Friday, August 31, 2018

Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick

Not again!

It's happening to me again.

The soft-drink stand fell to bits.  Molecules.  He saw the molecules, colorless, without qualities, that made it up.  Then he saw through, into the space beyond it, he saw the hill behind, the trees and sky.  He saw the soft-drink stand go out of existence, along with the counter man, the cash register, the big dispenser of orange drink, the taps for Coke and root beer, the ice-chests of bottles, the hot dog broiler, the jars of mustard, the shelves of cones, the heavy round metal lids under which there were different ice creams.

In its place was a slip of paper.  He reached out his hand and took hold of the slip of paper.  On it was printing, block letters.


If I read one Philip K. Dick book every year, I won't finish them all for 36 years.  I'll be 68.  There's a comfort in that, I think, the idea that there's an author you'll (nearly) always be able to return to, like Mom's cooking.  And Dick's books are comforting in that way exactly: plotty, fast-paced, engaging, even when they're truly weird.  Time Out of Joint is one of the less weird ones I've ever read (though still, surely, much weirder than 99% of the books that have ever been written) but it's got that flavor, for sure.

Ragle Gumm makes his living solving a newspaper contest called "Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?"  The contest comes with a set of clues, knotty word puzzles like cryptic crosswords.  He doesn't use them.  His method is purely aesthetic: he has a machine that helps him scan for patterns over the course of many days.  He makes a living that way, on the prize money, and his success at the contest makes him a famous man.  He lives comfortably with his sister, Margo, and her husband, Vic, and their son, Sammy, and he's got his eyes on the wife of their next door neighbor.

Hallucinations begin to unravel his life.  Things that seem to be real, like the soft-drink stand, suddenly disappear.  In their place are pieces of paper, mere words where once there were things:

Central problem in philosophy.  Relation of word to object... what is a word?  Arbitrary sign.  But we live in words.  Our reality, among words not things.  No such thing as a thing anyhow; a gestalt in the mind.  Thingness... sense of substance.  An illusion.  Word is more real than the object it represents.

Word doesn't represent reality.  Word is reality.  For us, anyhow.  Maybe God gets to objects.  Not us, though.

On Sammy's crystal radio, he begins to pick up conversations from a nearby military installation, conversations which seem to be about him.  "Passing over him now," says an airplane pilot over his radio, and an airplane booms overhead.  Ragle's used to fame, because of the contest, but this is new.  He starts to think of himself as the most famous man in the world, so famous, in fact, that reality seems to be structured around him, to sustain him, and perhaps to trap him.  His attempts to escape the town where he lives, to get out of the illusion along with his brother-in-law, are foiled by people who seem suspiciously like actors.  There's a whole Truman Show thing to it.

When he finally does escape, he finds himself in a strange dystopian place.  The world government calls itself "One Happy World," but it seems to be at war with a set of colonists on the moon.  A group of teenagers--who dress like West Africans and talk in a strange, possibly racist, pidgin dialect--finger him as a "lunatic": a moon colonist, from Luna.  (These teenagers are the best omen of just how bonkers Dick's later books would become.)  The year is not 1959, but 1998, and Ragle's newspaper contest is somehow part of the war against the moon.

So much of Time Out of Joint is recognizable in Dick's later works.  He became obsessed with the idea that the time wasn't what it seemed, eventually coming to suspect he himself was trapped not in an illusion of the past but an illusion of the future, and that time really stopped in ancient Rome.  This is one of the key aspects of the VALIS trilogy.  It's explained to Ragle that they only capitalized on his own regression; it was him that wanted to return to the 50's of his childhood, they only helped him complete the illusion.  The irony is that the author himself became very much like the character.  I wonder if the Dick of the 1980's ever looked back at Time Out of Joint and recognized his own fantasies of regression, which became the shape of his own late mental illness.

Part of the charm of Time Out of Joint is that it was written in 1959, and has a 1959 idea of what 1998 would be like.  We've advanced far enough to have colonies on the moon, but we're still talking over the radio, which is what allows Ragle to discover the truth about himself.  And we're still using telephone numbers with the old style two-letter exchanges, like Klondike and Butterfield; part of Ragle's investigation involves calling 1998 exchanges found in a contraband phone book that don't yet exist.  The novel becomes an artifact of retrofuturism that it was not quite meant to be, anticipating the kind of white-bread nuclear family 1950's nostalgia that would become widespread in at the end of the century.  Like that movie Pleasantville, which, of course, came out in 1998.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing

And there was another thing.  (But this was certainly not a new thought.)  Here they were, committed to "doing something real at last," all ready for it--you could say that number 43 was now quivering on the edge, like people in a little boat on the verge of a waterfall (here Alice painfully shook her head, like a dog clearing its ears of water)--yet they did not really have much confidence in one another.

Why does someone become a terrorist?  I think we're allergic to a question like that, even in the post -9/11 era, perhaps especially in that era.  It's easy to compartmentalize political violence away as a kind of evil that springs from evil, but harder to face the truth that those who commit terrorism think they're doing the right thing.  They're wrong, of course, but what difference could we make if we were more willing to understand that frame of mind?  And how might it make us rethink the kinds of violence we consider necessary or salubrious?

One thing that Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist, about an English communist named Alice who assists in a bombing by her commune, makes clear is that the decision to commit political violence is rarely made from ideological convictions alone.  There are interpersonal pressures that push toward violence, just as there are those that pull away from them, but they only work when there's a kernel of belief that the act is good.  The Good Terrorist is a study in how our convictions intersect with our more personal, human needs, to create violence that might otherwise seem unthinkable.

Alice is not really ideological.  Her understanding of Marx is muddy and her grasp of radical feminism considered scandalous.  Her mode of communism is, at least at first, about building, not destroying.  She and her boyfriend (or maybe it's just a crush?) Jasper move into a "squat," an abandoned building run by the Council Estate (like a housing project) occupied by the indigent, drifters, and by Communist types who have checked out of capitalist society.  There's no heat or water.  The squat is a mess.  The Council has filled the toilets with concrete, so the upstairs is full of buckets of urine and feces.  Alice makes it her mission, as she has apparently done in the past, to rehabilitate the house: burying the feces, cleaning the house, fixing it, convincing the Water people to turn on the water and the Council to approve their habitation.  All of it requires money, which she begs for from family, then steals.  Slowly it becomes a livable place again.

But that's not what everyone wants.  Some inhabitants of the house refuse the improvements, claiming that they have chosen anonymity and squalor.  Jasper and another member of the house, Bert, think that Alice's home improvement project is more or less a distraction from the "Cause," even though their overtures to become a political cell for the IRA, and then the KGB, have been rejected.  "The Cause suffers," Jasper tells her, "while you play house and gardens."  Only when the house and the inhabitants begin to fall apart--undone by petty infighting, police harassment, Council indifference--does violence seem like a possible path for Alice, an apt expression of anger and hopelessness.

Alice is deluded.  She's quick to understand other people, and get what she wants from them, but she has no understanding of the way her own political self comes out of her cruel rejection of her bourgeoisie parents, whom she torments.  Her love for the cruel and foolish Jasper is self-annihilating.  But she, unlike her fellow comrades, has a spark of human empathy for the marginalized:

She was thinking that this is what happened to marginal people, people clinging on but only just.  They made one slip; something apparently quite slight happened, like the Greek, but it was part of some downward curve in a life, and that was that--they lost their hold and fell.

And yet it's awfully easy, when the time comes, to redirect all her energy for building into a capacity for destruction.  The final scene of the bombing, which goes more or less awry, is deflated by the blank stylelessness of Lessing's prose, which can make the book seem, at times, monotonous.  But the novel's great strength is its understanding of the revolutionary psyche, how it's formed and operates.  Lessing understands how our best instincts can be transformed, twisted into our worst ones.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy

The South he had come home to was different from the South he had left.  It was happy, victorious, Christian, rich, patriotic and Republican.

The happiness and serenity of the South disconcerted him.  He had felt good in the North because everyone else felt so bad.  True, there was a happiness in the North.  That is to say, nearly everyone would have denied that he was unhappy.  And certainly the North was victorious.  It had never lost a war.  But Northerners had turned morose in their victory.  They were solitary and shut-off to themselves and he, the engineer, and got used to living among them.  Their cities, rich and busy as they were, nonetheless looked bombed out.  And his own happiness had come from being onto the unhappiness beneath their happiness.  It was possible for him to be home in the North because the North was homeless.  There are many things worse than being homeless in a homeless place--in fact, this is one condition of being at home, if you are yourself homeless.  For example, it is much worse to be homeless and then to go home where everyone is at home and then still be homeless.  The South was at home.  Therefore his homelessness was much worse in the South because he had expected to find himself at home there.

Will Barrett is a Southerner, by way of Louisiana and Alabama, living in New York City.  He is intelligent, kind, and diligent, but Percy tells us that "he looked better than he was" and that in him "something was missing."  He suffers from psychological maladies both specific and abstract: he suffers from amnesia and fugue states, sometimes forgetting who he is, and more general ennui.  He engages a psychiatrist, and does everything prescribed to him, but in years of therapy has made no progress.  Still he wants to know, why does he feel so bad when he ought to feel good?  Why do good environments make him feel bad and bad environments make him feel good?  A detail shows that he suffers from the same modernism that Binx Bolling does in Percy's The Moviegoer: he visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but the Velazquez looks dead and inert to him until a worker falls through a ceiling light.  Suddenly it is "glowing like a jewel"--proximity to tragedy elevates life, though momentarily.  For Binx it's the movies that make things real; for Will it's his telescope, that makes the bricks on the buildings across Central Park suddenly alive.  Both of them have the same problem: How is it possible, they ask, to live from one moment to the next?

Though existential angst must be universal, for Percy it's always tied to geography.  Will's self-imposed exile from the South is a kind of self-abegnation:

New York is full of people from small towns who are quite content to live obscure lives in some out-of-the-way corner of the city.  Here there is no one to keep track.  Though such a person might have come from a long line of old settlers and a neighborhood rich in memories, now he chooses to live in a flat on 231st Street, pick up the paper and milk on the doorstep every morning, and speak to the elevator man.  In Southern genealogies there is always a mention of a cousin who went to live in New York in 1922 and not another word.  One hears that people go to New York to seek their fortunes, but many go to seek just the opposite.

I don't feel that way--I feel quite at home in New York--but as an ex-pat Southerner I recognize some of the shape of Will's life.  Hell, I finished the novel on a plane this morning headed back to New York from visiting my own ancestral home.  The South is central to Will's identity; he embraces it, right down to college football and golf (Percy is the novelist of golf), but he runs from it because embracing it doesn't make him feel any better.  It makes him feel worse because the embrace of it does so little.

Will's return to the South happens this way: using his telescope, he spies a beautiful girl retrieving a secret message on a bench in Central Park.  He follows her to a hospital in Washington Heights (Columbia Medical School, where Percy himself once studied) to find her attending to her terminally ill teen brother, Jamie.  Will ingratiates himself into the family, who turn out to be old-school Alabamians, too, fellow aliens.  The family's patriarch, Chandler Vaught, employs Will to be a kind of caretaker for Jamie, and return to Alabama with them.  His daughter, Kitty, falls dutifully but difficultly in love with Will.  Added to these are Rita, a dutiful sister-in-law who manages Jamie's care and is suspicious of Will; Val a sister to Jamie and a sister of the cloth (she's a nun), and Sutter, a disgraced doctor and self-professed pornographer whose influence on Jamie is considered slightly less dangerous than his illness.

Left in New York by the family, Will hitches a ride with a John Howard Griffin-style photographer disguised as a black man.  Together they're ambushed in Levittown by a mob thinking they've come to "bust the block," meaning sell a house to a black man.  It's a weird and funny digression, meant to highlight, perhaps, the rottenness at the heart of the century of the American suburb (Levittown is America's first), and deflect the idea that racial tension is the property of the south.  There's a touch of real gallantry in Will when he snaps at his companion not to give in to the mob by showing them the remaining spot of Caucasian skin.  It's a nice moment, especially because Percy, like Will, often keeps his black characters at arm's length.

When Will is finally reunited with the Vaughts, the plot remains comic and frenzied, and sometimes borders on nonsense.  There's an inherent but understandable silliness in the way the family hinges on Jamie's wishes: when he wants to go to school, Jamie, Will, and Kitty all enroll at the University of Alabama; when he wants to jet off to New Mexico, Will's got withdraw from school and climb in the camper van.  Take a step back and you'll see how wild it is that this family invites this genial stranger into their life this way at all.  But perhaps they know, like Will, that in the proximity of danger and death everything changes, even as they uphold the banners of the rectitudinous country-club South.

Will's return to the South might have played like Milkman's in Song of Solomon: an expedition to an ancestral home that allows the protagonist to discover who they are.  And Will does go home: to his uncle's, who lives in a weird hermit state with his black servant, and to his childhood home, where his father once committed suicide.  But he doesn't see his aunts who still live there, he sneaks in and sleeps in the attic.  And it's his house--he owns it!  But there are no answers there, and the same old problems return.  Kitty becomes exactly the kind of old-fashioned southern sorority girl that he thinks he desires, and it repulses him.  Deracination--uprootedness--hurts more when the roots are deepest, as they are in the American south, Percy tells us.  The intensity of its myths and manners are no match for the modern condition.

The final section of the novel takes place outside Santa Fe, where Jamie has decamped to live out the last days of his life.  As a setting, New Mexico does strange work in this novel.  It means an abandonment of the dialectic of North and South, an escape to a place that has nothing to do with those old polarities.  It represents the possibility, perhaps, of a kind of transcendence, and a death for Jamie on his own terms.  My wife and I had our honeymoon in New Mexico.  We talk sometimes about moving there for good.  Our relationship to the place isn't very strong, or knowledgeable, but I understand how it functions as the idea of a place.  And it's strange, the way this novel seems to share a kind of mental map with me, and which made it meaningful to me in particular.  The ending, which centers on the question of whether a delirious Jamie will allow himself to be baptized by the hospital chaplain, resolves nothing, but it is funny, strange, ragged, and deeply sad.

The Last Gentleman is a novel I wish I could go on talking about.  What do you make, for instance, of the fact that Will is typically identified as "the engineer," though it refers to his title as a custodial engineer in the basement of Macy's, a job he gives up in the first 100 pages?  What's he making, what's he fixing?  Much of it seems like it ought to fail, but it hovers somewhere outside the realm of rational sense, and does so beautifully.  More than any of the other novels I've read of Percy's, it shares the kind of madcap logic and unexpected prose of The MoviegoerIt's a book that, when I was done with it, I wanted to turn it over and start it again, to prod it into some kind of structure and sense.  But to do that, to make a thesis statement of it, might rob it of the brilliance of its mystery. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Gardener and the Carpenter by Alison Gopnik

The most important rewards of being a parent aren't your children's grades and trophies--or even their graduations and weddings. They come from the moment-by-moment physical and psychological joy of being with this particular child, and in that child's moment-by-moment joy in being with you. 
Gopnik goes to great lengths to make clear that this is not a "parenting" book--a verb she disdains and generally rejects the premise of. That being said, this is, for lack of a better word, a parenting book (and is shelved and categorized as such). She argues that the past few decades have created a rise in demand for parenting guides as new parents move further from their own parents, and as extended families dissolve (leaving us with fewer opportunities to practice parenting on nieces, nephews, and cousins). Gopnik brings her expertise as a developmental psychologist to bear on the issue of how we should raise our children--what do they need and when do they need it? How do we impact their lives? Her thesis, both troubling and reassuring, is not only do children not need much of what we have come to think of as "parenting," the strategies and styles we obsess over seem to have little to no effect on adult outcomes. Children need a baseline of love and security. They need food and shelter and a safe space within which to learn and grow, but that's about it. It probably doesn't matter whether or not you sleep train them or what kindergarten they attend or how many extracurriculars they participate in.

The overarching metaphor here is that of the carpenter (who approaches raising a child like building a house: the assembly of raw materials into a specific, planned structure) and the gardener (who approaches child rearing like cultivating a somewhat wild garden: plant the seeds, water them and give them sun, and see what happens). Once I was able to set aside the many gardeners who exert an impressive amount of control and structure over their domains, I liked this metaphor. Gopnik draws on extensive research (bother hers and other's) to support the idea that the carpentry approach to parenthood just doesn't work. It's not that it harms children, it's that the house is likely not going to turn out the way you envisioned it.

Much of what Gopnik tackles here is how babies, children, and adolescents learn. Her general point is that we are designed to learn like scientists: through trial and error and constant, hands-on experimentation. She is writing to parents, but the message is clear for educators as well; didactic instruction is not particularly effective. Our brains are capable of learning from direct instruction, but they aren't operating at their most absorbent or observant when doing so. Gopnik advocates that all learners--from babies to teens--need more time to freely explore the world around them, to get their hands dirty both literally and metaphorically, and to learn by doing.

One thing that has been weighing heavily on me as a new parent is how to integrate technology into my child's life. Gopnik has a chapter that deals with the perils of technology in a way that I appreciated. Her exact phrasing, which I love, is: "Inevitably, the year before you were born looks like Eden, and the year after your children were born looks like Mad Max." She appeases us anxious parents by pointing out that every technological advance, including the popularization of reading and books, has been met with outrage and pessimism, and none of them has destroyed culture or the human brain as predicted. In fact, they have, for the most part, enriched it. I'd heard this argument for radio and TV before, but never heard it traced back all the way to books. Gopnik points out that when literacy became commonplace, the neuroplasticity of the human brain allowed it to change in very real, tangible ways. We lost some things (memorizations of entire texts, intense specialization of knowledge), but gained an entire universe of knowledge. She argues that our children will develop a level of fluency with modern technology that will make their brains genuinely different from ours, but also competent in ways that ours are not.

Overall, this was a fascinating, accessibly written read. I found it especially compelling as a new parent, but I think it's a valuable and interesting read for anyone involved in any aspect of child development or learning.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag

But what could be more apt for this great collector of valuable objects than to have also been collecting the very principle of destruction, a volcano.  Collectors have a divided consciousness.  No one is more naturally allied with the forces in a society that preserve and conserve.  For the very excessiveness of the collecting passion makes a collector also a self-despiser.  Every collector-passion contains within it the fantasy of its own abolition.  Worn down by the disparity between the collector's need to idealize and all that is base, purely materialistic, in the soul of a lover of beautiful objects and trophies of the glorious past, he may long to be purged by a consuming fire.

William Hamilton is the British ambassador to the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, an Italian monarchy comprised of the island of Sicily and the lower part of the Italian peninsula.  He resides in an immense palace at Naples.  He is a collector; he collects paintings, sculptures, artifacts of historical or biological or geological importance.  He collects the volcano itself, in his way, building a huge windowed room backed with mirrors so that he might see it.  He makes pilgrimages to it, collects volcanic rock.  The volcano, of course, with its unpredictable nature and capacity for ruination, can't really be collected at all.  Experiences can be collected like lava rocks, but in the end the volcano will defy the attempt.  He knows all that, but then again, every collector knows that to really complete a collection is like a kind of death.  If you collect volcanoes, you'll never have that problem.

Hamilton--typically just called "The Cavaliere"--marries twice, once to a faithful woman who dies early, and again to a young and beautiful actress who captures his passion late in life.  His second wife, Emma, is renowned in Neapolitan society for her "attitudes"--a series of frozen tableaux in which she depicts, with uncanny likeness, the heroines of Greek myth.  She loves the Cavaliere, who's devoted to her, but the real love of her life is the British naval hero Horatio Nelson, who enters their life when Naples is threatened by French-style revolution and Napoleon in turn.  Nelson, "the hero," befriends the Cavaliere and falls in love with his wife.  The Cavaliere doesn't exactly like being the cuckolded husband, but as a life goes, it's not so bad.

The Volcano Lover is a meaty historical novel, which might seem like a strange production from someone like Sontag, who's better known as an essayist and a critic.  But much of it feels like an essay.  The historical Hamilton's passion spurs Sontag into a long meditation on collecting as an activity.  We find out that collecting: is a sport, it unites and isolates, is dissembling, is not about completeness, is both sociable and piratical, is menaced by the imponderables that can bring disaster, is lust, etc., etc.  A lot of these observations and digressions are fascinating.  But they are part of a narrative mode that keeps the characters at arms' length (they are the Cavaliere, the hero, the Cavaliere's wife, identifiable chiefly by their reputations) and divulges in a lot of intrusive anachronism (the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum are compared to the "twin urbanicide" of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).  I found it difficult to devote my entire attention to it.

Disaster comes for the Cavaliere not in the form of the volcano, but a human likeness of it: the French Revolution.  The French create a short-lived republic in Naples after driving the court, Hamilton included, to Palermo.  It lasts only a few months, but all three of the main characters become politically implicated in the bloody suppression of subversive elements after the city is recaptured.  Their reputations are shattered--except for Nelson's, never much more than his own legend, for whom Trafalgar is yet to come--and their recall to England is shameful and debilitating.  The Cavaliere's collections are lost when the French invade, and his wife lost to Nelson, but who could have foreseen that he'd lose even the volcano?

The novel ends with a series of first-person accounts: one by the Cavaliere and one by his wife.  These accounts, for me, signify a novel that might have been, one that lives up to the historical novel's promise of transport by dropping us into the consciousness of those who lived.  The Cavaliere is elegiac, his wife, resentful, and for good reason--she argues with some persuasiveness that, as is the fate of many women, she was never anything other than what people demanded her to be.  There's an account by her mother, which is especially tedious

 But the most interesting choice of the entire novel might be Sontag's decision to close it with a first-person account by Eleonora Fonseca Pimentel, an executed revolutionary who ran a newspaper for the Neapolitan republic.  We've just been wrenched into empathy for the Cavaliere and his wife, but Pimentel, on her way to the scaffold, wants us to cast a more suspicious eye.  "I had to forget that I was a woman to accomplish the best of which I was capable," she writes, as if jabbing a finger right into Emma Hamilton's eye, "Thus do all women including the author of this book."  She adds that she "cannot forgive those who did not care about more than their own glory or well-being.  They thought they were civilized.  They were despicable."  What is that but, volcano-like, an exploding of all the pretensions so carefully detailed over the 400 preceding pages?

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Miguel Street by V. S. Naipaul

A stranger could drive through Miguel Street and just say 'Slum!' because he could see no more.  But we, who lived there, saw our street as a world, where everybody was quite different from everybody else.  Man-man was mad; George was stupid; Big Foot was a bully; Hat was an adventurer; Popo was a philosopher; and Morgan was our comedian.

In the vignette "The Mechanical Genius," the narrator of V. S. Naipaul's Miguel Street offers a brief sketch of his Uncle Bhakcu.  Bhakcu isn't quite a mechanical genius, though he fancies himself one.  Most of the time when he slides beneath an automobile he's trying to fix a problem that isn't there, and when he slides back out he's made things a little bit worse.  But he has a little more knowledge than his nephew, or most people, so that gives him a kind of relative prestige, even when the mechanic called in to fix his mistakes looks up angrily and says, "When you have all sort of ignorant people messing about with a engine the white people build with their own hands, what the hell else you expect?"  At which point Bhakcu winks at his nephew and says, "I think is the carburettor."

Though the characters whose lives make up the vignettes in Miguel Street are all different from one another, they are all, in a sense, like Bhakcu.  For Morgan, it's not cars but the homemade fireworks he makes that are his pride.  For Edward, it's ties he paints by hand, for Popo it is carpentry, for Titus Hoyt, it is a tutelary knowledge of letters and law.  Their gifts and passions are minor things, on an absolute scale, but they're not any more minor, I'd reckon, than those of people in small communities all the world round.  And yet there is a kind of common knowledge, often flouted but not denied, that such things are better left to whites--to English colonials, to American soldiers.  A lot of the obituaries for Naipaul, who died this week, talk about this big theme: the way that colonialism creates stunted societies and stunted people.  Bhakcu really does screw up the cars, and Titus Hoyt is the kind of person who brings "Volume 2 of the Everyman edition of Tennyson" as a gift, not knowing or willing to see just how incomplete the present is.

That makes Miguel Street sound rather cruel.  A lot of the humor is predicated on the pretensions of the residents of Miguel Street, just as the joke is ultimately on the proud protagonist of A House for Mr. Biswas.  But the stories seem to be to be full of empathy for the Miguel Street Club, who are presumably versions of the same folks that Naipaul knew growing up in Trinidad and who formed his first knowledge of the world.  Their pride is touching, not tragic, and perhaps the saddest error they make is assuming that the English and the Americans are any better than they are--that the biggest difference between Bhakcu and the (possibly) white engineers who designed his car is their inherent aptitude, and not a system of marginalization on a worldwide scale:

To hear Edward talk, you felt that America was a gigantic country inhabited by giants.  They lived in enormous houses and they drove the biggest cars in the world.

Edward used to say, 'Look at Miguel Street.  In America you think they have streets so narrow?  In America this street could pass for a sidewalk.'

Naipaul died too late.  If he'd passed away five, maybe ten years earlier, his savage treatment of his wife and mistress might have been minimized in his obituaries, but that's not the way the world leans anymore, much for the better.  It might have been easier to forget he once said that women can't write fiction, which just goes to show how sometimes only very intelligent people can make claims of such gross stupidity.  Nearly all of the vignettes in Miguel Street are about men, with the exception of one, "The Maternal Instinct," about a woman who has eight children by seven men, named Laura.  Laura's story, situated between tragedy and comedy, is not so different from those of the men, but it emphasizes how few female voices are really heard throughout the novel.  Nearly all of the men beat their wives, and the wives themselves are often used to provide a sitcommy kind of humor about nagging and henpecking.

Miguel Street doesn't extend the same empathetic eye toward the women of the Miguel Street, which is probably to say that the young Naipaul didn't pay enough attention to the women of the street where he grew up.  (He spent the rest of his life not giving women enough attention, or the wrong kind.)  But take it as it is: Miguel Street is, among other things, a story about growing up in a kind of masculine crucible, an instruction in how to be a man.  I loved the story "The Coward," about the street bully, Big Foot, who makes the narrator promise not to divulge his secret--that he once cried after cutting his foot on a shard of glass in the street--only to reveal it himself, after losing badly to a white American soldier in a highly publicized boxing match.  Big Foot is so embarrassed he has to leave Miguel Street--so many people do in these stories; for many of them life in Trinidad is so transitory--but the story itself suggests that Big Foot has been done dirty by some force larger than Miguel Street, something tied up with masculinity as well as colonialism and anti-blackness.

Miguel Street is very funny, even when it's very sad.  There's the story of the boy Elias, who takes and fails the Cambridge admittance exam several times, only to admit it is the "English and litritcher" and the "poultry" that have done him in.  I also liked the image of Eddoes, the rubbish collector, whose need to be seen as clean drives him to walk around all day with a toothbrush in his mouth.

In the end, the narrator--no doubt not far removed from Naipaul himself--leaves Miguel Street to go to England.  He leaves not just for a better life, but because it's become apparent to him that Bhakcu is not a mechanical genius, that the dreams of the people around him seem small and futile.  Walking out to the plane he sees his own shadow as "a dancing dwarf" on the tarmac, a painful image of what the real Naipaul seems to have felt about his own place in the world as a colonial subject.  He inflicted as much cruelty as he observed--James Wood calls him the "Wounder" as well as the "Wounded"--but what he observed he did so with a powerful vision and a bittersweet humor.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Henry and Cato by Iris Murdoch

Cato coming from the church back to the Mission, had seen a sign in a clothes shop window which said, in neon lights, TROUSERAMA.  He felt a piercing desire to laugh and cry.  There was no God and the world was damned and everyone had quietly gone mad only they were carrying on as usual.  The universe was funny brittle awful momentary.  Human life was the pointless wandering of insects.  TROUSERAMA.  That's what it was.  Life was simply a trouserama.

Henry Marshalson is the second son of wealthy British gentry, living in America as a second-rate art professor.  When he finds out that his older brother, Sandy, has died, he's overjoyed--not because he now will inherit the massive estate, Laxlinden, but because he regards Sandy, along with his parents, as the chief tormentors of his life.  The estate, in fact, he plans to sell, and give all the money away to charity.  This plan is not well received by his mother, who's been living there, and in fact it's made in a sort of frenzy of feeling of which idealism actually plays a little part.  There's a little revenge in there, but mostly, there's a feeling that if he can divest himself of Laxlinden, his mother, his money, then he can return to America unencumbered by his past:

Why had he got to get rid of his inheritance?  He did not even any more know why.  He just had to transform all these objects, these things and spaces, into clean easily disposable money, and then to get rid of the money and be--what--free, good?  Even these names were too flimsy for what god-possessed Henry had to achieve.

Cato, Henry's old friend and neighbor, is the son of a deeply secular man who is bitterly disappointed that Cato has become a priest.  Cato's conversion was sudden, rooted in feeling rather than intellect.  But where once he felt the divine presence of Christ, he feels nothing but absence, and a sinking feeling that there is no God.  Even in his process of deconversion, his priest friends tell him to stick it out, and try to remind him that a life of faith is more complex than a feeling of the divine presence.  But Cato's decision is complicated: he has fallen in love with a young criminal drifter who goes by the name Beautiful Joe.  Joe hangs on to Cato with a puppy-like love, but refuses to be reformed or remade, and talks up his own vicious wickedness.  When Henry returns from America, chattering about his desire to give his money away, Joe wonders if he himself might not be the best recipient of Henry's largesse.

Like Cato, Henry has a love-object: Stephanie, a woman he discovers in a secret flat kept by his brother, and who claims to have been Sandy's lover.  Stephanie is older, she's not very attractive, and in fact she's irritatingly needy, but that's exactly what Henry desires: a woman he can possess.  Stephanie is the one thing of Sandy's he inherits but won't divest himself of.  In both of these relationships there is a warning about the dangers of one of the many things we call love.  Henry is driven to Stephanie, and Cato to Joe, by rote compulsion, and both justify their high-handedness with an intent to remold their love objects into better people.  Whether they are captives or captors isn't quite clear, and this dynamic is reflected a third time in the relationship between Henry's insightful mother, Gerda, and Lucius Lamb, the pathetic aging poet she keeps around like a dog to be kicked beneath the table.

Like all of Murdoch's novels, Henry and Cato is philosophically rich.  Among other things, she asks: what does it mean to be good?  Henry approaches goodness at times despite being selfish and amoral; Cato, the caring priest, seems only to do damage.  What does it mean to believe in God?  Can one call themselves a Christian in the absence of both intellectual assurance and the feeling of divine presence?  What is suffering?  That's a question that the novel is deeply concerned with:

Supposing one lacked the concept of suffering, thought Cato, sitting in the bedroom waiting for Beautiful Joe to arrive.  Supposing one just suffered like an animal without thinking all the time: I'm suffering.  Is it a sophisticated concept?  He was not sure.  Christianity hands it out even to peasants.  Christ suffered, that is the whole point.  But what a pointless point.  It's such a selfish activity, suffering.  Buddhism treats it with contempt.

Cato, Henry, Stephanie, even Lucius and Gerda, all choose a kind of suffering and call it by the name of love.  (What is passion, after all, but a word for the suffering of Jesus?)  A few characters seem cognizant that they could choose happiness, like Cato's sister Colette, who assures Henry that they are destined to be married.  And then there's Joe, whose plan to kidnap Cato, ransom money from Henry, and defile Colette, seems to be a kind of blissful ignorance, the product of an id unshackled from the suffering superego.  Not that you'd want to be like Joe.

The kidnapping episode, in which Cato and Colette are trapped in an underground air raid shelter, plays like a section imported in from a dimestore thriller.  But Joe is so compelling in his childish will to violence that it doesn't matter.  In fact, the most compelling characters in the novel are the minor ones--canny Gerda, sad Lucius, and the mysterious bird-headed inscrutable servant of the Marshalson family named Rhoda.  They're more palatable perhaps because we don't have to sit so long with their mania, like Henry, or their melancholy, like Cato.  I'm not one of those people who thinks that novels need likeable characters, but the sour myopia possessed by every person in Henry and Cato can make it into a grind.

Menaced and slashed a little by Beautiful Joe, Henry runs to the National Gallery to sit before a painting of Diana and Actaeon.  That's just the kind of thing people do in Iris Murdoch novels: they combat existential horror by sitting in front of paintings.  The violence in the painting is nothing, Henry remarks to us, compared to the real thing, or even the premonition of it.  (Chill out, Henry.  It's only a flesh wound.)  But there's Murdoch, too, reminding us that the picaresque novel points toward real terrors, that are only glimpsed in the pages of art.  Enjoy the rest of your summer!

Saturday, August 11, 2018

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

If one has failed only where others have not had the courage or will to try, there is a consolation--indeed, a deep satisfaction--to be gained from the observation when looking back over one's life.

Masuji Ono is a painter.  Once, he was devoted to depicting the "floating world"--life in the pleasure districts of drinking establishments and prostitutes, which have a kind of transitory beauty.  He worked in the tradition of ukiyo-e, the 19th-century woodblock prints, whose name translates literally to "floating world."  But such an artistic tradition began to lose its relevance for Ono in the reality of pre-war Japan, and he committed himself to producing propaganda art for the Imperial cause.  Now, after the surrender, the older Ono looks back with nostalgia on the floating world that he's lost and reconciling himself to the new Japan.

Post-war Japan is not a friendly place for those who were high in the Imperial cause.  Many commit suicide as a public show of expiation for leading the country into such a costly war.  Ono's daughter Noriko seems to worry that his reputation will ultimately sink the marriage that is being arranged for her, and encourages him to seek out his old associates before her fiance's detective does.  (This seems like a common arrangement; Ono has a detective of his own.)  But there are those, like Ono's old student, Kuroda, who don't wish to see him, for deeds that Ono--and Ishiguro--keep at arm's length.

This weekend was the anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  (It made me think about the horrific scene describing the blast in Joy Kogawa's Obasan.)  Reading about the bombings again provided an interesting context to An Artist of the Floating World, which seeks to capture something about the state of mind of the Japanese at World War II.  The atomic bombs are not mentioned, but traditional bombing has taken a heavy, heavy toll on the country.  Ono's own wife, we learn, was killed in their home by a bomb, and many of the establishments of the old "floating world" are now rubble.  But buildings are also rising, many in a new Western style.  Ono himself finds some of these places bewildering, and his inability to adapt to the new way is underscored humorously by his conversations with his grandson, Ichiro, who would rather pretend to be the Lone Ranger than a samurai.  The turn away from militarism and imperialism requires a purge of the old guard, it needs it suicides, and though Ono finds such actions foolish, he recognizes in their actions a reflection of himself.

What Ono recognizes and understands, and what he doesn't, are the heart of An Artist of the Floating World.  Ishiguro really is the maestro of the unreliable narrator, and in a lot of ways Ono seems like a practice run at the character of the butler in The Remains of the Day, who refuses to recognize that his employer was a Nazi collaborator.  A Briton of Japanese background, Ishiguro seems to offer a kind of parallel between Japanese and British styles of repression.  Stevens the butler hides behind a kind of mannered, class-oriented sense of "dignity" that isn't so different from the Japanese style of polite avoidance practiced by Ono's daughters.  Confrontations, such as they are, are made only obliquely, and couched in equivocating language--forgive me, perhaps, etc.--that makes an honest assessment of reality difficult for the reader.

Ono himself is comparatively forthright, and considers himself to be making an honest assessment of his own position.  But a performative forthrightness can itself be a kind of denial.  Yes, Ono admits that the imperialist fervor was a mistake, but what are his mistakes?  He professes ignorance as to why his old student Kuroda might not wish to see him and only late in the novel, as if pushed back into a mental closet, that Ono reported Kuroda for "unpatriotic" sympathies.  Ono's admission that he has slightly less influence than he did before the war, but how much burden is put on the word "slightly?"  When describing his paintings, why does he focus on their aesthetic qualities, rather than their propagandistic content?  Ishiguro, as always, does a terrific job preventing the reader from getting to an objective truth, leaving us only with a sense that Ono's version is not quite right.

There's a final reveal that I admit I didn't see coming.  I'll say "spoiler alert," even though that seems a weird term for a revelation that is entirely psychological, rather than plot-driven.  Ono's ultimate denial, it turns out, is that he never really mattered much in the first place.  As his daughter says:

Forgive me, but it is perhaps important to see things in a proper perspective.  Father painted some splendid pictures, and was no doubt most influential among other painters.  But Father's work had hardly to do with these larger matters of which we are speaking.  He must stop believing he has done some great wrong.

It's so subtle, but it really turns everything on its head.  Ono isn't a powerful man whose equivocations prevent him from dealing with his misdeeds, he's an ordinary man whose equivocations actually serve to make him feel more important than he really was.  He thinks of himself as being the same kind of person as those who have committed suicides of honor, but these thoughts inflate his importance.  His misdeeds--like his reporting of Kuroda--are small and petty acts, personal betrayals, not national ones.  As his friend, the fellow traveler Matsuda tells him, "It was simply our misfortune to have been ordinary men during such times."  Ono believes there is a satisfaction in having done something great and failed, but most failures are only the ordinary kind, and that makes them somehow even more tragic.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Comforters by Muriel Spark

Caroline found the true facts everywhere beclouded.  She was aware that the book in which she was involved was still in progress.  Now, when she speculated on the story, she did so privately, noting the facts as they accumulated.  By now, she possessed a large number of notes, transcribed from the voices, and these she studied carefully.  Her sense of being written into the novel was painful.  Of her constant influence on its course she remained unaware and now she was impatient for the story to come to an end, knowing the narrative could never become coherent to her until she was at last outside it, and at the same time consummately inside it.

Caroline Rose begins to hear voices, speaking in unison, along with the clacking sound of a typewriter.  The voices seem to be describing what Caroline is doing, including descriptions of her own inner thoughts.  She realizes, after a crippling anxiety that she's going mad, that she is a character in a novel, and the voice she hears is the author, writing about her.

It's a vexing experience, being in a novel.  For one, it doesn't feel very good to think that your actions are predetermined by someone else.  Caroline does her best to thwart the heavy hand of her novelist.  When she hears that she is going to visit her boyfriend Laurence's grandmother by car instead of train, she insists on taking the train, to assert a little bit of her free will.  But at the last minute she realizes that it's a holy day of obligation, and she's got to go to mass--she's a recent convert to Catholicism--and so, just like the novelist wrote, she ended up taking the train.  She refuses to engage with Laurence's belief that his grandmother, Louisa, is part of a diamond smuggling ring, because the whole story seems to plotty, too much like a novel.  (The novel opens with Laurence finding a set of diamonds baked into a loaf of bread--an image that might have come from a Dashiell Hammett novel, if it weren't so obviously from a Muriel Spark novel instead.)

I have said as much before: it's not much of a stretch to think of every Spark novel as a meditation on the parallels between the author and God.  Caroline's struggle to assert her free will in defiance of the novelist writing about her is an image of the Catholic who goes about acting as a free agent in their life even while suspecting that they have no control at all.  The title, The Comforters, is taken from the story of Job: those who indulge what they see as Caroline's delusions are, in Spark's view, like the comforters in the story who fail to help Job assuage the intense pain of being the object of God's machinations.

It's also a story about belief.  Spark draws a connection between several of the characters' beliefs in what seem like absurd, outre narratives: Caroline believes that she is a character in a novel; Laurence believes that his grandmother is smuggling diamonds; their friend Baron Stock believes that he is hot on the trail of England's foremost Satan-worshipper, whose evil work is manifesting in their lives.  Now, Caroline and Laurence are right, and the Baron is wrong, but that doesn't stop him from demanding equal indulgence for his fantasies, in what I read as a snide attack on "tolerant religion."  But the intersection of belief and free will is important.  If we don't have it, what do our beliefs matter?  Why does God drive some of us to believe the right thing and others the wrong?

Spark includes a character, Georgina Hogg, who is a religious fanatic and a super prude.  "Georgina's lust for converts to the Faith was terrifying," Spark writes, "for by the Faith she meant herself."  Georgina disapproves of Laurence's relationship with Caroline; and she tries her best to throw a wrench into Grandma's diamond smuggling.  When she returns to her flat, Spark writes: "However, as soon as Mrs Hogg stepped into her room she disappeared, she simply disappeared.  She had no private life whatsoever.  God knows where she went in her privacy."  Later on, while she sleeps, she literally disappears, reappearing only when she wakes.

What's up with that?  I read it this way: Georgina is the character in the novel who is the most like a character, she is completely fictional in a way that Carolina resists being.  Her fanaticism, her severe belief in "the Faith" leaves no room for doubt or struggle, and obliterates even the possibility of free will.  In a way, I think Spark is saying that it is the struggle to assert free will which produces humanity, even if it may be a losing battle, in the end.  Like it is for Job.  Spark's novels are full of bad Catholics, but it's the bad Catholics who are the best Catholics.

I was surprised, actually, to find those themes so fully and deeply explored in this, her first novel, and with such recognizable cleverness and cynicism.  Spark's unmistakable style and voice are here, already perfectly formed from the first moment.  If anything, I think The Comforters wears its ideas a little more plainly than Spark's later novels, which have a ragged, incomplete quality that makes them challenging.  When she comes back to these ideas, like she does in The Driver's Seat, the pieces don't fit quite so neatly.  But it makes The Comforters one of her more satisfying novels.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Warlock by Oakley Hall

For are we not, perhaps, here in Warlock, sitting in upon the childbed of a Legend?  Are we watching such a momentous birth all unknowingly, and, unknowingly, too, this one or that one of us helping it along, acting as midwife, boiling the water, holding the swaddling clothes, etc.?  As time goes on and if the infant does not die (literally!) and continues to grow, will not this cheap and fabulous account in this poor excuse for a magazine become, on its own terms, a version much more acceptable than ours, the true one?  It is a curious thought, how much do these legends, as they outstrip and supersede their originals, rest upon Truth, and how much upon some dark and impenetrable design within Man himself?

The town of Warlock, somewhere in the Southwestern United States in the late 19th century, has a problem with road agents and cattle rustlers.  Petty crime carries with it the constant threat and reality of violence.  Warlock's political situation contributes to the unease: the sheriff in the larger nearby town considers Warlock not a part of his jurisdiction, but a senile old governor drags his feet on incorporating Warlock as the seat of a new county.  There is no peace in Warlock because there is no law in Warlock, literally.  A committee of businessman hires a famed gunman named Clay Blaisedell as marshal to defend the town against the cowboys, led by the notorious red-headed Abe McQuown.

Warlock begins this way, with a classic Western setup.  Blaisedell is the whitehat, McQuown is the blackhat, and the novel is a speeding train running toward their final confrontation.  The truth is that Westerns have been picking apart the myths and legends of the Wild West since the west really was wild, but Warlock does it with incredible subtlety and narrative force.  Blaisedell is a good man, and he believes in the work he's doing, but no man can be quite as good as the myth that a man like Blaisedell carries with him.  All the characters in Warlock, except the very vilest of McQuown's cowboys, are are committed to a kind of stringent code: no "backshooting," no firing until you're drawn upon, etc.  Blaisedell is the avatar of this code, and it's no surprise that he quit marshaling and takes it back up several times over the course of the novel; he's constantly being made to face the limitations of his own ability to be such an avatar.

"We do not break so simply as some think into the two camps of townsmen and Cowboys," writes the storeowner Henry Goodpasture, whose diaries are interspersed throughout the narrative.  "We break into the camps of those wildly inclined, and those soberly, those irresponsible and those responsible, those peace-loving and those outlaw and riotous by nature."  But McQuown's cowboys see themselves on the side of the "responsible" and "peace-loving" as much as Blaisedell does.  In fact, they object that Blaisdell's tactic of "posting" a man out of town under penalty of death is a miscarriage of justice, perpetrated out of sheer animus or dislike.  When a strikebreaking mine owner hires McQuown's cowboys as a group of Regulators to threaten and cajole the miners, it gives them the same kind of specious authority, given by moneyed interests in the absence of real political law, enjoyed by Blaisedell.  It's no surprise when McQuown posts Blaisedell out himself.  Warlock never goes so far as to suggest that McQuown and Blaisedell are on equal footing, legally or morally, but it does just enough to trouble the conditions of Blaisedell's employment to muddy the waters.  The mythmaking that Goodpasture sees occurring in real time conceals those moral complexities utterly.

It isn't really McQuown who is Blaisedell's antithesis, but the town's nominal sheriff's deputy, John Gannon.  Gannon's power comes from the absentee sheriff, not the business owners, and if there's any legal power at all in Warlock, it's his.  He's also an old associate of McQuown's, grown disgusted by the cowboys' behavior, and that makes him a kind of liminal figure in Warlock.  The townspeople, by and large, think that he's working subterfuge for McQuown, and McQuown's men consider him a traitor.  It's not a comfortable place to be.  And yet it's a lack of partisanship that allows Gannon to do the work of peacekeeping with moral clarity.  Gannon leaves his brother to die at Blaisedell's hand when his brother is in the wrong; Blaisedell, on the other hand, has his authority challenged and nearly undone by his personal affection for his violent friend, Tom Morgan.  Blaisedell is the myth, but is bound to collapse under it; Gannon is the image, or perhaps the omen, of the law in the West, beholden to no one and nothing but its own principles, and likely to be forgotten in the shadow of mythical figures like Blaisedell.  McQuown is a red(-headed) herring; the final confrontation is, as it has to be, Blaisdell and Gannon, myth against reality.

Even that's more clearly put than Hall suggests.  For one, the law doesn't look so great when it comes in at the end of the novel in the figure of the territorial government intervening on behalf of the mine owners against the strikers.  But Warlock describes in fine detail the difficult choices involved in building a civilization up out of the inhospitable desert of the American frontier.  And it's a page-turner, too: I finished the nearly 500-page book in three days because I just couldn't put it down.  Even though it picks apart the myths of the American West with ruthlessness, it still offers incredibly satisfying variations on the classic moments of Western novels and films: the duel, the stage robbery, the gambling hall dust-up, the cowboy riding off into the sunset.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

I don't plan on living a long life.  Or a short life, necessarily.  I have no plans at all.  The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not, until you don't exist, and then your plans are meaningless.

Romy Hall is serving a lifetime sentence for killing a disabled man--her stalker.  She killed him because she was afraid for her son, Jackson, and in the blackest of ironies, it's this act that means she'll be separated from her son forever.  Not just physically, but legally, spiritually; her parental rights are terminated, meaning she doesn't have a right even to know where he is or if he's all right.  This is perhaps the greatest indignity of her prison sentence, but it's not the only one.  How about the time when, upon arriving at prison for the first time, she helps deliver a baby despite the explicit orders of prison guards, and ends up in "ad seg," solitary confinement?  You'd be hard pressed to find a more explicit symbol of the way that the carceral state robs the dignity of women in particular.

It's hard to read The Mars Room, Rachel Kushner's new novel, without thinking about Orange is the New Black.  I imagine that for most people, including me, the Netflix show is the first and only artistic depiction of women's prison they've known.  Like Piper Chapman, Romy is more literate than her cellmates (look at her chat with the prison tutor about Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son!), a fact that's meant to build a stronger sympathy with the reader, who is, after all, a reader, and to provide context for Romy's highly attenuated eye.  Here, for example, is what she sees in a mattress lying against a tree:

We were at a stoplight past the off-ramp.  Outside the window, a mattress leaned against a pepper tree.  Even those two things, I told myself, must go together.  No pepper trees, lacy branches and pink peppercorns, without dirty old mattresses leaned up against their puzzle-bark trunks.  All good bound to bad, and made mad.  All bad.

But unlike Piper, Romy really does come from poverty.  She's raised in a down-at-heels part of San Francisco, peopled by junkies and pimps, feeling miles away from the technocrats and the hippies of popular vision.  Though the novel begins with Romy's transfer to the Stanville prison, about half of it is filling in this back story.  She's exposed to violence at a young age, and learns early on what men will do to women they have power over, even twelve-year olds.  She's a stripper at the title club, but not a stripper with a heart of gold, or a cartoon.  Like her coworkers, she's someone who's learned to exploit the broken operation of the male gaze to her own benefit, even as it seeks to victimize her in ways large and small.

Does Romy deserve to be in prison?  Certainly the account of her crime, which appears at the end, casts into doubt the urgency of her claim to self-defense.  But Kushner is interested in other, more complicated questions: for example, how does the carceral state use the narrative of absolute responsibility to minimize the context that makes up the lives of those it punishes?  We can't understand Romy's crime without the context of her stalker's stalking, which only makes sense in the context of the broader ways in which men punish women in America, a dynamic that the prison only exacerbates.  Kushner explores these questions subtly and thoughtfully, but tips her hand a little in the thoughts of Gordon Hauser, the prison tutor, who thinks:

The word violence was depleted and generic from overuse and yet it still had power, still meant something, but multiple things.  There were stark acts of it: beating a person to death.  And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools.  There were large-scale acts of it, the death of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in a single year, for a specious war of lies and bungling, a war that might have no end, but according to prosecutors, the real monsters were teenagers like Button Sanchez.

Button Sanchez committed an awful crime, beating an Asian student to death.  Hauser is convinced she didn't see him as a person, which hardly exonerates her.  But the prison only doubles down on what Hauser sees as the root cause of violence, denying Button's personhood.  It's a little on the nose--on the button, maybe--to compare the Stanville prison to the Iraq War, but the point is a solid one.  Button's act of violence pales in comparison to the systemic violence that is incarceration, and in America we fail to reckon with that measurement on a daily basis.  "It added new harm to old," Hauser writes of the prison system, "and no dead person ever came back to life that he had heard about."  The brightly-colored sisterhood tropes of Orange is the New Black, even though it often makes sharp criticisms, lack the essential tonal darkness that our prisons deserve, and The Mars Room delivers.

Kushner's writing is full of excellent, powerful detail.  Here's just one little bit that I liked about a totally minor character:

He only left the house himself one evening a week, Sundays, when he worked as a volunteer security guard at the Red Cross.  He made a big deal about it.  Always took a briefcase with him, and said it held important documents that he needed to study for his next Daytona run.  It wasn't really a briefcase.  It was the emptied container for a backgammon set.  Once, Sammy opened it.  It was filled with candy bars.

It's funny, it's real, it's specific.  What a terrific image is: the backgammon set full of candy bars.  She does that throughout, sketching each individual life with a careful and empathetic eye, and a sense of how absurd life can be.  During the long bus ride to the prison, one prisoner waxes poetic about how they're going to miss the Bloomin' Onion at Outback.

But as a whole, the narrative sags.  It takes a hundred pages just to get Romy off the bus and into the prison.  The novel is peppered with accounts from other characters, sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third: her cellmate, Sammy, the crooked cop, Doc, in a men's prison somewhere, and especially Gordon, the tutor.  Kushner also splices in some sections from Ted Kaczynski's journals.  And while I think I get why--Gordon lives isolated in the mountains, like Kaczynski; Romy imagines those same mountains are a kind of Eden just out of reach; neither Gordon nor Kaczynski can understand isolation in the way Romy can because their isolation is her Eden, etc., etc.--it seems like a lot of pages to make what seems like a convoluted observational loop.  The Gordon sections are especially frustrating, because as interesting as he is as a character, his presence ends up a narrative dead end for Romy.  As a result, the time spent in the actual prison with Romy is relatively short. 

The end gives a flash of narrative drive, but it doesn't quite ring true, in a novel that spends so much time milling about in the fine details.  Forget it.  Life sentences don't have narrative drive.  As Kushner writes, "[L]ife does not go off the rails because it is the rails, goes where it goes."