Friday, November 29, 2019

These Are Our Demands by Matthew Pitt

They barely down one bite before the phone rings.  “It’s them,” Father exclaims, and in his excitement to rise, his knees ram into the table bottom, causing casserole dishes to knock like tectonic plates.
But Mother grasps his wrist before he can break toward the phone, “Let’s not pick up.  Their calls have grown so painful.  And dinner is piping.”

These Are Our Demands is the second collection of stories from Pitt, the editor of the literary magazine at Texas Christian University, descant.  They accepted one of my stories for publication and I decided to read this to see what sort of company I will be keeping.  These are solid stories, filled with some excellent images embedded in crisp sentences, held together by style and a certain outlook on the plight of their characters.
The title announces the idea that the characters in these stories are involved in metaphorical hostage situations, listing their demands of life.  In some cases, those demands are well known, in others they become clear in the course of the story.  The collection is also held together by a narrative attitude that describes a world that is basically realistic, but contains a small detail that is off-base.  I think of this as the Aimee Bender school of short stories, where unusual things happen in what would otherwise be the usual world – dresses burst into flames, for example.  The unusual details are much smaller in these stories that they tend to be in Bender’s.  They break with realism just enough to keep the reader off center, to encourage us to think about certain details.    
For example, the title story, from which my quote above is extracted, concerns a Mother and Father who begin to get phone calls from kidnappers laying out demands.  The calls are unnerving and terrifying and give the parents many opportunities to think about how much their children mean to them.  However, in each instance, upon receiving a call, they rush to check on the children and find them at home, safe and sound.  The parents live with the idea of kidnapping for months even while their children continue to lead normal lives.  Then one day, the children are gone.  Now the police are called, and it is discovered that now the children have planned their own kidnapping.  They are gone, but again, there is no kidnapper.  The story ends with the parents getting over their fears and cutting off negotiations with their children.  
In “When You Get Ahead of Yourself,” a man struggles with his ability to foresee the future – but only in his immediate area and only three seconds before it happens.  The result is odd and original take on the super-hero story with less science fiction than emotional reflection on our relationship to time:  What do you really want to know?  How do you live in the moment if each moment contains a bit of the future?  In “Do The October Dangle,” the high school driver’s ed teacher hires a woman with unusual theatrical skills to booby trap the roads he takes his students driving on.  In “After The Jump,” a makeshift family attempts to stay together, facing just the kind of challenges to love that everyone faces, but in a world where fresh water is disappearing, accidentally salinated by moon dust.
The effect of these little quirks is never the strength of the individual story.  While in “When You Get Ahead of Yourself,” the comic nature of the hero’s super-power is clever and entertaining, the aspect of the story that grabs me is the budding love story between the immigrant super-hero and his English tutor.  The story is strongest when we are focused on the tenderness of the man’s feelings and reading her ambivalence through his eyes.  The three-second warning gives the last image a special power, but it is only reinforcing emotional power that comes from somewhere else.  Similarly, in “After the Jump,” the story of the relationship among the principal characters – a mother, her children and the mother’s boyfriend is what drives the story.  That the husband is absent because he is building luxury developments on the moon or that the world they inhabit is physically as well as emotionally parched is clever, but feels less than fully relevant.
In the middle of these stories is a mini-collection of three stories connected by their setting in the Mississippi Delta.  These deal with race relations, cultural decline and capitalist development.  Occasional redemptions take place in a world that is largely uninterested in redeeming itself.  Here the characters – a man out on parole who finds a way to punish his mother for her racism and do penance for his own past crimes, a man returning to his old neighborhood to find the blues musicians his ne’er-do-well father knew, and a young girl convinced that sex with a former Disney star will push her life towards meaning, carry us without the pyrotechnics of an altered universe.  In these stories, in which Pitt captures a world that is already quirky and odd without needing to change a detail, we are moved without trickery and, for me, they are the highlight of the collection.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Standing there on the embankment, staring into the current, I realized that--in spite of all the risks involved--a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence; that that which is static will degenerate and decay, turn to ash, while that which is in motion is able to last for all eternity.

The narrator of Flights, a novel by recent Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is a traveler by nature.  She spends her entire life flying from one place to another, supporting her travels by odd jobs, but it's the only life she can imagine: staying in one place is a kind of death; it's movement that means life.  The style of Flights, too, reinforces this idea, flitting--flying--from one narrative to another, or from vignette to vignette.  Scenes only hold her interest for so long: accounts of certain airplane flights, or certain passengers, a lecture series on "travel psychology" that takes place in airports, meditations on what airports look like from above and what it is like to have no home but hotels.

But the best parts of Flights are when the narrative, despite itself, settles down and tells a longer narrative.  There are probably seven or eight "major" stories in Flights, each one broken into pieces and scattered to appease the narrator's need for movement.  In one, titled "Kunicki," a Polish man traveling on a Croatian island searches for his wife and son after their sudden and unexplained disappearance.  Later, they return with an improbable story of falling ill and hiding in an abandoned home for days, but their disappearance has changed his life irrevocably; not only can he no longer trust her, the very sight of his home seems to have changed somehow.  Did she leave on a whim, abandoning him, only to return?  A counterpart is the unrelated story of Annushka, who leaves her distant husband and critically ill son to live underground in Moscow's metro system, choosing homelessness--movement--over safety and stillness.

The narratives in Flights are haunted by death and by the body.  Death, of course, is the ultimate kind of stillness, and the body the site at which it enters, or perhaps the natural state of motion leaves.  One strange motif in these narratives is plastination, the process by which human tissue is preserved after death, stasis imposed against the forces of decay, which are also a kind of motion.  In one longer narrative, a doctor desperately searches for a secret formula which will provide a superior form of plastination; in another, a man discovers the Achilles' tendon by operating on his own amputated leg, which has been preserved.  A collection of preserved organs nearly causes a mutiny on board a ship when the sailors discover they've been preserved in (gross) brandy.

Flights seems like that truly rare thing: a book that understands something critical about contemporary life.  The "Jet Age" may seem like an antiquated term, but the fact of widespread global travel is only a few decades old, and we are only now perhaps beginning to understand what that means for the human mind and spirit.  An extended meditation on Wikipedia--an attempt to encapsulate the whole of human knowledge, which must reckon with its need to reflect change and its capability to impose permanence--seems wise and true rather than forced, which is not something I think most writers could do.  Writing a novel is an inherently backward-looking exercise; Flights looks forward to what we might become.  In the future, will we all be like Tokarczuk's narrator, who dismisses the obligations of mortgages, of time zones?  And if so, is that tragedy or victory?

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Light in August by William Faulkner

At last the noise and the alarms, the sound and the fury of the hunt, dies away, dies out of his hearing.  He was not in the cottonhouse when the man and the dogs passed, as the sheriff believed.  He paused there only long enough to lace up the brogans: the black shoes, the black shoes smelling of negro.  They looked like they had been chopped out of iron ore with a dull axe.  Looking down at the harsh, crude, clumsy shapelessness of them, he said "Hah" through his teeth.  It seemed to him that he could see himself being hunted by white men at last into the black abyss which had been waiting, trying, for thirty years to drown him and into which now and at last he had actually entered, bearing now upon his ankles the definite and ineradicable gauge of its upward moving.

Lena Grove, in the last stages of her pregnancy, has walked all the way to Jefferson, Mississippi from her home in Alabama, looking for the man who promised to marry her.  He's there, but he's using a fake name--presumably so Lena can't find him--and working as a bootlegger alongside another outsider named Joe Christmas.  A mild-mannered millworker named Byron Bunch falls for Lena, and enlists his friend, a disgraced preacher named Hightower, to help keep her safe and hunt down her husband-to-be.  But this directive mixes them up not just with Lena and her beau, but also Christmas, who is the true center of Light in August: Christmas, a man tortured by the secret knowledge that he's half black, has, on the same day that Lena arrives in town, murdered his lover.  His lover, Joanna Burden, is an abolitionist who's widely hated in town, but Christmas' uncertain parentage makes the crime not just violent but transgressive: a white woman has been murdered by a black man.

What does Light in August have to say about race?  Well, for one thing, it reveals just how flimsy the whole thing really is.  Christmas is white-passing, and it seems that no one would know his secret at all if he didn't keep divulging it as if it were something rotten at the heart of him.  Those who learn Christmas' secret seem suddenly to forget who he is--a loner at the mill, mostly respectful, keeps to himself, not well-known but generally liked--because he's no longer that person, but a "n-----r."  When he kills Joanna, it sets into motion the machine of lynching, the social engine that overpowers the narrow limits of policemen and judges, and which exists to respond to threats it considers not just dangerous but existentially so.

But no one is more in the grip of the pathology of race than Christmas himself.  Faulkner uncovers his life history with the dramatic flair of an early modern revenge tragedy; we learn that his biraciality is the reason that his grandfather cast him out to be adopted in the first place.  He leads a troubled life, brought up by a man who is severe, religious, and cruel; when he finally escapes he's fit only to live a life of itinerant work and petty criminality.  Christmas is a victim; his alienation comes from a life of maltreatment, but his own anxiety about his racial identity supplants an honest reckoning.  He believes the brokenness of his life and his character--he is increasingly violent and dissociative--can be traced to his secret blackness, like a virus.  When he kills Joanna, it's because she presses him to attend a Negro college and become a Negro lawyer.  It's not her pity that enrages him; he believes himself to be pitiful.  It's the way she zeroes in on his own secret shame that his blackness is the root of that pitifulness.

One character, speaking against the possibility of a lynching, says he wants to see Christmas "Decently hung by a Force, a principle; not burned or hacked or dragged dead by a Thing."  That's a striking statement, but it makes you wonder: the racism that structures Southern society, is it a Force or a Thing?  Is it something separate from the more respectable institutions, the police, the judges, the mill, a shadow that haunts them, or is it just another piston in the engine?

Light in August is a novel of serious and deep questions like these.  It's hard for me to shake the sense that it might have been more incisive if it expressed more interest in black characters, beyond a supporting cast of unnamed sharecroppers and shack-dwellers.  Christmas isn't really black; he's a white man who fears his own blackness, and while Faulkner tells us that he moves between white and black communities in a kind of oscillating uncertainty, the black communities remain mostly opaque to the narrative voice.  You really have to wonder, if Christmas does spend time in black households, with black women, does he ever have to face the question, what's so bad about being black?  But even Faulkner, who I think really intends Light in August to be a critique of racism, is unable to get too far outside of white subjectivity.

I think one thing I learned from reading Light in August is that I have a limited patience when it comes to Faulkner.  The ones I've enjoyed most all have several discrete narratives, like the many voices of As I Lay Dying or three-fold structure of The Sound and the Fury, and especially the several connected stories of The UnvanquishedBy comparison, Light in August, which runs nearly 600 pages, seemed unnecessarily bloated to me, and I got easily bored by it.  Faulkner's high emotional intensity, which really does seem straight out of the 19th century Gothic genre, is difficult to sustain over so many pages.  And after a while, you really start to notice Faulkner's particular tics: this book probably uses the word myriad 50 times and chiaroscuro about a dozen.  For me, Light in August is just too much, too long.

The Return by Hisham Matar

In 1980, my family was living in Egypt.  On several occasions as a child I would sit in my room with the atlas and try to calculate the number of kilometers between our flat and the border.  Every year, Qaddafi was going to die or be forced to flee the country.  Every year we were going to return home.

The Return tells the story of Matar’s eventual return to Libya after Muammar al-Qaddafi is finally overthrown in 2011.  It is also the story of his futile search for his father – kidnapped from Egypt by Libyan security forces in 1990 and imprisoned In Libya’s Abu Salim prison for daring to criticize the Qaddafi regime while abroad.  It is a powerful testament to the cost of political dissidence in a dictatorship and a moving tribute to the power of the father-son bond.

It is not, however, an easily mapped narrative.  Matar’s father, Jaballa Matar, was a prominent Libyan citizen who had a long life of involvement in Libyan politics.  Jaballa’s brothers, Hisham’s uncles are also involved in dissident movements and are imprisoned in Abu Salim until the overthrow of Qaddafi.  Cousins are killed in the 2011 revolution that overthrew Qaddafi.  In the course of all this, Matar lives in New York, London, Cairo, Paris and other places, always with an eye towards Tripoli and his father’s fate.

And that fate is never clear.  Jaballa disappears into the Abu Salim prison and only communicates with his family sporadically.  Even that communication stopped in 2006 – after a prison uprising is put down with a violent massacre of prisoners.  It is likely that Jaballa died in that uprising – there are no reliable reports of him being seen or heard from after 1996.  This means Matar is searching for information of his father’s death, not his father – but is not always willing to admit that difference to himself.

All of this is narrated in a complex structure that spirals between the past and present giving us a sense of the details of the past Matar must drag up and the aspects of the present he must overcome.  The rise of Qaddafi, the start of his autocratic rule, the expansion of the political prison system, the legitimization of his dictatorship by international acceptance, the 2011 revolution, the death of his relatives and his return to Tripoli with his mother are narrated, along with Matar’s formal education, his love of art, and his development and success as a writer (he is the author of two novels, one of which – In the country of Men – was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2006).  However, they are not presented in that natural, chronological order.  The reader, like Matar, is constantly pulled between the past and the present.

The prose is deeply visual and personal while only rarely emotional.  Matar spends a good deal of time explicating his bond with his father, but does so by portraying the cost of that 21-year gap – he knows more about his father from the testimony of others than through his own experience.  Often these testimonies are from other prisoners who had very brief encounters with the man, so the resulting portrait is necessarily and painfully shallow.  Similarly, while we are introduced to several cities, the focus of the visuals is always through a specific and narrow point of view – so we are much more aware of distinct corners in particular rooms than of the sweep of travel and culture. 

The result is oddly tame.  While often deeply intellectually engaged (in part because I was largely ignorant of the history of Libya) I was rarely moved.  His growing awareness of his father’s fate is terrible, but since we know of his father’s death long before the author knows it and accepts it, the pain is muted.  The subtitle of the book is “Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between.”  The power and the weakness of the novel lie in the fact that the land and distance in question is not metaphorical.  Those kilometers mentioned in the quote above, and the country of Libya, have come between the two.  We think of the poignance that Matar will never return to the Libya he knew as a child because his father is not there.  But we are less like to fee that poignance.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

My Antonia by Willa Cather

"Do you know, Antonia, since I've been away, I think of you more often than of any one else in this part of the world.  I'd have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister--anything that a woman can be to a man.  The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don't realize it.  You really are a part of me."

She turned her bright, believing eyes to me, and the tears came up in them slowly.  "How can it be like that, when you know so many people, and when I've disappointed you so?  Ain't it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other?..."

Let me say two first things about reading My Antonia: 1.) I meant to read O Pioneers! instead, to complete a trio of books with exclamation points, after Swamplandia! and Gef!.  I forgot that my copy of O Pioneers! fell apart before I could get back to reading it.  2.) I tried to read O Pioneers! years ago, when I was driving through Nebraska, but I could barely get started.  Nebraska was too flat, too long, too featureless; to read about it at the same time was almost overwhelming.  I felt like Jim Burden, the young boy in My Antonia who moves to Nebraska to live with his grandparents, whose first impression of the state is that "[t]he only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska."

But I'm glad my attempts to read O Pioneers! fell apart, and I had to resort to my copy of My Antonia instead, because this is one tremendously beautiful book.  The narrator and protagonist is Jim, who grows up out there, first among the fields and farms and then in the town of Black Hawk (I assume this is a version of Cather's hometown of Red Cloud), but the story revolves around Antonia Shimerda, the slightly older Czech girl whose family travels to Nebraska on the same train as Jim.  Jim and Antonia begin their life on the prairie at the exact same moment, and while their experiences are different--Antonia struggles at first under the poverty of the immigrant, while Jim thrives in his grandparent's home--their lives are forever bound up with one another.

My understanding is that Jim is a version of Cather herself: like him, she was born in Virginia, moved to Nebraska as a young child, and although she drifted away to New York and did not return, Nebraska kept its hold on her spirit and imagination.  (There's probably a few good articles about Cather's reimagining herself as a boy, probably with the word queering in the title...)  Cather's prose is so pellucid and striking, as spare as Hemingway's and a clear forerunner of writers like Marilynne Robinson, and she uses it here to fashion some pretty breathtaking descriptions of the prairie:

As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea.  The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up.  And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.

There's some drama in Antonia's life: she ends up being used and impregnated by a railway conductor who has no intention to marry her, and her life as an adult threatens to be as hard as her life as a child.  But those developments are late in the novel, and it's not really that kind of book.  Like Death Comes for the Archbishop, My Antonia meanders and plods, more interested in providing a full and complex image of life on the prairie than it is conflict or a single narrative thread.  Tragedies, like Antonia's father's death or her jilting and pregnancy, interrupt the story as they do life, but they do seem like interruptions: they're like the immense snake that a young Jim kills in defense of Antonia in the midst of exploring the prairie.

What keeps the narrative together, beyond its terrific evocation of Nebraska, is the relationship between Jim and Antonia.  He teaches her English as a boy, they become friends, and briefly enemies; when he moves to Black Hawk she becomes one of the "country girls" whose companionship isn't quite seen up to his level.  At one point he professes his love for her, but romantic interest is just another passing phase in their relationship.  I was struck by the passage I quoted above, which captures the complexity and breadth of their relationship.  Antonia might have been "a sweetheart, a wife, or my mother or my sister," but any of these labels would impose something on their relationship that might kill or stunt it.  Even the word "friend" isn't quite right: to Jim, she is only "My Antonia."

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Gef! The Strange Tale of an Extra-Special Talking Mongoose by Christopher Josiffe

Whatever Gef's true nature--whether spirit, animal, imaginary companion, or something else--it is evident that an entity with a distinct, fully-realised personality is being described by James Irving's and other's accounts of their encounters with Gef.

On the one hand, we have the playful, affectionate and fun-loving little being who enjoyed singing, dancing, and games.  But on the other, there are his threats of violence.  Against the Irvings: "You don't know what damage or harm I might do if I were roused.  I could kill you all if I liked but I won't."

In the 1920's, James Irving, a once-successful piano dealer in the UK and Canada, moved to the Isle of Man to become a subsistence farmer with wife Margaret and daughter Voirrey.  It was a step down in life for Irving, and one he hoped would not be permanent, but what he lost in prestige and money he gained in, I guess, companionship and notoriety: the Irvings' house, Doarlish Cashen, soon proved to be haunted by a talking mongoose named Gef.  (That's pronounced like "Jeff.")

Life with Gef, as described in Christopher Josiffe's extensive investigation into the strange story, could be exhausting.  At first, Gef displayed nothing but malice toward the Irvings, but after a while he became something like a member of the family, singing, gossiping, and joking with them.  He throws things (he has great aim); he travels speedily across the Isle of Man and brings back news that no one else could know; he steals sandwiches, apparently, from the workers at a nearby bus stop.  Sometimes, his attentions are unwanted: he keeps the Irvings up for hours at night asking questions and chattering behind the walls of the farmhouse.

Gef's aversion to being seen--those who claim to have seen him have done so only briefly, and the blurry Bigfoot-like photos that purport to be Gef sitting on a post outside Doarlish Cashen are so inscrutable that some have guessed they're of a coiled scarf or stole--seems like a very good point in evidence of his being a hoax.  And yet the picture of Gef that Josiffe paints--needy, mercurial, short-tempered, playful, ribald--is so complex that Gef appears on the page as a very real character.  And although Josiffe enumerates, in great detail, the numerous possibilities about Gef's identity (Is he a hoax put on by the Irvings?  A trick played by Margaret and Voirrey against Jim?  A pukka, a poltergeist, or a witch's familiar?), it's clear he wants very much to believe that Gef is real, or at least interpret the evidence in the most Gef-friendly light.  That's a positive feature, I think, of the book; a more skeptical narrative about the Irvings might be a fairer book but it certainly wouldn't be a more fun one.

It's a fun story, but also a tragic one: Gef's resident attracts the attention of spiritualists and parapsychologists all over the world, but if Gef is a hoax put on by Jim Irving for money, it's a dismal failure.  A book is written by visitors, much more critical of Irving than he'd believed, and for which he receives nothing.  Through it all he insists he's actually a very private individual, not desirous of the attention that Gef brings;  Gef's obsessive and outrageous attentions to the Irvings looks positively friendly and loving when compared with the attentions of writers and ghost-seekers who want to hunt Gef down but shunt the Irvings aside in the process.  And Josiffe does such a convincing job bring Gef to life it's sad to read a late interview with an elderly Voirrey, saying she wished that Gef had never visited them at all.

The book didn't leave me with a real clear idea of who or what Gef was.  I don't really believe in talking mongooses, or spirits in the shape of mongooses.  My guess is that it was an elaborate prank perpetrated by Voirrey that got out of hand for everyone involved.  But that's hardly a fun thought.  Better to think of Gef as alive still, zipping around the Isle of Man, making (and torturing) new friends.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Image result for eightball elizabeth geoghegan

Eightball by Elizabeth Geoghegan

I stare at him, barefooted, a thread-worn prayer rug beneath his bony, veiny feet.  Still tan from last summer.  I remember the rug from his bedroom.  It was antique even then, but today in the striated sunlight through his blinds it appears ragged.  The bright red and turquoise geometry faded to soft coral swirls, the threadbare melancholy of no longer blue.  He leans from the sofa over the low coffee table.  Slow ballet.  Razorblade in hand, cutting lines on a framed black and white photograph, an early one of mine.  The beach.  Our beach.  Those grassy dunes that poked us, the soft white sand that soothed us, the cold gray sea we loved so well.

A young art student falls in love with an unusual distant and noncommittal peer and he uses her for crude sexual satisfaction.  A woman builds her life around a man with a checkered history of leaving girlfriends, then gets left by him.  A woman falls in love on a first date, loses track of her love and then discovers she is pregnant.  A woman tries to get a man to leave his girlfriend for her and ends up alone.  A woman follows her brother to college and sacrifices endlessly for him, only to have him use her and abandon her.

Eightball is a collection of stories about women who make poor choices regarding men and then pay a price for them.  The stories are set in Seattle, Boulder, Rome, Paris and Bali.  The characters are carefully and drawn to feel like organic members of these communities – so one woman in Boulder is an outdoor enthusiast who loves dogs, the woman in Paris has a deep appreciation for the romance of that city, the young student is surrounded by hipsters and trying to be authentic.  Her descriptions of places – often focused on smaller details like the prayer rug above, are evocative and become talismans of these characters.  

Geoghan also has a solid ability to mix lush visuals with blunt and crude prose and the tension between the two can be exciting.  These woman are not shy, retreating victims, though they are virtually all victims.  They are strong, independent people.  They have goals and the talent and means to achieve them.  They are sexually independent and often curious.  Yet at crucial moments they put their faith in males and are let down.

The strongest work here is the title novella, which tells the story of Quinn, who has followed her brother to college in Boulder, Colorado.  The story moves back and forth between the tale of a drug-soaked night in Boulder and a series of scenes from their childhood and life with their alcoholic parents.  The balance of these is taut and musical and both worlds are drawn vividly.  In the flashbacks, we see the toll alcohol takes on their family as they grow up and Patrick begins to center his own life around drugs.  While these scenes could have been more holistically organized – alternating two fully drawn narratives instead of one narrative and a collage of incidents – they do steadily move west, from the sun-drenched beach of their childhood, to an adolescence near Chicago after their father is promoted, to the dark hedonism of Colorado, so that setting helps form an arc in the flashbacks even if plot does not.

The problem here is that we are rooting for Quinn throughout – against her parents and against her brother. It is absolutely clear from the opening scene in Boulder that her devotion to him is a mistake, so we are neither surprised nor particularly moved when her urge to save him ends in failure.  This weakness affects all the stories and becomes multiplied if you read the collection straight through.  Among the most effective moments is the end of the first story, when the narrator’s home for romance is dashed as the man she is attracted to – Tree-Boy – takes his pleasure with rough selfishness.  It is not just bad sex because there is a hint that this woman has gotten what she deserved, for not seeing this man for who he really was.  There are three stories in which the key male figures are given these reductive nicknames – “Tree Boy,” “Cricket Boy” and “Dog Boy.”  The stories build on each other, but they do not build on the power of the first encounter.

There is an unfortunate tendency towards obviously literary touches.  “eightball,” for example, ends with an extended encounter with butterflies and the sudden intrusion of literary symbolism in a story of such gritty realism is off-putting, even while the descriptions of the butterflies are beautiful.

There is powerful writing here, and characters that seem real.  I would love to say that I will miss them, but they are real without being attractive.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I had a feeling like I was still moving, still flying up and up toward the surface.  The stars greeted me like a second challenge.  After months of the bad feeling--months of the sensation that I was evaporating, of practicing for wrestling shows we were never going to perform again--I could taste the old Bigtree victory.   Suddenly I remembered: I am an alligator wrestler.

Ava Bigtree lives with her family on an island off of the Florida Everglades where they run a theme park called Swamplandia!  (Exclamation point original.)  It's a strange but pleasant life: her father, Chief Bigtree (not really an Indian) runs the place; her mother is the star alligator wrestler.  Ava herself is training to be an alligator wrestler; her sister Osceola and brother Kiwi are a little more on the conventional side.  But then her mother dies suddenly, and the future of the park is thrown into question.

The Chief leaves suddenly for business on the mainland, leaving his children to fend for themselves in the park.  This starts a chain of adventure for each of the Bigtree kids: Osceola, who dabbles in spiritualism, is convinced she has fallen in love with the ghost of a dredger whose boat they discover floating among the sawgrass.  When she leaves, Ava must find her, searching for a mysterious location marked by piles of shells that may or may not be the literal opening to the underworld.  She's accompanied by the "Bird Man," a kind of professional Pied Piper of buzzards who keeps island dwellers safe from avian molestation.  Kiwi has the most normal storyline: he travels to the mainland to work at the newly opened World of Darkness, a hell-themed park that has sapped Swamplandia!'s business.

There's a kind of connection between the "mouth of hell" Ava and the Birdman are searching for and the theme park version at the World of Darkness, with its dyed-red swimming pools.  The World of Darkness is a Disneyfied version of the real spiritual locus that Ava and Ossie are seeking; is Swamplandia!, too, a Disneyfied version of the real wild Everglades?  Ava feels safe with the Bird Man, but his trustworthiness is not assured, and perhaps he is leading her into a real darkness, with real dangers for which, unlike the alligators, she's not trained.

The best thing about Swamplandia! is how painstaking Russell's sense of the Everglades is.  It's packed to the margins with knowledge and experience of South Florida, from the grass-covered chickees of the Ten Thousand Islands to the invasive meleleuca trees that threaten everything.  The best part of the novel, actually, is the story of the Dredgeman Louis, with whom Ossie has fallen in love: a chilling story of the folly of human engineering on the Everglades in the early 20th century.  Swamplandia! is nothing if not evocative of a very specific place, a place that is unique in the world, and thus deserves evocative accounts.

But it's also incredibly overstuffed.  There's no reason for this book to be 400 pages.  Like a canoe in the sawgrass, it moves at a plodding pace, and I never felt it was able to pick up a worthy momentum.  The parts at the World of Darkness start from a place of tremendous inspiration (a hell-themed park is a clever inversion of capitalist value) but in practice, they're rarely funny.  The humor is too broad, too reliant on that first idea, and the crass machismo of Kiwi's coworkers ("Bro!") is particularly grating.

And what about Ava?  (Spoiler alert time!  And uh, trigger warning!)  She's captivated by the Bird Man in the same way that her sister is captivated by ghosts; even blurting out that she loves him at one point.  His protests that she can't tell anyone about what they are doing--because Child Protective Services might take them away from their absent father--begin to seem awfully suspect, and these suspicions are confirmed when he rapes her.  She's thirteen, and her sections of the book are written in the first person.  It's an awful, horrible thing to read, but I couldn't figure out what made such a horror necessary.  Doesn't it confirm exactly what the Bigtrees' skeptics might say, that a life out on the swamp with a neglectful father encourages disaster?  Isn't it, among other things, an affirmation of the banal, soul-crushing world of the mainland, where at the very least vagrants aren't out here kidnapping and raping children?  I don't know--I just feel like the narrative reward for a rape scene has to be very high, and I'm not sure it's met here.

Swamplandia! can be clever, lush, and fun.  But it wasn't those things frequently enough for me to really enjoy it.  I've heard Russell's stories are much better, and I can see how that might be true--in a more concentrated format, these aspects of her fiction might be more concentrated.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Catherine Wheel by Jean Stafford

With his announcement to Cousin Katharine, it had reached a fever pitch, hotter and hotter until there was in his very heartbeat a voice that constantly said, "Charles Smithwick, die."  And the worst of it was that he did not care any longer whether Charles Smithwick lived or died or became the President; he wanted only to be free, to be able to read Mark Twain and play poker with Honor and Harriet and have a little fun, for pete's sake, but the voice would not let him be.  It was an undertone when he was with other people, but when he was alone, it was a roar and he had come to think that if Charles didn't die, this would go on for the rest of his life.

School has ended and Andrew Shipley has returned to the small Maine town where his mother's cousin Katharine lives in a stately manor.  He has been looking forward to seeing his cousin, but mostly to seeing his friend Victor, a strange and ugly boy whose friendship is the best thing in Andrew's life.  But the very day he arrives, he learns that Victor's brother Charles is home from the army, and sick: Victor, who idolizes his brother, will be too sick to spend time with him.  Andrew passes the summer in boredom and near-violent resentment; inside him, a voice--the kind of voice that only children, who have not lost the belief that their thoughts can have a physical effect in the world--commands Charles to die.

Meanwhile, Cousin Katharine, a beautiful and eccentric spinster, has her own inner turmoil.  Andrew's father John, who long ago chose their friend Maeve (Andrew's mother) over her, has changed his mind after decades of unhappy marriage.  Katharine knows that her love won't solve John's existential misery, but the lost past tortures her.  She plans a big party that reenacts the moment she realized that John was in love with Maeve, a party with big fireworks.  The Catherine wheel--that's a firework--becomes a symbol of the vanishing summer, the fleeting happiness that both Katharine and Andrew wish they could recover:

A crimson girandole mounted with a hiss to the sky and fell, a fountain of blinding orange fire; the fine, showering colors were unreal and chemical, plangent pinks and purples, sharp blues and violent greens, and the rapidity with which the rockets vanished, leaving for only an instant afterward the image of their course and the echo of their explosion, so excited her that she had been lightheaded and tears had started to her eyes.  As the last Catherine wheel revolved insanely on its separate planes of scarlet and green, sizzling and thundering as the wild spokes fired each other, Katharine, in ecstasy, turned to face John Shipley.  No longer than it took the Catherine wheel to spin itself to nothing and leave the summer sky to the stars did it take her to see that he could not, could never see her.

All the drama in The Catherine Wheel is purely psychological.  Andrew and Katharine's preoccupations become obsessions, useless and painful, but neither of them can let go, and each becomes convinced that the other knows exactly what's going on in their heads: Andrew childishly, and Katharine because she believes that Andrew has read her diary.  (Isn't that a recognizable truth: how often we worry that the shameful things we are thinking are readable on our face?)

The Catherine Wheel moves the action from wild Colorado to genteel Maine, but the novel works on the same formula as The Mountain LionIn both novels, Stafford reveals a canny ability to capture the strange mental universe of children, which seems as real as any physical thing.  And like The Mountain Lion, The Catherine Wheel is all mind-drama until it isn't, hurtling toward a final brief moment where the psychological really does manifest itself in the world in a flash of horrific violence.  But whereas the end of The Mountain Lion felt inevitable and terrible, the end of The Catherine Wheel felt gratuitous to me.  It was all out of proportion, I thought, to the more painstaking grief of lost summer happiness that is the novel's topic otherwise.

On a macro level, I'm not sure The Catherine Wheel worked for me. But man, can Jean Stafford write a sentence.  In the context of Northeastern gentility her prose loses something of the Western sparseness present in The Mountain Lion; these sentences bloom like flowering vines.  Here you can really see the influence, I think, of D. H. Lawrence (maybe the best sentence writer in 20th century English).  Stafford is a master of the specific detail--whole lives get crammed into sentences and phrases with stunning realness--and a skilled articulator of mental states: "his loneliness," she says of Andrew, "stayed like a bone in his heart."  You leave the book feeling scorched, singed, as if by fireworks.

Manchild in the Promised Land
By Claude Brown

Mama and Dad and the people who had come to New York from the South about the time they did seemed to think it was wrong to want anything more out of life than some liquor and a good piece of cunt on Saturday night.  This was the stuff they did in the South.  This was the sort of life they had lived on the plantations.  They were trying to bring the down-home life up to Harlem.  They had done it.  But it just wasn’t working.  They couldn’t understand it, and they weren’t about to understand it.  Liquor, religion, sex, and violence – this was all that life had been about to them.  And a prayer that the right number would come out, that somebody would hit the sweepstakes or get lucky.

I have long had a sweet spot in my reading heart for the street memoir.  Growing up in the suburbs, the tales of boys like me who had to make it in the tough neighborhoods of urban America provided a vision of heroism laced with social reality;  it made my humdrum existence seem all the more humdrum, but since I was just a train ride away from Manhattan, since I could find the neighborhoods on a map, since their stories were so similar to the ones my father told, I felt I had some purchase on the larger world through reading them.  Down These Mean Streets, by Pedro Pietri;  Hawk, by Connie Hawkins; The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll:  I somehow thought reading books about being street smart made me street smart.

Claude Brown’s work was kind of the ur-text of the genre for me:  the tale of a young boy in Harlem who fights, steals, runs from the cops, has sex, gets shot, and does drugs just a few years before I was born, told in prose that captured his intelligence while never apologizing for his lack of heart.  Re-reading it now has been a kind of nostalgia – for a crime-ridden New York, but also for an innocent me that believed I could read my way out of privilege.  

Brown’s prose is clear and straightforward.  His style is the refusal to have a style:   he tells you what happened, how he reacted immediately and then how it affected his longer term thinking about Harlem, family life, crime, being black in America and growing up.  While obviously this book is about being black in 1950s America, it strikes me (now that I am so much older than the protagonist and the author) as being largely about growing up.  Growing up in the chaos of urban poverty, growing up without guidance, growing up Black, but mostly about growing up.  Making mistakes and learning from them.

Granted, Brown’s mistakes were much more dramatic than most people’s:  he is involved in gangs and their requisite violence, he is getting drunk and high before he is a teen, he is in and out of juvenile facilities and he is shot in a robbery attempt.  He lives by his fists and his willingness to hurt people before they hurt him.  But then he begins to read.  While at the Warwick youth facility, the wife of the director of the facility begins to lend him books and while he only reads the first couple to be polite, he soon becomes hooked and reads whatever he can get his hands on.

Reading gives him the capacity to question his surroundings in ways that are both political and self-reflective.  He had previously refused to go to high school, but now returns to Washington Irving at night.  He had been dedicated to a life on the streets of Harlem, but now he moves downtown to get away from the craziness of his family and his friends.  He takes up the piano. In short, his intellectual journey becomes a physical journey as he begins to learn how to live in the world.

There are several moments in the novel that make me think about present social conditions.  His taking up reading offers a moment of reflection about education.  He has never had any use for school yet he is curious and longs for greater education.  His reading is a kind of ultimate student-centered pedagogy and reflects that idea’s strengths and weaknesses.  His long period of incarceration – his early teen years are spent shuffling among juvenile “reform” schools – are a warning to our politicians who love to cut social programs like basketball and community centers.  These are the places that, for all their weaknesses – Brown regularly reports how much better a criminal they made him by giving him a chance to get to know the slightly older more experienced criminals from around the city – slowly but surely steer Brown back to school and on to college.  Finally, the war on drugs was much on my mind while reading this.  One turning point in the narrative is when Brown, after much scheming and maneuvering, gets to try heroin for the first time, gets sick and swears the stuff off.  That decision colors the rest of the plot as we watch heroin devastate Harlem.  Brown’s younger brother and many of Brown’s friends become junkies.  Much of Brown’s later success (he graduates high school in this volume and will go on to get a degree from Howard University and do years towards a law degree) is attributable to his avoiding heroin addiction.  The picture this gives of heroin as a scourge that does not simply destroy individuals, but guts entire communities is a powerful rejoinder to our current thinking about legalization.  

There is a slight tone of the self-congratulatory here:  though Brown refuses to give himself much direct credit for being almost the last one of his childhood peers that avoids jail and/or drug addiction, he does reflect on how his path is different from his many prison-bound friends.  More disturbing than the immodesty on display here is the amorality of his attitude.  While Brown is very upset when his brother becomes addicted to heroin, gets caught in a robbery, and gets sent to state prison for three years, his brother simply takes this ruinous turn of events as his fate.  When Brown discovers one former girlfriend is a junkie and another is a sex worker, he wishes this were not the case, but tells himself (and us) that this is their decision – they have the right to live their lives their own way.  While he reflects on the weakness of his parents and the disconnect in their rural cultural values, he seems to think this is an inevitable cost of growing up.

 Finally, while Brown acknowledges towards the end that the women of Harlem have it tougher than the men, there is a casual sexism to this that is unnerving in 2019.  Brown regularly refers to women as bitches and whores – he seems incapable of expanding his vocabulary beyond these two.  Interestingly, the only woman he does not see as a casual sex object is the white girl he dates at the end of his time at Washington Irving.

Still, these are minor points.  The book is endlessly informative and entertaining and provides a gripping, first-hand account of the Harlem of legend, those years between Renaissance and gentrification.