Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Outline by Rachel Cusk

And likewise I was beginning to see my own fears and desires manifested outside myself, was beginning to see in other people's lives a commentary on my own.  When I looked at the family on the boat, I saw a vision of what I no longer had: I saw something, in other words, that wasn't there.  Those people were living in their moment, and though I could see it I could no more return to that moment than I could walk across the water that separated us.  And of those two ways of living--living int he moment and living outside of it--which was the more real?

The narrator of Rachel Cusk's Outline is a professional writer traveling to Athens to lead a writing workshop for a few weeks.  The plot, such as there is one, unfolds over the course of several conversations: with a man she sits next to on the plane, with a fellow workshop leader, with her students, with friends, with other writers, with strangers.  These people all tell the narrator about their lives, their families, their parents, and frequently, their divorces and other failed relationships.  Outline begins from the very basic observation that stories are a way of self-fashioning, that there is no "real story," but that we create our identities through the way we talk about ourselves.

As a writer, she's prone to see through the stories of some of her interlocutors.  For example, she's suspicious about her plane neighbor's assertion that his second wife locked his son, from his first marriage, in the frightening darkness of their underground wine cellar.  Yes, he admits, that wasn't quite the whole story: it was his son's assertion, the wife denied it, and the son is deeply mentally troubled in a way that extends even to violence.  But the detail is a necessary one, because it builds the man's understanding not only of his past but of his son, his wife, himself.

It's hard to explain why Outline is so engaging.  Much of it is thanks to Cusk's writing, which is psychologically sharp and, when reflecting on the inner lives of men and women, metaphorically rich.  It can be too rich, sometimes--unless you believe that all Greeks really are preternaturally articulate--but Cusk makes the conversations seem entirely natural.  The plot flouts traditional notions of storytelling in just the way that many of the writer-characters find suspicious; there is no inciting incident, no climax, no sense of progression or movement at all.  But I've read few moments this year as genuinely distressing as when, at the very end of her first writing workshop, one of the participants stands up to tell the narrator she's a bad teacher:

Each member of the group had now spoken, except for one, a woman whose name on my chart was Cassandra and whose expression I had watched grow sourer and sourer as the hour passed, who had made her displeasure known by a series of increasingly indiscreet groans and sighs, and who now sat with her arms implacably folded, shaking her head.  I asked her whether she had anything, before we concluded, to contribute, and she said that she did not.  She had obviously been mistaken, she said: she had been told this was a class about learning to write, something that as far as she was are involved using your imagination.  She didn't know what I thought had been achieved here, and she wasn't all that interested in finding out.  At least Ryan, she said, had taught them something.  She would be asking her organisers to refund her money, and would make damn sure they got her feedback.  I don't know who you are, she said to me, getting to her feet and collecting her things, but I'll tell you one thing, you're a lousy teacher.

I'm reacting to this moment, of course, as a teacher.  I think even if the snottiest and most truculent student said this to me I would wither into dust.  The fear is existential; I don't think of myself even as a teacher primarily, but I've spent eleven years of my life doing it, and if I'm a lousy one, who am I at all?  The narrator says it has caused her to "feel like nothing, a non-entity, even while she was giving me, so to speak, her full attention."  Of course, that's the central problem of Outline: the narrator really is a non-entity.  She evokes from people detailed and articulate accounts of their own lives, but her own life is repressed from the narrative.  She materializes as a character only by contrast, as the gap created by these stories that surround her.  She admits that something has obliterated her ability to tell the story of her own life, and that she is no longer confident in articulating who she is or what her life has been.  The people she meets "outline" their lives for her, but she herself is an "outline," something not filled in.  Because of a brief, oblique reference to 9/11, I thought for a moment that her husband, or a loved one, had died, but I think it's only a divorce--her narrative is so buried in the narrative, it's easy to grasp at straws like that one.

You wouldn't say she's an "unreliable narrator," but the narrator she reminded me of most was Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby.  They live in very different books, and they have different motivations, but they are both self-annihilators, and they let other people fill in the immense gaps their annihilation leaves.  Nick doesn't know it's a tragedy, but Faye--her name is given only one--certainly does.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Oliver Wendell Holmes: A Life in War, Law, and Ideas by Stephen Budiansky

My old formula is that a man should be an enthusiast in the front of his head without believing that the cosmos would collapse if he failed. One should have the same courage for failure that many have for death.

Since law school, a friend (What up, Ryan) and I have had a casual obsession with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. It's not total agreement with him (is anyone crazy about "Three generations of imbeciles are enough," Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200, 207 (1927)?). But, rather, I think the interest in Holmes stems from an approach to life, which Holmes embodied.

Holmes was a philosopher-professional: well-read, interested in the ideas of the day, and what those ideas offered to the problems of the day. Idealist feels right, but it'd actually be wrong: Holmes was deeply skeptical, and if he believed anything, it was in the need to be free from idealism. Still, I've always admired his commitment to engaging with ideas. He famously maintained correspondence with many people, especially people younger than him, keep up with what the kids were up to.

This interest aside, Budiansky's biography of Holmes was actually my first. I'd previously read Judge Posner's collection of Holmes's writing, and The Metaphysical Club, in which Holmes is featured as one of the club members.

I was surprised how much I already knew about Holmes's life: at a young age, Holmes fought for the union cause, got shot a shocking (almost comical) number of times; as a lawyer he wrote The Common Law, which is still one of the most American works about the common law; then a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court; then a justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Budiansky's biography offers a good opportunity to revisit Holmes and feel out the timeline of his life. But, there is something to be said for Holmes's observation that he himself wrote anything worth writing about himself: some of the best writing about Holmes is, well, some of Holmes's writing. This makes for a difficult biographic task: how do you add anything to the beautifully written letters, essays, and opinions? Budiansky adds context, timelines, and staying out of Holmes's way, quoting Holmes extensively (and to good effect) through the book.

Overall, I enjoyed the biography, but I am sympathetic to the New York Times review, which notes that Budiansky downplays the many contradictions of Holmes (like, wtf, re: Buck, man?). And, at times, the biography goes out of its way not to see Holmes in a bad light (are we sure he didn't have any affairs?). So: I'd recommend this as a good second book about Holmes, with Posner's collection of Holmes's writing being a better first book.

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

He pulls the trigger again.  His shirt gets drenched.  It looks almost like he's the one who's been shot.  I cough a death cough, and then I fall at his feet.  I make oh, ahh sounds.  The patron looks down at me.  Pop goes the gun a final time.  I can barely feel the shot hit my chest because of the suit.  I'm quiet, dead, with my eyes open, staring into the sky/the patron's eyes, staring right into his human.

"Zimmer Land," the sharpest of Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah's satirical science fiction stories in the collection Friday Black, imagines a Westworld-style fantasy theme park in which patrons, inevitably white patrons, get to defend their home against an actor playing a home invader.  The narrator is an actor who is "killed" several times a day, and often by repeat customers, people whose murderous fantasies are so intense they come back again and again.  The park--notice the allusion to Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman-bills itself as "justice-themed entertainment," where patrons can sharpen their moral decision making, but in practice, it serves as an outlet for racism and bloodlust.  The story works because it correctly diagnoses the deep and harmful fantasy that drives American machismo and American gun culture, the belief that a "good guy with a gun" can be a superhero, and how this fantasy results in very real death for real black people.

It shares an outlook with another story, "The Finkelstein 5," in which black Americans are provoked to a campaign of national violence against whites because of the acquittal of a man who murdered five black children with a chainsaw, claiming he felt afraid for his children.  It's the slight exaggeration, the outlandish detail of the chainsaw, that moves the story from bleak realism to speculative fiction, but it's perfectly calibrated: it feels absurd, and yet not outside the realm of possibility.  Both stories feel like a particularly sharp-toothed version of George Saunders, who indeed provides praise for the dust jacket.

Another story I liked, and which is probably the strongest in the collection, is "The Hospital Where": On one level, it's a story of a man trying to navigate a hospital on behalf of his aging father.  The narrator is a writer of short stories, and he tries to work on his writing in the waiting room, but he has writer's block, and the Twelve-Tongued God, the demanding deity of creativity to whom he has become an acolyte.  Adjei-Brenyah links the creative impulse to the need to imagine a life outside poverty and marginalization; the Twelve-Tongued God winks and a hot plate becomes a stove.  As the story progresses, we come to understand that the story we are reading is the one the narrator is writing, and over which he has incomplete control.  A doctor tending to a family points at the narrator and says, "That young man there can end your suffering.  He is putting you through this.  Maybe for no reason at all."  How can a writer balance the impulse to write the world into a better place with the need to take a sober look at real suffering?  That's the tension that drives the story, and it provides a kind of exegesis of the way that Adjei-Brenyah uses science fiction tropes throughout the collection.

Unfortunately, I thought most of the stories didn't quite function.  Some, like "Through the Flash," about a nuclear blast that causes the whole world to reset every day, are chock full of interesting ideas that really need the space of a novel to develop, making them seem overstuffed.  The title story of the collection, about a retail worker at the mall on Black Friday, goes for anti-consumerist satire: the shoppers become primitive and violent, trampling even their family for the best deals, talking in caveman pidgin.  It's an idea that would have been stale thirty years ago, and in 2019, it feels utterly anachronistic.  Consumerism is alive and well, but it doesn't look like hordes storming the mall anymore, it looks like an Amazon serf being denied access to the bathroom.  Grimly, this story is replicated twice more, in the stories "How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing" and "In Retail," each time less memorably and inventively than the last.  Swinging for the fences doesn't always work in these stories, but I prefer puzzling clunkers like "Light Splitter"--a story in which an Elliott Rodger-style shooter meets his victim in the afterlife--to the boring realism of those retail stories.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Satan's Silence by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker

Now, determined to unmask the cabal that was victimizing the South Bay's children, Currie quit working and devoted himself full-time to sleuthing.  He began combing woods and beaches for satanic artifacts.  Once he found a dead frog that was missing its intestines.  Convinced it was the remnant of a demonic rite, Currie brought it home and displayed it in his dining room, in full view of his frightened children.  Another father called a DA's investigator late one night and reported that someone from the "conspiracy" had placed a stake into his lawn.  When the sun rose the next morning, the stake turned out to be a newly bloomed gladiola bulb.

We use the phrase "witch hunt" all the time.  We use it to mean any unfounded accusation, typically with the insinuation that there are ulterior motives at hand, and a willful disregard for evidence or proof.  The president is certainly fond of using it to describe the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, but he's not alone.  It's a dead phrase, shorn of the impact of the history it references, and I think we have mostly accepted that it's a dead phrase because we believe we are wiser than the generation that executed nineteen people in Salem, Massachusetts at the end of the 18th century.  But, as Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker show in their book Satan's Silence, history repeats, and the traits that made the Salem witch trials so uniquely horrifying--the mass hysteria, marked not by bad faith but utter sincerity; the targeting of women, people of color, and other marginalized people; the unexamined accusations of literally Satanic behavior; the fear of being perceived as siding with the accused rather than the accuser; the immense human cost--are all shared with the Satanic ritual abuse cases that rocked the United States in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

In 1983, a mentally ill mother in Manhattan Beach, California, became obsessed with the state of her preschool-aged son's genitals and anus.  After relentlessly questioning him, she got him to admit that a worker at the preschool, Ray Buckey, had "taken his temperature," and became convinced that the "thermometer" Buckey used was not a thermometer at all.  A year later, police and researchers would be claiming that 360 children had been sexually abused at the McMartin Day Care, not just by Buckey but his mother and grandmother.  The accusations included claims, made by the children, that they witnessed witches riding on broomsticks, that they were abused in hot air balloons, and that they were abused by Chuck Norris.  The entire school was leveled to search for the hidden tunnels where abuse purportedly took place, and of course, none were found.  The trial, which ended up lasting seven years, was the longest and most expensive in American history.  It ended in acquittal for all parties, but by then Ray Buckey had spent five years in jail, and this and similar California cases spawned a wave of ritual abuse prosecutions throughout the country, in which the accused were not so lucky.  Many accused went to jail for decades.

The narratives of these cases, according to Nathan and Snedeker, defied belief.  They required you to believe that Satanic rings, comprising hundreds of otherwise ordinary people, were abusing children in day care centers at rates so unbelievable that they could hardly escape detection from other adults.  The authors of Satan's Silence describe a perfect storm of cultural, political, and legal forces that perpetuated the moral panic: Feminists and child abuse advocates overcorrected for a widely held belief up through the 1960's that children could not be trusted as witnesses.  Child abuse "experts" and investigators insisted that children did not lie about being abused, and confirmed these beliefs by interviewing frightened kids with leading questions.  Child abuse was seen as a slam-dunk issue for ambitious prosecutors--the authors even suggest that Janet Reno, whose prosecution of Frank Fuster in Miami helped launch her to the office of Attorney General, was similarly preoccupied with child abuse by the Branch Davidians in Waco, and the same dynamics led to the firefight that killed 76 people.  Unscrupulous medical researchers claimed to be able to recognize signs of sexual abuse in children, bolstered by unscientific and frankly sexist understandings of what "normal" genitalia, especially young female genitalia, look like.

This book was hard to read.  The accounts of the accusations themselves, even though they recount abuse that never occurred, are grueling.  Faced with the prospect of such horrible things happening to your child, hysteria seems understandable.  But it was also hard to read because it shows how dozens of innocent people, most of whom dedicated their lives to the not-lucrative profession of child caretaking, had their lives ruined.  One element of the panic I hadn't known about was that the accusers often came from powerful or wealthy families, even families of police and prosecutors, while the accused were often poorer, women, immigrants.  The children, too, who were prodded and coerced into accusing their caretakers and sometimes even their own parents, were put through intense trauma.

I picked this book up because I've been thinking about write a novel about the Satanic Panic of the late 80's and early 90's.  I was hoping Satan's Silence could give me a better sense of the cultural theology involved, of what people believed about Satan and Satanists, but the book sheds less light on that aspect of the time period.  That makes sense: because the imagined Satanists were secretive, shadowy, the nature and structure of their rituals was sketchy.  Books like Michelle Remembers and the Wicca Letters apparently provide some sense of who these Satanists were supposed to be, but in the cases themselves, whatever a kid could be prodded to imagine was seized on.  But one thing I'd really like to hear more about is the way that these cases fit into larger patterns of Satanic fears, of records being played backwards, and of distinct travesties like the West Memphis Three, three high schoolers accused of killing three boys in 1993.

Satan's Silence is a reminder that we are not past the kind of social dynamics that produce a real witch hunt.  Though many of the accused in these cases have been released, most weren't until after this book was published, in the mid-2000's.  And you don't have to look far to see history repeating itself yet again: In 2016 Edgar Welch walked into Comet Ping Pong Pizza in Washington, D.C. with an AR-15, looking to take down Satanist child molesters.  Like the McMartin Day Care, Comet Ping Pong has a phantom basement where abuse goes on.  Edgar Welch couldn't find it, but there are thousands of online warriors convinced he just wasn't looking hard enough.

Monday, August 19, 2019

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

I believe there is one story in the world, and only one, that has frightened us and inspired us, so that we live in a Pearl White serial of continuing thought and wonder.  Humans are caught--in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity, too--in a net of good and evil.  I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence.  Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last, and this despite any changes we may impose on field and river and mountain, on economy and manners.  There is no other story.  A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil?  Have I done well--or ill?

Adam and Charles Trask live under the heavy-handed dominion of their father, Cyrus, a former Civil War soldier who has managed to become wealthy and respected despite undistinguished service.  Adam is sensitive and intelligent, Charles dark and brooding.  Adam has little respect or love for his father, but Cyrus loves Adam the best, while Charles suffers with unrequited love for his father.  He beats Adam savagely, upset that Cyrus has not appreciated the gift of a knife he saved scrupulously for, while he adores a puppy that Adam has picked thoughtlessly from a litter.  This the point where the parallels to the Cain and Abel story are most obvious--Steinbeck even gives them the same initials--which reinforces one of the novel's main ideas, that the earliest, most legendary conflicts of human beings repeat again and again in generational patterns.  Though Cain and Abel are text more than subtext here, there are shadows also of Adam and Eve (hey, look at the title) and Jacob and Esau.

Adam suffers in the army, drifts through hobo-hood, and finally finds himself reinvigorated when a strange woman appears on the porch of the house he shares with Charles.  She's been badly beaten, and he puts all his energy into healing her, then marrying her.  But this woman--Cathy--is no innocent victim, but a sociopath who is determined to use Adam to help her to safety and freedom, then abandon him.  Steinbeck introduces her this way:

And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born?  The face and the body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg an produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul?

Damn, John.  Adam moves Cathy to California's Salinas Valley over her protests; she gives him two sons--who are most likely actually Charles'--but not before trying to give herself an icepick abortion.  As soon as she's healthy enough to leave, she does, shooting Adam in the shoulder and leaving him with the two boys.  For months, Adam is in such shock he doesn't even name his children (a perfect detail in a book that has quite a few of them, I think), until he's forced to by his neighbor Sam Hamilton and his Chinese servant Lee, the novel's twin forces of wisdom.  The boys become Aron and Cal, inheriting the foreboding initials.

The question the novel then asks is, does the pattern really have to repeat?  Cal is the dark and brooding one, Aron the lovable fair one.  But does Cal's resentment have to turn to fratricide, symbolic or otherwise?  Cal, once he grows up, recognizes the conflicting impulses to love and resentment, and struggles to conquer them.  Steinbeck makes much of a single Hebrew word in the Cain and Abel story, timshel, which he translates "thou mayest," and takes as an indication that humans are free actors who can give into the powerful repeating forces of history, or break free of them.  But it's easier said than done, and it's because of this conflict that Cal becomes a much more fascinating character than the kindly and obtuse Aron.  In fact, by the novel's end, it's hard to imagine that anyone would prefer Aron to Cal at all, though half the conflict comes from the fact that everybody does.  This theme intersects with the story of the California frontier in interesting ways.  Is California going to be a new Eden, Steinbeck asks, or are its new communities going to go on repeating the same old mistakes?

East of Eden is a kind of novel that was probably a little passe by the time Steinbeck wrote it.  It has the heft of a good Russian epic, or a Dickens serial, but it reminded me most of Hardy: its pastoral idealism, its themes of generational trauma, its stagey reliance on patterns, coincidences, and paths crossing.  Brent called it a "flawed masterpiece," or something like that, and I think he's right: the flaw is in the character of Cathy.

On one level, she works perfectly.  Her cold-bloodedness is the agent of conflict that throws Adam's life into chaos and drives conflict in the novel, and in many ways she herself is a fascinating character.  But it's hard to ignore the fact that what is most suspect about Cathy is her need to be an independent woman, to enjoy the kind of self-sufficiency that becomes Adam's path after she abandons him, and which in a meaningful way is embodied by the narrative of western settlement that the novel tells.  She has all the characteristics of a femme fatale, the woman whose free sexuality is a weapon and a sin.  And she fits uneasily in the novel's self-image as myth: if men are constantly struggling to break out of the patterns that dog them through history, women are either removed from that grand conflict, or they participate in it as avatars of Eve.  A good woman is, like Sam Hamilton's wife Liza, unfailingly domestic; a bad woman, like Eve and Cathy, is antithetic to domestic life.  And let's not get started on the "ancient Chinese wisdom" of the servant Lee.

East of Eden is a terrific novel.  But I can't help but imagine what it might have been like if it had taken Cathy's dreams--or even those of Lee, who dreams of starting a bookstore in San Francisco's Chinatown, but ultimately just loves being the Trasks' domestic servant too much--as seriously as it does Adam's or Cal's.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog

I am Mary Brave Bird.  After I had my baby during the siege of Wounded Knee they gave me a special name--Ohitika Win, Brave Woman, and fastened an eagle-plume in my hair, singing brave-heart songs for me.  I am a woman of the Red Nation, a Sioux woman.  That is not easy.

Mary Crow Dog's memoir Lakota Woman is a firsthand account from the frontlines of the major American Indian movement clashes of the 20th century.  As the wife of medicine man Leonard Crow Dog, imprisoned and persecuted for his associations with AIM member Leonard Peltier, she took part in both the 1972 occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building and the 1973 occupation of the town of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation.  Lakota Woman centers on Wounded Knee especially, where Crow Dog--then Mary Brave Bird--birthed her first child, in the middle of an FBI siege and firefight.

As a primary source, Lakota Woman is remarkable.  Not just for her accounts of the occupations, but also her account of growing up in a repressive Indian boarding school (the brutality and cultural depredation she suffered there sounds just like the story told by Zitkala-Sa, though separated by more than a half-century) and traditional Native American ceremonies like the Sun Dance and the use of peyote.  (I'm especially thankful for her account of the peyote ceremony--I was hoping to find something in David Treuer's history of Native America to complement the peyote ceremony in House Made of Dawn, but he's strangely silent about the Native American Church.)

Lakota Woman really helps the outsider, this outsider, understand the contours of the American Indian Movement, including the way that it brings together Native American of radically different tribal affiliations and traditions, including native activists from Mexico and Canada.  But it also reveals some of the divisions between Native Americans, even in the same communities.  It helped me understand, for example, why the occupation of Wounded Knee was in protest of the Sioux tribal chairman Dick Wilson rather than the U.S. government--as Crow Dog describes it, the tribal chairmen were often the least racially or culturally committed members of the nation because they were the most willing and able to participate in power structures imposed by the federal government, and Wilson in particular ran the reservation through paramilitary violence that was ignored, or tacitly supported, by federal officials.  Crow Dog describes the difficulty of being a "mixed-blood" Sioux woman, and having to overcome the suspicion of Leonard Crow Dog's family, who are, according to the memoir, famous among the Sioux for their cultural isolation and traditional ways.  Mary Crow Dog also describes being caught between the pressures of white liberal, especially feminist, allies, and the traditionalist activists who often made up the movement's core.  Lakota Woman really lays the contours of the American Indian Movement bare.

I was interested in the difference between this account and David Treuer's description of the AIM in Heartbeat of Wounded Knee.  I could be misremembering, but Treuer seems to regard the AIM as something between a sloppy embarrassment (both the occupation of the BIA and Wounded Knee were largely unplanned) and a violent overreaction.  Mary Crow Dog often discusses her affection for her friend Annie Mae Aquash, the Mi'kmaq woman who was found dead and frozen at Pine Ridge in 1973; throughout the memoir she seems to infer that Aquash's death occurred at the hands of the AIM's opponents, but fails to mention the popular theory that it was leaders of the AIM who were responsible for her murder.  Should we be reading Crow Dog's account, then, with a grain of salt?  And how does that connect to her account of the persecution and imprisonment of her husband, Leonard Crow Dog (whose experience in jail really does sound awful), or cause celebre Leonard Peltier?

Of course, no one would accuse Lakota Woman of being un-ideological.  More than anything, it's a full-throated defense of the American Indian Movement's strategies and methods.  Its style is conversational, straightforward; it seems to come right out of Mary Crow Dog's mouth, and that's part of what makes it so worthwhile.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Native American Fiction: A User's Manual by David Treuer

Somewhere along the way--in the eighteenth century perhaps--Indians became associated with a very specific set of virtues.  And then, at a later point Indians were perceived as having vanished.  Or, if we hadn't disappeared entirely, we were no longer perceived as being pure.  We were diluted by blood and experience.  This, in the imagination, happens during the start of the reservation period (because of the qualities of pride and independence and...)  Somehow the virtues have remained, though we are gone.  And Indians and Indianness persist as ghosts persist: as hovering presences that can be evoked and appealed to, linked to life but separate from it, no longer a reality, or in reality.  We became but an essence.

In one essay in his book Native American Fiction: A User's Manual, David Treuer tells an anecdote about signing books in Finland, where a man, dressed in jeans and a vest with a long black braid, asked him to sign a picture of himself, writing "To Lonely Wolf."  "Don't you mean Lone Wolf," Treuer asked, but no--his spiritual name was Lonely Wolf.  A parody of a Native American name, but sported with deadly earnestness.

I'm teaching a class in the spring on contemporary Native American fiction, and I'm pretty anxious about it.  The anxiety centers around being a figure like Lonely Wolf: a person whose sympathy with Native Americans, or the Native Americans he has imagined, precludes actually hearing or listening to the Native Americans of reality.  A person who likes the idea of Native America, but who's never met a real Native American.  As a teacher, it's a hard triangulation to make.  Students expect expertise, and while I'm certainly an expert in literature and reading it, my expertise in Native American issues is as shrunken as any white person's necessarily is.  But I think these texts, and these people, are worth listening to, as is only infrequently done--Treuer calls it "Indian silence"--and so I have to put myself in the position of a listener, too.  No braids, no vest.

Treuer's set of essays acts as a kind of manifesto about how to read Native fiction.  He talks about several authors and texts I'm planning on reading, like James Welch's Fools Crow and Louise Erdrich's Love MedicineOne of his central arguments is that these novels are about culture, but they are not culture, even though that's the way we often read them, as tangible an artifact as a ribbon shirt or a piece of black-and-white Pueblo pottery.  I have trouble with the rigidity of that distinction.  Are no novels "culture" or is this a special distinction for novels by Native authors?  Culture, as Treuer describes, is embodied in the lifeways of his Ojibwe community, distinct from the literature that an Ojibwe person (like Erdrich) might reproduce.  But is that because the novel is necessarily a European form, and if so, how does that square with Treuer's own dismissal of the question of authenticity?  But Treuer's certainly right when he says that the novels are not allowed to be literature, a right which Anglo-American authors have enjoyed for centuries.  For this reason he even expresses doubt whether "Native American fiction" is a meaningful category at all (a bold move, given the title of the book).

In the process, Treuer dissects a lot of cant about Native American qualities in these novels.  Critics claim that Love Medicine employs the "polyvocality" of Ojibwe myth, but Ojibwe myths, as Treuer shows, are narratively straightforward.  The language of Fools Crow is modeled less on Blackfeet language than on the epic similes of The Odyssey.  The myth-poems of Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony have more in common with modern notions of poetry than Pueblo myths, which are not poetry at all.  (Though, one might argue, they're not really prose either.)  In all these cases, what the novels possess is not culture but a desire for culture, a longing for authentic indigenous experiences, constructed with the familiar tools of the American fiction tradition.  Though I'm not sure Treuer intended it, there's something tragic in that, a suggestion that, perhaps unknowingly, these authors are reaching for something with tools that can never accomplish it.  Treuer's essays end up being a kind of deconstructivist project.

Treuer warns that it might seem he's giving these novels "harsh treatment," but frequently stops to remind us that he has great admiration and love for Erdrich, Welch, Silko, etc.  He only wants them to be read honestly.  Except when it comes to Sherman Alexie, whose work he rips apart with the precision of a butcher working on a carcass.  He compares Alexie's Reservation Blues to a famous hoax novel, The Education of Little Tree, which was a popular memoir of a Native child until it was exposed as having been written by a white KKK leader.  In that essay he wants to undermine popular ideas of authenticity, and reclaim Little Tree as an "Indian novel" because it shares many qualities with other imaginative renditions of Indianness.  But the opposite is also true: Alexie's work, as described by Treuer, is chock-full of bad stereotypes and nonsense about racial purity.  I've never actually read Alexie, but Treuer's account confirmed a lot of what I've intuited--plus, it's always fun to read a good takedown.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier

At first she felt sick, deadly sick; she had lain on her bed that night, praying for the mercy of sleep, and it had been denied her.  There were faces in the darkness that she had not known; the worn and weary faces of drowned people.  There was a child with broken wrists; and a woman whose long wet hair clung to her face; and the screaming, frightened faces of men who had never learned how to swim.  Sometimes it seemed to her that her own mother and father were amongst them; they looked up at her with wide eyes and pallid lips, and they stretched out their hands.  Perhaps this was what Aunt Patience suffered, alone in her room at night; the faces came to her too, and pleaded, and she pushed them away.

Mary Yellan is used to independence, tending the farm with her ailing mother.  But when her mother dies she's forced to go live with her mother's sister, her Aunt Patience, and Patience's husband Joss Merlyn, the keeper of Jamaica Inn on the wild Cornish coast.  Patience, whose name means "suffering," etymologically speaking, is a shell of her former self, constantly frightened and pale; Joss is a hard-drinking lout who insults and threatens.  The inn seems to never have customers, except on Saturday nights, when the barroom is full of criminal types, and when Mary, up in her room, hears the turning of wagons in the lane below.  Joss, she discovers quickly, is the leader of a ring of smugglers.

Yet, that doesn't account for why the coachman, in the novel's opening scene, tries to dissuade her from going to Jamaica Inn.  Or why her aunt tells her tremblingly that "evil things" happen there.  Smuggling is illegal, but is it evil?  No, the truth is much worse: Mary discovers that Joss and his band are not just smugglers but wreckers, who draw ships on to the rocky Cornwall coast with a false light, murdering the survivors and looting the ship.  "But when I'm drunk," Joss, who is always drunk, tells her, "I see them in my dreams; I see their white-green faces staring at me, with their eyes eaten by fish; and some of them are torn, with the flesh hanging on their bones in ribbons, and some of them have seaweed in their hair..."  The scene where a drunken Joss kidnaps Mary and forces her to witness a ship-wrecking is one of the novel's most horrifying scenes.  Mary, headstrong as ever, is determined to bring justice to Joss and save her aunt, but not before falling unexpectedly in love with Joss' brother, a no-account horsethief named Jem.

Joss is villain enough for the novel: crude, outrageous, caught in a cycle of guilt and violence that he knows will be his own undoing.  But the best thing about Jamaica Inn is that it has another villain hidden behind him, one who is infinitely more unusual and interesting.  The twist itself--both that Joss is working for someone else and who that someone else is--is telegraphed pretty early, but the way that du Maurier describes the novel's "Big Bad" is so tremendous I don't want to give anything away.  But I will say this: the novel becomes, in its final moments, a sort of spooky love letter to the ancient Cornish coast that was du Maurier's home, with its murdering rocks and remnant pagan spirit.  Cornwall, as she describes it, is a place older than Christianity, and the evil that drives ships to their doom may be much older also.  It reminded me of a great horror film, like an Ari Aster movie, or the weird incongruous mysticism of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

I have so much respect for novels, like J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace and Patrick White's A Fringe of Leaves, that switch gears suddenly and become a different novel entirely.  That's a hard trick to pull off.  It's all the more interesting to see it happen in Jamaica Inn because the novel presents as a well-crafted but typical slice of Gothic fiction, something out of the tradition of Ann Radcliffe, and then pulls the curtain away to reveal itself as something much weirder.  I have no idea what du Maurier's relationship to the critics of her day was, but it seems almost like she's playing around with her own reputation as a genre writer.  Whether that's true or not, Jamaica Inn is really something.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

He felt certain that he should carry his camera, though, since a blizzard like this one did not come along often--the last had hit in '36--and was sure to do the sort of damage that constituted island news.  Nonetheless, from Ishmael's perspective this inclement weather should not be allowed to overshadow the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, which was an affair of a different sort entirely and of a greater magnitude.  In the hearts of his fellow islanders, though, weather of this sort overwhelmed absolutely everything, so that even when a man stood trial for his life it was no doubt the destruction of docks and bulkheads, the trees fallen on homes, the burst pipes, the stranded cars, that would most interest San Piedro's citizens.  Ishmael, a native, could not understand how such transitory and accidental occurrences gained the upper hand in their view of things.  It was as if they had been waiting all along for something enormous to enter their lives and make them part of the news.  On the other hand the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto was the first island murder trial in twenty-eight years--Ishmael had looked it up in back issues of the Review--and unlike the storm was a human affair, stood squarely in the arena of human responsibility, was no mere accident of wind and sea but a thing humans could make sense of.  Its progress, its impact, its outcome, its meaning--these were in the hands of the people.

On a dangerously snowy day on one of Washington's San Juan Islands, a man is on trial for murder.  The victim is Carl Heine, a fisherman found drowned, with a head wound, dangling from the net of his own boat.  The accused is Kabuo Miyamoto, another fisherman.  The theory of the prosecutor goes like this: Miyamoto's father was once a strawberry picker working for Heine's father, and the two men game to an agreement under which the elder Miyamoto would buy a small part of the strawberry farm in installments.  That plan is only months from completion when World War II breaks out, and the Miyamoto family, like all the Japanese families in the San Juan Islands, are carted off to the interment camps at Manzanar in California.  The elder Heine dies, and his bitter, bigoted widow refuses to honor the agreement.  She sells the farm to another man, who eventually sells it back to Carl Heine, the son of the former owner.

Did Kabuo kill Carl out of anger, because he refused to honor, at long last, the agreement their fathers came to?  Snow Falling on Cedars is a novel about an immediate act of (supposed) violence, but also about a violence that takes place on such a scale as to not be recognizable as violence.  The internment of the local Japanese Americans destabilizes not just their slice of the community but the community as a whole: shrinks it, arrests it.  The trial pokes at buried grievances, not just the conflict between the Miyamotos and the Heines, but also the interrupted relationship between a young Ishmael Chambers, now the editor of the local newspaper, and Hatsue Imada, now Kabuo's wife.  The young Hatsue, as recounted in flashbacks, has doubts about whether her affection for Ishmael is really love, or whether it can overcome the separation between the white and Japanese communities, but these doubts are never really resolved because internment interrupts them.  It certainly interrupts the life of Ishmael, who spends decades pining for Hatsue, unable to move on because the sudden reality of internment made it impossible.  He finds evidence that may absolve Kabuo, but what will he do with it?

Snow Falling on Cedars is part courtroom drama, part middlebrow trauma narrative.  It can be quite beautiful--the blizzard, and the slightly exotic setting, do a lot of heavy lifting--but it doesn't demand much more from the reader than a belief that racism is a bad thing.  Maybe in this age of modern internment that's not something to be discounted.  It's a page-turner in the most literal sense; even at close to 500 pages I found I couldn't put it down.  I read it on an airplane, and I think that was the perfect place for it; it kept me busy but offered few surprises or difficulties that might not survive distraction.  Having finished it almost a week ago, I'm finding that it's difficult to dredge up something to say about it.  For a novel about trauma that lasts through generations, it ended up being pretty forgettable.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

For girls, becoming women was inevitability. For boys, becoming men was ambition.
I'm coming out of retirement to review Home Fire, months after reading it, because it is still haunting me. The novel revolves around the lives of a British Muslim family, the Pashas. The father is gone before the novel begins, dead on his way to Guantanamo after being recruited by Muslim fundamentalists. He leaves behind three soon orphaned children: Isma, the eldest sister, and Parvaiz and Aneeka, twins. The novel begins with an adult Isma leaving London for the states to pursue her doctorate, and unravels as Parvaiz is recruited by ISIS and then attempts to return home.

The novel shifts between the voices of the Pasha siblings and their loved ones and paints a vivid and compelling picture of the complex allegiances that come with being a muslim in the Western world today (and, as the novel progresses, the impossible complexity of allegiances that come with a radicalized loved one). She grapples with gender and tradition, with ties to family and society, ties to host countries, home countries, and family countries. Each one of her characters is pulled in so many different directions at once, and she is able to illuminate those forces beautifully.

Shamsie pulls you in immediately and creates an uncomfortably compelling narrative, especially around Parvaiz as he slides into radical Islam. She does so, somehow, without endorsing terrorism or ISIS, but while humanizing the men who fall victim to its messaging. Her descriptions of grief and loss are what stuck with me, long after finishing the novel:
Grief manifested itself in ways that felt like anything but grief; grief obliterated all feelings but grief; grief made a twin wear the same shirt for days on end to preserve the morning on which the dead were still living; grief made a twin peel stars off the ceiling and lie in bed with glowing points adhered to fingertips; grief was bad-tempered, grief was kind; grief saw nothing but itself, grief saw every speck of pain in the world; grief spread its wings large like an eagle, grief huddled small like a porcupine; grief needed company, grief craved solitude; grief wanted to remember, wanted to forget; grief raged, grief whimpered; grief made time compress and contract; grief tasted like hunger, felt like numbness, sounded like silence; grief tasted like bile, felt like blades, sounded like all the noise of the world.

It took me until the final pages to realize that Shamsie was working from a allegorical prototype, and I'm sure a more careful (and less tired) reader would have caught it sooner, and seen the end coming. I'm torn as to whether to share it here because it lends a whole new dimension to the novel, but I also enjoyed coming to it myself.

This made me realize that, despite my efforts to diversify my shelves, I don't read a lot of Muslim narratives. Radicalism aside, the nuance of Shamsie's analysis of what it means to be a British Muslim has really stuck with me, and her ability to tackle fundamentalism on top of that is even more impressive. Highly recommend!