Monday, February 25, 2019

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

My friend tugged at her husband's arm with both hands.  She used all her strength, and I who knew her thoroughly felt that if she could she would have wrenched it from his body, crossed the room holding it high above her head, blood dripping in her train, and she would have used it as a club or a donkey's jawbone to crush Marcello's face with a solid blow.  Ah yes, she would have done it, and at the idea my heart pounded furiously, my throat become dry.  Then she would have dug out the eyes of both men, she would have torn the flesh from the bones of their faces, she would have bitten them.  Yes, yes, I felt I wanted that, I wanted it to happen.  An end of love and of that intolerable celebration, no embraces in a bed in Amalfi.  Immediately shatter everything and every person in the neighborhood, tear them to pieces, Lila and I, go and live far away, lightheartedly descending together all the steps of humiliation, alone, in unknown cities.

I'm just going to go head and lay a blanket spoiler warning here--I know how furious I would be if someone ruined these big honking bricks for me.  There's really nothing like a huge Tolstoyesque novel to suck you in, but so few books of this size really do; they rarely earn all that tree pulp.  I read 300 pages of this one in a car on Saturday on the way back from vacation.  At one point, the heroine, Elena Greco, writes a novel about her life to that point in a three-week fury of inspiration.  I'm pretty sure that's a little sly joke: at that point the two novels have run on for about seven hundred pages.  When does the older Elena lose her sense of economy?

My Brilliant Friend ends in the middle of the wedding of Lila (the titular friend) and Stefano Carracci, the local grocer.  The hated mafioso Marcello Solara walks in wearing the shoes that Lila designed and Stefano gave away, and it's there that the Carracci marriage effectively ends: Ferrante memorably calls Lila's wedding ring a "glittering zero."  But Lila's sudden loss of affection for her husband doesn't prevent Stefano from imposing the traditional demands of marriage: quarrels become beatings, sex becomes rape, children are demanded.  When children don't come, the neighborhood gossip holds that Lila has a kind of freakish power to psychically murder them in the womb.  More than anything, these novels are full of righteous rage about the ways that women are circumscribed by a male world.  Elena, noticing the masculinized features of Neapolitan women only a decade older, has a vision of men literally taking over women's bodies:

When did that transformation begin?  With housework?  With pregnancies?  With beatings?  Would Lila be misshapen like Nunzia?  Would Fernando leap from her delicate face, would her elegant walk become Rino's, legs wide, arms pushed out by his chest?  And would my body, too, one day be ruined by the emergence of not only my mother's body but my father's?

My Brilliant Friend is something like an exploration of how genius differs from talent; The Story of a New Name wants to show just how genius is stifled and exploded.  By the end of the novel, Lila is able to escape her marriage but at the cost of her comfort and safety.  She ends up stuffing sausages in a factory.  Meanwhile, Elena, perhaps lucky for having only talent and a more moderate beauty, ends up with something of the life she has dreamed: a university education beyond the walls of Naples, a successful novel.  And yet she cannot stop herself from wanting that flash of beauty and glamor that Lila possesses, even at her lowest.  It doesn't help that Lila embarks on an affair with the shrewd Nino, with whom Elena has been in love for years.  Is Elena's reluctance to stop the calamitous affair another sign of her own self-effacement before Lila or an accurate recognition that the couple's incendiary natures make a better match?

The novel moves almost effortlessly through time, dwelling for hundreds of pages on a single summer on the vacation island of Ischia and then gliding through years.  Ferrante punctuates the narrative with bursts of violence and shocking imagery.  Elena's boyfriend, terrified by fears of infidelity and military service, falls to the ground and begins stuffing dirt in his mouth.  In My Brilliant Friend, it's the shoes that bear all that symbolic weight; here it's a blown-up photo of Lila in her wedding dress that Stefano and the Solaras want to place in their glamorous new shoe store.  Lila asserts control over her image, her body, in the only way she knows how: by destroying it.  She insists on being allowed to amend the image if it's going to be hung, and obliterates it with modernist colors and shapes until only her eyes remain.  She self-destructs.

One of the most gratifying things about The Story of a New Name is that many of the characters from the first novel who blended together for me became much clearer.  There's dirt-eating Antonio, whose paranoia is only amplified by his time in the army.  There's the no-nonsense Enzo, whose love for Lila is sublimated into a kind of taciturn self-sacrifice.  Ada, the madwoman's daughter, craves Stefano for herself; Lila's sister-in-law Pinuccia lashes out at her husband because she can't admit she's fallen in love with someone else.  Like adults growing into themselves, these characters come alive and give the novel a Dickensian or Tolstoyan quality.  They're the main reason that the second novel might be even better than the first, although it's the troubling, neurotic, codependent relationship between Elena and Lila that anchors it.  It's amazing, in fact, that after 700+ pages, there's still enough complexity and uncertainty in this relationship to explore.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Milkman by Anna Burns

At the time, age eighteen, having been brought up in a hair-trigger society where the ground rules were – if no physically violent touch was being laid upon you, and no outright verbal insults were being levelled at you, and no taunting looks in the vicinity either, then nothing was happening, so how could you be under attack from something that wasn’t there? At eighteen I had no proper understanding of the ways that constituted encroachment.
There are no names in Anna Burns' Milkman; instead, we know characters by their places in the narrator, middle sister's, universe (maybe boyfriend, wee sisters). Milkman, the titular character, is not really a milkman, but he drives a truck, and so has been given the nickname (although whether by middle sister or the community at large, it is hard to tell). The novel tracks his increasingly terrifying stalking of middle sister in a small town in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. 

Burns has an almost Faulknerian (or perhaps, more aptly, Joycean) style; middle sister's inner narrative is rambly and dream-like and tumbles for pages and pages without paragraph breaks. Because there no one and nothing is named (political groups, places, and people alike), it's hard to navigate what she's talking about or to anchor the novel in a particular place or time. I don't know much beyond what Wikipedia has to say about the Troubles, and I found it hard to keep track of the various warring factions, especially because it was rarely clear who was doing what. This is, perhaps, the point. The experience of a relatively a-political citizen in the midst of that type of political conflict would likely be deeply confusing. The violence and fear is coming from all sides, and the name or political affiliation of the aggressor doesn't change how it makes you feel. 

As the novel progresses and milkman's advances continue, I found myself more and more furious with middle sister. She had ample opportunities to extricate herself or at least explain her situation to any number of characters (her mother, maybe-boyfriend, her childhood friend), and instead she lets rumors build and swirl around her. Middle sister is funny and cuttingly observant at times, but is also infuriatingly oblivious at others. She is pulled under by the tide of gossip and veiled threats to the point of paralysis, and it's hard to witness. 

Stylistically, this was one of the more challenging books I've read in the past year or so, but I really enjoyed it. I found myself having to backtrack several pages whenever I picked it back up because the narrative was so rambly, but I enjoyed the work. Middle sister, while I wanted her to be more vocal in her self-advocacy, was funny and endearing and in the end, likeable (but not too likeable!).

There There by Tommy Orange

Urban Indians feel at home walking in the shadow of a downtown building.  We came to know the downtown Oakland skyline better than we did any sacred mountain range, the redwoods in the Oakland hills better than any other deep wild forest.  We know the sound of the freeway better than we do rivers, the howl of distant trains better than wolf howls, we know the smell of gas and freshly wet concrete and burned rubber better than we do the smell of cedar or sage or even fry bread--which isn't traditional, like reservations aren't traditional, but nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing.  Everything is new and doomed.  We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains.  Being Indian has never been about returning to the land.  The land is everywhere or nowhere.

Tommy Orange's There There is bookended by two big cultural moments, each a kind of community action, each utterly urban and utterly Native American: first, the real-life takeover of Alcatraz Island in 1970 by Native activists, and second, a huge powwow at the Oakland Coliseum.  There There follows about a dozen characters who are related to the powwow in some way: a drummer, a dancer, an organizer, and a small handful of petty criminals who are planning to rob it.  By weaving these stories together, Orange gives us a picture of what it means to be a Native American in the city in the 21st century.

One of the things I liked best about There There is how it deflates so many of our stupidest and most entrenched ideas about what it means to be Native American.  I love the above section, for example, which challenges the lazy association of Native Americans with "the land."  That association produces an image of Native Americans on remote reservations, and lets us believe that's where Native Americans belong, in nature, but as Orange notes, "The land is everywhere or nowhere": the dispossession of Native Americans can't be corrected with token pieces of rural wilderness, but with a full reintegration of Native Americans into our political and social fabric.  The land, Orange insists, is as much the city as it is anywhere else.

Most of the characters in There There vacillate between confusion and ignorance regarding their Native American heritage.  For some, like Orvil Red Feather, donning the powwow regalia in secret and training as a dancer is a way of accessing a heritage he has never really known or felt comfortable in.  Jacquie Red Feather and Opal Victoria Bear Shield spent their lives reckoning with the failed promise of the Alactraz takeover they remember from when they were children.  A lot of the characters here are most at home in the anonymity of the internet, like Edwin Black, who uses Facebook to find his real father and to connect with other Native people, even as his shame about his weight alienates him from the world at large.  For others, being Native is little more than a story told by a grandmother, a piece of information they are unable to fit into the various gripes and indignities of everyday American life.

There There seems poised on the knife-edge of the 21st century.  Orange writes about music in a way that feels modern and unforced, which is no easy feat; the title of the novel combines both a Radiohead song and a famous comment about Oakland by Gertrude Stein.  There's Facebook and drones and 3-D printed guns and they feel as if they belong; though who knows if the novel will feel more dated in a decade.  For me its modernity felt thematically appropriate, a kind of claim about the persistence of Native life in this country, which we are more comfortable assigning to the past.

On the other hand, There There suffers from having about half a dozen too many characters.  At one point, Orange namechecks Louise Erdrich (who provides also a prominently placed blurb), and it's easy to see her influence here in the intersecting narratives, but I got easily lost.  I felt particularly confused about the crew of would-be powwow robbers.  I liked the character of Tony Loneman, an alienated young man who calls the disfigurement of his fetal alcohol syndrome "the Drome."  (Which resonates with drone and dome, although the Oakland Coliseum isn't a dome...)  But there are three or four characters who each get their own POV chapters who kind of blend together, and that made the novel's final eruption into violence bewildering and frustrating.  There There ends with a literal massacre that is difficult to disentangle from historical massacres that lurk behind Native history in America, and its purpose is hard to discern.  Orange isn't obligated, of course, to provide reassurance or hope, but the pointed bloodshed of the novel's end seemed as gratuitous as it was confusing.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

We have a choice.  We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing.  Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our humanity.

This is a beautiful and powerfully written book that combines Stevenson's own life story with that of  many of his clients, primarily Walter McMillan - an innocent man railroaded for a murder who spent years on death row and was only exonerated because of the work of Stevenson's organization, The Equal Justice Initiative.

In a sense, this is three books.  The first is a deep dive into the politics and history that drive the death penalty in America, the second, an autobiography of a working class kid who makes it to Harvard Law School and goes on to found a major non-profit, while the third is  a murder mystery that keeps you turning pages as you find the evidence against McMillan shockingly inadequate and yet watch the power structure in his Alabama town continually thwart efforts at justice.  Any one of these approaches would make this a rich read.  Stevenson has a gift for boiling down complex history into approachable and clear narratives, so that the various Supreme Court cases that are the building blocks of death penalty law in America are explained and put into the context of the history of lynch law and mass incarceration.  Stephenson's own life story is inspiring, and the book could have used a little more of this.  We get little of his childhood, and only occasional glimpses of his non-working life (though at times it becomes clear that he has little non-working life to tell about) we do get his dismay at the career paths of his peers at Harvard and his own developing sense of how to do the work of justice.  And we slowly get a picture of how his childhood, his parents, his church, led him to this work.  While the book is not directly religious, his own connection to the church and his love and respect for other church goers builds throughout the text.  As in the passage quoted above, there is no doubt that Stevenson's passion for redemption is based in his view of christianity.  

Having been a best-seller and award winner, the book has now been sold to the movies and I can only assume that the movie will center on the story of Walter McMillan, a charming, working class lumber worker who is arrested and charged with a vicious murder despite the easily obtainable evidence that he could not have done it (his alibi is backed up by literally dozens of people).  However a combination of racism, classism, political expedience and really shoddy legal work by overworked and underpaid defense attorneys lands him on death row.  The story that follows is tense and dramatic and sad until (spoiler alert) at the last possible moment ...

Along the way, Stevenson makes it clear that McMillan's is not an isolated case - he gives us shorter, more contained narratives of a dozen other cases.  What emerges is a death penalty"system" that  corrupt and racist in its methods and barbaric in its outcomes.  Stevenson also mentions books that have helped him understand this world - even as it is clear that he understands it from his own life experience, so that Just Mercy ends up being the kind of book that will lead you to other reading.  Few other books have been able to blend history, jurisprudence, narrative and personal voice as effectively as Stevenson has done here.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout

A lullaby for the child, or a story sung to it, battle songs of the wild Alfuras, head-hunters of Ceram.  And sometimes, very rarely, the old heathen lament (careful, don't let the schoolteacher hear it) for one who has just died.  "The hundred things" was the name of the lament--the hundred things of which the dead is reminded, which are asked him, told him.

Maria Dermout's The Ten Thousand Things is--digressively, elliptically--the story of Felicia, a Dutch woman who returns to the deteriorating spice plantation owned by her family in Indonesia, where her grandmother still lives.  For Felicia, like all people I suppose, returning to the place of her childhood brings a rush of recognitions that are like shocks: her grandmother's collection of shells and curiosities, guarded by crawly mollusks she keeps in the cabinets as "sentinels," the winged boats called proas moving on the water, the ruin of the original house, the three little graves of the little girls supposedly murdered.  It's so affecting that she begins to lose a sense of herself, having to remind herself that she is Felicia, and not her grandmother, who once returned this way.  In turn, she imagines her son Himpies (lol) returning to the plantation one day and having the same experience:

She thought, she had never before thought that--in the light and the rustle and the small movement of the proa--repetition, repetition, nothing but repetitions linked to one another.  Again and again the same, and again and once more.

Himpies does have that experience, returning to the "Small Garden" after years away in the Dutch military, but the expected repetitions are cut short by his murder, on a nearby island, at the hands of a native tribe.  Death stalls the sense of repetition and return, which was never anything but a myth, and Felicia grows into something of a lonely eminence on the island, respected for presiding over a little plot full of ghosts.

From there the book gets weird, at least structurally speaking.  It abandons Felicia to tell four stories that are seemingly unrelated, though they take place on the same island: the story of a professor of botany who enlists the services of a young Javanese man and is later murdered by local islanders, of Constance, a beautiful woman murdered under mysterious circumstances, of a military commissioner murdered under mysterious circumstances--okay, maybe they're not that unrelated.

The title of the book comes from a traditional song called the "hundred things," in which the dying recites--or has recited to them?--a list of things they remember from life.  These objects, like the curiosities in Felicia's grandmother's cabinet, anchor them to life and give substance to what passes away.  Dermout's amendment of the phrase is meant to suggest the futility of expressing a life in a mere hundred, that if we were really to give the dead a proper lament the list would be hyperbolically large, perhaps endless.  The book brings its various threads together at the end when Felicia is visited by the various murdered: the professor, the commissioner, Constance, her son, the three little girls.  She realizes that the murderers must join the murdered also, and her vision enacts a kind of detente between the two that the regular course of life made impossible.

Where is colonialism in this story?  Felicia, while down on her luck, comes from an old spice merchant family that colonized Indonesia.  (It's this fact that makes her imagining a permanent cycle of abandon and return spurious to begin with.)  I liked the ripe character tension between the ruffled, affable professor and the wary Javanese especially.  The professor means no harm and treats his assistant well, but it's hard to blame the assistant for his wariness.  He resists and resists the professor's friendly claim on him--"He did not want a bond between them, not of one kind nor of the other"--but is unable to escape, and that seems as good a metaphor for the relationship between European and Indonesian as any.  The professor, working from a Javanese story, crafts a version of the colonial enterprise as a kind of fruitless searching:

"All of us, always, when we're young, have to hold something for those who are old, and we drop it and want to get away, and draw a ship in the sand to reach a new country, and we always forget the ballast--there is no ballast but the earth of the old country--and the new country's earth is always just as heavy as the old country's--and for that, then, we have left and crossed the seas and might even have drowned on the way, in deep water, or grown old and in our turn let someone hold a basin up for us..."

And yet the claim to universalism here--we all feel this way--seems as false to me as it does to the Javanese assistant.  Many of the dead were murdered by locals: the mountain tribesman who killed Himpies, the seafaring tribe that killed the professor, the slave that killed the three little Dutch girls.  Felicia's vision of the murderers and murdered brought together at last might serve also as a vision of a kind of global healing, but how would we read this scene if the slave girl were reunited not with the girls she murdered but the man who enslaved her?

The Ten Thousand Things is lyrical and sensuous, often bewildering, frequently clever, and often very touching.  As Brent notes in his review, the novel ends with Felicia having to get up from her communion from the dead and go on living.  Here Dermout suggests that it's life, not death, that's really tragic, but also that perhaps it doesn't have to be.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Rabbit by Patricia Williams

"Man," said Lamont, whistling through his teeth.  "That's some deep-ass shit. Like multigenerational deep-ass shit."

Holy smokes.  This book was A LOT.  Patricia Williams aka Rabbit aka Ms. Pat is currently a comedian (appearing on, among other things, WTF with Marc Maron), so all of the reviews of Rabbit mention how funny it is.  It is NOT funny.  Williams grew up in Atlanta in abject poverty.  As in she knows how long it takes for a birthday candle to burn all the way down because sometimes that's all they had to light their apartment poverty (seven minutes).  As in she fed her three month old daughter chewed up ketchup sandwiches because she couldn't afford formula poverty (her daughter was the first person in her family to graduate from high school).  Her life was unimaginably hard.  She was continuously molested by a neighbor when she was a pre-teen while her mother looked the other way because he bought them groceries.  The father of her first two children was 20 when he started dating her when she was 12.  TWELVE!  She had her first child when she was 13 and her second when she was 15.  She sold crack, was shot, and served prison time.  Eventually, Williams settled down with a stable partner, gave up her illegal occupations, and started doing comedy.

I read this book because I was hoping it would provide insight into a world and experience that I know nothing about.  While Rabbit certainly exposed me to a totally different experience, I didn't find it that insightful because Williams doesn't do a lot of self-reflection.  She writes about how crack destroyed the lives of friends and loved ones (and got her shot in the back), but aside from a couple of paragraphs she doesn't really explore her own role in profiting off of that misery.  She transitioned from selling crack to forging checks that a friend stole from the post office, but spares no second thought about the impact of her theft on those victims.  She also tells stories of unimaginable indifference or seemingly irrational behavior on her part and the part of those around her.  In one scene, her mother, an alcoholic who authored a lot of Williams's misery in her formative years, refused to go with Williams to the hospital when she was in labor with her first child.  In another, a social worker set up Williams with a spot at a summer camp and gave her mother vouchers to get everything Williams needed at K-Mart, but her mom just didn't go get the supplies.  Later, after Williams and her partner have been raising her four nieces for ten years because her sister was addicted to crack, her sister barges in with a court order granting her custody again (at least two of the teen girls, including a 13 year old, were pregnant within a year).  Williams doesn't spend much time analyzing or trying to explain this behavior.  Let me be clear: I do not judge Williams for this omission and I don't really judge the people ravaged by addiction and poverty.  I didn't experience any of that, so how can I know what it was like and what it does to you?  But I would have appreciated more exploration of how these issues affect people, not just the end results. 

What did stick out to me is how big a role dumb luck plays in how your life turns out.  Williams made it, her sister didn't.  For ten years, Williams raised her four kids and her sister's four kids in a happy, healthy, safe home, but then her sister took her daughters back.  While Williams's kids were graduating from high school over the next few years, Williams was rescuing her 16 year old niece's four kids from a mother hooked on crack ("At Auntie Pat's, we get to eat every single day," her young nephew explained to his sister upon arrival at their new home).  I was born a rich white man, Williams was born a poor black woman. 

Overall I'd say Rabbit is worth reading, but know what you're getting into to.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Fools Crow by James Welch

"Where are the seizers now?"  Fools Crow's voice was sharp.  Anger welled up within him, an aner that was directed at the futility of attempting to make the seizers pay.  He had always thought that the Pikunis would fight these hairy-faces.  He had prepared himself for this fight, he was ready to die a good death to defend this country.  Now he knew that his father had been right all along--the Pikunis were no match for the seizers and their weapons.  That the camps were laid low with the white-scabs disease did not even matter.  The disease, this massacre--Sun Chief favored the Napikwans.  The Pikunis would never possess the power to make them cry.

I've been trying to read more Native American literature.  I'm thinking about teaching a class on contemporary Native writers next year, if I can figure out how to do it with sufficient humility and respect.  Again and again, the news seems to serve as a chorus to my reading: the Dakota Pipeline fight, the derecognition of the Wampanoag, and now the President's crude "Trail of Tears" joke about Elizabeth Warren.  For Donald Trump, the genocide of hundreds of thousands is dumb joke material, as fundamentally unserious as, say, the life of Pocahontas.  Meanwhile, I was reading James Welch's novel Fools Crow, a book about what genocide looks like from the ground.  It's a reminder that the atrocity of the Trail of Tears is only part of the larger story of American genocide against Native Americans, a story that continued after the civil war with westward expansion.  Fools Crow tells the story of the Pikuni Blackfeet of Montana, who were decimated by white expansion and smallpox, culminating in the massacre of a non-hostile community at the Marias River in 1870.

Fools Crow is the story of White Man's Dog, a Blackfoot brave of the Lone Eaters band.  When the novel begins the white settlers, called Napikwans or "seizers," are more rumor than anything else, and we are given a glimpse into the traditional life of the Blackfeet before their decimation.  They survive by hunting buffalo, here called "blackhorns" (as distinguished from "whitehorn" cattle, imported by Napikwans), but they aren't exactly the peaceful close-to-the-earth people that Native American fetishists imagine: the Pikunis are horse-takers, and the first third of the book is taken up by the thrilling account of a horse-stealing raid against the enemy Crow people.  In that raid, one of the leading chiefs, Yellow Kidney, is taken prisoner and his fingers cut off, an act that brings cascading repercussions to the Lone Eaters.  White Man's Dog gets his new name--Fools Crow--during the raid that is revenge for Yellow Kidney's dismembering, when he kills a Crow after seeming to be dead.  Welch brings the same kind of ambiguity and nuance to the Lone Eaters' violent excursions that we might expect from a modern war narrative:

Fools Crow.  The naming ceremony.  Three Bears had named him Fools Crow after hearing how he had tricked Bull Shield into thinking he was dead and then risen up to kill the Crow chief.  But was that how it was?  The story of how he had earned that name had been greatly exaggerated, despite his initial protests, until many thought he had tricked the whole Crow village, that his medicine contained some magic that made another man's eyes see wrong.  The story of how Fools Crow had killed and scalped the man who had mutilated Yellow Kidney was even more embellished.  Now Fools Crow had made the man cry, had laughed and spit on him, had made love to his wife, then killed him and stuffed his bloody genitals in his mouth.  The men of the warrior societies laughed and kidded Fools Crow, but in their eyes he had become a man of much medicine.

The conflict with the Crow--and the careful identity-making among the Blackfeet that is predicated on that conflict--is quickly supplanted by conflict with the Napikwans.  A rogue band of Pikunis led by Owl Child (a historical figure) and Fools Crow's old friend Fast Horse leads violent raids against the white settlers.  Reading Fools Crow is like reading a fictionalized version of Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.  We know that debate will rage among the Pikunis, deliberating between war and appeasement, and that in the end these arguments won't matter one bit: the U.S. Army will attack innocent Pikunis for what Owl Child has done, and ultimately, that's exactly how the massacre occurs.

Fools Crow reads, in some respects, like a fantasy epic: Fools Crow is the young underdog destined to lead his people, the Napikwans are the forces of Sauron.  But we know that there's no possible way that the story can end with victory for Fools Crow and the Pikunis, and that makes the novel a deflated, ragged affair.  It never recaptures the thrilling nature of the Crow raid at the beginning; no real showdown with the Napikwans ever comes (the massacre occurs "off-stage"); in the end, it's the slow massacre of smallpox that does Fools Crow's people in.

Instead, Fools Crow asks, how does a man lead his people through defeat?  Like Erdrich and Silko, Welch treats the myths and traditions of the communities he writes about with literal seriousness; toward the end of the novel, Fools Crow is compelled by a dream to travel to the house of Feather Woman, a mythological figure who shows him a vision of the future.  It's bleak.  Fools Crow sees the massacre, the smallpox, and the ultimate assimilation of his people through boarding school regimes.  But Fools Crow also sees that he and his ancestors will survive, and that there is a victory of sorts in remembering, and in that way the vision becomes Fools Crow's argument for itself: that as long as the story of the Blackfeet is told, then the victory of white Napikwan society can never be entirely complete.  It's small comfort, but it's what's available.  And while it's a different story, a different massacre that the President thinks is funny, Fools Crow is a reminder that it's important to remember what actually happened and just how horrible it was.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Clock Without Hands by Carson McCullers

Looking downward from an altitude of two thousand feet, the earth assumes order.  A town, even Milan, is symmetrical, exact as a small gray honeycomb, complete.  The surrounding terrain seems designed by a law more just and mathematical than the laws of property and bigotry: a dark parallelogram of pine woods, square fields, rectangles of sward.  On this cloudless day the sky on all sides and above the plane is a kind of monotone of blue, impenetrable to the eye and the imagination.  But down below the earth is round.  The earth is finite.  From this height you do not see man and the details of his humiliation.  The earth from a great distance is perfect and whole.

...The whole earth from a great distance means less than one long look into a pair of human eyes.  Even the eyes of the enemy.

I picked up Carson McCullers' novel Clock Without Hands--the only work of narrative fiction I hadn't read of hers--at a used bookstore in Atlanta.  It was a lucky find, I thought; I love reading books set in the places of I'm traveling, and few people capture Georgia and the South in general as well as McCullers.  But McCullers' Georgia, even moreso here than in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is hardly picturesque--it's fetid, corrupt, swamplike.

The novel focuses on four men: J.T. Malone, a small-town pharmacist who learns he has terminal leukemia; Jester Clane, an idealistic teenager; Sherman Pew, an angry black teenager and orphan with blue eyes (paging Toni Morrison) whom Jester falls in love with; and Judge Fox Clane, a genteel old racist who employs Sherman as a servant.  It's the Judge that's really the central character here.  He's an icon of the old Southern guard: vociferously opposed to integration even as he gets on well with Sherman, and his other black servants, on a personal level.  His political ambitions center around a plan to recognize Confederate scrip money, which he just happens to have an enormous stash of in his attic.  He considers himself upright, objective; but we know that he has sent innocent black men to their death, telling himself "he, himself, was only an instrument of the law.  So, no matter how grave the miscarriage was, he could not pine forever."  We also know that he keeps the secret of Sherman's parentage to himself in an act of misguided paternalism.

His bigotry puts him at odds with his grandson, Jester, whose beliefs are newly developed and crude but passionate.  But Jester's nascent liberalism doesn't extend to his own homosexuality, which torments him: "If it turned out he was homosexual like men in the Kinsey Report, Jester had vowed that he would kill himself."  I was surprised, actually, how explicit Jester's sexuality is dealt with here: after meeting Sherman for the first time he races to a brothel, where he loses his virginity to a woman but while thinking about Sherman the whole time.  The relationship between the two young men is a bravura bit of character work: they clearly care deeply about each other, but the difference between their station in life transforms that care into endless petty sniping and one-upsmanship.  Jester tries to get Sherman to admit they are friends, but Sherman is too angry to admit such emotions into his life:

All Sherman's life he had thought that all white men were crazy, and the more prominent their positions the more lunatic their words and behavior.  In this matter, Sherman considered he had the sober ice-cold truth on his side.  The politicians, from governors to congressmen, down to sheriffs and wardens, were alike in their bigotry and violence.  Sherman brooded over every lynching, bombing, or indignity his race had suffered.  In this Sherman had the vulnerability and sensitivity of an adolescent.  Drawn to broodings and atrocities, he felt that every evil was reserved for him personally.  So he lived in a stasis of dread and suspense.  This attitude was supported by facts.

Sherman is a capable servant for the Judge, who lets him have free reign in the house.  But he refuses, when asked, to write letters for the Judge about segregation and the Confederate money.  While the Judge tries to soften the conversation, returning to old tired tropes about "happy peonage" and the faithful slave who stayed with his master after emancipation, it's refreshing to hear Sherman call literal bullshit: "Still, a n----- would rather be a lamppost in Harlem," he tells the Judge, "than the governor of Georgia."  In many ways, Sherman is a kind of substitute son for the Judge, who has lost his own son and is in the process of losing, metaphorically speaking, his grandson, but the Judge's rigid bigotry prevents him from really hearing Sherman.  And in the end their relationship crumbles, and the worst occurs: Sherman moves into a house in the white part of town, in a pique of indignation and--spoiler spoiler spoiler--the Judge leads a band of vigilantes in bombing his house.

It's the pharmacist, J. T. Malone, who draws the assignment, but he refuses.  Close to death, he realizes that the easy racism he has embraced his entire life is morally hazardous, and he doesn't want to endanger his immortal soul.  "What the fuck is an immortal soul?" someone asks, and Malone replies: "I don't know... But if I have one, I don't want to lose it."  Later, Jester, enraged at the loss of his friend, almost murders the eventual perpetrator, a poor white named Sammy Lank, but a flash of empathy even for Sammy, his poverty, his idiocy, makes him reconsider.

I found myself wondering: How is this book, which focuses on white men considering and reconsidering their own racism, different from something like Green Book or Driving Miss Daisy?  I think it's because those movies are meant to make white people feel better, and Clock Without Hands actually wants you to feel very bad.  And it did make me feel bad.  I can't remember the last time a book made me feel something so viscerally.  The racism that seems so violent and intractable in this novel remains so violent and intractable.  Even before Sherman's murder, there's a scene in which Jester, trying to chase down a young black man who has stolen a few dollars from another, causes the man's death at the hands of the police.  And while the narrative just kind of barrels past it, McCullers seems to say, look at the way we just barrel past deaths like these.  It seemed so horribly fresh, sadly current.  (And as an aside, I couldn't read this story without thinking about the plot in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in which Willie loses both his legs because he gets frostbite in jail.)  Though Clock Without Hands ends with the news of federally mandated school integration, it's ultimately pessimistic about our national ability to root out and deal with the rot of racism.

McCullers is better than anyone else at finding the intersection between the political and the universal.  One of the book's big themes is grief: the Judge can't get over the deaths of his wife and son.  Sherman grieves for the mother he has never known, and J. T. experiences a kind of anticipatory grief as he faces his own death:

But now he dwelt on inexplicable deaths.  He thought of children, exact and delicate as jewels in their white satin coffins.  And that pretty singing teacher who swallowed a bone at a fish fry and died within the hour.  And Johnny Clane, and the Milan boys who died during the first world war and the last.  And how many others?  How?  Why?  He was aware of the knocking sound in the basement.  It was a rat--last week a rat had overturned a bottle of asafetida and for days the stench was so terrible that his porter refused to work in the basement.  There was no rhythm in death--only the rhythm of the rat, and the stench of corruption.  And the pretty singing teacher, the blond young flesh of Johnny Clane--the jewel-like children--all ended in the liquefying corpse and coffin stench.

Yikes!  But at the same time McCullers challenges us to interrogate whose deaths exactly we find inexplicable.  We're saddened by the death of children, and the "blond young flesh" of the Judge's son, but who takes time to mourn for Grown Boy, killed by the police, or Sherman, killed by a judge?  Or the many sentence to death by the Judge through entirely legal means?  Death is so very sad, and empathy is so necessary--that's what McCullers says over and over again, in every novel--but it is so easy to extend empathy only to those who look and think like us.  What would radical empathy look like?  How would it transform our communities, ourselves?  Clock Without Hands doesn't really seem to believe that it's possible, as necessary as it is.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Libra by Don DeLillo

Six point nine seconds of heat and light.  Let's call a meeting to analyze the blur.  Let's devote our lives to understanding this moment, separating the elements of each crowded second.  We will build theories that gleam like jade idols, intriguing systems of assumption, four-faced, graceful.  We will follow the bullet trajectories backwards to the lives that occupy the shadows, actual men who moan in their dreams.

Few events in modern history capture our attention like the assassination of JFK.

Ugh.  I look at that sentence, and it seems so obviously tedious, so tediously obvious.  The tediousness of it is part of its truth.  We've never really been able to look away from the Zapruder film, from the central mystery of it.  The truth of it is probably very banal: a Communist sympathizer with means and opportunity.  And yet we can't stop ourselves from spinning conspiracies about it, from making conjectures about grassy knolls and phantom bullets, not only because we want to make sense of it but because want a certain kind of sense from it.  We want it to be a conspiracy because it will make the murder meaningful, rather than pathetic.  As one character in Don DeLillo's Libra says, "Destiny is larger than facts or events.  It is something to believe in outside the ordinary borders of the senses, with God so distant from our lives."  We want JFK's death to be destiny.

Libra is about that search for destiny as it is about the assassination itself.  The same impulses that drove Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot Kennedy are the same ones that keep our attention on the act.  DeLillo's version of the killing, which traces "the bullet trajectories backwards" to Oswald's childhood, is both scrupulously faithful and entirely fantastical.  All the fringe figures are here, including guys I've never heard of like George de Mohrenschildt and David Ferrie, plus Oswald's Russian wife Marina and his mother Marguerite.  But DeLillo speculates that it was elements in the CIA that spurred Oswald to do it, embarrassed by the fiasco at Bay of Pigs and wanting to push public opinion toward a more forceful confrontation with Castro and Cuba.  They plan a near miss of Kennedy, but there are factions within factions and control over Oswald and the other shooters (yes, on the grassy knoll) is quickly lost.

Libra is, before anything else, a convincing biographical portrait of Oswald.  DeLillo, who I don't think is a particularly strong character writer, really does a great job of humanizing Oswald, from his childhood in Brooklyn and New Orleans to his military service in Japan and his defection to the USSR.  Oswald is a man on the margins, a poor white kid who never quite catches a break, and who turns to Marxism as a way of finding his own place in the world.  He is obsessed with secret names: Trotsky's name was Bronstein, Lenin's was Ulyanov; he too, expects a new name when he becomes a Marxist hero.  In this way he's not unlike the CIA ops, who have secret names for their projects that conceal even more secret, truer names.  This similarity is one of the book's fundamental ironies, and the reason why the fervently pro-Castro Oswald ends up enlisted in an anti-Castro project.

He obsesses also over his place in history, which he feels forever outside of.  Marxism is a way of understanding history, of course, with its certitude about the progression from late capitalism to worker's revolution. "He was a man in history now," he thinks when he's at last able to defect, but the Soviets can't provide him a sense of historical significance any more than America can.  Oswald's not alone in that, of course; that feeling of being outside history is really what Libra is about.  It's why we focus on the assassination, which seems like a moment of such great importance that it gathers history into a critical point, and if only we can understand it thoroughly we might find ourselves in history also.

White Noise is about this, too, but more satirically.  It's why Jack Gladney specializes in "Hitler Studies," hoping to pin down a certain moment, or man, of history, but that novel argues that the balkanization of academia moves us farther away from an understanding of history at large.  Here it's the CIA that experiences that balkanization, with its various factions moving within and apart from each other.  The bureaucrats who want to control history, forcing the U.S. into action in Cuba, find that it slips easily out of their grasp.  One thread follows a CIA bureaucrat named Branch, who's tasked with analyzing every scrap of information about the JFK assassination.  That knowledge, we understand, will be locked away in a box somewhere, even if the task were not an impossible one.  No, DeLillo says, history is impossible to track, and perhaps doesn't really describe the forces that work on human events:

"Think of two parallel lines," he said.  "One is the life of Lee H. Oswald.  One is the conspiracy to kill the President.  What bridges the space between them?  What make a connection inevitable?  There is a third line.  It comes out of dreams, visions, intuitions, prayers, out of the deepest levels of the self.  It's not generated by cause and effect like the other two lines.  It's a line that cuts across causality, cuts across time.  It has no history that we can recognize or understand.  But it forces a connection.  It puts a man on the path of his destiny."

I know that reading books close to each other can force all sorts of connections, but I was really amazed by how similar Libra is to Tree of SmokeThe factions within the CIA in the former are directly analogous to the factions within the military that Colonel Sands exploits in the latter; both see history as an intractable problem about the flow of information; both want to dramatize what it's like to be a figure at the mercy of that problem.  Even the language is similar, lurching toward abstraction, though Johnson's vocabulary seems to be borrowed from the mystic while DeLillo's is borrowed from the bureaucrat, or the systems analyst.  DeLillo is finely attuned to the deadness of American language, and it's ability to stultify and cripple.  I was surprised by how fluidly he captures the idiom of folks like Oswald's mom or Jack Ruby, both of whom are comic and sad.

What do we know in the end?  Well, we know that it's not really Oswald that killed Kennedy; it's one of the shooters on the grassy knoll.  But after 450 pages it's not really any easier to say why Oswald did it.  Somehow it remains overdetermined: He was manipulated; he was a true believer; it was his destiny.  Libra settles nothing, but it does tell us that nothing will ever be settled.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

The train stops and starts
like an old woman with a bad cough.
But I feel more than jumbled 
when I walk on, so a halting train
doesn’t faze me at all.

When I get off on 168th
it’s started snowing softly.
I turn my face into the wetness.
I pretend this is like a movie 
where the sky offers healing.
But it only makes me colder.

This I a young adult novel-in-verse from a performance poet who has been a National Slam Champion.  It tells the story of Xiomara, who slowly develops the nickname X and struggles with her overly-religious family, her gay brother, and her own emerging sexuality through writing poems.  The novel is designed to look like poetry, and there are some fine moments of poetry in it.  However, the structure is more episodic than poetic – very short “chapters” that tell of particular incidents or X’s feelings about those incidents and that build the overall narrative.

Questioning whether the verse in this novel-in-verse is legitimately poetry is petty, however, and is my only real criticism.  The characters are very well-drawn and their conflicts feel real without spilling into urban clich├ęs.  While there are drugs and violence and teenage sex in this world, this is not an urban jungle, but a place where working class people struggle with both their dreams and their crowded, filthy environment.  The arc of the story offers little that is new or surprising – you know her brother will be gay as soon as you meet him, you know her and her mother will have a crisis and that it will be resolved through mutual growth, you know that slam poetry will figure in that growth for both X and her mother. But I found this to be a page-turner. X becomes a vibrant person whose struggles become attractive and I found myself rooting for her throughout.  

There are no real villains here – I frankly found myself rooting for everyone.  Her mother’s religion is a bit close-minded and defensive, but you see a more humane and understanding approach to religion in her friend Caridad and know Mom can move in that direction.  X’s sometimes boyfriend fails her, and he deserves to be dumped when she dumps him, but it is clearly a failure of the moment and not a character flaw and you root for him to make it up to her.    The character of her brother Xavier is a minor disappointment – one of the marks that he is gay is that he is -unlike X- a good student who gets himself into a specialized high school and in that progressive, white environment is able to come to terms with his sexuality.  However, Acevedo does make clear that life for gay teens is one of pretty relentless fear and loneliness, and that seems to ring true for a lot of kids.  The saintly English teacher is too saintly – her lessons inspire except when she is wise enough to abandon them for something even more inspiring.  I have seen the type in many movies and TV shows, though never met one in an actual school.

But these are the kinds of quibbles that exist in many an enjoyable novel and this was certainly enjoyable.  I am, perhaps, not Ms. Acevedo’s target audience, but she hit me just the same.

Pitch Darkby Renata Adler

I enter a small town:  and, as I round a curve, on the cobbled road, I hear and slightly fee a sort of crack, or smack, on my side of the car.  I think I’ve grazed a truck, a very large truck, parked half on the sidewall, have in the road, along the curve.

This is Adler’s second and final novel, and it bears a strong resemblance to her first – Speedboat.  Both are structured around short, elliptical passages of action, description, narration and dialogues and these snippets slowly build a larger narrative.  In this case, it is the story of Kate Ennis.  I would not know that name if it were not mentioned in the blurb on the back of the book, and while that little summary says the book is about her separation from her married lover of eight years, there is little told of that separation, though it is clearly established through a repeating refrain of phone calls in which the lover complains that she has left and the narrator denies it.

However, we know she has left because most of the narrative involves her travels and interactions with people who seem to be helping her (usually unknowingly) get over the loss of this relationship.  The entire middle section of this short novel is given over to the story alluded to above. Kate goes for a vacation to Ireland and while driving to her friend’s mansion west of Dublin, gets into a fender bender with a parked truck.  The accident is recalled several times invivid detail as is her subsequent negotiations over reporting to insurance companies between her, the truck owner and the local constable.

Kate is convinced she is being cheated and drives off, late abandoning her dented, rented car in a small town in the middle of the night.  The rest of her stay in Ireland is one long paranoid episode of her trying to leave the country without alarming her guests or letting the police know that she is the criminal who left the scene of an accident and abandoned a rental car.  The paranoia and level of obsession with her getting caught seems out of all proportion to the alleged crime and it is immediately clear that her fear of being followed and her indecision about where to go have more to do with her breakup than with what she refers to later, repeatedly, as “the Irish thing.”

Like Speedboat, the mastery of structure maintained my interest as the shifting perspective and timeframes kept up a tension that was not native to the story being told.  Where Speedboat built to an emotional finish that made the very intellectual effort of putting the various incidents together pay off, Pitch Darkfails to ever build much emotional resonance.  Her relationship with the married man has devolved into odd, inconsequential phone calls and Adler ends with her narrator explaining the relationship between court cases and narrative in dry, technical terms.  While this reinforces the connection between “the Irish thing” and the breakup, it dampens any involvement the reader may have in that connection.  

However, the book did supply me with two interesting quotes about writing that are worth thinking about:

You are very busy.  I am very busy.  ….  So there is the pressure now, on every sentence, not just to say what it has to say, but to justify its claim upon our time.                           

… the reality I inhabit is already slant.

These two seem to reinforce a kind of anti-writing quality about Adler’s writing – as if the novel cannot capture reality and may not, therefore be worth the effort.  We hurtle along through the pitch dark on unknown roads and our later reflections on where we have been cannot live up to the reality of that run through the darkness.