Monday, September 30, 2019

The Police Woman’s Bureau by Edward Conlon

Union Square was sad and seedy, three blocks long, one block wide, bordered by old loft buildings and lower-end department stores – Klein’s, Ohrbach’s.  Inside were statues of Washington and Lincoln and the Marquis de Lafayette, and dozens of hopheads and winos who didn’t move much more than the statues.  The thieves could cop here and shoot up in plain sight on a park bench – the mother-with-stroller crowd didn’t favor the place…

Conlon combines a degree from Harvard and a career as a NYC police officer and has previously written award-winning, best-selling police procedurals – notably Blue Blood, his own memoir of his time in the narcotics squad.  While there is much to recommend his latest, The Police Woman’s Bureau, it seems not to be his best work.  

First of all, it is an odd hybrid of memoir and novel.  He has taken the life of an actual police woman (Marie Cirile-Spagnulo, who wrote her own memoir) and turned it into a novel – apparently using her real-life as a model, but changing details when “that might improve the story.”  While much of it rings with the authenticity of a memoir – and none of the writing seems to overflow with imagination – one is left unable to be certain of any particular detail.

Part of the problem is that I lost interest in it as a novel almost immediately – there is nothing in the language to spark a reader into suspending disbelief and there is no overarching arc in the story – it narrates how Marie develops the confidence in herself as a woman and a police officer to survive the hostility of the NYPD of the 50s and 60s.  It is more character study than novel.  To put it bluntly, it reads like a memoir.

However, it is not without its strengths.  Marie does become an interesting character, and the details here of how she made her way through the police department feel important and compelling.  Most of the harassment and misogyny she faces (at work) comes in the form of either doubts about her ability, or sexual innuendo – but there are instances where male commanders simply refuse to have her on their teams because of her gender.  Apparently, Mayor LaGuardia once gave a graduation speech to the female class at the police academy (in the 1950s the bureau was gender-segregated) in which he advises using a gun the way the graduates use lipstick (when necessary, but not to excess) and there are many headlines from local newspapers that marvel at her ability to do this job in ways that are shockingly demeaning.  In addition to this, she survives a brutally violent marriage that personalizes much of the misogyny she finds in the Police Department.

Marie becomes a kind of case study in how to think about feminism before feminism.  Although the word has existed since the early 19th Century, it does not come into popular usage to denote a belief in gender equality until the 1950s – when Conlon picks up his story.  Marie Carrera (his character) never uses the word in relation to herself and is never part of any organized movement for women’s equality.  She seems unaware of the language that would be growing up around the time of her police career, but is never unaware of the concepts that drive that language.  While as a younger woman she doubts her talents as a police officer, she never doubts that she deserves a shot at proving herself.  Conlon supplies a wide range of male and female characters that embody a wide range of attitudes towards gender and seems perhaps overly careful to provide balance – there are good and bad males and good and bad females here.

I am drawn to this view of early, non-doctrinal feminism in part because of my own life with my mother.  A career editor at Woman’s Day Magazine, she did not fight crime, but she did live her weekdays in a traditionally male world – for years she was the only woman getting off the train from Manhattan every evening in our suburban town.  She was enormously proud of her success in that male world and argued for her own equality of opportunity and pay throughout her career.  Yet she refused to call herself a feminist until she was close to retirement in the 1990s and never couched her arguments as anything else but a basic fairness – a kind of even-steven for the adult world.  She seemed unaware of any more general sexism.  Marie reminds me of this generation of women who did not seem to want anyone to notice that they were breaking ground.

The other strength here is the portrait of a fraying New York.  It is a story we all know:  the way deindustrialization combined with white flight and suburbanization to erode the city tax base and its ability to maintain its own basic services at a time when crime was increasing annually and the public life of the city grows increasingly ungovernable.  This story is reflected here in the career of a single police officer who begins her career in the late 1950s.  We see Times Square become a headquarters for sleaze, Union Square become a haven for junkies, and cops become keepers of a revolving door that slows individual criminals down but doesn’t provide much in the way of public safety.  The way this grinds down the characters in the novel, notably Marie, is a depressing but powerful theme. 

There are also some interesting, if shocking details of police work from this era.  The use of the warning shot followed by more deadly shooting after a drug deal or a burglary is shocking.  The way undercover agents follow men they suspect of planning robberies rather than using their presence to warn them away.  The ever-present hints of corruption and laziness among some officers.  They are not new or shocking details, but are related here with a matter-of-factness that gives them a harsh, gleaming reality.   Conlon seems to go out of his way to avoid any discussion of race in police work (except for Irish prejudice against Italian officers), which seriously weakens the portrait here since all his officers seem to have an underlying belief that some people are just predisposed to criminality and that good officers can pick them out on the street.  In other ways his portrait of the police bureaucracy seems unvarnished.

All of this tells me that Conlon’s better work might well be worth looking into, but I could only half-heartedly recommend this volume.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick

He struggled up, disconnected himself from the straps, saw through the port the world below.  Clouds, and the ocean, the globe itself.  Here and there on it matches were lit; he saw the puffs, the flares.  Fright overcame him, as he sailed silently through space, looking down at the pinches of burning scattered about; he knew what they were.

It's death, he though.  Death lighting up spots, burning up the world's life, second by second.

He continued to watch.

The people of the world, and San Francisco Bay specifically, thought the first bomb would be the last.  Not consciously, of course, and there's always the fear, but they organized their lives and minds around it, speaking of it as an inflection point in time, but it wasn't the last bomb, and worse was to come: a series of nuclear explosions that left the world, all of it, in a state of near-ruin.  In the Bay, communities are starting again; people are driving around in horse-driven cars and trying to reinvent combinations of spices that taste like tobacco.  Dogs have learned to talk, but not very well.  In West Marin, a strong and resilient community forms, distinct from faraway neighbors in Oakland and Bolinas, places that before the bomb dropped were only minutes away, not days.  Dick casts this world with an unusually large cast of people, many of whom are worth enumerating, because this is a real ensemble affair:

Hoppy Harrington is a phocomelus, born with tiny flipper-like hands and legs, not because of the first bomb or the later ones, but because of the very not-fictional effects of thalidomide.  Before the bombs go off, he's an outcast, having to beg for a menial job as a TV repairman, but with special powers: a system of electrical extensors makes him quite "handy," and he can see the future.  In a trancelike state, he sees the aftermath of the bombs--a gray wasteland his onlookers take not as a wordly future but a vision of the afterlife--an afterlife in which he wields a kinglike power.  And in truth, in the wrecked world of Marin after the bombs, he becomes nearly all-powerful; he alone possesses the know-how to build and operate a radio tower, and enlarges his physical power by tweaking the electric field of his extensors.

Stuart McConchie is a black TV repairman who works briefly with Hoppy, and who is deeply suspicious of him when others find him weird but harmless.  Hoppy has a vision of him in the afterlife gnawing on a dead rat--which, lo, comes to pass.  Food is scarce, after all, after the bombs.  Stuart's role in the plot is pretty inconsequential, I think, but he brings in themes of race in a way that is unusual for PKD; will the new world be any different for black people in America?  Hoppy Harrington uses society's upheaval to move from the margins of the world into the center, but for Stuart, depressingly, such a move seems not possible; when he arrives in Marin from Oakland, some community members make it clear they don't want black people--coded, again, as "urban"--in their town.

Bruno Bluthgeld is the "Dr. Bloodmoney" of the title.  He is a researcher of some kind who is considered directly responsible for the initial bomb, and is perhaps connected to the later bombs also.  He certainly thinks he is: he both believes that everyone in the world would like to murder him if they could, and that he can manifest nuclear bombs out of thin air with his mind any time he wants.  Both of those things, it turns out, might be true.  He's hiding out in Marin under an assumed name, living as a toothless shepherd, but his kind of power, if it exists, may not be the way of the world anymore, and puts him at odds with the ambitious and megalomaniacal Hoppy.

Walt Dangerfield is an astronaut who, along with his wife, is going to be the first human to live on Mars.  His ship is launched shortly before the bombs go off, and so he finds himself stranded in orbit without anyway to return.  His wife has died.  Over the years, he acts as a kind of world radio, beaming music and conversation, down to those with working radio towers.  He's a pretty obvious stand-in for God.  Hoppy's plan is to use his radio tower to kill Dangerfield--with a kind of sonic beam or something?--and then to replace him with a practiced imitation, to become God.

Finally, there's Edie and Bill Keller.  Edie is a normal seven-year old girl, and Bill, of course, is the shrunken homunculus of her twin brother who lives inside of her body.  Everyone thinks Bill is imaginary, but he's not; he's "a terribly old, wizened thing," "hard and small, floating... [l]ips overgrown with downy hair that hung trailing, streamers of it, wispy and dry."  He can swap bodies with other creatures if Edie presses her side to them, and obviously, he can talk to the dead.

One of my favorite parts of Dr. Bloodmoney is so silly I can barely believe it's in there: Bill Keller, correctly identified by Hoppy as a threat, is torn out of his sister by Hoppy's electrical powers and launched into the sky, where he is devoured by an owl.  He flies around as an owl for a little while, and then vomited out like a pellet.  It seems impossible, but Dr. Bloodmoney might be the most unshakably weird book of Dick's that I've ever read.  Dick never could write a book about one weirdo in a normal universe; there always have to be two or three at least, and this novel really takes that dictum to its maximum.  It's made of such disparate parts all stitched together that it seems like it should be a horrible mess, but it all holds together.

And what keeps it together is the frank terror of the idea of a post-nuclear world.  As Dick writes in his afterword (how awesome to have a window into the thinking behind gonzo books like these), it's actually an "extremely hopeful novel."  Society is not murdered by nuclear war; it remains in the form of small communities, banded together.  Industry and technology are not obliterated but merely retarded; this is not The Road, where the best people can do is stack rocks and make fire.  There is even the impartial suggestion that worldwide crisis can help spur society to reorganize itself.  While Hoppy is clearly a monster, we're told that other phocomeli are also prized as "handymen" by their communities.  Dick points to Bluthgeld as the real villain of the story: the kind of person who believes they have the right to provoke catastrophe in the world of others merely because they have the ability.  Bluthgeld's ability to create bombs out of nowhere seems to me like a representation of the egos of Cold War leaders, who had the audacity to believe that they were capable of administering nuclear arsenals.  Human decency is better represented in the figure of Stuart McConchie, who opens the book by humbly sweeping the stoop of the TV repair shop.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

I was definitely more together than I was at the start of the summer.  It didn’t seem like that much time had passed, but I had to be a bit smarter.  Just a little.  Look at the way I was last Labor Day.  An idiot!  Fifteen looks at fourteen and says, That guy was an idiot.  And fifteen looks at eight and says, That guy knew so little.  Why can’t fifteen and three quarters look back at fifteen and a half and say, That guy didn’t know anything.

I had read Whitehead’s award-winning The Underground Railroad last year and was planning on trying his new one, Nickel Boys this fall, and I certainly still will, but my son read Sag Harbor and left it on my desk one afternoon when he had finished it.  I thought I would give it a try and almost from the first sentence (“First you had to settle the question of out.”) I was hooked.  Sag Harbor is a coming of age novel set in the black vacation enclave on eastern Long Island of the title.  It is sweet and slightly bitter, with glimpses of the serious just visible through the goofiness and the laugh-out-loud fun.

Benji and his brother Reggie are having their usual summer vacation except that this year their parents have decided they are old enough to be there alone during the week and only come out for the weekends.  Benji relates their adventures and misadventures with charm and energy in a voice that makes the frequent tangents into neighborhood history, music appreciation, teenage power dynamics and male ritual thoroughly enjoyable.  The novel is set in the mid-eighties (after my time) and it captures this period and its Long Island environs brilliantly, with many guest appearances by Hamptons folk and a special guest appearance by Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam Crew.  

The boys are all from prosperous black families and attend private or suburban schools – so that for most of the year they are the only black kids in their social circles.  They are learning to be teenagers, trying to learn to be men, but they are also specifically black teenagers trying to learn to be black men.  There is a deceptiveness to the humor and sweetness that dominates the portrayal of this communal growth, but the humor and nostalgia dominates.  We are given a chart that explains how black teens insult each other, explanations for how to deal with your parents’ nosy friends, confessions about enjoying music that is silly and soft and long discussions of how to deal with peer pressure and girls.  There are moments when the seriousness of the future stains the nostalgia a darker, sharper tone of sepia – when the boys fool around with BB guns, Benji lets us know that for some of them this is their first of several encounters with guns; the freedom from parents morphs into a growing knowledge that the family is falling apart while Benji’s father’s loquacious authority after a drink  edges toward bullying.

Much of this sense of foreboding comes from the fact that Benji knows this will be his last summer at Sag.  Like his older sister and all of the other teens from other families, sixteen year olds do not come out, but get summer jobs or internships and hang out in the city with their school friends.  The passage I quote above is from the last paragraph of the novel and by then you know Benji (who has been trying for 360 pages to get everyone to drop is childish name and start calling him Ben) is unreasonably confident in his future even as he is unreasonably anxious about his present.  His plans for 10th grade will fall apart with the same exactitude his plans have been falling apart all summer.  In fact, we know from the various hints he has dropped, that he is moving into a much more difficult future, that Sag Harbor has been an annual respite from the real world, a respite he will no longer have.  In another writer’s hands, this sense of foreboding could dominate the end of the novel, but I felt mostly gratitude that I got to spend Benji’s last summer of childhood with him.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Household Words by Joan Silber

Now he slept in her brain like a worm in an apple, and fed off her mental processes; this was what it meant to be eaten away by grief.  Only this wasn't grief--she was past the pain of fresh mourning, wasn't she?--this was the slow erosion of personality by the habitation of some other.  It was most like those mothers who died from toxemia carrying dead fetuses within them.  She was sorry she had ever let her life be so linked, so ingrown, with that of another person.  It was too late to escape now, but she was certainly sorry she'd ever had children; they were like the past, they clung and clung.

In the 1940's, Rhoda Taber is young and relatively happy, married to a successful pharmacist.  "She couldn't help feeling contempt when she saw people who would choose misery," Silber writes, when Rhoda sees a "bum" at the Jersey Shore, "carrying it with them like an unattractive feature they made no attempt to conceal."  A detail like that is a death sentence, you know, calling misery down on the character's head.  And at first it seems like the misery that will seize Rhoda will be of the ordinary suburban type, the realization that being married and having children will not make her fulfilled, and that's part of it, sure.  But the narrative shifts dramatically when Rhoda's husband Leonard dies of a heart attack in the middle of the night, leaving her as a single mother with two children.

I was surprised to flip to the copyright page and see that Household Words was written in 1980.  It seems so much more like the kind of suburban panic novel that was popular twenty or thirty years earlier, like a book by John O'Hara or John Cheever or Richard Yates.  Maybe it took that long for the novel to become something women could write about women, also, an affirmation that what Emerson said about "the mass of men" leading "lives of quite desperation" is as true--perhaps moreso--for women than men.  But in any case, it has a sort of aggressive realism that seems very antiquated; there are no metanarratives, no pyrotechnics.  Household Words is remarkable--to the extent that it wants to be remarkable at all--in the sharpness of the character drawing and the solid plainspokenness of its prose.

It's also remarkable in that it's very, very bleak.  Rhoda, having grown older and become chronically ill, perpetually in conflict with her rebellious daughter Suzanne, marvels that her life has been made up mostly of unpleasantness and misery.  And she's not wrong.  But it's hardly misery on a grand scale--she's not a refugee of war or a starving child.  Rhoda has been unlucky but not spectacularly so.  Her life is both ordinary and miserable, and that seems like the point: the ordinary life is frequently miserable.  Silber pointedly avoids any sort of grand resolutions; Rhoda neither finds love again after Leonard's death or ultimately reconciles in any meaningful way with Suzanne.  When life ends, as it does for Leonard, it rarely does so in a way that allows loose ends to be tied up or grand statements to be made.  Call it the life-sucks-then-you-die school of philosophy.

I enjoyed Household Words, if that verb is appropriate.  It seemed scarier to me than any Grand Guignol gothic novel, because its monsters are so ordinary.  And in doing so I found it much more effective than those older, similar novels, which often seem to think that ennui is the biggest punishment the world can wield, bigger than grief or illness or death.  Or, thinking about novels like Appointment in Samarra and Revolutionary Road, they seem to belief that death is the consequence of ennui, or disillusionment, rather than the destructive and random force it is.  Household Words, by contrast, refuses to offer a neat or circular narrative that might suggest it's all fictional.  Instead, Silber suggests it's all too real.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

But while I was sitting down, I saw something that drove me crazy.  Somebody'd written "Fuck you" on the wall.  It drove me damn near crazy.  I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they'd wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them--all cockeyed, naturally--what it meant, and how they'd all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days.  I kept wanting to kill whoever'd written it.  I figured it was some perverty bum that'd sneaked in the school late at night to take a leak or something and then wrote it on the wall.  I kept picturing myself catching him at it, and how I'd smash his head on the stone steps till he was good and goddam dead and bloody.  But I knew, too, I wouldn't have the guts to do it.  I knew that.

Yesterday, millions of young people from all over the world took part in an international climate strike.  They left school, or didn't show up, in order to march and demonstrate, to remind their elders, those with power, who exactly would be left holding the bag when climate change ravages the earth.  It was really something to see.  On Twitter--I'm not going to link it--I saw a guy remark, "They're fortunate I'm not their teacher. Anyone skipping class today without a legitimate doctor's note would get a zero averaged into their grade."  When pressed, he elaborated, saying, "Kids don't HAVE choices.  They're kids."  To which I say, yeah, any kid should count themselves fortunate not to have that guy as a teacher.

Of course, that guy probably doesn't believe in climate change in the first place.  But there are plenty of people, including teachers, who think like this: the process of "getting an education" is so important that there is no valid reason to not be in school ever, as if informed citizenship and activism weren't what education is meant to lead kids toward in the first place.

It made me think of Spencer, Holden Caulfield's history teacher at Pencey Prep in The Catcher in the Rye.  Holden, having been expelled from Pencey, goes to say goodbye to him, which Spencer uses as an occasion to hector Holden about his study habits.  He reminds him of a crappy essay he wrote about Egypt, and agrees with the headmaster, who has told Holden, "Life is a game one plays according to the rules."  Whenever I teach The Catcher in the Rye--which I have every year for a decade, though I rarely reread it all the way through like I did this year--I ask my students to evaluate this idea.  Most of them are in blithe agreement with Spencer: Holden really ought to have studied more and applied himself.  Why wouldn't they agree?  Studying and applying themselves is what got most of the students into the schools where I've taught in the first place.

But for me, and for Holden, this idea is horribly condescending, even fascistic.  In a note appended to his essay, Holden admits that he can't find it in himself to get interested in the ancient Egyptians.  Spencer might respond by offering some reasons why Holden might find the ancient Egyptians relevant or meaningful.  But instead he, like the headmaster before him, gestures toward a set of unspoken "rules" that Holden has violated.  The Egyptians aren't worth studying for their own sake, it's clear, but because Spencer has instructed Holden to study them.  They might as well have been Etruscans or Martians.  The point is not for Holden to learn about Egyptians but for Holden to learn how to conform to the expectations of polite society, for which the promised reward is bourgeois satisfaction.  Holden's absolutely right: life seems like a game if you're a "hotshot," but if you get on the "other side," this way of looking at life begins to seem like a horrible prison.

All that's to say, I have no sympathy for Holden's haters.  Every couple of months on Twitter someone starts a HOT LITERARY TAKE thread and the first six or seven replies are all by people who think Holden Caulfield is "whiny."  One tweet in that thread calls him "a school shooting waiting to happen."  (Mixed in are people who bravely think that Hemingway was a chauvinist and that adults should be allowed to read Young Adult novels.)  This position has always seemed, to me, to be a kind of conformity dressed up as iconoclasm, not least because everyone is saying the same thing.  Holden's hardly a perfect mouthpiece for these ideas--he is, above all else, a teenager, and shares with Huck Finn a kind of half-understanding of his own deep principles--but he correctly diagnoses that there is something rotten at the heart of the modern world, something high school graduates might label with words like "elitism" or "capitalism."  Part of the reluctance to credit Holden's discernment, I think, has to do with his whiteness, his wealth, his maleness.  ("But isn't he a hot-shot?" my students always ask.  "Yes," I say, "but does he pretend not to be?")  I think that fails to deal with his own clear ambivalence about money, for one--look at the way he insists on divesting himself of money to the nuns in the diner, or the guilt he feels when his roommate tries to pass Holden's suitcase off as his own.

But also, I'm just flabbergasted that those folks can't drum up sympathy for a teenager--white and wealthy and male as he may be--who is clearly on the precipice of a nervous breakdown.  Several times throughout the course of the novel, Holden feels as if he is going to disappear while he's crossing the street.  People he speaks with beg him to either lower his voice or speak up, but he's not even able to acknowledge that he's speaking strangely.  My students usually, and correctly, trace Holden's instability back to the death of his brother Allie, which has happened years before the narrative begins.  I had forgotten about this gut-wrenching memory of Allie's grave:

I certainly don't enjoy seeing him in that crazy cemetery.  Surrounded by dead guys and tombstones and all.  It wasn't too bad when the sun was out, but twice--twice--while we were there it started to rain.  It was awful.  It rained on his lousy tombstone, and it rained on the grass on his stomach.  All the visitors that were visiting the cemetery started running like hell over to their cars.  That's what nearly drove me crazy.  All the visitors could get in their cars and turn on their radios and all and then go someplace nice for dinner--everybody except Allie.

Allie's death really is at the root of Holden's instability, but also his wisdom.  What's the point, after all, of following the "rules of the game" and receiving your bourgeois satisfaction in return, if you're going to die, and if, what's worse, children die, too?  The "game" makes promises it can't keep; Allie didn't even get to play it.  Why should anyone give a fuck about the ancient Egyptians when leukemia is killing kids?  In Holden this manifests as a mordant preoccupation with children, an intense need to freeze childhood innocence and ward off the attendant forces of growing up.  As his former teacher, Mr. Antolini, tells him, such a response can only end in his own destruction.  As painful as it is, some kind of bargain has to be made with the phonies, because there is no meaningful life outside of social pressure.  That doesn't make him wrong.

In this whole post, I'm making a categorical error I try to get my students to avoid: I'm talking about Holden as if he's a real person, not a construct invented by Salinger.  It's a testament to Salinger's novel and its pitch-perfect voice that we all want to take Holden seriously as a person, whether we hate him or love him.  There's a long and fraught history of people taking Holden at face value and lionizing him--you know, like Mark David Chapman--but the opposite impulse is just as bad.  I don't think "You're not SUPPOSED to like him" is any more convincing or accurate than the takes about him being whiny.

I like Holden a lot.  It might be because I have been fortunate enough to know a lot of teenagers.  All of them deserve the right to observe, for the first time, that life is not inherently fair and that society as we have made it frequently unjust.  They deserve the right to figure out for themselves how to respond to those facts.  And they deserve more teachers like Mr. Antolini (even if Holden gets freaked out by his physical intimacy) and fewer teachers like Mr. Spencer.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer

There is nothing without failure, until the day the Future is achieved.  It is the only success.  Others--in specific campaigns with specific objectives, against the pass laws, against forced dispossession of land--would lead to piecemeal reforms.  These actions fail one after the other, they have failed since before we were born; failures were the events of our childhood, failures are the normal circumstances of our adulthood--her parents under house arrest, my father dead in jail, my courting done in the prison visiting room.  In this experience of being crushed on individual issues the masses come, as they can in no other way, to understand that there is no other way: state power must be overthrown.  Failure is the accumulated heritage of resistance without which there is no resolution.

In one scene in Burger's Daughter--Nadine Gordimer's novel about a South African woman struggling with the burdensome legacy of her father, a white Marxist leader who died in prison--the protagonist, Rosa, sees a black African man beating a donkey.  She is outraged, upset, but refrains from intervening, though she knows she could:

I had only to career down on that scene with my car and my white authority.  I could have yelled before I even got out, yelled to stop!--and then there I would have been standing, inescapable, fury and right, might, before them, the frightened woman and child and the drunk, brutal man, with my knowledge of how to deliver them over to the police, to have him prosecuted as he deserved and should be, to take away form him the poor suffering possession he maltreated.  I could formulate everything they were, as the act I had witnessed; they would have their lives summed up for them officially at last by me, the white woman--the final meaning of a day they had lived I had no knowledge of, a day of other appalling things, violence, disasters, urgencies, deprivations which suddenly become, was nothing but what it had led up to: the man among them beating their donkey.

This moment stood out to me because it resonates with so much of what we have seen in America in the last few years.  (Not that it didn't exist before, but now we, or just I, am seeing it.)  It resonates with moments that seem to occur every few months, when a black person is killed, maimed, or just humiliated at the hands of a policeman or a white busybody with a cellphone or a gun.  Like Rosa's imagined intervention, in each moment a white person manages to "sum up" a person's entire life, to reduce them to a final moment.  Eric Garner sold cigarettes illegally; Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were "no angels."  These narratives, selected and fashioned by white violence, become "the final meaning" of other "violence, disasters, urgencies, deprivations" in which the narrative is not interested.

For Rosa, who is aware of the immense difference in power she and the man possess, the moment encapsulates the intractable difficulty of white allyship, white radicalism, in South Africa.  Her father, whose stature among South African radicals is so great many call him "our Lenin," failed to recognize any tension or difficulty at all, and that's part of his legacy: in his house and life black Africans moved freely with whites.  He was able to, she explains, because of his Marxism; he believed that the central problem in South African life was that the wealthy crushed both black Africans and poor whites, and denied that racism is something that was "bleached into the skin."  Burger's Daughter, in fact, can be read as a long meditation on just that question, a question that dogs leftists in the United States today: Is racism merely the window dressing, the "superstructure," of economic oppression, or does it have its own material existence?  At a party in Soweto, a black radical obliquely dismisses Lionel Burger's legacy: "Our liberation," he says, " cannot be divorced from black consciousness because we cannot be conscious of ourselves and at the same time be slaves."  In this formulation there is no room for Rosa, or for Lionel, and Rosa is not so sure the man is wrong.

Rosa, no less empathetic than her parents, suffers from crises of conscience that her father waved away.  His legacy has become a burden that she could never fulfill, even if she wanted to, even if she weren't ambivalent where he had certitude, and even if she weren't a "named" person, watched by the government for signs of sedition.  "I don't know how to live in Lionel's country," she writes after meditating on the man beating his donkey.  Later, she makes her motivation more personal and more plain: "I wanted to know how to defect from him."  In the end she makes a pact with an Afrikaner nationalist, who helps her procure a passport.  She goes to France, where she stays with her father's first wife, a radical-turned-libertine, and eventually to England, where she runs into an old friend, an African man who lived with the Burgers as a child and was called Baasie--"Bossy," until his father was killed by the police.  She's thought about him often, wondering if he was even alive, but her delight is tempered by his own bitter memories:

Tell them how your parents took the little black kid into their home, not the backyard like other whites, right into the house.  Eating at the table and sleeping in the bedroom, the same bed, their little black boss.  And then the little bastard was pushed off back to his mud huts and tin shanties.  His father was too busy to look after him.  Always on the run from police.  Too busy with the whites who were going to smash the government and let another lot of whites tell us how to run our country.  One of Lionel Burger's best tame blacks sent scuttling like a bloody cockroach everywhere, you can always just put your foot on them.

This moment is searing, accusing, shocking.  It's utterly convincing as rhetoric--it's hard to imagine Gordimer could write that perspective so convincingly unless, like Rosa, she possessed a deep-seated fear that it's all true, that white radicalism is still, at its heart, whiteness.  And so what is a white to do?  Ironically, it's this speech that compels her out of her paralysis, and sends her away from her new French lover, back to South Africa, where she works not as a seditionist but a physical therapist.

When I remember Burger's Daughter, I'm going to remember those two moments: the man beating his donkey and the sharp-toothed accusations of Baasie.  There's a lot strung between those two moments, though, nearly 350 dense pages that can often feel talky and motionless.  Rose-twitter DSA folks who are already fluent in the language of 20th century Marxism will have a leg up, because a lot of the book is taken over by jargon-laced argument between various radicals.  Rosa's experience in France, among fun-loving aesthetes who consider themselves more or less above politics, I found rather boring.  I really missed the urgency of July's People, a shorter book with similar themes, the sense it gives of hurtling toward doom.  Burger's Daughter, on the other hand, wants to capture something of the endless waiting of racial radicalism, the sense that every step forward is essentially a failure, until the real Revolution occurs.  For that reason it can feel, as it means to feel, stuck in the mud.  But every now and then it looks something difficult and terrible straight in the face, and for that it's worth reading.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

You can make him do nothing for long periods.  You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room.  All the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, 'I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.'  The Christians describe the Enemy as one 'without whom Nothing is strong.'  And Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man's best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.

C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters takes the form of a series of messages sent by Screwtape, a mid-level functionary in the hierarchy of demons, to his nephew Wormwood, a neophyte who is tasked with working on a "patient" to corrupt his soul and bring him to hell.  Lewis' depiction of hell as a kind of immense bureaucracy is fairly inspired--unlike God, it's the demons who stand for hierarchies of all kinds, and who treasure the kind of affectless banality that bureaucracies promote.  As Screwtape notes in the above letter, directing the patient's attention to nothing at all is as good as directing it toward lust, avarice, or wrath.  Pleasures of all kinds, Screwtape advises, always run the risk of directing the patient toward "the Enemy," that is, God, who "has filled His world full of pleasures."

The Screwtape Letters is at its most interesting when it is counterintuitive.  In one letter, Screwtape advises Wormwood not to get too excited over the threat of war that is consuming the European continent.  (The letters were written in the early years of World War II.)  Yes, war induces both "tortured fear and stupid confidence," which are "desirable states of mind."  It also makes a man "hag-ridden by the Future," and terrified to live in the present as the Enemy desires.  But war, too, awakes people from "moral stupor."  "In peace," Screwtape writes, "we can make many of them ignore good and evil entirely."  Counterintuitive, too, is Screwtape's delight that Wormwood's patient has become a Christian, because the church is where hypocrisy and self-satisfaction flourish best.

It's interesting, reading The Screwtape Letters at this point in my life.  Like The Inferno it offers a highly stylized version of the world of Satan; it makes no claims to be Biblically or theologically accurate, but it seeks to offer certain metaphorical truths through imagination.  As a teenager, I would have accepted wholeheartedly some unquestioned assumptions about the operation of God and His enemies present in The Screwtape Letters: for instance, that there is a real, metaphysical battle over individual souls.  I would have accepted that the state of the individual soul is of utmost importance, and that it must always be guarded for some quality that is constantly tipping toward God or toward Satan, that it is important that a Christian get his or her heart right.  But I'm no longer happy with those assumptions.  I wonder if The Screwtape Letters is easier to read as a committed atheist than a progressive Christian.

Of course, none of that is really important.  It doesn't really matter much to Lewis' project whether demons exist at all.  Rather, The Screwtape Letters is interested in advancing a certain perspective on the human world and its virtues and vices.  It wants us not to be distracted by the humdrum realities of everyday life, or to be "knit to the world" by our prosperity.  It wants us to reject "materialism"--the idea that only the material world exists--and set our attention to the spiritual world.  In classic Protestant fashion, our attention is of the utmost importance.

It's also fun, and funny.  I particularly liked the suggestion that Screwtape, once Wormwood loses control over his patient, is going to eat his nephew as punishment.  The last letter is signed, "Your increasingly and ravenously affectionate uncle, SCREWTAPE."

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I read Anne Lamott's writing advice book Bird by Bird in 2008, and then again in 2017.  I thought I might make it summer reading for my senior fiction writing class--I thought kids might appreciate its warmth, its breeziness--but that meant I needed to read it again.  I don't really want to review it a third time, so here's a collection of interesting thoughts on writing from Lamott, which I'm writing down here in case I want to use them in my class later:

I understood immediately the thrill of seeing oneself in print.  It provides some sort of primal verification: you are in print; therefore you exist.  Who knows what this urge is all about, to appear somewhere outside yourself, instead of feeling stuck inside your muddled but stroboscopic mind, peering out like a little undersea animal--a spiny blenny, for instance--from inside your tiny cave?

"Do it every day for a while," my father kept saying.  Do it as you would do scales on the piano.  Do it by prearrangement with yourself.  Do it as a debt of honor.  And make a commitment to finishing things."

I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer.  Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.  You wait and watch and work: you don't give up.

The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.

E. L. Doctorow once said that "writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.  It is ino wonder if we sometimes tend to take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously.

The first draft is the child's draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.  You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page.  If one of the characters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?" you let her.

Writing a first draft is very much like watching a Polaroid develop.  You can't--and in fact, you're not supposed to--know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing.  First you just point at what has your attention and take the picture.

But something must be at stake or else you will have no tension and your readers will not turn the pages.  Think of a hockey player--there had better be a puck out there on the ice, or he is going to look pretty ridiculous.

You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind.  The rational mind doesn't nourish you.  You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true.  Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating. don't always have to chop with the sword of truth.  You can point with it, too.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

When Brooklyn Was Queer.

 By Hugh Ryan

New queer history is being written; old queer history is being restored to its proper place.  Let us hope that this time, it is written in indelible ink; in sweat and blood; in hopes and tears; in letters one hundred feet tall that will never be forgotten.

In 1855, Brooklyn, Walt Whitman, and homosexuality were all being ignored.  Brooklyn was a small suburb of its larger, more vibrant neighbor; Whitman had written for newspapers and published his only novel; homosexuality was all around, but rarely acknowledged.  In this excellent social history, Hugh Ryan takes the publication of Leaves of Grassthat year as his starting point and charts with admirable depth and even more admirable zest the history of queer life in Brooklyn.  

He uses the word “queer” because he is interested in virtually any deviance from mainstream sexuality.  At one point or another he gives detailed accounts of the lives of sex workers, transsexuals, transvestites, effeminate men and masculine woman.  The book spends almost as much time on the lives of lesbians as it does on gay men and is wonderfully clear about the different forms their oppression took and their different responses to it.

If there is a weakness in the book it is its tight focus on Brooklyn, which is in service to a thesis that states that Brooklyn – and in particular the Brooklyn waterfront – is key to understanding the history of queer America.  There are times when Ryan seems to be bending his narrative out of shape to stay focused on Brooklyn, while his definition of waterfront is necessarily flexible – it includes the docks, Brooklyn Heights and Coney Island, among other places.  This focus is not without its merits.  Ryan establishes clearly that the Brooklyn waterfront was a vibrant and diverse social scene that quickly – it explodes in the mid 19thcentury after the completion of the Erie Canal – becomes a site for sexual energy and variety that was suppressed in other parts of the city.  Likewise, his focus on Brooklyn lends his work a specificity and detail that would be hard to sustain in a broader history.  However, some of his characters spend minimal time in Brooklyn (Carson McCullers, for example) and many others live lives that make it clear that – while one can find a distinct queer community in Brooklyn – the borough also acts as part of larger NY community, with many people in the book (including Whitman) moving back and forth across the river.  

However, these are minor weaknesses.  There is voluminous research synthesized here, and the information is handled with insight and intelligence.  Ryan takes on issues of race and sexism throughout while also analyzing how diverse historical phenomena like the development of the subway, vaudeville and public housing affect the queer community.  He is especially strong on the ways that World Wars I and II impact sexual expression in New York.  A secondary but important idea that accompanies his focus on the Brooklyn waterfront is his refutation of the argument that the trend in queer rights has been consistently towards greater freedom and openness.  He provides plenty of evidence that the periods during war provide new freedom and opportunity to both gay men and lesbians and that both world wars are followed by renewed repression.

The chief strength of the book is the clarity and liveliness of the prose.  Ryan makes sure his own voice dominates the text and sometimes include asides that bring the reader into his enthusiasm –with disgust at the way queers were treated at some points and with bemused humor at the ingenuity with which the same people found and created spaces to be themselves.  For instance, his analysis of how mass transit opened up the lives of queer people includes the idea that “If subway cars were like packed clubs, tossing New Yorkers against one another millions of times a day, then the men’s room was decidedly the after party.”

Ryan picks up on ideas presented in George Chauncey’s Gay New Yorkregarding the 19thCentury belief that sexual activity was distinct from gender expression.  In Ryan’s analysis, there is little concept of sexuality as a part of identity prior to about 1910 and the popularization of Freudian notions of sex.  According to both Chauncey and Ryan, men and women have always had same sex contact without feeling the need to make that part of their identity.  And social approbation was largely reserved for those who challenged gender norms – masculine women and effeminate men:  butches and fairies.  Ryan is especially strong on viewing this phenomenon through a class lens, providing evidence that the acceptance of same sex activity was far greater among the poor and working class than it was in society’s upper regions. According to Ryan, with the establishment of the ideas of sexuality and sexual identity as fixed concepts – that grow out of both the development of psychology and eugenics – comes the social condemnation of queer life.  That condemnation is never stronger than in the decades after World War II when queer sexuality is seen as not just abnormal, but absolutely dangerous.

For both Chauncey before him and Ryan, simply reversing this hatred, so that people who identify as gay or lesbian, trans or queer are accepted and allowed full social participation will not be enough.  They implicitly call for a change in the way we think of identity – to divorce it from transitory practices like fashion and sexual contact, to allow everyone to be fully themselves.

If is a challenging idea, presented here with forceful intelligence and panache.

Monday, September 2, 2019

The Collected Stories by Grace Paley

My father is eighty-six years old and in bed.  His heart, that bloody motor, is equally old and will not do certain jobs anymore.  It still floods his head with brainy light.  But it won't let his legs carry the weight of his body around the house.  Despite my metaphors, this muscle failure is not due to his old heart, he says, but due to a potassium shortage.  Sitting on one pillow, leaning on three, he offers last-minute advice and makes a request.

"I would like you to write a simple story once more," he says, "the kind Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write.  Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next."

I say, "Yes, why not?  That's possible."  I want to please him, though I don't remember writing that way.  I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: "There was a woman..." followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I've always despised.  Not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away.  Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.

In the story "The Loudest Voice," Grace Paley describes three grade-school kids in a Christmas play as being "pasted to their beards."  I love that little inversion--really, of course, their beards were pasted to them, but it's Paley's little trick that brings life out of the moment.  It's the kind of thing that some authors would write, thinking it cute, then edit out, thinking it was too cute by half.  You know that old saying, write drunk, edit sober?  That phrase wouldn't make it past the sober editor.  But Grace Paley writes as if the sober editor never showed up.  The word that these stories call to mind, for me, is bravery--Paley writes as if she hardly cares whether the reader follows her along or not.  The result is stories that are dazzling and sincere.

It's that bravery, for example, that allows her to write a story in which a character's husband and ex-husband meet, though they are only referred to as "Pallid" and "Livid."  (The memorable first line of that story is: "There were two husbands disappointed by eggs.")  It's that bravery that allows her to write a story like "The Long Distance Runner" in which her alter ego, Faith, takes a quick run through her old Brighton Beach neighborhood and ends up staying with the black family that lives in her old apartment for weeks and weeks.  Does she change her clothes?  What does she eat?  Are her children worried?  Paley waves those questions away with her hand.  In one of her most famous and anthologized stories, "Wants," the protagonist meets her ex-husband on the steps of the library.  What's he doing there, and why does he bother following her inside to dredge up all the old griefs of their life together?  It doesn't matter; Paley wants him there, so he's there.  And in life sometimes people really do run into their ex on the steps of the library.  Life is so strange, Paley seems to be saying, why shouldn't stories be strange also?  In fact, reading all these stories in a row was a mistake--their weirdness and bravery can be so overwhelming.  I should have taken them one a day, like medicine.

That bravery also leads Paley to do some things I'm not sure any author would venture today.  There's the story "The Little Girl," for example, about a teenager who is raped and brutalized, then thrown out of a window to her death.  It's a shocking and violent story, rare in this collection, and apparently Paley maintained it was a story she was told by a friend--the same black friend who tells the story, or perhaps a version of that friend does, speaking in black vernacular English.  The thought of a white Jewish woman, even a political radical like Paley, writing in a black man's voice is almost inconceivable in 2019, and for good reason, but I don't think you can say the story doesn't work.  It helps that Paley, perhaps more than any other short story writer, has an ear for the way that people speak and a willingness to reproduce it.  "The Little Girl" is one of the most pointed and affecting of these stories, where issues of race and class are mostly dealt with obliquely, by depicting radical leftist New York culture rather than the issues themselves.

When Paley does deal with them head on, some of the best and bravest stories emerge, like "Zagrowsky Tells," in which an old pharmacist has an awkward run-in with a woman who once helped picket his pharmacy because he discriminated against black customers.  What's effective is that Paley tells the story from the racist's perspective, which I think very few writers would do these days.  Paley, like the woman in the story (who is also her alter-ego, Faith) manages to find empathy for the man despite his inveterate prejudice--but crucially, also maintains strongly that she was right to picket.  I found Paley's image of Zagrowksy's interiority to be compelling and believable:

Then this lady Queen of Right makes a small lecture.  She don't remember my Cissy walking up and down screaming bad language but she remembers: After Mrs. Kendrick's big fat snotty maid walked out with Kendrick's allergy order, I made a face and said, Ho ho! the great lady!  That's terrible?  She says whenever I saw a couple walk past on the block, a black-and-white couple, I said, Ugh--disgusting!  It shouldn't be allowed!  She heard this remark from me a few times.  So?  It's a matter of taste.

I like to use some of Paley's stories in my creative writing class for those reasons and more.  Look at these stories, I tell my kids, you really can do anything you want.  I'm not sure they find these stories inspiring the way I do; mostly, they find them weird and unsettling.  Reading this collection made me realize some things about Paley's stories I hadn't before.  For one, they're deeply embedded in the culture of Jewish New York.  Paley is a master mimic but the voice she's most comfortable with is the voice of Jewish aunts, parents, uncles.  Another thing I didn't realize: In her first collection, Paley has only one or two stories focusing on her alter ego, Faith, but in the two later collections she becomes nearly the sole focus of Paley's literary output.  As imaginative as these stories are, Paley seems to have given up pure imagination as she aged and focused on depicting the wildness and weirdness of her own life.  These stories tell a very loose narrative about Faith raising her two sons without a husband (a "used-boy raiser," as she puts it in one story), settling into a long-term dalliance with a man named Jack, and palling around with her friends and fellow radicals.  In the final story, a remarkable thing happens: Faith gets a ride with her friend Cassie, who appears in all these stories for the first time, and Cassie accuses her--why haven't you written about me yet?

Cassie, I finally said, I don't understand it either; it's true, though, I know what you mean.  It must feel for you like a great absence of yourself.  How could i allow it.  But it's not me alone, it's them too.  I waited for her to say something.  Oh, but it is my fault.  Oh, but why did you wait so long?  How can you forgive me?

Forgive you?  She laughed.  But she reached a cross the clutch.  With her hand she turned mt face to her so my eyes would look into her eyes.  You are my friend, I know that, Faith, but I promise, I won't forgive you, she said.  From now on, I'll watch you like a hawk.  I do not forgive you.

All these stories are impressions of a real life, but they rarely have anything like narrative shape.  As Paley says, "everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life."