Friday, September 30, 2011

19 Cloud Atlas-David Mitchell

David Mitchell uses a variety of genres to portray 6 amazing story lines: diary, epistolary, mystery novel, memoir, interview, and a sort of third person limited storytelling. The variety of forms reminds me of Melville’s efforts at stylistic variety in Moby Dick. Yeah, I’ll make that comparison, deal with it.

The birthmarks on the shoulders are part of a motif connecting the stories. I found it subtle, but I understand how one could find it unnecessary. There are other gems of transitional bliss inside each story, either preceding or following. The structure is important to note; one half of each story is told in chronological order starting in the 1800’s. The sixth story takes place in a future when mankind has returned to its hunter-gatherer roots; this story is told in its entirety. The reverse order of stories unfolds as we return to the 1800’s.

“The Pacific Journal of Patrick Ewing” provides the experience of a San Francisco notary in route home from assignment. Pious and inexperienced, he contracts a sickness and a doctor friend makes efforts to preserve his life. The opening journal entry finds Doctor Goose searching for teeth on the beach (brilliant). The “eat or be eaten” theme, and the baseness of mankind are introduced subtly.

“Letters from Zedelghem” gives us a 25 year-old composer in 1931, Robert Frobisher. RF writes letters to his friend (and possible lover) Rufus Sixsmith in London. RF sends him mail from Belgium, but ended up there as a result of being down on his luck, and games of chance were the cause. As he fled his creditors in England, he decides on a whim to offer his skills at musical notation to a famous yet retired composer. Love, loss, and humor, particularly the upper class ironies Jane Austen would love, should be enjoyed here. “Her laughter spurts through a blowhole in the top of her head and sprays all over the morning.”

“The Luisa Rey Mystery” brings death to the forefront. The dangers of a nuclear power plant are revealed by the Sixsmith report, yes the same Sixsmith that received Frobisher’s letters. Keeping all parties quiet takes some murder. A page-turner, and the one story I was upset about having to wait 200 pages to learn the second half. “Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.” p.396

“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is the dud of the group. Connection to the Luisa Rey mystery comes through his being an editor. Somehow he gets locked away in a convalescence home. More is being said about the nature of society not respecting septuagenarians. Meh.

“Orison of Somni-451” is fucking awesome. This is a clone future in a Korea rife with genetic engineering. Movies are dubbed disneys, smart phones are sonys, and clones don’t have souls. Except for one Somni-451. She is used by a rebellion to prove the immorality of cloning. She is being interviewed before being put to death for her part in trying to overthrow the system.

“Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ ev’rythin’ after” is the story of Zachary Bailey, a native of Hawaii, the Big I. His experience as a goat herder gets interesting as his pagan god-fearing society allows a visiting anthropologist to stay for several months. Zachary is cautious of her “smart” but begins to trust her after she shares her knowledge of the world before “The Fall.” Dialectically challenging, the violent and peaceful societies on the islands would give any historian an education in atrociology.

Many of these stories could be worthwhile as novellas, but together they speak to the apocalyptic future that our way of life has in store. This has definitely moved to #1 on my list for the year. At 500 pages it was surprisingly quick, but the depths of thought ranged from life and death, philosophy to humor, and conscience to responsibility.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

18 Wittgenstein’s Mistress-David Markson

There is no better way of keeping sane and free from anxiety than by being mad.” -Leonardo
Allow me to introduce you to the crazy intelligent Kate: as unreliable a narrator as you’ll ever find. She begins her story by acknowledging her search for another living being (the cover holds the first sentence of the novel). Believing she is alone in the world she tells her story of living in museums around the world, traveling to the battlegrounds of ancient Greece, and revisiting locations of personal history. Along the way she leaves messages in the hope that somebody else exists.
The problem for the reader: is she the only living woman, or is she mad? The writing style is stream-of-consciousness, and it’s as good as Joyce on crack. She is sitting at a typewriter, over the span of several months, writing an autobiography. Where a day’s worth of writing ends you have to be told by Kate. She offers that she was mad during many moments of her solitary journey, but her honesty seduces the reader to trust what she is writing now. Much of her surroundings appear tangible: clothes dried in the sun, a jar to fetch water from a stream, a canoe, the beach, and the forest. Many of the objects she describes in her house must be real, an atlas, a painting, and half empty bookshelves:
“There is space. Many of the shelves up here are half empty.
Although doubtless when I say they are half empty I should really be saying they are half filled, since presumably they were totally empty before somebody half filled them.
Then again it is not impossible that they were once filled completely, becoming half empty only when somebody removed half of the books to the basement. I find this second possibility less likely than the first, although it is not utterly beyond consideration.”
These philosophical questions pepper the novel, but Kate seems to have an answer for each of them, and you start to trust and understand her point of view. Logical impossibilities that she answers in her madness:  
“Once, when I was listening to myself read the Greek plays out loud, certain of the lines sounded as if they had been written under the influence of William Shakespeare. One had to be quite perplexed as to how Aeschylus or Euripides might have read Shakespeare...Finally it occurred to me that the translator had no doubt read Shakespeare.”
Her actions also seem quite realistic. She travels around the world in any car that still has gas and a working battery. Early in her search she carries baggage and objects, transferring them each time a car runs out of gas. At one point she drops hundreds of tennis balls down The Spanish Steps. Sounds fun, but  she stops carrying things and begins leaving things, forgetting.
Kate makes countless classic allusions to Greek dramas, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. More of her allusions are to artists and paintings: Van Gogh, Vermeer, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Picasso, De Kooning, Magritte, and El Greco. The facts she presents, alongside possible encounters of individuals that lived in the same town during the same time periods, lose value as she tries to connect the lives of masters, apprentices, students, and offspring. At many points you think she is just showing off her knowledge of obscure details about artists, the name of Rembrandt’s cat for example. But she can’t remember the name of her own cat, and obviously “one does not name a seagull.”
She claims to have lived in the Met, the Tate, and the Louvre. While in these museums she burned frames of paintings to keep warm, but also hung her own paintings between the masters. Kate clearly has knowledge of art history, but she offers small truisms that you believe until you can no longer trust her sanity. The reader’s trust turns to sympathy. And with that sympathy you question everything she says. Kate has some facts, but they are not remembered accurately. According to Kate the following was said by Leonardo, sadly, it was not:
There is no better way of keeping sane and free from anxiety than by being mad.” -Michelangelo  

p.s. What happened to 10-17? number 9 was read so long ago and the post so horrible...I'll try to keep up. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

09-St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves-Karen Russell

I saw Karen Russell have a conversation with Wells Tower a few months ago at the NY Public Library. I went because I read the review of her new novel Swamplandia and was intrigued. I bought her collection of short stories, one of which was expanded for her acclaimed novel. Karen is 29. She is one of the New Yorker magazine’s 20 under 40 and she is trying really hard to be someone else: Kelly Link. I love the fantasy realism of Kelly Link. Karen Russell writes in a way that feigns originality, but falls way short, and hits too hard on the southern child narrator. The short stories are soft, easy reads. And I usually like that about short stories. This collection grabbed me twice, the title story and the one that became the novel. I do not recommend this collection. And I won’t be reading Swamplandia.

Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger

I assigned Nine Stories as the summer reading for my upcoming AP English course. Students respond well to Catcher in the Rye, I reasoned, and might respond well to Salinger's other work, and a set of short stories, as easily portioned as it is, might take some of the burden of summer reading away. Whether or not those things are true--well, I'll tell you that in a few days when I find out how many of them completed the assignment.

Nine Stories remains as I remembered it: a collection of plain-spoken, yet acutely detailed, accounts of human interactions. I am still mostly baffled at "Just Before the War with the Eskimos" (What is it about Ginnie's interaction with Selena's brother that makes her go back on her demand to be paid for the cab fare?), mostly bored by "Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes," and heartbroken by "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" and "The Laughing Man," which probably are the best offerings here.

I was less absorbed in "Teddy" than I was the first time around--when you know for sure what's coming, that Teddy accurately predicts his own death, his long, plodding conversation about the nature of reincarnation saps the story of its dramatic thrust. The most rewarding to re-read--that is, the one that seemed richer for offering things I had missed the first time around--was "De Daumier-Smith's Blue Period," about a young artist who fakes his way into teaching at an art correspondence school.

The narrator--a nineteen-boy who is decidedly not the Parisienne De Daumier-Smith, friend of Picasso--takes the job out of boredom, or listlessness, or maybe is simply trying to get away from the stepfather he has to bum around with now that his mother has died. His students are irredeemably bad--not necessarily without talent, but puerile, or pornographic, or both. But one, a Catholic nun in Toronto, piques his interest, and he writes her a very personal letter asking her if he could mentor her as a painter.

What the narrator finds, perhaps without looking, is a kind of religious epiphany. Sister Irma's painting is a scene of Christ's crucifixion, and he experiences it as a secular vision. There is something unmistakably modern in his awe; it is the reaction of a world for whom artistic revelation has usurped religious revelation, who cherishes the symbol because it is more palpable than the murky truth to which it refers. It is easy to point out the tone-deafness of his letter to Irma--he asks, credulously, if being a nun is "satisfactory, in a spiritual way," and privately imagines that she is a young girl he might rescue from her vows--but it is also achingly sincere. This quasi-spirituality is so powerful that it gives Salinger a chance to try out some rare poetic flourishes:

Just before I feel asleep, the moaning sound came again through the wall from the Yoshotos' bedroom. I pictured both Yoshotos coming to me in the morning and asking me, begging me, to hear their secret problem out, to the last, terrible detail. I saw exactly how it would be. I would sit down between them at the kitchen table and listen to each of them. I would listen, listen, listen, and with my head in my hands--till finally, unable to stand it any longer, I would reach down into Mme. Yoshoto's throat, take up her heart in my hand and warm it as I would a bird. Then, when all was put right, I would show Sister Irma's work to the Yoshotos, and they would share my joy.

But it is Sister Irma's parish priest that writes back, withdrawing her from the school. The worldly nature of the narrator's epiphany has not enabled him to make a real connection or a real communication, as is often the case with more religious epiphanies. An agnostic, he fashions the nun into a goddess-figure, who then acts, like a goddess, inscrutably.

But the moment that elevates the story happens at the end, and is something I do not think I totally understood when I read it a couple years ago. The narrator, having dressed up in a tuxedo for dinner and then having changed his mind, watches a girl undress a mannequin in a store window:

She was changing the truss on the wooden dummy. As I came up to the show window, she had evidently just taken off the old truss; it was under her left arm (her right "profile" was toward me), and she was lacing up the new one on the dummy. I stood watching her, fascinated, till suddenly she sensed, then saw that she was being watched. I quickly smiled--to show her that this was a non-hostile figure in the tuxedo in the twilight on the other side of the glass--but it did no good. The girl's confusion was out of all normal proportion. She blushed, she dropped the removed truss, she stepped back on a stack of irrigation basins--and her feet went from under her.

The narrator calls this his "Experience," and has to steady himself against the glass. Clearly, this epiphanic moment has usurped the last one--but why? I think it is because he senses the girl's great bafflement at seeing him, tuxdedoed, outside her shop window, and that in some way she is experiencing an epiphany of her own, an inscrutable spiritual vision. For him, it is not the experience of the vision, but the embodiment of it, that truly satisfies, being the god-figure instead of the saint.

He writes in his diary, "I am giving Sister Irma her freedom to follow her own destiny. Everyone is a nun." This is not quite right; one must be a god to grant freedom to a nun, and though everyone is in some respect a nun, I think Salinger is suggesting that everyone is a little bit more than that. Or, rather, that nuns and the god for whom the toil are not entities as separate as one might have thought.