Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Jenny leaning far over the table, Robin far back, her legs thrust under her, to balance the whole backward incline of the body and Jenny so far forward that she had to catch her small legs in the back rung of the chair, ankle out and toe in, not to pitch forward on the table – thus they presented the two halves of a movement that had, as in sculpture, the beauty and the absurdity of a desire that is in flower but that can have no burgeoning, unable to execute its destiny, a movement that can divulge neither caution nor daring, for the fundamental condition for completion was in neither of them; they were like Greek runners, with lifted feet but without the relief of the final command that would bring the foot down – eternally angry, eternally separated, in a cataleptic frozen gesture of abandon.

This is a book I read in my first cycle of graduate school and it is the kind of thing that excites people in MFA programs. I remembered little more than a blur of language and I had to read carefully to clarify the plot and characters.  As we can see in the sentence above, there is real mastery of imagery and sentence structure, but the image is manipulated to tell us what the characters are not able to communicate rather than to actually communicate.  It tells the story of Robin Vote, her marriage to Felix Volkbein, a fake Baron, and her relationships with Nora Flood and Jenny Petherbridge.  The idea here is that Robin is irresistible – all three of these characters fall in love with her and when she abandons them spend the rest of their lives trying to deal with the trauma of having lost her.

On this reading, at least, Robin did not seem irresistible to me.  Her personality consists entirely in the fact that these characters find her attractive and in her ability to destroy their lives.  We learn little else about her and what we do learn is information, she lives on the page only as this vaguely threatening absence in the lives of others.  She is written in the kind of abstraction modernist writers love and that I increasingly find meaningless.  Of course, her primary power is clearly sexual – anyone who meets her seems to want to sleep with her and anyone who sleeps with her falls apart.  The problem then becomes that it is 1937 and there is no sex or even sexuality here at all – for the most part the reader has to infer that these relationships are sexual.  To be fair, TS Eliot, who championed the book and wrote the introduction, seems to have edited out the dirty parts and a new edition restores some of Barnes’s missing content.  I chose to re-read the famous version of the book, though I am curious to see if any of my issues are affected by the restoration of the deleted portions.  

For all its daring, Nightwood accepts some of the worst of its era’s images of lesbianism.  Robin is referred to as an “invert,” a Freudian term for mis-organized sexuality.  She is an astonishingly unfit mother – at one point she seems to contemplate dashing her child’s head to the ground, but instead abandons him.  Her sexuality is seen as unnaturally powerful and destructive.  Again, to look at the end of the sentence above, lesbians are seen as missing some vital part of their selves, leaving them “eternally angry, eternally separated, in a cataleptic frozen gesture of abandon.”

While she is the center of the novel, Jenny appears relatively little.  The bulk of the novel focuses on Felix and Nora as they try to deal with having lost Robin – she is an absence for these characters and that absence is felt by the reader directly, since for so much of the novel she is an absence to us as well.  In order to process and articulate their grief and longing, Felix and Nora spend a great deal of time with Dr. Matthew O’Conner – a transgender doctor-without-training who is the most prevalent character in the novel.  He helps Felix and Robin deal with loss by talking – he is an unstoppable talker.  He discusses sexuality with them (briefly), reports on Robin’s other relationships, explains the power of night at great length and generally talks for pages on end, in terms that are complex, flowery and not clearly on point.  It is worth noting that he presents as different genders, is a fake doctor, and seems to withhold information when it suits him.  There are a lot of fake people in this book.  

In the end, Dr. O’Conner – who clearly has a drinking problem – talks himself into insanity:  we last see him raving in a café about the pressure to keep talking.  By that point, Felix has withdrawn from society to care for the mentally disabled son he had with Robin and Nora is trying to move on from some kind of nervous breakdown.   Finally, we see Robin after she has left both Nora and Jenny:  she wanders back onto Nora’s property, to a chapel, where she crawls around on the floor with a dog, the two of them barking at each other before they snuggle together to go to sleep.  It is an exaggerated and strange ending, one that does not hold out hope for a healthy lesbianism to come.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Lancelot by Walker Percy

How strange it is that a discovery like this, of evil, of a kinsman's dishonesty, a wife's infidelity, can shake you up, knock you out of your rut, be the occasion of a new way of looking at things!

In the space of one evening I had made the two most important discoveries of my life.  I discovered my wife's infidelity and five hours later I discovered my own life.  I saw it and myself clearly for the first time.

Lancelot Andrewes Lamar is a scion of the old Louisiana guard: he lives in his family's plantation house outside New Orleans, a house open to tourists, having become a kind of theme park version of its old self.  His wife, Margot, has offered it to a group of filmmakers to stage a movie she's appearing in; the movie, too, is a symbol of the way that old traditions survive only in nostalgic simulacra.

Lance himself is a victim of the hollowing-out of the modern world.  Once he was a star football player.  In a particularly Percy-esque detail, he set the NCAA punt return record against Alabama.  (Southerners in Percy's fiction can never keep from including things like golf and football in the list of disappearing values.)  For years he lived on autopilot, until, as he tells his mysterious conversation partner, he discovered that his daughter Siobhan was not really his daughter at all.

Lancelot takes the form of an interview or confession: Lance, speaking from a cell at an institution called the Center for Aberrant Behavior, recounts how he ended up murdering the film director who was his wife's lover before blowing up his plantation home, killing his wife and a pair of other actors.  He speaks to an old friend, a psychiatrist and priest, who may not really exist.  Certainly his name, "Percival," and Lance's obsession with a lost golden age of mythic virtue, reflected in the names of those knights, suggests he's not really there.  Oh, and Lance also tells him about the woman in the room next to his, a mute rape victim who can only communicate through taps, and with whom he plans on starting a new Eden.

Reading Lancelot is... upsetting.  There's a black heart to it that isn't present in any of Percy's other novels.  Lance's megalomania, racism, sexism, and violence, make it difficult.  He enlists a clever black servant named Elgin to help him bug a hotel where his wife is staying, and every time he talks about Elgin's technical acumen he sounds like a man describing a dog who learned to talk.  Lance describes his reputation as a "liberal lawyer" defending black clients, but his politics are reactionary to the extreme.  He idolizes Robert E. Lee and talks about the Civil War as the "Second Revolution," a failed attempt to beat back the forces of modernization.  (That's why, in his fantasies, he and the mute woman next door move to Virginia, the locus of the first two revolutions and the third, which he imagines himself at the center of.)

What am I supposed to do with a narrator like this?  What makes it complicated is that Lance doesn't seem so different from Percy's other protagonists.  For Percy, the alienation of modernism always manifests as mental illness.  Like Will Barrett in The Second Coming and Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, Lance seeks wholeness through companionship with a woman who is also mentally ill.  Lance's complaints about modern society--commercialism, pornography, the lost sense of history and myth--are reflected in the parodic dystopia of The Thanatos SyndromeAnd doesn't this sound like a really sharp diagnosis, by Lance, of The Moviegoer's Binx, who can't feel he really lives somewhere until he sees it in a movie?:

The world had gone crazy, said the crazy man in his cell.  What was nutty was that the movie folk were trafficking in illusions in a real world but the real world thought that its reality could only be found in the illusions.  Two sets of maniacs.

But it's also hard to imagine Binx Bolling, Will Barrett, or Tom More, saying a thing like this:

What the poor dears discovered is the monstrous truth lying at the very center of life: that their happiness and the meaning of life itself is to be assaulted by a man.

Yes, that's right: at one point in this novel, Lance says that the point of life is to rape and be raped.

The destabilizing effects of modernism in Percy, along with the cobbled-together language of mysticism and self-help, make them very knotty and difficult to tease out.  I find this statement particularly difficult to reconcile, even among Lance Lamar's nasty opinions.  But at the very least I'm sure it's connected to Lance's sublimated anger at his wife's infidelity, which becomes transmuted into an apocalyptic fantasia about a new world order.  In fact, Lancelot seems prophetic in a way: don't incel murderers like Elliot Rodger follow this pattern exactly when they transform their frustrations with women into fantasies of social upheaval?

What's most difficult about Lance is the way he seems to take things Percy genuinely believes, based on a wide reading of his novels, to murderous extremes.  Percy clearly agrees that modernity breeds alienation and mental illness, and I think his nostalgia for the old South is genuine to some degree.  It's possible that Lancelot is one of those rare novels in which an author looks critically at their own darker impulses.  (Doesn't Ford Madox Ford do something similar with his own Toryism in Parade's End?)

But it's not very pleasant.  I don't think Lancelot is a book made for anybody to love.  You can survive it, maybe, as Lance's wife and her lover do not.  But this is the last of Percy's novels for me, and I'm disappointed to know that my experience with them ends in such a discomfiting place.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Each owner seemed to be saying good-bye to his bird in his own way.  Some were calling their names, others rubbing them against their cheeks, still others giving them a treat, mouth to beak.  But once these little ceremonies were finished, they opened up the cages and held them to the sky.  The little creatures, confused at first, fluttered for a moment around their owners, but they soon were gone, as if drawn away into the distance.

When they were gone, a calm fell as though the air itself were breathing with infinite care.  The owners turned for home, empty cages in hand.

And that was how the birds disappeared.

On a small island things have been disappearing.  When they disappear, they are quite literally forgotten--not entirely, at first, but when people wake up feeling that something has disappeared they must search their memories for the gaps.  As a collective ritual, they dispose of whatever it is that has disappeared from memory: they burn calendars and ribbon, they trash emeralds, they let all their birds go free.  The nameless narrator's friend, referred to only as on old man, still lives in the rusty old boat that once was the ferry to the mainland, but the ferry itself has disappeared.

Ogawa walks a very tight line here; it's never really clear what it means when something has "disappeared."  The objects themselves don't vanish, and sometimes if the islanders try hard enough they can dredge the word up from memory: the narrator remembers, for instance, that "birds" are what her father once studied before his death.  She explains it as a kind of loss of emotional or resonant attachment; she looks at the emerald her mother has hidden away and feels no associations with it at all.  These disappearances are enforced by a totalitarian force called the Memory Police, who search homes for contraband and even hunt down people who seem to have a genetic ability to remember everything.  The narrator's editor, R--she's a novelist--is one of those people, and the narrator hides him in a special hidden room she's rigged up in her house to protect him from the Memory Police.

There's a line, spoken by the egotistical narrator of Martin Amis' Money, that I have never forgotten, although I'm sure I'm only paraphrasing it: "Don't you think memory is fascinating?" he says; "Me neither."  That sticks with me because I think it's true; a lot of literary meditations on memory fall short of saying anything interesting.  (Proust excepted.)  So it's even more impressive that The Memory Police ends up so compelling and thoughtful.  For Ogawa, memory is a vital constituent part of our identity, and to lose memories means to lose oneself.  It's one thing to lose birds and calendars, but what happens when novels disappear?  Later on, this problem becomes quite literal, when everyone's left leg disappears:

I pulled back the quilt and made a bizarre discovery--something was stuck fast to my hip.  And no matter how much I pulled or pushed or twisted, it would not come off, just as though it had been welded to me.

It's possible to read this politically, as a parable about how totalitarian regimes adjust memory and history for their own purposes.  1984 gave us the term "memory hole" for this kind of intentional memory loss, and Ogawa, too, describes the process as a kind of cavity opening up.  But The Memory Police is too eerie, too fantastical, to have any kind of political teeth; it seems more like an existential, even phantasmagoric, kind of horror novel.  R remains chipper and tries to guide the narrator through the process of recovering her memories.  He massages her leg when it disappears, encourages her to sit at the typewriter banging out words until the novel reforms.  But these efforts always seem in vain, and perhaps even slightly sinister.  If the narrator is only whole in R's memory, can't he make of her what he wants?

Ogawa's language is sparse, controlled, ironic.  It's funny and strange in a very subdued way.  I wanted to pair it with Kobo Abe's The Woman in the Dunes, and I can see a bright line of influence between them, passing through Orwell and, like, Fellini or something.  What impressed me most about the book, I think, is that the strangeness of it might have come at the cost of emotional realism, but the narrator feels human, real.  The ending is elegiac and sad, and as affecting as anything I've read this year.  Ironically, this is a book I won't quickly forget.

Friday, October 25, 2019

In The Woods by Tana French

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective.  Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.  It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealments and every variation on deception.

Re-reading that opening, I have to admit that while this crime novel was terribly enjoyable, it did not quite live up to its own hype.  It promises a great deal and falls a bit short on delivery, though, in truth, if it had only promised what it did ultimately delivered, that would be plenty.

Twenty years before the book starts, twelve-year-old Adam Ryan was playing in the wooded area of a Dublin suburb with two friends, Jamie and Peter.  The three were in some way attacked:  Adam was found covered partially in blood and in such shock that he was unable to remember what had happened; Peter and Jaime disappeared and were never seen again.  Despite the best efforts of detectives, Adam was never able to remember any part of the incident, Peter and Jamie were never seen again, and their killers were never caught.  Adam’s parents moved him to a private school in England and moved themselves to a different suburb.  He began using his middle name, Robert, to avoid publicity and moved on with his life, with almost everything that happened to him before age twelve erased from his mind.

Now, Robert Ryan is a successful detective with the murder squad in Dublin.  No one knows of his past.  However, another grisly murder has been committed in the same suburb, in the same woods.  A twelve-year-old girl is found dead, and keeping his obvious emotional connection to the site secret, Rob and his partner Cassie accept the assignment to the case.  It becomes clear fairly quickly that solving the two cases is the secondary issue in the novel – what we are really following is the slow destruction of Rob Ryan’s character and career as he proves unable to handle the stress of solving one crime and trying to remember the other. 

That story is powerful and sad – I found myself rooting for Rob and hoping he would overcome his returning memories and the insecurities they have given him – that he would pull himself together.  I was also rooting for his relationship to Cassie, the powerfully intelligent and quirky woman who is his partner.  Their relationship is at the heart of the book and the idea that their uniquely perfect partnership will blossom into love is on everyone’s mind – Rob’s parents, Rob’s roommate, the other detectives on the case, and of course mine while I was reading.  Her character is strong and fascinating and gives the novel an strong undercurrent of feminism.

It is difficult to discuss both the pleasures of the novel and its disappointments without giving away the ending – though it is foreshadowed in the opening and throughout as Rob, our narrator, points out moments of failure and laments that his entire life would be different if at these key points in the narrative he had made other choices.  Suffice it to say that he is not the hero that solves these cases.   One of the powerful impacts of the story is that he does not transcend his limitations:  that while a kind of perfection is held out to him – justice, the recovery of his own past, true love – he is left with a rather mundane life, slogging through a rather mundane career as a civil servant.

What is ultimately disappointing in the novel is in the details of the detective work.  The contemporary case is made very complex, with the possibility that it involves political corruption, family dysfunction, occult mysticism and a twenty-year dormant serial killer all held out at one point or another.  We get deep and intricate details of Dublin police procedure (the combination of French’s research and her imagination made me feel I could work for the Dublin police) and see Rob and Cassie follow a number of important areas of investigation much further than is usual in fictional police procedurals.  Then the case ends up hinging on a fairly obvious detail that (though French does not present it this way) should have been dealt with in the first hours of the investigation.  While there is an element of surprise, it comes more from French’s misdirection than complexity.  The denouement of Rob and Cassie’s relationship also seems to come from nowhere.  Rob, who has been so original and fully fleshed out, has issues with relationship and commitment that are at least ordinary, if not actually clichéd.  

This is French’s first novel, and in the dozen years since its publication she has written six others and become a regular resident of the best seller lists.  That success is well-deserved:  this novel transcends the limitations of its genre through crisp and visual writing, a truly impressive gift for character, and an unusual approach to resolution in a crime novel.  I missed the characters when the book was over and I have noted that Cassie Maddox appears in another of her novels.  I look forward to seeing what she has been up to.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe

Suddenly a horrible sound interrupted him.  As the woman had predicted the night before, the brow of sand on the north side had lost its moisture and collapsed.  The whole house seemed to let out a soulful shriek, as if mortally wounded, and a gray blood began to drop down with a rustling sound from the new gap between the eaves and the wall.  The man began to tremble, the mouth full of saliva.  It was as if his own body had been crushed.

This entire nightmare could not be happening.  It was too outlandish.  Was it permissible to snare, exactly like a mouse or an insect, a man who had his certificate of medical insurance, someone who paid his taxes, who was employed, and whose family records were in order?  He could not believe it.  Perhaps there was some mistake; it was bound to be a mistake. There was nothing to do but assume that it was a mistake.

An entomologist named Jumpei travels from the city to the Japanese coast, looking for rare insects that live among the sand.  He stumbles upon a strange village that seems almost half-buried in the dunes: houses lie at the bottom of great pits of sand.  The villagers kindly let him stay the night at one of these houses, where he's lowered into the pit by means of a great rope ladder, and hosted by a beautiful but distant woman who seems to live alone there.  Soon, he realizes that he hasn't been hosted, but kidnapped, and the villagers expect him, like the woman, to spend his life scooping up the shifting sand around the house and placing it into buckets, keeping not only the house safe from the moving dunes but also the village, for which houses like these are the first line of defense.

Most of the narrative of The Woman in the Dunes concerns Jumpei's various attempts to escape.  He's clever, and approaches the task from a scientific angle, but sand is unpredictable and the villagers watchful.  At the same time he finds himself drawn to the strange woman, who is never given a name, and who seems to accept her lot blithely.  (Among other things, The Woman in the Dunes gives a frightening picture of what it's like to have sex in a place where you can never get the sand off of your body.)  If he escapes, what will happen to her?  Does he have an obligation to her, or is she part of the same forces that have trapped him?

Sand, as Jumpei thinks of it, is a strange and dangerous thing.  It is a collection of small stones, about an eighth of a millimeter, but it emerges when the forces of wind and water separate these small stones from larger ones.  It is forever moving, and in fact, it may be more appropriate to think of sand as the movement rather than the stones that are moved--an action, rather than an object.  The shifting sands will never stop threatening the house or the village; Jumpei's story is a variation of Sisyphus'.

The sand is a symbol for--what?  Death and life, at least, and maybe the natural passage of time that scares the shit out of everyone who's old enough to figure out what it means.  Set against these forces are the pathetic systems of bourgeois society: when Jumpei cleverly advises planting a hedge of trees to keep the sand at bay, the woman notes that it's just cheaper to keep up a system of forced labor.  Jumpei, in the passage above, can't believe that the rewards of civilized society have failed to protect him: the medical insurance, the tax bill.  But medical insurance can't stop deterioration and disease, and being a good citizen can't fend of realities that shift like the sand.  What he fails to realize is that the things he hopes will keep him safe are of the same order as the things the village will hope keep them safe: bureaucratic, short-sighted, systematic, unequal.

Spoiler alert: ultimately, Jumpei escapes, only to be caught and brought back to his sand-prison.  He throws himself into scientific experiments with the sand he thinks will help him escape, but when luck arrives--a rope ladder is thoughtlessly left by the house--he chooses to put off his escape, to better go on with his experiments.  At a subconscious level he acknowledges that there he has no more control over his life out there than he does at the bottom of the sand pit; who can blame him for choosing to go on with his experiments--the small things he can control--a little bit longer?

The Woman in the Dunes recalls classic dystopias like 1984 in that the forces that dominate are always outside the individual's understanding.  But it also has one foot in the world of fantasy and allegory; it reminds me of a book like TloothThe sand landscape is as terrifying as any horror novel, and you can totally see how it was turned into a classic of Japanese new wave cinema.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Trinity by Louisa Hall

Then the earth under our feet lurched toward the mountains, and the mountains tilted a foot to the right, and the trees leaped off the sides of the mountains.

I grabbed for somebody's arm, and I saw that the women around me had turned into X-rays, and that my own arm was an X-ray as well, our bodies having become in an instant nothing more than revelations of the bone cages we'd lived our whole lives in.

Louisa Hall's Trinity, is, at least on the dustjacket, about Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who spearheaded the development of the atomic bomb.  It takes a wide view of Oppenheimer's life, not just focusing on the narrow period of his work at Los Alamos, like Countrymen of Bones, another great fictionalized version of Oppenheimer, but before and after: in Berkeley, where he goes to meet his mistress who will eventually die by drowning herself in a bathtub; in Princeton, later in life, as he suffers through the slings and arrows of McCarthyism and agitates for nuclear control.  Oppenheimer had a fascinating life that often bordered on tragedy, with plenty of rich details.  (Hall repeats Countrymen of Bones' account that Oppenheimer played a corpse in a Los Alamos production of Arsenic and Old Lace, which I'm not sure I realized was a true detail.)

But in practice, Oppenheimer moves through the book like a shadow, or a background character, hardly ever seen face-on.  The novel comprises seven first-hand accounts of people of varying closeness to Oppenheimer: a friend, a secretary, a Secret Service investigator, even a college student whose only experience with Oppenheimer is seeing him speak in public.  Trinity shares a strategy with John Williams' Augustus: when a figure seems too broad, too loaded with stature to look at straight on, give as many different accounts as you can.  But unlike the Emperor Augustus, Oppenheimer never really gets a chance to speak for himself.

Trinity has exceedingly little to say about who Oppenheimer really was.  In some of these accounts, he's little more than a minor character who moves in the background of the narrator's immediate life.  The thesis of the novel, actually, is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to really know another human being.  The Secret Service investigator admits he has no way of knowing why people do the things they do--which seems like a weird thing for a detective to admit--and later sections extend that anxiety to their husbands, family, and friends.  Trinity is not just the name of the Los Alamos nuclear bomb test but a representation of the essential multiplicity of human character.  I absolutely knew we were going to get a paragraph like this one, which applies the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to human relations:

You never know, absolutely, what another person was feeling, just as we never know the velocity and the position of a particle at any moment, all knowledge being by nature incomplete, all studies missing an aspect at least of the object they study.

I'm not complaining.  When Trinity is at its best, it makes this anxiety seem freshly horrifying.  The novel is really kept up by three tentpole stories among the seven, each of which is narrated by a young woman in Oppenheimer's orbit.  The first is a Woman's Army Corps worker at Los Alamos who has recently been abandoned by her lover, a married scientist in Oppenheimer's orbit; the second is a secretary of Oppenheimer's whose eating disorder comes to symbolize, I think, the escalating rot in the 20th century social order; the third is a magazine writer who sees the offer to interview
Oppenheimer as an opportunity to pin down a great wrongdoer in the way she was never able to do for her cheating husband.  These woman are all victims of broken marriages, of husbands and men who pay too little attention to them.  Like Oppenheimer, who makes his secretary run back to get his copy of the Bhagavad Gita so he can get the quote just right, they use myth and literature to help them understand their own situations.  The first imagines herself as the murdered woman in Crime and Punishment, the second as Persephone in the summer.  How can they know other people?  They barely understand themselves.

The best of these may be the final section with the interviewer, because of all the stories in Trinity it does the most to really grapple with Oppenheimer's legacy, and to do more than throw up its hands at the impossibility of knowing anyone else.  Its attempts to bring the various threads of the novel together are fairly timid, but the narrator's brash inquisitiveness is an effective way to end the novel.  "Shouldn't we live all our lives," she says, "knowing it's our responsibility to account for ourselves with precision?"  If Oppenheimer can't give a reasonable accounting of a life that resulted in hundreds of thousands dead and more permanently mutilated, why should we bother with them?

The other four narratives range from entertaining to seemingly irrelevant.   I don't know what we're supposed to get out of the college student, for instance, whose insight into Oppenheimer is mostly watching him walk under a row of trees outside the lecture hall.  It can seem a little like padding, but I guess that's okay, because what it pads is so precious, and dangerously fragile.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

He stood up and poured himself a drink.  "You know," he said, "now that I've got used to the idea, I think I'd rather have it this way.  We've all got to die one day, some sooner and some later.  The trouble always has been that you're never ready, because you don't know when it's coming.  Well, now we do know, and there's nothing to be done about it.  I kind of like that.  I kind of like the thought that I'll be fit and well up till the end of August and then--home.  I'd rather have it that way than go on as a sick man from when I'm seventy to when I'm ninety."

Dwight Towers is an American naval officer in command of a nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Scorpion, on an extended mission with the Australian navy.  The Scorpion has to work closely with the Australians because it's the only U.S. submarine left, and the Australians are the only navy: nuclear war has ravaged almost all of the northern hemisphere, as far as anyone can tell, and poisonous radioactive wind is creeping farther and farther down into the Southern hemisphere where it kills everyone it reaches.  For Towers and others in the area around Melbourne, the southernmost major city in the world, the world's end comes as a slow ebbing away of communication: they lose communication with Montevideo, then Cape Town, then northern Australian cities like Darwin and Cairns.  Towers' wife and children in Connecticut are almost certainly dead, just as he'll be in about six months.

On the Beach tackles similar existential fears as Dr. Bloodmoney and Station Eleven: what will the world be like after widespread disaster?  Dick and St. John Mandel both imagine that mass death will create a kind of sea change in human culture, including a return to pre-technological practices and structures.  But what's scary about On the Beach is that it believes that, in the face of human extinction, almost nothing will change at all.  People in Melbourne still go to work; they go to church.  People shop and plant gardens and have dinner parties.  Of course, it's more like Children of Men than it is those novels, because what is facing these characters is not new birth but certain destruction, but the contrast there is instructive, too.  Here, extinction brings not violence, not new religion, but repression and denial.

On the Beach seems like such a product of its time.  It's an artifact not just of the nuclear paranoia of the 50's (it was written in 1957), but the bourgeois variety of repression that's so recognizable from mid-century fiction.  Release does come in strange and subtle--but sometimes explosive--ways: Towers' romantic interest, a young Melburnian named Moira Davidson, drinks and drinks and drinks, but even she ends up enrolling in a typing-and-shorthand course.  Submarine science officer John Osborne chases his dream of being a grand prix auto driver, and the races he enters are wild bloodbaths that kill driver after driver, an expression of a sublimated death wish.  But release never overcomes the will to keep things going as normal: Towers not only refuses to sleep with Moira out of loyalty to his certainly dead wife, he persists in imagining that when the radiation sickness takes him, he'll be going "home" to Connecticut, even going so far as to buy gifts for his children.  His Australian hosts, the Holmeses, are busy planting next year's tulip bulbs; the Mrs. Holmes reacts with violent denial when her husband tries to show her exactly what they'll need to do to euthanize their infant daughter when the time comes.

Other apocalyptic novels are scary and showy, but I'm not sure I've read one as bleak as this one.  Little by little, optimism and denial turn out to be misplaced: the Scorpion sails all the way to Seattle to check out a mysterious radio signal that turns out to be a busted window frame rocking on a panel of buttons.  A scientist's insistence that the radioactive wind will dissipate before reaching the southern latitudes proves, as expected to be wishful thinking, and it's hard not to think about the many deniers of climate disaster who are with us today.  We're just not wired for apocalyptic thinking, Shute says, not really, and few human qualities are as strong as inertia.  Not that it matters; there's nothing to do.  But unlike Dick and St. John Mandel, both of whom seem to believe that disaster might at least free us from our bourgeois attachments, Shute thinks we're likely to whimper into the grave.  That's what makes it maybe the scariest post-apocalyptic novel of all.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three by Mara Leveritt

Damien told Shettles that the sheriff's deputy who'd transported him from the jail to the courthouse and back had been "very kind" to him.  Damien chuckled that the media had wanted to take his picture, but that the photographers had seemed to be afraid of him.  Recalling how, upon his arrival to court, a "circle of guards" had surrounded him, one with a sawed-off shotgun, Damien marveled to Shettles that he was considered so dangerous.  As tactfully as she could, Shettles let Damien know that rather than protecting people from him, the guards had been protecting him.

The crimes at the heart of the story of the West Memphis Three are truly horrible: three young boys whose bodies were dredged out of a drainage ditch, their hands tied to their legs.  The genitals of one boy were cut off and removed.  It is difficult to read or even think about three boys whose lives were snuffed out in such gruesome fashion, and difficult, too, for different reasons, to read about three slightly older boys, teenagers, who were tried and convicted of the crime despite a lack of physical evidence.

The West Memphis Three were, for a long time, a cause celebre.  Amateur sleuths and celebrities insisted that the trials had been essentially unfair, and agitated for their release until it finally and miraculously happened in 2011.  Police focused immediately on the supposed "ringleader," Damien Echols, they say, because he was a "weird" kid.  He wore black, he listened to Metallica, he self-identified as a Wiccan.  Along with Damien two other boys were convicted, Damien's friend Jason Baldwin and an acquaintance named Jesse Misskelley.  Arkansas officials insisted that, contrary to the claims of the innocence campaign, anyone who took a long and honest look at the evidence and the trial would see that the case was a solid one.  Mara Leveritt's book The Devil's Knot is meant to take the officials' word at its face, going through the murders, the evidence, and the trial with painstaking meticulousness.  It can seem, at times, like a dry and clinical exercise--much of the book is a complete blow-by-blow of the legal wrangling at the two trials that convicted them--but it ought to leave anyone who reads it with no doubt that the convictions were a miscarriage of justice.

It shares several recognizable elements with the daycare abuse allegations that caused a similar "Satanic panic" around the same time.  For one, the case relies on the testimony of a single person, typically a woman, whose paranoia about abuse is outsized enough to mask concerns that ought to be had about her reliability.  Here, it's Vicki Hutcheson, a woman who self-appoints herself an "amateur investigator" in the boys' death, and insists that Misskelley took her to a Satanic ritual known as an "esbat."  Those claims are bolstered by the unethical and leading interrogations of children, here Vicki's son Aaron, a friend of the victims whose story becomes--like the ones in the daycare abuse stories--more outlandish and unbelievable as time goes on.  That interrogation is mirrored, in a way, in the interrogation of Jesse Misskelley, a young man with an I.Q. hovering around intellectual disability.  As detailed by Leveritt, Misskelley's interrogation turns on a single act of police malfeasance: a cop tells Misskelley that he has failed his polygraph, when he hasn't, making him panic to the point where he's willing to tell the cops whatever they want to know.  And what they want to know is that Damien Echols is the killer.

Leveritt notes that one of the police inspectors in this case kept a list of about eight teenagers he suspected of Satanic activity, and on whom he wanted to keep an eye.  When the child murders occurred, Damien Echols was the first person he thought of.  Damien's notebooks were taken from his room, and his poetry used against him, lines as innocuous as "I want to be in the middle, / in neither the black nor the white, / in neither the wrong nor the right."  In Jason Baldwin's case, investigators noted that they took from his room "eleven black t-shirts."  Faced with an act of great evil, Arkansas investigators turned immediately to the typical and most banal signs of teenage rebellion.

What is it that these investigators most misunderstood?  Was it how teenagers react, in relatively modest ways, to poverty, marginalization, and a stiflingly conservative atmosphere?  Or was it the real nature of evil, that doesn't usually announce itself with pentagrams and metal t-shirts?  In the case of Jason, who appears to have been convicted mainly because of his friendship with Damien and nothing else, the investigators' belief that evil can be counted in black t-shirts prevented them from seeing a person of tremendous character: pressed to accuse Damien for a reduction in his sentence, Jason refused.  "It was wrong," Jason said, "It was against everything I was brought up to believe in... even if you said you'd let me go right now."  Jason was eventually convicted of life in prison.  Can you imagine having that kind of integrity?

Some might ask: How can you be sure they aren't responsible?  The fact is, Satanic ritual murder just doesn't seem to be real at all.  It wasn't real in the daycare abuse allegations, and it's not real here.  One thing that became clear to me in reading this and Satan's Silence is that there is no coherent theory of what Satanic worship is or looks like.  Aside from the vague intimation that drinking blood is believed to provide power, investigators here have no clue why a ritual sacrifice like this would take place or what it's meant to accomplish.  Their understanding of Satanism requires sketchiness, it has to reduced to a set of signs and symbols for the charges to stick.  The mystery of it contributes to the hysteria; the vagueness enables their accusers to see what they want to see in Damien, Jason, and Jessie.  And it allows for things which are harmless--non-traditional religion, rock music, and a general unwillingness to be and act like everyone else--to get pulled into the dragnet with everything else.  In this case, it robbed three men of nearly two decades of their life.  And let's not forget, it also let whoever killed the three boys go free.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

"I still think you invented the parallel-universe theory," she said, but one of the few things that August didn't know about her was that sometimes when she looked at her collection of pictures she tried to imagine and place herself in that other, shadow life.  You walk into a room and flip a switch and the room fills with light.  You leave your garbage in cans on the curb, and a truck comes and transports it to some invisible place.  When you're in danger, you call for the police.  Hot water pours from faucets.   Lift a receiver or press a button on a telephone, and you can speak to anyone.  All of the information in the world is on the Internet, and the Internet is all around you, drifting through the air like pollen on a summer breeze.  There is money, slip[s of paper that can be traded for anything: houses, boats, perfect teeth.  There are dentists.  She tried to imagine this life playing out somewhere at the present moment.  Some parallel Kirsten in an air-conditioned room, waking from an unsettling dream of walking through an empty landscape.

As a child, Kirsten Raymonde is a a child actor appearing in a production of King Lear.  She watches the lead actor, a film star named Arthur Leander, have a heart attack and die on stage.  This human-sized tragedy is soon overshadowed by a colossal one: an epidemic called the Georgia Flu decimates the world's population--actually, much more than decimates, killing 99% of people--and soon the world as we know it has disappeared.  Twenty or so years later, Kirsten becomes part of a Traveling Symphony who wanders the shores of Michigan playing music and performing Shakespeare for the small communities that remain.

The Traveling Symphony is an attempt to salvage something of the old world.  Audiences seem to respond to Shakespeare specifically, because it reminds them of the long thread of tradition and history that in many other ways seems to have been completely severed.  In a parallel plotline, another man, residing in the airport to which is plane had been diverted those two decades ago, builds a Museum of Civilization in the glass cases of a food kiosk, full of cell phones and iPads.  I didn't intend it, but it made an interesting companion piece to Philip K. Dick's Dr. Bloodmoney, which is also about the way civilization might remake itself in the face of nuclear disaster.  For Dick, what is held onto most desperately is not Shakespeare or orchestral music but something more like a midcentury version of the glass cases of the Museum of Civilization: radio, cigarettes, VFW halls.

But the collapse of civilization also means, among the survivors, darker impulses go unchecked by the social order.  "Ferals" wander through the woods, and Kirsten herself has two knives tattooed on her wrist to memorialize two men she has had to kill.  The Symphony encounters a "prophet" who collects wives and rules his small community by violence, and when one of his pre-teen "wives" stows away with them, they find themselves stalked by his malevolence.  The prophet, spoiler alert, in a "twist" I really hated, is actually the actor Arthur Leander's son, who was on a plane en route to Toronto for his father's funeral when it was diverted.  Like Kirsten, his worldview is informed by a series of comic books written by Arthur's first wife Miranda about a brilliant scientist who lives in a satellite, estranged from his home.  (Symbolism time!)

I'm sad to say I just didn't buy the prophet at all.  Besides the hokey "we're all connected" nature of the timeline, it's never clear exactly what animates him, beyond malice and greed.  His mother, Leander's second wife, is intensely religious in a way that rubs off on her son, Tyler.  They both insist on believing that "things happen for a reason," and it's a short jump from there to the belief that those who survived the Georgia Flu are in some way blessed.  This felt like a missed opportunity, to me, to explore the self-serving elements of modern Calvinism that encourage people to imagine their luck or privilege as a kind of divine providence.  But even a zealot would be forced to acknowledge it's true of all survivors, so the prophet Tyler's exclusionary violence don't really make sense.  Nor is it clear what exactly the nature of his "prophecy" is.  In the place of a coherent theology that responds to the end of the world Mandel offers a collection of "cult" markers drawn from pop culture sources: the multiple wives, a smattering of Revelation, marking acolytes by scarification.  None of this followers seem to be true believers, and who can blame them?  There's not really a belief here.

That was one of my two major misgivings about Station Eleven.  The other one is this: only about a quarter of the narrative takes place after the collapse of civilization.  The rest of it is the story of Arthur Leander's life, told in flashback.  The conflicts of these sections--intrusive paparazzi, serial divorce, the difference between Leander's life as a star and his childhood in small town British Columbia--seem so divorced from the post-apocalyptic sections that it's hard to believe the plotlines really "tie together," as the novel seems to want.   Worse, it makes the novel seem fatally uninterested in its own story, as if, like the audience of the Traveling Symphony, it wants to luxuriate in the past instead of living in the present.  Brent said something about modern science fiction being "ashamed of science fiction," and that's not too far off here: Station Eleven often seems like a jejune realist novel about bourgeois dissatisfaction posing as a sci-fi adventure. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit by Elmore Leonard

"I knew it," Clement said.  "You got no higher motive'n I do, you talk about laying things on the table, see where we stand.  You don't set out to uphold the law any more'n I set out to break it.  What happens, we get in a situation like this and then me and you start playing a game.  You try and catch me and I try and keep from getting caught and still make a living.  You follow me?  We're over here in this life playing and we don't give a shit if anybody's watching us or not or if anybody gets hurt.  We got our own rules and words we used and everything else.  You got numbers, all these chicken-fat dicks that'd rather play the game than work; but I got the law to protect me and all I got to do is keep my mouth shut, don't associate with stupid people and there's no way in hell you're gonna lay this one on me... or any of the others."

A judge is killed in his car near the northern border of the city of Detroit.  He's hated by almost everyone, this judge: criminals, lawyers, cops.  He's capricious and cruel, and prone to make suggestive sexual remarks to women.  But the judge's death is a McGuffin, and the mystery of his death is easily solvable; he got into a rage road tiff with a man who just happened to be notorious killer and "Oklahoma wildman" Clement Mansell.  Dedicated cop Raymond Cruz quickly ties Clement to the murder, but Clement's walked on similar charges.  Soon the two men find themselves hurtling toward a violent confrontation, one that threatens not just them but also Clement's beleaguered girlfriend Sandy, the sexy defense attorney Carolyn Wilder, a bunch of Albanian gangsters, and a pot dealer named Sweety.

Driving around Detroit, you can get a sense of how Wild West narratives might operate there with ease.  So much of the city is simply abandoned, rotting in, like civilization has disappeared within local radii, taking with it law and all social convention.  Having once been a much larger city, it gives the distinct impression of a place that's been emptied; you can imagine two men facing each other down a deserted street with a tumbleweed blowing past.  That's essentially what Clement goads Raymond into doing: abandoning the pretense of a law that guides their actions and embracing the "high noon" logic of the Wild West.  Both he and Raymond are caught up, he says, in a "kind of game," but if their conflict will be resolved, both will have to break out of the game's rules.  It's not so different from your standard "We're not so different" speech, but Leonard is cynical enough to suspect that Clement is essentially right.  Raymond fantasizes, over and over, about reaching out and killing Clement in a fit of rage, and the visions seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Now that I think about it, the murdered judge isn't just a victim of narrative expediency; he's actually embraced Clement's belief in operating outside of law.

This is my first Leonard book.  I know he's revered by a lot of people.  His style of anti-writing is often thought of as a kind of antidote to pretentiousness of all kinds, and it does have a kind of muscular propulsion to it.  He's very good at banter and dialogue; Clement's speech, in particular, sparkles with grit.  But in many ways it seemed to take its cues from cheap television.  There are lots of wisecracking secondary cop characters, and a hot defense attorney that just can't help her attraction to Raymond.  The wisecracks are good, and the hot defense attorney is compelling, but I couldn't shake the sense that I was reading a novelization of an especially good episode of NYPD Blue.  But I guess there are worse things a book could aspire to than that.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Angels and Insects by A. S. Byatt

And the Queens themselves, who emerge in their hundred of hundreds, must possess strength and skill and cunning and tenacity to survive more than a very few moments after successful fecundation, let alone start a nest.  The time in the blue sky, the dizzy whirling in the gauzy finery lasts only a few hours.  Then they must snap off their wings, like a young girl stepping out of her wedding veils, and scurry away to find a safe place to found a new nest-colony.  Most fall prey to birds, other insects, frogs and toads, hedgehogs and trampling humans.  Few indeed manage to make their way again underground where they will lay their first eggs, nourish their first brood of daughters--miserable dwarfs, fragile and slow, these early children--and in due course, as the workers take over the running of the nursery and the provision of food, they will forget that they ever saw the sun, or thought for themselves, or chose a path to run on, or flew in the midsummer blue.  They become egg-laying machines, gross and glistening, endlessly licked, caressed, soothed and smoothed--veritable Prisoners of Love.  This is the true nature of the Venus under the Mountain, in this miniature world a creature immobilised by her function of breeding, by the blind violence of her passions.

In "Morpho Eugenia," the first of two novellas that make up A. S. Byatt's book Angels and Insects, a young explorer and entomologist named William Adamson has returned to England from the Amazon.  He has spent years studying and collecting, but his entire collection is gone, shipwrecked, and so he has to find shelter at the mercy of an elder collector with whom he has had an ongoing correspondence.  In return for shelter, William agrees to help his benefactor, Harald Alabaster, to organize his own collection of specimens, as well as to converse with him about the arguments against and in favor of the existence of God, which Alabaster means to publish in a book.  And though William is anxious to return to raise funds for a new voyage and continue his studies in the rainforest, there is a consolation prize at Harald Alabaster's estate: his beautiful daughter Eugenia, with whom he falls in love, and whom he eventually marries.

William presents Eugenia with a gift: a specimen of the Morpho eugenia, a pale-colored but beautiful butterfly from the Amazon, who happens to share her name.  Much is made of the color of butterflies: they are a warning of toxicity, for one, so any time we see Eugenia in a brightly or pale colored outfit we're being asked to ponder the wisdom of William's marriage.  Male insects seem to be more brightly colored than females, and surely this says something about the natural relationship between men and women?  William, in his spare time, undertakes a longitudinal study of the ants around Alabaster's estate with the Alabaster children and a servant named Matty Crompton, who shares his interests in insects.  The lives of ants, too, seem to provide fertile metaphors for human life.  Is the ant Queen, the "glistening egg-laying machine" an image of Eugenia, who keeps pumping out children who seem not to have any resemblence to William?  Are the Sanguinea ants who literally enslave ants of other species and convert them under a kind of Stockholm syndrome a metaphor for William's relationship to the Alabasters?

"Men are not ants," William says to Matty, matter-of-factly.  It's a reminder that our habit of looking to the animal world to explain something about human nature is an act of anthropomorphism, that is to say, an act of projection.  Although what we conclude can be unpleasant, we can comfort ourselves by looking at the animal world and seeing ourselves reflected; we can say, look, that's just the way it is.  For Harald Alabaster, the social lives of insects are proof of a divine pattern he is desperate to see.  Darwin's ideas have arrived to threaten cultured belief in intelligent design, and Alabaster, who is old and frail, must ward them off to assuage his own fears of death.  But the animal world is incredibly diverse, and Byatt tells us that we can find anything in it, if we look hard enough.  What is much harder is to really look at people: see, for instance, how William Adamson steadfastly refuses to see the way in which his assistant Matty Crompton is better suited for him than Eugenia Alabaster.

Fears of death are even more explicit in the second novella, "The Conjugial Angel."  It's set among a small group of dabblers in the occult, who meet frequently to perform seances and the popular 19th century psychic practice known as "automatic writing."  Each of these characters is touched by grief: a woman who has lost several infants, all named Amy; a woman trying to reach her shipwrecked explorer husband; and the sister of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who, like her brother, has spent decades dealing with the grief over the drowning death of her fiance Arthur Hallam.  Hallam is the subject of Tennyson's famous poem "In Memoriam A. H. H.," one of the most beautiful meditations on death in the English language.  In Byatt's account, Emily, who has since remarried, has always been conflicted by the depth and fame of her brother's famous poem; she has often felt like Alfred's grief has crowded out her own, and at the same time the poem's composition and reception have kept her, and Alfred, from any sort of closure.  That's emphasized when the medium, a weirdo named Sophy Sheekhy, conjures up Hallam's moldering and confused old spirit, who has been unable to "cross over" into the spirit world.

"The Conjugial Angel" would be familiar to readers of Byatt's PossessionIt, too, is centered on a 19th century poet, and Byatt's reading of Tennyson is deep and thoughtful.  It's a little knottier than "Morpho Eugenia," partly because it's an ensemble piece that really lacks a main character, and partly because so much of it really is a kind of literary criticism.  You get the impression that it might work best for "In Memoriam A. H. H." superfans, wherever they are, but for those of us who are only passingly familiar with the poem--or like most people, not familiar at all--it's hard to shake the idea that we're missing some crucial knowledge to make the novella work.  That being said, it's got some great moments, especially when it imagines a strange and colorful spirit world.  But it's "Morpho Eugenia," with its Victorian gothic narrative and colorful descriptions of insects, and which looks down at the ground instead of up to the heavens, which is going to stay with me most.