Friday, August 28, 2020

The Mare by Mary Gaitskill

What effect could it have on Velvet, all that coming at her and not knowing what it was about? She was poor, she lived in a shit neighborhood, and when she talked about her mother, there was something in her voice that made me think of a shadow on the wall in a horror movie. The woman's voice on the phone confirmed the feeling: She sounded abusive, half crazy. The girl had need, big need. I could feel it under her certainty and diffidence. And here was Ginger with her need, looking at Velvet with shining eyes, calling her "princess," and tucking her in at night. It seemed an unstable mix of things, combustible, a promise that could not be kept.

Velveteen Vargas is an eleven-year old Dominican girl living in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. As part of a program called "Fresh Air," she is sent to stay for two weeks with a white couple living in New York's Hudson Valley. Paul and Ginger, the couple, are childless, and while Paul is skeptical of the program, Ginger devotes herself with abandon to caring for Velvet. When Ginger takes Velvet to the stables next door, Velvet begins a passionate love affair with horse riding, focusing especially on a horse she calls "my mare," but who has the unfortunate name of "Fugly Girl." Velvet grows close to Ginger, and spends years traveling back and forth between Dutchess County and Crown Heights, but she has to keep her riding secret from her tempestuous, abusive mother, Silvia.

I did not like The Mare. It took a long time, but by the end of the novel I was convinced by the young Velvet's voice, which mixes uneasily at times with Gaitskill's steely metaphors, but which ultimately was able to conjure up the reality of an eleven-, twelve-, and then thirteen-year old. But to me, the novel was never able to get escape velocity from the two narrative black holes that threaten it: the cheesiness of the conceit, and the white savior narrative.

It's cheesy: a disadvantaged youth from the big city discovers her love of horse riding? It sounds like a movie on ABC Family. In several ways, Gaitskill leans into the cheese by drawing forced parallels between Velvet's abusive upbringing and the raising of horses. "Abuse," one of the trainers tells Velvet, "is when you don't just hit once, but over and over. I've seen people do things like beat a yearling to the ground 'cause it reared up 'cause it was young." Then there's "Fugly Girl," the horse no one wanted--is there any doubt that this horse will lead Velvet to a victory in the final competition that is the book's climax? Especially when Velvet decides "her mare" is really named "Fiery Girl?"

The other black hole is much deadlier. Although Gaitskill--and Ginger--are well aware of the racial implications of a white woman becoming a surrogate mother to a Dominican girl who already has a mother, that awareness, to me, never rescues The Mare from being a white savior narrative. Gaitskill is immensely talented and cautious, and makes both Ginger and Silvia complicated characters. Gaitskill doesn't fall into the trap of believing that Silvia must be abusive or loving toward Velvet; the truth, as it always is, is that Silvia both loves her daughter and abuses her mightily. And of course, we get to know all about the life Silvia has led, from neglect in the D.R. to poverty in the U.S., and the way it informs her relationship with Velvet. It's a testament to Gaitskill that the character is convincing and sympathetic, but in the end, that didn't seem to me to be enough. This is still a novel about a dark-skinned kid whose life finds direction and meaning when she's introduced to a white woman.

The Mare was a disappointment because I was really taken with Gaitskill's dreamy New York City novel Veronica. I can see elements of that novel, especially on the level of each individual sentence--Gaitskill is a great writer of sentences--here, but something gets lost in the size and scope of it, and the frenetic skipping between narrators. I can imagine a novel I'd have liked to read, one in which Velvet gets to stand alone as the narrator; but is that a novel Gaitskill could get away with?

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

 Night Boat to Tangiers by Kevin Barry

Night Boat to Tangier: A Novel: Barry, Kevin: 9780385540315 ...

It is night in the terminal building at the port of Algeciras.  The last ferry has moved out for Tangier.  There is almost nobody left on the floor.  The tannoys are silent.  The café bar is locked down and shuttered.  Beneath the sign marked INFORMACIÓN, the desk is empty, the hatch in darkness.  Along from the hatch, on the same bench, Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond sit together alone but for their remorse.  They have the tune of it easily, by nature almost it seems.

Another thing you’d say for it, Charlie

Is what Maurice?

That in a sense it’s a very rich taste of life you get.  There a special intensity to it.

Come again Moss?

I mean it’s as profound an experience as the world has to offer, in a way, is a broken heart.

I come for a long line of the same, Maurice.   The broken-heartedness.

Is that right Charles?

The Redmond men all wind up with the hearts busted in their boxes.  It’s part of the deal with us, apparently.

They look left, they look right, and in perfect tandem.

You think she can look after herself?  Dilly?


I read Barry’s earlier book of short stories, Dark Lies the Island, some years ago.  It had several memorable short stories in the vein of emotional realism.  That attracted me to his first novel, City of Bohane in 2011.  That was a richly descriptive work of speculative fiction – imagine a George Saunders version of The Gangs of New York.  I was not sure what to expect with this new novel, and it seems to split the difference – stylistically rich and yet rooted in realism.

The story is entirely focused on two aging criminals – Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond.  They have come to the ferry port in Algeciras in the Bay of Gibraltar on the rumor that Charlie’s daughter, Dilly, will be arriving on the ferry from Tangier.  She is not expecting them and both the reader and the two men sense that she may be trying to avoid them.  They variously threaten, follow and cajole people who might know her – that suspicion being based largely on their dreadlocks and their dogs – and remain convinced that she will show up.

While they wait, we flash back to learn the story of Maurice and Charlie’s development as drug dealers, their early success and the long string of failures that has left them near destitution in this ferry station.  We learn also of their relationship with Cynthia – Dilly’s mother, the love of Charlie’s, and probably Maurice’s, life.  Charlie’s attempt to live something close to a normal life (albeit drug-fueled) with Cynthia and Dilly is tied up with his slow loss of control – over crime, drugs, his grasp of fidelity and, for a time, his relationship with Maurice.  By the time we get to this night in Algeciras, Cynthia has died, Maurice and Charlie have reunited.  We slowly come to realize that their desire to reunite with Dilly is more desperate than threatening, more emotional than criminal.

There is a wonderful lyricism in the conversations of these two, both their tough guy meetings with the unfortunate passengers that catch their eye and their more philosophical and emotional musings on the course of life.  There is a good deal of Vladimir and Estragon here – the two unfortunates who talk their way through Becket’s Waiting For Godot, but where Becket removed his pair from any specific historical context, leaving them in a post-apocalyptic world of uncertain provenance, Maurice and Charlie are all too well encased in history – their own, as well as that of the last millennium.  Their world is also post-apocalyptic, but here the apocalypse is entirely personal.  These are men not meant for old age and they don’t know what to do with it now that it has arrived.  The travelers they are surrounded with have some direction. Maurice and Charlie have nowhere left to go.

Barry has a swift and efficient way with characterization.  Dilly appears for only a moment at the end, but is as surprising as she is real.  The contrast between her well planned trip – she has a very clear destination and purpose, and the older men’s aimless, hulking presence changes our feelings for both her and the men.  Her response to their presence is both tragic and hopeful, though our hopes for her do not extend to Maurice and Charlie.

Throughout, I knew I was in the hands of a writer in full control of his power and his material – Night Boat to Tangier makes a distant world seem familiar while also making familiarity seem odd and new.

Monday, August 24, 2020


Lost Children Archive: A Novel: Luiselli, Valeria: 9781524711504 ...

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli



The only thing that parents can really give their children are little knowledges:  this is how you cut your own nails, this is the temperature of a real hug, this is how you untangle knots in your hair, this is how I love you.  And what children give their parents, in return, is something less tangible but at the same time larger and more lasting, something like a drive to embrace life fully and understand it, on their behalf, so they can try to explain it to them, pass it down to them “with acceptance and not rancor,” as James Baldwin once wrote, but also with a certain rage and fierceness.  Children force parents to go out looking for a specific pulse, a gaze, a rhythm, the right way of telling the story, knowing that stories don’t fix anything or save anyone but maybe make the world both more complex and more tolerable.  And sometimes, just sometimes, more beautiful.  Stories are a way of subtracting the future from the past, the only way of finding clarity in hindsight.


This is a powerful book that feels important despite being, in some queasy-making ways, dissatisfying.


The story centers on a New York family that is travelling to Arizona.  Husband and wife – none of the characters are named, though they give each other “Apache” names as they travel – met and fell in love while working on an NYU sponsored project to record and collect the diversity of sounds in New York.  He worked mostly in the streets and buildings, recording the ambient noises of the city (he describes himself as a documentarist, like an archivist) while she recorded languages and accents of the city’s diverse linguistic communities (the husband describes her as a documentarian – akin to a librarian).  Each has a child from a previous marriage – past relationships we learn almost nothing about – and they have formed a happy and close family of four.


Now that the NYC project is over, however, husband wants to move on to his dream project:  recording the sounds of Apacheria – the Arizona lands that were the last stronghold of Geronimo and the Apaches.  He considers their capture the end of real freedom in North America and appears willing to leave the family (taking his biological son with him) to pursue the project.  The wife – who is the narrator for the first third of the novel – has become friends with a woman whose two daughters have disappeared while trying to cross into the United States from Mexico.  She pitches a radio documentary focused on the crisis of refugee children crossing the desert to NPR and that gives them the opportunity to stay together as the family leaves New York for Arizona.  The bulk of the novel involves their drive across country.


It is made abundantly clear however that the husband’s willingness to leave without the wife and her biological daughter foreshadow the end of the family and we read a great deal about the wife’s sadness and insecurity as they travel closer to Apacheria and the end of their lives together.  They encounter a number of characters on their travels and spend some time in iconic American landscapes (The Shenandoah Valley, Graceland, Roswell) but much of this time we are getting to know them as characters.  The boy is ten and the girl is five.  He is serious and wants to be treated like an adult, while she is the sense of humor in the family.


The plot becomes dramatic when, in Roswell, New Mexico, the boy becomes the narrator.  He has become entranced by his father’s stories about the Apache while also becoming deeply concerned with the fate of the two little girls who are missing somewhere in the desert.  He has also realized that when they arrive at their destination, the family will be split up.  These various threads fuse in his thinking and he and his sister run away thinking that if they make it to Echo Canyon, near where Geronimo and the last free Apaches were captured, they will find the lost girls, their parents will find them and the twin crises will be averted.


From that point on, the novel becomes a harrowing story of these two children attempting to survive as they travel hundreds of miles of Arizona desert unescorted and without any real idea of where they are going.  They ride on a freight train, find small streams and springs and – improbably – survive to reach their destination.  Of course, the two girls are not there, (though they do encounter a small group of refugee children also trying to cross the desert) and the crisis does not heal the family divisions.  


Until the change in narrator’s, the novel has been a largely thematic exploration of displacement, separation and struggle.  Luiselli’s prose is tough and musical and the mother’s reflections on the dissolving family mix beautifully with her worries about the children being held in refugee centers by the (unnamed) Trump administration.  She locates this sense of loss both within American geography through the cross-country trip and within contemporary American culture through a truly impressive practice of allusion.  Mother is well read and something of a music aficionado, so there are references here to Anne Carson, Dylan Thomas, Emily Dickinson, Bob Dylan, David Bowie as well as a dozen artists and film makers and a short history of the end of the Apache.  There is a beautiful novel within the novel that lyrically tells the story of a group of refugees with hints of Jews escaping the holocaust and Central Americans escaping chaos and poverty.


When the ten-year old boy walking through the desert becomes narrator, much of those allusions disappear (though Bowie’s “Space Oddity” remains a central motif) and the novel changes from a thematic, abstract reflection on separation of loss to a plot driven story of an attempt to survive separation.  There are moments when the children are in danger or particularly alone that are truly moving.


However, this is also the aspect of the book that is disquieting.  I hate to hold up a lens of political correctness, but the novel touches upon a central political failure of America (our refusal to take our commitments to refugees seriously) on every page.  Luiselli takes on the subject of real children dying in the desert while attempting to reunite with their families by having two New Yorkers cross the desert on a kind of childish lark.  This provides a number of dramatic possibilities, but there is also a certain shadow of trivialization – the level of desperation that drives these two children is simply not equivalent to that driving the actual children they represent.  Perhaps this can be captured with the issue of names:  like the actual children, these characters remain nameless, but as part of a family game they have taken on nicknames meant to sound like Apache names.  He becomes “Swiftfeather” while his sister chooses a complex string of words that is shortened to “Memphis.”  It is important to link the history of Europeans stealing land from Indigenous people to the way we are closing the borders and trying to keep that land for ourselves, but I am not sure that these nicknames allow me to take that connection seriously.


The novel has a fascinating structure.  In addition to the two narrators, the novel includes lists of resources the parents are consulting for their documentaries and a series of Polaroid pictures Swiftfeather takes with a camera he gets as a gift.  These deepen the narrative in a way that reminded me of the news paper collages in John Dos Passos’s USA trilogy of the 1930s.  Like that novel, Lost Children Archive demands to be read within its political and historic context.  It deserves to be taken that seriously.

Friday, August 21, 2020

God's Country by Percival Everett

"How did you become a tracker?" I asked. It was afternoon now, and our pace had slowed just a little. I was riding even with Bubba and the boy.

"How's a man become anything?"

"What kind of fool answer is that?"

He didn't say anything.

Then Jake asked him, "How did you come to be one, Bubba?"

"People was always trackin' me and they was always catchin' me, too. So I just started to watchin' 'em. Soon, they was catchin' me 'cause I was too busy watchin' 'em to keep runnin'."

Curt Marder comes home one day to find a group of outlaws burning down his house, killing his dog, and making off with his wife Sadie before running off. To find them he enlists the services of Bubba, an infamous tracker, but being in Bubba's debt makes Curt uneasy, because Curt is white and Bubba is black. ("It's 1871," Curt quips familiarly, "ain't you people ever gonna forget about that slavery stuff?") Nevertheless, the pair set off into the Wild West together along with a young girl, disguised as a boy, whose family was killed by the same marauders.

God's Country is, superficially, a Western: it's got saloons, whorehouses, trading posts, and long stretches of canyon and arroyo through which Curt, Bubba, and the girl Jake move. But at heart it's really a broad comedy, taking its cues more from Blazing Saddles than Lonesome Dove. (And I do mean broad: there's a character in this book named Colonel Rip Phardt.) Curt is an asshole and a cheat, but he's also a Mel Brooks-style schlemiel who gets into one comic scrape after another, usually barely escaping.

To me, God's Country felt fatally over-plotted; in 200 pages it manages to split the three travelers up a dozen times and sends Curt ping-ponging back and forth from town to the desert and back again. One second he's been buried up to his neck by hooligans, the next he's spying on General Custer dressed up in ladies' underwear at the bordello. The novel is aggressively fun, but something of its larger arc, if there even is one, gets quickly lost.

Through all of it, Bubba himself stands apart from the comedy as an avatar of grief and wisdom. In the passage above he makes it clear that his tracking ability comes from life as a runaway slave, and his simple dream--to own land here in the west--is promised to him by Marder, who has neither the intention nor the capability to deliver. The American West, for once, is a place of racial and cultural collision, not just between white and black but Native Americans and Jews. Perhaps the best thing about God's Country is that it rejects the mythos of the West as a place waiting to be tamed by white settlers, identifying it instead as a landscape being violently refashioned by people like Curt at the expense of people like Bubba and the Natives he considers allies.

In the hands of a white writer, you might expect this to be a novel about Curt's racial awakening; eventually, you think, he'll recognize Bubba's essential humanity, like Huck Finn. But one of the most interesting things about God's Country is that it's not interested in white growth at all. Curt ends the novel--spoiler alert--as he begins it, unable or unwilling to recognize anyone's humanity but his own, and in fact he clearly becomes even worse: realizing that he's inextricably indebted to Bubba, he decides he has no choice but to murder him. He shoots Bubba several times, but whether because Bubba's wearing a vest or for more symbolic-mystical reasons, Bubba rides on, delivering the novel's final assertion of dignity in the face of inhumanity:

"I'm goin' out there to make a life for myself somewhere. You done cheated me, lied to me, and killed my brothers. I ain't got enough interest in you to kill you. But I'm goin' down there, like I said. And you or somebody what looks like you or thinks like you or is you will find me and you'll burn me out, shoot me or maybe lynch me. But you know something? You cain't kill me."

I watched him ride away.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Arm of the Starfish by Madeleine L'Engle

"We're just beginning to learn why the regeneration is sometimes abnormal and malignant. We're just beginning to understand that you cannot change stones into bread. This is not the way miracles are worked, but it's always been a temptation. If what we are doing is taken over by the unscrupulous it can cause unimaginable horror and suffering. Here is power to give life to people, or to devour them. What I am trying to do is go back about two thousand years in my thinking. Somewhere in the last two thousand years we've gone off. When we began to depend on and develop things in the western world we lost something of inestimable value in our understanding. There's something wrong about trying to heal with a surgeon's knife. There's got to be an alternative to cutting and mutilating and I'm trying to learn it from the starfish. But I'm just at the beginning. And I'm afraid, Adam. If it gets out of my hands--I'm afraid." Dr. O'Keefe clenched his fist and pounded it softly against the papers on his desk. Then he smiled.

Sixteen-year old Adam Eddington is headed to the remote island of Gaea off the coast of Portugal to intern with a world-famous biologist, Dr. Calvin O'Keefe. (Last seen, you may recall, as the child heartthrob of A Wrinkle in Time.) Adam's not totally sure what O'Keefe's research is, though he knows it's about the regenerative properties of starfish. But whatever it is, it's important--and dangerous--enough that Adam finds himself in the middle of sudden intrigue. At JFK, a beautiful young woman named Kali Cutter tells him to beware of another passenger, a priest named Canon Tallis, who's escorting O'Keefe's daughter Poly back to Portugal. On a connecting flight, Tallis clocks Adam and entrusts Poly to his care, only for her to disappear mysteriously from an airplane bathroom.

For the first half of the novel, Adam is bewildered, unable to decide whether he should trust the O'Keefes or Kali and her mogul father, Typhon Cutter. (Like a true STEM kid, Adam never pauses to consider that Kali and Typhon are named for great destroyers of world mythology, which really should have been a giveaway.) He ultimately decides to throw his lot in with the O'Keefes because he can see they care about the "fall of the sparrow"--and not, as Typhon Cutter does, seizing O'Keefe's research for the greater benefit of America.

The Arm of the Starfish is essentially a shaggy dog spy story. O'Keefe's research sets up themes of radical empathy and love that are recognizable from A Wrinkle in Time, but to be honest, the research is mostly a red herring, an excuse to have Adam run around Lisbon trying to deliver a coded research report sewn into his clothes while Kali tries to seduce and persuade him into giving her his confidence. I have a suspicion that if you really pulled on the thread of the intrigue, it would all fall apart, not least when you ask yourself why a brilliant scientist like O'Keefe feels compelled to entrust spycraft to a sixteen-year old. But the story itself is as fast-paced and gripping as any airport paperback. The Arm of the Starfish is what more books ought to be: plain fun.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Counter-Clock World by Philip K. Dick

Even in the daytime it was a forbidding place. Despite the nascent life beneath the ground potentially crying out for aid. Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, he thought in quotation from vaguely remembered portion of the Bible. And the tongues of the dead unstopped. A lovely passage; and now so factually, accurately true. Who would have thought? All those centuries, regarded as a pretty and comforting fable by the world's intellectuals, something to lull people into accepting their fate. The understanding that, as predicted, it would one day be literally true, that it was not a myth--

Philip K. Dick's Counter-Clock World is one of those science fiction novels spun from a single hypothetical question: what if time began moving backwards? In 1986, the world entered "the Hobart Phase," in which normal processes suddenly began moving in the other direction. People began getting younger, not older, and soon the dead began reviving in their coffins. (Causality, it seems, still moves in the same direction, otherwise the shaggy intrigue of the novel wouldn't work.)

Dick seizes on this idea for several sly jokes. People open their conversations with "goodbye" and end them with "hello." Instead of eating, they anally ingest a substance called "sogum" around the dinner table, and then disgorge food in shameful privacy. Instead of "shit," they said "food." But the implications, as they often do in Dick's novels, touch on the theological; the Biblical promise that the dead will be reborn has finally been fulfilled. And yet, the resurrection of the dead has not exactly ushered in a peaceable kingdom. Instead of senescence and death, people can now look forward to their inevitable regression to a child, then an infant, and then a fetus which must be reinserted into a human host. (The process is complete when the host woman copulates with a man, and you're split into a sperm and egg. Neat!)

The plot centers on Sebastian Hermes, the owner of a "vitarium"--an organization responsible for digging the "old-born" out of their graves when they wake, then selling them (!) to family or friends--who discovers the burial spot of Anarch Thomas Peak, a leader of a mysterious religion who is expected shortly to be reborn. The Anarch Peak is a hot commodity for a vitarium, and Hermes finds himself in the middle of a violent war for Peak between Peak's followers, the Church of Udi, the Church of Rome, and the nefarious Public Library, who want to eradicate Peak's ideas as they eradicate, bit by bit, all the new information and learning written since 1986.

Hermes himself is an "old-born," but like most people, his memory of death is minimal. He tells his team at the vivarium that his principal recollection is a feeling of overwhelming smallness:

"We have to be little," Sebastian said, "so there ca be so many of us. So billions of billions of separate creatures can live; if one of us were big, the same size of God, then how many would there be? I see it as the only way by which every potential soul can--"

The Udi practice a drug-induced rite that supposedly unites users in a single mind; there is hope that the resurrected Peak may be able to shine some light on the relationship between the individual soul and God, who, despite death's reversal, remains mysterious and aloof.

In addition to the religious and metaphysical angle, I was interested in the way Counter-Clock World deals with race. Peak, like most of the Uditi, is black, and the religion is most popular in a splinter portion of the United States known as the Free Negro Municipality. It's not hard to see echoes in the racial violence of the 1960's, and perhaps even Martin Luther King's assassination, in the struggle over Peak; does the reversal of time perhaps promise an ultimate return to pre-racial humanity, a common ancestor? Does the Uditi's religion of the single mind promise to obliterate racial strife? And how does that fit into the idea that the "old-born" are essentially chattel slavery at the mercy of those who dig them up? Dick handles these questions too obliquely to be answered in any meaningful way, and a Balkanized United States is such a common trope in his novels it's hard to see how the idea fits in here. But the ideas are here, below the surface.

My feeling is that Dick's best novels, like Martin Time-Slip and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said always seem to break out of the orbit of their central idea. Counter-Clock World never quite does that; it seizes on the time-reversal thing and sticks with it until the bitter end. As always, it's heady and compelling, but I wouldn't place it on the level of his best work.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Jammed between my own bags, stopped over, I sobbed. I had never cried this way in my life. As the hot tears poured out, I remembered that I had never had a proper cry over my grandmother's death. I had a feeling that I wasn't crying over any one sad thing, but rather for many.

Looking up, I saw white steam rising, in the dark, out of a brightly lit window overhead. I listened. From inside came the sound of happy voices at work, soup boiling, knives and pots and pans clanging.

It was a kitchen.

I was puzzled, smiling about how I had just gone from the darkest despair to feeling wonderful. I stood up, smoothed down my skirt, and started back for the Tanabes'.

I implored the gods: Please, let me live.

Mikage's grandmother dies, leaving her alone in the world. A young man she barely knows, Yuichi, who knew her grandmother as a customer at his flower shop, invites her to come and live with him and his mother for a while. His mother, Eriko, is the most beautiful woman Mikage has ever seen, but Yuichi confesses that Eriko is actually his biological father who has been living as a woman since the death of Yuichi's mother. Together, Mikage, Yuichi, and Eriko make a kind of ad hoc family, emblemized by Mikage's love of kitchens, the center of the household and the hearth. Later, in the second section of Yoshomito's novella, Eriko is suddenly murdered by an obsessed stalker, and Mikage returns to Yuichi's life to once again convene around a shared grief.

Kitchen is a subtle and touching work about the aftermath of death. Although Eriko is killed in a way that is startling and gruesome, Yoshimoto sees death and grief as fundamentally woven into the human experience, and they are inescapable:

Why is it we have so little choice? We live like the lowliest worms. Always defeated--defeated we make dinner, we eat, we sleep. Everyone we love is dying. Still, to cease living is unacceptable.

But Mikage's closeness to Yuichi is a choice, though it's not a choice everyone--like Yuichi's girlfriend, for example--seems to understand. Neither Mikage or Yuichi seem sure whether their relationship is romantic or platonic; it seems to follow no recognizable pattern or rule, and yet in the context of the permanency of loss it seems incredibly logical. Grief cannot be overcome, but it can be lived through, and such a life starts in the kitchen.

I was really interested in the way that Kitchen deals with Eriko's identity as a trans woman. Written in 1988, Yoshimoto doesn't seem to have our modern language at hand, and Yuichi himself seems to vacillate between calling Eriko his mother and his father. An appended story, "Moonlight Shadow," repeats many of the same themes: it's about a woman who loses her boyfriend in a car accident along with the girlfriend of her boyfriend's brother. The brother has taken to wearing his dead girlfriend's school uniform, complete with swishy skirt, as a way of keeping her alive. Is Eriko's transition about embodying his dead wife? Perhaps, but in a touching letter Eriko leaves behind, Yoshimoto dismisses the idea that Eriko's feminity is a costume or a crutch:

Just this once I wanted to write using men's language, and I've really tried. But it's funny--I get embarrassed and the pen won't go. I guess I thought that even though I've lived all these years as a woman, somewhere inside me was my male self, that I've been playing a role all these years. But I find that I'm body and soul a woman. A mother in name and fact. I have to laugh.

That's rather lovely, I think, and fundamentally different than the school uniform of "Moonlight Shadow." But both stories are about the possibility of transformation in the wake of grief, and neither one offers what you might expect: the blithe confidence that loss can be "gotten over." Both are optimistic in a way, but only in the sense that they believe that life tinged by loss is still precious and worth living.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

Titus Groan: A host of eerie eccentrics | Fantasy Literature: Fantasy and  Science Fiction Book and Audiobook Reviews

Drear ritual turned its wheel. The ferment of the heart, within these walls, was mocked by every length of sleeping shadow. The passions, no greater than candle flames, flickered in Time's yawn, for Gormenghast, huge and adumbrate, out-crumbles all.

I've been meaning to re-read Mervyn Peake's neo-Gothic classic Titus Groan for a long time. My memory is that I was bored by it the first time I read it, but that the sequel--Gormenghast--made me think more kindly on it. For whatever reason, it seems to me that our cultural landscape keeps getting more and more inundated with fantasy narratives, but Peake's weird, baroque novels still haven't gotten the second look they should.

One funny thing I realized about the first two books in the series is that their names really ought to be switched. Titus Groan extends from the birth of the title character till he's invested with power after his father's death, at about one year old. The most he ever does in the novel is cry and forebodingly drop a ceremonial stone into a lake. In Gormenghast he comes into his own, battling the ambitious Steerpike for control of the castle, but it's Titus Groan that's really about the castle itself: a hulking, city-sized place, much of which is closed off or completely falling apart.

The first thirty pages of Titus Groan show more ingenuity and creativity, I think, than eighteen hours of The Witcher or whatever. There's a room full of nothing but white cats, a tower of murderous owls, and a room that holds only the roots of en enormous tree that extends laterally out of the side of the castle; this room is the haunt of the power-hungry identical twins Cora and Clarice. The lord of Gormenghast, Sepulchrave, the Earl of Groan, lives his days miserably, following the regimen laid out by the master of ritual, Sourdust. The rituals are scrupulously followed because they are the Groans' ancient power, but they are nonsensical, comprising tasks like climbing the stairs in the Tower of Flints three times and leaving three successive cups of wine in a windowsill. The tedium of ritual mirrors the castle's crumbling facade; it too exists only for itself without purpose and without attention, and those who live in it turn a blind eye to the way time strips the castle of its grandeur. Meanwhile, the head gardener polishes all the apples in the orchard.

For all the bigness of the castle--I think only a deep-pocketed studio like HBO could really do it justice, if anyone ever tried--life in it seems cramped and circumscribed. When the novel opens, all the servants in the castle are in revelry over the birth of Titus, but for long stretches it seems as if no one lives in the castle but a half dozen major characters, each of whom is entirely turned inward. For Lord Sepulchrave, it's his books; for his wife the Countess, her birds and cats; for their daughter Fuchsia, the musty and crowded attic where she goes to be alone. Even when they talk to each other, these characters hardly seem to hear each other.

But despite this narrow view, I came to read it the second time as a novel with interesting things to say about class. Titus Groan opens in the "Hall of Bright Carvings," a room full of beautiful wooden statues created by the Dwellers, who live in shanty-like huts outside the castle walls. The Dwellers spend all year carving these statues to be judged by the Earl, who chooses three to remain in the Hall, and the rest are burned. But no one ever visits the Hall; its curator lives basically in happy isolation. Like the rest of the castle's rituals, the ritual of the Bright Carvings goes on meaninglessly because it is so old, and yet the carvers devote their lifetimes to it. The castle relies on the immiseration of thousands, and yet it provides no meaning or comfort for Sepulchrave or anyone else.

It's in this context that Steerpike, the ambitious kitchen boy, appears. Steerpike, disgusted at the idea of working for the corpulent and cruel cook, Swelter, insinuates himself into court, seducing Fuchsia and manipulating the twins into burning down the Gormenghast library so he can "save" everyone. At the end of the novel, Steerpike has become the apprentice to the master of ritual, though a class upstart like he is can only master ritual in order to destroy it. There's some indication (affirmed in Gormenghast, I'm sure) that Titus is a foil to Steerpike, as the young earl who drops the ceremonial stone in the water, indicating that he's come to shake up the ossified state of things at Gormenghast. Without reading the next novel again--which I will, eventually--it's interesting to me that these two characters are set up to be so similar, but it's Titus with his noble blood whose distruption is formulated as heroism, and the upstart Steerpike who is made the villain.

I see again why I had trouble with the novel the first time around. Unlike Game of Thrones, a franchise where things really happen, Titus Groan is ponderous and slow. Peake makes great use of the setting--I have remembered for years the awful scene of Sepulchrave climbing into the Tower of Flints to let himself be devoured by owls--but the action itself is slow, focused on the minute movement of eyes, feet, lips, hands. And the language itself is as overwrought as the 19th century Gothic novels by which it's inspired. It's luscious and campy, but perhaps not for the impatient. George R. R. Martin fans might find it a little too glacial for their tastes (even as they're entering the second decade of waiting for the next installation) but to me, its rewards are much finer.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh

What is that old saying? A friend is someone who helps you hide the body--that was the gist of this new rapport. I sensed it immediately. My life was going to change. In this strange creature, I'd met my match, my kindred spirit, my ally. Already I wanted to extend my hand, slashed and ready to be shaken in a pact of blood, that was how impressionable and lonely I was. I kept my hands in my pockets, however. This marked the beginning of the dark bond which now paves the way for the rest of my story.

The title narrator of Otessa Moshfegh's Eileen lives a sad and narrow life: she lives in a small New England town in a pigsty of a house, where she takes care of her father, a former cop and alcoholic prone to paranoid fantasies about hoodlums and thugs. She rarely bathes and always wears the clothes of her mother, who died at the end of a wasting disease. She works at a local boy's prison as some kind of administrative assistant, and spends her free time stalking a hunky guard named Randy who doesn't even know her name. She pities the boys in the prison, but Eileen is in a prison more or less of her own making, a prison of filth and drudgery she has built out of a diminished sense of her own deserving.

All that changes when a new director of education appears at the prison: an elegant redheaded woman named Rebecca Saint John. Rebecca takes an instant liking to Eileen, but nothing like the liking Eileen takes to Rebecca. She forgets all about Randy and plunges headfirst into an obsession with Rebecca, who is so unlike any person she's ever seen in the town she calls "X-Ville." Throughout the novel, Eileen, recalling the story as an adult, teases us with the knowledge that Rebecca's appearance in her life was the catalyst she needed to abandon her father and run away to New York, where she has lived the remainder of her life. Is Rebecca really so inspirational? Sort of, yes, but it's more than that--as it turns out, Rebecca involves Eileen in a criminal act that gives her the permission and the opportunity to blow her life apart.

Although the climax of Eileen takes its cues from crime thrillers, it's mostly a very understated book. Moshfegh lingers with skill over Eileen's life in the week before Christmas, the day she leaves home. It's really a character novel, a convincing portrait of a young woman trapped in her own sense of inadequacy and fear of life. The older Eileen tells us that, in her 20's, she long believed that she would eventually chuck everything and run away--she even planned out a route where she would drive in the wrong direction, abandon her car, and hop on the train--but it's easy to imagine this fantasy remaining a fantasy, like the romantic fantasy she holds out for Randy, and Eileen's life slipping away from her. How do we change? Eileen asks. And is living for ourselves always a great crime, because it means that we leave others by the wayside?

In the end, Eileen is a novel about transformation, a bildungsroman at a rapid pace: Rebecca appears in Eileen's life for a brief instant, upends everything almost unwittingly, and shuffles out again in an act of deflating cowardice. Rebecca may not be the person Eileen dreamed she was, but Eileen still can be.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Salem's Lot by Stephen King

The town knew about darkness.

It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul.

Ben Mears is a semi-successful writer who returns to Jerusalem's Lot, Maine, where he spent several years of his youth. He returns both to idyll and nightmare: he has fond memories of the town, but he also recalls the terrifying episode in which he ventured into the spooky Marsten House, which looks down on the town, and encountered the apparition of the hanged over. He plans on writing a book inspired by the house and the town. At first his arrival seems to promise success beyond his wildest dreams, when he meets a beautiful young woman, Susie Norton, reading one of his own books in the park.

But Ben isn't the only newcomer in Jerusalem's Lot. A mysterious bald giant named Straker has recently purchased the Marsten House on behalf of himself and his mysterious partner, a man named Barlow who always seems to be on an antique-hunting trip in Europe. After people in town begin to waste away from a sudden and mysterious illness, Ben and his allies--Susie, a high school English teacher, a priest, a doctor, and a 12-year old boy--discover that Barlow is actually an ancient vampire intent on turning the town into a vampire colony.

I brought Salem's Lot with me on a recent trip to Maine, but I was so busy eating lobster rolls and looking at lighthouses I didn't really get to read it. But having finished it now, back in New York, I think one thing the novel does really well is capture the soul of a small coastal town. Like Mears, King obviously has a lot of affection for the small Maine towns of his youth, and that's reflected here in the wide angle lens that he uses. The "core cast" of the novel is really too large, but King supplements the heroes' tale with the stories of a couple dozen other townspeople: the exhausted sheriff and his overeager deputy, the creepy dump owner who likes to shoot rats, the aging boarding house owner still in love with one of her down-and-out tenants, the abused housewife who takes her frustrations out on her infant child. Salem's Lot does something that's very hard to do: it gives a convincing portrait of an entire town. It would have been really nice, actually, to read it while passing through the towns of coastal Maine.

In fact, the vampire scourge becomes a metaphor for the decay of small-town life. Jerusalem's Lot is the place for which both King and Mears have such fond nostalgia, but it's beset by the problems common to small towns throughout the country: alcoholism, addiction, poverty, industrialization, underemployment, etc., etc. Barlow and his unstoppable tide of vampires--spoiler alert, he either "turns" or kills just about every character in the book--are a physical manifestation of common horrors. The priest, Father Callahan, bemoans the "social gospel" and longs to battle with the supernatural kind of evil that tantalized him when he became a priest, but I don't buy it. There's a reason the charismatic Barlow tempts his victims with the mundane things, like sex and power, missing from the smallness of their lives.

This is only my second King novel, and though I know it's supposed to be one of his best, I found it scattered and bloated when compared with Pet Sematary. Ironically, the novel is at its best when it's sort of Dickensian, taking that wide shot of the entire town and its denizens. But I never really cared about Susie, who is the only major woman character and who's clearly set up by the narrative for gruesome sacrifice, or Ben, whose novel seemed like a red herring by the end. The vampire Barlow gets some interesting moments, but the vampires are so drawn from horror movies and cheap paperbacks that even the twelve-year old boy is already an expert in how to deal with them. It's bloody and typically merciless, but it was never quite weird enough for me.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Story of the Lost Child (Neapolitan Novels Book 4) - Kindle edition by  Ferrante, Elena, Goldstein, Ann. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @


The Story of the Lost Child

By Elena Ferrante


I, whatever I among those I was accumulating, I would remain firm.  I was the needle of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it.  Lila on the other hand – it seemed clear to me now, and it made me proud, it calmed me, touched me – struggled to feel stable.  She couldn’t, she didn’t believe it.  However much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being on pain of her resentment and her fury, she perceived herself as liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself,  When, in spite of her defensive manipulation of person and things, the liquid prevailed,  Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth, and she – so active , so courageous – erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.



The 4th novel of the incredible Neapolitan series tells the story of the full adulthood of Lila and Elena, friends since childhood, some 1200 pages ago.  As the book opens, Elena Greco has published her second book – a hybrid novel and treatise around the invention of the concept of women.  She has left her husband Pietro and is having a full affair with the love of her childhood, Nino, Lila’s former lover.  Lila has settled into a semi-platonic relationship with Enzo, one of her friends from her communist inspired organizing.


Over the course of almost 500 pages, Elena will discover that Nino was just as rotten as Lila said, leaving Elena alone to raise her children; Lila’s relationship with Enzo will become more like husband and wife; both women will become pregnant and give birth to daughters; Elena will move back to Naples – to an apartment upstairs from Lila and Enzo and Lila’s son Rino.  The friendship will enter its most intense phase:  Elena will become a famous and successful author, Lila will make a fortune as a computer programmer.  Their daughters will be inseparable and the women will earn a kind of independence from the men that have been the center of their existences.


However, stability is never the norm in this world.  After the eruption of Nino’s affairs, comes the earthquake that destroyed much of Naples in 1980.  This particularly affects Lila – the passage above is from a longer, beautiful and complicated passage in which Lila describes her inability to hold onto herself in a shifting world.  Elena continues to compare herself constantly to Lila, much of that competition now centering on their daughters – Lila’s daughter, Tina, (who shares a name with Elena’s doll from the opening of book 1) is clearly the more brilliant of the two and Elena’s daughter Imma seems destined to a life (like Elena’s) in which she sees herself as second to her friend.  Then, just as I had forgotten the title of the book, Ferrante reminds me that it is the story of a lost child and Lila’s and Elena’s relationship is thrown into permanent turmoil.


In addition to being the story of a truly lifelong friendship, this series continues to be a history of contemporary Naples, with the sweep of crime and earthquakes and political battles always in the background.  Their friends Pasquale and Nadia had gone into hiding, suspected of communist Red Guard activities and we see that violent period of Italian history build and then fade into the neoliberal contemporary world.  It is impressive that – without spending many words on architecture or economics, Ferrante has vividly portrayed the growth of Naples from a post-war ruin to a modern, post – industrial metropolis. 


I, again, am sorry that I have finished this volume and will miss the characters in the coming days and weeks.  The constant shift in Elena’s relationship to Lila (I need her, I must avoid her) bothered me less in this final volume because the shifts had catalysts that seemed more genuinely provocative than they had before.  I was somewhat put off by the focus on Elena’s daughters in the last 100 pages as they had never risen to the status of real characters and stayed somewhat amorphous till the end.


The real issue of this book, and the part that will keep me thinking about it for some time to come, is the way Ferrante deals with issues of individual identity.  To put it bluntly, there is very little faith in individual identity here.  Lina and Elena are like two halves of one person.  Not that they are not completely, fully formed as characters, but that those characters merge and separate as if they are boundaryless.  The liquid metaphor in the passage above is apt, and later in that passage Lila describes people as little sewn packets whose threads come apart and who spill their contents as they lose their outlines.  That lack of boundaries has been apparent in the Lila/Elena friendship all along.


In the end, Elena cannot be just Elena until Lila disappears, and I question whether Lila could ever be just Lila.  We all form our characters through relationships with others, but Ferrante has taken this concept to a radical extreme.  This strikes me as the core of the book’s feminism – not just that it centers on these two brilliant and successful women who come to live their psychic and material lives independent of men, but that it delves into a kind of relationship that – in the world of the novel and, I suspect, in the world we live in –  is only available to women.