Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Carpentaria by Alexis Wright

When the mud dried...

Claypans breathed like skin, and you could feel it, right inside the marrow of your bones.  The old people said it was the world stirring itself, right down to the sea.  Sometimes, in Desperance, everyone heard the drying mud crack in the vast claypans.  You could hear the ground groaning, splitting its epidermis into channels of deep cuts all across the ground.  It looked like a fisherman's net, except it was red-brown, and it trapped whatever was down below from breaking through to the surface.  It made you think that whatever it was living down underneath your feet was much bigger than you, and that gave them old clan folk real power.  They said it was a good reason to keep on living right where they were.  Keep it right.  Everyone had to keep fighting those old spirit wars, on either side of that, Got nothing, going nowhere neither, Uptown.

The Gulf of Carpentaria is the immense bight between Australia's two "horns" in the tropical north.  Aboriginal communities along it are more numerous than elsewhere in the country; Arnhem Land on the west coast of the gulf, in the Northern Territory, is mostly outstation communities with few white residents at all.  Alexis Wright's novel Carpentaria is set on the east side, along the Queensland coast, in a town called Desperance, where tensions between "Uptown"--the white section--and "Pricklebush"--the aboriginal one--are high.

Both communities, but especially Uptown, function as characters themselves, with collective motivation and agency.  Wright names a few actual Uptowners--there's the mayor, unironically named "Bruiser," police officer Truthful--but mostly, they act in concert and are written about that way.  Uptown gossips, Uptown rages, Uptown schemes.  They gossip, rage, and scheme against "the Pricklebush mob," and the tensions between them are depressingly recognizable from an American standpoint: at one point late in the novel, an aboriginal boy is badly beaten in revenge for a white man's death, though he had nothing to do it.  At another, three other aboriginal boys hang themselves after being arrested for a murder they did not commit.  Much of the tension centers around the recent creation of a mine, which has quickly become the economic heart of Desperance, even as it desecrates sacred ground.

"Pricklebush," by contrast, sometimes functions collectively, but more often is described with its own interior tensions.  Early in the novel, a disagreement over a statue of the Virgin Mary discovered in a trash heap (???) divides the town into two parts, half of whom angrily storm off to live on the east side.  The Pricklebush mob end up, in a kind of ironic twist on white colonialism, literally surrounding the white community.  There are tensions within the aboriginal community about the nature of the mine; many rely on it for work but others are suspicious of its sinister power.  Before the events of the novel, Pricklebush resident Will Phantom led a campaign of sabotage against the mine, before heading out on the lam with a traveling convoy on walkabout through the songlines of northeastern Australia.  Will's actions form the context of much of the novel: the tensions within Pricklebush, the tensions between Pricklebush and Uptown, and the tensions within his own family: his father, Norm, has more or less disavowed him.

All of that makes this novel seem much more ordinary than it really is.  The magical realism is heavy here: early in the book a white man walks into town from the sea without any memory of who he is.  This man, Elias, a close friend of Norm and Will (and perhaps a symbolic suggestion that if white people are going to get along with aboriginal folks they have to divest themselves of a long memory and history) ends up being killed by the mine for reasons that were not quite clear to me; a big chunk of the plot involves the safe passage of his miraculously preserved body to a mystical place in the sea where giant grouper guide boats.  The figures of aboriginal religion are present and real here, and they have as real an impact on what happens as the gods of the Iliad.  One memorable minor character is in love with a mermaid trapped in the wooden bar of his pub.

The writing itself adds to the strangeness.  Wright's style is both wordy and casual, and the mystical nature of the plot is balanced by colloquialisms that ally the narrator with the Pricklebush mob.  Sometimes it veers weirdly into cliche, but cliches that are never quite wielded in the way you expect:

It is important to say straight up that it was no good at all for Elias coming in from the sea empty-handed like he was, and no good being anywhere with an empty head with even less than ten cents' worth of the richness of his own memory anymore.  If you put an empty shell in struggle town, or Uptown like the prickly bush mob called it, expect a ton of bad things to happen.  His was a lethal combination; he would have been better off being an ant under a leaf if he had zilch left, not even his memory for a bit of trade.

Part of me wants to say this really needs editing, but part of me feels that cutting away at it might only make the novel, which is so sui generis, more like everything else.  But it is a lot to wade through for 500 pages, and reflects the novel's overall shagginess and aimlessness.  The conflict over the mine is a macguffin, really; although there's an action movie-like scene where Will is picked up in a helicopter by nefarious badguys, Wright isn't interested in anything like a conventional protest narrative.  The most evocative scenes in the novel are typically the ones in which a character is alone with the forces of nature, or their spiritual analogues: Norm drifting at sea, or through a mangrove forest, Will in the outback or in the middle of a cyclone.  It's in those scenes that the true spirit of the novel, both in its weirdness and affection for this remote part of the world, really comes to life.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Queer Intentions by Amelia Abraham

On the one hand, we have the desire to live differently, to say "fuck you" to tradition, to mainstream visibility, to the institutions that have rejected us for so long; and on the other, we long to feel accepted, to find legitimacy in the mainstream, even if just for our own safety or happiness.  It is this tension that causes us internal conflict, that so often divides our LGBTQ+ community on political issues, like what we should be fighting for, and that left me with countless questions: Was increased acceptance always a good thing? What would happen to queer culture if we did all suddenly decide to live like straight people? And, perhaps most importantly, who would get left behind, especially in the places where LGBTQ+ rights aren't so advanced?

Amelia Abraham, a young English lesbian fresh off an emotional break up, in between journalist jobs, set off to figure out what the world can look like for a young English lesbian, but her exploration expanded to investigate what it means to be queer in the late 2010s throughout the world (or at least the northern hemisphere).  She begins her journey by looking at the issues that hit closest to home for her: she writes about the importance of gay bars to gay culture and how that's changing by interviewing members of a group trying to save her favorite London gay bar from being torn down and replaced by a mixed use development and tries to envision how her life might play out now that same sex marriage is legal in the UK by interviewing a couple of wealthy white married lesbians in California and the first gay couple to get married in their town in England.  She gradually expands her reach: she has seemingly a lot of friends who are drag performers, so she attends DragCon in LA and interviews performers about how RuPaul's Drag Race has impacted the economics and culture of drag; she attends Pride events in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Serbia; she discusses coming out and representation with trans women in the fashion industry; she learns about how Middle Eastern queer people in Turkey meet each other and form communities.

As she travels, she reflects on the tension outlined in the above excerpt.  She shows how a lot of rich white people got the right to marry who they want and kind of stopped caring about what happens next, content to know that if they live in LA, they probably won't be fired for the gender of their spouse.  She discusses the juxtaposition traditional Pride, which started as a riot and continued as a political protest, and the direction Pride is heading, a family-friendly, corporatized celebration, and how some people and places still benefit from and need the protest elements, while acknowledging the benefits of Pride becoming more mainstream (for example: in Amsterdam, one of the sponsors set up a 360 degree camera on a parade boat and broadcast it online so that people around the world who either didn't have Pride events or who couldn't safely attend could feel like they were part of the celebration.  Also, people complain about how corporate sponsorship affects Pride, but Pride events also affect their sponsors by requiring them to have queer friendly corporate policies that their employees benefit from).  One of her interview subjects states it succinctly: "...There are two types of Pride marches now: the celebration of achievements and everything that's been done, like Berlin, for example.  And then you have other Prides - as it should be in Serbia - where it's a protest."

Where Abraham shines is the diversity of her interview subjects.  She interviews trans models in New York City, queer sex workers in Amsterdam, Syrian refugees in Turkey, and a non-binary/genderless poly parent in Sweden who is raising their child with two other people as free from the gender binary as possible, among others.  It's easy and popular for rich white people to talk about lifting up marginalized voices, but it's another thing to actually do it.  If I were writing a book, I'd love to share my platform with an indigenous trans person from Sweden, but I wouldn't even know where to begin to go about doing that.

Overall, Queer Intentions was compelling and fascinating, and I felt that it did a good job of giving queer people space to feel good about the progress we've made (especially in the US or the UK) while encouraging us to continue the fight for those who do not have the same freedoms.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin

White men, he began, made the common mistake of assuming that, because the Aboriginals were wanderers, they could have no system of land tenure.  This was nonsense.  Aboriginals, it was true, could not imagine territory as a block of land hemmed in by frontiers: but rather as an interlocking network of 'lines' or 'ways through'.

'All our words for "country"', he said, 'are the same as the words for "line".'

For this there was one simple explanation.  Most of Outback Australia was arid scrub or desert where rainfall was always patchy and where one year of plenty might be followed by seven years of lean.  To move in such a landscape was survival: to stay in one place suicide.  The definition of a man's 'own country' was 'the place in which I do not have to ask.'  Yet to feel 'at home' in that country depended on being able to leave it.

The Songlines is Bruce Chatwin's account of his experiences studying the songlines of Outback Australia, the central facet of Aboriginal Australian religion.  To the best of my understand, the songlines, which criss-cross the entirety of the Australian continent, are lines that mark the travels of the Dreamtime Ancestors, the first progenitors of the creatures that still live in Australia: Emu Ancestor, Lizard Ancestor, Kangaroo Ancestor, even down to caterpillars and worms.  Each Aboriginal belongs to one of these ancestors' clans--not based on his parentage but, amazingly, the songline where his or her mother stands when she first feels the baby kick!--and an Aboriginal on "walkabout" is tracing the route of his original ancestor, often for hundreds and hundreds of miles.  He's guided by a song which recounts the ancestor's story as it describes the land; the song is the line and the line is the song.

The songlines are sacred and at least quasi-secret; Chatwin encounters a great deal of resistance and suspicion from the people he interviews.  Consider the tjuringa, a wooden board that bears a representation of a person's ancestral songline, an object so sacred and secret it's considered the person's very soul.  To lose or break them is world-ending; outsiders are forbidden to even see them, though that hasn't stopped the British Museum from displaying them, as one person points out.  Chatwin is pretty dismissive of claims that he's poking his nose in where it doesn't belong, most of which come not from the Aboriginals themselves but from white advocates.  He's assisted by a Russian-Australian named Arkady, whose job is to help Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory navigate the legal threats to their songlines.  As you can imagine, when the landscape is an invisible map of sacred paths, railroads and development can be existential threats.  Many white Territorians Chatwin encounters seem to regard the Aboriginals as enemies of progress, and he records a fair amount of pointed and discomfiting racism.

Chatwin tells people that he has come to Australia because he's writing a book about nomadic cultures across the world.  It seems at first that Chatwin gave that project up to write The Songlines, but it dawned on me about halfway through the book that this book is that book.  A monsoon strands him at a remote Outback post, where he turns to his notebooks, and suddenly the book becomes not a narrative of his experience in Australia--or not just that--but also a collection of vignettes from Chatwin's experiences with nomadic cultures in Africa and Asia, as well as interviews with archeologists and researchers, and even passages culled from other authors.  Chatwin's thesis is that human beings are nomadic by nature, and that war and aggression are the hallmark of sedentary societies.  Civilization, in the form of the house, the city, the immobile community--is a mistake.  (He even goes so far as to identify a particular ancient carnivorous cat, Dinofelis, as the ancient threat that caused our ancestors to be nomadic, and argues that war and violence are a sublimation of our struggles with this cat.)

In Australia, Chatwin finds an emblematic nomadic society, threatened and transformed by the forces of civilization.  The songlines, he theorizes, can even be seen as paths radiating from the desert of Africa where humans were born.  These grand theories, while compelling, make me suspicious about whether Chatwin is able to see Aboriginal religion and culture clearly, or if his desire to present a Grand Theory of Nomadism has colored his account of them.  (I was also wearied by his apparent incapability of describing a woman without detailing the size, shape, and movement of her breasts.  What's with that?)  But Chatwin's commonplace book-like account of his travels throughout the world give him a credibility when it comes to his belief in the value of wandering, and he has a knack for presenting a vision of the world in the form of human stories.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr

From her vantage place Sara examined her husband and observed with surprise how thin he was, how his tan seemed brushed on his skin.  If we were to be born again, she thought, we would choose to be born in this house, in that bed that is still unmade.  Born to work this mine, whose name should be the Quien Sabe, and to live in this mountain town of one thousand souls.  To hear church bells at dawn, the mine whistle at noon, and at first dark the jukebox in the plaza.  All we would want out of being born again is this place to live and die in, as we are living and dying in it now.  Then she amended her words.  As Richard is dying in it now, in spite of the hematologist's pills, in spite of me.

"Here they are," Harriet Doerr's novel Stones for Ibarra begins, "two North Americans, a man and a woman just over and just under forty, come to spend their lives in Mexico and already lost as they travel cross-country over the central plateau.  The driver of the station wagon is Richard Everton, a blue-eyed, black-haired stubborn man who will die thirty years sooner than he now imagines."  Richard and his wife Sara have come to Mexico, to the tiny town of Ibarra, to start a new life, reopening the mine that Richard's grandfather once operated.  But from the very beginning we know that Richard's death, six years later, looms over their grand experiment.  It's tempting to say that we know what they do not, but they do know: a doctor gives Richard six years to live, which he completes almost exactly before dying.  Mathematical-minded Richard begs Sara to see things as the are, but she uses a powerful imagination to cling to hope, just as she uses it to fill in the lives of the villagers of Ibarra who can never quite be their friends.  "But inside her," Doerr writes memorably, "a woman not much older than herself stood in a dark, windy place."

I was overwhelmed by the stark beauty of Doerr's writing.  Maybe it's the climate and the geography, but it reminded me of nothing more than Willa Cather and Death Comes for the Archbishop, though Doerr--already in her seventies when this, her first novel was published!--seems much more equivocal about whether a "good death" is possible.  Sometimes Richard's terminal illness produces sharp comedy, as when Sara, in the middle of the night, hires the town's only ramshackle taxi, complete with a caged bird twittering in the backseat, to drive an hour away to fetch a doctor for an emergency.  He's the best doctor in the area, the taxi driver assures her.  The doctor turns out to be an orthopedic surgeon.  But it also produces a elegiac quality that imbues the Evertons' project, which, in another novel, might be the object of stupid-American satricial jabs, with nobility and tragedy.

The impending fact of Richard's death exists in the context of the village, where life is always close to death.  A mentally disabled young boy drowns in the runoff pool of Richard's mine, where he has followed his brother, trying to fulfill a secret tryst.  Another's alcoholism leads to an rough-housing accident, then a brain lesion, then poverty, then murder.  ("Like God," Doerr writes, "the mescal created a man.")  Children suffer in fireworks accidents.  Compared to these things, what is Richard's death?  Something, maybe, that unites him, and Sara, to the villagers, from whom they are otherwise necessarily aloof.  Their housekeeper, Lourdes, hides tokens and charms--a red ribbon along a bookshelf, a thorn in a blown glass lamp--which are found and thrown away.  The villagers respect the Evertons, whose mine has brought the town some prosperity, but they cannot quite fully understand each other.

Doerr, who lived at such a mine in such a place in Mexico with her own husband, might be trying to make sense the villagers she knew at that point in her life.  It's funny, if Doerr sees herself in Sara, how can she "see" the villagers of Ibarra more clearly?  Or is perhaps "seeing" the wrong word--maybe seeing, in this case, is not enough to really overcome the barriers of language, culture, understanding.  But I'm making the book sound more critical than it really is.  The title image, which appears in the book's final pages, is of a series of stones laid at the Sara's door on the anniversary of Richard's death by the people of Ibarra, in imitation of the kind of cairns laid at the seat of an accident.  Like much of the book, it's understated but touching, and complex:

Through the gates she watched trees lose their green and the tile pattern of the driveway disappear.  As she stood next to the heap of stones a miner passed her on his bicycle, then two others coasted by.  She raised her hand and the riders waved back.  But her intention had been to stop them.

Stop, she wanted to call out.  Stop for a minute.  Look through these gates and see the lighted house.  An accident has happened here.  Remember the place.  Bring stones.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Ice-Shirt by William T. Vollmann

The question of who was going to put on what shirt had not been decided; indeed, it remained to answer the more elementary question of which shirts, once put on, could come off; and, more elementary still, of which shirts there were to make.  So the dressmakers were busy drawing and cutting.  Many were measured for bear-shirts; a few, like Freydis Eiriksdaughter, chose the Ice-Shirt and became coldly great.  In Norway, Gunhild's successor King Olaf made many black shirts with crosses on them.  As for the Skraelings, they continued to wear the shirts of beasts, fishes, and stars.

William T. Vollmann's novel The Ice-Shirt is the third of his Seven Dreams series, about the interactions between European colonists and Native Americans, that I have read, and the third book I took with me to Newfoundland.  It's a little bit more tangential to that island than The Bird Artist and The Shipping News: Up at Newfoundland's northernmost tip lies L'Anse aux Meadows, North America's only confirmed site of Viking settlement.  Going there is like confronting a history on a scale that is rare on this continent, going back a thousand years--although that's only true, as Vollmann surely knows, if you ignore Native American sites that are both plentiful and older.  Researchers believe that Newfoundland and points further south, perhaps reaching even into the Carolinas along the Atlantic coast, represent the area that Norse texts like The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Erik the Red identify as Vinland, a utopia-like land full of wild grapes and no frost.  The Ice-Shirt is Vollmann's account of how, exactly, utopia came to be not so utopian.

The book's first half retools several of the legends that appear in those sagas, as well as the Icelandic Eddas.  They're about Eirik the Red and his son Leif, but also legendary kings going back to the second century B.C.E.  In Vollmann's account, the ancient Norse kings used to have the power of transformation, changing themselves in to bears to ravage their enemies, usually with the assistance of bear-shirts.  (In Norse, this word is familiar: berserk, as in to go berserk.)  But at the time of Leif's adventure in North America, this ability has largely been lost, hidden by kings wary of their own offspring, and symbolically replaced a Christianized Norway and King Olaf's missionary zeal.  The exploration and settling of North America becomes a substitute for the transformation of the bear-shirts; the Norse can no longer transform themselves but they can work a kind of magic transformation on this land.  Like in his other novels, Vollmann employs a chameleonic prose that imitates his source material; here it's the winding sentences of Norse legend with their characteristic "kennings": compound metaphors, like "swan-field" for the sea or "corpse-snake" for a sword.

Vollmann pairs the Viking legends with those of native Inuit and Mi'kmaq peoples, often about transformation themselves, including the story of Younger Brother and Elder Brother who are transformed into woman and man, and then the sun and the moon.  The Vikings call the natives Skraelings, and though their interactions between natives and explorers are fewer here than in Argall or The Rifles, reading The Ice-Shirt is a comparatively interesting experience because the narrative distance between us and the Vikings is not so different from the distance between us and the Skraelings.  The identification between Vollmann and the doomed English captain John Franklin in The Rifles is so strong that their identities begin to bleed togetherIn Argall, it's difficult not to feel identification, and accompanying guilt, with the English explorers who brutalize Pocahontas.  But in The Ice-Shirt, the Vikings and Skraelings seen more similar to each other than either does to us.  That distance removes a layer of complexity for the modern Anglo reader, I think, and allows us to see the interactions between natives and Europeans with relative disinterestedness.

On the other hand, the novel gives a frightening and brutal representation of colonialism in the character of Freydis Eiriksdottir.  Freydis, Erik the Red's bastard daughter, appears in the sagas as a courageous woman who helps defeat the Skraelings.  Here, she is something much more sinister and fascinating: a greedy woman who pledges her loyalty to Blue-Shirt, the evil spirit embodied in the ice-sheet that covers Greenland.  "Blue-shirt," like the bear-shirts and various other shirts throughout the novel, is a symbol of transformation, and Freydis' quest is two-fold: to drain Vinland of whatever resources it has to enrich herself, and to bring frost to the frostless land.  Freydis acts out of greed, but her greed is self-replicating, and becomes a kind of pointless malevolence that demonstrates the viciousness and waste of the colonialist.  This exchange, between Freydis and the Mi'kmaq god Kluskap, shows how that works:

He said, "what do you really want?"

"I want to be rich," Freydis said.

"Well, here you are in My country.  Everyone who comes here is rich.  Some of my people say you Jenuaq are rich already.  They don't mind it, but they know what you're doing here.  Your ship is full of timber and grape-vines.  Your men have all the game they want, because they leave good buck-deer rotting for Skofte Carrion-Crow.  I've seen that.  We don't do that here.  Your husband is happy trading milk for skins -- that was a good idea of yours, Freydis Eiriksdaughter! -- and Gudrid and Karslefni have found a place to live, where the berries are as many as stars, and the fish are as many as hairs on your head.  Of course my People are angry about the man you killed, but I can smooth that out with them if you pay compensation.  What more do you want?"

Sullenly, Freydis dug her heel into the sand.  "I want everything," she said.

Wanting to the point of destruction: destruction of land, destruction of strangers, destruction of self.  That's the mindset of the European colonialist, at least at its most extreme, in miniature.  It's certainly recognizable in the rapaciousness of the title governor in Argall.  Freydis gives Vollmann the opportunity to write about this impulse in the language of myth, a vernacular that we have in many ways lost.  The stories of the berserkers are interesting, but it's not until the novel focuses in on Freydis that it really becomes powerful, or engaging.

Like those other novels, Vollmann intersperses the historical-mythological narrative with flashes of the present day.  He's deeply concerned with the way that the colonizing interactions of the past remain present in the culture and landscape of the present.  Here, that means brief narratives of Vollmann's travels to Greenland's capital Nuuk, as well as Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.  I didn't think these parts were as effective as in The Rifles, where Vollmann seems to collapse the border between the past and present by literally becoming Captain Franklin.  In a way, The Ice-Shirt seems to be groping around for the method he invents for that later novel.

I didn't get to start The Ice-Shirt until I got back from Newfoundland, but it was an interesting way or reflecting on the trip.  Vollmann, playing fast and loose with geography, uses Nova Scotia and the coast further south to represent the Vinland-that-was, while Newfoundland--naturally colder and less forested--represents the corrupted Vinland of the present.  That didn't exactly square with my impression of the island's beauty or wonder, but I get it.  I did enjoy seeing a recognizable set of sea arches become an enormous human skull:

Then, walking south across the point, she came to a beach where boulders formed themselves into double arches, like the eye-sockets of a skull, through which the milk-grey sea gazed mildly, while the forehead was flat and green-grown, and though the skull had no mouth the teeth were scattered thickly about: -- smooth pebbles, black, orange, red and white.  Because this was a prodigy, Freydis considered that Blue-Shirt had heard her prayer.  She bowed again, and a cloud-shadow came to the edge of the ocean.  (In those days, as I have said, the shape-changers were dying out, but it was still possible to do quite a bit with prayer.) -- The place is still there today; it is called "The Arches."

See the skull?  No?  Well, look harder, maybe.  As Vollmann would tell you, the past is always present.

Monday, July 15, 2019

North and South (1854)
By Elizabeth Gaskell

 For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay.  It was all the darker from contrast with the pale gray-blue of the wintry sky; …Nearer to the town the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke; perhaps, after all, more a loss of the fragrance of grass and herbage than any positive taste or smell.  Quick they were whirled over long strait, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick.  Here and there a great oblong many-windowed factory stood up , like a hen among her chickens, puffing out black ‘unparliamentary’ smoke, and sufficiently accounting for the cloud which Margaret had taken to foretell rain.

Gaskell is an important 19thcentury social realist and her work is standard fare in the equivalent of high school in the UK.  I chose to read this at the behest of a British friend because I was touring the North of England and he recommended it as an introduction to the differences between North and South England.  These differences are more subtle than the North/South distinction in the US – their wars are far further in the past than our own Civil War, but there are broad similarities:  the center of economic and cultural power was in one region (in England it was the South, centered around London, but including Oxford and Cambridge.   The North is Manchester, Leeds, York and many smaller industrial centers.  It is the region of England’s working class and is very much aware of its second-class image in English life.

Gaskell’s work was championed by Charles Dickens and North and Southwas serialized in Dickens’s magazine, Household Wordsat the same as his Hard Times, which is similar in its look at class issues.  It tells the story of Margaret Hale as she works her way through young womanhood towards marriage while her family loses its place in the South and moves to the factory town of Milton in North Yorkshire.  This allows Gaskell to move among London, a small country town near Oxford, and industrial Milton, populating these settings with characters from a variety of classes and attitudes.  Like Dickens, Gaskell borrows tropes from sentimental Victorian literature, then explodes some of those with careful criticism of social relations.   As a result, the novel follows familiar paths but occasionally surprises with new destinations.  

To begin with, Margaret is beautiful, despite not being as flashy or flirtatious as her cousin Edith, who is getting married as the novel opens.  Edith is from the wealthy corner of the family and has sort of adopted Margaret, whose father is a poor minister assigned to a small, unimportant church in Helstone  (Milton? Helstone?) in order to give Margaret a greater chance of finding a suitable (rich) husband.  This would work beautifully as Edith’s brother Lennox returns from law school and falls in love with Margaret and proposes quickly.  But Margaret is shocked that he thinks of her in such a way – she views marriage as a hopelessly practical and material status. She intends something more spiritual and natural for her life.  She rejects Lennox with shock and anger and he disappears from the novel for about 500 pages.

This prompts Margaret’s return to Helstone and she is looking forward to a life of intellectual contemplation in the natural beauty surrounding an idealized rural village while being of service to her father in his ministry.  However, her father has had a crisis of faith and has left the church. His crisis was initiated by his bishop’s offer of a more prestigious and lucrative position at a larger church and the very idea of ministry as a career with advancement opportunities turns him off on The Church of England.  His response is to leave beautiful, peaceful, verdant Helstone for an industrial town in the North where he can tutor the children of the newly wealthy captains of industry.  It is a decision that makes no more sense to the reader than it does to his long-suffering wife.

In Milton, Margaret meets John Thornton, a self-made industrial leader and owner of the town’s largest factory who has hired her father to help him catch up on the education he never got. She also gets to know the impoverished Higgins family.  Higgins is a local labor leader and one of the masterminds behind a strike for better wages and working conditions.  This gives Haskell a perfect opportunity to stake out some of the intellectual currents of the day:  Thornton is a laissez-fairecapitalist who pities the workers who are too ignorant to understand that the industrial system is good for them; Higgins is a proto-socialist who believes that the Thorntons of the world have some responsibility to the workers and the community; Margaret is sympathetic to both positions – she is opposed to the confrontational nature of strikes and believes that industrialists should adopt reforms voluntarily.

At any rate, Thornton falls madly in love with Margaret and again she rejects him as if the very nature of the proposal is a disrespectful insult.  The shock and disgust with which Margaret responds to these proposals with is puzzling – it is not just that she is opposed to marriage, but she seems shocked that others are not opposed to it.  Here we see Haskell working out her own strain of feminism.  Margaret is reminiscent in this way of Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart in House of Mirth.  But Lily even as Lily resists the pressure to marry, she knows she lives in a world where the only career open to most women is marriage.  Margaret seems to think these men have misunderstood the world.  

However, Margaret’s attitude proves well-placed when a wealthy friend of her father dies and leaves her a vast fortune.  (He has also fallen in love with Margaret, though as an old bachelor his love is more spiritual – he never contemplates proposing).  By this time Margaret’s mother and father have died, as well as members of the Higgins family.  Their deaths are sped along by the terrible pollution of the industrial setting.  She is facing the prospect of being a kind of maid to her cousin Edith – who by now has two children and is happy in her shallow, materialist life.

Around the time that Margaret inherits enough money to be independent, Thorton is driven out of business.   His debts have gotten too severe and he cannot remain open without new capital, but he cannot attract investors because after Margaret introduced him to Higgins their conversations and debates have made Thornton a reformer – he now insists that his factory will provide meals for the workers and grant them some time when they can step out for fresh air.  

I won’t go into all the subplots and incidents that bring the two back together, but when Margaret learns that Thornton is trying to change the nature of factory work (or at least alleviate its worst aspects), she decides to use her new wealth to  become an investor in Thornton’s factory and the two are finally and suddenly equals.

As equals, Thornton and Margaret are free to fall in love and the novel ends with them trying to find the language that will allow them to marry without Thornton having to ask or Margaret having to be asked.  

The novel is long and tedious – I have left out a dozen important characters and several involved subplots.  Margaret is a thoroughly unbelievable character of the type that 19thcentury readers seem to have loved.  As a novel of ideas it is shallow – country is better than city, shallow wealth is inferior to intellectual subsistence, but poverty is really bad. It doesn’t get much more complex than that.  It is slightly better as a novel of social class and a document about the industrial revolution, but even here it is surprisingly undetailed for such a long novel.  The factories are hastily sketched, the actual work going on in them is left to the imagination and the economics that drives people to work for them and makes a small number of entrepreneurs wealthy is taken for granted.  Even the social upheaval caused by this class of nouveau riche captains of industry is merely hinted at.

However, as a feminist document I thought it was fascinating.  Margaret is not as complex as Lily Bart but she is more consistent: she completely rejects the notion that she needs to get married and is happily willing to accept whatever circumstances independence leaves her.  Of course, these are not the dire poverty, back breaking labor and prostitution that millions of 19thcentury women actually faced – Gaskell has created a little wrinkle in the class system so Margaret is protected from the worst possible outcomes of her independence.  And, of course, she does end the novel wealthy and about to marry.  In 19thCentury sentimental novels steadfast faith in a set of moral precepts is virtually always rewarded with wealth and comfort – often the very wealth and comfort the character had been rejecting, so in that way this is a thoroughly conventional novel.  But Gaskell has found a way to get that ending without it involving Margaret bowing to the dictates of her sexist society.  Thornton is much more the beneficiary of this marriage than Margaret is and her desire to be treated as an equal extends to the language the two are wrestling with at the novel’s close.  

Margaret has her moral purity tested in the course of the novel and is forced to bring her pride down a notch – in ways that are similar to Jane Austen’s Emma or Elizabeth Bennet, but never loses her independence – she learns lessons, but is not broken or changed fundamentally.  A reader can almost feel Gaskell’s testing out ways to keep her protagonist both faithful to her self and alive and happy.  The way she finds is contrived and not terribly believable, but it is a fascinating spin on this trope.

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx

These waters, thought Quoyle, haunted by lost ships, fishermen, explorers gurgled down into sea holes as black as a dog's throat.  Bawling into salt broth.  Vikings down the cracking winds, steering through fog by the polarized light of sun-stones.  The Inuit in skin boats, breathing, breathing, rhythmic suck of frigid air, iced paddles dipping, spray freezing, sleek back rising, jostle, the boat torn, spiraling down.  Millennial bergs from the glaciers, morbid, silent except for waves breaking on their flanks, the deceiving sound of shoreline where there was no shore.  Foghorns, smothered gun reports along the coast.  Ice welding land to sea.  Frost smoke.  Clouds mottled by reflections of water holes in the plains of ice.  The glare of ice erasing dimension, distance, subjecting sense to mirage and illusion.  A rare place.

On the other side of the island of Newfoundland from Witless Bay, far up the Great Northern Peninsula, where you can look out at the shores of remote Labrador, and past the very tip of the area known as Iceberg Alley, there's the town of St. Anthony, a couple thousand strong.  This is the place that becomes, in Annie Proulx's novel The Shipping News, the town of Killick-Claw.  A killick is a kind of anchor, and a claw is a claw: it's this town that finally anchors the hapless protagonist Quoyle, and roots him claw-like to the place of his ancestors.  Of course, The Shipping News is the first novel you might think of, if you're an American at least, when you think of Newfoundland, and on our trip we each brought our own copy like the tourists we are:

The novel begins when Quoyle's wife, the horrible and absurdly named Petal Bear, is killed in a car accident, leaving him alone with his equally absurdly named daughters, Bunny and Sunshine.  At about the same time, his aging parents kill themselves in a suicide pact.  This draws his aunt Agnis back into his life, who suggests that they leave dreary upstate New York for Newfoundland and Killick-Claw, where the Quoyles lived before moving to America.  In Newfoundland Quoyle gets a job at a local paper, The Gammy Bird.  His duties there ply his deepest fears: although he's terrified of water, he does the shipping news (hey--that's the name of the book), and on top of that, he's tasked with writing up local car wrecks, which stokes the trauma of Petal's death.

The arc of the novel is easily anticipated.  In Newfoundland, Quoyle finds the home he never had, and a community where he had none before.  Visiting Newfoundland, you can see why it's the right setting for a book like this one.  Its geography, all fingers and fjords, naturally creates hundreds of small and self-sufficient communities; even the smallest towns feel like real places in a way that isn't possible, say, on the prairie.  The Shipping News deals in that comforting myth of home, the notion that, if you can just return to the place you once drifted away from, your life will fall into meaning and order.  (Of course, before Newfoundland, the Quoyles came from Ireland, and before Ireland, who knows, but those details have to be elided for these kinds of stories to make sense.)  It's a story as old as The Odyssey, and The Shipping News isn't immune from the kind of sentimentalism that these stories tend toward.  But it also does a little healthy deconstructing of it.  Yes, Quoyle's friend Partridge calls from California to report on the earthquakes and riots, but The Gammy Bird specializes in car wrecks and sex abuse stories.  Home for Quoyle might be hell for someone else.

When I was eighteen, I would have told you this was my favorite novel.  I was really captivated by Proulx's writing, with its outre metaphors and sentence fragments, from the very beginning of the novel:

Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.

Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence.  Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing.  he ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.

I didn't know you could write like that.  The Shipping News, maybe more than any other book, alerted me to the width of ways the English language could be used, and the idea that a sentence could surprise just by the way it's written.  Reading it fifteen years later (yikes), I found the writing a little precious, aligned with the twee character names: Tertius Card, Wavey Prowse, Nutbeem, Benny Fudge.  I have other gripes, chief among them the feeling that Quoyle's love interest, Wavey, is criminally underdeveloped for a novel about a man who learns that love, in the words of the novel's final line, "sometimes occurs without pain or misery."

But honestly, the novel quickly charmed me for a second time.  The people are so vivid, and the love of Newfoundland and its inhabitants warms the novel.  I love reading books in the places they're set, and few have been as rewarding as this one.  It's steeped in local culture in a way I couldn't have fully appreciated before going there, and it's all integrated in a way that feels organic to the story, which is no small feat.  (Small details abound: the paper's gossip column, "Scruncheons," is named for the pork drippings Newfoundlanders put on cod cheeks.)  I hate saying the idea that we have to "root for" fictional people, but you really do root for Quoyle, whose haplessness becomes competence, and for whom love chases out desperation.  The end comes a little too easy, but it's hard to complain, because it's so richly deserved.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Bird Artist by Howard Norman

I was convinced that birds were kinds of souls.  Not the souls of people but of previous birds whose mystery and beauty were so necessary on earth that God would not allow them to be anything in their second life but birds again.

One of the highlights of the trip I took last week to Newfoundland was a visit to the puffin colony just beyond town of Elliston on the Bonavista peninsula.  Thousands of puffins sit on a rock, separated from the mainland by a narrow straight, and if you can stand the chill and wind, they'll fly over your head before returning to the rock.  I wouldn't say they're majestic--they have to flap their wings very quickly to stay in the air, and it makes them look endearingly clownish--but there's something fascinating about how they have an existence of their own, separated from the human life of the island by only a hundred feet.

A similar colony--an even larger one--exists just off the shore of Witless Bay, the setting of Howard Norman's novel The Bird Artist.  Fabian Vas, the young son of a Witless Bay fisherman, draws and paints them, along with other familiar Atlantic birds: ducks, gulls, gannets, cormorants.  This is in the early 20th century, before photography was widespread, and so Fabian's drawings show the birds of Newfoundland to a wider world.  But life in Witless Bay itself can be insular and stifling, as Fabian's mother Alaric well knows, and she presses him into an arranged marriage with a cousin in New Brunswick named Clara Holly, even though Fabian has long been entangled with a local girl named Margaret Handle.  Alaric herself struggles with what she calls the "sameness" of Newfoundland life, and when her husband leaves for a long fishing trip, she begins an affair with the aloof lighthouse keeper Botho August, an affair which drives Fabian--and I guess I buried the lede here, since we learn this in the first paragraph of the book--to kill Botho.

The Bird Artist is about the circumstances leading up to, and the consequences of, Fabian's crime.  It's also about the complex relationship we have to the place we call home.  Alaric pushes Fabian to leave Newfoundland because she is afraid that he will fall into the kind of loveless marriage she has, but she fails to see how the arranged marriage is exactly the kind of thing she worries about.  Both women, for Fabian, represent a compromise between safety and risk: Clara is the unknown, but she is his mother's choice, sensibly and practically arranged; Margaret is the familiar, but she's an unstable alcoholic prone to fits and grievances.  Margaret, who is addictive, sardonic, and unpredictable, is the best part of The Bird Artist, and the only character who has a kind of convincing life.  Botho August, the lighthouse keeper, is dimly fascinating, but he's too far removed from the life of Witless Bay, and the narrative, to be really convincing.

Fabian is acquitted of the crime, but becomes notorious and ostracized in Witless Bay.  As a path to restoration, the local priest hires him to paint a mural of the local community, birds and people alike.  It's the first time that we see him paint people, rather than just birds, and it's meant to represent, I think, Fabian's way of truly integrating himself back into Witless Bay, of making a choice between home and the larger world.

The Bird Artist is a novel that seems tailor-made for me, personally: it's got birds and lighthouses and remote Canadian islands.  Even still, I only moderately liked it.  It's clever and often funny, but never quite clever or funny enough to be memorable.  It can be weird, but it can also be weirder.  The central moment of the book--Fabian's murder of Botho--never quite makes character sense, but is so vital to the book that it exists as a matter of necessity.  But if you find yourself on a flight from LaGuardia to St. John's, you could do worse.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Island by Alistair MacLeod

The hopes and fears of my past and present jostle and intertwine.  Sometimes when seeing the end of our present, our past looms ever larger, because it is all we have or think we know.  I feel myself falling back into the past now, hoping to have more and more past as I have less and less future.  My twenty-six years are not enough and I would want to go farther and farther back through previous generations so that I might have more of what now seems so little.  I would go back through the superstitions and the herbal remedies and the fatalistic war cries and the haunting violins and the cancer cures of cobwebs.  Back through the knowledge of being and its end as understood through second sight and spectral visions and the intuitive dog and the sea birds' cry.  I would go back to the priest with the magic hands.  Back to the faith healer if only I had more faith.  Back to anything rather than to die at the objective hands of mute, cold science.

I'm going to Newfoundland tomorrow, a trip I've been long planning, both literally and in the corner of my mind where you think about the trips you'd one day like to take.  I've been holding on to Alistair MacLeod's collection Island for years, thinking that when I actually made it, I'd take it with me, only to pull it down to show a friend and for her to point out that the stories in it are about Cape Breton Island, the northern part of Nova Scotia, not Newfoundland.  Oh, well.  But Newfoundland is only a ferry's ride away from Cape Breton--or a fishing boat's hop, as many of the stories in the collection make clear--so let's think of it as a way of launching off.

These stories, which were written from 1968 to 1999, are almost all about the small Gaelic communities that dot the shore of Cape Breton Island.  They're communities where Gaelic is still spoken, at least by older generations, and MacLeod's prose seems to borrow something of the language's oral traditions, or at the very least, it has a slightly antiquated voice that seems in keeping with the disappearing language.  Comparing it to Acadian French and the language of the Mi'kmaq First Nations, MacLeod describes all of them "trapped in the beautiful prisons of the language they loved."  In the last story, "Clearances," a young man travels to the Scottish communities of his ancestors, where the language, and the way of life that accompanied it, have nearly died.  He is Canadian because the traditional sheepherding life died out and sent its would-be inheritors to Canada (and Australia, and elsewhere), and such tragedy repeats itself later in the man's life when, as an old man, he confronts the pressure to sell of his land in the face of mounting clear-cutting and tourism interest in the Cape Breton shore.

Many of these stories, in fact, recount the troubled relationship that Cape Bretoners have with the interest of tourists and folklorists: In "The Boat," the narrator recalls the way his traditional mother was shamed by his father's eagerness to sing old Gaelic songs for tourists.  In "The Tuning of Perfection," the CBC comes around wanting to record the Gaelic songs of man whose sung them all his life, but their demands--to cut them short, to sing them fast--rankle, because they are laments, stories that must be told in full.  Almost all the characters in MacLeod's stories find themselves, even at what feels like the most remote edge of the earth, on the precipice of change, like the lighthouse keeper of the title story who is ultimately replaced by an automated light.

These characters are lighthouse keepers, fishermen, farmers, coal miners.  They work with their bodies and have deep knowledge about animals.  A lot of the best stories, actually, are about relationships with animals: the big gray dog, for example, who gets pregnant and disappears, only to return and accidentally provoke her many grown puppies to kill her owner when he embraces her.  For many decades afterward--in a narrative that borrows naturally from the Gaelic oral tradition--the members of that family believe that sighting a "big gray dog" is an omen of impending death.  Or, more lightheartedly, the story "Second Spring," about a young boy with dreams of breeding his prized cow to a prized bull, only to have her waylaid on the journey by a horny halfbreed he can't stop.  You really get the sense from these stories that MacLeod knows what he's talking about when it comes to the lifeways of Cape Bretoners; the stories aren't just immaculately researched, but really lived.  He convinces with stories like the one of the cow who swallowed a broken beer bottle, which was found in her stomach "completely surrounded by a strange almost translucent knob of gristle," which "seemed to glow like a huge, obscene pearl."

As they live close to the land--and sometimes under it, in the case of the coal miners--they live close to death, also.  MacLeod writes about death with clear-eyed honesty and sincerity, unclouded by irony or black humor.  A story like "The Road to Rankin's Point," in which the young narrator confesses to his dying grandmother that he's been given months to live, might seem mawkish or sentimental, but MacLeod manages to strike exactly the right tone.  His stories often stretch over long periods of time, kind of like Alice Munro's, but he's more interested in seeing his characters at the very end of their lives.  Death and loss here are always not just privately tragic but generationally so, they mean the slow death of languages and communities and traditions, even as death becomes part of the landscape as it does in "The Road to Rankin's Point":

The sharp, right-angled turn and its ascending steepness has always been called by us "The Little Turn of Sadness" because it is here that my grandfather died so many years ago on a February night when he somehow fell as he walked or staggered toward his home which was a steep two miles away.  He had already covered the six miles from the village when he lost his footing on the ice-covered rock, falling backwards and shattering the rum bottle he carried within his safe back pocket.  Now I feel my own blood, diseased and dying, I think of his, the brightest scarlet, staining the moon-white snow while the joyous rabbits leaped and pirouetted beneath the pale, clear moon.

The question, only hinted at here, is: If grandma, living at the top of the hill, will be gone soon, and the young narrator is dying before his time, how long will there be someone left to call the "sharp, right-angled turn" the "Little Turn of Sadness," and thereby remember the man who died there?  MacLeod is interested in that kind of loss, but the stories themselves never seem melodramatic or distraught.  In truth, they're more pastoral than elegiac, interested in the way that people live with the seasons, the bright summers and difficult winters, and the way that such lives breed both joy and tragedies.