Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

The trouble began long before June 9, 1976, when I became aware of it, but June 9 is the day I remember.  It was my twenty-sixth birthday.  It was also the day I met Rufus--the day he called me to him for the first time.

Dana Franklin passes out in 1976 and wakes up in early 19th century Maryland, just in time to save a young boy from drowning.  The episode lasts for maybe fifteen minutes, but when she returns, only a few seconds have passed.  When she's "called" again, it's 1819, and the boy is a little older, and about to accidentally burn his house down.  This time, Dana stays a little longer--and discovers, at the point of a gun, that she only returns to her own time when her life is in jeopardy.

Of course, death isn't the only frightening prospect for a black woman in the antebellum South.  Each time Dana is called to help Rufus--a man whom, she discovers, is her distant ancestor--she finds herself deep in Plantation life, not a slave exactly, not that those sort of technicalities matter.  Even when she manages to bring her husband, Kevin, along with her, they must disguise their marriage--Kevin is white--and pose as master and slave.  Each time she faces the possibility that she'll never return.

Kindred is a better thought experiment than a novel.  It has a very cinematic sense of plot--in fact, I'm surprised no one's tried to make a film out of it yet.  The nature of Dana's time traveling means that every chapter has to end with a cliffhanger.  The stakes are kept constantly high--when Kevin fails to reach Dana before she "disappears" back to the modern day, he is essentially trapped until Rufus calls her back, and spends five lonely years stuck in the 19th century.  Yet it seems to me Dana never coheres as a character rather than an archetype, Kevin, less so.  Furthermore, the novel's use of history often seems flatly encyclopedic.

The best thing about the novel is the relationship between Dana and her ancestor, Rufus.  Dana is cast into the role of protector for Rufus, and she saves him from certain death multiple times, but she's unable to help him grow into someone who leads a life contrary to his family and his society.  As a result, Rufus is alternately cruel and needy towards Dana--he can not live without her, but he doesn't have access to the kind of respect and gratitude that need requires.  He gives her gifts, then has her whipped, pleads with her not to leave him, then backs his pleas up at the point of a rifle.  Their relationship mirrors that between Rufus and Alice, the slave who will give birth to Dana's family line.  In the 20th century, Butler suggests, Rufus might have been able to pursue Alice romantically in the way that Kevin pursues Dana; in the antebellum South Alice's child will inevitably be a product of rape.

Butler does a good job, without excusing Rufus' cruelties, of showing the way in which he himself is limited and malformed by the "peculiar institution."  (Spoiler alert!)  When Dana is called for the last time, it is because Alice has hanged herself.  Rufus, distraught, turns his sexual advances on Dana, and though she has never confessed their kinship, the possibility of incest underlines the destructiveness of slavery on family relationships, a destructiveness which necessitates that Dana kill the man who she has toiled against her will to protect.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

"Not mine," responded Sancho.  "I mean, there's nothing of the scoundrel in him; mine's as innocent as a baby; he doesn't know how to harm anybody, he can only do good to everybody, and there's no malice in him: a child could convince him it's night in the middle of the day, and because he's simple I love him with all my heart and couldn't leave him no matter how many crazy things he does."

I did it!  It took three weeks and a couple twelve-hour stretches in a rented car, but I finished Don Quixote.  I don't mean to make it sound like a slog; I probably would have finished it much more quickly if I hadn't been passing through some beautiful Montana scenery, because there's nothing really difficult or thorny about Don Quixote.  It's one of the most fun and readable "classics" I've ever read--though I'm sure part of that is Edith Grossman's recent translations, which really captures the spirit of Cervantes' up-to-date (for the time) Spanish.

Don Quixote, briefly, is a Spanish hidalgo, or nobleman, named Alonso Quijano who becomes obsessed with books of chivalry and knight errantry.  He reinvents himself as Don Quixote, the Knight of the Sorrowful Face (a name he takes on after he gets the crap beaten out of him), defender of the weak, champion of justice, devoted to the beautiful and peerless Dulcinea of Toboso--a fictional version of a peasant girl who lives in a nearby town.  Even if you're not familiar with Don Quixote, you probably know the famous image of him "tilting at windmills," that is, attacking a windmill imagining it to be a giant.  All 900 pages of the book are pretty much like that: Don Quixote imagines a commonplace person or thing is a giant or a witch or an enchantment, and tries to fight it, and ends up getting his ass kicked despite the protests of his loyal squire,  Sancho Panza.  Don Quixote's "madness" is a positive feedback loop, in which he dismisses any proof to the contrary as the work of enchanters:

"Well, Sancho, by the same oath you swore before, I swear to you," said Don Quixote, "that you have the dimmest wits that any squire in the world has or ever had.  Is it possible that in all the time you have traveled with me you have not yet noticed that all things having to do with knights errant appear to be chimerical, foolish, senseless, and turned inside out?  And not because they really are, but because hordes of enchanters always walk among us and alter and change everything and turn things into whatever they please, according to whether they wish to favor us or destroy us; and so, what seems to you to be a barber's basin seems to me the helmet of Mambrino, and will seem another thing to someone else."

Don Quixote is often praised not only as the first novel, but as anticipating most of the textual tools and tricks of modernist literature: First, Cervantes presents it as a translation of a Moorish author, Cide Hemete Benengeli.  Then, in the second part, published a decade or so after the first, Cervantes places Don Quixote and Sancho in a world where the first part of their adventures has become famous; the heroes, then, have to grapple with their own textuality.

To be sure, these aspects do a lot to make Don Quixote into a rich, fascinating text.  But Cervantes approaches the metafictional stuff with a very light touch; and in my opinion, it's not the most rewarding facet of the novel.  Don Quixote is really, great, I think, for two reason: First, the pervasive suggestion that Don Quixote is the one who is sane and everyone else who is insane.  I don't mean that Don Quixote is right that the windmills are giants or that the inn is a castle, of course, but rather that Cervantes is constantly forcing us to evaluate Don Quixote's philosophy against the attitudes of those around him.  He's frequently the butt of practical jokes invented by those who know about his "madness," from the priest and the barber of the first part to the duke and the duchess of the second; some are harmless, but many involve actual physical harm to Don Quixote.  Such cruelty and play-acting contrast sharply with Don Quixote's moral compulsion to protect those who need it.  Even when destroying a puppet show, Don Quixote seems to be the only one in the novel with a moral code:

"I shall not consent, in my lifetime and in my presence, to any such offense against an enamored knight so famous and bold as Don Gaiferos.  Halt, you lowborn rabble; do not follow and do not pursue him unless you wish to do battle with me!"

And speaking and taking action, he unsheathed his sword, leaped next to the stage, and with swift and never before seen fury began to rain down blows on the crowd of Moorish puppets, knocking down some, beheading others, ruining this one, destroying that one, and among many other blows, he delivered so power a downstroke that if Master Pedro had not stopped, crouched down, and hunched over, he would have cut off his head more easily than if it had been so much marzipan.

The second great thing about Don Quixote is the relationship between Don Quixote and his squire, Sancho Panza.  Sancho sometimes sees through his master's madness and sometimes does not; sometimes Don Quixote praises Sancho for his loyalty and sometimes he upbraids him for his cowardice and weakness, but ultimately Sancho's devotion to Don Quixote is one of the most convincing literary portraits of friendship I know of.

Don Quixote ends (spoiler?) with the Knight of the Sorrowful Face tricked into returning to his home and giving up knight errantry; once again becoming Alonso Quijano and promptly dying.  His friends and neighbors treat this as a great success, but there's an awful sadness to it.  Only the most cynical realist could think that the world is better off without Don Quixotes in it.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Then I thought of something, all of a sudden.  "Hey, listen," I said.  "You know those ducks in that lagoon right near Central Park South?  That little lake?  Do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?  Do you happen to know, by any chance?"  I realized it was only one chance in a million.

Holden Caulfield--what an insufferable jerk, right?  Either that or the very essence of what it means to be a disillusioned teenager.  Catcher in the Rye never fails to bring out a strong response, sometimes negative, sometimes positive.  I regret to say that I see a lot more of the former among kids Holden's age these days.  I've never taught the book myself (though I will next year, which is, like Hamlet, why I'm re-reading it now), but I've known kids who've read it, and for whatever reason, most kids don't want to see themselves in Holden.

I get it, of course.  No kid in 2013, especially in 2013, would ask a question like, "Do you happen to know where they go, the ducks, when it gets all frozen over?"  Holden is immature, callow, and unrealistic, despite his champions' attempts to turn him into some sort of cynical saint.  But I think that both of these approaches are wrong-headed.  Why is it that we feel the need to turn Holden into a symbol of youth, instead of letting him be what he is: a complicated, fragile, and achingly "real" character?

This is the first time I've read Catcher in the Rye--which details Holden's adventures in NYC during the few days between getting kicked out of his prestigious prep school and returning home--since reading Salinger's other works, Franny and Zooey; Seymour: An Introduction; Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters; and Nine StoriesSalinger suggests (I forget in which book--probably Seymour) that Buddy, a member of the Glass family that recurs throughout Salinger's non-Catcher works, is the author of Catcher.  This suggestion, I think, makes Catcher doubly rich and complex.  In this light, Catcher becomes not merely the profile of a single troubled young man but a complement to the Glass stories; Holden becomes an analogue for Buddy; Holden's sister Phoebe becomes an analogue for Zooey; Holden's deceased brother, Allie, becomes an analogue for Seymour, the suicide*.

What I mean is not merely that the books become a match-up game.  What it reveals for me is the way that Holden, far from being overly dramatic and trivial as his detractors suggest, is beset with anxiety about death.  There's Allie's death, of course, and his baseball mitt covered in poetry that is Holden's prized possession.  There's the story of James Castle, who borrows Holden's turtleneck sweater before jumping out a window to his death.  It's a small passage, easy to lose in the larger narrative of Catcher, but isn't it interesting the way that Buddy Glass, if we think of the book as his creation, must process his feelings about Seymour's death by splitting it into two concrete elements: a dead brother and a suicide?  Of course, you don't need to understand that aspect of Catcher to see the connection between the dead Allie and the figure in Holden's sweater bleeding out onto the concrete, to understand what Holden cannot put words to: that these deaths are inextricably tied to him.

I want to think about those things before we dismiss Holden's idealistic visions of "catching" the children who run through the rye.  No wonder that Holden is so protective of Phoebe; if he can keep her from being corrupted by adulthood, perhaps he can protect her from death.  Phoebe's precociousness, that which makes her seem older than her age--like Seymour's, like Holden's, like Esme's in "For Esme, with Love and Squalor"--is suffused with the reality of death.  What is Holden's obsession with the ducks in Central Park but a death-anxiety, a fear of the ultimate abandonment?  Or what about this:

Anyway, I kept walking and walking up Fifth Avenue, without any tie on or anything.  Then all of a sudden, something very spooky started happening.  Every time I came to the end of a block and stepped off the goddamn curb, I had this feeling that I'd never get to the other side of the street.  I thought I'd just go down, down, down, and nobody'd ever see me again.  Boy, did it scare me.  You can't imagine.  I started sweating like a bastard--my whole shirt and underwear and everything.  Every time I'd get to the end of a block I'd make believe I was talking to my brother Allie.  I'd say to him, "Allie, don't let me disappear.  Allie, don't let me disappear.  Please, Allie."

Down, down, down and nobody'd ever see me again.  Holden is the catcher, but he needs Allie to catch him before he disappears--and, of course, the ultimate irony is that the only ones who know enough about the great mystery of death to help you are the ones who you can never reach.

*Note: In Slate, Ron Rosenbaum pleads with the Salinger estate to publish any unreleased works, in part to redeem Salinger for the Seymour works, which Rosenbaum finds insufferable and tedious.  I don't think he could be more wrong about that, but I hope that he gets whet he wants all the same.

"None of the merry-go-rounds seem to work anymore."

A line by John Gregory Dunne, chosen by author S. J. Rozan as his favorite opening line ever written.  The Atlantic has a list, including choices by Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Franzen.

Most of them don't impress me much, though I like that one, and the Hemingway.  But I guess that the success of a first line is tied pretty closely to what comes after.  Mine is the opening line of The Good Soldier: "This is the saddest story I've ever heard."  But if you haven't read the book, you can't fully grasp the sad irony of that line, can you?

What about you guys?  What's your favorite opening line?

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Late Lights by Kara Weiss

Hardly a year goes by that I don't mention in one of my reviews how much I enjoy short stories, and even more so, interconnected short stories, such as Jennifer Haigh's News from Heaven, which I read earlier this year. The stories in Kim Edwards' The Secrets of a Fire King has stuck with me for years. Much of my enjoyment of Edwards' stories stemmed from their focus on people inhabiting the fringes of society. Given this personal proclivity, there was almost no chance of me not enjoying Kara Weiss' Late Lights, which she describes as "a novella-in-stories." The stories in Late Lights center around three friends whose lives have gone in very different directions.

The stories in Late Lights are harsh and jarring, often dealing with subjects that I knew little about, such as, the day-to-day experiences inside a juvenile detention center. Weiss' writing has a sense of urgency, as though she is pleading with her readers to understand her characters.

Late Lights was a very quick read. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys short stories.

Zinsky the Obscure by Ilan Mochari

"There are stories like Superman which require suspension of disbelief for maximum enjoyment. Then there are stories like mine -- real stories -- where for the most part, disbelief need not be suspended. There are no flying humans, no unfamiliar planets, and no optical illusions."

When he is thirty years old, Ariel Zinsky come to the conclusion that no one cares about his life story, so he decides to write it. He takes some paper from work and beings with his childhood. This is the premise of Zinsky the Obscure, Ilan Mochari's debut novel.

The quote about suspension of disbelief is a good indication of the tone of this novel. Zinsky is essentially the telling of the life of a young misanthropic man living in New York. It bares some resemblance to Confederacy of Dunces, but the story and writing lacks the absurdity that was so integral in making Toole's novel so enjoyable for me. Mochari's Arial Zinsky has all the angst of Ignatius J. Reilly but little of the bravado and ridiculousness that made him such a memorable character.

The unfolding of the story of Zinsky's adolescense is coupled with thirty-year-old Zinsky, from whose perspective the book is written, reconnecting with members of his family. Zinsky the Obscure is an angsty and emotionally raw novel, with nuggets of brilliant writing and storytelling buried in its pages. It's a strong debut novel for Ilan Mochari.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

I don't feel even remotely qualified to say anything about Hamlet.  What could I possibly add to the millions upon millions of words of commentary that have already been heaped upon it since the 17th century?  I feel like I might have some interesting things to say about King Lear, but only because I've read it probably 20-30 times in the course of teaching it; if you really want me to say something intelligent about Hamlet, you might need to check in with me around 2016.

But if I don't blog about it, it doesn't count so: I haven't read Hamlet since high school, so I was surprised to find how familiar it was to me.  It's so full of great moments, but I've re-encountered them recently in Bloom, or Ron Rosenbaum, or in other places, yet I found very little I liked that seemed new to me.  In that sense, and only that sense, reading it was a little disappointing.

In every other sense, of course, it's amazing.  Lear has a special place in my heart, but if you were to say that Hamlet is the best Shakespeare offers, I wouldn't argue.  I think, besides merely being Shakespeare at the height of his literary powers, Hamlet is so revered because it manages to encapsulate what it means to be a modern human being.  I'm thinking about what Hamlet says about thoughts and actions:

Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

The line on Hamlet, if I'm remembering correctly from high school, is that his "fatal flaw" is that he thinks too much; he dithers and plots and plans instead of getting right down to business.  What a meager, shrunken vision that is of the Prince of Denmark.  I see in this passage and the play as a whole the best expression of that strange feeling that there is no immediacy in actions, that the groundlessness and mystery of being calls the very importance and urgency of action into question, the feeling that the life of thought is so much more vital than the life "out there."  Hamlet seems as if he laments the dissolution of "enterprises of great pitch and moment," but doesn't he simultaneously compel us to question the very worth of those enterprises?  The "fatal flaw" perspective on the other hand is too dependent on Aristotelian ideas about tragedy that Hamlet annihilates completely.  What does Hamlet have in common with Oedipus, for example, whose character is so completely circumscribed by his actions, by the things that he's done?

That feeling, of course, as Hamlet understands, is connected to the fundamental dilemma of death--if the living world seems burdensome, yet that burden is balanced or even overcome by the fear of "the undiscovered country."  I think Hamlet shows us the way that we retreat into our own minds as a way of escaping these two poles.

Okay, there are some incoherent, rambling thoughts about Hamlet.  Do you think I could get next year's sophomores to react to these ideas in the form of a diorama?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

White Out by Michael W. Clune

"Wishes begin in white. Jesus is white Madonna is white. The queen is white. The moon is white. The white tops are white. A picture starts out as a white space. A white space is a picture of the future. The future poses, the camera snaps, the picture is pure white. In Baltimore that summer the best heroin was sold in little glass vials with white stoppers. White tops."

White Out is a memoir about drug addiction, specifically heroin. In the first chapter, "Memory Disease," Clune describes the strong grip heroin had on him and its deleterious effects. But he does so through conversations, gritty characters, and grim scenes.

Throughout the book, it is rare that Clune's writing is overtly didactic. He chooses rather to rely on the reader to draw conclusions from the stories he presents. That's really what they are: stories. Because while White Out is a memoir, it reads like a novel. At numerous points, I was reminded of scenes from HBO's The Wire, which was also set in Baltimore. The people Clune introduces the reader to seem almost too tragic to be real: Henry who lost an arm after passing out on top of it in a heroin-induced sleep; the people trying to get clean that he meets at various clinics; and Clune himself, perhaps the most tragic.

Clune eventually gets clean. I imagine it would be impossible to write a publishable book while addicted to heroin. He credits his sobriety to "the machine"--to the habits he formed in the early days of his recovery. Habits like meditation, going to NA meetings, and making lists for himself. But besides making to-do lists each night for the following day, Clune says he does not think about the future. The future, in all of it whiteness.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

I used to think of my body as an instrument, of pleasure, or a means of transportation, or an implement for the accomplishment of my will...Now the flesh arranges itself differently.  I'm a cloud, congealed around a central object, the shape of a pear, which is hard and more real than I am and glows red within its translucent wrapping...  

I avoid looking down at my body, not so much because it's  shameful or immodest, but because I don't want to see it.  I don't want to look at something that determines me so completely.

The Handmaid's Tale is a classic dystopian novel that provides a good reminder why it's so important to be a feminist.  Like the best dystopian stories, part of what makes The Handmaid's Tale work is that it's not so hard to imagine the world Atwood creates.  Written in 1985, the story is set in the near future in an America that is recovering from a theocratic revolution.  After an attack by Islamic extremists that dispatches the president and much of congress, the Constitution is suspended and the totalitarian regime eventually takes over.  There are still ongoing rebellions and wars, plus some nuclear wastelands, but the setting of our story is calm and firmly under control.

The regime focuses its energies on controlling women.  Prior to the revolution (white) birthrate had dropped (thanks to the equally threatening specters of birth defects from nuclear/chemical waste and feminism) and a rigid hierarchy has been set up to address the problem.  The powerful men, while married, also have a succession of handmaids granted to them.  The handmaids, of which our narrator is one, live in the man's house and do some shopping, but mostly their role is to remain invisible...except for once a month when they have sex with the man in hopes to conceive.  This is the handmaid's sole function: to bear a child.  They get a few chances, but at some point they are considered failures (unwomen) and are sent off to the colonies to clean up nuclear waste or some other unpleasant task.

There are lots of standard dystopian tropes, like constant surveillance, but the themes that make The Handmaid's Tale stand out are those concerning the new society's treatment of women.  There are so many insightful criticisms in this book that it's hard to hit them all.  Among them:

  • There's a terrible scene where, during the future handmaids' training program, one of the future handmaids confesses that when she was 14 she was gang raped.  The rest of the future handmaids, provoked by their trainers, shout at her, telling her it was her fault, that she led them on, that she deserved it, that she was being taught a lesson.  It's so horrible it's hard to believe...unless you read the news, where young girls are killing themselves because they are so shamed for being raped, or the first questions rape victims are asked are what they were wearing or whether they had been drinking.
  • The handmaids are stripped of their names (we never learn our narrator's), and are instead assigned a name based on the man whose home they live in.  Our narrator is Offred, literally of-Fred.  Atwood makes explicit the way women are so often defined in relation to the men in their lives.
  • One of the first changes implemented in the new society is to strip women of all property. The money in their bank accounts is transferred to their husbands or other male family members.  Our narrator's reaction to this is understandable outrage, but her husband provides a great example of unexamined male privilege with his response.  To him, it's not that big a deal; they share their finances anyway and it's not like he's going to abandon her or anything.  He doesn't stop to consider how these changes affect women's sense of freedom, independence, and self.  Because he isn't being stripped of his rights, he just assumes that because he's not a cruel asshole then there's nothing really wrong.  Let that be a lesson to us, gentlemen...
  • A pair of male security guards are caught having sex with each other and are executed for "gender treachery."  This seems to me to be such a prominent undercurrent of the anti-gay movement: that homosexual relationships threaten rigid gender dynamics.  If two men or two women get married, who has to do the housework!? Who "wears the pants" in the relationship!? If a homosexual couple can have a happy marriage and be good parents without one going to work and one staying home based solely on what's in their pants, what does it say about my relationship in which our roles have been determined solely on that basis?
  • At one point, Atwood drops in a prescient line about men: "Men are sex machines...and not much more."  So often men in a sexist society are treated like slobbering dogs, unable to control their impulses or act like adults.  Women have to change how they dress, where and when they walk alone and men are just let off the hook.  The Iowa Supreme Court just held that a dentist who had been sexually harassing his female employee was allowed to fire her because she was too attractive and that it was threatening his marriage (not because there was any danger of an illicit affair between them; she had expressed no interest).  As convenient as that may be for men like me, I call bullshit.  It's absurd that women should have to be punished for men's transgressions and lack of self-control.  

Fundamentally, the society developed in The Handmaid's Tale is about controlling women.  If their sole or primary interest was to replenish the (white) population, then there are much more efficient ways to accomplish that goal.  Instead, the society elevates powerful men and subjugates women and places them under their control.  Sadly, men instituting laws for ostensibly benign purposes that are actually aimed at controlling women and their bodies isn't just a figment of dystopian novels.

The Handmaid's Tale is well written and an important work that is unfortunately still relevant today.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence

And then, in the blowing clouds, she saw a band of faint iridescence colouring in faint colours a portion of the hill.  And forgetting, startled, she looked for the hovering colour and saw a rainbow forming itself.  In one place it gleamed fiercely, and, her heart anguished with hope, she sought the shadow of the iris where the bow should be.  Steadily the colour gathered, mysteriously, from nowhere, it took presence upon itself, there was a faint, vast rainbow.  The arc bended and strengthened itself till it arched indomitable, making great architecture of light and colour and the space of heaven, its pedestals luminous in the corruption of new houses on the low hill, its arch the top of heaven.

The Rainbow details three successive generations of one English family, the Brangwens: Patriarch Tom, who marries a Polish woman, their daughter Anna who marries her brooding cousin, Tom, and Anna and Tom's daughter Ursula.  At first the story of the Brangwens adheres so closely to Lawrence's favorite images and themes that The Rainbow hardly seems like a necessary book.  Tom's formative years in a bleak English coal town might as well be Paul Morel's; Anna's sexual awakenings might be taken wholesale from Lady Chatterley's LoverEven Lawrence's prose, which I really admire, started to feel worn to me--I started to become hyperaware of his favorite trick, which is to repeat a simple word in different grammatical constructions in a single passage.  (Check out the word "colour" in the description of the rainbow above.)

But by the time that Lawrence gets around to Ursula, the last in the line, the novel manages to individuate itself.  Part of Lawrence's purpose here is to examine human relationships across a span of historical time; Ursula, as the "modern" iteration and free from the traditional expectations of her grandparents, offers a more varied and engaging story.  I especially liked the part in which Ursula, insisting on finding work for herself, becomes a schoolteacher.  As a teacher myself, I've never read such a spot-on description of what it's like to teach at a dysfunctional school.  Like Ursula, I've been squeezed on both sides by the expectations of administrators and students, and I can relate to the way it turns her into a person she cannot recognize:

But she had paid a price out of her own soul, to do this.  It seemed as if a great flame had gone through her and burnt her sensitive tissue.  She who shrank from the thought of physical suffering in any form, had been forced to fight and beat with a cane and rouse all her instincts to hurt.  And afterwards she had been forced to endure the sound of their blubbering and desolation, when she had broken them to order.

Oh, and sometimes she felt as if she would go mad.  What did it matter, what did it matter if their books were dirty, and they did not obey?  She would rather, in reality, that they disobeyed the whole rules of the school, than that they should be beaten, broken, reduced to this crying, hopeless state.  She would bear all their insults and insolences a thousand times than reduce herself and them to this.  Bitterly she repented having got beside herself, and having tackled the boy she had beaten.

I enjoyed Ursula's story because there was space for something other than the spiritual-sexual problems that plague the two earlier generations, although Ursula has plenty of that too.  (Including a lesbian love affair, which seems pretty bold for 1915.)  I found myself wishing that the first two parts of the book were lopped off, though Lawrence clearly wants us to see that Ursula is deeply connected to those that came before her:

Here was peace and security.  Here, from her grandmother's peaceful room, the door opened on to the greater space, the past, which was so  big, that all it contained seemed tiny; loves and births and deaths, tiny units and features within a vast horizon.  That was a great relief, to know the tiny importance of the individual, within the great past.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin

On the sea he wished to meet it, if meet it he must.  He was not sure why this was, yet he had a terror of meeting the thing again on dry land.  Out of the sea there rise storms and monsters, but no evil powers: evil is of earth.  and there is no sea, no running of river or spring, in the dark land where once Ged had gone.  Death is the dry place.

A young boy is sent to wizard school, where he learns to control his great natural skill at wizardry.  In time, he becomes known as the most gifted wizard of them all--which is good, because he'll need all his talents to defeat an evil, shadowy force connected intimately to him for mysterious reasons.

Sound familiar?  Yes, of course it does: It's Ursula K. LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea, which tells the story of Ged, who accidentally creates a rip between the land of the living and the dead, allowing a horrible "shadow creature" to enter the world.  (How great can this guy be if he's the one that caused the problem in the first place, though?)  The extent to which Ged's story of self-discovery mirrors another, later story reveals how well-worn some of these fantasy tropes are, I suppose.

What sets A Wizard of Earthsea apart?  Not much, if you ask me--I find most fantasy pretty underwhelming, and Earthsea felt very much limited by the confines of its genre.  A couple elements did stand out, though: First, the setting of Earthsea, a massive island chain, provided a unique bit of atmosphere.  Second, magic in Earthsea operates in a very interesting way.  To have power over something, a wizard must know its name in the original and natural "true language."  Every animal, thing, place, and person has a "true name," many of which are kept hidden.  What is so threatening about the shadow creature that Ged looses is that it lacks a name, and cannot be controlled or defended against, and so becomes a chilling image of the ineffability of death, which refuses to be sufficiently described in human language.

The last few chapters of Earthsea go far in elevating it above similar books.  In them, Ged chases the shadow to the limits of Earthsea, an unknown part of the ocean that slowly thickens into land.  The final meeting with the shadow creature is fairly cryptic for what is ostensibly a young adult book:

Aloud and clearly, breaking the old silence, Ged spoke the shadow's name and in the same moment the shadow spoke without lips or tongue, saying the same word: 'Ged."  And the two voices were one voice.

Ged reached out his hands, dropping his staff, and took hold of his shadow, of the black self that reached out to him.  Light and darkness met, and joined, and were one.

What's going on here?  Is this an illustration of the reality principle, the need for man to confront his own death and comes to terms with it?  Does LeGuin suggest that what we battle in our fear of death is not death itself, but us?  That's pretty heady stuff, and a lot more interesting than the wizard-school and dragon-fighting that make up most of the book.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer

Over 1,300 posts on Fifty Books Project, and not one mention of one of the luminaries of American literature, Norman Mailer. Maybe he falls a little outside our purview, or maybe he’s overlooked nowdays as one of the “great male narcissists [who] dominated postwar American fiction”1, as David Foster Wallace called them, for their supposed misogyny and nearsightedness... or maybe it’s just because there’s a lot of reading to do and only so much time in which to do it.

I had never read Mailer either, in spite of having a copy of The Naked and the Dead sitting on my bookshelf for a few years, but The Executioner’s Song caught my attention in the bookstore for two reasons--it was huge, and the premise--a man, Gary Gilmore, is given the death penalty and executed--didn’t seem like enough to support the length. Not to mention that it was a true story and I’d never heard of Gary Gilmore. So my interest was piqued.

In some ways, the single-sentence summary above does the book justice--it is single-minded in the sense that it keeps the execution front and center throughout--but, of course, further explication is necessary. Gilmore spent over half of his life behind bars, beginning as a juvenile. In 1976, he was paroled and sent to live with his cousin Brenda in Provo, Utah, the heart of Mormon country. During this time he struck up a tempestuous, intense relationship with a young single mother named Nicole Baker, and, after an unusually severe fight and breakup, killed two men, execution style, over a two night period. He was caught and sentenced to death, notable because, at the time, the U.S. was currently in the midst of a moratorium on the death penalty, imposed by Furman vs Georgia in 1972.

The death sentence happens less than halfway through the book. The rest is the story of Gilmore’s fight to be allowed to die and the media circus that surrounded him. Because of the moratorium, numerous civil rights groups, including the ACLU, were fighting Gilmore’s execution, even though he wished for his sentence to be carried out, because they feared, correctly, that if Gilmore was executed, many others would be executed in short order.

Normally, in a story like this, there are clearly defined heroes and villains, and, in true stories, if the facts don’t point to a clear dichotomy, the author usually chooses sides and, inadvertently or not, paints one side more sympathetically. Not so Mailer in The Executioner’s Song. As long as it is, the novel is a picture of restraint, with Mailer refusing to cast Gilmore as a misguided saint or his antagonists, such as they are, as anything other than complicated people with (generally) legitimate reasons for the things they do. It would have been far easier as a reader if I could have seen Gilmore as a monster or the ACLU lawyers as hypocrites, but Mailer’s thoroughness doesn’t really allow for such simplistic line-drawing. Even Gilmore’s motivations for the murders are in question: were they emotional responses to his problems with Nicole? Inevitable behaviors for a bad seed like Gary? Indicators of some deeper mental issue? Results of repressed pedophilic impulses? Deus Ex Machinas handed down from unfeeling gods? We’re never told, and the length of The Executioner’s Song serves as a challenge. Mailer seems to be saying, “Here’s all the information. Figure it out.”

There are moments in The Executioner’s Song that cut deep, like Mailer’s sensitive portraits of the two men Gilmore killed, but even here, he resists the urge to beatify, communicating the facts in flat, affectless prose that works even better than cloying melodrama. Gilmore’s letters to Nicole are the same way--of course, love letters from a man on death row are going to contain some pathos, but Mailer doesn’t edit, and their contents reveal Gilmore’s duality as well as his humanity, his intense longing beside his almost feral brutality. Finally, after Gilmore’s execution, the one spot where a little bit of punch-pulling might be in order, Mailer refuses look away from the grislier aspects of Gilmore’s death--including his autopsy, described in some detail--and the unresolved grief of his victims’ families and Nicole, who Mailer even dares to suggest may someday forget Gilmore, ostensibly her soulmate throughout his time on death row. At risk of hitting the point too many times, Mailer refuses to espouse one simple answer to the questions he raises. It’s what makes The Executioner’s Song worthwhile, what justifies its length, and it’s a good argument for why Mailer, great male narcissist or not, deserves to be part of the “great authors” conversation.

1The others being John Updike and Philip Roth, who we at 50B apparently love.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Dreams of Empire by Justin Richards

Well, here it is, the second of the two Doctor Who 50th Anniversary novels I’ll be reviewing for this site. If you’re not familiar with the good Doctor, check out my summary on Beautiful Chaos; otherwise, here’s the one sentence review for Dreams of Empire: it was really--surprisingly--good.

Beautiful Chaos, while it did capture the feel of NuWho fairly well, was a pretty by the numbers affair. The plot was unsurprising, the prose was utilitarian, and the science was... unique, to say the least. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable, but for someone who wasn’t a fan of the series, I don’t think it would hold much appeal.

Dreams of Empire, on the other hand, could have functioned, with a fairly minor rewrite and one large plot shift, as a solid science fiction story if the Doctor wasn’t involved at all. I’m no hardcore sci-fi nerd--I think I missed that boat by panning both Neuromancer and Snow Crash--but I am a fan of well-told, well-written stories. On that count, Dreams succeeded beautifully.

Set mostly on a space station on the outer reaches of the Republic of Haddron, an interstellar kingdom in decline, the story’s events are set into motion by a political intrigue, an interstellar civil war initiated by one Hans Kesar, one the nation’s top generals. His rebellion is put down within the first twenty pages by Milton Trayx, another general and one of Keser’s closest friend, and is moved to the aforementioned outpost to prevent his assassination, thus preventing his becoming a martyr and weakening the empire further. The Doctor and his companions arrive on the outpost just in time to welcome a military vessel that seems intent on finishing the job of killing Kesar, but there are more complex machinations afoot.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the plot, because there are a number of wonderful twists throughout the story, most of which I didn’t see coming, but even from the summary above, it’s clear that this, unlike Beautiful Chaos, isn’t a (sort of)man vs. alien story. In fact, more time is spent in back-alley skullduggery that is spent in combat, until the last 20 pages or so. Maybe readers picking up a Doctor Who novel don’t want a science fiction reimagining of Caeser/Brutus but I was glad to get it.

As for the Doctor himself, this is the second Doctor, as portrayed by Patrick Troughten, and very few of his serials still exist. As a result, I’ve seen only one of them, and can’t entirely vouch for his characterization here. From what I do know, however, it seemed accurate--Number Two is a court jester with a dark, analytical side, a hero who often seems to simply bumble into the solution to the problems he comes into contact with, and that tone is well-captured here. The characterization of Jamie, a young Scot from the 1800s who’s always ready for a fight, is great here too, and lends the book a lot of its frequently understated humor.

Aside from circumstances like this tour, I don’t read much genre fiction because most of it is trash. I think the highest praise I can give Dreams of Empire is that, if more pulp was this well-done, I’d read a lot more of it.