Saturday, April 27, 2019

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison

I became even more afraid of Daddy Glen, the palms that slapped, the fingers that dug in and bruised, the knuckles he would sometimes press directly under my eyes, the hands that shook and gripped and lifted me up until his eyes would stare into mine.  My own hands were so small, my fingers thin and weak.  I wished they were bigger, wider, stronger.  I wished I was a boy so I could run faster, stay away more, or even hit him back.

Ruth Anne Boatwright--known as Bone--is officially a bastard.  The hospital where she's born, in Greenville, South Carolina, places a red sticker directly on her birth certificate signifying the fact.  Her mother goes to great lengths to change it, but the bureaucracy is impenetrable; some even believe she's behind the burning down of the courthouse with all of its records.  Is it love for Bone that compels her mother to have the birth certificate amended, or is it the feeling that Bone's bastardy reflects poorly on her?  Is it love for Bone and her sister that drives her into the arms of Glen, the man who ends up sexually and physically abusing Bone, or just pure romantic love?  The answer to both questions is somewhere between, of course, and these kinds of love are headed for conflict: when Daddy Glen's abuse becomes too much for Bone to bear, what will her mother choose?

I misjudged this book.  I thought at first it was going to be one of those slice-of-Southern-life deals, where the sweet tea is always loaded with sugar and family can overcome anything.  I was expecting Barbara Kingsolver.  But Bastard Out of Carolina is much darker and conflicted than I expected.  It's conflicted about the South; it's conflicted about family; it's conflicted about love.  It became clear that I had misjudged it when Daddy Glen abuses nine year-old Bone for the first time, touching her, and himself, in a car while her mother is away.  The abuse is explicitly depicted, and gets far worse, but Allison is careful not to make the book punishing by forefronting it all the time.  It lingers, or the threat of it, in the background all the time.  Fear of it makes Bone mean and resentful, and she comes to understand it as an aspect of her own poverty and marginalization as a girl:

Men could do anything, and everything they did, no matter how violent or mistaken, was viewed with humor and understanding.  The sheriff would lock them up for shooting out each other's windows, or racing their pickups down the railroad tracks, or punching out the bartender over at the Rhythm Ranch, and my aunts would shrug and make sure the children were all right at home.  What men did was just what men did.  Some days I would grind my teeth, wishing I had been born a boy.

Yes, when Bone's uncles find out about Daddy Glen's abuse, they beat the everloving crap out of him.  But such violence hardly makes them heroes, or affirms the importance of family; instead, it becomes part of the same dark male impulse that drives Daddy Glen.  Allison encourages us to see Bone's rage as a problem, a destabilizing force, but also an appropriate response to the forces, local and social, that traumatize her.  Allison is careful not to make her a victim only, which would deaden the narrative; she has dreams of becoming a gospel singer, and Allison's description of the small-town gospel circuit is detailed and convincing.  "I wanted, I wanted, I wanted something," Allison writes, "Jesus or God or orange-blossom scent or dark chocolate terror in my throat."

By the end of the novel, I really came to respect Allison's steel-eyed realism.  Bastard Out of Carolina really has no room for sentimentalism, or feel-good redemption stories.  It's got a sense of humor, but it's also deadly serious about the traumatic consequences of abuse.  In the end--spoiler alert, and, uh, trigger warning--Bone's mother walks in on Daddy Glen raping Bone.  She realizes, once and for all, that Glen and Bone can't be together.  But her love for Glen is so intense--and, Allison suggests, sincere on both sides--that she ends up abandoning Bone instead of Glen.  That's a sobering and unexpected choice on Allison's part.  In the end, Bastard rejects all the pat ways you might read the image of the birth certificate: Bone does not need a new father to un-bastardize her, and the attempt to give her one is destructive in the extreme, but neither does the novel glibly suggest that what she really needs is to become independent of her family.  Yes, her rage becomes wiser, transforms into determination, but who can leave their family behind?  The novel ends with her in the arms of her aunt, which is not enough, but sometimes what you get, Allison suggests, is not enough, not even close.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Love War Stories
By Ivelisse Rodriguez

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In South Holyoke, the Flats, Up the Hill, and on Chestnut Street, the Puerto Rican girls walk in silence, hoping for invisibility if they are alone or in pairs, but more than two and they feel safe, like they can beat anyone down, like they own the streets.  Trekking home with Casandra after school, Veronica’s heart beats erratically when she spies a group of Puerto Rican girls occupying the stoop ahead of them.  This is when she and Cassandra are wary of their volume; they lower their voices and try not to rouse anyone’s attention.  Cassandra’s reputation only extends so far.  They’re no longer at Holyoke High and they don’t know these girls. It’s always this way with them. Every day the heart pounding.  The only time they can be carelessly loud, throw their shoulders back, and be noticed is around white people.

The stories in this volume present a vivid but ultimately sad portrait of contemporary life for Puerto Rican girls, and by extension, all young women.  While they are varied in setting – the streets of East Harlem, the steps of Columbia Law School, the beaches of Puerto Rico, the collapsed mill towns of New England – and there is variety among the life situations of the characters – their economic prospects and educational motivations especially, there is a clear set of themes relayed by the title.  Actually, the way those three words form a single theme is the real guiding force behind the book.  Some of the girls in the stories are in love, but love is not a peaceful or joyful prospect for them:  it is simply the only prospect.

So in “El Qué Durán,” Lola is being taught that her whole purpose in life is to marry the young man who is her date for her quinceañera, an obviously untrustworthy young lout named Ricardo.  As readers, we are never under the impression that this is a good idea:  she is fifteen, after all.  The power of the story comes from the fact that no one can really think it is a good idea:  the subplot of the story concerns how marrying her quinceañerapartner destroyed her Aunt Lola’s life.  It is not the prospect of a better decision that drives the plot, it is the inability of anyone to imagine any other decision.  

In “The Belindas,” a character with far more personal agency and power – a graduate of Columbia Law School is similarly destroyed by an errant boyfriend.  Again, this is a man who the reader identifies as trouble immediately.  The point is not that Belinda is simply making a poor choice, but that she sees no other choice.  The irony here is that her co-worker, Lola, who seems to be boy-crazy and without ambition, leaves Belinda to go off to college as we realize that she has been toying with the idea of men in a way that frees her up for other ambitions.

While there are one or two older men of decency and faithfulness in this volume, much of it could be the female side of a Junot Diaz story.  Ironically, as this is published by The Feminist Press, Diaz’s women have more power and self-awareness than Rodriguez’s, while the link between Dominican culture and sexism is more powerful for Diaz than such a link in Puerto Rican culture is for Rodriguez.  

In the final story, from which the collection takes its name, “Love War Stories,” the link among those words is made manifest.  These are not love stories, but love war stories.  Here the narrator leads a group of high school girls in a defense of true love in the face of their mother’s cynicism.   While the narrator’s mother lives the constricted life of a middle-aged working single mother, her daughter stands up for the idea of romance and true love. The interest in this story comes from the fact that the narrator has convinced her various girlfriends to act out this defense by dating and falling in love with various boys who “quickly start reneging on a thousand pledges made thought the course of the relationships,” while the narrator herself stays unattached.  She has recognized the only way to maintain the idea of true love – and hold out the prospect of being happier than her mother – is to never test love in any form.  She watches her girlfriends get hurt and take their mothers’ side in the war over love stories because letting them lose is the only way to maintain her own faith. Like Lola in “The Belindas,” she needs to convert love into a game she is willing to lose before taking it up.

I was drawn to this volume as a way to enhance a trip to Puerto Rico and because it had been short listed for prominent awards.  On the first cause, I could have used more research, since the book has little to do with Puerto Rico:  more stories are set in Central Mass than in San Juan.  As to its status as a near-award winner, I remain surprised.  The volume has an admirable coherence, but none of the stories is particularly original or memorable.  None of them are bad, but that is partly because they never risk any kind of failure – they mark off familiar territory and re-cover already examined ground in a way that is pleasant and innocuous, but hardly exciting or moving.

An Apprenticeship in the School of Anxiety
By Jerry Januszewski

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To say human beings feel “bad” about shame is a vast understatement.  Shame is agonizing and fear of exposure leads us to expend enormous mental and emotional energy to keep shame well hidden, even defending its foul existence with declarations like, “I will never forgive myself” or “I will always feel this way>’. When shame is exerting its power, we hide – and human connection is lost. Shame brings isolation, alienation, and loneliness.  One cannot begin to measure the sum of human misery in the world attributable to this.

This is a book of short essays written by one of my college roommates.  In it, he takes on a variety of subjects – drinking and alcoholism, living in the moment, competition, pornography, humor and several others. The essays are short, the writing is clean and straightforward:  Januszewski is not showing off or working for style points.  He says what he has to say and then stops.  This allows his points to accumulate, so that while each essay stands on its own, reading straight through as a book allows them to accumulate. 

The largest and most important accumulation is around the idea of shame.  Januszewski is not interested in shame as a verb – there is no talk of shaming others or of being shamed by others.  His concern is shame as a noun, a condition we all live in.  Januszeski sees shame as central to the human experience. It is how we punish ourselves for our weakness, shortcomings and mistakes:  we become ashamed of them.  His concern is how ineffective shame is as a punishment – it mires us in our weaknesses rather than purging us of any experience of them.  Januszewski is nothing if not modest and he aims much of this analysis at himself.  The book acts as a bit of a spiritual memoir and we learn a good deal about his own striving for a deeper and more peaceful life.  That striving is wound up in facing his shortcomings and there are some interesting confessions here.  However, there is little beyond that striving for peace that could be seen as conventionally religious.

One of the more interesting twists to all this comes in the form of a story in the essay “Beasts-Angels Among Us,” which includes the story of a session of alcoholics anonymous in which a woman wallows in her shame as a way of defending herself from facing the true source of that shame.  Januszewski is a professional addiction counselor and the anti-alcohol messages here are pretty direct, though generally non-judgmental.  What is most interesting about this story is the twist it introduces to the concept of shame Januszewski is developing:  that shame is both our awareness of our weakness and the mechanism we use to avoid facing them.  Shame is a legitimate response to our shortcomings and the symptom that allows us to avoid facing the disease.  

He expounds on this idea without resort to Freudian concepts of the unconscious or any psychological language.   In fact, his avoidance of buzz words or any language associated with psychology, counseling, self-help or religion is one of the book’s great strengths.  While he manages to make clear that there is great learning behind these essays (references to Socrates, Epictetus, Jung, Blake, Yeats and others are slipped in) he never lets the education that led him to these thoughts to get in the way of the thoughts themselves.  While there are decades of study and experience behind these essays, they present themselves as simply the thoughts of one concerned man.  

In the final essay, “Spiritual But Not Religious,” Januszewski ties his various concerns together with an explicit call recognizing that the attempt to lead a good life – and good here is read to include integrity, happiness, pleasure and striving – is an inherently religious quest.  Again, he does this without resort to much in the way of religious vocabulary and in a tone about as far from preaching as one can imagine in an essay of this title. There is a light patina of disdain for the title’s promise of enlightenment without the commitment or community implied by religion, but even here the tone is more unconvinced than judgmental.

The work around shame here – and its dual role as engine and excuse for our pain – seems to just open the discussion, but the volume in general promises that the author is still thinking about all of this and may have more to say.  Januszewski confesses in the introduction that he writes slowly and has spent years putting this slim volume together, so for the foreseeable future we may be thinking about Januszewski’s ideas on our own.

Friday, April 19, 2019

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

How I wished for a better man a Captain to advise me.  My own father died when I were 12 yr. old the only boss I ever had were Harry Power and once I seen his feet of clay I left him far behind or so I thought.  Yet as this dismal cloudy day wore on I finally understood I were still the apprentice and Harry were the master I were still following his rutted track.  It were on account of him I knew this were a blind gully and that were the best spur to get me to the humpback ridge.  Your Ignorance he called me when teaching me the secrets of the Strathbogies the Warbies & the Wombat Ranges.  If you know the country he said then you will be a wild colonial boy forever.

Ned Kelly is, for Australians, something like Billy the Kid.  Or perhaps Billy the Kid and Jesse James and all those guys wrapped up together, without any Earps on the other side to balance out the mystique of lawlessness and robbery.  At the same time that the American frontier was becoming the Wild West, Ned Kelly was becoming Australia's most famous bushranger: robbing coaches and trains and banks, killing cops, taking hostages, and becoming a folk hero.  Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang takes the form of Kelly composing his own account of what led him to bushranging, complete with dialect and busted grammar.  "I wished only to be citizen," Kelly writes, "I had tried to speak but the mongrels stole my tongue when I asked for justice they give me none."

Carey's version of Kelly is of a generous and humble man, with a deep love and loyalty for his family, who becomes a criminal by compulsion, rather than appetite.  His mother, desperate for money, sells him into indentured servitude to the famous bushranger Harry Power when he's young, and although Ned hates Power and the business of robbing, it's Power's instruction that still serves him a decade later.  His association with Power makes him a known quantity to the local police, and their endless harassment of him is what drives him to robbery.  He kills a couple of cops who are out to kill him for a crime he didn't commit, and from then on his fate is decided: he's a bushranger whether he wants to be one or not.  His tenacity and determination, and his ability to devil corrupt institutional forces, make him a popular figure among many locals, but he's stymied in his attempts to tell his own story by writing letters to politicians and newspapers.  Ned Kelly and his gang are on everybody's lips, but he himself is left voiceless.

One thing that Carey emphasizes is that the fight between Kelly and the cops follows the ancient lines of English-Irish, Protestant-Catholic conflict.  There's something absurd about the wholesale translation of this conflict to the colony, where the geographical forces that pit the English and Irish against each other are absent.  Its manifestations are relics, torn from their site-specific context, like the dresses worn by some of Kelly's gang, which allude to similar tactics by Irish rebels but here serve no practical purpose.  Ned lacks the ancestral memory of the crossdressers in his gang; he doesn't even know for most of the novel while they're wearing dresses, but he more than anyone bears the psychic trauma of these old grudges.

Carey's Kelly becomes a tragic figure: a boy who only wanted to make his mother's homestead a functioning farm, but who ends up an outlaw.  He was a legend, but he wanted to be a man.  The novel is frequently comic, also--all those women's dresses--but a little too long and meandering for my taste.  Kelly's diction, while ingeniously rendered, made the characters blur together for me.  Maybe Carey's Australian audience, with comparatively more knowledge and context, has an easier time. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

The music turned the corner of a darkly baubled wall.  I imagined Veronica alone in the dark, waiting for the brute that stalked her to show itself in full.  I imagined her horror at the small eruptions of death on her body--the sores, infections, rashes, yeast, and liquid shit.  I imagined her holed up in the part of herself where all was still orderly and clean, insistently maintaining the propriety and congruence that had enabled her to get through the senselessly disordered world, and that was slowly being taken from her.

Even more than the others, I wanted to tell her this.  I wanted her to know that even though she was dying, she was still included in the story told by the music.  That she wasn't completely and brutally alone.  The music raised its lamp and illuminated its own dark interior.  I will tell her, I thought.  I will remember and I will tell her.

Alison is not old, but not young, and she is sick: defaced by hepatitis, and carrying around an old injury that makes it difficult to clean windows.  Once she was a model, drawn to a world that both rewarded and punished her for her beauty.  In her accounting, she is alternately cherished and abused by photographers and editors, who speak about her as if she's not in the room.  At times she seems like an it girl, more beautiful than anyone in the room, but in other times the jobs are thin and the world rejects her.

During one of these famine times she meets Veronica, another temp working nights as a proofreader.  Veronica is older and ugly, but she has a charisma and glamor all her own: a stubborn unwillingness to bend to popular opinion, a love for shabbiness, a bisexual boyfriend who comes and goes.  Something about her embodies the New York of the 80's even more than the world of modeling and nightclubs that is a beacon for Alison; in another book that might make her a cliche but here she has a kind of vitality that makes us understand what Alison sees in her.  Veronica's glamor, unlike Alison's, is not mediated by men, her ugliness sets her free.  They form an unlikely friendship that is both cemented and challenged when Veronica begins to succumb to AIDS.

The connection between the present and the past in Veronica is highly silly.  We watch Alison trudge through rain, wash windows, play with the children of friends, and ultimately, climb a mountain somewhere in the East Bay to look over the San Francisco skyline.  It's one of those books where a memory lurks around every bend, waiting to pounce: "I look outside and see a little budding tree, its slim black body shining with rain.  Joyous and intelligent, like a fresh girl, the earth all new to its slender, seeking roots.  I think of Trisha, erect and seeking with sparkling eyes."  Do you hear that, Trisha?  You're the tree.  As Alison climbs the mountain, there are more trees, more nature, breathing its transcendental health, and like Alison we climb for no other reason than we know there's a vista, an epiphany, at the top.

But the writing in Veronica is so good that you might never notice how weirdly constructed it is, or how the narrative stalls for pages and pages until the title character comes into full view.  It's luminous in the way that a lot of prose never is, despite the claims of book reviews, full of light and sharp-edged shadows.  Among other things, Gaitskill really knows how to talk about popular music, which I have always found few people do well.  Here's Gaitskill's description of Karen Carpenter:

...the most popular singer was a girl with a tiny stick body and a large deferential head, who sang in a delicious lilt of white lace and promises and longing to be close.  When she shut herself up in her closet and starved herself to death, people were shocked.  But starvation was in her voice all along.  That was the poignancy of it.  A sweet voice locked in a dark place, but focused entirely on the tiny strip of light coming under the door.

What makes it work so well is that Gaitskill refused to tell us exactly who she's talking about.  If we don't know, then maybe the book isn't for us; but if we do we get to see Karen in a new light.  The book, which goes out looking for the spirit of the Bad Old Days in New York City, might have easily fallen into a mash of cultural signifiers; as it is, it's like hearing Karen Carpenter for the first time.  And Gaitskill can do it just as easily for Michael Jackson as for Rigoletto.

Music becomes a symbol of passion without words: the love and connection that Alison feels for Veronica, but can never quite articulate.  It's music in its Dionysian mode, per Nietzsche (sorry), the pure emotion that connects souls.  It's the ineffable grief, too, of the AIDS epidemic, and the only way to fully articulate the size of its loss.

What is Veronica, to Alison?  A harrowing vision of her future self?  That's how the book seems to set it up, at first: the bright young model should have looked better, and seen.  But love will not be reduced to self-regard; Veronica's value is not in the way she reflects Alison but the friendship they build, as weird as it is, outside of the boundaries of social order and good taste.  Probably, the only real friendships are the ones that are weird.  I am not sure that the novel earns its vista, its epiphany at the top of the mountain.  But the climb is worth it: it evoked strong sympathies in me, despite a setting and plot that I expected to feel worn-out.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

The Friend
by Sigrid Nunez

What we miss - what we lose and what we mourn - isn't it this that makes us who, deep down, we truly are.  To say nothing ow what we wanted in life but never got to have.  

The cover illustration, the reviews, and the word of mouth I had heard before reading all led me to believe this was a novel about a woman's relationship with a dog.  It is not.

There is a dog in the novel - there are two actually and at least one of them is real.  But in my humble opinion, the dog is incidental to the true thrust of the novel.  It is the story of an unnamed narrator whose closest friend has recently committed suicide and of the grieving process the narrator goes through.  She has, as a consequence of the suicide, adopted a Great Dane that previously belonged to the man who committed suicide and through the dog works out some of her feelings for this lost man.

The dog, it turns out, is the polar opposite of his former owner - quiet, modest, calm and devoted.  Her friend was a womanizing loudmouth, bitter about the course of his career and increasingly misanthropic.  The narrator does not seem to draw this parallel and her relationship with the dog does not cause her to reevaluate this man in her life.  Apollo - the dog is the only character with a name - simply draws attention to the qualities of the man by nature of the contrast.  The dog's utter acceptance of life and apparent satisfaction draw attention to the woman's emotional angst and sense of loss.

We learn that the sense of loss begins before the suicide.  The man was once her writing professor and they had a brief sexual affair many years earlier, though the man then went on to marry a different student.  She has, in a sense, the better relationship with him. Their friendship is a constant through all three of his marriages and she seems to have a legitimate claim to being the most important woman in his life.  That he is gone has devastated her, but we learn over and over that there was loss in all aspects of their relationship even when he was alive.

Because the man is a writer and the narrator was his student and is struggling with whether to continue writing, the novel is also a mediation on this art form.  There are funny and wild observations about the literary world around New York and cutting observations about teaching college level creative writing courses at this point in time.  Many of these observations are at odds with the existence of the novel, which is self-consciously experimental and beautiful often enough that the notion that literature has become a dead end (a view the man espoused before and perhaps leading up to his suicide) is continually undercut by its own presentation.

Even at 200 pages, the book seems to ramble, with tangents and shifts in direction that are off-putting for the first hundred or so pages.  However, at a certain point the prose and the reading experience begin to work - as does the woman's relationship to the dog and this becomes something of a page turner, alternately touching and laugh out loud funny.

It would not have taken much reflection to conclude that works of art created before 1940 were no longer appropriate to describe the postwar world.  The broken planes of Cubism might have anticipated the destruction inherent in war but they were made irrelevant by its onset.  The dark terrors of the Surrealists were clever ruminations on the unconscious amid the rise of fascism.  But as one visitor to a Surrealist exhibition said, "After the gas chambers ... what is there let for the poor Surrealists to shock us with?"  (165)

"We need, therefore, to go deep down into ourselves, into the depth of our subjectivity, so as to search for a Truth that can revivify and strengthen our certainty that life is useful, beautiful and eternal."  Gino Severini. (151)

Ninth Street Women is a joint biography of 5 women - Lee Krasner, Elaine De Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler - who were central to the creation of an American avant grade in visual arts as part of the Abstract Expressionist movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s whose presence in art history has been diminished by time and sexism.  It is a long, dense, supremely researched, often brilliant and evocative rendering of a particular place and time in American history.  It very clearly establishes that these women, and women generally, have been written out of this history to our collective loss.  It is a very good book but ultimately its strengths are closely related to its weaknesses.

It is over 700 pages long and it gives a thumbnail sketch of each woman's childhood and youth and another thumbnail of their lives after 1958.  The vast bulk of this is about their lives in the years 1946-1958 - the birth and establishment of the school of painting they are associated with.  Gabriel does a brilliant job of evoking that time period - the horrors of the war, the joy that came with its ending, and the slow panic that came with the dawn of the Cold War and the atomic age.  I got a very strong sense of the New York of the time - the energy and the promise along with the tension and the poverty.  As the forties give way to the 50s and that decade comes to an end, the modern consumer society of the 1960s beckons forcefully and we feel the necessity of the shift to Warhol and the Pop artists.  But for that brief flowering of the artist as hero represented by Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and these women the passion of the early New York art world is visceral here.  I wanted to drink coffee at the Waldorf cafeteria and get blackout drunk at the Cedar Tavern, I wanted to crowd into the The Five Spot to see Frank O'Hara listen to Thelonious Monk and Billie Holiday.  If that kind of historical daydreaming does not appeal to you, you may not want to take on 700 pages of it.

One thing that comes across is the dire poverty these artists took on to do their work.  Neither Pollack nor De Kooning sold paintings until late in their careers, and no one sold paintings until they did.  This meant that women like Lee Krasner and Elaine de Kooning needed to become agents and financiers of their husbands careers to the detriment of their own work and Hartigan, Mitchel and Frankenthaler lived from hand to mouth.  This is a portrait of the New York art world before there was serious money involved in it.  The Whitney and MOMA had been formed, but their attention was drawn to earlier generations.  All of the artists in this book dedicated their lives to painting with religious fervor and no reason to think they would make any real living off it.  The ethos is that the artist is a kind of hero who faces down the blank canvas and finds a way to pour her true self onto it.  The artistic struggle is rendered powerfully here.

Gabriel also makes the struggles these women faced as women clear.  While the men in their lives and communities were rejecting many of America's cultural norms, they continued to feel that any serious work - and to them painting was the most serious work - could really only be done by men.  Gabriel wears her own feminism lightly however.  She recreates the world faced by women in this decade and accepts some its norms:  that what women wore was important, that who women slept with was important and that the gossip and infighting that went along with affairs and ambition are important topics.  So the reader is treated to a lot of information about affairs and sexuality.  While this feels very important early in the book, and adds tremendously to the feeling of looking into a real window to the times,  it gets wearing.  Once we understand the milieu these women have helped create, the news of their lives distracts more from their painting than it adds to our understanding.

Gabriel does an excellent job of showing the historical forces that these women faced down to be seen as painters rather than as "women painters" (a clear pejorative in 1950).  In doing so, she misses the chance to discuss them as women painters.  It is odd in a post-theory world of criticism to spend so much time on their lives and art and not get any discussion of the role gender played in their actual painting.  I would have liked some attempt at a feminist interpretation of their specific contributions to abstract painting.  As the 50s start to fade and their careers as painters are established, this volume could have used more discussion of their contributions to art and less about how they were living their lives.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

Justice is a high thing, and that night, when I lay beside Dorcas listening to the rain, I was young, so that I desired high things only.  That, I think, was why I so desired that our guild regain the position and regard it had once possessed.  (And I still desired that, even then, when I had been cast out of it.)  Perhaps it was for the same reason that the love of living things, which I had felt so strongly as a child, had declined until it was hardly more than a memory, when I found poor Triskele bleeding outside the Bear Tower.  Life, after all, is not a high thing, and in many ways is the reverse of purity.  I am wise now, if not much older, and I know it is better to have all things, high and low, than to have the high only.

Severian is a journeyman in the Guild of the Torturers in the Citadel of Nessus.  His guild is widely loathed; torturers rarely leave the Matachin Tower where they are stationed because they are suspected, spit upon, distrusted.  But still, they are a necessary part of the fabric of life in Nessus, the executives of justice who carry out the will of the mysterious Autarch who rules somewhere from his house in the northern wilderness.  For that reason, Severian is committed to the torturer's life, even as a raid early in his life by the rebel Vodalus suggests that justice has other forms and functionaries.  That is, until he shows mercy to a high-born, beautiful, and intelligent captive named Thecla who is caught up somehow in the Autarch's campaign against Vodalus, and is expelled from the tower.  He's not quite stripped of his membership in the guild--like bureaucrats in our world, they shy away from controversy and disrepute--but he is sent to serve as an executioner in a remote town.

The torture that is prescribed for Thecla is a machine called "the revolutionary."  After a painful shock, it turns Thecla's body against her.  She tells Severian that she cannot stop her own fingers from clawing at her eyelids, and he tells her she will eventually tear her own eyelids from her sockets.  That kind of grotesque ingenuity is characteristic of The Shadow of the Torturer, which is as imaginative at worldbuilding as any fantasy or science fiction novel I've ever read.  The citadel, with its innumerable towers and lost rooms, reminds me most of the castle in the Gormenghast novels.  But it's halfway through the book, when Severian begins his journey away from the Citadel, that Wolfe's imagination really launches into high gear.  Severian doesn't get far, not even out of the city: he gets challenged to a strange kind of duel in which the weapons are poisonous flowers.  Along the way, a woman appears mysteriously out of a lake where corpses are buried and becomes his companion.  Shit gets weird.  Wolfe never seems to stop worldbuilding; each new chapter brings some kind of strange new element to be accommodated into our understanding of the world.  Since Severian hasn't traveled much outside his tower, however, it allows us to experience these things for the first time with him also.

We intuit, eventually, that Severian's Earth ("Urth") is a far-future version of our own in which the sun has begun to die and the world seems to be expiring.  Attempts to bring back the older world have filled it with prehistoric animals--smilodons and ancient horses--but it's still dying.  In a gallery of paintings, he sees a picture of the moon landing:

The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape.  It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner.  The visor of this figure's helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

Later on, however, deep in the city's botanic gardens (he's there to collect his deadly flower) he encounters a pair named Robert and Marie who clearly have come from our world, or our era, and who see him as a kind of demonic spirit that they've summoned by accident.  It's a weird moment that's barely explored, but it throws our understanding of Severian's Urth off balance: is it the future?  Or perhaps another dimension?  On top of all of that, Severian has a number of visions that may be real or may be signs of increasing mental instability.  The Shadow of the Torturer is a book that loves the worldbuilding impulse of fantasy fiction, but looks on what it's made with a suspicious eye.

The novel ends with Severian at last, in the company of a flimflam doctor and an idiot giant, leaving the gates of the city.  It seems to end in the middle of Severian's journey, without resolution, but what kind of resolution can you expect?  The novel is gripping (despite what Brent felt), but it's also shaggy, and its weirdness and ambiguities make Severian's arc uncertain.  There is no quest, no sense that, Frodo-like, Severian must learn to find courage and defeat some evil.  It is entirely possible that Severian himself is the evil that must be vanquished.  But it's the novel's refusal to adhere to traditional fantasy narratives and archetypes that make it so appealing, and I had to exert a lot of willpower not to immediately crack open the next novel in the quartet.

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

But to myself I am immeasurable; a net whose fibres pass imperceptibly beneath the world.  My net is almost indistinguishable from that which it surrounds.  It lifts whales--huge leviathans and white jellies, what is amorphous and wandering; I detect, I perceive.  Beneath my eye opens--a book; I see to the bottom; the heart--I see to the depths.  I know what loves are trembling into fire; how jealousy shoots its green flashes hither and thither; how intricately love crosses love; love makes knots; love brutally tears them apart.  I have been knotted; I have been torn apart.

The Waves is the story of six people, three women and three men, from their childhood to their old age.  Bernard is in love with words, and is always seeking to make "phrases"; Neville is a gay man who yearns for a perfect love with a single person; Louis is an Australian anxious about being an outsider; Rhoda is full of anxiety; Susan loves the countryside and becomes a mother; Jinny is a beautiful socialite who loves admiration.

All that's true, but it hardly gives you a sense of what The Waves is, as a novel, if it is a novel and not some sort of extended prose poem or neo-Greek play.  I'm tempted to say that it's structured like a Greek chorus, but the chorus speaks in unison and the characters of The Waves speak in individual voices, one after the other.  It resembles, rather, the forms of strophe and antistrophe, when the chorus splits into parts who speak one after the other while turning on the stage.  Nothing happens in The Waves that's not filtered by a particular consciousness.  Everything is figured as speech by one of these six characters, who go on for paragraphs or pages, all with their own obsessions and needs, but each with Woolf's characteristically abstracted voice.  These speeches are punctuated by scenes, reminiscent of the middle part of To the Lighthouse, describing a seashore landscape from dawn to dusk.

There is another principal character: Percival, a school friend beloved by the six, who ends up dying in India when he's thrown by a horse.  We are treated to the individual griefs of each character, which are elegiac and beautiful, but Percival never gets a voice of his own.  Partly, maybe, because the image he represents--the genial imperialist, the world conqueror, the carrier of the white man's burden--doesn't permit an interiority.  The world of Percival, Woolf suggests, has passed away; in its place is the modern world and modern literature, which are reduced to the interior mind only.

The big theme of The Waves is how individual people--consciousnesses, personalities--become separate from humanity generally.  It's in the central image of the wave, which appears out of the unindividuated sea, only to break on the shore.  (The breaking is death, obviously.)  (And I suspect, though I'm not 100% sure the historical context allows it, that Woolf is alluding to scientific waves, which move through a medium but are not themselves the medium--is a person a movement through the field of humanity?)  Toward the end, Bernard, now an old man, muses,

And now I ask, 'Who am I?'  I have been talking of Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Rhoda, and Louis.  Am I all of them?  Am I one and distinct?  I do not know.  We sat here together.  But now Percival is dead; and Rhoda is dead; we are divided; we are not here.  Yet I cannot find any obstacle separating us.  There is no division between me and them.

The Waves is really a beautiful book.  It breaks all the rules, as great literature often does: it's so ensconced in each of these individual consciousnesses that it traffics in very little plot, detail, setting.  It wouldn't work if Woolf weren't such an expert in representing consciousness with images, providing it with a kind of specificity and solidity that eludes other writers.  Even Joyce couldn't represent the inner consciousness as faithfully or convincingly.  Woolf understood the source of human loneliness, and how it can exist even in a crowd, but what's more, she knew the words to explain it.  That's really something.

Saturday, April 6, 2019

The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz by Russell Hoban

Darkness roared with the lion, the night stalked with the silence of him.  The lion was.  Ignorant of non-existence he existed.  Ignorant of self he was a sunlit violence with calm joy at the centre of it, he was the violence of being-as-hunter constantly renewed in the devouring of non-being.  The wheel had been when he ran tawny on the plain, printing his motion on the grateful air.  He had died biting the wheel that went on and left him dead.  The wheel continued, the lion continued.  He was intact, diminished by nothing, increased by nothing, absolute.  He ate meat or he did not eat meat, was seen or unseen, known when there was knowledge of him, unknown when there was not.  But always he was.

Jachin-Boaz is a mapmaker.  He is talented and his maps are sought-after:

He would sell a young man a map that showed where a particular girl might be found at different hours of the day.  He sold husband maps and wife maps.  He sold vision-and-miracle maps to holy men, sickness-and-accident maps to physicians, money-and-jewel maps to thieves, and thief maps to the police.

He has been hard at work on his masterpiece, a map that shows where everything is that one could ever seek to find.  He gives it to his son, Boaz-Jachin, who seems disinterested in it.  Boaz-Jachin is skeptical that the map could show him everything he might seek.  Can it, for instance, show him where to find a lion, when lions have been extinct for years and years?

Boaz-Jachin's rejection of the map is difficult for his father, who suddenly abandons his family.  Jachin-Boaz moves from the Near East to what we might infer is London, where he gets a girlfriend and a job in a bookstore.  His son minds the store for a little while, but he too leaves, to find his father.  The motif of seeking and finding is obvious here, and the irony of the rejected map is sharp: the son has no map to find the father, and it's not clear what he's looking for when he seeks to find him anyway.  His motivation is at least partly anger, partly compulsion.  He wants to find his father so he can tell him--again?--that he doesn't want his map.  His need is the need of the son to reject the path the father lays out for him.

Before he leaves to find his father, Boaz-Jachin travels to the ruin of an ancient palace, now a tourist site--despite its antique themes and oracular style, the book seems to be set in contemporary times--to study a relief of a king hunting lions.  (The relief that inspired Hoban is one in the British Museum of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal.)  He's struck by one image, in particular, of a lion caught in the wheel of the king's chariot: the lion bites futilely at the wheel even as it brings him up to the king's spears to be murdered.  Boaz-Jachin traces the relief on paper, and then makes a succession of images, removing the spears, then the king, then the chariot.  He frees the lion, and it appears in London, where only his father can see it.  Jachin-Boaz tends to the spectral lion, feeds the meat, talks to it, is nearly clawed to death by it, but he cannot shake it.

In the image of the lion biting the wheel, Hoban finds a kind of symbol of reproduction and death.  Individuals die, but there is a life force that carries on in our children.  It's always the same force, Hoban seems to say, and we are only instantiations of it; our own deaths are difficult but by living we take part in something that extends forward and backward through all of time.  The lion is life--majestic and frightening--and though it bites at the wheel--angry and afraid--the wheel keeps turning. 

I've said before that Hoban seems to never write the same book twice.  But The Lion, his first novel for adults, establishes some of the stylistic hallmarks that I recognize in books like Kleinzeit and The Medusa Frequency: a style that imitates ancient literature applied to modern places and times, a love of inversions ("I have a lion.  I don't have a lion--a lion has me.  A lion hallucinates me."), a compulsion toward personification that reaches its sublimity in Kleinzeit.  If there's a reason The Lion satisfies less than those novels, I think it's because it takes itself a little too seriously; the absurdist humor of the later novels provides a counterweight to their mythishness.  The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz can be a little too pleased with its own turn of phrase.  But the novel is strange and frequently beautiful, and I found its meditation on life, death, and fatherhood to be pretty profound.  In it there are real dangers, real lions.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Orientalism by Edward Said

But the principal dogmas of Orientalism exist in their purest form today in studies of Arabs and Islam. Let us recapitulate them here: one of the absolute and systematic differences between the West, which is rational, developed, humane, superior, and the Orient, which is aberrant, undeveloped, inferior. Another dogma is that abstractions about the Orient, particularly those based on texts representing a "classical" Oriental civilization, are always preferable to direct evidence drawn from modern Oriental realities. A third dogma is that the Orient is eternal, uniform, and incapable of defining itself; therefore it is assumed that highly generalized and systematic vocabulary for describing the Orient from a Western standpoint is inevitable and even scientifically "objective." A fourth dogma is that the Orient is at bottom something either to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol hordes, the brown dominions) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and development, outright occupation whenever possible).

I am a Wes Anderson fan. I love The Royal Tenenbaums; I love The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; I love Moonrise KingdomIsle of Dogs, however, bothered me. I disliked the familiar caricatures of Japanese characters, the roles the Japanese characters fell into v. the American characters, and, in general, the othering bizarre-ness of Japan depicted.

But I had a lot of trouble with the "why." This felt like a good enough excuse to read Orientalism, which has been on my radar for a while. For the most part, I found the answers I was looking for: The Western Academic Establishment others its study of the East. This, in turn, is intimately connected to the colonizing impulse of the West.

A couple of disclaimers, because Said's always disclaiming (1)absolute statements, (2) generalizing statements, and (3) making any kind of boldfaced claims like I just did about his work in that previous paragraph. Disclaimer #1: Said is writing about the Western Academic Establishment up through when he wrote his book in the late 1970s. Although Orientalism still exists today, the Ivory Tower has improved (and this is why we don't really have Oriental Studies but East Asian Studies). Disclaimer #2: much of the Orientalism that Said is discussing is about the Middle East, but his thoughts apply the West's approach to East Asia. Finally, (Disclaimer #3), though he does discuss specific scholars, his study is not about them as specific scholars, but about the discipline in general. (For the nerds out there, Orientalism is very much Foucault-applied-to-Orientalism).

And, to turn back to Said, one more note about generalizations. The root of Orientalism's problems is the impulse to generalize, to treat individual countries, cultures, people as broadly generalizeable:
The methodological failures of Orientalism cannot be accounted for either by saying that the real Orient is different from Orientalist portraits of it, or by saying that since Orientalists are Westerners for the most part, they cannot be expected to have an inner sense of what the Orient is all about. Both of these propositions are false . . . . On the contrary, I have been arguing that "the Orient" is itself a constituted entity, and that the notion that there are geographical spaces with indigenous, radically "different" inhabitants who can be defined on the basis of some religion, culture, or racial essence proper to that geographical space is equally a highly debatable idea.
These generalizing impulses, in turn, allowed Orientalists to see what they wanted to see about people from the Orient. Namely: that the Occident is superior to the Orient. This is so even when Western writers extol the Orient's virtures. Consider, for example, fascination with Asian spirituality. Said shows how Western writers approach it with condescension, with a sense of, yes, you are able to believe that because your civilization has not reached the level of development that my civilization has; how nice it would be if I could be as uncivilized as you and believe such a thing.

So, where the West is rational, the East is mystical; where the West is developed, the East is developing; where the West dominates, the East must be dominated. The condescension, Said notes, is fundamental to Orientalism, because the construct of Orientalism was fueled by and itself fueled the West's imperialism. The academic discipline of Orientalism flourished because policy makers needed "experts" who could help colonizers, but who could also help rationalize colonization.

So Isle of Dogs. I get that there are problems of race far worse than Isle of Dogs. Still, for me, Said's book helped me come to terms with what bothered me about the movie, and other movies with Asian characters. It had to be an American who organized and led the other students because orientals don't lead, they are led. It had to be Western voice actors for the dogs because we don't experience Japan through Japanese people, but via the West. And, this story had to take place in Tokyo--instead of, for example, a fictionalized place--because the film needed to capitalize on thematic strangeness that is already familiar to Western audiences and unique to Western depictions/beliefs of Japan.

This is not to say that Isle of Dogs should not have been made. What to do with a film like Isle of Dogs is a difficult question. Do the problematic aspects of the film necessarily make the film merit-less? Should we boycott a film like Isle of Dogs? And, for me personally, this problem is exacerbated by the fact that I just didn't think it was a very good movie. (And isn't that assessment itself tied to its Orientalism?)

But what about, for example, a better movie, like The Karate Kid, which I recently watched for the first time. Mr. Miyagi's character squarely fits within the orientalist paradigm. But he's also one of a very small number of Japanese American (bonus Okinawan American) characters depicted in popular film. (And an even smaller number in 1984, when the film was made). And one of an even smaller number of references to the horrors of the internment camps. And the orientalism of Mr. Miyagi is not a fluke, the film's plot is dependent on Daniel LaRusso's exposure to Mr. Miyagi as strange and mystical. But it's also a fun underdog story that focuses on misconceptions across race, class difference, and personal journey through self-development. And, should we give allowances to The Karate Kid that we do not give to Isle of Dogs because Isle of Dogs came out in 2018.

For now, I think, my plan is to acknowledge problems, and then weigh them as part of what I consider when I consider a movie. I, personally, could still enjoy The Karate Kid, even with its problems. But, I could not enjoy Isle of Dogs. And maybe that's enough.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

The next morning, I travel the highway north to my Potts reservation home.  I'm having flashes of poignancy.  Everything that I am seeing--the pines, the maples, the roadside malls, insurance companies and tattoo joints, the ditch weeds and the people in the houses--is all physically balanced on the cusp between the now of things and the big, incomprehensible change to come.  And yet nothing seems terribly unusual.  A bit quiet, perhaps, and some sermons advertised on church billboards are more alarming than usual.  Endtime at Last!  Are You Ready to Rapture?  In one enormous, empty field a sign is planted that reads Future Home of the Living God.

It's just a bare field, fallow and weedy, stretching to the pale horizon.

Cedar Songmaker has always known that she was adopted from an Ojibwe family living on a northern Minnesota reservation.  The name, ironically, is not Native at all: it's given to her by her hippieish liberal Minneapolis parents, Sera and Glen.  When we see her for the first time, she's headed to meet her birth mother for the first time, and her birth name turns out to be the much more anodyne "Mary Potts."

It's one of Erdrich's little ironies in a book that has too few of them.  The situation she's set up for herself doesn't lend itself much to irony: evolution, we are told, has begun running backwards.  Sabertooth tigers and archeopteryxes can be found in the yard, chickens are turning back into lizards, human reproduction has become a fraught, dwindling affair.  Cedar, who is pregnant, travels to the reservation to ask about her genetics, not anticipating that her genetics, and her pregnancy, are about to become matters of state interest.  Uncertainty begets violence and violence begets political change; soon an autocratic fundamentalist state is tracking down pregnant women and incarcerating them to maintain control over the precious resource that is the uterus.  Cedar spends the novel evading capture, getting captured, and trying to break free with the help of both her white and Ojibwe families.

The setup sounds so similar to The Handmaid's Tale it makes you wonder what Erdrich felt that Atwood didn't get right the first time around.  Part of the answer might be found in faith: while both novels feature fundamentalist states, Erdrich's protagonist is a committed Catholic convert who even serves as editor of a religious magazine called Zeal.  Visions of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first and only Native American saint, serve as a significant motif, and the novel is scattered with passages from Hildegard of Bingen and Thomas Merton.  It seems strange, actually, next to the lampooned Catholic sourpusses of Erdrich's novels, but the sincerity of Cedar's religion is clearly meant as a counterweight to the shallow opportunism of the state.  Cedar's Ojibwe family, too, turn out to be Catholics.

Of course, there's the Native element too, elbowing in on Atwood.  Such themes seem less present here than in Erdrich's other novels.  But I am considering including this novel in a class I am preparing about contemporary Native literature, and I think it would be a real masterstroke to pair Erdrich's Native future with a novel about the Native past, like James Welch's Fools CrowSo let me talk myself into it a little: David Treuer's long background chapter in his history Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, which covers thousands of years of Native history before 1890, is titled "Narrating the Apocalypse."  Erdrich is keenly aware that the fantasies of dispossession, death, and diminution that keep our eyes on dystopian fiction have already been visited on the Native people of America.  "Indians have been adapting since before 1492," Cedar's newfound stepfather Eddy tells her, "so I guess we'll keep adapting":

"But the world is going to pieces."

"It is always going to pieces."

"This is different."

"It is always different.  We'll adapt."

The crisis of genetics and reproduction, too, has special implications for Native people.  There are laws, Cedar reminds us (because her parents seem to have flouted them), preventing white families from adopting Native children.  What Cedar is asked to imagine is the end of a bloodline that goes back in this country much, much longer than other folks', but for which the end is a much more conceivable possibility.  When Cedar reflects on the way that time, through pregnancy, becomes incarnate in her, it resonates with a different and deeper frequency.  And as it turns out, the apocalypse turns out to be a kind of opportunity for the Ojibwe, who find themselves able to reclaim the land, recently evacuated, that was lost to them in the process of allotment.  What might a collapse of American institutions, American history, and a return to the past, mean for Native America?

Eddy is a really delightful character.  He shares with Cedar pages from his 3,000-plus page book, still being composed, in which he enumerates reasons not to commit suicide.  These pages are often the best part of Future Home, because they seem borrowed from the Erdrich of Love Medicine, who loved holy fools.  He alone has a kind of loving satire that the book sorely needs.  It contains flashes of lovely weirdness: the archeopteryx, the intrusive face of a Big Brother-type on Cedar's computer screen who calls herself "Mother," her Ojibwe grandmother's story about having sex, in dreams, with the devil.  But those moments are too few and far between.  (Supposedly Erdrich cut nearly 200 pages from the manuscript--it makes you wonder if these flashes were once lightning storms.)  Instead, too much is given to the rote plodding of capture and escape, the recycled Atwoodisms.  It has the sort of dispiriting air of Erdrich, tired after three decades of being so uniquely herself, trying to be someone else, and being perhaps a little too successful.