Sunday, June 30, 2019

Republic of Lies by Anna Merlan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 22, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

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

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

Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

World of Wonders by Robertson Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Eternal Life by Dara Horn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 13, 2019

St. Urbain's Horseman by Mordecai Richler

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 10, 2019

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

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

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

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

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

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