Saturday, April 28, 2018

We the Animals by Justin Torres

We were monsters--Frankenstein, the bride of Frankenstein, the baby of Frankenstein.  We fashioned slingshots out of butter knives and rubber bands, crouched under cars, and flung pebbles at white women--we were the Three Bears, taking revenge on Goldilocks for our missing porridge.

The magic of God is three.

We were the magic of God.

Justin Torres' We the Animals tells the story of three brothers--Manny, Joel, and an unnamed narrator, who live in upstate New York.  They live with Ma, white, and sometimes with Paps, who is Latino, both from Brooklyn.  Ma works a graveyard shift at the brewery, getting the hours of the day confused: "She would wake up randomly, mixed up, mistaking one day for another, one hour for the next, order us to brush our teeth and get into PJs and lie in bed in the middle of the day; or when we came into the kitchen in the morning half asleep, she'd be pulling a meat loaf out of the oven, saying, 'What is wrong with you boys?  I been calling and calling for dinner.'"  This hectic air of confusion characterizes their lives, a chaotic freedom that is only exacerbated by the collective energy of their boyhood.  That's reflected in the energy of the prose, which possesses tremendous vitality.

The voice begins in the plural, the narrator's self diffused into a "we" that captures the sense that the brothers are of one piece.  Even when they ally with one and turn on the third, as kids do, it doesn't matter because they are a unit.  Torres manages to make this seem not so much a function of intimacy, but of chaos, as if in the absence of structures that would delineate the limits of family and personhood, each boy dissipates into the other.

Together, the boys witness the pain of their parents' marriage: Paps' frequent absence, his cruelty--toward Ma, toward them--but also, less frequently, his love.  When Paps rapes her, Ma takes the boys to sleep overnight in a park--will this be their life, from now on?  How about when Paps makes them spend nights on the factory floor because both parents work night shifts?  Among other things, We the Animals is a sensitive and complex portrayal of a poor family of color.

The novel is arranged as a series of titled vignettes, and each one is self-contained, though some are stronger than the others.  Over the course of these we see the collective voice disintegrate, as the younger boy begins to be more individuated from his brothers, more sensitive, less prone to violence.  And yet it's a shock when one of the stories begins, not with "we," but "they"--as if the narrator has finally broken away, and become able to look at his brothers with distance.

This separation is caused, or perhaps just accentuated, by his realization that he's gay.  At a bus station bathroom in the middle of the night he searches out another kind of male companionship, fundamentally different from that his brothers had provided, and ultimately is institutionalized for violent homoerotic fantasies, kept in a journal, discovered by his family.  When they confront him, they are arrayed in a line which he stands outside of, like a single point.  And though the novel leaves hope of reconciliation, it clearly sees the loss of the collective identity as something only possible and youth, and something that's lost at a dear price.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munro

And I thought, all these things don't seem much like life, when you're doing them, they're just what you do, how you feel up your days, and you think all the time something is going to crack open, and you'll find yourself, then you'll find yourself, in life.  It's not even that you particularly want this to happen, this cracking open, you're comfortable enough the way things are, but you do expect it.  Then you're dying, Mother is dying, and it's just the same plastic chairs and plastic plants and ordinary day outside with people getting groceries and what you've had is all there is, and going to a Library, just a thing like that, coming back up the hill on the bus with books and a bag of grapes now seems worth wanting, O God doesn't it, you'd break your heart wanting back there.

Brent, where was it we read some internet commenter using Alice Munro as a stand-in for a kind of fiction they could not stand, the kind of blanched realism you might see in The New Yorker?  It was a comment from someone who didn't understand, perhaps even had never read, Munro.  Surely it was a man.  If such things are worth responding to, one might steer him toward this collection, Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, which opened my eyes to just how modernist and metafictional Munro can be.  These stories are all about the way that we tell stories, and how we do so even in moments where we're not sure we're telling stories at all.  The elderly man who is the protagonist of "Walking on Water" considers his dreams about his mother and siblings, all dead:

This dream always left some weight on his mind.  He supposed it was because he was still carrying around, for part of the day, the presences of dead people, father and mother, brother and sister, whose faces he could not clearly remember when he was awake.  How to convey the solidity, the complexity, reality, of those presences--even if he had anybody to convey them to?  It almost seemed to him there must be a place where they moved with independence, undiminished authority, outside his own mind: it was hard to believe he had authored them himself.

And the word "author" is no coincidence.  Dreaming is not a conscious or deliberate act, but sometimes neither is writing a story, and both are a process of describing the world using the unreliable tools we are given, up to and including those who have been most real to us.  You can tell a story about your dead mother, or you can dream about her, but is the story you are really telling, and every story, about yourself?  In "Tell Me Yes or No," a woman imagines a really complicated chain of events in which she travels to a faraway city where a man lived, and recently died, whom she had pursued a brief flirtation.  She hangs around his widow's bookstore, she gets spotted, and given a sheaf of letters, which she takes, but--here's the twist--the letters are not hers, they are from some other woman.  But what do we make of the way Munro has framed the story, gently remind us in the end that none of this "really" happened?:

Never mind.  I invented her.  I invented you, as far as my purposes go.  I invented loving you and I invented your death.  I have my tricks and my trap doors, too.  I don't understand their workings at the present moment, but I have to be careful, I won't speak against them.

The story of the flirtation and the letters would be good, would be Munrovian, enough.  The pretense of imagination actually throws the story off kilter somehow, and makes it deeply, perhaps intentionally, unsatisfying.  Munro, one of the least stylistically artificial writers I know, feels compelled to remind is that all of it is a fiction.  Like the protagonist of "Walking on Water," and the storyteller in "Yes or No," Munro seems to believe that the engines that drive storytelling are inscrutable, they happen at the level of instinct.  In "The Ottawa Valley," a woman telling a story about her mother (it's always mothers) tells us, "Yet I have not invented it, I really believe it.  Without any proof I believe it, and so I must believe that we get messages another way, that we have connections that cannot be investigated, but have to be relied on."  You have to trust the thing that tells stories in you, Munro says, even as you know the stories are not the same as the real.

Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You is also obsessed with hippies.  That makes sense: as a collection it was released in 1974.  The elderly man of "Walking on Water" befriends a young hippie man who tries, and fails, to walk on water like Jesus, but the practical failure of his attempt only emphasizes the gulf between their understandings of the world.  In "Marrakesh," an old woman watches her daughter grow up into hippiedom, and thinks of how different women are these days, who move "as smoothly as eels among their varied and innocent and transitory loves."  The forgiveness in "Forgiveness in Families" is granted toward the sibling who has taken up with a bunch of Hare Krishna-types.  It seems a bit quaint, this use of hippie culture to mark the alienating effects of time, but it works because Munro is too wise to think of such change as anything but cyclical.  And she fascinates, too, because so often she writes from the perspective of the conventional, understanding its appeal far better than most:

You know, everybody knows, the catalogue of delusions we described to in the fifties; it is too easy to mock them, to announce that maturity was indicated by possession of automatic washers and a muting of political discontent, by addiction to childbearing and station wagons.  Too easy and not the whole truth, because it leaves out something that was appealing, I think, in our heaviness and docility, our love of limits.

What a finely tuned thing to write, I think, and not detract from the fierce undercurrent of feminism that runs through almost all of Munro's stories.  My favorite here is the black-hearted "Material," about a woman who thinks with regret on her first marriage, to a self-absorbed writer who hadn't yet made it big.  She writes about how once he turned off a noisy pump, knowing it might flood the apartment of the eccentric woman downstairs, so he could sleep better, and thus write better.  What a terrific expression of the cruelty of self-professed male genius, which victimizes real women under the pretense of art.  (Lord knows we've seen examples enough of that in the past year.)  But years later, Hugo writes a story about her, the neighbor, and the narrator must admit that it's very good:

How honest this is and how lovely, I had to say as I read.  I had to admit.  I was moved by Hugo's story; I was, I am, glad of it, and I am not moved by tricks.  Or if I am, they have to be good tricks.  Lovely tricks, honest tricks.  There is Dotty lifted out of life and held in light, suspended in the marvelous clear jelly that Hugo has spent all his life learning how to make.  It is an act of magic, there is no getting around it; it is an act, you might say, of special, unsparing, unsentimental love.  A fine and lucky benevolence.  Dotty was a lucky person, people who understand and value this act might say (not everybody, of course, does understand and value this act); she was lucky to live in that basement for a few months and eventually to have this done to her, though she doesn't know what has been done and wouldn't care for it, probably, if she did know.  She has passed into Art.  It doesn't happen to everyone.

This incredible passage returns us to the metafictional stuff I mentioned, the obsession with how the fact of a life is transmuted into narrative in its many forms.  Hugo does it, but so does the narrator in her own account of Dotty, and so does Munro, who should not be pardoned because Dotty wasn't real; she's real enough.  The contradictory nature of the act is captured in the oxymoron "honest tricks," and that's what a good story is: a trick you let someone play on you, which somehow reflects the truth of the world.  This act she calls an "act of love," the gift of noticing Dotty--if you want to write about life, the narrator told Hugo once upon a time, you ought to write about Dotty--and putting her on the page.  Nor is the love lessened by the presumption that Dotty would reject it.

But how does that act of love balance against the cruelty of the pump?  The question goes to the very heart of the discussion we cannot stop ourselves from having, about the moral value of art, and how it can or cannot be extricated from malice.  Can we read a kind of self-incrimination, a confession that writing about a person can be both love and erasure?  Or does the accusation extend only to men and their suffering muses?  Just when you think Munro, a master of the unresolved, is going to leave us with only questions to ponder, the narrator scribbles out this letter to her ex-husband:

This is not enough, Hugo.  You think it is, but it isn't.  You are mistaken.

There you go.  It's not enough.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Aunt's Story by Patrick White

'You'll see a lot of funny things, Theodora Goodman.  You'll see them because you got eyes to see.  And they'll break you.  But perhaps you'll survive.  No girl that was thrown down by lightning on her twelfth birthday, and then got up again, is going to be swallowed easy by rivers of fire.'

And now Theodora began to think that perhaps the man was a little bit mad, but she loved him for his madness even, for it made her warm.

Theodora Goodman has never married, has never quite seemed the point of entering into the great formal propriety that is marriage: "This thing a spinster, she sometimes mused, considering her set mouth; this thing a spinster which, at best, becomes that institution an aunt."  The institution is a way of making sense of people who do not quite fit into the ordinary boxes, of labeling the unlabeled.  Theodora's mother thinks, "Life would be simpler, neater, more consoling, if we could take the hearts of those who do not quite love us"--like Theodora--"and lock them in a little box, something appropriate in mother-o'-pearl.  Then I would say: Theodora, now that you are hollow,my words will beat on your soul for ever so that it answers regularly as an African drum, in words dictated by myself, of duty and affection."  But when Theodora's cruel mother finally dies, she is released, free to follow her own predilection for independence, which she indulges by traveling to France where she stays in a hotel populated by a strange cabal of permanent guests who invite her into the complexity of their lives.

The Aunt's Story is split into three parts.  The first follows Theodora's childhood at her Australian estate of Meroe.  Theodora loves the place and has no desire to ever leave it, but at the same time, she is fascinated by the intermittent intrusions of another, more exotic life: the traveling Syrian who comes peddling wares in a wagon, the lightning that throws her down on her twelfth birthday, the wandering beggar who is given his dinner on the side porch and who becomes, in her mind, and with a lovely artistic touch from White, The Man who was Given his Dinner.  Theodora is self-complete, and throughout her life she consistently rejects the entreaties of people who would invite her into her life, like the rich man who proposes marriage.  But at the same time she seems attracted by the lives of others, especially when they seem to operate outside the oppressive boundaries of social propriety.

The second part takes place at the Hotel du Midi on the French Riviera, whose cabinet of strange characters include Mrs. Rapallo, an American who has invented a daughter who is a princess to increase her own social standing, and General Sokolnikov, a Russian emigre who seems to think Theodora is his murdered sister.  These two have a bitter enmity that comes to a head when Rapallo buys a beautiful chambered nautilus that Sokolnikov has been admiring in a shop window.  If that sounds strange, it is perhaps the least strange thing about this middle section, which is as incomprehensible as anything I've ever read.  During it, Theodora goes more or less insane.  She begins imagining the lives of these people lead when she's not around, but the lines between the real world and the background that she fills in is not always clearly.  She imagines, for example, that she really is Ludmilla Sokolnikov, going so far as to experience, by imagining, her own murder.  At least, that's what I think she's doing.  It's so impossibly confusing and confused that it's not quite possible to really give a faithful summary.

And do you know what?  I've decided I don't really care.  As a younger reader I might have been frustrated by the opacity of this section, and chalked it up as a flaw in the book.  (In doing so, I might have been expressing also a frustration with myself for not measuring up to the complexity of the prose.)  But I find these days that there are pleasures that lie beyond the simple comprehension of a plot, especially when the language is so fine, and The Aunt's Story is probably the most poetic of all the books I've read by White, whose language is so close to poetry all of the time.  You really have to wander through the book at a slight remove, like Theodora:

She walked through the hotel, choosing to lose herself, or not choosing, in the Hotel du Midi there was no alternative.  And especially at night.  At night there was the space of darkness, a direction of corridors, stairs which neither raised nor lowered the traveller on to a different plane.  In this rather circular state, Theodora walked with her hands outstretched, to ward off flesh or furniture if the occasion should arise.

It probably sounds pretentious to say all of that, and I wouldn't blame you for not buying it.  I don't blame the many people on Goodreads who say this book was just too confusing.  I think it takes a lot of patience, and a particular frame of mind, to enjoy a book that refuses to be clear, and I'm not trying to be an egotist when I say there are very few people in the world who would like a book like this.  I think White's books are brilliant, but I'm not going to go around recommending them for book club.

The third part, so short it might be an epilogue, finds Theodora in America.  She's riding a train, which she sneaks off of into the countryside.  This was cool to read, because I've never read White's peculiar prose style applied to the U.S., rather than Australia or Europe:

All through the middle of America there was a trumpeting of corn.  Its, full, yellow, tremendous notes pressed close to the swelling sky.  There were whole acres of time in which the yellow corn blared as if for a judgement.  It had taken up and swallowed all other themes, whether belting iron, or subtler, insinuating steel, or the frail human reed.  Inside the movement of corn the train complained.  The train complained of the frustration of distance, that resists, that resists.  Distance trumpeted with corn.

Theodora wanders into a town and out of it, meeting helpful strangers, but not wanting to stay, because each household threatens with the suffocating institutionality of, well, the household.  She ends up in an abandoned house, where she's visited by a stranger who calls himself Holstius, and who seems to know her intimately.  He explains her current madness, if that's the right word, and tells her that "true permanence is a state of multiplication and division":

In the space that Holstius spread throughout her body and the speckled shade of surrounding trees, there was no end to the lives of Theodora Goodman.  These met and parted, met and parted, movingly.  They entered into each other, so that the impulse for music into Katina Pavlou's hands, and the steamy exasperation of Sokolnikov, and Mrs Rapallo's baroque and narcotized despair were the same and understandable.  And in the same way that the created lives of Theodora Goodman were interchangeable, the lives into which she had entered, making them momently dependent for love or hate, owing her this portion of their fluctuating personalities, whether George of Julia Goodman, only apparently deceased, or Huntly Clarkson, or Moraitis, or Lou, or Zack, these were the lives of Theodora Goodman, these too.

If I could venture a reading of the central theme of the novel, it'd be this: the institutions that seem like they organize human relationships, like marriage, the home, "aunthood," really kill them, by limiting the expansiveness of what it means to be human.  In the absence of them people really can enter into each other's lives, each other's beings, through the power of their imagination, but to really do so means the dissolution or fracturing of the self, and something that looks to the world like madness.  At the end of the novel, a well-meaning housewife comes up to Theodora's door with a doctor who clearly is going to institutionalize her--with all the secondary meanings of that word in tow.  Essentially, White is asking: what would it really mean to know other people, to share our personhood with others?  Would it be wonderful, or terrible, or both?

But it's possible I haven't understood anything at all.  The mystical opacity of White's prose always seems to suggest that we're never capable of understanding the things we wish to understand, or maybe even to comprehend the very questions we ought to be asking.  I found The Aunt's Story very rewarding, but the reward is one that I'm afraid might look to a lot of readers like torture.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Greene

It’s a weird phrase in English, in love, like it’s a sea you drown in or a town you live in. You don’t get to be in anything else—in friendship or in anger or in hope. All you can be in is love.
John Green is a master of the tragicomic YA saga, and Turtles All the Way Down is another installation of what seems to have become his bread and butter: quirky love stories starring baggage-laden teens with not particularly happy (but still redeeming) endings. Instead of cancer (as in his famous The Fault in Our Stars), the star-crossed lovers here share the burden of dead parents, and there's an added level of mystery as one of the remaining parents disappears, but the general unravelling of the plot is much the same. Teens think they are impossible to love. Teens find love. They don't end up together, but it's okay.

The teen drama here is heartwarming and not overly saccharine or trite, but by far the most interesting and compelling aspect is how Greene depicts Aza, the protagonist, and her OCD. The disorder is never spelled out, but her spiraling, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior (including, in one heartbreaking scene, shoveling hand sanitizer into her mouth because she has convinced herself that she has contracted c.diff) make it clear what she's struggling with from the first few pages. His descriptions were so vivid and immersive that I was not surprised when I stumbled on this interview in the Guardian where Green where he reveals that he suffers from the same "thought spirals" as Aza and has been coping with OCD his entire life.

Autism is all the rage in pop culture these days--from The Good Doctor to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime--anxiety and depression have long been staples of literature, and PTSD is entering the mainstream more and more, but OCD is relatively undiscussed. As a YA romance, this was just so-so, but as a glimpse into the mind of a child with OCD, this was a valuable and fascinating read. The disease wasn't trivialized or glossed over, and Aza doesn't make any kind of magical recovery; it's an honest if somewhat hopeful depiction of the lifelong, difficult slog that is dealing with mental illness. For that, it is both worth reading and worthy of praise and recognition.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins

The mind is a mine.  So often we revisit its winding, unsound caverns when we ought to stay out.

The first story in Claire Vaye Watkins' collection Battleborn is, supposedly, improbably, semiautobiographical: Watkins, whose father spent some time palling around with Charles Manson back in his day, ends up living in the same Reno building as a woman who Manson plucked, as a newborn, from her mother with the help of a razorblade.  She calls this woman Razor Blade Baby.  This is the kind of place that Watkins' Nevada is--not a place of stark natural beauty (though there's a little of that), but a cursed place, where civilization is blighted and all human activity takes on a pall of seediness and desperation.  I've never been to Las Vegas, but that probably about describes it, right?

Some of the stories are a little self-conscious and distant for me.  The name "Razor Blade Baby" has a sinister mystery to it, but where it might have sparked a poem it keeps me at an uncomfortable distance in the story.  "The Last Thing We Need" struggles to find a voice that works in its epistolary form.  In that story a man, who is haunted by an act of violence in his past, writes letters to another man, whose things he finds in the detritus of a car wreck on an empty highway.  The details of the letter-writer's life are real and stark enough.  He writes about going camping with his daughter, waking up to find that she's not there, only to find her after a few desperate moments playing nearby--but rather than hugging her, he hits her.  That feels true to me, but the letter-writing shtick seems more like an MFA exercise than a story.  "Virginia City" has a promising setting--a kitschy pioneer museum town in the desert--on which it hangs a limp story about shallow hipster friendships.

Two of the stories stood out for me.  One is "Man-O-War," about a divorced prospector who finds an unconscious Hispanic girl out in the malicious saltpan of the Great Basin.  It could have been a hokey disaster--lonely old man is reinvigorated by the friendship of a rebellious teen--but Watkins walks the narrow line between touching and creepy.  I love how he thinks in geological metaphors ("for months the photos slid around the house like sheets of gypsum").  I love how the protagonist is self-aware enough to be guarded against both the girl's friendship and her physical attractiveness, but is not strong enough to fend them off.  The title object is a massive discarded firework he sets off to impress her, and in a classically tragic touch, also the thing that alerts her father to her whereabouts.  No one lights a giant-ass firework to impress himself.

The other is a novella about nineteenth-century prospectors called "The Diggings":

In California gold was what God was in the rest of the country: everything, everywhere.  My brother Errol told of a man on a stool beside him who bought a round with a pinch of dust.  He told of a child dawdling in a gully who found a queerly colored rock and took it to his mother, who boiled it with lye in her teakettle for a day to be sure of its composition.  He told of a drunkard Pike who'd found a lake whose shores sparkled with the stuff but could not, once sober, retrieve the memory of where it was.  There were men drowning in color, men who could not walk into the woods to empty their bladders without shouting, Eureka!

And then there were those who had nothing  There were those who worked like slaves every single day, those who had attended expensive lectures on geology and chemistry back home, those who had absorbed every metallurgy manual on the passage westward, put to memory every map of those sinister foothills, scrutinized every speck of filth the territory offered and in the end were rewarded without so much as a glinting in their pans.

"The Diggings" is, first and foremost, a good yarn: a story about two brothers, one of whom has prophetic visions, going west to find gold.  They never find it, but the prophetic one, tired of looking, lies about having a vision of gold, which leads his brother to an obsessive madness.  It reads, quite successfully, like a first-ditch attempt at writing a novel, and it makes me think that Watkins' Gold Fame Citrus could be really good.

The Nevada-California border of this story is not so different from the one in the contemporary stories; it's an inhospitable space that dismisses and murders the brilliance of human ambition.  The failed promise of the gold is not so different from the failed promise of Manson's family, or the failed promise in the smiles of the sex workers in "Rondine al Nido," or the failed promise of the girl passed out in the basin.  There's a touch of love for Watkins' native country in these stories, but it's an honest kind of love, bereft of sentimentality.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman

Of all the imaginable things he most misses about her, the thing he really wishes he could do again is hold her hand in his. She had a way of folding her index finger into his palm, hiding it inside. And he always felt that nothing in the world was impossible when she did that. Of all the things he could miss, that's what he misses most. 
The titular Ove spends the bulk of this novel trying to kill himself after the death of his beloved wife. He is thwarted at every turn by the better angels of his nature--he begrudgingly feels called to help out various neighbors and community members and repeatedly puts off the deed until he rediscovers the will to live. Ove is, on the surface, a textbook curmudgeon; his drive to help others seems to come from a conviction that no one else can do anything right, so he has to do everything himself. He is not shy in articulating this conviction and largely comes off as an asshole. But, as the book progresses, we get glimpses into the "real" Ove: his heartwarming relationship with his dead wife, his begrudging love for his neighbors' young children, and his reluctant adoption of a stray cat who follows him everywhere.

While the storyline is a little trite (Grumpy Old Man Finds Meaning of Life in Unexpected Places), the extreme extent of Ove's grumpiness and the darkness inherent in his suicide attempts do make it a little less saccharine than it would be otherwise. The flashback vignettes about his life with his wife are both charming and heartbreaking, and I softened to the premise of the book as I got further in.

My biggest sticking point here was Ove's belief, expressed throughout, that he would be meeting his wife again after his various suicides, in whatever form in which he left this earth. He worries about what clothes he's wearing each time: whether they're clean enough, whether she'll like them. Ove's entire character is built on a fierce streak of rationalism. He is a man of numbers and of logic to the exclusion of everything else, especially human emotion. I find it hard to believe that a man so deeply enmeshed in rationality would believe in an afterlife, let alone believe that he would show up in said afterlife in whatever suit he was wearing when he died. I realize that this is supposed to add a dimension to Ove's character--to show another way in which he is not the heartless man he appears to be--but this particular belief feels so far outside of the rest of his thoughts and actions that I struggled with it throughout.

The last page of my edition announced an upcoming movie (which I'm sure has already come out...), and I'm not surprised. This is exactly the kind of plot-heavy novel with a bright, clear narrative arc that makes great Hollywood fodder. I enjoyed reading it and was especially drawn to Ove's quiet, loving marriage, but I didn't learn anything new or have to think too hard. (Which, at this point in my reading career is exactly what I'm looking for in a book!)

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Leaven of Malice by Robertson Davies

"Nitwit!" said Cobbler.  "Your first book won't be a success.  Don't make marriage conditional on the success of a book, or your mother dying, or anything unlikely of that sort.  Put first things first.  Get married, and plunge into all the uproar of baby-raising, and loading yourself up with insurance and furniture and all the frowsy appurtenances of domestic life, as soon as you can.  You'll survive.  Millions do.  And deep down under all the trash-heap of duty and respectability and routine, you may, if you're among the lucky ones, find a jewel of happiness.  I know all about it, and I assure you on my sacred honour that it's worth a try.  Come on!  You know how all this will end up.  You'll act on instinct anyhow; everybody does in the really important decisions of life.  Why not get some fun out of it, and forget all the twaddle you'll have to talk in order to make it seem reasonable, prudent, and dull."

On Halloween, a notice appears in the Salterton Evening Bellman announcing the impending marriage of Solomon Bridgetower and Pearl Vambrace on November 31st.  Of course, there is no such date, and no such marriage; someone is playing a practical joke on Solly and Pearl that will end up nearly consuming the entire town by stirring up a whirlwind of old hatreds and resentments.  Pearl's father Walter, a proud, self-important man last seen playing Prospero in The Tempest, is so enraged to think that someone would libel him by suggesting his daughter might marry the son of his oldest enemy that he threatens to sue the Bellman, and it's editor, Gloster Ridley.  Thanks to a clerical error, no one's sure who placed the advertisement, and both sides are sure that the key to victory lies in being the first one to find out.

Solomon and Pearl, like Walter, are characters that return from Tempest-Tost, the first in Davies' trilogy of books about the town of Salterton.  Also returning is Solly's domineering mother and Humphrey Cobbler, the spirited but unconventional organist at the local cathedral who once again acts as the voice of life amid the powerful structures of conventionality.  To these Davies adds a new profusion of satirical people: the fastidious bachelor Ridley, who harbors a dark secret, a charming but vindictive voice coach, a fusty and antiquated newspaper columnist who writes about toothpicks and walking sticks (cough George Will cough), a reporter writing the Great Canadian Novel, and my favorite, a psychiatrist whose idea of correcting the human psyche is to make it as normal as possible.  His name, of course, is Norm.  One of my favorite scenes occurs when he takes it upon himself to explain the Oedipus complex to Walter Vambrace, who is a Classical scholar and knows much, much more about Oedipus:

"Now, Professor, let's not get extreme.  When I was talking about Oedipus I was talking symbolically, you understand."

"I do not profess to understand psychological symbolism, Mr. Yarrow, but it does not require much training to realize that Oedipus is a symbol for incest.  Isn't that what you imply?"

"Oh, now just a minute.  That's pretty rough talk.  Not incest, of course.  Just a kind of mental incest, maybe.  Nothing really serious."

"Fool!" said the Professor, who had been growing very hot, and was now at the boil.  "Do you imply that the sins of the mind are trivial and the sins of the flesh important?  What kind of an idiot are you?"

The cast of characters isn't as delightful, or highly individuated, as those in Tempest-Tost, but they make the novel exceedingly fun nonetheless.  It's just one of the many ways that Davies' work reminds me of a classic meaty Victorian novel, along with its sort of old-fashioned realism, its scorn of postmodern tricks, and its obsession with the traps of conventionality.  It's such a pleasure to dig into a novel like that.  Is there a late-stage speech that will spell out the themes in the terms of the title?  You bet there is:

"In the Prayer Book you will find a special plea to be preserved from it, appointed for the first Sunday after Easter: 'Grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness that we may always serve Thee in pureness of living and truth.'  The writer of that prayer understood malice.  It works like a leaven: it stirs, it swells, and changes all that surrounds it.  If you seek to pin it down in law, it may well elude you.  Who can separate the leaven from the lump when once it has been mixed?  But if you learn to know it by its smell, you find it very easily.  You find it, for instance, in unfounded charges brought against people that we dislike.  It may cause the greatest misery and distress in many unexpected quarters.  But those things which it invades will never be quite the same again.  I assure you that you will always have the greatest difficulty in isolating the leaven, once it has set to work."

And like a Victorian novel, the conflict must end with marriage.  Davies cleverly keeps Solly and Pearl themselves off the page until halfway through the novel, when they emerge as the central figures, along with Ridley, who are caught up in the "leaven of malice."  I think it's obvious from the very first page that the practical joke has to end by actually nudging Solly and Pearl together.  But it becomes even more obvious when the two end up tied together in one of those awful party games, hosted by Norm the psychiatrist, and when during charades Pearl somehow knows that Solly is trying to express Lincoln's famous phrase, "You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool, some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."  It's like an especially funny version of the game played by Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina.

But like in the best romantic comedies, the fact that you can see it coming from a mile away doesn't take anything away from how satisfying it is to watch it happen.  In the end, Solly and Pearl are destined to resolve their families' enmity and flout the ruinous powers of malice.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

The Bishop sat a long time by the spring, while the declining sun poured its beautifying light over those low, rose-tinted houses and bright gardens.  The old grandfather had shown him arrow-heads and corroded medals, and a sword hilt, evidently Spanish, that he had found in the earth near the water-head.  This spot had been a refuge for humanity long before these Mexicans had come upon it.  It was older than history, like those well-heads in his own country where the Roman settlers had set up the image of a river goddess, and later the Christian priests had planted a cross.  This settlement was his Bishopric in miniature; hundreds of square miles of thirsty desert, then a spring, a village, old men trying to remember their catechism to teach their grandchildren.  Their Faith planted by the Spanish friars and watered with their blood was not dead; it awaited only the toil of the husbandman.

It was really interesting to re-read Death Comes for the Archbishop on the heels of CeremonyIn the latter Silko adds the white missionaries who came to the indigenous populations of New Mexico to the forces of witchery, the colonialist evil that Tayo must expunge through a traditional Pueblo ceremony.  Willa Cather's account of Bishop Jean Latour--a fictionalized version of the real Bishop Lamy--quite obviously does not feel the same way.  But it's also not that far off as you might suppose.  Cather has a keen appreciation for the indigenous people Latour ministers to that seems respectful without being patronizing, and though Latour himself is a paragon of gentleness, he arrives to a church in disarray, represented by men who use the wild remoteness of the land to abuse others.  At the mesa-top community of Acoma, Latour muses that the beautiful church, constructed of giant wood beams that must have been carried for hundreds of miles by workers who were little more than slaves, represents a great cruelty.  (For this crime and others we learn that the former priest of Acoma was unceremoniously tossed off the mesa.)

In fact, Death Comes for the Archbishop is full of cruelty, from the Mexican priests who refuse to give up their fiefdoms to the new French Archbishop to the poor whites who murder supplicant travelers.  Or the protestant family that refuses to let their Mexican servant see a priest or attend the Catholic church of her upbringing.  It's easy to miss these things because Cather's style is as gentle as Latour himself.  My memory was of a novel where nothing much happens, but that's not true.  A lot happens, but it plods by episodically with the easy grace of a man whose eyes are set on higher things.

I liked the novel more on this re-reading for several reasons.  I knew that the novel isn't really about the Arcbishop's death, but rather his life--a surprise which, subtle as it is, threw me the first time.  Or perhaps it's more correct to say it's about a friendship, that of Latour and his vicar Father Joseph Vaillant, boyhood friends from France who have come together to serve God in the desert.  One way of reading Death Comes for the Archbishop is as a study of goodness; both Latour and Vaillant are scrupulously kind and pious men, but in wildly different ways.  Whereas Vaillant is an outgoing populist who serves passionately among the most deprived, Latour is a quieter, more contemplative man whose passion for his people comes perhaps from a deeper understanding.  Latour says that Vaillant "must always have the miracle very direct and spectacular, not with Nature but against it.  He would almost be able to tell the colour of the mantle Our Lady wore when She took the mare by the bridle back yonder among the junipers and led her out of the pathless sand-hills, as the angel led the ass on the Flight into Egypt."  Another reason I liked it more this time is that a friend pointed out to me the way in which Archbishop is a model for Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, a study of a good and quiet man of the cloth.  Both novels are remarkable because they believe that good can be as interesting, and as multiform, as evil.

Not far from his humble church in Santa Fe, Latour finds a single golden hill whose rock he decides will form his cathedral.  In contrast to the priest at Acoma, extracting it will be no unnecessary burden.  In contrast to the priest at the heart of William Golding's The Spire, he desires the cathedral not in vanity but in hope that it will make a permanent thing of beauty.  He tells Vaillant, "the Cathedral is not for us, Father Joseph.  We build for the future--better not lay a stone unless we can do that."  Doubtless Silko would read the cathedral's symbolism differently.  For me, it was wonderful to walk out of our rented apartment in Santa Fe and walk a few short blocks down to the plaza, four hundred years old, and see the thing itself, still gold, framed by a red mountain.  It allowed me to really understand both the reason and the beauty in Latour's words.

They frame also the final chapter of the book, which shares its title.  Though the book isn't really about Latour's death, like I said, the final chapter does contain its most compelling language, and its most beautiful observations about human life.  It's the kind of stuff that makes you want to quote without comment:

In New Mexico he always awoke a young man; not until he rose and began to shave did he realize that he was growing older.  His first consciousness was a sense of the light dry wind blowing in through the windows, with the fragrance of hot sun and sage-brush and sweet clover; a wind that made one's body feel light and one's heart cry "Today-today," like a child's.

How about:

The air would disappear from the whole earth in time, perhaps; but long after this day.  He did not know just when it had become so necessary to him, but he had come back to die in exile for the sake of it.  Something soft and wild and free, something that whispered to the ear on the pillow, lightened the heart, softly, softly picked the lock, slid the bolts, and released the prisoned spirit of the man into the wind, into the blue and gold, into the morning, into the morning!

How remarkable that that passage isn't about the Archbishop's death, but rather the experience of his life!  When Latour does begin to die, Cather writes about it as an experience not of diminution but of enlargement and expansion:

He observed also that there was no longer any perspective in his memories.  He remembered his winters with his cousins on the Mediterranean when he was a little boy, his student days in the Holy City, as clearly as he remembered the arrival of M. Molny and the building of his Cathedral.  He was soon to have done with the calendared time, and it had already ceased to count for him.  He sat in the middle of his own consciousness; none of his former states of mind were lost or outgrown.  They were all within reach of his hand, and all comprehensible.

Does one have to be as good a man as Latour to have as good a death?  I don't know.  I hope not.  But I do know that Cather is one of the only authors who can make death seem not only not frightening but perhaps even pleasant.

In the midst of the Archbishop's dying Cather stops to recount the story of the Navajos who, after being expelled to the other side of the Rio Grande, were allowed to return to their ancestral lands after a campaign of rebellion against the U.S. government.  It's a story I didn't know, and a rare reprieve in the long and sorry history of U.S.-Native relations.  It might seem like a strange digression from the Archbishop, but I think that Cather tells it because it represents a kind of reconciliation that parallels the reconciliation at the heart of Christian religion, the reconciliation that is promised to the Archbishop, who lies on his deathbed thinking about his boyhood in France with his friend Vaillant, himself long since dead.  If God has the power to return life to the dead, friend to friend, perhaps He can also return the Native peoples of America to the full vitality that was stolen from them.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko

He could get no rest as long as the memories were tangled with the present, tangled up like colored threads from Grandma's wicker sewing basket when he was a child, and he had carried them outside to play and they had spilled out of his arms into the summer weeds and rolled away in all directions, and then he had hurried to pick them up before Auntie found him.  He could feel it inside his skull--the tension of little threads being pulled and how it was with tangled things, things tied together, and as he tried to pull them apart and rewind them into their places, they snagged and tangled even more.  So Tayo had to sweat through those nights then thoughts became entangled; he had to sweat to think of something that wasn't unraveled or tied in knots to the past--something that existed by itself, standing alone like a deer.

One thing I learned on my recent trip to New Mexico is that the Bataan Death March--the deadly forced evacuation of American and Filipino prisoners of war from a Japanese camp in the Philippines--was disproportionately suffered by soldiers from New Mexico.  There are Bataan memorials in Santa Fe and Las Cruces.  Consequently, the veterans of Bataan include a disproportionate number of Native Americans, since New Mexico has the largest population of indigenous persons per capita in the U.S. outside of Alaska.

Ceremony is about the experience of Tayo, a man of white, Hispanic, and Laguna Pueblo ancestry who returns to New Mexico from Bataan with a severe case of PTSD.  Army hospitals and psychiatrist have done nothing to chase away the demons of guilt: watching his half-brother Rocky die in the jungle, or being absent for the death of his beloved uncle Josiah.  At home, Tayo is scorned by his Aunt, who loved the full-blooded Laguna Rocky more, and codependent in his alcoholism with a group of down-and-out vets, some white, some Native.  Tayo turns to traditional Laguna practices--or rather, his family turns hmi toward them--in order to do what Western medicine cannot.  One medicine man fails, but another, who has adapted his practices in the face of the cruelty of the 21st century, takes Tayo through a ceremony which offers the possibility of returning to Tayo a sense of wholeness.

Why does the traditional ceremony work when Western medicine does not?  Because what ails Tayo is not, as the Army doctors maintain, a problem within Tayo, but a problem with the world as a whole.  As Silko writes, "His sickness was only part of something larger, and his cure would be found only in something great and inclusive of everything."  Silko argues that it's impossible to treat Tayo's PTSD without treating the historical and cultural pressures that force a Native man into fighting for a nation that has abused and deprived him in the first places.  The traditional ceremony, on the other hand, offers promise because it promises to integrate Tayo with a life he has been cut off from.

Silko blames the war on an impersonal force called "witchery," a malevolent force that seeks to destroy the world.  Whites are implicated in witchery, though they are variously depicted as its dupes and its victims:

If the white people never looked beyond the lie, then they would never be able to understand how they had been used by the witchery; they would never know that they were still being manipulated by those who knew how to stir the ingredients together: white thievery and injustice boiling up the anger and hatred that would finally destroy the world: the starving against the fat, the colored against the white.  The destroyers had only to set in into motion, and sit back to count the casualties.  But it was more than a body count; the lies devoured white hearts, and for more than two hundred years white people had worked to fill their emptiness; they tried to glut the hollowness with patriotic wars and with great technology and the wealth it bought.  And always they had been fooling themselves, and they knew it.

There's a lot that's sobering here, like the reminder that to be white is to be implicated, not necessarily by choice, in the historical theft of native lands and lives.  It doesn't feel good to think that one is or has been the tool of an evil spanning centuries.  But--and I am aware of the need to choose my words carefully here--is it helpful to deny the agency of political leaders by diverting blame from individual people to "witchery?"  How can that help us grapple with, for instance, Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?  And how does it help us to balance the exploitation of young men of color, Native Americans included, in the armed forces with the moral imperative to resist imperialism in Germany and Japan?  How does it help us understand the Death March, which was perpetrated by the Japanese?  Silko's articulation of witchery presents a problem for me because it seems to paradoxically implicate whiteness in historical evil while denying that evil operates through the conscious choices of specific (yes, white) people.  Yet it also seems to capture the way in which whites become victim of their own dominant narratives.

Sometimes I think Silko lets this idea lead her into facile places:

...only a few people knew that the lie was destroying the white people faster than it was destroying the Indian people.  But the effects were hidden, evident only in the sterility of their art, which continued to feed off the vitality of other cultures, and in the dissolution of their consciousness into dead objects: the plastic and neon, the concrete and steel.  Hollow and lifeless as a witchery clay figure.

The "plastic and neon, the concrete and steel": this critique rings particularly hollow to me.  It sounds too much like conservative fuddy-duddyism.  The references to Tayo's high school science teacher who openly mocks Native religion seem like they're imported from God's Not Dead 3.  And I rolled my eyes when I read: "White people selling Indians junk cars and trucks reminded Tayo of the Army captain in the 1860s who made a gift of wool blankets to the Apaches: the entire stack of blankets was infected with smallpox."  Maybe this reference point seemed more fresh or shocking in 1977, but here it sounds like a schoolteachery intrusion of the author's voice into Tayo's consciousness.

Obviously, I read Ceremony like a white person: its ideas about whiteness stand out to me because they are about me.  I have to force myself to read it another way.  It discomfits me to think that part of Tayo's ceremony necessitates the suppression of his "white side," but of course it's the Laguna side of his identity that's been suppressed by whiteness and is need of recovery.  This is the heart of the ceremony: these traditional practices reconnect Tayo to his Laguna heritage but they are oriented toward a wholeness that encompasses all people against the anti-human forces of witchery.

The avatar of witchery in the novel is a white vet named Emo who hangs out in the same circles as Tayo.  At one point Tayo, enraged by something Emo says, stabs him in the stomach.  The climax--spoiler alert--comes when Emo, trying to find and fight Tayo, tortures and kills Tayo's friends.  Tayo's choice not to emerge and fight is both fascinating and troubling.  It's certainly contrary to what we expect from the narrative of a literary hero; what Tayo must find is the courage and confidence that lead to inaction, to rejecting the call of witchery to fight Emo.  But then again... he just lets those guys die.  I don't know how to account for that as a moral act.  Is that an aspect of the novel's radicalism, or an artistic failure?  If Ceremony is difficult to figure out, how much of that is the novel itself and how much of it is me?
Image result for the ministry of utmost happiness

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
by Arundhati Roy

She lived in the graveyard like a tree.  At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home.  At dusk she did the opposite.  Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in the high branches.  She felt the gentle grip of their talons like an ache in an amputated limb.  She gathered they weren't altogether unhappy at having excused themselves and exited the story.

Anjum is a Hijra - a transgendered woman.  In Delhi, she is forced to live apart from society and for the first third of the novel she lives in a kind of commune for Hijra's, where she is something of a celebrity.  But as Muslim-Hindu tensions invade her life she chooses greater independence and moves to a small shack in an neglected graveyard, which she refers to as the "Jannat Guest House," sometimes with her adapted daughter, Zainab.  Her story takes up the first @150 pages of this novel and it is thick with the despair and grittiness of third world city life.

Tilo is a well-educated, middle class woman who lives in a world completely unlike Anjum's.  Her story takes over the novel about a third in and for three hundred pages we follow the story of her marriage to Naga and her somewhat tortured relationship with Masa.  Slowly, her personal life is engulfed in the violence of Indian politics and she slowly circles towards a kind of retreat in the Jannat Guest House.

Pick up any page of this and you may well be seduced by lovely descriptions of people and places, of their psychology and their surroundings.  I was alternately entranced and frustrated by Roy's prose as we followed tangents and learned of corners of contemporary life in India that seemed to have little to do with the main thrust of the narrative.  I was compelled to keep reading - you are given clues early on that Anjum and Tilo will occupy the same world before the end of the novel - but frustrated by the dense thicket of detail I had to slice through to get to the plot I was trying to follow.

Roy has been a highly successful but somewhat ambivalent novelist - her first book, The God of Small Things, won The Booker Prize, and she was nominated again 20 years later, for this her second novel.  In between she has been highly involved in the human rights movement in India, particularly in support for independence for Kashmir.  Much of the violent politics recounted in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is drawn from that work.