Saturday, November 24, 2018

Bury Me at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

"The Great Spirit raised both the white man and the Indian," Red Cloud said.  "I think he raised the Indian first.  He raised me in this land and it belongs to me.  The white man was raised over the great waters, and his land is over there.  Since they crossed the sea, I have given them room.  There are now white people all about me.  I have but a small spot of land left.  The Great Spirit told me to keep it."

Two days ago, on Thanksgiving, the Huffington Post ran a story about the attempt to decertify the Mashpee Wampanoag of Massachusetts as a Native American tribe.  The justification is a technical one, but the motive is as old as Columbus: the desire to claim land belonging to the Wampanoag, this time because they want to build a casino on it that is a threat to the interests of local developers.  The idea of decertifying the Wampanoag is especially ironic; it was a Wampanoag man, Tisquantum, also known as Squanto, who helped the first Pilgrims survive the winter and inspired the holiday of Thanksgiving.

When I read that story, I thought about Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which I've been readingAs Brown shows, it's the same story, over and over: the dispossessed Wampanoag, the Taino obliterated by Columbus, the forced march of the Cherokeee.  Brown's history focuses on a relatively small fraction of the history of conflict between white and native Americans: the period of 1860 to 1890, when westward expansion compelled the U.S. government to force Western tribes onto ever-smaller reservations, uprooting their ways of life, and killing thousands by violence, disease, and starvation.

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is subtitled "The Indian History of the American West."  In a lot of ways it reads like a typically history book, objective to the point of dryness, but in each case the typical lens of the story is reversed so that we are asked to look at the events through the eyes of the Native Americans at the center of the conflict.  Reframed that way, the story of the American West, of political and economic expansion, becomes the nightmare of invasion and forced removal.  There are no tirades and few passages that might pass for commentary, mostly, Brown is content to let the eloquence of leaders like Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and Crazy Horse speak for itself.  But he also undermines our biases in subtle ways, like using the appellations given by Native Americans to their white military rivals: Three Stars Crook, Long Hair Custer, Old Man of the Thunder Hancock.

One of the saddest takeaways of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee is that it didn't really matter what approach Native leaders took in these matters.  Brown makes clear that Native communities were deeply divided on how to respond to white removal policies; many of the stories here are about peace-seeking chiefs who are caught between the demands of the U.S. government and more military factions within their own tribe.  But whether, like Kicking Bird or Black Kettle, they argue for submission to these policies, or like Geronimo and Cochise, they are willing to fight to the death, each tribe ends up dispossessed of their lands and often violently reduced.  Peaceful tribes, like the Utes in Colorado, find that they are the victims of newspaper smear campaigns meant as a pretext to drive them out of their lands and make room for white settles.  The Nez Perce of Idaho boasted that they had never had a disagreement with white men--until the white men wanted their land.  Cheyenne chief Black Kettle raises an American flag to convince American soldiers that he wants only friendship; what he gets is the Sand Creek Massacre, in which 148 Native Americans were killed.

Someone really ought to make a movie out of the story of Modoc chief Kintpuash, who was so friendly with white ranchers around Tule Lake in Oregon that he called himself by the nickname they gave him: Captain Jack.  The government moved the Modocs to a reservation with their much larger rivals, the Klamath tribe, where they were mistreated and decided to retreat to California's Lava Beds.  Captain Jack avoided conflict at every turn, but his lieutenant Hooker Jim led an aggressive faction who mocked him so mercilessly that they extracted a promise to kill the American General, Edward Canby, when they met one-on-one.  Captain Jack went reluctantly through with his promise, made in rash anger, only to end up captured and turned over by Hooker Jim, the very man who had spurred him to do it, and later sold out the American troops.  As for the Modocs?  Most of them were forcibly moved to the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma--a far cry from Tule Lake, Oregon.

At this Thanksgiving season, I'm thankful to be able to hear the stories of people I haven't known about, like Captain Jack.  And like Donegohawa, the first Native American to lead the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and who tried to fight rampant corruption in order to keep peace in the West.  And Standing Bear, who fought in U.S. courts to be recognized as a legal person, with concomitant rights of free movement.  Standing Bear wasn't able to make the American legal system extend the ruling to the rest of his Ponca tribe on the reservation in the Indian Territory, but amid a bleak and sordid history, his is story worth remembering.  "Now, a century later," Brown writes about his subjects, "in an age without heroes, they are perhaps the most heroic of all Americans."

The book ends in the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, which Brown calls the "symbolic end of Indian freedom."  Wounded Knee was the culmination of a pan-Native syncretic religious movement called the Ghost Dance, which promised to erase white men from the United States and revive thousands of Native dead.  It was essentially a Christian movement, Brown notes, though the U.S. government could not recognize it as such.  It was also, in its appeal to many Native cultures, self-evidently a response to the wholesale decimation of Native peoples.  The U.S. killed Sitting Bull because they were afraid he might lend his prestige to the movement, and they massacred hundreds of innocent, unarmed people.  Its symbolism comes from, beyond the massive loss of life, the refutation of this religious vision.

Three years after Brown wrote Bury Me at Wounded Knee, a group of activists in the American Indian Movement captured Wounded Knee in an attempt to force political change.  I don't know enough about it to be able to call it heroic; it probably was.  But it's a reminder that, despite the tragic success of the United States' policy of forced removal and eradication, Native people are still here, and their autonomy is still drastically limited.  I hope that, after the events of the last couple of years at Standing Rock, white Americans like me won't let their consciousness of Native issues drop away.  We can start by defending the rights of people like the Mashpee Wampanoag, and Bury Me at Wounded Knee should be required reading.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Countrymen of Bones by Robert Olen Butler

The King was free.  He lay on his pedestal and his feet were tight together and angled like a diver's.  The earth around him was smoothed and leveled and Darrell could not cast off the impression that the King had not been reached by digging but, rather, had himself risen on the narrow platform through a corridor in the earth.  The cape of shells seemed only recently shrugged from the King's shoulders.  He'd come now when he was needed.  One King to succeed another.

New Mexico, 1945.  Two scientists are working in the desert.  One, Lloyd Coulter, is a high-ranking scientist in the Manhattan Project, responsible for creating the mechanism that focuses the energy inside the atomic bomb and causes it to detonate.  The other, Darrell Reeves, is an archaeologist at the University of Santa Fe excavating a burial mound that contains a breakthrough discovery: a king from the mound-building cultures of the Midwest, buried far away from the region where he might be expected.  The Trinity explosion will eradicate Reeves' burial site, and the Manhattan Project scientists are pressuring him to finish his work and remove the skeletons, and the conflict between them is amplified by Lloyd and Darrell's rival interest in Anna Brown, a young army officer who is assisting both projects.

At first, Lloyd and Darrell are difficult to distinguish.  Both are men of science, intensely obsessed with their own projects at the expense of all other things.  Darrell is a little older, once married, and his archaeological outlook on the world has failed to help him understand the world of living human beings.  When FDR dies, he imagines "Roosevelt's skeleton being unearthed--a long age from now--Roosevelt's bones being brushed clean, the pelvis measured, the signs of his paralysis visible in the joining of his bones."  He thinks back on how all his knowledge failed to save his marriage:

Once, he had come home and found her gone to the store.  He went into the subterranean stillness of their bedroom and he looked around, trying to read their life together.  He went to the dresser to see her artifacts.  One at a time he picked up the objects there; he turned them over in his hands, trying to read the clues.  Her hairbrush, the bristles worn and bent, black hair tangled there: how thrilling this would be in an excavation, how much he could deduce.  From the hair of the woman he could learn about the chemical balances of her body, her age, her health, perhaps her diet.  From the brush itself he could learn about the artisans of her society, her economic status, whether she was right-handed or left-handed.  But he could not say from this brush why his wife had married him or why she would soon leave him.  Perhaps if I could see her bones, she thought.  If I could touch her bones.  But he knew nothing and he put the brush down.

But soon differences between the two men become clear.  Darrell is single-minded and hapless, but in the service of bringing the dead back to life and telling their story; Lloyd projects onto the bomb his fantasies of control.  Darrell is sheepish and forthright with Anna; Lloyd stalks her and imagines that the successful test will usher in a new age in which he has the power to bend Anna to his will in the that he's bent the atom.  Butler loves the image of the circle: for Lloyd, the circle is two halves of a sphere of plutonium being forced together to make the bomb's powerful core.  For Darrell, it's the symbolic circle of the burial mound, meant to describe the whole universe for the King.  That circle is a mistake, the representation of the erroneous belief that everything can be known and understood.

Butler dives deep into the psychology of the two men.  Lloyd is always thinking about his father, who abused his mother, and the Freudian implications are that this relationship made Lloyd the way he is.  But the psychology has the ironic effect of flattening the men and subordinating them to the novel's Big Ideas, like the perpetuation of violence on cosmic and historic scales.  Much more interesting, I think, are characters like Anna, who exudes both confidence and uncertainty, a fundamental goodness that isn't impeded, as it might be in some novels, by naivete.  She professes to be in awe of the scientist's expertise, but has more wisdom than they do.  She's more interesting because Butler doesn't feel the need to psychologize her, only to let her exist.

Similarly, Countrymen of Bones presents a fascinating portrait of Robert Oppenheimer: an aloof genius, with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita always ready (much to the annoyance of everybody else).  In one particularly clever moment that expresses an ironic playfulness and a chilling self-awareness, he cameos as a corpse in the Los Alamos amateur theater production of Arsenic and Old Lace.  A rancher who, angered at the Manhattan Project for encroaching upon his land, projects that anger onto the archaeologist, also seems especially prescient.

The buried king from the Midwest is a member of a Death Cult, Darrell explains, inspired by reports of the brutality of Spanish conquest.  The King had no idea that as he traveled into the Southwest that he was running into the arms of the very violence that terrified his people.  And as Darrell unearths more and more of the mound, he finds more bodies, violently killed: trophies, women, that the King took along with him into the earth.  We may not have had tools like the atomic bomb, Butler argues, but we have always turned our fear of death into a tool of death.

Ultimately, Countrymen of Bones suffers under the weight of those Big Ideas.  It reaches out to try to incorporate Roosevelt, the end of the European war, the revelation of the Holocaust, in ways that feel perfunctory even as it seems like they must have been on the minds of people in 1945. And I don't think--spoiler alert--that it's necessary to have Lloyd rape Anna, or to present the act in detail from Lloy'ds perspective.  I don't think his last act, to save them from the atomic blast while sacrificing himself, is a meaningful atonement.  But it's a gripping story, and the way that Butler careens from one man's point of view to another's even in the same paragraph is remarkably subtle.  Countrymen of Bones has a sharp eye for the way that history, as a story of violence, is incarnated in the lives of individual men and women.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

July's People by Nadine Gordimer

When it all happened, there were transformations of myth or religious parable.  The bank accountant had been the legendary warning hornbill of African folk-tales, its flitting cries ignored at peril.  The yellow bakkie that was bought for fun turned out to be the vehicle: that which bore them away from the gunned shopping malls and the blazing, unsold houses of a depressed market, from the burst mains washing round bodies in their Saturday-morning garb of safari suits, and the heat-guided missiles that struck Boeings carrying those trying to take off from Jan Smuts Airport.  The cook-nanny, Nora, ran away.  The decently-paid and contented male servant, living in their yard since they had married, clothed by them in two sets of uniforms, khaki pants for rough housework, white drill for waiting at table, given Wednesdays and alternate Sundays free, allowed to have his friends visit him and his town woman sleep with him in his room--he turned out to be the chosen one in whose hands their lives were to be held; frog prince, saviour, July.

How would apartheid end?  It must have seemed both impossible and inevitable, until it did.  And when it did end it came in political shape, in the form of legislative repeal, bilateral conferences, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Successes like that one led to the (pretty misbegotten) conception of the 90's as the "End of History," a terminus achieved by liberal democracy.  But it might have been otherwise, and Nadine Gordimer's July's People offers a vision for one such end: a violent overthrow of white society by native South Africans.  They storm banks; they kill white Afrikaners; they shoot down planes to prevent escape.  In this scenario Maureen and Bam Smales escape, along with their three children, into the bush, under the protection of their longtime servant July, who takes them to his native village.

In the village, everything is turned upside down for the Smales.  Once they lived in a posh Johannesburg house; now they sleep in a hut on the seats removed from their Jeep-like Bakkie.  Their youngest child begs to be taken to a movie--how to explain to him what has happened to the world?--and their oldest absconds from them, drifting so far into the world of her new friends that Bam and Maureen cannot follow her.  But the most difficult change is the reversal of roles between the Smales, especially Maureen, and July.  July has been well-treated, well-paid, cannot complain, and his protection of the Smales is in recognition of it.  But he is in charge here, and both he and his (former?) employers struggle to understand the new nature of their relationship.  Is it right for Bam to be angry, when July takes the bakkie without asking?  Does it even belong to Bam anymore?  Is it July's?  The car itself is not so important, but it is the center of the new ambiguity, which is deeper and stranger than any party has expected.  The questions run deeper than, who is in charge: Who is July when he is in charge?  And who is Maureen when she is not the master?

It is July, not Maureen, who insists past the point of reasonableness that their relationship remains unchanged.  There is a fear in him: by accepting the change in South Africa, will he ally himself with the people who would turn the Smales in, or murder them?  To whom is July now responsible?

But as magnetic and mysterious as July is, July's People is about whites.  It is about white liberal South Africans, like the Smales, who have always been in favor of political equality for black South Africans.  Yes, there's a measure of old-fashioned liberal pigheadedness that the turmoil cures them of, but for the most part, both Bam and Maureen see the inequity of South African society clearly.  In fact, that's the root of their sympathy and kindness toward their servant.  But seeing clearly does not extricate them from the system itself.  They don't question the reasonableness, or the moral rectitude, of the revolution, but they don't know what to do when it puts them in the crosshairs.  How can a white person be, Gordimer asks, when the roots of inequity are so deep that their very existence perpetuates it?  Gordimer strips the novel of the kind of hopey-changey centrist pap that dominates our own discourse about political equality, and replaces it with lucid fear, even despair:

The humane creed (Maureen, like anyone else, regarded her own as definitive) depended on validities staked on a belief in the absolute nature of intimate relationships between human beings.  If people don't all experience emotional satisfaction and deprivation the same way, what claim can there be for equality of need?  There was fear and danger in considering this emotional absolute as open in any way; the brain-weighers, the claimants of divine authority to distinguish powers of moral discernment from the degree of frizz in hair and conceptual ability from the relative thickness of lips--they were vigilant to pounce upon anything that could be twisted to give them credence.  Yet how was that absolute nature of intimate relationships arrived at?  Who decided?  'We' (Maureen sometimes harked back) understand the sacred power and rights of sexual love are as formulated in master bedrooms, and motels with false names in the register.  Here, the sacred power and rights of sexual love are as formulated in a wife's hut, and a backyard room in a city.  The balance between desire and duty is--has to be--maintained quite differently in accordance with the differences in the lovers' place in the economy.  These alter the way of dealing with the experience; and so the experience itself.  The absolute nature she and her kind were scrupulously just in granting to everybody was no more than the price of the master bedroom and the clandestine hotel tariff.

July's People is about a race war, a phrase you see these days only on the scummiest parts of 4chan.  And it's easy to see how a right-winger might respond to a book like this: Even a liberal thinks that race war is inevitable, and their ready to betray their own, even give up their own lives.  But Gordimer rejects the easy partisanship of racist "brain-weighers" in favor of a more honest, and complicated perspective.  How can we achieve political equality when our understandings of the world are so different?  She's speaking about the great divide in the way she and July think about love and marriage, but she might as well be speaking about other kinds of desire and other kinds of duty.  How can the Smales accommodate July's desires, July's duties, when they can't conceive of them, and ow can July, when power is thrust upon him, accommodate theirs?

July's People is a big old shrug of a novel, as certain that South Africa's problems are intractable as it is that Maureen, at the novel's end, will rush toward the coming helicopter not knowing if she's headed toward rescue or death, just because the state of uncertainty is untenable.  It's easy to be shaken by it, especially in these times of ethnonationalist revanchism.  But it's worth remembering that, as far as we have yet to go, apartheid ended not with the bang of a plane being shot down, but with a whimper.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

My Education by Susan Choi

I'd like to say that I defied gravity as often as feeling its snare, but my efforts were more likely spent clinging on with white knuckles not to be dislodged.  Still, that was my heroism--my tenacious fidelity to her, though it was based on a grave misconception.  I thought desire was duty.  No trial could not be endured nor impediment smashed in desire's holy service, or so I believed, with naive righteousness.  I didn't grasp that desire and duty could rival each other, least of all that they most often do.

I thought I knew where Susan Choi's My Education was headed when the narrator, first-year literature grad student Regina Gottlieb, sets eyes on the professor Nicholas Brodeur.  Brodeur is strikingly handsome, but a reputation for sexual coercion precedes him.  But Regina doesn't tumble headlong into bed with Brodeur--at least, not at first and not the way I was expecting--instead tumbling headlong into bed with Brodeur's wife, first glimpsed pregnant and sailing past the classroom door.  (I think Choi conspires with her editor and cover artist to lay that trap--check out the indeterminate blond head on the pillow on the cover.) The relationship is a tempestuous one: it breaks up the professorial couples' marriage, or, as Brodeur's wife Martha would have Regina believe, coincides with the dissolution of it.  For Regina, it's like the appearance of a comet: burning, destructive, and since it's her first and only relationship with a woman, rare.  When it finally falls apart, as the older Martha has always insisted that it must, it drives Regina from academia and into existential crisis that only time, figured here as a fifteen-year gap in the narrative, can cure.

I read a lot of Munro in Choi's prose.  Like Munro, Choi has a love for the abstract noun; words like desire and duty drive the conflict inside Regina.  But Choi trades Munro's kitchen-vocabulary for the ergot of academia: impediment, demimonde, tutelage, quotidian.  I was a little annoyed by it until I realized that of course those are the kind of words that Regina, anxious to seem like she belongs in the jargon-heavy world of humanities grad school, would use.  (I am still annoyed by the frequency of adverbs!)  She drops them as pointedly as she drops "Djuna Barnes" and "Andre Gide."  And it's this person--the anxious academic--that unravels twice, first in what seems to be the primal heat of love/lust, and then in heartbreak.

Like lots of passionate relationships, Regina and Martha's seems to consist mostly of fighting.  The sex is torrid, but the width between their worldviews proves too great to overcome.  Regina can't conceive of a duty to anything besides love--see how often she demands that Martha tell her she loves her--but Martha has a newborn son, and even an ex-husband to whom she owes a great deal.  Martha understands Regina's feelings but cannot meet her in them.  Their relationship ends up bitter and toxic; maybe it's because I can't empathize with the intensity of the same-sex attraction, but I was turned off by how sour it became.  And maybe it's because I'm not in my twenties anymore, but I was more impressed by the novel's final third, which finds a wiser, more mature Regina:

Flying west, I became middle-aged.  All the cowardly, derisive ideas I had somehow absorbed in my youth of what middle age meant fell away, as can sometimes occur to cliches for mysterious reasons.  The poor hunchbacked jargon stepped out of its clothes and stood uprightly naked and plain.  It meant just what it said, nothing else.  It wasn't a need for face cream or an interest in stocks or conservatism.  It meant that one now touched both ends: that is what middle is.  Middle age only meant that the least reconcilable times of one's life would in fact coexist until death.  My youth--the demands of my young, able body, and my young understanding, whether able or not--was not going to shrink in perspective while allowing superior ripeness to gently replace it.  My youth was not the most stubborn, peremptory part of myself.  In my most relaxed moments, it governed my being.  It pricked up its ears at the banter of eighteen-year olds on the street.  It frankly examined their bodies.  It did not know its place: that my youth governed me with such ease didn't mean I was young.  It meant I was divided, as if housing a stowaway soul, rife with itches and yens which demanded a stern vigilance.

The end of My Education pulls a kind of switch that Ishiguro would be proud of.  It undermines Regina's sense of the specialness of her relationship with Martha, but it also resonates with a larger wisdom about what love is, and desire, and duty.  I ended up enjoying it more than I expected, and maybe my exasperation with the young Regina is meant to coincide with the older Regina's exasperation with her younger self.

One final note: Why exactly are we told that Brodeur is known as a sexual harasser, when he turns out not to be?  That choice is mirrored in the end: Regina's friend Dutra, who plays a central role in her affair with Martha, is maliciously accused of sexual assault by his hospital bosses, who want to push him out.  Two dots make a line, and it's hard to shake the impression that Choi is especially suspicious of accusations like that, which makes it an especially strange read in the #metoo era.  And that reading lines up with the well-meaning comic jabs it takes at the university world in general, like the cadre of students who taunt a professor with the name of Joseph Conrad, meant as a stand-in for literary colonialism and racism, but whom none of the protestors, including Regina, have ever read.  (Choi also drops some pretty funny fake class titles, like "Aesthetic/Prosthetic," which is really being taught somewhere, I'm sure.)  I think Choi means to suggest that the narratives we used to think about sex are also reductive, but it still seems weird.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Haunted Dolls' House and Other Stories by M. R. James

I was at supper at his house, and he was not inclined to let me leave him at my usual time.  'If you go,' he said, 'there will be nothing for it but I must go to bed and dream of the chrysalis.'  'You might be worse off,' said I.  'I do not think it,' he said, and he shook himself like a man who is displeased with the connexion of his thoughts.  'I only meant,' said I, 'that a chrysalis is an innocent thing.'  'This one is not,' he said, 'and I do not care to think of it.'

I read M. R. James' collection of ghost stories, Count Magnus, around last Halloween, and figured I might as well take this Halloween as an opportunity to read its companion collection, The Haunted Dolls' House.  These stories have the same hallmarks as the first collection: they're set among stuffy British country houses and boarding schools; their ghosts and ghouls are linked to ancient and medieval objects and lithographs and old folderol like that; yet the ghosts and ghouls themselves are quite creepy.  The monsters of The Haunted Dolls' House begin to bear a tedious similarity to the ones in Count Magnus--James has a thing for monsters made of nothing but hair--but still they are in effective contrast to the stories' gentility.  James has a real knack for breaking through a fussy Victorian scene with the briefest glimpse of a horrible vision, like the friend above who admits, without any prior context, "I must go to bed and dream of the chrysalis."  The chrysalis.

My favorites in this collection all center on the British countryside.  The countryside, in British literature, is picturesque and historical, a setting for wanderers and tourists like Wordsworth.  "A View from a Hill," plays on both of those expectations: it centers on a pair of binoculars, constructed by a mad experimenter using a dead man's eyes, that allows the viewer to see the particular towns--and the gallow's pole--as they were hundreds of years ago.  Another, "A Warning to the Curious," repurposes an old legend about Anglo-Saxon crowns buried on England's eastern shore, which have kept the island safe from invasion, and which are guarded by a relentless spirit.  The best story, "A Neighbour's Landmark," is no more inventive than a spirit who haunts a certain grove of trees, but the story's protagonist learns about it first as an aside in a historical pamphlet.

James knew that monsters are scariest when they're at arm's length, not just in space, but in time.  Ghosts are the past come back to haunt us, as it haunts, in a manner of speaking, the classicist and the historian.  The stories pile veil upon veil; every single one is in some way a story reported by a friend about a friend of theirs, or some other kind of multi-layered contrivance.  There's a metaphor in there for the process of historical understanding, which passes through so many generations of understanding that you're never quite sure if you've got your eyes set on something real.  In James, the horribleness of the beasts slices through these layers of interpretation, too awful to be legendary, and too ridiculous to be real.