Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Century by Alain Badiou

For us philosophers, the question is not what took place in the century, but what was thought in it.  What did the men of the century think, over and above merely developing the thought of their predecessors?  In other words, what are the century's uninherited thoughts?  What was thought in the century that was previously unthought--or even unthinkable?

If there is one lesson I have taken from Alain Badiou's thorny philosophical treatise The Century, it is this: Don't buy the books for your class before the first day, because they're subject to change.

Not to say that I feel like I wasted my time, though ultimately I can't agree with most of what Badiou says.  The task he sets for himself is fascinating enough, and Herculean: to make sense of what the 20th century, or those in it, have to say about their own time period.  The question that dominates the book is, what does this century think about itself?

I think some of what Badiou says is spot on.  I particularly like the idea that the 20th century fetishizes the idea of "waiting" or "watching," which Badiou describes as "a cardinal virtue, because it is the only existing form of intense indifference."  (Think Waiting for Godot.)  But also I got a lot out of Badiou's discussion of Kasimir Malevich's White on White:

We must beware of interpreting White on White as a symbol of the destruction of painting.  On the contrary, what we are dealing with is a subtractive assumption.  The gesture is very close to the one that Mallarme makes within poetry: the staging of a minimal, albeit absolute, difference; the difference between the place and what takes place in the place, the difference between place and taking-place.  Captured in whiteness, this difference is constituted through the erasure of every content, every upsurge.

What Badiou is saying, to the extent that I understand it, is that Malevich (and the entire corps of modern art by extension) is not trying to destroy the expectations of his art form.  Rather, White on White represents an attempt to bring the content of the work and its physical form as closely together as possible, making the gap between art and "the real" as small as it can be.  Badiou would call this the century's "passion for the real."  Admittedly, it doesn't make White on White any more enjoyable to look at.

The later chapters of The Century venture into more unpleasant territory.  Badiou's Marxist vision depicts a century obsessed with revolution and the creation of a "new man," but by doing so he effectively eliminates the significance of any individual experience:

It is certainly true that from Malevich's White on White to Beckett's Waiting for Godot, from Webern's silences to Guyotat's lyrical cruelties, the fundamental art of the century doesn't care a jot about man.  Quite simply because it considers that man in his ordinary state does not amount to much, and that there is no need to make such a fuss about him--all of which is quite true.  The art of the century is an art of the overhuman.

For Badiou, the only art worth anything is committed to a great (but clearly impossible) social project which upends the order of the world and ushers in an "overhumanity" that requires an intermediary "inhumanity."  This line of thought leads him to talk about the "vacuity of the notion of 'human rights.'"  If you are willing to follow Badiou's line of thought into an existence where the individual is expendable and the human only raw material for what comes after, well, have fun, and I hope the Communists don't throw you into a boiling lime pit like in the Brecht play Badiou loves so much.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Millie Fierce by Jane Manning

I believe this is a first for 50 Books—we’ve reviewed Young Adult literature, children’s literature, and some books that don’t fit comfortably in either of these nooks, but I think Millie Fierce may be the first, for lack of a better category, “picture book” to get ink in these hallowed posts. It probably would have remained this way, except I recently became a father and, over the past few months, I’ve spent more time reading books with pictures on every page than I have reading Shakespeare (I recommend A Fish Out of Water). But enough with the preface—on to the review.

Millie Fierce tells a familiar story, one whose themes have been touched on in everything from Office Space to The Counterlife—the longing to be someone else, or at least, a different version of yourself. The titular Millie, quiet, polite, and often overlooked, is pushed past her breaking point one day when “the best flower she had ever drawn” is turned into a “multicolored smudge” by a group of girls who not only neglect to apologize, but don’t seem to notice their destruction at all. At this point, Millie discovers there is another side of her, a fierce side, which she unleashes with all the fury a young child can muster:
“For Millie Fierce, no line was too long to barge in front of, no food was too tasty to flick across the table”
All of these stories have one of three endings: the protagonist is fulfilled by the new self, the protagonist finds that the old self was better, or, as in Millie’s case, the protagonist learns to integrate the old and the new. Millie’s eventual decision is fairly obvious from the beginning—it’s doubtful that many children’s books strongly champion the virtues of cutting in line and stealing cake—but author Jane Manning manages to elicit not an insignificant amount of pathos from her simple story, largely through her bright and expressive artwork, which is worth the cost of the book by itself.

Is it pretentious to review a picture book the same way I’d review a novel? Maybe. But the level of craft that goes into something like Millie Fierce is worth being pointed out—it doesn’t take too many late-period Berenstain Bears books to make you appreciate a book that can teach a lesson without moralizing, using illustrations that don’t look like they were dashed off to meet a deadline.

Disclosure: I received this book from TLC Book Tours. They did not attempt to influence the content of this review in any way. I appreciate the opportunity to participate, and encourage our readers to check out the other reviews on this tour.

The Cockatoos by Patrick White

She switched aside the blind from a bow-window, to see whether the cockatoo.  There were two of them.  Stamping and striding around the tree.  Her heart was beating.  Sometimes the birds got so angry, she could hear them screeching through the glass.  She wouldn't have dared open the window: she might have frightened the cockatoos.  Who tore at the lawn with furious beaks, or calming down, composed their crests along their heads, eyes tender with a wisdom which, like most wisdom, threatened to become obscure or irrelevant.

The titular birds of White's short story "The Cockatoos," which in turn gives its name to the whole collection, capture the attention of an entire neighborhood.  It's not hard to see why--there's something mystical and beautiful about a flock of wild cockatoos that contrasts the inertness of 20th century suburban living, something otherworldly.  They mean something slightly different to each neighbor: an ornamentation, a talisman, a nuisance, a memory, a promise of reconciliation for an estranged couple.  Like White's stories, their significance hovers somewhere beyond the threshold of comprehension, and yet each character longs to possess them, to call them "his birds" or "her birds."  Unsurprisingly, like with so many human attempts to understand and possess the unknowable, violence erupts.

"The Cockatoos" is the last story in the collection, and the most perfectly realized, though it draws from the same well as many of the others.  White's protagonists are typically older couples, the wife explored more fully than the husband, happy with each other or unhappy, but mired in long-established routines into which the mystical, like the cockatoos, continually threatens to break in.  In "Five-Twenty," an elderly woman watches the afternoon traffic with her crippled husband, comforted by the timeliness of a single man in a single car, until her husband dies and she embarks on a chance sexual adventure with the commuter.  Sexual affairs are linked to the mystical, too; in "Sicilian Vespers" another old woman cheats on her husband in an Italian church.

These stories are well wrought, and manage both a strong realistic power and a metaphysical presence, but "The Cockatoos" is clearly the best of them.  Almost as enjoyable are a pair of stories that don't fit this mold: "The Night the Prowler," about a young woman's supposed sexual assault, and my other favorite, "The Full Belly," about a Greek family under the Nazi Occupation.  Near starvation, the protagonist Costa receives a vision of Mary urging him to take food from his dying aunt, only to find that his other aunt has gotten to it first.  They fight and Costa wins, but they have become something primal, animalistic:

When his aunt had gone, Costa Iordanou plumped on the carpet, intent on stuffing his mouth with rice.  If only the few surviving grains.  Sometimes fluff got in.  Or a coarse thread.  His lips were as swollen as cooked rice.  The grains stuck to the tips of his fingers, the palms of his hands.  He licked the grains.  He sucked them up.  The splinters of porcelain cutting his lips.  The good goo.  The blood running.  Even blood was nourishment.

What a great, minimalist sentence: "The good goo."

I wasn't sure that White's mysticism and lyricality, which work so well in his historical novels Voss and A Fringe of Leaves, would translate to contemporary settings, but The Cockatoos left me pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Call it Sleep by Henry Roth

She shrugged, not at him, but at herself.  "This is the way of the years, my son.  Each new one shows you both hands this way--" She held out her two closed hands before her.  "Here, choose!"  And opening them.  "And they're both empty.  We do what we can.  But the bitter thing is to strive--and save none but yourself."  She rose, went to the stove, lifted the lid and peered down into the glow that stained the wide brow, the flat cheek.  "Eat we must though."

Few books capture the feel of city life as aptly as Call it Sleep.  Frequently, clogged by the torturous transcription of various dialects, scattered, schizophrenic imagery, and long stretches of stream-of-consciousness, it can be a mess.  Too much of a mess, sometimes, especially when those aspects collide.  But as an impressionistic reproduction of how the slum tenements of early 20th century New York would seem to the nine-year old protagonist, Davy Schearl, it succeeds tremendously.  And sometimes, moments of stark lucidity shine out:

And suddenly there was space even between the hedges of stone and suddenly there was quiet even in the fret of cities.  And there was time, inviolable even to terror, time to watch the smudged and cluttered russet in the west beckon to the night to cover it.  A moment, but a moment only, then he whimpered and ran.

But where it exceeds the most is as a depiction of Davy's psychology, and the terror wrought on it by the wildness of city life and his antagonistic relationship with his father.  I have a soft spot for books that portray childhood as something horrible, because I think that it often is, and our modern conception of childhood as a pastel-colored idyll is misleading.  Besides being basically loathed by his father, who suspects him (probably accurately) of being another man's child, city life for Davy is a series of disasters: His first sexual experience, at the command of a crippled girl:

"Yuh know w'ea babies comm from?"


"From de knish."


"Between de leg.  Who puts id in is de poppa.  De poppa's god de petzel.  Yaw de poppa."  She giggled stealthily and took his hand.

Or getting lost, and ending up in a police station fearing a complete separation from home.  Or later on, when a Polish boy whom he admires tricks him into helping him sexually assault Davy's own cousin in exchange for a set of broken rosary beads.

The rosary beads are characteristic of Davy's response to his existence, a yearning for a religious vision beyond the ugliness and the "fret of cities."  To Davy, the rosary beads are as mystical as the vision of Isaiah described in his cheder classes.  Call it Sleep reminds me of Equus, in that they both depict the syncretic, idiosyncratic religious impulse of a boy who blurs the line between mysticism and his personal existence.  For Davy, he finally gets his vision--after touching the third rail of a railroad track--but it involves seeing his own father lifted on a cross.

I wish I liked that section.  But Roth chooses to break Davy's vision into fragments, cutting in at the middle of words, to splice in the dialogue of those around him and the onomatopoetic sounds of machinery.  Roth wants us to see how Davy is both in and out of consciousness, but it doesn't work; it's too confusing.  What should be an affecting end to a powerful novel just made me wish for it to end.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche

In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche begins with a simple postulate: Why do we enjoy watching tragedies?  The Greeks loved drama that emphasized the profound nature of suffering in the world and they weren't particularly dour or unproductive people.  Instead, Nietzsche tells us, tragedy has a way of allowing us to face suffering without breaking, of wresting a strange sort of consolation from seeing pain enacted on stage.

This process is based on two forces, which Nietzsche names after the respective gods which represent them, the Apolline and Dionysiac.  The Apolline force is beauty, order, representation; it belongs to sculpture which is beautiful because it faithfully represents (to the best of its ability) recognizable forms.  The Dionysiac form is the sublime, dark, mysterious, closer to the "real;" it belongs to music, the wordless expression of the will.  These forces are not necessarily at odds with one another, in fact, true tragedy (which for the Greeks was always musical) comes from the combination of these two forces.  To describe it reductively, the deceptive nature of the Apolline allows us to approach the terrifying nature of the Dionysiac without self-destruction:

However powerfully this pity may affect us, in a sense it delivers us from the primal suffering of the world, just as the symbol of myth preserves us from gazing directly on the supreme idea of the world, just as thoughts and words save us from the unbrooked effusion of the unconscious will.

Nietzsche follows this idea off to several conclusions, including heaps of praise for Richard Wagner and scorn for Euripides and Socrates, as well as the concept of reason itself.  His most powerful conclusion is that "[t]he world is only justified as an aesthetic phenomenon," something which, if too strong for that word "only," nonetheless squares with my personal experience of the power of art--that it is, among other things, the force that makes life endurable.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth

This book is dirty.  It is, outside of freakishness-for-freakishness' sake books like Naked Lunch and Crash, the dirtiest book I have ever read.  My girlfriend gave it to me for my birthday, but I don't think she knew that at the time.

Mickey Sabbath is a retired puppeteer living in New England.  Although "retired" may be the wrong word for someone who was hounded into joblessness for "taking advantage" of a younger student.  Which is basically the story of his life--where Sabbath finds sex liberating, and wears his fetishes and licentiousness on his sleeve, few others share his openness, like the cop who arrested him for exposing a woman's breast (with her tacit consent) during an adult puppet show near Columbia University in the 60's.

But all that is mostly flashback.  When the novel opens, Sabbath is forced to deal with the sudden death by cancer of his longtime mistress Drenka, his most committed and adventurous sexual partner.  Drenka's death forces Sabbath to force his own mortality, but also to masturbate on her grave:

Even dead, Drenka gave him a hard-on; alive or dead, Drenka made him twenty again.  Even with temperatures below zero, he would grow hard whenever, from her coffin, she enticed him like this.  He had learned to stand with his back  to the north so that the icy wind did not blow directly on his dick but he still had to remove one of his gloves to jerk off successfully, and sometimes the gloveless hand would get so cold that he would have to put that glove back on and switch to the other hand.  He came on her grave many nights.

I wanted to read Sabbath's Theater because of a passage in James Wood's How Fiction Works where he talks about how successfully Philip Roth combines low registers ("cunt," "tits," etc.) with high registers ("even the toilet bowl cleaners appeared to have been designed by Brancusi"), which Wood considers the mark of sophisticated prose.  More than that, Roth's variegated style turns Sabbath into a proponent of the intellectual and moral joy of sexual transgression, rather than a simple hedonist.  (I was expecting someone like John Self from Money, but that's not Sabbath at all).  It's no surprise that Sabbath compares himself to Falstaff, who also justifies his appetites by rhetorical flourishes.

And yet part of Sabbath's reckoning with his past requires facing the harm his proclivities can cause; for every encounter with a puritanical cop there is a time in which he buys liquor for a girl in rehab in exchange for oral sex.  Sabbath wavers between extreme guilt and extreme defiance, unable to differentiate until the end, I think.  Throughout the book he describes the agony of his first wife's abrupt disappearance, and takes to telling people, "I killed my wife"--but is it an admission of wrongdoing, or just another farce, another puppet show?

I read Portnoy's Complaint years ago and didn't care for it, yet I really enjoyed Sabbath's Theater.  Portnoy, to the best of my recollection, was a chronicle of sexual repression and frustration; Sabbath's Theater represents something like a release from that, and I think it succeeds on that sheer, liberated audacity.

The Twilight War by David Crist

"[This] is a story in which I have been a participant, dispassionate scholar, and, most recently, an advistor to senior Defense Department officials." - David Crist

I remember a professor of mine in grad school telling me, "People love secret histories and untold stories. It's annoying. People aren't interested in books that expand on existing knowledge." For some reason, that stuck with me, and I've come back to it over the years. I think it is mostly correct. Intrigue sells. However, just because a work of history focuses on some heretofore unknown or little-known facet of history doesn't render it unworthy of attention. David Crist's The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict With Iran is an excellently researched work of history. That was Crist is writing about is little-known makes the book that much more interesting.

Crist spent eight months in Iraq during the First Gulf War. He was part of a marine armor reconnaissance battalion. After the war, he went back to graduate school for a doctorate in Middle Eastern history. In 2003, he found himself back in Iraq as on of the few marines assigned to the navy's elite SEALS. As you might imagine, this brings a unique perspective to his writing.

Crist takes us on a methodical, detailed account of the conflict between Iran and the United States, beginning with the fall of the Shah of Iran and ending with the 2011 sanctions against Iran. His extensive military knowledge and connections enable him to describe military equipment and maneuvers in a detailed and informative manner. Crist rarely introduces a new person in the story without given at least a quick physical description of them. He style slips back and forth between detailed and casual, in a nearly seamless manner.

Despite Crist's fluid writing, the book is not a quick or necessarily easy read. The subject matter is dense and complex. The story cuts across five decades and six U.S. presidencies. However, if you are interested in U.S. military history, international relations or the Middle East, you will find this book engrossing.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Theory of the Novel by Georg Lukacs

The soul goes out to seek adventure; it lives through adventures, but it does not know the real torment of seeking and the real danger of finding; such a soul never stakes itself; it does not yet know that it can lose itself, it never thinks of having to look for itself.  Such an age is the age of the epic.

I know very few are interested in the wonky lit crit books I'm assigned for my graduate school classes, but I want to blog every book I read, so I'll keep this brief.  Georg Lukacs' The Theory of the Novel seeks to explain why we read and write novels, when once we wrote epics.  The short version is that "The novel is the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God."

A longer explanation would show that our fundamental relationship to the world is not what it was for the Greeks, whose "answers came before their questions."  The rift that occurs between our interior selves and our exterior world makes our adventures ones of interiority, of struggling against the paradox of having to live in an unknowable world, unlike the epic heroes who are "only the luminous centre around which this unfolded totality revolves, the inwardly most immbole point of the world's rhythmic movement."  Something similar is described in Josipovici's Whatever Happened to Modernism?, but more lucidly.

That, so far, I think I understand.  But Lukacs' attempts to provide a more nuanced schematic of the novel tend toward utter impenetrability.  There are too many sentences like this one:

The world of distances lies sprawling and chaotic beneath the radiant celestial rose of sense made sensuous; it is visible and undisguised at every moment.

I won't front.  I don't have the first idea what that means.  Lukacs' foreword basically recants the book in its entirety, saying that in retrospect it was bad form to make generalizations and then try to fit individual examples to them.  But The Theory of the Novel is, as far as I can tell, almost bereft of any real evidence that might clarify thoughts like the ones above.  When it does discuss real literature, as in late chapters on Goethe's Wilhelm Meister and Tolstoy, it does so only in the most abstract way possible.  I teach my high schoolers that the most important skill they can develop in writing about literature is the ability to support their argument with textual evidence.  Is that too much to ask of Georg Lukacs?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason

Odysseus comes back to Ithaca in a little boat on a clear day.  The familiarity of the east face of the island seems absurd--bemused, he runs a tricky rip current he has not thought about in fifty years and lands by the mouth of a creek where he swam as a boy.  All his impatience leaves him and he sits under an oak he remembers whose branches overhang the water, good for diving.  Twenty years have gone by, he reflects, what are a few more minutes.  An hour passes in silence and it occurs to him that he is tired and might as well go home, so he picks up his sword and walks toward his house, sure that whatever obstacles await will be minor compared to what he has been through.

Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey should be awesome.  Presenting itself as a new translation of recently discovered variations on The Odyssey, it comprises 44 fragments reimagining the story of Odysseus.  This is enticing because there's always been something fragmentary about Odysseus himself, almost as if his predilection for trickery and disguise has made it impossible for us to get a total picture of him.  Is he this Odysseus?  How about this one?  Or this one?

But then again, there's a rule that I'm thinking of naming after myself: If you're going to crib from one of the world's greatest works of literature, you better have a damn good idea of what you're doing.  The Lost Books of the Odyssey doesn't work because it doesn't seem to me to have a real will or capacity to respond to The Odyssey, instead using it as a mere template to engage in some slack flash-fiction experimentation.

There are some intriguing passages: One I particularly liked involved Odysseus' determination to kill Scylla, the many-headed monster that lies on the other side of the whirlpool Charybdis.  Baiting her with a bull carcass secretly hooked to his ship, he pulls her toward her death, at which point she looks up and says:

"You are the fate that has been haunting me since I was born.  I huddled in my high cave for fear of you, starving and wretched, venturing out only to snatch a little food when I could.  I thought of hiding in a deep cavern or on a high mountain but I was too afraid to leave home.  Mine has been a miserable life and now it is ending and I wish I had never heard the name Odysseus."

I like that because it takes an idea that The Odyssey toys with--that Odysseus, whose very name means "Man of Pain," is destructive, and brings suffering not only to himself but those around him--and builds on it through a familiar story.  A similarly successful passage is written from the perspective of the cyclops Polyphemus.  But too often The Lost Books of the Odyssey lacks the balance between inventiveness and faithfulness that this requires.  Instead, it teeters between the extremes of banality and irrelevance.  At the first extreme, there's the idea that Odysseus himself wrote The Odyssey.  At the second, there's a fragment imagining Odysseus in a Hell that takes the form of a high wire with an abyss below and the inverted world above.  That's a trippy image, I suppose, but what's it got to do with Odysseus?

And it's the intriguing conceit of the "translation" that falls flattest of all, since the fragments don't sound in any sense like an ancient epic.  (The first person bits really give it away.)  An attempt to make it seem like something really ancient might have made it more interesting, but it also would have made it a different book.  Of course, it's not fair to indict Mason for failing to live up to the strange grandeur of the Odyssey or The Iliad, which it takes from equally.  But it's hard to read and not wish you were just reading those works instead.