Sunday, February 23, 2020

A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul

The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.

Nazruddin, who had sold me the shop cheap, didn't think I would have it easy when I took over.  The country, like others in Africa, had had its troubles after independence.  The town in the interior, at the bend of the great river, had almost ceased to exist; and Nazruddin said I would have to start from the beginning.

The town, the river, even the country that make up the setting of V. S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River all go unnamed.  They're somewhere on the eastern coast of Africa, we might intuit, because Naipaul's narrator is an ethnically Indian Muslim who has grown up on the coast of the Indian Ocean before moving into the interior.  The narrator, Salim, retreats into the "bush" because he can't bear the burden of his family and community at the coast, which he feels are trapped in a crumbling social world whose coming collapse they cannot recognize.  He moves to the bush, buying a small shop in a remote town, because he sees what many see in Africa proper: not quite a nullity, but a ruined place; a place that can only begin again, like him.  It is a place to "start from the beginning."

But the Africa of A Bend in the River isn't exactly well suited for rebirth.  Like Salim, it remains haunted by colonialism, of the European avatars who have abandoned it and who still come back, time and time again, to remake Africa in their own image.  Naipaul, as many writers noted after his death in 2018, might have been the greatest writer of postcolonial insecurity, that feeling that the postcolonial world will never catch up to, or free itself from, the colonial powers who have retreated from it.  Africa, like Naipaul's Trinidad, is a place that exists in Europe's long shadow.  Into the vacuum the colonial powers have left, multitudes flow: speculators, like Salim, but also white academics, rebel militias, and strongmen like the president only referred to as "The Big Man," whose dream of a new Africa births empty concrete suburbs and bloody violence.

As much as I enjoyed A Bend in the River, I found myself yearning for the less aware, more irony-laden protagonists of books like Miguel Street and A House for Mr. Biswas, whose limited understanding of their communities, and their place in them, reflects, for Naipaul, the stunting affects of the postcolonial age.  Salim, by contrast, may not always know how to navigate the complexities of his social situation--how, exactly, is he meant to "look after" the young student entrusted to him by one of the marchandes who come in from the deep bush to trade?--but he's typically aware of what the complexities are.  Even intelligence and awareness, Naipaul shows, may not be enough to protect you (and sure enough, eventually Salim's shop is "nationalized" by the Big Man and given to an ethnically African "citizen" who has no idea how to run it).

Salim is so aware of himself that I was surprised by the moment when, in a pique of violence, he begins to hit the white European woman with whom he's been having an affair:

This time she was given no chance to reply.   She was hit so hard and so often about the face, even through raised, protected arms, that she staggered back and allowed herself to fall on the floor.  I used my foot on her then, doing that for the sake of the beauty of her shoes, her ankles, the skirt I had watched her raise, the hump of her hip.

This is an incredibly difficult passage to read, not least because Naipaul was notoriously cruel to the women in his own life.  But it's a bravura piece of writing, because suddenly the stunted postcolonial subject emerges from Salim, where I had least been expecting it.  It comes out in the passive voice ("She was hit so hard and often"--by whom?) and the vague diction (how does he "use" his foot exactly?").  Salim's resentment, his understanding of his own diminished position in the world, are at the root of both his infatuation with this woman, Yvette, and his violence toward her.

The most insightful moments of the book come when the disillusioned Salim flies on a whim to London to visit an old friend and escape the ruin of his relationship with Yvette.  What he sees there is not the glittering civilization that is Africa's foil, but a neighborhood of African-Indian expats who have carried their social positions with them.  What he learns is that the postcolonial world isn't just in Africa; it's everwhere.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020



The World To Come by Dara Horn

Later, in the time she had created for him, the laws of gravity would be repealed and Ben would hover over the city, looking down and seeing every possibility, all at once:  the buildings crooked and straight, the trees stunted and flourishing, the streets cast in shadows and sunlight, the invisible tombstones pushing through the sidewalk beneath leaves and a cloud.  And then he would soar through the blue and black and orange sky, and he would know what she meant, even if it was only what she meant to him.  But right now, he stood at the door that was not yet open.


This book is based on a few historical events, introduced to us in the first few chapters:

In 1922, a young Marc Chagall took a job in the new Soviet Union (Chagall was from Belarus) as an art teacher in a school for children orphaned by the Tsarist pogroms that preceded the Russian Revolution.  The children had been through enormous trauma, having witnessed the rape, torture and murder of their parents and Chagall was deeply impressed by their ability to focus on art and to embrace learning.  However, Chagall chafed under the dictate to paint in a social realist style and after one year of teaching, he left the Soviet Union for Berlin and Paris and became an internationally famous and successful artist.  

The school was staffed by a number of Jewish intellectuals, several of whom went on to become important Yiddish writers. Most of the other staff members stayed committed to the Soviet revolution and as a result had smaller careers, hobbled by the emergence of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.  Many were later killed by Stalin in his purges of the 1950s.   Among these was Pinkhas Kahanovitch who wrote fabulous tales under the pen name “Der Nister,” (The Hidden One in Yiddish.). Chagall had illustrated one of his books in the early 1920s, but he was largely unknown when he he was arrested and killed.

In the summer of 2001, a small Chagall painting was stolen from the Jewish Museum in New York during a cocktail reception to celebrate a Chagall retrospective.  The painting – Study for “Over Vitebsk,” worth over $1 million, was recovered just weeks later in the Topeka, Kansas Post Office.  The thief had mailed it to a phony address with no return address knowing it would be opened by the Post Office.  The identity and motive of the thief were never discovered.

From this background, Horn has fashioned a mixture of fantasy and realism that traces the painting from when Chagall gives it to a child in the orphanage until that child’s grandson steals it from the museum.  The story includes the lifelong suffering of Der Nister, a crippling injury in the Vietnam War, a quiet suburban life in New Jersey, the travails of exiled Soviet Jews in the 1980s and several very romantic love stories.  While all of the novel is written in clear, visually arresting prose, it shifts modes so often that I had to be ready for anything to happen.  Much of this is reminiscent of a Chagall painting in which the physical laws of the universe bend towards the emotional state of the subject – so people readily fly above buildings, as in “Over Vitebsk.”

The phrase “the world to come” is repeated regularly by both the narrator and the characters and can mean heaven (or the afterlife), the world one makes by being decisive (there is a notion here that human decisions create time, that the world is frozen until we decide to make something happen), or human life (when those using the phrase are not yet born).  The main protagonists are twins and much is made of polarities of thought and vision – Ben is a cynical intellectual, his sister Sara is a romantic artist.  Ben is a slight, rather weak man, his brother in law is a large, athletic, sometime bully.  There is a funny story of a man from an old leftist Jewish family who falls in love with the daughter of an exile from the Soviet Union, causing unique in-law dynamics.  Chagall rejects the hypocrisy of the Soviet system, Der Nister doesn’t see the hypocrisy until it is too late.  Horn explores ideas about art, religion, the afterlife, wisdom and love in these dichotomies.

For all its intellectual heft, the book is something of a page turner as we wonder if Ben will get away with stealing the painting, if Der Nister will survive the latest purge, how various love relationships will work out.  However, as both an intellectual exploration and a page turner it ultimately disappoints.  The central love story is left unfinished, with lies and deception left unresolved as a happily-ever-after ending is merely hinted at.  And the questions of the role of art and spirituality in our lives are given a shallow and childish treatment in a final chapter involving the birth of a character we know nothing about.  This was a disappointing ending to a book that had me excited and intrigued for much of its 300 pages.


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

But at that moment, she had known, with a certainty she would never feel about anything else in her life, that it was right, that she wanted this man in her life.  Something inside her said, He understands.  What it's like to be different.

...

Hers had been just one of the pale, pretty faces, indistinguishable from the next, and though he would never fully realize it, this was the first reason he came to love her: because she had blended in so perfectly, because she had seemed so completely and utterly at home.

Boy did I hate this book. 

Everything I Never Told You is about a family in a suburb/small college town in Ohio in the 70s dealing with the death of 16 year old Lydia, the middle child.  James, the father, is Chinese-American, and his wife, Marilyn is white.  Nath is the oldest, about to graduate high school and go to Harvard when his sister dies, and Hannah is about 10, the mostly ignored member of the family.  There's some mystery regarding Lydia's death, in that we don't find out until the end what events actually precipitated her drowning in the lake near the Lees' house, but it becomes clear early on that there was no foul play involved.

The book flips back and forth between the remaining Lees trying to cope with the loss of Lydia and the family history that lead to her death.  James grew up a shy child with few friends as the only Chinese person at his school.  He was isolated and never fit in, which he desperately wanted to do.  When he was a young professor he met Marilyn, a student in one of his classes who desperately wanted to be a doctor.  Her mother taught home ec and always encouraged her to meet a nice man and settle down, and leave the doctoring to the gentlemen.  Marilyn rebelled against her mother's desires for her until she met James, and then found herself pulled down her mother's path anyway: pregnant, married, and dropping out of school her senior year.  Marilyn's mother told her not to marry James right before their wedding because he was Chinese, but Marilyn did it anyway, and that was the last time they ever spoke.

The Lee family undergoes its first real trauma when Marilyn's mother dies.  Nath and Lydia are 8 and 6 when Marilyn goes home to Virginia to settle her mom's affairs.  She realizes how disappointed she is in herself for not becoming a doctor and for following in her mother's footsteps.  She comes home, saves some money, and then, instead of having a meaningful conversation with James, just dips.  She moves to Toledo without leaving a note, terrifying the rest of her family.  The police convince James that she's probably safe, she just abandoned them, but that is cold comfort.  Marilyn is forced to return to her life, however, when she finds she is pregnant with Hannah.  James brings her home, and they resume their life as if nothing happened.  Marilyn decides that if she can't be a doctor, she'll make sure Lydia is, and puts the weight of her expectations on her daughter, as her mother did to her (except ratcheted up to 11).  Lydia decides that the only way to keep Marilyn from leaving again is to be the perfect daughter, which means indulging all of Marilyn's pressure.  While Marilyn is gone, James generally detaches from his children, but pays attention just enough to realize that Nath is more interested in science and space than with making friends.  He sees his failure to be popular reflected in Nath and hates him for it. 

As they grow up, Lydia and Nath form a bond out of necessity, helping each other and comforting each other as they deal with their parents' mistreatment of them.  Nath deflects attention from Lydia when Marilyn's spotlight gets too bright, and Lydia gives Nath sympathy and the knowledge that he is seen by someone, at least.  They all ignore Hannah, for the most part. 

The pressure starts to mount as Lydia starts failing her classes, buckling under the stress, at the same time that Nath, her one lifeline in the family, prepares to head to college.  Nath finally gives in to his resentment of Lydia when he gets into Harvard and still his dad doesn't give a shit because both parents are too invested in Lydia.  All of this sets up Lydia's death as a suicide pretty neatly, but when we finally find out what happened to her, it turns out that she has a revelation about not wanting to fulfill her mother's dreams and having her own instead, and determines to finally have a conversation with her parents about why she's so miserable (it would be the first real conversation that anyone in this family has ever had).  She decides that the way to really show that she's serious is to row to the middle of the lake and swim back to the dock, even though she doesn't know how to swim, for some reason.  It's not clear why she never learned to swim but Nath and Hannah did, or why she thought that this would be a good idea.  Was her resolve to change her circumstances a delusion and she really did unconsciously kill herself?  Who knows. 

After her death, the family predictably goes through some shit.  James starts sleeping with his young, Chinese TA, because of course he does.  Marilyn can't believe that Lydia did this to herself.  Nath is convinced that their neighbor, who he's always hated, had something to do with it.  And they all basically ignore Hannah.  After the affair comes to light, though, everyone (particularly the parents) realize how shitty they've been to each other, and after that bare minimum of self-reflection, decide to be better family members.  So I guess they all lived happily ever after when Lydia died?  You don't have to take my word for it, either:

"There is nowhere to go but on.  Still, part of her (Marilyn) longs to go back for one instant - not to change anything, not even to speak to Lydia, not to tell her anything at all.  Just to open the door and see her daughter there, asleep, one more time, and know all was well."

Hey lady, maybe if you're going back one more time to the night your daughter died you should think about telling her not to drown in the lake!  Maybe have your daughter alive AND realize y'all should all stop being shitty to each other!

So generally I didn't like the book because I'm tired of reading well-written novels about miserable people being miserable (The Female Persuasion, The Mothers, Normal People, The Book of Speculation, etc).  But the cliches just built up over the novel and drowned out the interesting parts.  The book spends more time on James having an affair because he's sad about his daughter dying and not being able to communicate with his wife (zzzzzz), and hardly touches on the implications that the other woman is also Chinese!  That'd be much more interesting!  Or to explore the tension between Marilyn's desire to stand out and James's desire to fit in.  Ng sets it up when they first meet (see above), but instead of making that a focal point of their relationship with each other, the desires just serve as the motivations for torturing their children. 

I was disappointed, because I really liked Little Fires Everywhere.  Oh well.  No more sad books 2020.

PS
One of the worst moments was right at the end, when Nath is trying to imagine what his sister's last moments were like, and Ng writes: "He can guess, but he won't ever know, not really.  What it was like, what she was thinking, everything she'd never told him."  See what she did there?  That's basically the title of the book!  Subtle!  But also, the only two members of the family who did understand each other were Lydia and Nath!  The only two characters that that wouldn't apply to.  Ugh.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

David's Story by Zoe Wicomb

You have turned it into a story of women; it's full of old women, for God's sake, David accuses.  Who would want to read a story like that?  It's not a proper history at all.

What else can I do?  If it's not really about you, if you won't give me any facts, if you will only give me the mumbo jumbo stuff, my task is to invent a structure, some kind of reed pondok in which your  voodoo shadow can thrash about with rhyme or reason, but at least with boundaries, so that we don't lose you altogether.  It's impossible, this writing of a story through someone else.  The whole thing's impossible.

David Dirkse is a member of the African National Congress, the once-underground organization that has only recently--it is 1991--been legalized upon the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.  It is a strange time to be a militant, caught between the new reality and old ways, still spinning your legs like Wile E. Coyote walking off a cliff.  The hitlist he discovers with his name on it seems like a relic from a time that no one has quite realized is past and gone.  Isn't all that history?

History, of course, is the present: the hitlist appears amid David's newfound interest in his own history, precipitated by, for reasons not quite clear to me, the new political horizon.  He is traveling through the Western Cape researching the history of the Griqua people and their charismatic but stubborn leader, Andrew Le Fleur.  Long sections of the novel are given over to accounts of the Griquas' wanderings and Le Fleur's agitation to the colonial government to provide them with a Griqua homeland.  Honestly, these sections might have been more easily penetrable for a South African.  What I gathered is this: the Griqua are/were a culture of mixed African and white heritage, and while they descend from African peoples distinct from the more dominant Bantu culture of South Africa, they became subsumed in the larger "coloured" category enshrined in South African law.  David's research is an attempt to recover what in his own heritage has been erased, and to write Le Fleur's story into his own.

But as the unnamed narrator writes, David is "using the Griqua material to displace that of which he could not speak."  What he cannot speak of is Dulcie, a fellow militant with whom he is in love.  The narrator's attempts to pry open that part of David's life are met with bitter rebukes.  In fact, even though David has enlisted the narrator to write the story of his life, he is frequently and increasingly combative, as if he is not sure how to reconcile the need to record his own history and the frightening burden of being known.  The narrator is right: the story of Le Fleur is a feint, an attempt to locate the story of his own life in the safety of historical record, and to align himself with legend rather than the messiness of the present.

With a novelist's skill, the narrator fills in the gaps.  Because he will not talk about Dulcie, the narrator imagines her in striking detail, just as she imagines all the women who haunt the edges of David's story: his wife, Sally, who has given up her own life of political action to rear David's children; his mother-in-law; Le Fleur's wife Rachel Susanna.  Is it fact or fiction that Dulcie is tortured by the same ANC operatives that put David on the hitlist?  What the narrator knows from David bleeds into what is her own supposition; the lines between what is true and false seem almost irrelevant, filtered as they are through David's finicky willingness to talk about himself.  Where David leaves spaces, the narrator fills them with the women that David refuses to see, the ones he pretends are not part of his story.  "You've turned it into a story of women," he says, but it's always been a story of women: the women who are pushed to the edges by the chauvinism of political action.

Wicomb's style is striking--vivid in detail, associative while being tightly controlled.  Despite that, David's Story was not an easy read.  It was not helped by my minimal grasp of South African history and politics.  The narrative jumps around in time and space, trying to piece together a narrative that is pulled between the present and the past.  Again and again the narrator expresses her difficulty; what she receives from David is never enough to make a coherent story, and so the novel remains peripatetic and disorderly.  It's not meant to satisfy, only baffle and frustrate, which is does very well.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

'You pass me by,' he said with slow mounting fury.  'You leave me rot like a dog.  You leave me die, Vorga... Vorga-T:1339.  No.  I get out of here, me.  I follow you, Vorga.  I find you, Vorga.  I pay you back, me.  I rot you.  I kill you, Vorga.  I kill you filthy.'

The acid of fury ran through him, eating away the brute patience and sluggishness that had made a cipher of Gully Foyle, precipitating a chain of reactions that would make an infernal machine of Gully Foyle.  He was dedicated.

'Vorga, I kill you filthy.'

Gully Foyle is the lone survivor of a wrecked spaceship, struggling to survive in the indifference of outer space.  When another ship, the Vorga, marked with the symbol of one of Earth's wealthiest tycoons, passes by, he thinks he's been saved--but then the ship moves on, despite his distress signal.  Its indifference to Gully's life breeds in him a bloody need for revenge, so after saving himself, he returns to Earth, intent on destroying whose who left him to die at any cost.

What a crazy book this is!  Despite a relatively simple and recognizable throughline--Gully's lust for revenge--it's packed with enough ideas to power a hundred science fiction books.  Gully lives in a distant future in which the planets of the Solar System are at war with their satellites, and all human beings have learned to teleport, or "jaunte."  In a prologue, Bester describes the discovery of this ability as a new understanding of the will: the first jaunter is a man who, about to drown, zaps himself out of the water through the sheer force of his desire to keep living.  There's a connection here between the jaunting and Gully's bloodlust; Gully himself is a man reduced to nothing but will.

The teleportation produces some great and absurd facets to Bester's vision of the future: women, suddenly vulnerable to perverts jaunting into their bedrooms and showers, are repressed in a neo-Victorian cultural shift.  The rich flaunt their wealth by never teleporting anywhere, but instead traveling in the most ornate and cumbersome ways possible.  This leads to a scene in which Gully, having accumulated wealth and prestige in his pursuit of revenge, arrives at a party via a railway train that lays its own tracks out ahead of it on the street.  But there's more, much more, too much even to really dig into: primitive asteroid-dwellers who tattoo Gully's face with tiger stripes against his will, a blind albino woman who "sees" infrared, an enormous underground prison, a radioactive investigator who can only be around others for 30 minutes, ascetics who have all of their senses surgically removed.  The Stars My Destination reads a little like Bester was afraid that he might die before he got all of his ideas down on the page.

Stars is weakest, for me, when it relies most heavily on its pulp sources.  The novel is insanely action-heavy and fast-paced, but not always in a way that produced, for me, the actual tension that a movie scene might.  And I often rolled my eyes at the way that women keep falling head over heels for Gully, despite his dreary singlemindedness.  The women characters reminded me of the Frank Frazetta women you see on the covers of old science fiction magazines, wearing mostly ripped-up clothes and pressing their bosoms to the hero.  And although we're meant to believe in Gully's moral transformation over the course of the book, I didn't find his rape of one of those characters to be worthwhile or necessary.

About that transformation: when the novel begins, Gully is an idiot.  He speaks in a kind of patois we're meant to understand is the language of the interstellar lower classes, and he's so literally stupid that he tries to blow up Vorga the ship instead of whoever was inside of it, in his bloodlust literally blaming the vessel itself.  Like Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo, he becomes a rich and powerful man for the sole purpose of wreaking his revenge, but in becoming a rich and powerful man, he himself changes.  He becomes more intelligent, his dialect changes, and eventually he begins to question the moral quality of his revenge.

Gully's transformation is social, cultural, economic, moral, intellectual, and eventually, transhumanist.  His will to survive after the wreck makes him the only human able to jaunte in space; later, he discovers the ability to jaunte through space-time.  By the end of the novel--with an assist from a cataclysmic space weapon--Gully becomes an ubermensch who can travel at will to the ends of the universe.  This climax produces some of Bester's best writing, and to capture the new way that Gully experiences the world Bester has to turn to Dadaist shape poetry.  In the end, Gully exhorts the "common" people of earth to be like him, and shake the bonds of contingent reality:

'You pigs, you.  You rut like pigs, is all.  You got the most in you, and you use the least.  You hear me, you?  Got a million in you and spend pennies.  Got a genius in you and think crazies.  Got a heart in you and feel empties.  All of you.  Every you...'

Although the future Bester imagines is a familiarly capitalist hellscape, The Stars My Destination is ultimately optimistic about humanity's future.  Technology gives Gully the ability to enact his will without limitation; this, to me, expresses a belief in the future perfectibility of humankind.  It's not a vision I find particularly compelling: I think it's obviously overlaid with classism and sexism, and it skirts pretty close to the Nazi way of reading Nietzsche.  But Gully is compelling, and so is this book.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

He would be glad to get away--from the cats, the fleas, the damp, and these three eccentric women.  He had always been glad to get away from Angel; she tired and exasperated him; but he had never been able to replace his first impression of her with any other.  At that first meeting, long ago in London, she had seemed to need his protection while warning him not to offer it; arrogant and absurd she had been and had remained: she had warded off friendship and stayed lonely and made such fortifications within her own mind that the truth would not pierce it.  At the slightest air of censure in the world about her, up had gone the barricades, the strenuous resistance begun by which she was preserved in her own imagination, beautiful, clever, successful and beloved.

Fifteen-year old Angel Deverill is what you might call "a handful": overly sensitive and proud, too arrogant for friends, snobbish toward her mother's position as a shopkeeper, unable to see things from anyone else's point-of-view than her own.  She decides one day to write a novel, and does, a flowery and melodramatic romance titled The Lady Irania.  Her prose and her plot are both overwrought; she doesn't read any other books herself so she doesn't know what they sound like, a habit she'll maintain for the rest of her life as a semi-successful author.  And her books are successful, from The Lady Irania; the publishers imagine that she's a little old lady sequestered in a cottage with a hundred cats.  Eventually, Angel comes to occupy that role perfectly, but at the first they are surprised when a fifteen-year old girl shows up at their door.

Though she'd never admit it, Angel's books are trashy.  Her publishers know that they're perfect for the pulp market, dominated by lower- and middle-class readers looking for escapism.  Angel, of course, never stops believing her work to be evidence of her genius, which, judging from the reviews, is unappreciated by a philistine world.  Author Elizabeth Taylor (no, not that one) never gives us any of her prose directly, but we get to hear the publisher's parody of it at a cocktail party:

Kindly raise your coruscating beard from those iridescent pages of shimmering tosh and permit your mordant thoughts to dwell for one mordant moment on us perishing in the coruscating workhouse, which is where we shall without a doubt find ourselves, among the so-called denizens of deep-fraught penury.

I love that; I recognize that in the work of some of my students, who need to develop discernment and restraint along with talent and imagination.  But Angel never grows up.  Taylor follows Angel over the whole of a life, from fifteen-year old prodigy to eccentric old woman.  Part of Angel's motivation lies in the stories she's told as a child about an estate called Paradise House, from her aunt who is a servant there.  Paradise House becomes, in Angel's imagination, an avatar of the medieval fantasies that haunt her books, a life she might have lived, and which she deserved more.  Eventually, she buys it, but Paradise House with Angel in it is never quite sufficient to her dreams.  She fills it with dogs and cats and peacocks and lets it go to filthy ruin, until it really is like something out of her novels.  And if the life is squalid, she'll never acknowledge it.

Angel is a terrific character novel.  I was truly impressed by the way that Taylor is able to make Angel seem so terribly consistent from teenagerhood to old age.  The changes are subtle and thoughtful, but that consistency is one of the flaws in Angel's character.  She's awful, really.  She has a grotesquely inflated sense of self-importance; she has no sense of irony or humor about herself or anything else.  But still Taylor makes her seems vulnerable; perspective and humor are traits that keep us safe and balanced, and missing them, Angel lives in a world that always seems on the dangerous edge of being blindsided by reality.  Somehow those traits also make her impervious.  They also make the book also very funny, in the way that people who have no idea of their own abilities or personality can be grimly funny.  Mostly, they make Angel seem breathtakingly, tragically, human.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020




The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

In some ways Turner had been telling Elwood’s story ever since his friend died, through years and years of revision, of getting it right, as he stopped being the desperate alley cat of his youth and turned into a man he thought Elwood would have been proud of.  It was not enough to survive, you have to live – he heard Elwood’s voice as he walked down Broadway in the sunlight or at the end of a long night hunched over the books.

Is there a difference between importance and greatness in fiction?  Can a book be important without being great?

When I was getting my MFA, writing professors were disdainful of the idea of mixing literature with sociology and would sometimes dismiss books that seemed to focus too much on memorializing patterns or events in the world outside of books.  I learned to share some of their disdain, even as I noticed it used mostly against writers of color and women.  Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Nickel Boys makes a strong case for both the power and importance of literary sociology and, perhaps, for the approach’s limitations.

According to a detailed explanation in the Acknowledgements section at the end of the book, Whitehead is using this novel to bring to life the story of The Dozier School in Marianna, Florida, a little west of Tallahassee.  The school was the subject of a lengthy expose in The St Petersburg Times in 2009.  Dozier was a state juvenile detention center – a reform school – for most of the 20th century and children remanded there were starved, neglected, physically and sexually abused and sometimes murdered over the course of those years.  The discovery of a secret graveyard in 2014 has led to the identification of 55 bodies.

Whitehead takes this information and tells the story of Elwood Cutis, a high school student in Tallahassee in the late 1950s caught up in the fervor, if not the activity, of the Civil Rights Movement.  Elwood is a serious student of the life and thought of Martin Luther King, Jr., while also being a kind of model citizen – honest, reliable, hard-working and helpful.  He plans on going to college and becoming actively involved in the movement when he is out from under the thumb of his overly protective grandmother.  But Elwood gets a special invitation to a summer college program, decides to hitchhike to the campus and gets picked up by a man driving a stolen car.  He is sentenced to The Nickel Academy for a term that could last until his 18thbirthday.

Whitehead takes great pains to model the fictional Nickel on the factual Dozier, quoting from reports on Dozier in his descriptions of Nickel and basing his notions of how punishment worked there on the testaments of survivors.  Elwood is beaten more than once and locked in darkened solitary confinement for extended periods.  Whitehead structures Elwood’s work assignments and interactions with other boys and with staff to give the reader maximum exposure to the corruption of the system.  For example, Elwood is put on a “Community Service” detail that consists of delivering to local politicians and businesses food and supplies stolen from Nickel and meant for the care and feeding of its inmates.

Elwood befriends Turner, a wily survivor who is more interested in getting out of Nickel than he is in any movement or politics.  Such is the attraction of Elwood’s moral vision, however, that when Elwood puts together a catalogue of the theft he has seen in his Community Service job, Turner agrees to help him get the catalogue to state inspectors in the hopes of promoting reform and getting the leadership of Nickel thrown in jail.  I was not surprised when that plan resulted in disaster.

Herein lies the problem with the conception of the book.  I am not sure that a fictional account of such a place carries the strength that a non-fiction account might.  We come to like and respect Elwood and Turner and feel genuine sympathy for them; other characters are well-drawn and appear to be fully-fleshed humans.  But, of course, they are stand-ins for fully fleshed humans who acted in similar ways at Dozier.  This makes the story feel a little predictable.  Much of The Nickel Boys comes across as information rather than as experience.  This changes, and the book is redeemed, by the final section, set in New York in the 2010’s as we see Elwood looking back on Nickel and the life he has built after leaving.  Something about seeing that character flash back to being abused and threatened is more moving than the third person narrator Whitehead has used to catalogue his suffering earlier in the novel.  And, of course, there is the twist in the end.

It seems to me that this novel may be more important than great.  While it does not have the inventive narrative sweep of Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, it focusses attention on the kind of specific actions and institutions that have built and maintained American racism.  That is a worthy goal of both sociology and fiction, in whatever combination we find them.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Guarded Gate by Daniel Okrent

The Guarded Gate

Daniel Okrent is also the author of Last Call, the history and implementation of Prohibition. It was a surprisingly engrossing book, meticulous and completely relevant to the topic, so I was very happy to see that he had written a book on two topics which I'm even more interested in. What's even more interesting is his account of how those topics merged early in the 20th century in one of America's darker chapters.
In his work on Prohibition, Okrent delved into how temperance activists tapped latent racism to boost their case. In this book, he exhaustively (and exhaustingly) documents how the nation's seething nativism and paranoia over the changing population was a problem exaggerated to fit a new scientific solution: eugenics theory.
Eugenics may seem as arcane as bloodletting to the modern, but it was, like bloodletting, once the cutting edge of biological scientific theorizing. It's father was Sir Francis Galton, one of the many, many descendants of the legendarily brilliant and promiscuous Erasmus Darwin, and a cousin of Charles. Without implying causation and careful not to yoke the evolutionary theory directly to eugenics, the author continues. While he does not assign blame, Okrent does presume that the Darwinian Revolution removed the extant moral opposition of the scientific community to thinking of and consequently treating humans as merely an evolved hierarchy of animal life.

To say Galton was a prodigy is as much of an understatement as saying that his ancestor Erasmus was fond of the ladies.
He read at age 2, mastered Latin at age 4, quoted Sir Walter Scott often at age 5 and 6 years of age found him reading the Iliad with exceptional comprehension. He was the heir of substantial family fortunes, to which he had full access by the age of 22. But for apparently not one minute of his life, did he recline in the lap of luxury. His curiosity was ravenous and his method for satiating it was obsessive counting. He explained everything, or at least attempted to, with numbers.
He counted earthworms after rain, mosquito bites, formed equations for what percentage of an audience was attentive by noting and counting movements. No subject was too general or too specific. He even devoted 3 months to the exploration of what constitutes a proper cup of tea.
Galton's American protege, Charles Davenport, was another genius, as were many if not most prominent eugenicists, and many of them came from long established families of wealth and prominence, making their breathtakingly arrogant theories about the benefits of selective breeding perhaps a little more understandable, if not excusable. It never occurred to them to check their privilege.

Wikipedia's entry on eugenics states that in its early 20th century iteration, eugenics was promoted as a way to improve "groups of people" (and I would add society in general) while "new (current) eugenics" focuses on improving individuals, i.e. selecting and even altering embryos at the direction of the parents and is therefore not racist in any way.
It prompted some head scratching by yours truly on the difference between the individual and the collective. Can you separate the goal of improvement of individuals from the goal of improving groups and society? Apparently Davenport could not. It's true that his scientific curiosity was once more objective and, if we might use a characterization that Madison Grant might've, pure. He was, he professed, concerned with the improvement of individuals and did not apply scientific racism to his eugenics study. But as time passed and the passion to make the science a helpful societal tool blossomed, the "betterment of the human race" became paramount and Davenport's studies became a means to an end. His ideological purity was mongrelized and he became an unabashed proponent of "scientific racism."
Some proponents of eugenics theory were overtly racist and xenophobic, but not disproportionately considering the age.
One tireless advocate for immigration restriction AND eugenics was Henry Cabot Lodge, the patrician stalwart arch-conservative legislator from Massachusetts. By contrast, his cousin, Joe (never Joseph) Lee, who was a dedicated, behind-the-scenes proponent of eugenics and racial purity, was also a Boston school board member, philanthropist, father of the modern school playground and avid reader of Karl Marx. He was a textbook early 20th century progressive.
Racism was ubiquitous. It was not 4 decades earlier that slavery was still legal in the US, and even those abolitionists, (also progressives) of the North could not have helped an indulgent sense of having condescended to aid the poor Negro.
However, it is not completely clear who co-opted who, or whether there was any co-opting or exploitation of each other at all in the alliance of eugenicists and xenophobes. They appear to have been quite suited to one another and not at all uncomfortable with the relationship. It was probably either mutual exploitation or a hellacious harmonic convergence.
The list of American icons who at one time or another, or all of the time, in some cases, expressed stupefying racism, xenophobia and classism is sobering.
Beginning with Benjamin Franklin, through Ulysses S. Grant, to Booker T Washington, William Penn, the great suffragist Victoria Woodhall, John Scopes (of the Scopes Monkey Trial), Alexander Graham Bell, Theodore Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Maxwell Perkins (the editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway), H. Fairfield Osbourne (director of the American Museum of Natural History) and so many other notaries, the list of nativists does considerable damage to the idea that the US was ever in even approximate accord with the inscription on the Statue Of Liberty.
But the common cause of xenophobes and genetic planners is striking to me, considering the antipathy between what may be considered the modern incarnations of both anti-immigration sentiment and eugenics. Eugenics, right or wrong, is seen by many as the forerunner of elective abortion. And, in fact, it seems like a fair genealogical conclusion, since Margaret Sanger was a prominent eugenicist, an enthusiastic supporter of Davenport's endeavors and is most well known to us as the founder of Planned Parenthood, the nation's largest abortion provider. But modern abortion opponents now are often the same people most likely to oppose immigration. (As they would have it, they are only concerned about illegal immigration, while remaining mostly non-committal on what legal minimums and maximums should be established.) Okrent is careful to note the objections of modern pro-choice advocates who say that if anything, the eugenicists of that era were more comparable to pro-life activists, since pro-lifers typically seek governmental prohibition of abortion or governmental control of "reproductive rights", similar to the forced sterilization policies championed by many eugenicists. But the disregard for human life is common ground that is not so readily ceded by many pro-choice advocates and immigration restriction advocates. There is a shared sense of entitlement. As in, "We are here, so we have a codified right to input into who else can be here." Or, if you like, "Possession (of life, here and now) is 9/10ths of the law."

The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic

"We really were happy, and I--I really was a good man.  Here's the kind of joke God plays!  You see me here six months after.  Look at me!  I haven't got an honest hair on my head.  I'm a bad man through and through--that's what I am.  I look all around at myself, and there isn't an atom left anywhere of the good man I used to be.  And, mind you, I never lifted a finger to prevent the change.  I didn't resist once; I didn't make any fight.  I just walked deliberately down-hill, with my eyes wide open.  I told myself all the while that I was climbing up-hill instead, but I knew in my heart that it was a lie."

When this novel opens, the protagonist, Theron Ware, is a Methodist minister in upstate New York.  He's just given an inspiring sermon, and he's hoping that he'll snag the crown jewel of ministerial placements, but instead he's assigned to small-town Octavius, a place where congregants are suspicious of multisyllable words and he's warned not to let his wife walk around with flowers in her bonnet.  On top of that, the trustees of the church are intent on squeezing their profit out of the church and out of Theron himself.

Eventually, Theron, a dyed-in-the-wool primitive Methodist, finds himself mixed up with the town's other half, a population of Irish Catholics.  He makes the acquaintance of Father Forbes, the priest, and his friend Dr. Ledsmar, as well as the beautiful redheaded organist Celia Madden.  In despair over the petty ugliness of his own congregation, the Catholics of Octavius open Theron's eyes up to the possibility of another religion and another life.  That religion is not quite Catholicism, but a kind of modernist (for 1896, but recognizable in today's liberal traditions) humanism that regards Theron's Methodism as remarkably quaint and backward.  Celia and Dr. Ledsmar represent two opposing prongs of this intellectual awakening: Celia is a neo-Pagan who plays Chopin like an orgiastic ritual; Ledsmar is an atheist and rationalist suspicious of both Theron's religion and Celia's.  Only Forbes' Catholicism--an empty shell of ritual--seems right to Dr. Ledsmar.

For Theron, these acquaintances offer an intellectual awakening.  They introduce him to Renan, to George Sand, to all sorts of writers and thinkers he has never heard of.  Slowly and surely, he finds himself drifting away from the church and reconsidering the Methodist beliefs that have defined his life.

The Damnation of Theron Ware sets itself up as a novel of ideas: fundamentalism vs. liberalism, Methodism vs. Catholicism, Christianity vs. paganism, religion vs. science.  In the end, though, I think all of that is a kind of feint; Theron Ware is not a novel of ideas, but a novel about the way we use ideas to justify and conceal our human instincts at their basic and most tawdry.  Theron's embrace of Celia's paganism can hardly be extricated from the embarrassing crush he has on her.  He blames his own drifting away from his wife Alice on her redoubled fundamentalism, rather than his interest in another woman.  Is his ardor for Celia produced by the ideas she embodies, or is it the other way around?

The Damnation of Theron Ware is neatly and effectively constructed: for a long time I was right there with Theron as he grew out of the simple-mindedness of his youthful religion, and I found myself rooting for his relationship with Celia.  But little by little, Frederic punctures the myth that Theron's constructed around his life by abandoning his point of view long enough to let us see that each of his newfound friends--Forbe, Ledsmar, Celia--actually thinks Theron is a pathetic boor.  By the climax, in which Theron follows--or stalks--Celia on her way to New York City, we see the truth just barely before Theron does, that he has become pathetic, abandoning his wife to chase a woman that doesn't love him.  There's no romance in it, no big ideas or revelations, just the small and repulsive tragedy of a horndog who can't get his shit together.

In his review, Brent wonders if the story is a "morality tale," but if it is I think it's a moral of the most basic kind.  Don't be a pretentious dick, and don't treat your wife like garbage.  On that, at least, the Methodists, the Catholics, the neo-Pagans, and the rationalists, I hope, can agree.

Thursday, January 30, 2020




Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

What constitutes a family?  When is a house a home – when is it something else?  What constitutes motherhood – is it the act of giving birth, or the relationship that grows later?

Ng’s novel is concerned with all these questions and explores them through a narrative that has a good deal in common with a crime story. 

The novel opens somewhere very near the end of the narrative.  Various members of the Richardson family are in the crowd that has gathered to watch their house burn down.  The children – Moody, Trip and Lexie – and their mother, Elena, all assume that the missing member, the fourth child, Izzy, has set the fire and they speculate about how much trouble she will be in when she returns from wherever she has disappeared to.  Izzy has always been a difficult, rebellious child, but has never done anything this extreme before.  While establishing this, Ng slips in the information that the Richardson’s tenants have moved out, dropping off the key that morning and driving off to parts unknown.  In a tightly efficient 7 pages we are introduced to most of the important characters and set up our return to the beginning, when the tenants, Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl, moved in.  

Over then next 300 pages that plot unfolds while the central questions about the nature of family love are explored.  Pearl comes to befriend various Richardson children, drawn to the stable and prosperous house they live in, while Izzy is drawn to Mia Warren whose nomadic existence as an artist building her life around experience rather than material wealth is so different from Izzy’s experience.  We learn a great deal about Shaker Heights, Ohio – a real life planned suburb of Cleveland, named by its founders because it is built on land that once belonged to the Shakers and – according to Ng, who grew up there – because the town aspires to live by principals of fairness and community inspired by the Shakers.  

Ng is clearly having none of that.  The matriarch of the Richardson clan, the indominatable Elena, appears immediately to be a kind of perfect suburban mother.  Of course, we all know American culture well enough to know that perfect suburban mothers inevitably show themselves to be deeply flawed.  We recognize her attitude towards Mia as paternalistic and condescending and we are prepared as Elena’s bad behavior becomes detached from the appearance of good deeds.   

In the first half of the book, she is simply contrasted with the Mia Warren, whose art Ng describes in great detail.  One woman has lived in this perfect community her whole life, has been deeply involved in her children’s lives and in the life of that community.  She has built a beautiful home even while maintaining a career as a local reporter.  The other has devoted herself to her art, moving about the country in search of new projects.  Mia Warren has consciously avoided fame and material success and expected Pearl to adapt to this hard lifestyle.

We understand why Pearl is drawn to spend her afternoons on the Richardson’s large sectional couch watching Jerry Springer with Moody, Tip and Lexie, but we also understand why Izzy, who has never gotten approval or even respect from her mother, reverses Pearl’s migration and spends her afternoons with Mia, in the tiny, barely furnished apartment helping her with her photography and admiring Mia for sleeping on a mattress on the floor.

In the second half of the novel, a number of plot points sharpen the dialogue about family life that emerges from this contrast.  First, the Richardson children begin to discover sex.  There are secret affairs, a pregnancy, an abortion.  Then the plan of one of Elena’s close friends to adapt an Asian baby is complicated by the impoverished but passionate mother’s reappearance.  Now the characters are directly and explicitly debating what makes a family, what balance of material stability and maternal love is necessary?  When Elena realizes that Mia is friends with Bebe, the birth mother of the little girl Elena believes must be raised by her friends on the wealthy side of Shaker Heights, and that Mia is influencing the thinking of her children, she decides to find out what secrets Mia has been hiding.  This brings us to the series of conflicts that end with the house burning down.

Ng has a gift for plotting and character – there are small plot twists that complicate the action and our view of the actors impressively.  Ng knows her setting and gives a highly detailed and caustic view of this community without directly criticizing it.  She also embeds the important thematic questions within the plot and the characterization in a way that gives the novel heft without lecturing.  While the reader is led to favor one side of the debate, the characters are left unsure of their views.  Ng does a good job of deploying plot complications that also complicate the discussion of family ideals.  While much of the prose is merely serviceable, there are moments of emotional power and I did come to care about these characters.

The disappointment in the novel is in the ending.  Spoiler alert:  while for much of the novel I was thinking that there would be some reveal to explain why someone else set the fire, Izzy is the arsonist.  Part of my thinking was influenced by the fact that   Izzy is not that important a character.  She is the least of the Richardson children not only in her mother’s judgmental view, but in the eyes of the reader who spends more time and energy following Lexie, Trip, Moody and Pearl.  For most of the novel, Izzy is a fifth wheel.  In the end, her anger is believable, but her decision to destroy her family home and run away – she thinks she will catch up with Mia and Pearl and live with them – is too big an action for her character.  It is also too big an action for this family’s dynamic.  In the beginning and the end, Trip, Lexie and Moody sit atop Trip’s car watching firemen fail to save their home and everything they own.  They talk about how mad their mother is going to be in the tone one might use if your sister took the car without permission or failed a math quiz.  Until that point, Izzy has been rebellious and obnoxious, but has not been seen as a danger to the community.  So in an odd way it is fitting that her family still doesn’t treat her as needing serious help, but to the reader this is not believable.  It simply doesn’t fit the setting Ng has built. 

There are other quibbles – I am not convinced the descriptions of Mia’s art work achieve the weight and meaning that Ng is going for; some of the criticism of planned suburban communities are a little easy.  But I read Little Fires Everywhere eagerly, with the kind of propulsion I put into murder mysteries.  It is a page turner; unfortunately, the final pages are less worthy of being turned than I had hoped.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich

Father Damien was both a robber and a priest.  For what is it to entertain a daily deception?  Wasn't he robbing all who looked upon him?  Stealing their trust?  Shameful, perhaps, but Agnes was surprised to find that the thought gave her only satisfaction.  She felt no guilt, and so concluded that if God sent none she would not invent any.  She decided to miss Agnes as she would a beloved sister, to make of Father Damien her creation.  He would be loving, protective, remote, and immensely disciplined.  He would be Agnes's twin, her masterwork, her brother.

In 1996, Father Damien Modeste of the North Dakota outpost of Little No Horse, who has spent his life ministering to the Ojibwe who live there, is visited at last by a representative from the Church.  It's just a priest from nearby Argus, but that's all right; he's been writing to the Pope for decades now.  The visitor, another father named Jude Miller, has come to investigate the possible sainthood of a local nun, Sister Leopolda.  He pries into her history, but the history he gets is really that of Father Damien, who harbors a secret much more shocking that any miracle wrought by Leopolda: for nearly eighty years, he has really been a woman named Agnes.

Reading Erdrich's interconnected novels can sometimes feel like you've missed out on some essential, original text.  Who's Mary Kashpaw again, and how is she different from Margaret Kashpaw?  And who's just Kashpaw?  But there is no ur-text to guide you; you have to take these novels as pieces of the whole.  The more I read of them, the more satisfying they are, and the more these characters come into life for me.  The only one that has remained bell-clear is Nanapush, the lusty, elderly trickster who is modeled on the first man of the Ojibwe religion, Nanabozho.  In this book Nanapush dies of severe flatulence, but that hardly seems like a spoiler when he returns in so many other novels.  (Or given the fact that he "wakes up" twice, once to let out one more unholy fart, and then again to get laid one last time.)

Little No Horse is best read, however, next to Tracks, the first of Erdrich's novels that I ever read.  That book centers on Fleur, the beautiful and wild woman adopted by Nanapush.  I don't remember if Father Damien features much in it, but I do remember the murderously pious character of Pauline Puyat, who--as we learn in Little No Horse--becomes the famed Sister Leopolda.  Leopolda's reputation for holiness has spread throughout the church, but only Damien/Agnes understands the truth about her vindictiveness and her violence.

Damien/Agnes is drawn as an explicit contrast to Leopolda.  She may be a fake as a man, but not as a religious adept, having been a nun before the extraordinary circumstances that led to her donning the guise of Father Damien.  (I won't recount them, since they're not so material to the book as a whole, but they are really fun--some of Erdrich's best magical realism.)  She, too, is pious; her main worry in being found out is not damage to her personal reputation but the possibility that all the work she has done, the baptisms, the confessions, the sacraments, will be wiped clean as invalid.  Unlike Leopolda, who is only ever respected or feared, Damien/Agnes becomes loved by the Ojibwe--one of those who Robin Wall Kimmerer might compare to the plantain, or "white man's footsteps," a non-indigenous plant that integrates productively into indigenous ecologies.

Over time, in fact, something strange happens: as she lives among the Ojibwe, she finds herself being converted to the Ojibwe religion by friends like Nanapush.  Damien/Agnes calls conversion "a most loving form of destruction," which is true in both directions; while settler Catholicism threatens some of the most fundamental qualities of Ojibwe life, Damien/Agnes' conversion to the Ojibwe religion goes hand in hand with the dismantling of her old self and the creation of something new.  Though Erdrich is hypercritical of the Jesuitical severity of Pauline/Leopolda, she fashions in this novel and others a kind of convincing syncretism between indigenous and European religion.  Toward the end of the novel, Father Miller has a vision of world religion as a tree, "the branch of his own beliefs, the dogma and history of the Catholic Church not even a branch but a twig not strong enough for a bird to perch on, just a weak and slender shoot."

I think Little No Horse, along with The Bingo Palace, might be my favorite of the Erdrich novels I've read.  It's Erdrich at her funniest and most poignant, and her prose is at its most accomplished.  Its scale, which occupies eighty years of Damien/Agnes' life, allows a wider scope on the knotty genealogies that animate these novels, and create an epic tone that fits the magical realist elements perfectly.  I'm still thankful for the family tree printed on the flyleaf, though.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Winter Count by Barry Lopez

He moved several stones, seemed to orient himself, and amid spurts of dust I saw the stones lift off the ground.  As they rose from the earth, they began to move in an arc across the sky, turning finally overhead in a dark shape like a pinwheel, some four or five hundred yards across.  Now there was a waterfall sound, but only the lightest feeling of a breeze against my cheeks.  The man came toward me, acknowledging my dumbstruck stare with a conspiratorial nod that indicated he thought it was impressive too.  Perhaps because of friction, each of the thousands of stones now glowed, and they assumed the shape of a galaxy against the dark blue sky, like a bloom of phosphor rolling over in the night ocean.

The first story in Barry Lopez's collection Winter Count, "Restoration," takes place at a historic chateau in Killdeer, North Dakota.  The narrator is an academic passing through, and he stops in Killdeer for a few days to chat with the man restoring the chateau's library.  While the restorer goes through the painstaking, meticulous process of restoring books, the narrator skims through the library trying to recreate a sense of the owner's ideology about North American ecology through the notes he'd left.  The narrator and the restorer make a tenuous connection predicated on their shared obsessiveness and meticulousness, and at the end the narrator sees several antelopes standing outside looking into the house.

Placed at the beginning of the collection, "Restoration" seems designed to baffle: what happens here, exactly, besides a collegial interaction between two smart men?  The spare prose, which is balanced somewhere between Cather-Hemingway minimalism and the professional register of a research symposium, seems almost intentionally self-effacing.  The presence of the antelope--almost certainly not an impossible sight in North Dakota--seems oddly muted as an epiphanic moment, especially when compared to the other stories: In "The Orrery," quoted above, a man living in the Arizona desert shows the narrator how to lay out stones so that the wind picks them up and arranges them in the shape of the stars of the universe; in "The Location of the River," the Niobrara River literally disappears.  Even less mystical epiphanies, like the wayward herons that descend on a snowy New York street in "Winter Herons," seem bigger, grander.  "Restoration," maybe, serves as a caution sign for the stories to come.  Slow down, it says, and don't expect too many fireworks.

Like the restorer, the characters of Lopez's stories tend to be academics, professionals, people with small and narrow interests in history or ecology.  Like the stone-layer of "The Orrery" who is first seen sweeping the desert floor, they approach these interests with a zen-like intensity.  Take, for instance, the title character of "The Woman Who Had Shells," who, ah, collects shells.  The narrator--who, because of his aloof and professorial voice, is so easily imagined as the narrator of "Restoration," "The Orrery," and other stories--sees her gathering shells on Sanibel Island in Florida.  Years later, seeing the woman again in New York City, he tries to communicate to her how the sight of her combing the beach has stayed with him for occluded reasons, and offers her a shell he'd collected in Arctic pack ice.  In turn, she shows him her collection:

The shells draw July heat from the languid air, shells brittle as Belleek, hard as stove bolts, wiht blushing, fluted embrochures, a gamut of watercolor pinks and blues.  Shivering iridescence rises from abalone nacre.  Heirogylphics climb the walls of slender cones in spiraling brown lines.  Conchs have the heft of stones.  One shell hides both firsts; others could be swallowed without discomfort, like pills.  A form of genuflection turned over in the hand becomes a form of containment, its thin pastels the colors to chalk a prairie sunrise.

You read on expecting some grand statement about the meaning of the shells, just as surely as you expect the man and the woman to have sex.  But they don't, and no meaning is forthcoming.  The shells don't mean; they simply are, and the acting of gathering them is, like the work of a historian who puts the events of the past into his own boxes of glass, a way of honoring the mystery of being.  If that sounds a little mystical, blame me--these stories are awfully reticent to make any such suggestion.

The centerpiece of the collection is about a historian.  In "Winter Count 1973," a historian of Native america from Nebraska travels to New Orleans to give brief remarks about his study of buffalo robes among the Northern Plains peoples.  The recording of a single event on a buffalo robe was their method of reckoning time ("1809 Blue feathers found on the ground from unknown birds," "1851 No meat in camp.  A man went to look for buffalo and was killed by two Arapaho"), but different tribes, different clans, different families all reckoned time with different events.  The winter count method of reckoning time is a direct challenge to white historians, and in this one it has caused an existential breakdown.  "He had long ago lost touch with the definitive," Lopez writes, "the awful distance of reason."  Interspersed with the years of the Northern Plains peoples are his own internal reckoning of time: "1918 Father, shot dead.  Argonne forest."  Is this history?  "You can only tell the story as it was given to you, he wanted to say," Lopez writes.  "Do not lie.  Do not make it up."  Is history--the attempt to put events into a clear and universal causal order--a kind of lie?

"Winter Count 1973" is something of a minor masterpiece.  The stories refuse so stubbornly to be outsized or epic, even when they are about entire rivers disappearing or bands of ghost buffalo retreating into the sky.  I often found myself feeling that I had missed something, but finding the flaw not in the stories but in myself, as if I should have been slower, more patient, more careful.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq

The freeze traps life and stops time.  The thaw releases it.  We can smell the footprints of last fall and the new decomposition of all who perished in the grips of winter.  Global warming will release the deeper smells and coax stories out of the permafrost.  Who knows what memories lie deep in the ice?  Who knows what curses?  Earth's whispers released back into the atmosphere can only wreak havoc.

You want to talk about the frozen north?  The Anishinaabe of Moon of the Crusted Snow have nothing on the Inuit as recounted in Tanya Tagaq's memoir-fantasy Split Tooth.  You'd have to fly from Ontario across all of the frozen Hudson Bay, over mainland Nunavut, to reach Cambridge Bay, on the south tip of Victoria Island--a place on a similar latitude as Alaska's north coast--to compare the two.  Tagaq, most famous as a traditional Inuit throat singer who won Canada's top music prize in 2014, recounts a coming of age in the remote tundra in vivid, specific detail, mixed with a healthy dose of magical realism and interstitial poetry.

The unnamed protagonist of Split Tooth isn't necessarily Tagaq herself, but when the narrative is in its realist mode, it offers the kind of specific detail that can only come from life as it's really lived in a place like Nunavut.  She tells us, for instance, about carrying six lemmings around, one for each pocket of her coat--put two lemmings in a pocket and they'll start fighting, you know.  She details the challenges of Inuit life with honest clarity--not the climate or the polar bears, mostly, but challenges like the crippling defeatedness of elders who try to keep the Inuktitut language alive after it's been beaten and shamed out of them.  "We cut and paste words from our ancestry onto our paper-doll versions of ourselves," Taqag writes about Inuktitut class, "and everyone feels a little bit empty."  In Cambridge Bay alcoholism is rampant, and worse addictions; the narrator is often found huffing gasoline.  Sexual abuse is everywhere, and the narrator is both observer and victim.  Split Tooth has all sorts of fantastical monsters, but none as frightening as the moment when the young narrator, hiding in the closet from her parents' boozy, violent parties, finds the door opening:

The door slides open, and my uncle sticks his head in.  Towering over us, swaying and slurring.  Blood pouring down his face from some wound above his hairline. 
"I just wanted to tell you kids not to be scared." 
Then he closed the door.

Later on in the novel, the narrator fellates a mystical humanoid fox.  The novel's magical realist elements serve to both symbolize the idiosyncrasy of life in the north and to oppose its bleaker elements.  Having grown into a young woman, the narrator lies out on the freezing ice and is impregnated by the Northern Lights.  She gives birth to twins: a little girl who nourishes and gives life, and a boy who saps the life out of everyone around him, causing cancer and death.  Are these symbolic of the twin mysteries and dangers of Inuit life?  The twins are connected to the Inuit myth of Sedna, killed by her own father only to become a patron goddess of the Northern sea.  Like Sedna's father, Tagaq's narrator must decide whether she can live with her children or whether she must sacrifice them, but it's clear that she cannot sacrifice one and save the other.

These sections mostly work, and provide an opportunity for flashes of really inspired writing.  Less successful, I thought, were the interstitial poems, which almost always would have worked better if they had been integrated into the prose.  I also really enjoyed the black-and-white illustrations by Love and Rockets comic author Jaime Hernandez, which somehow fit perfectly the starkness of the tundra, its nightless summers and sunless winters.  In the end, Split Tooth offers what Moon of the Crusted Snow couldn't: an impression of real life among indigenous people in a very cold place, people who are as real, as frightening and inspiring, as the monsters and dreams that live there too.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice

"Yes, apocalypse!  What a silly word.  I can tell you there's no word like that in Ojibwe.  Well, I never heard a word like that from my elders anyway."

Evan nodded, giving the elder his full attention.

"The world isn't ending," she went on.  "Our world isn't ending.  It already ended.  It ended when the Zhaagnaash came into our original home down south on that bay and took it from us.  That was our world.  When the Zhaagnaash cut down all the trees and fished all the fish and forced us out of there, that's when our world ended.  They made us come all the way up here.  This is not our homeland!  But we had to adapt and luckily we already know how to hunt and live on the land.  We learned to live out here."

Evan Whitesky is an Anishinaabe man living on a reserve in Ontario's far north with his wife and children.  When the power goes out, he's a little annoyed, but used to it: living so far away, the tribal council is more than prepared to survive a few weeks, perhaps even the whole winter, without internet, without television, without food shipments from the south.  But when a pair of local boys who've been away studying in college arrive with stories of looting, violence, and social dissolution, everyone realizes this is more than a temporary outage.  The Anishinaabe (Ojibwe) on the reserve are suddenly an outpost of civilization in a world where civilization has disappeared.

Who said that indigenous people have already experienced all the things we are afraid of when we write post-apocalyptic fiction?  Pandemic, exile, violence, genocide, disappearance.  The elder in the passage above makes that explicit: our world ended, she says, when white Europeans destroyed the land and forced us northward.  But for Rice, and for Evan, the end of the world offers an opportunity also.  If the Anishinaabe on the reserve are to survive the winter, they'll need to rely on traditional ways of hunting and trapping.  At home, Evan's young children discover that they don't need the television to pass the time; suddenly they are more excited, curious, and fulfilled than ever.  Evan dreams of his children, all grown up and living on the land once again.  Moon of the Crusted Snow inverts the old historical tale; here, the end of the white world means rebirth for the Anishinaabe.

Into this promise comes a white man, Scott, looking for refuge from the world to the south--although you would think he'd be safe enough with the number of guns he's carrying.  (Why don't they demand he give up his guns in exchange for safe passage?)  Scott is brash, cocky, not entirely realistic, but he does animate the novel in a way it badly needs.  He's a representation of white violence and greed; although he promises to pitch in by hunting and trapping, he makes vague and insidious threats about finding other ways to keep from starving, threats we understand to be suggestions of cannibalism.  Evan dreams of him as a horrible, black-eyed monster, as the Wendigo.  Can one white interloper ruin the promise of the Anishinaabe's rebirth?

Moon of the Crusted Snow offers a compelling vision of the "apocalypse."  I don't take any joy in saying it, but I wish the writing were better.  To work, the novel needs to show in vivid, real-seeming detail how the Anishinaabe are different from their white neighbors to the south, but instead there are a lot of paragraphs like this one:

Despite the hardship and tragedy that made up a significant part of this First Nation's legacy, the Anishinaabe spirit of community generally prevailed.  There was no panic on the night of the first blizzard, although there had been confusion in the days leading up to it.  Survival had always been an integral part of their culture.  It was their history.  The skills they needed to persevere in this norther terrain, far from their original homeland farther south, were proud knowledge held close through the decades of imposed adversity.  They were handed down to those in the next generation willing to learn.  Each winter marked another milestone.

Too much of the novel seems like pamphletese, a primer on Anishinaabe life that says nothing of real substance because its primary function is not mimesis but public relations.  What's the use of a paragraph like this one, when the novel opens with a patient, plainspoken description of Evan stalking and killing a moose?  Those paragraphs say all the one above says and much more, and I wish the book had had more like them.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams

Carter had started thinking of the girls as the Three Fates.  He didn't know why this image should have lingered in his mind, except that he was a classical sort of fellow.  Contrary to the popular visualization, he had never seen those ladies as decrepit, tottering old crones but as irrational, merciless, impatient maidens.  How did they all get along?  They seemed so different.  One measured, one spun, one cut.  The only name of three he could remember was Atropos, the Inflexible, which was definitely Alice.  He thought of his dear Annabel as the spinner--good-hearted, a little unaware of what she was doing--and quiet Corvus as the measuring one.  Corvus was tragic but allowed no gesture of condolence.  She was utterly uncommunicative with him, though she did smile pleasantly if cornered.  She lived in the protectorate of suffering.

Joy Williams' The Quick and the Dead opens on teenage Alice, babysitting a pair of twins.  Alice, a misanthrope and an environmentalist, has told these twins all about the ravaging of the Everglades and the dangers of single-use plastic.  But she hasn't yet been paid, so in the car on the way to the bank, the twins' mother abandons her, but not before giving her the old what-for:

"My boys say you say the world would be better off without them.  They say you killed a pony and a farmer and that you make them eat lettuce-and-rabbit pellet sandwiches.  They say you hate nuns and say not to flush the toilet when it's only yellow water.  But it was the wasp nest that did it.  I'm excessively susceptible to the stings of bees and wasps and could go into anaphylactic reaction and die.  It was as big as a beer keg.  They cursed me for destroying a thing that could have killed their own mother." 
"Fatal anyphalactic reaction is actually rare," Alice said.

I tell you what, from this scene, I was utterly engrossed in this novel.  It's like nothing else.  Williams is one of those writers who makes you pause in the middle of a paragraph just to marvel at the quality of the writing, which is spiky, ribald, uproarious, epigrammatic.  This is an author who describes the booming sounds of a fire as being "like the sounds of shotguns striking down owls at dusk."  I love the way the mother's harangue here mixes the obviously true (Alice told them not to flush just urine) with the obviously untrue (she killed a pony and a farmer).  And why is it so much funnier to say "you killed a pony and a farmer" than "you killed a farmer and a pony?"  And how did Williams know?

But all that would be nothing if Alice herself weren't such a terrific character, equally repulsive and attractive.  Watch how calmly she walks back down the desert highway, planning her revenge with clarity and coldness; her moral sense is constantly outraged but she's never angry.  She's joined by two other girls: Corvus, an old friend whose parents' sudden death makes her increasingly aloof and catatonic, and Annabel, a materialist whose mother has also recently died.  (It's a testament to Williams' abilities that both Alice and Annabel are equally sympathetic and detailed; Annabel's materialism is silly but never shallow or ordinary--she's as likely to say something as strange or interesting as Alice is.)  Death and loss unite the three girls; Alice has only recently learned that the man she thought was her brother is really her father and her mother, too, is gone.

The Quick and the Dead is mostly a novel about death, and partially a novel about grief, though the relationship between the two is always a little less than clear.  It has much to say about death, so much that sometimes you wish it would say a little bit less, so that you could catch your breath a little.  But it never seems anything less than fresh, and even when it's cryptic ("There is a next world, but no one we know will be in it") it seems to sparkle at the edge of some immense mystery.  Long sections take place at a nursing home where the girls volunteer, a kind of purgatorial predeath that is scarier than any of the book's more violent moments--and this is a novel where (spoiler alert) a man's penis is blown off by a package bomb.

The writing is so terrific, the images so haunting, the moments so breathlessly strange, you almost want to call The Quick and the Dead a masterpiece.  But it's hard, when you take a step back from the glittering sentences, to think that you've read a cohesive book at all.  For one thing, we're always off on tangents with side characters--why, you might wonder, is there a whole extended plotline about the millonaire big game hunter who runs the wildlife museum, and the eight-year old who forces him to see the error of his ways?  (Is it because Williams, as you'll know if you read 99 Stories of God, is jut fascinated by museums?)  Though Alice, Annabel, and Corvus each have their own internal conflicts, none of them seems to move forward in a recognizably narrative way.  99 Stories of God seems much more inherently suited toward Williams' style, which leans heavily on anecdote and vignette.  But all that seems right for a novel about death, which has been flouting humankind's expectations of narrative closure for millennia now.

There's one exception to this: the storyline that has a recognizable progression, that keeps The Quick and the Dead from feeling like a bunch of odds-and-ends cobbled together, is that of Annabel's father Carter, whose dead wife visits him every night to remind him what a schmuck he is.  Carter wants desperately to exorcise his wife, Ginger, from his life, so that he can enjoy an affair with the hired gardener, and so that the dead and the living will return to their properly ordained places.  The Three Fates, working in unison, measuring and cutting with precision and accuracy.  But death, like life, is messy, and the marginal cases are not always easy.

As is sometimes the case with good books, I've talked myself into liking it even more by writing this review.  Maybe it really is a masterpiece, once you sit down and try to put the pieces together.  I don't think Joy Williams really cares if you do.  You can put it all together, or not, it doesn't matter.  "What is the difference," she asks on the first page, "between being not yet born and having lived, being now dead?"