratives might operate there with ease.  So much of the city is simply abandoned, rotting in, like civilization has disappeared within local radii, taking with it law and all social convention.  Having once been a much larger city, it gives the distinct impression of a place that's been emptied; you can imagine two men facing each other down a deserted street with a tumbleweed blowing past.  That's essentially what Clement goads Raymond into doing: abandoning the pretense of a law that guides their actions and embracing the "high noon" logic of the Wild West.  Both he and Raymond are caught up, he says, in a "kind of game," but if their conflict will be resolved, both will have to break out of the game's rules.  It's not so different from your standard "We're not so different" speech, but Leonard is cynical enough to suspect that Clement is essentially right.  Raymond fantasizes, over and over, about reaching out and killing Clement in a fit of rage, and the visions seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Now that I think about it, the murdered judge isn't just a victim of narrative expediency; he's actually embraced Clement's belief in operating outside of law.

This is my first Leonard book.  I know he's revered by a lot of people.  His style of anti-writing is often thought of as a kind of antidote to pretentiousness of all kinds, and it does have a kind of muscular propulsion to it.  He's very good at banter and dialogue; Clement's speech, in particular, sparkles with grit.  But in many ways it seemed to take its cues from cheap television.  There are lots of wisecracking secondary cop characters, and a hot defense attorney that just can't help her attraction to Raymond.  The wisecracks are good, and the hot defense attorney is compelling, but I couldn't shake the sense that I was reading a novelization of an especially good episode of NYPD Blue.  But I guess there are worse things a book could aspire to than that.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Angels and Insects by A. S. Byatt

And the Queens themselves, who emerge in their hundred of hundreds, must possess strength and skill and cunning and tenacity to survive more than a very few moments after successful fecundation, let alone start a nest.  The time in the blue sky, the dizzy whirling in the gauzy finery lasts only a few hours.  Then they must snap off their wings, like a young girl stepping out of her wedding veils, and scurry away to find a safe place to found a new nest-colony.  Most fall prey to birds, other insects, frogs and toads, hedgehogs and trampling humans.  Few indeed manage to make their way again underground where they will lay their first eggs, nourish their first brood of daughters--miserable dwarfs, fragile and slow, these early children--and in due course, as the workers take over the running of the nursery and the provision of food, they will forget that they ever saw the sun, or thought for themselves, or chose a path to run on, or flew in the midsummer blue.  They become egg-laying machines, gross and glistening, endlessly licked, caressed, soothed and smoothed--veritable Prisoners of Love.  This is the true nature of the Venus under the Mountain, in this miniature world a creature immobilised by her function of breeding, by the blind violence of her passions.

In "Morpho Eugenia," the first of two novellas that make up A. S. Byatt's book Angels and Insects, a young explorer and entomologist named William Adamson has returned to England from the Amazon.  He has spent years studying and collecting, but his entire collection is gone, shipwrecked, and so he has to find shelter at the mercy of an elder collector with whom he has had an ongoing correspondence.  In return for shelter, William agrees to help his benefactor, Harald Alabaster, to organize his own collection of specimens, as well as to converse with him about the arguments against and in favor of the existence of God, which Alabaster means to publish in a book.  And though William is anxious to return to raise funds for a new voyage and continue his studies in the rainforest, there is a consolation prize at Harald Alabaster's estate: his beautiful daughter Eugenia, with whom he falls in love, and whom he eventually marries.

William presents Eugenia with a gift: a specimen of the Morpho eugenia, a pale-colored but beautiful butterfly from the Amazon, who happens to share her name.  Much is made of the color of butterflies: they are a warning of toxicity, for one, so any time we see Eugenia in a brightly or pale colored outfit we're being asked to ponder the wisdom of William's marriage.  Male insects seem to be more brightly colored than females, and surely this says something about the natural relationship between men and women?  William, in his spare time, undertakes a longitudinal study of the ants around Alabaster's estate with the Alabaster children and a servant named Matty Crompton, who shares his interests in insects.  The lives of ants, too, seem to provide fertile metaphors for human life.  Is the ant Queen, the "glistening egg-laying machine" an image of Eugenia, who keeps pumping out children who seem not to have any resemblence to William?  Are the Sanguinea ants who literally enslave ants of other species and convert them under a kind of Stockholm syndrome a metaphor for William's relationship to the Alabasters?

"Men are not ants," William says to Matty, matter-of-factly.  It's a reminder that our habit of looking to the animal world to explain something about human nature is an act of anthropomorphism, that is to say, an act of projection.  Although what we conclude can be unpleasant, we can comfort ourselves by looking at the animal world and seeing ourselves reflected; we can say, look, that's just the way it is.  For Harald Alabaster, the social lives of insects are proof of a divine pattern he is desperate to see.  Darwin's ideas have arrived to threaten cultured belief in intelligent design, and Alabaster, who is old and frail, must ward them off to assuage his own fears of death.  But the animal world is incredibly diverse, and Byatt tells us that we can find anything in it, if we look hard enough.  What is much harder is to really look at people: see, for instance, how William Adamson steadfastly refuses to see the way in which his assistant Matty Crompton is better suited for him than Eugenia Alabaster.

Fears of death are even more explicit in the second novella, "The Conjugial Angel."  It's set among a small group of dabblers in the occult, who meet frequently to perform seances and the popular 19th century psychic practice known as "automatic writing."  Each of these characters is touched by grief: a woman who has lost several infants, all named Amy; a woman trying to reach her shipwrecked explorer husband; and the sister of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who, like her brother, has spent decades dealing with the grief over the drowning death of her fiance Arthur Hallam.  Hallam is the subject of Tennyson's famous poem "In Memoriam A. H. H.," one of the most beautiful meditations on death in the English language.  In Byatt's account, Emily, who has since remarried, has always been conflicted by the depth and fame of her brother's famous poem; she has often felt like Alfred's grief has crowded out her own, and at the same time the poem's composition and reception have kept her, and Alfred, from any sort of closure.  That's emphasized when the medium, a weirdo named Sophy Sheekhy, conjures up Hallam's moldering and confused old spirit, who has been unable to "cross over" into the spirit world.

"The Conjugial Angel" would be familiar to readers of Byatt's PossessionIt, too, is centered on a 19th century poet, and Byatt's reading of Tennyson is deep and thoughtful.  It's a little knottier than "Morpho Eugenia," partly because it's an ensemble piece that really lacks a main character, and partly because so much of it really is a kind of literary criticism.  You get the impression that it might work best for "In Memoriam A. H. H." superfans, wherever they are, but for those of us who are only passingly familiar with the poem--or like most people, not familiar at all--it's hard to shake the idea that we're missing some crucial knowledge to make the novella work.  That being said, it's got some great moments, especially when it imagines a strange and colorful spirit world.  But it's "Morpho Eugenia," with its Victorian gothic narrative and colorful descriptions of insects, and which looks down at the ground instead of up to the heavens, which is going to stay with me most.

Monday, September 30, 2019





The Police Woman’s Bureau by Edward Conlon

Union Square was sad and seedy, three blocks long, one block wide, bordered by old loft buildings and lower-end department stores – Klein’s, Ohrbach’s.  Inside were statues of Washington and Lincoln and the Marquis de Lafayette, and dozens of hopheads and winos who didn’t move much more than the statues.  The thieves could cop here and shoot up in plain sight on a park bench – the mother-with-stroller crowd didn’t favor the place…


Conlon combines a degree from Harvard and a career as a NYC police officer and has previously written award-winning, best-selling police procedurals – notably Blue Blood, his own memoir of his time in the narcotics squad.  While there is much to recommend his latest, The Police Woman’s Bureau, it seems not to be his best work.  

First of all, it is an odd hybrid of memoir and novel.  He has taken the life of an actual police woman (Marie Cirile-Spagnulo, who wrote her own memoir) and turned it into a novel – apparently using her real-life as a model, but changing details when “that might improve the story.”  While much of it rings with the authenticity of a memoir – and none of the writing seems to overflow with imagination – one is left unable to be certain of any particular detail.

Part of the problem is that I lost interest in it as a novel almost immediately – there is nothing in the language to spark a reader into suspending disbelief and there is no overarching arc in the story – it narrates how Marie develops the confidence in herself as a woman and a police officer to survive the hostility of the NYPD of the 50s and 60s.  It is more character study than novel.  To put it bluntly, it reads like a memoir.

However, it is not without its strengths.  Marie does become an interesting character, and the details here of how she made her way through the police department feel important and compelling.  Most of the harassment and misogyny she faces (at work) comes in the form of either doubts about her ability, or sexual innuendo – but there are instances where male commanders simply refuse to have her on their teams because of her gender.  Apparently, Mayor LaGuardia once gave a graduation speech to the female class at the police academy (in the 1950s the bureau was gender-segregated) in which he advises using a gun the way the graduates use lipstick (when necessary, but not to excess) and there are many headlines from local newspapers that marvel at her ability to do this job in ways that are shockingly demeaning.  In addition to this, she survives a brutally violent marriage that personalizes much of the misogyny she finds in the Police Department.

Marie becomes a kind of case study in how to think about feminism before feminism.  Although the word has existed since the early 19th Century, it does not come into popular usage to denote a belief in gender equality until the 1950s – when Conlon picks up his story.  Marie Carrera (his character) never uses the word in relation to herself and is never part of any organized movement for women’s equality.  She seems unaware of the language that would be growing up around the time of her police career, but is never unaware of the concepts that drive that language.  While as a younger woman she doubts her talents as a police officer, she never doubts that she deserves a shot at proving herself.  Conlon supplies a wide range of male and female characters that embody a wide range of attitudes towards gender and seems perhaps overly careful to provide balance – there are good and bad males and good and bad females here.

I am drawn to this view of early, non-doctrinal feminism in part because of my own life with my mother.  A career editor at Woman’s Day Magazine, she did not fight crime, but she did live her weekdays in a traditionally male world – for years she was the only woman getting off the train from Manhattan every evening in our suburban town.  She was enormously proud of her success in that male world and argued for her own equality of opportunity and pay throughout her career.  Yet she refused to call herself a feminist until she was close to retirement in the 1990s and never couched her arguments as anything else but a basic fairness – a kind of even-steven for the adult world.  She seemed unaware of any more general sexism.  Marie reminds me of this generation of women who did not seem to want anyone to notice that they were breaking ground.

The other strength here is the portrait of a fraying New York.  It is a story we all know:  the way deindustrialization combined with white flight and suburbanization to erode the city tax base and its ability to maintain its own basic services at a time when crime was increasing annually and the public life of the city grows increasingly ungovernable.  This story is reflected here in the career of a single police officer who begins her career in the late 1950s.  We see Times Square become a headquarters for sleaze, Union Square become a haven for junkies, and cops become keepers of a revolving door that slows individual criminals down but doesn’t provide much in the way of public safety.  The way this grinds down the characters in the novel, notably Marie, is a depressing but powerful theme. 

There are also some interesting, if shocking details of police work from this era.  The use of the warning shot followed by more deadly shooting after a drug deal or a burglary is shocking.  The way undercover agents follow men they suspect of planning robberies rather than using their presence to warn them away.  The ever-present hints of corruption and laziness among some officers.  They are not new or shocking details, but are related here with a matter-of-factness that gives them a harsh, gleaming reality.   Conlon seems to go out of his way to avoid any discussion of race in police work (except for Irish prejudice against Italian officers), which seriously weakens the portrait here since all his officers seem to have an underlying belief that some people are just predisposed to criminality and that good officers can pick them out on the street.  In other ways his portrait of the police bureaucracy seems unvarnished.

All of this tells me that Conlon’s better work might well be worth looking into, but I could only half-heartedly recommend this volume.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick

He struggled up, disconnected himself from the straps, saw through the port the world below.  Clouds, and the ocean, the globe itself.  Here and there on it matches were lit; he saw the puffs, the flares.  Fright overcame him, as he sailed silently through space, looking down at the pinches of burning scattered about; he knew what they were.

It's death, he though.  Death lighting up spots, burning up the world's life, second by second.

He continued to watch.

The people of the world, and San Francisco Bay specifically, thought the first bomb would be the last.  Not consciously, of course, and there's always the fear, but they organized their lives and minds around it, speaking of it as an inflection point in time, but it wasn't the last bomb, and worse was to come: a series of nuclear explosions that left the world, all of it, in a state of near-ruin.  In the Bay, communities are starting again; people are driving around in horse-driven cars and trying to reinvent combinations of spices that taste like tobacco.  Dogs have learned to talk, but not very well.  In West Marin, a strong and resilient community forms, distinct from faraway neighbors in Oakland and Bolinas, places that before the bomb dropped were only minutes away, not days.  Dick casts this world with an unusually large cast of people, many of whom are worth enumerating, because this is a real ensemble affair:

Hoppy Harrington is a phocomelus, born with tiny flipper-like hands and legs, not because of the first bomb or the later ones, but because of the very not-fictional effects of thalidomide.  Before the bombs go off, he's an outcast, having to beg for a menial job as a TV repairman, but with special powers: a system of electrical extensors makes him quite "handy," and he can see the future.  In a trancelike state, he sees the aftermath of the bombs--a gray wasteland his onlookers take not as a wordly future but a vision of the afterlife--an afterlife in which he wields a kinglike power.  And in truth, in the wrecked world of Marin after the bombs, he becomes nearly all-powerful; he alone possesses the know-how to build and operate a radio tower, and enlarges his physical power by tweaking the electric field of his extensors.

Stuart McConchie is a black TV repairman who works briefly with Hoppy, and who is deeply suspicious of him when others find him weird but harmless.  Hoppy has a vision of him in the afterlife gnawing on a dead rat--which, lo, comes to pass.  Food is scarce, after all, after the bombs.  Stuart's role in the plot is pretty inconsequential, I think, but he brings in themes of race in a way that is unusual for PKD; will the new world be any different for black people in America?  Hoppy Harrington uses society's upheaval to move from the margins of the world into the center, but for Stuart, depressingly, such a move seems not possible; when he arrives in Marin from Oakland, some community members make it clear they don't want black people--coded, again, as "urban"--in their town.

Bruno Bluthgeld is the "Dr. Bloodmoney" of the title.  He is a researcher of some kind who is considered directly responsible for the initial bomb, and is perhaps connected to the later bombs also.  He certainly thinks he is: he both believes that everyone in the world would like to murder him if they could, and that he can manifest nuclear bombs out of thin air with his mind any time he wants.  Both of those things, it turns out, might be true.  He's hiding out in Marin under an assumed name, living as a toothless shepherd, but his kind of power, if it exists, may not be the way of the world anymore, and puts him at odds with the ambitious and megalomaniacal Hoppy.

Walt Dangerfield is an astronaut who, along with his wife, is going to be the first human to live on Mars.  His ship is launched shortly before the bombs go off, and so he finds himself stranded in orbit without anyway to return.  His wife has died.  Over the years, he acts as a kind of world radio, beaming music and conversation, down to those with working radio towers.  He's a pretty obvious stand-in for God.  Hoppy's plan is to use his radio tower to kill Dangerfield--with a kind of sonic beam or something?--and then to replace him with a practiced imitation, to become God.

Finally, there's Edie and Bill Keller.  Edie is a normal seven-year old girl, and Bill, of course, is the shrunken homunculus of her twin brother who lives inside of her body.  Everyone thinks Bill is imaginary, but he's not; he's "a terribly old, wizened thing," "hard and small, floating... [l]ips overgrown with downy hair that hung trailing, streamers of it, wispy and dry."  He can swap bodies with other creatures if Edie presses her side to them, and obviously, he can talk to the dead.

One of my favorite parts of Dr. Bloodmoney is so silly I can barely believe it's in there: Bill Keller, correctly identified by Hoppy as a threat, is torn out of his sister by Hoppy's electrical powers and launched into the sky, where he is devoured by an owl.  He flies around as an owl for a little while, and then vomited out like a pellet.  It seems impossible, but Dr. Bloodmoney might be the most unshakably weird book of Dick's that I've ever read.  Dick never could write a book about one weirdo in a normal universe; there always have to be two or three at least, and this novel really takes that dictum to its maximum.  It's made of such disparate parts all stitched together that it seems like it should be a horrible mess, but it all holds together.

And what keeps it together is the frank terror of the idea of a post-nuclear world.  As Dick writes in his afterword (how awesome to have a window into the thinking behind gonzo books like these), it's actually an "extremely hopeful novel."  Society is not murdered by nuclear war; it remains in the form of small communities, banded together.  Industry and technology are not obliterated but merely retarded; this is not The Road, where the best people can do is stack rocks and make fire.  There is even the impartial suggestion that worldwide crisis can help spur society to reorganize itself.  While Hoppy is clearly a monster, we're told that other phocomeli are also prized as "handymen" by their communities.  Dick points to Bluthgeld as the real villain of the story: the kind of person who believes they have the right to provoke catastrophe in the world of others merely because they have the ability.  Bluthgeld's ability to create bombs out of nowhere seems to me like a representation of the egos of Cold War leaders, who had the audacity to believe that they were capable of administering nuclear arsenals.  Human decency is better represented in the figure of Stuart McConchie, who opens the book by humbly sweeping the stoop of the TV repair shop.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

I was definitely more together than I was at the start of the summer.  It didn’t seem like that much time had passed, but I had to be a bit smarter.  Just a little.  Look at the way I was last Labor Day.  An idiot!  Fifteen looks at fourteen and says, That guy was an idiot.  And fifteen looks at eight and says, That guy knew so little.  Why can’t fifteen and three quarters look back at fifteen and a half and say, That guy didn’t know anything.


I had read Whitehead’s award-winning The Underground Railroad last year and was planning on trying his new one, Nickel Boys this fall, and I certainly still will, but my son read Sag Harbor and left it on my desk one afternoon when he had finished it.  I thought I would give it a try and almost from the first sentence (“First you had to settle the question of out.”) I was hooked.  Sag Harbor is a coming of age novel set in the black vacation enclave on eastern Long Island of the title.  It is sweet and slightly bitter, with glimpses of the serious just visible through the goofiness and the laugh-out-loud fun.

Benji and his brother Reggie are having their usual summer vacation except that this year their parents have decided they are old enough to be there alone during the week and only come out for the weekends.  Benji relates their adventures and misadventures with charm and energy in a voice that makes the frequent tangents into neighborhood history, music appreciation, teenage power dynamics and male ritual thoroughly enjoyable.  The novel is set in the mid-eighties (after my time) and it captures this period and its Long Island environs brilliantly, with many guest appearances by Hamptons folk and a special guest appearance by Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam Crew.  

The boys are all from prosperous black families and attend private or suburban schools – so that for most of the year they are the only black kids in their social circles.  They are learning to be teenagers, trying to learn to be men, but they are also specifically black teenagers trying to learn to be black men.  There is a deceptiveness to the humor and sweetness that dominates the portrayal of this communal growth, but the humor and nostalgia dominates.  We are given a chart that explains how black teens insult each other, explanations for how to deal with your parents’ nosy friends, confessions about enjoying music that is silly and soft and long discussions of how to deal with peer pressure and girls.  There are moments when the seriousness of the future stains the nostalgia a darker, sharper tone of sepia – when the boys fool around with BB guns, Benji lets us know that for some of them this is their first of several encounters with guns; the freedom from parents morphs into a growing knowledge that the family is falling apart while Benji’s father’s loquacious authority after a drink  edges toward bullying.

Much of this sense of foreboding comes from the fact that Benji knows this will be his last summer at Sag.  Like his older sister and all of the other teens from other families, sixteen year olds do not come out, but get summer jobs or internships and hang out in the city with their school friends.  The passage I quote above is from the last paragraph of the novel and by then you know Benji (who has been trying for 360 pages to get everyone to drop is childish name and start calling him Ben) is unreasonably confident in his future even as he is unreasonably anxious about his present.  His plans for 10th grade will fall apart with the same exactitude his plans have been falling apart all summer.  In fact, we know from the various hints he has dropped, that he is moving into a much more difficult future, that Sag Harbor has been an annual respite from the real world, a respite he will no longer have.  In another writer’s hands, this sense of foreboding could dominate the end of the novel, but I felt mostly gratitude that I got to spend Benji’s last summer of childhood with him.


Sunday, September 22, 2019

Household Words by Joan Silber

Now he slept in her brain like a worm in an apple, and fed off her mental processes; this was what it meant to be eaten away by grief.  Only this wasn't grief--she was past the pain of fresh mourning, wasn't she?--this was the slow erosion of personality by the habitation of some other.  It was most like those mothers who died from toxemia carrying dead fetuses within them.  She was sorry she had ever let her life be so linked, so ingrown, with that of another person.  It was too late to escape now, but she was certainly sorry she'd ever had children; they were like the past, they clung and clung.

In the 1940's, Rhoda Taber is young and relatively happy, married to a successful pharmacist.  "She couldn't help feeling contempt when she saw people who would choose misery," Silber writes, when Rhoda sees a "bum" at the Jersey Shore, "carrying it with them like an unattractive feature they made no attempt to conceal."  A detail like that is a death sentence, you know, calling misery down on the character's head.  And at first it seems like the misery that will seize Rhoda will be of the ordinary suburban type, the realization that being married and having children will not make her fulfilled, and that's part of it, sure.  But the narrative shifts dramatically when Rhoda's husband Leonard dies of a heart attack in the middle of the night, leaving her as a single mother with two children.

I was surprised to flip to the copyright page and see that Household Words was written in 1980.  It seems so much more like the kind of suburban panic novel that was popular twenty or thirty years earlier, like a book by John O'Hara or John Cheever or Richard Yates.  Maybe it took that long for the novel to become something women could write about women, also, an affirmation that what Emerson said about "the mass of men" leading "lives of quite desperation" is as true--perhaps moreso--for women than men.  But in any case, it has a sort of aggressive realism that seems very antiquated; there are no metanarratives, no pyrotechnics.  Household Words is remarkable--to the extent that it wants to be remarkable at all--in the sharpness of the character drawing and the solid plainspokenness of its prose.

It's also remarkable in that it's very, very bleak.  Rhoda, having grown older and become chronically ill, perpetually in conflict with her rebellious daughter Suzanne, marvels that her life has been made up mostly of unpleasantness and misery.  And she's not wrong.  But it's hardly misery on a grand scale--she's not a refugee of war or a starving child.  Rhoda has been unlucky but not spectacularly so.  Her life is both ordinary and miserable, and that seems like the point: the ordinary life is frequently miserable.  Silber pointedly avoids any sort of grand resolutions; Rhoda neither finds love again after Leonard's death or ultimately reconciles in any meaningful way with Suzanne.  When life ends, as it does for Leonard, it rarely does so in a way that allows loose ends to be tied up or grand statements to be made.  Call it the life-sucks-then-you-die school of philosophy.

I enjoyed Household Words, if that verb is appropriate.  It seemed scarier to me than any Grand Guignol gothic novel, because its monsters are so ordinary.  And in doing so I found it much more effective than those older, similar novels, which often seem to think that ennui is the biggest punishment the world can wield, bigger than grief or illness or death.  Or, thinking about novels like Appointment in Samarra and Revolutionary Road, they seem to belief that death is the consequence of ennui, or disillusionment, rather than the destructive and random force it is.  Household Words, by contrast, refuses to offer a neat or circular narrative that might suggest it's all fictional.  Instead, Silber suggests it's all too real.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy.  Somebody'd written "Fuck you" on the wall.  It drove me damn near crazy.  I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them--all cockeyed, naturally--what it meant, and how they'd all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days.  I kept wanting to kill whoever'd written it.  I figured it was some perverty bum that'd sneaked in the school late at night to take a leak or something and then wrote it on the wall.  I kept picturing myself catching him at it, and how I'd smash his head on the stone steps till he was good and goddam dead and bloody.  But I knew, too, I wouldn't have the guts to do it.  I knew that.

Yesterday, millions of young people from all over the world took part in an international climate strike.  They left school, or didn't show up, in order to march and demonstrate, to remind their elders, those with power, who exactly would be left holding the bag when climate change ravages the earth.  It was really something to see.  On Twitter--I'm not going to link it--I saw a guy remark, "They're fortunate I'm not their teacher. Anyone skipping class today without a legitimate doctor's note would get a zero averaged into their grade."  When pressed, he elaborated, saying, "Kids don't HAVE choices.  They're kids."  To which I say, yeah, any kid should count themselves fortunate not to have that guy as a teacher.

Of course, that guy probably doesn't believe in climate change in the first place.  But there are plenty of people, including teachers, who think like this: the process of "getting an education" is so important that there is no valid reason to not be in school ever, as if informed citizenship and activism weren't what education is meant to lead kids toward in the first place.

It made me think of Spencer, Holden Caulfield's history teacher at Pencey Prep in The Catcher in the Rye.  Holden, having been expelled from Pencey, goes to say goodbye to him, which Spencer uses as an occasion to hector Holden about his study habits.  He reminds him of a crappy essay he wrote about Egypt, and agrees with the headmaster, who has told Holden, "Life is a game one plays according to the rules."  Whenever I teach The Catcher in the Rye--which I have every year for a decade, though I rarely reread it all the way through like I did this year--I ask my students to evaluate this idea.  Most of them are in blithe agreement with Spencer: Holden really ought to have studied more and applied himself.  Why wouldn't they agree?  Studying and applying themselves is what got most of the students into the schools where I've taught in the first place.

But for me, and for Holden, this idea is horribly condescending, even fascistic.  In a note appended to his essay, Holden admits that he can't find it in himself to get interested in the ancient Egyptians.  Spencer might respond by offering some reasons why Holden might find the ancient Egyptians relevant or meaningful.  But instead he, like the headmaster before him, gestures toward a set of unspoken "rules" that Holden has violated.  The Egyptians aren't worth studying for their own sake, it's clear, but because Spencer has instructed Holden to study them.  They might as well have been Etruscans or Martians.  The point is not for Holden to learn about Egyptians but for Holden to learn how to conform to the expectations of polite society, for which the promised reward is bourgeois satisfaction.  Holden's absolutely right: life seems like a game if you're a "hotshot," but if you get on the "other side," this way of looking at life begins to seem like a horrible prison.

All that's to say, I have no sympathy for Holden's haters.  Every couple of months on Twitter someone starts a HOT LITERARY TAKE thread and the first six or seven replies are all by people who think Holden Caulfield is "whiny."  One tweet in that thread calls him "a school shooting waiting to happen."  (Mixed in are people who bravely think that Hemingway was a chauvinist and that adults should be allowed to read Young Adult novels.)  This position has always seemed, to me, to be a kind of conformity dressed up as iconoclasm, not least because everyone is saying the same thing.  Holden's hardly a perfect mouthpiece for these ideas--he is, above all else, a teenager, and shares with Huck Finn a kind of half-understanding of his own deep principles--but he correctly diagnoses that there is something rotten at the heart of the modern world, something high school graduates might label with words like "elitism" or "capitalism."  Part of the reluctance to credit Holden's discernment, I think, has to do with his whiteness, his wealth, his maleness.  ("But isn't he a hot-shot?" my students always ask.  "Yes," I say, "but does he pretend not to be?")  I think that fails to deal with his own clear ambivalence about money, for one--look at the way he insists on divesting himself of money to the nuns in the diner, or the guilt he feels when his roommate tries to pass Holden's suitcase off as his own.

But also, I'm just flabbergasted that those folks can't drum up sympathy for a teenager--white and wealthy and male as he may be--who is clearly on the precipice of a nervous breakdown.  Several times throughout the course of the novel, Holden feels as if he is going to disappear while he's crossing the street.  People he speaks with beg him to either lower his voice or speak up, but he's not even able to acknowledge that he's speaking strangely.  My students usually, and correctly, trace Holden's instability back to the death of his brother Allie, which has happened years before the narrative begins.  I had forgotten about this gut-wrenching memory of Allie's grave:

I certainly don't enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetery.  Surrounded by dead guys and tombstones and all.  It wasn't too bad when the sun was out, but twice--twice--while we were there it started to rain.  It was awful.  It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach.  All the visitors that were visiting the cemetery started running like hell over to their cars.  That's what nearly drove me crazy.  All the visitors could get in their cars and turn on their radios and all and then go someplace nice for dinner--everybody except Allie.

Allie's death really is at the root of Holden's instability, but also his wisdom.  What's the point, after all, of following the "rules of the game" and receiving your bourgeois satisfaction in return, if you're going to die, and if, what's worse, children die, too?  The "game" makes promises it can't keep; Allie didn't even get to play it.  Why should anyone give a fuck about the ancient Egyptians when leukemia is killing kids?  In Holden this manifests as a mordant preoccupation with children, an intense need to freeze childhood innocence and ward off the attendant forces of growing up.  As his former teacher, Mr. Antolini, tells him, such a response can only end in his own destruction.  As painful as it is, some kind of bargain has to be made with the phonies, because there is no meaningful life outside of social pressure.  That doesn't make him wrong.

In this whole post, I'm making a categorical error I try to get my students to avoid: I'm talking about Holden as if he's a real person, not a construct invented by Salinger.  It's a testament to Salinger's novel and its pitch-perfect voice that we all want to take Holden seriously as a person, whether we hate him or love him.  There's a long and fraught history of people taking Holden at face value and lionizing him--you know, like Mark David Chapman--but the opposite impulse is just as bad.  I don't think "You're not SUPPOSED to like him" is any more convincing or accurate than the takes about him being whiny.

I like Holden a lot.  It might be because I have been fortunate enough to know a lot of teenagers.  All of them deserve the right to observe, for the first time, that life is not inherently fair and that society as we have made it frequently unjust.  They deserve the right to figure out for themselves how to respond to those facts.  And they deserve more teachers like Mr. Antolini (even if Holden gets freaked out by his physical intimacy) and fewer teachers like Mr. Spencer.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer

There is nothing without failure, until the day the Future is achieved.  It is the only success.  Others--in specific campaigns with specific objectives, against the pass laws, against forced dispossession of land--would lead to piecemeal reforms.  These actions fail one after the other, they have failed since before we were born; failures were the events of our childhood, failures are the normal circumstances of our adulthood--her parents under house arrest, my father dead in jail, my courting done in the prison visiting room.  In this experience of being crushed on individual issues the masses come, as they can in no other way, to understand that there is no other way: state power must be overthrown.  Failure is the accumulated heritage of resistance without which there is no resolution.

In one scene in Burger's Daughter--Nadine Gordimer's novel about a South African woman struggling with the burdensome legacy of her father, a white Marxist leader who died in prison--the protagonist, Rosa, sees a black African man beating a donkey.  She is outraged, upset, but refrains from intervening, though she knows she could:

I had only to career down on that scene with my car and my white authority.  I could have yelled before I even got out, yelled to stop!--and then there I would have been standing, inescapable, fury and right, might, before them, the frightened woman and child and the drunk, brutal man, with my knowledge of how to deliver them over to the police, to have him prosecuted as he deserved and should be, to take away form him the poor suffering possession he maltreated.  I could formulate everything they were, as the act I had witnessed; they would have their lives summed up for them officially at last by me, the white woman--the final meaning of a day they had lived I had no knowledge of, a day of other appalling things, violence, disasters, urgencies, deprivations which suddenly become, was nothing but what it had led up to: the man among them beating their donkey.

This moment stood out to me because it resonates with so much of what we have seen in America in the last few years.  (Not that it didn't exist before, but now we, or just I, am seeing it.)  It resonates with moments that seem to occur every few months, when a black person is killed, maimed, or just humiliated at the hands of a policeman or a white busybody with a cellphone or a gun.  Like Rosa's imagined intervention, in each moment a white person manages to "sum up" a person's entire life, to reduce them to a final moment.  Eric Garner sold cigarettes illegally; Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were "no angels."  These narratives, selected and fashioned by white violence, become "the final meaning" of other "violence, disasters, urgencies, deprivations" in which the narrative is not interested.

For Rosa, who is aware of the immense difference in power she and the man possess, the moment encapsulates the intractable difficulty of white allyship, white radicalism, in South Africa.  Her father, whose stature among South African radicals is so great many call him "our Lenin," failed to recognize any tension or difficulty at all, and that's part of his legacy: in his house and life black Africans moved freely with whites.  He was able to, she explains, because of his Marxism; he believed that the central problem in South African life was that the wealthy crushed both black Africans and poor whites, and denied that racism is something that was "bleached into the skin."  Burger's Daughter, in fact, can be read as a long meditation on just that question, a question that dogs leftists in the United States today: Is racism merely the window dressing, the "superstructure," of economic oppression, or does it have its own material existence?  At a party in Soweto, a black radical obliquely dismisses Lionel Burger's legacy: "Our liberation," he says, " cannot be divorced from black consciousness because we cannot be conscious of ourselves and at the same time be slaves."  In this formulation there is no room for Rosa, or for Lionel, and Rosa is not so sure the man is wrong.

Rosa, no less empathetic than her parents, suffers from crises of conscience that her father waved away.  His legacy has become a burden that she could never fulfill, even if she wanted to, even if she weren't ambivalent where he had certitude, and even if she weren't a "named" person, watched by the government for signs of sedition.  "I don't know how to live in Lionel's country," she writes after meditating on the man beating his donkey.  Later, she makes her motivation more personal and more plain: "I wanted to know how to defect from him."  In the end she makes a pact with an Afrikaner nationalist, who helps her procure a passport.  She goes to France, where she stays with her father's first wife, a radical-turned-libertine, and eventually to England, where she runs into an old friend, an African man who lived with the Burgers as a child and was called Baasie--"Bossy," until his father was killed by the police.  She's thought about him often, wondering if he was even alive, but her delight is tempered by his own bitter memories:

Tell them how your parents took the little black kid into their home, not the backyard like other whites, right into the house.  Eating at the table and sleeping in the bedroom, the same bed, their little black boss.  And then the little bastard was pushed off back to his mud huts and tin shanties.  His father was too busy to look after him.  Always on the run from police.  Too busy with the whites who were going to smash the government and let another lot of whites tell us how to run our country.  One of Lionel Burger's best tame blacks sent scuttling like a bloody cockroach everywhere, you can always just put your foot on them.

This moment is searing, accusing, shocking.  It's utterly convincing as rhetoric--it's hard to imagine Gordimer could write that perspective so convincingly unless, like Rosa, she possessed a deep-seated fear that it's all true, that white radicalism is still, at its heart, whiteness.  And so what is a white to do?  Ironically, it's this speech that compels her out of her paralysis, and sends her away from her new French lover, back to South Africa, where she works not as a seditionist but a physical therapist.

When I remember Burger's Daughter, I'm going to remember those two moments: the man beating his donkey and the sharp-toothed accusations of Baasie.  There's a lot strung between those two moments, though, nearly 350 dense pages that can often feel talky and motionless.  Rose-twitter DSA folks who are already fluent in the language of 20th century Marxism will have a leg up, because a lot of the book is taken over by jargon-laced argument between various radicals.  Rosa's experience in France, among fun-loving aesthetes who consider themselves more or less above politics, I found rather boring.  I really missed the urgency of July's People, a shorter book with similar themes, the sense it gives of hurtling toward doom.  Burger's Daughter, on the other hand, wants to capture something of the endless waiting of racial radicalism, the sense that every step forward is essentially a failure, until the real Revolution occurs.  For that reason it can feel, as it means to feel, stuck in the mud.  But every now and then it looks something difficult and terrible straight in the face, and for that it's worth reading.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

You can make him do nothing for long periods.  You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room.  All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, 'I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.'  The Christians describe the Enemy as one 'without whom Nothing is strong.'  And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man's best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.

C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters takes the form of a series of messages sent by Screwtape, a mid-level functionary in the hierarchy of demons, to his nephew Wormwood, a neophyte who is tasked with working on a "patient" to corrupt his soul and bring him to hell.  Lewis' depiction of hell as a kind of immense bureaucracy is fairly inspired--unlike God, it's the demons who stand for hierarchies of all kinds, and who treasure the kind of affectless banality that bureaucracies promote.  As Screwtape notes in the above letter, directing the patient's attention to nothing at all is as good as directing it toward lust, avarice, or wrath.  Pleasures of all kinds, Screwtape advises, always run the risk of directing the patient toward "the Enemy," that is, God, who "has filled His world full of pleasures."

The Screwtape Letters is at its most interesting when it is counterintuitive.  In one letter, Screwtape advises Wormwood not to get too excited over the threat of war that is consuming the European continent.  (The letters were written in the early years of World War II.)  Yes, war induces both "tortured fear and stupid confidence," which are "desirable states of mind."  It also makes a man "hag-ridden by the Future," and terrified to live in the present as the Enemy desires.  But war, too, awakes people from "moral stupor."  "In peace," Screwtape writes, "we can make many of them ignore good and evil entirely."  Counterintuitive, too, is Screwtape's delight that Wormwood's patient has become a Christian, because the church is where hypocrisy and self-satisfaction flourish best.

It's interesting, reading The Screwtape Letters at this point in my life.  Like The Inferno it offers a highly stylized version of the world of Satan; it makes no claims to be Biblically or theologically accurate, but it seeks to offer certain metaphorical truths through imagination.  As a teenager, I would have accepted wholeheartedly some unquestioned assumptions about the operation of God and His enemies present in The Screwtape Letters: for instance, that there is a real, metaphysical battle over individual souls.  I would have accepted that the state of the individual soul is of utmost importance, and that it must always be guarded for some quality that is constantly tipping toward God or toward Satan, that it is important that a Christian get his or her heart right.  But I'm no longer happy with those assumptions.  I wonder if The Screwtape Letters is easier to read as a committed atheist than a progressive Christian.

Of course, none of that is really important.  It doesn't really matter much to Lewis' project whether demons exist at all.  Rather, The Screwtape Letters is interested in advancing a certain perspective on the human world and its virtues and vices.  It wants us not to be distracted by the humdrum realities of everyday life, or to be "knit to the world" by our prosperity.  It wants us to reject "materialism"--the idea that only the material world exists--and set our attention to the spiritual world.  In classic Protestant fashion, our attention is of the utmost importance.

It's also fun, and funny.  I particularly liked the suggestion that Screwtape, once Wormwood loses control over his patient, is going to eat his nephew as punishment.  The last letter is signed, "Your increasingly and ravenously affectionate uncle, SCREWTAPE."

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I read Anne Lamott's writing advice book Bird by Bird in 2008, and then again in 2017.  I thought I might make it summer reading for my senior fiction writing class--I thought kids might appreciate its warmth, its breeziness--but that meant I needed to read it again.  I don't really want to review it a third time, so here's a collection of interesting thoughts on writing from Lamott, which I'm writing down here in case I want to use them in my class later:

I understood immediately the thrill of seeing oneself in print.  It provides some sort of primal verification: you are in print; therefore you exist.  Who knows what this urge is all about, to appear somewhere outside yourself, instead of feeling stuck inside your muddled but stroboscopic mind, peering out like a little undersea animal--a spiny blenny, for instance--from inside your tiny cave?

"Do it every day for a while," my father kept saying.  Do it as you would do scales on the piano.  Do it by prearrangement with yourself.  Do it as a debt of honor.  And make a commitment to finishing things."

I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer.  Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.  You wait and watch and work: you don't give up.

The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.

E. L. Doctorow once said that "writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.  It is ino wonder if we sometimes tend to take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously.

The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.  You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page.  If one of the characters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?" you let her.

Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop.  You can't--and in fact, you're not supposed to--know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.  First you just point at what has your attention and take the picture.

But something must be at stake or else you will have no tension and your readers will not turn the pages.  Think of a hockey player--there had better be a puck out there on the ice, or he is going to look pretty ridiculous.

You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind.  The rational mind doesn't nourish you.  You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true.  Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.

...you don't always have to chop with the sword of truth.  You can point with it, too.


Tuesday, September 3, 2019




When Brooklyn Was Queer.

 By Hugh Ryan


New queer history is being written; old queer history is being restored to its proper place.  Let us hope that this time, it is written in indelible ink; in sweat and blood; in hopes and tears; in letters one hundred feet tall that will never be forgotten.


In 1855, Brooklyn, Walt Whitman, and homosexuality were all being ignored.  Brooklyn was a small suburb of its larger, more vibrant neighbor; Whitman had written for newspapers and published his only novel; homosexuality was all around, but rarely acknowledged.  In this excellent social history, Hugh Ryan takes the publication of Leaves of Grassthat year as his starting point and charts with admirable depth and even more admirable zest the history of queer life in Brooklyn.  

He uses the word “queer” because he is interested in virtually any deviance from mainstream sexuality.  At one point or another he gives detailed accounts of the lives of sex workers, transsexuals, transvestites, effeminate men and masculine woman.  The book spends almost as much time on the lives of lesbians as it does on gay men and is wonderfully clear about the different forms their oppression took and their different responses to it.

If there is a weakness in the book it is its tight focus on Brooklyn, which is in service to a thesis that states that Brooklyn – and in particular the Brooklyn waterfront – is key to understanding the history of queer America.  There are times when Ryan seems to be bending his narrative out of shape to stay focused on Brooklyn, while his definition of waterfront is necessarily flexible – it includes the docks, Brooklyn Heights and Coney Island, among other places.  This focus is not without its merits.  Ryan establishes clearly that the Brooklyn waterfront was a vibrant and diverse social scene that quickly – it explodes in the mid 19thcentury after the completion of the Erie Canal – becomes a site for sexual energy and variety that was suppressed in other parts of the city.  Likewise, his focus on Brooklyn lends his work a specificity and detail that would be hard to sustain in a broader history.  However, some of his characters spend minimal time in Brooklyn (Carson McCullers, for example) and many others live lives that make it clear that – while one can find a distinct queer community in Brooklyn – the borough also acts as part of larger NY community, with many people in the book (including Whitman) moving back and forth across the river.  

However, these are minor weaknesses.  There is voluminous research synthesized here, and the information is handled with insight and intelligence.  Ryan takes on issues of race and sexism throughout while also analyzing how diverse historical phenomena like the development of the subway, vaudeville and public housing affect the queer community.  He is especially strong on the ways that World Wars I and II impact sexual expression in New York.  A secondary but important idea that accompanies his focus on the Brooklyn waterfront is his refutation of the argument that the trend in queer rights has been consistently towards greater freedom and openness.  He provides plenty of evidence that the periods during war provide new freedom and opportunity to both gay men and lesbians and that both world wars are followed by renewed repression.

The chief strength of the book is the clarity and liveliness of the prose.  Ryan makes sure his own voice dominates the text and sometimes include asides that bring the reader into his enthusiasm –with disgust at the way queers were treated at some points and with bemused humor at the ingenuity with which the same people found and created spaces to be themselves.  For instance, his analysis of how mass transit opened up the lives of queer people includes the idea that “If subway cars were like packed clubs, tossing New Yorkers against one another millions of times a day, then the men’s room was decidedly the after party.”

Ryan picks up on ideas presented in George Chauncey’s Gay New Yorkregarding the 19thCentury belief that sexual activity was distinct from gender expression.  In Ryan’s analysis, there is little concept of sexuality as a part of identity prior to about 1910 and the popularization of Freudian notions of sex.  According to both Chauncey and Ryan, men and women have always had same sex contact without feeling the need to make that part of their identity.  And social approbation was largely reserved for those who challenged gender norms – masculine women and effeminate men:  butches and fairies.  Ryan is especially strong on viewing this phenomenon through a class lens, providing evidence that the acceptance of same sex activity was far greater among the poor and working class than it was in society’s upper regions. According to Ryan, with the establishment of the ideas of sexuality and sexual identity as fixed concepts – that grow out of both the development of psychology and eugenics – comes the social condemnation of queer life.  That condemnation is never stronger than in the decades after World War II when queer sexuality is seen as not just abnormal, but absolutely dangerous.

For both Chauncey before him and Ryan, simply reversing this hatred, so that people who identify as gay or lesbian, trans or queer are accepted and allowed full social participation will not be enough.  They implicitly call for a change in the way we think of identity – to divorce it from transitory practices like fashion and sexual contact, to allow everyone to be fully themselves.

If is a challenging idea, presented here with forceful intelligence and panache.