Saturday, February 27, 2021

The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe

I had not thought, when I began this record of my life, to reveal any of the secrets of our guild that were imparted to me by Master Palaemon and Master Gurloes just before I was elevated, at the feast of Holy Katharine, to the rank of journeyman. But I will tell one now, because what I did that night on Lake Diuturna cannot be understood without understanding it. And the secret is only that we torturers obey. In all the lofty order of the body politic, the pyramid of lives that is immensely taller than any material tower, taller than the Bell Keep, taller than the Wall of Nessus, taller than Mount Typhon, a pyramid that stretches from the Autarch on the Phoenix Throne to the most humble clerk grubbing for the most dishonorable trader--a creature lower than the lowest beggar--we are the only sound stone. No one truly obeys unless he will do the unthinkable in obedience; no one will do the unthinkable save we.

Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series isn't one of those fantasy series that has a map on the first page. There are many strange places, but there is no orienting yourself in it, or dispelling the mystery of these places with a name and icon. Severian, the torturer protagonist, keeps moving north, but north into a land that is increasingly unfamiliar, and as he moves he sometimes seems to move in time as well as space. That is how the Claw of the Conciliator, the magical gem he picks up in the first book, seems to work, after all, raising the dead by bending time to the point of their life. And if the prophecies are true, the arrival of the messianic figure known as the "New Sun"--the sun on this version of Earth is dim and dying--will bring the past and future together. The New Sun, it seems, might be Severian itself, and how can that kind of journey be placed on a map?

At the beginning of The Sword of the Lictor, the third novel in the series, Severian is stationed at the city of Thrax. He's been more or less exiled here after illegally providing clemency to a woman in the first book, and yet he has great authority. As the head of the Vincula (the "House of Chains") he presides over an immense fortress of criminals in need of torture and execution, and applies himself with cleverness and industry to the task. His beloved companion Dorcas is in town as well, and though Severian tells her he will break his oath to the guild and marry her, seeing his work up close has left her disgusted and disconsolate. To make matters worse, there is a creature stalking the town, burning people alive, a creature called the Salamander, and it may be looking for Severian himself. But old habits die hard and when Severian once again frees a woman he has been commanded to kill, he must escape Thrax and go on the run again.

The goal of Severian's journey is, as it has been, to return the Claw to the Pelerines, the nomadic order of women who are its keepers. Once again he encounters many strange monsters and obstacles on the way, all of which show the terrific range of Wolfe's imagination--and which, if I may so myself, really make most fantasy novels look stodgy and dull. He fights the alzabo, a creature who speaks with the voice of those it has eaten, begging their family members to join it in the alzabo's jaws. He climbs an enormous mountain shaped like an ancient ruler of Urth, only to find that the Claw has, unbeknownst to him, resurrected the ruler, now with two heads instead of one, who intends to reconquer what he has lost. He is rescued from captors by a band of people who live on islands that float in a lake and battles an army of phantasms made of fog.

And yet, compared to the second novel, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor seems almost conventional at times. There's nothing so weirdly genre-bending as the script of the play that forms the climax of that novel, for example. There are few strange visions of our own time, as occurs in the first novel. And the eerie suggestions that perhaps Severian has made the whole story up in his head are few and far between here. The story is weird, but the novel itself is recognizable as fantasy; it hits the same climactic and emotional notes. It is, at heart, an adventure. I read somewhere that Wolfe intended the series to last for three novels and then had to split the final book into two; my guess is the fourth novel increases the strangeness factor considerably.

One thing that sets The Sword of the Lictor apart from the first two novels is that Severian goes through his adventure almost entirely alone. He leaves Dorcas behind, who can't bear to be with him. His loyal friend Jonas (who turned out to be a robot, if I'm remembering correctly) is long since gone. Several new companions seem to pop up, but each only lasts a short while in Severian's company: Typhon, the former ruler, for one, and a little boy whose name is also Severian, who Severian the elder nearly adopts as his own son. But at the end of the novel, Severian is once again alone; and not only that, he is forced to fight his old companions Baldanders and Dr. Talos. Before this final battle he meets with a group of "cacogens," terribly mythical many-eyed figures, who turn out to be aliens of some kind, who take a concerted interest in him. These aliens know, it seems, that Severian is on a path to become the New Sun and reenergize the dying world, but The Sword of the Lictor shows convincingly that it's a path Severian will have to walk alone.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Bear by Marian Engel

She loved the bear. She felt him to be wise and accepting. She felt sometimes that he was God. He served her. As long as she made her stool beside him in the morning, he was ready whenever she spread her legs to him. He was rough and tender, assiduous, patient, infinitely, it seemed to her, kind.

She loved the bear. There was a depth in him she could not reach, could not probe and with her intellectual fingers destroy. She lay on his belly, he batted her gently with his claws; she touched his tongue with hers and felt its fatness. She explored his gums, his teeth that were almost fangs. She turned back his black lips with her fingers and ran her tongue along the ridge of his gums.

This is a book about a woman who has sex with a bear.

Lou is a middle-aged librarian, working for a Canadian historical institute, whose life has become stultifying. She's looking forward to a new task: traveling to a remote Ontario island to assess the library of Colonel Jocelyn Cary, a settler of the Canadian wilderness whose final descendant left both library and island to the institute. Besides an octagonal cabin and a few acres of nonarable bog, the estate also comes with a chained bear. Cary, it seems, always kept a bear on a chain; this is only the last in the series. Lou is warned that she must look after the bear as well; she should be fine, but one must remember it is, after all, a wild animal.

Lou spends months cataloguing Cary's library, slowly getting to know the bear. She discovers that if she takes the chain away, it will follow her to the water where they can swim together. At night it will walk in the house of its own accord and sit curled up in a warm corner of the house. Fascination turns to--well, lust. She begins by running her hands and feet through his plush fur and ends with spreading honey all over herself to let him lick away. And yes, she yearns for the act of actual intercourse but--how do I say this--her attempts to rouse the bear are mostly unsuccessful.

What is the bear? Well, it is the Canadian wilderness, of course. But it's not the wilderness that, like in Richard Adams' novel Shardik, comes and goes of its own will. The chained bear is a symbol of the wilderness that settlers like Cary tamed and subjugated. As Lou explores the library, she discovers hundreds of notes in Cary's hand about bears. We learn that the bear has a bone in his penis and the Inuit believed that the spirit of a polar bear would linger for three days in the place it was killed. For Cary, it seems, the bear was just another book, a way of stuffing the wilderness on a shelf and reading it until its secrets are divulged.

By unchaining it, in a sense, Lou sets it free. The bear, whose fur was matted and dingy when she arrived, becomes more lively, and so does she. In a mirror, she begins to look younger. The bear attracts her for the very reasons that Cary was unable to fully domesticate it: its knowledge and being are ancient but inaccessible, unspoken, of a different kind entirely than the existence of the books that can be catalogued and put away. The bear's wildness, sadly, is also reflected in the character of the indigenous Canadians who still populate the area. And there is something, too, in the bear's essential masculinity, which is both wildly compelling to Lou and horribly dangerous.

Despite the heavy symbolism, the novel is light, and the bear is never anything else but a bear. It offers mystery, freedom, but not companionship, not really. It lies essentially beyond Lou's understanding, and its gifts are revoked as freely as they are given. "She sometimes felt that he was God," Engel writes, and yet, contradictorily, "He served her." To embrace the bear is to live inside many contradictions: male and female, human and not, chained and wild. Contradictions that a library catalogue has no means to record.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

I watched the shadow of our plane hastening below us across hedges and fences, rows of poplars and canals. Along a line that seemed to have been drawn with a ruler a tractor crawled through a field of stubble, dividing it into one lighter and one darker half. Nowhere, however, was a single human to be seen. No matter whether one is flying over Newfoundland or the sea of lights that stretches from Boston to Philadelphia after nightfall, over the Arabian deserts which gleam like mother-of-pearl, over the Ruhr or the city of Frankfurt, it is as though there were no people, only the things they have made and in which they are hiding. One sees the places where they live and the roads that link them, one sees the smoke rising from their houses and factories, one sees the vehicles in which they sit, but one sees not the people themselves. And yet they are present everywhere upon the face of the earth, extending their dominion by the hour, moving around the honeycombs of towering buildings and tied into networks of a complexity that goes far beyond the power of any one individual to imagine, from the thousands of hoists and winches that one worked the South African diamond mines to the floors of today's stock and commodity exchanges, through which the global tides of information flow without cease. If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end, I thought, as we crossed the coastline and flew out over the jelly-green sea.

W. G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn records, on its face, a walking tour of the Suffolk coast. The narrator--who is, at the very least, a version of Sebald himself--has recently been released from the hospital, and the trip, perhaps will bring him back to himself. The tarnished inns, the empty towns, the featureless coast, these things are only a small part of what is recorded on the page, however. As Sebald walks, his mind wanders to various topics, mostly historical in nature: the life of Joseph Conrad or Edward FitzGerald, the history of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson, the cultivation of silkworms, the life cycle of commercial herring, the machinations of the Dowager Empress of China. These accounts, which are too thoroughly researched to convincingly represent sudden flights of the mind, are only lightly connected to any inciting detail; often they seem to drift in from nowhere, like an afternoon shower.

The thematic connection between these stories, if there really is one at all, seems to be a meditation on time and change. Sometimes this is quite explicit, as when Sebald, passing the town of Dunwich, reflects on how it used to be a busy port town until, buffeted by disastrous storms during the middle ages, it was moved inland. On his tour he walks through abandoned estates and over places that have disappeared into the earth, and the relationship between himself and what has vanished seems both vital and elusive. "Whenever a shift in our spiritual life occurs and fragments such as these surface," Sebald writes, "we believe we can remember. But in reality, of course, memory fails us. Too many buildings have fallen down, too much rubble has been heaped up, the moraines and deposits are insuperable." 

Sebald's memories--a strange word, because they are so impersonal, but they partake, perhaps, in a kind of historical or social memory--resemble attempts to dredge the past up from the "moraines and deposits," but these attempts, we know, are futile. Sebald describes a friend who, for decades, has been attempting to create an accurate model of the Temple of Jerusalem, but whose effort keeps being amended because of new discoveries and research: "In the final analysis, our entire work is based on nothing but ideas, ideas which change over the years and which time and again cause one to tear down what one had thought to be finished, and begin again from scratch."

What is being torn down and built again here? Is it Sebald himself, having just come out of the hospital? If so, he seems so strangely aloof as a narrator, much more comfortable describing a train built for the Emperor of China than his own breakfast. Little by little, Sebald does return to the story, as when he visits an aged friend who, like Sebald himself, moved from Germany to England to escape the Nazi regime. Themes of exile are all over The Rings of Saturn, and the pressure exile puts on the exercise of memory cannot be overstated, the building of the self from a conspicuous absence. More often, the intersection of Sebald's stories with himself comes in ways that are light, surprising, oblique: the master dyer Seybolt, for example, who we are told served as the Keeper of the Silkworms for the Duchy of Bavaria and who must be Sebald's ancestor. What does this knowledge do for Sebald? What can it do for any of us? Where do we go to know ourselves, when observation, experience, and memory are all insufficient?

The Rings of Saturn is one of those books that is remarkable for being simultaneously so ordinary and so strange. Its muted tone and lack of narrative must certainly frustrated a reader who picks the novel up without knowing what they're in for. Like the heaths of Suffolk, its striking aspects are subtle and difficult to put your finger on.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

The infant moved in my belly like rolling waters, I touched Lila's stomach, hers was moving, too. Everything was moving: the sea of fire under the crust of the earth, and the furnaces of the stars, and the planets, and the universes, and the light within the darkness and the silence in the cold. But, even now as I pondered the wave of Lila's distraught words, I felt that in me fear could not put down roots, and even the lava, the fiery stream of melting matter that I imagined inside the earthly globe, and the fear it provoked in me, settled in my mind in orderly sentences, in harmonious images, became a pavement of black stones like the streets of Naples, a pavement where I was always and no matter what the center.

At the end of Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay, the narrator Elena Greco has left her husband and two children to be with Nino Sarratore, the man with whom she has been in love since grade school. That third novel ends with upheaval, and the business of the fourth and final novel, at least at first, is to put the pieces back together: the painful separation with her husband Pietro, the sorting of their two young girls, Elsa and Dede, the making of a life with Nino. Nino, as any literate person has known since the first novel in the series, is an odious shit: he proclaims his love for Elena but refuses to break off fully from his wife, keeping Elena and her daughters in an apartment in the well-heeled district of Naples and visiting them from time to time. Elena doesn't even know that Nino is still with his wife for months, and when she finds out it is the first of several debilitating shocks. Another comes when she walks in on Nino fucking the housekeeper. Is it any surprise that later in life, as we are told in the book's latter half, becomes a successful politician?

Elena has a powerful realization: the Nino she loved is really the Nino of her grade school years, a person whose identity and being were interrupted when, years ago, he fell in love with her friend Lila. The Nino of today is quite different: "To whom, then, was I bound, and whom did I still love today?" This idea--the way personalities slip and change, the permeability of boundaries, the old question of the Argo--haunts the novel, and Lila especially. For Elena, the question is liberating; she can finally let Nino go. But we learn that for Lila this idea has always been a terror. A devastating earthquake brings it to the surface, and she admits to Elena how she has always feared the possibility of boundaries dissolving: "And so if she didn't stay alert, if she didn't pay attention, the waters would break through, a flood would rise, carrying everything off in clots of menstrual blood, in cancerous polyps, in bits of yellowish fiber."

Once things with Nino fall apart, Elena acquiesces to Lila and moves back to the old neighborhood, taking an apartment literally above her old friend. "Never had so little space separated Lila and me, not even when we were children," she writes. Of course, it's easy to see how the narrative has been leading us here, full circle, back to the entanglement with Lila that was the crucible of Elena's formative years. And the two become very tangled; Elena becomes pregnant with Nino's child at the same time that Lila becomes pregnant with the child of her longtime lover and protector, Enzo. The two girls, Imma and Tina, seem almost to reproduce the relationship between the young Elena and Lila: Tina is brilliant and charismatic while Imma is paler somehow, and utterly dependent on her friend. The two mothers become so enmeshed that the two girls seem to have two mothers; when a photographer comes to profile Elena for a magazine the caption erroneously reads: Greco with her daughter Tina. Ferrante finds a thousand other ways to smash the two families together, as when Elena's eldest daughter Dede, then her middle daughter Elsa, fall madly in love with Lila's dull son Rino.

The social world of the series, too, comes full circle: Lila has become a powerful entrepreneur in the computer business, and has used her influence to attack the stranglehold held on the neighborhood by the mafioso Solara brothers. Now that she's back in the neighborhood, Elena becomes conscripted into this conflict. She publishes exposes, at Lila's encouragement, about the brothers; they in turn gin up lawsuits against her. We are headed, we feel, for a final showdown, one that will capture the changing nature of Naples at the turn of the millennium and close the series with a grand gesture.

But it doesn't happen. Instead--spoiler alert!--avviso di spoliatore!--the trajectory of the novel is completely upended when Lila's daughter Tina disappears mysteriously off the street and is never found. Perhaps it was the Solaras; perhaps it was a bungled ransom attempt targeted at either Lila or Elena, but whatever it is, it throws a wrench into everything: the neighborhood war, the relationship between the two main characters, everything. It is Lila's fear of slippage, of disappearance, of vanishing, come true. The neighborhood war peters out with a whimper, and the focus of the novel becomes once again the relationship between the two women, but needless to say, a relationship that has been completely upended and reassembled.

I'm in awe of these novels, honestly. In my limited writing experience, creating the impression of a character who is consistent on the page is one of the most difficult things to do. The demands of plot always push people in the wrong direction. And yet here's a 1,200 page novel, essentially, where the characters are constantly surprising you, and each other, but doing it in ways that seem wholly in keeping with their personality and identity. Just as a feat of writing, it's incredible. But there's nothing else like these novels, since at least the 19th century, that so perfectly balances big and small, the social context and the individual character, nothing else that understands what it's like to be a small wheel in a big machine. Almost certainly these books are the masterpiece of the century so far.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Brittany's Year In Review 2020

My 2020 book list.  

By the Numbers

  • 61 complete books read (7 nonfiction; 42 romance novels including YA; 1 poetry including YA; 8 total YA; no graphic novels, no audiobooks, 2 rereads)

  • 44 authors (the repeated include Christina Lauren who are a writing duo, Courtney Milan, Talia Hibbert, Helen Hoang, Jenny Han)

  • 37 women, 6 men, and 1 nonbinary person

  • All living, none dead

  • 27 authors who are not white, 17 authors who are white

  • 3 authors who publicly identify as having a disability or being disabled and 4 books that feature a main character who has a disability or is disabled (and I believe they all pass the Fries Test)

  • 9 books with queer main characters

Compared to previous years, this was a pretty average year in terms of the number of books I read which have ranged from 20-73 since I started tracking in 2013. Back then I was in a graduate literature program and thus 58% of my authors that year were men. The number keeps going down - this year only 14% of my authors were men which is a new low. After going through a traditional K-12 education, a traditional English education program, and a traditional English literature program, I am happy to spend a few years focusing on rebalancing my lifetime of reading. I only read one (or 2.2% of my total) nonbinary author which is an area I have known I need to expand for the past few years. 

This year, as usual, two thirds of my authors were people of color. I thought that I was going out of my way to read more people of color, but my numbers are about the same as they always are when I’m not in a graduate program (which tend to center men, white people, cis people, non disabled people, straight people, etc). Although I’ve always read a fair amount of LGBTQIA books, last year was the first year I tracked this (which for my reading is actually just LGBTQ to be honest) and this year it was the same: about 15%. Last year I also started tracking books featuring disabled characters or characters with disabilities - I went down from 9% to 6% but this year all the books were actually written by disabled authors or authors with disabilities and none seem to be problematic the way one of my books last year was (Everything, Everything). 

I don’t know if I feel comfortable doing a top 10 or top 10% book list as 2020 was a wild year where nothing and everything happened and my brain was not at its best and my emotions were all over the place every day. I have never read so much romance in my life, and yes they are formulaic to an extent, but I think my heart and my mind needed the familiarity and comfort of romance the way that making a familiar recipe feels good and is satisfying at the end even if it’s not terrifically exciting or life changing.

For 2020, I'll just list a few books I remember really enjoying include: 

Latinx Books

I tried to go out of my way to read more Latinx books this year, even participating in a Latinx Readathon where I read By Any Means Necessary, In the Dream House, The Worst Best Man, and Sabrina and Corina all in a row. Some of my favorite books were by Latinx authors and include:

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia: This is wildly outside of my regular genres and I loved every minute of it, staying up way too late and then being too afraid to fall asleep. This book seems to be one that everyone loves no matter what their regular reading is, so I would recommend it to literally anyone. 

Sabrina and Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine: Like The Dream House, this was a book I kept checking out and not reading for some reason. I had a few misconceptions about it: I thought it was a lesbian novel, but it turned out to be a book of short stories. It was a National Book Award Finalist so I’m not saying anything new by saying it’s wonderful, but it truly is lovely and I hope to reread it some day. 

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera: On almost every list of Latinx novels, especially for anyone looking to read about people crossing the border, it is as good as everyone says it is. I read it in English, and hope to some day return to it in Spanish.

Romance Novels

It is very hard to pick favorites because I read so many and I enjoyed almost all of them. At this point I have a very good idea of what I’m looking for in a romance (diverse characters who have relationships outside of their romantic one and are not self destructive and don’t accidentally get pregnant which somehow brings together two near-strangers into soul mate status which was a plot line I hated before I was a parent and now that I am a parent I absolutely do not understand), so it’s getting much easier for me to pick up what I like (the exception being Beach Read which everyone loved and I couldn’t finish).

The standouts include The Kiss Quotient and the Bride Test by Helen Hoang which weren’t on my top list of 2019 but I ended up rereading them in 2020 and I’m currently reading The Kiss Quotient in Spanish, so I think I have to say that they are some of my favorite romance novels.

Finally, everything by Courtney Milan is perfection, but Trade Me is an underrated book that doesn’t get mentioned a lot. As a person who spent a lot of my life fantasizing about being rich (these fantasies often relied on having a secret twin that I could change places with - I blame the movie It Takes Two), it was a real treat to read a romance novel where changing places didn’t rely on some kind of family tragedy but instead is the kick off for a romance. 

I wish I could recommend some of the romance novels I read by white writers, but I didn’t take notes on every one and the ones I did take notes on include things like “witty banter, cute clothes, great characters, but has too much fat shaming and a slur against Roma people” (The Hating Game by Sally Thorne) or “Meg must live in the same neighborhood as Friends and Girls since there are no POC in her New York City” (Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn), so I don’t want to send anyone to that part of Romancelandia on purpose.


And in my favorite non-fiction, all of my favorites were written by women of color. I read a few parenting books in 2020 as I became a mother, but parenting books don't have any kind of universal appeal and most are not that great (although the Bilingual Edge is absolutely necessary for anyone interested in raising a bilingual child).

Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong: My husband has been reading a lot and thinking a lot in this area, and he had great things to say about this collection of essays by Cathy Park Hong (which I recommended to him without reading because I am a very good librarian). As a person who hasn’t read a lot of Asian American non-fiction, this book was a great starting point that explores a lot of different topics very well. 

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: This is a book I knew I should read and kept checking out from the library and not reading. Abuse of any kind is hard for me as a reader, but everyone had such glowing reviews. I finally picked it up and it is just as good as everyone promises. It plays with form in a delightful and unexpected way, and I found myself often trying to explain the humor to Randy and then failing. 

Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgo by Mikki Kendall: In my day job I spend a lot of time researching and reading about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and 2020 was the year of anti-racist book clubs (this is not a critique and I am not an exception - I joined a group of friends to read Policing the Black Man). Of the many books I’ve read that ended up as anti-racist book club reads, I wish this one would appear more, or at all, particularly in my profession which is predominantly made up of white women who, I believe, would identify as feminists. 

Thursday, February 11, 2021

High Magick: A Guide to the Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life on Death Row by Damien Echols

In prison they don't even let you keep your name. They issue you a number. As far as the State of Arkansas was concerned, Damien Echols did not exist--I was inmate SK-931 (that means I was the 931st person that Arkansas sentenced to death). That level of dehumanization enables all sorts of abuse, and a lot of it so terrible that it sounds fictional in the telling. The entire system is built on humiliation and destruction because it needs the people inside to forget that they're human and for them to feel that they have no recourse whatsoever but to accept whatever comes to them, regardless of the pain involved.

They could damage my aura, but they couldn't take it away. They could seriously hinder my ability to perform magick, but not entirely. They could force all manner of obstacles upon me, but they could not rob me of my ability to shape reality. Every day of my time inside, I lived on a battlefield of wills: the State wanted to destroy me, but I very much wanted to survive, to live, and to thrive. Thankfully, there are times when the battle doesn't go to the strongest or the swiftest, but to the side who has the raw will to endure until the end. So here I am, and I'm here because of these techniques, because of magick, and because of the people who loved and supported me through my time in Hell.

I've been writing a novel set during the Satanic Panic of the 1990's. The protagonist is a teenager who is falsely accused of kidnapping and killing his own infant sister, and--spoiler alert, I guess--is put in jail. While incarcerated he finds that he's unable to write the poetry that was his pastime once; anything he writes he knows might be confiscated by a guard and used against him at trial. So he begins to draw intricate patterns in his notebook instead, forests of tiny squiggles and corkscrews, and in these patterns he finds he can hide secret messages no one else but himself can read.

I was surprised, then, to find Damien Echols, who spent two decades on death row for a murder he didn't commit, and whose story is part of the inspiration for my novel, talk about something similar in his book High Magick: "Many of my tattoos," he writes, "are personalized by a form of writing of my own creation." While inside, Echols created his own alphabet and language, a system of symbols that, in his telling, became a repository for the energy of the universe, tucked safely away where no one else could threaten it. I hear in this the incredible fortitude of a man who spent eight years--eight years--in solitary confinement, unable to talk to anyone but himself. It's no wonder that a system of practical magick that allows him to harness his own innate "energy" came in handy.

I'm not really the audience for High Magick, which is framed as an instruction book for the basic magickal practices that Echols cultivated while on death row. I'm never going to make the "Qabbalistic Cross" or the "Middle Pillar"; I'll never practice the "Lesser Banishing Ritual" that requires one to make six pentagrams around the body while calling on the archangels Raphael, Gabriel, Michael, Uriel, Metatron, and Sandalphon. But I am interested in how these practices helped Echols survive in the most dehumanizing environment possible, and how they allowed him to build a life back after his release.

Real details are few, but when they appear, they are telling and touching. For example, we learn that Echols thinks of his tattoos as a kind of armor, each "sigil" invested with talismanic energy to ward off the terror he had that he would be re-arrested and thrown back in prison. We hear about how he and his wife Lorri would each invest a glass of water with lunar magick at night and save it until the next day, a ritual of togetherness despite their separation. And we learn how important the "blessing" of water was when Echols tells us he used such water to protect his teeth, which were ruined from being hit in the face so often in prison.

I was struck by how similar magick (the k is to distinguish it from parlor tricks) seems to the language of self-help books. The first things Echol teaches in High Magick is the importance of "visualization," which might be borrowed directly from The Secret. Cleansing our auras of harmful energies means something as simple as letting go of that argument we got in with a friend years ago that we still thinking about. It would be easy to mistake much of High Magick for pop-psych bromides, and maybe that's accurate. But you have to give to some respect, even if, like me, you don't believe in it, because it seems to have saved a life.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

 The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry


It is a long time before he reappears as himself, if he ever does.  In the meantime he is crossing the poor sea to England on a cheap ticket in the cattle boat, so called as a measure of the comfort and dignity afforded the emigrants thereon.  He has suffered privately, severely, on the late train out of Sligo across Ireland, but despite everything he said goodbye fleetingly to his siblings, getting an unexpected kiss and prayer from Teasy, impregnable and absolute with her fourteen years.  The kiss of his Mam and the different kiss of his Pappy both were similar sparks on his face, smouldering there he suspects with eternal intent, and even Young Tom and Jack embraced him uncharacteristically, all angles and bones – at close of day and end of all their own eldest brother.  And there was a class of shriving in that moment of leaving, simplifying, a feeling he would have liked to carry with him at least as far as the blowing lights of the station.  But it was not to be.  In the carriage he dwindled like a spud fallen and forgotten behind the kitchen press. He talked at himself all night, the mails and parcels jostling in the secure van behind him.


Eneas McNulty is born in Sligo, Ireland, in 1901.  He is a dreamy and quiet boy, conflict averse and apt to take the road of least resistance.  He is without politics in a country growing consumed with political violence.  The easy way out, after returning from the British navy at the end of World War I, is to take the best and only job available to him – in the Royal Irish Constabulary.  


It is a mark of Barry’s skill, and the absorbing music of his prose, that we accept that a young man in Ireland at that time could more or less accidentally join the RIC and therefore make himself the mortal enemy of his erstwhile friends – most pointedly, the very political and violent Jonno Lynch.  But we do accept that such a fateful decision is taken on a desperate whim, without thought of the consequences.  That suspension of disbelief allows us to follow Eneas in his lifelong quest to avoid the death sentence imposed upon him as a traitor by Jonno and Mr. O’Dowd.


He is forced to leave the woman, Vivienne, who he has been steadily falling in love with (and who also seems unfazed by his involvement with what was widely recognized as an occupying force).  We travel with Eneas to a shrimping colony in Galveston, Texas, a fishing village in the north of Scotland, to France in the disastrous Dunkirk landing at the start of World War II and to several places in Africa.  While we learn a bit about these various spots, most of what we learn is that they are not Sligo, not home.   Eneas adjusts as someone of his passivity always will, letting years go by in bunches while forming only one significant relationship – with an African man named Harcourt.  He seems to spend the bulk of his time missing his home and family or trying hard not to miss his home and family.


He does return to Sligo just twice.  First after about 20 years, just after being rescued from the Dunkirk beaches.  He hopes that after 20 years, the grudges of the long-finished civil war will be forgotten, but receives a letter warning him to leave and after only a few days – long enough to check in on the happiness and unhappiness of his siblings and to sleep with his brother’s tragic first wife – he is chased by a gang of men in black coats sent to carry out the death sentence and must exile himself from home once more.  His second return to Sligo is after 40 years.  He is an old man, but is enough unchanged that Jonno Lynch recognizes him in the airport and the two reminisce about their pre-civil war friendship until Jonno has to admit that, yes, the death sentence is still in effect.  So Eneas is off again.


He spends the end of the novel in London, running a cheap hotel for wanderers with his friend Harcourt. 


It is a fascinating life and the character of Eneas is an excellent, poetic sort of a tour guide.  Barry’s language is musical and thick as he muses over things like love and ambition and anger and longing.  Eneas remains generally unengaged with whatever life he is living at the moment – even when he is relatively stable, as when he is a fisherman, he is more surviving than really living.  It is his emotional life, his constant wondering what other life he might have lived except for the early death penalty that gives the novel its considerable energy.  There is a certain kind of existentialist trope here – Eneas lives on the edge of the void, seeing in very concrete ways how his life has been robbed of meaning.  However, just as Barry demythologizes the Irish revolution (so full of glory in Yeats, O’Flaherty and others) his version of the existential void is dirty and lonely.  There is never much doubt that Eneas has been robbed of something real and important.  Despite the Waiting for Godot aspects of this world, it becomes clear to Eneas, and the reader, that ordinary real life can have tremendous meaning.  Eneas sees when he spies on his brother reading a picture book to his children, a simple scene of domestic connection that he returns to repeatedly.  


The failing of the book is in its attempt to let Eneas carve out a little of that meaning for himself in the relationship with Harcourt.  Though Harcourt is an entertaining character, he is never much more than entertaining.  Despite the fact that Eneas spends ten years in constant companionship with him and that both men profess an deep and abiding friendship and love for one another, Harcourt is not deeply drawn.  Harcourt is more spontaneous and upbeat than Eneas and that his background reinforces the Irishmen’s relationship to politics, but he remains more plot and thematic device than character.  Part of this is his voice – the narrator’s voice is thick with Irish colloquial diction and rhythm.  This makes the narrator a worthy voice for Eneas’s inner life, but renders Harcourt as a kind of mini-Eneas.  He is a Nigerian, from Lagos and while he is educated by Irish missionaries, there is no reason to have denied him his own lilting slang.


Eneas’s relationship to women is also shallow.  This is partly an issue of Barry’s conception of Irish society.  In this world, Eneas is not the only life pushed into exile.  His younger sister, Teasy, is forced into a convent and, while she does not complain, it is clear to the reader that her life is wasted.  Eneas has a deep and interesting relationship with Vivien, his pre-exile girlfriend, and her passion for him and her hurt at his leaving are palpable and real.  One would think that Barry had little choice but to write her out of the book, since she must move on without Eneas.  But when he is back at the age of forty, he takes an immediate passionate and sympathetic interest in Roseanne – his brother Tom’s wife at the time, who has herself been exiled from the family.  We are given to believe that her supposed mental illness may be related to an independent sexuality, but she, too remains little more than a sketch - another life that is cast aside by this society.  She is clearly a stand-in for Vivien – both thematically and in Eneas’s actual affections, but the entire idea could have been more powerful if we had followed Vivien’s life rather than replacing her.  And while we are thankful that Eneas does not yield to temptations in the various red-light districts he encounters, he and Barry seem to be simply avoiding women in ways that hamper the novel’s realism and miss opportunities to deepen Eneas’s character.


Of course, this is Eneas’s story and there really is no other character necessary.   Through loneliness, he forges a self that is real and giving.  His final sacrifice is a profound act of redemption and forgiveness as the anger and confusion of politics finally gives way to an act of human compassion.  Barry has created a world where the striving for freedom is itself oppressive but humans are able to step outside of community for real connection.  


Barry’s work seems to be part of a trend – Jez Buzzworth’s The Ferryman on Broadway last year, Anna Burn’s novel Milkman, Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, and Patrick Radden Keefe’s nonfiction Say Nothingall looked at the inhumanity of Irish political violence and found more humane and grace-full lives outside of the sects that tore Ireland in the 20th Century.  I hope it is a trend that reality can learn from.


Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

In the center of the bay, a trawler pushed south, heading for whatever waited out there--Chukotka, Alaska, Japan. The sisters had never left the Kamchatka Peninsula. One day, their mother said, they would visit Moscow, but that was a nine-hour flight away, a whole continent's distance, and would require them to cross above the mountains and the seas and fault lines that isolated Kamchatka. they had never known a big earthquake, but their mother told them what one was like. She described how 1997 felt in their apartment: the kitchen light swinging high enough on its cord to smash against the ceiling, the cabinet doors swinging so jars of preserves could dance out, the eggy smell of leaking gas that made her head ache. On the street afterward, their mother said, she saw cars ground into one another and the asphalt opened up.

The Kamchatka Peninsula is an immense arm hanging off of Russia's easternmost side, between the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific. About 300,000 people live there, mostly in the peninsula's southern tip, cut off from the mainland, to which there are no connecting roads. In Kamchatka's largest city, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatky, two little girls disappear on a summer morning. One witness--perhaps unreliable--saw them climbing into a conspicuously shiny black car with a strange man, but neither car and man have been seen since. Julia Phillips' Disappearing Earth takes the form of a series of stories that follow the people of Kamchatka for one year after the girls' disappearance.

The girls touch some of these stories only slightly: the one about the girl whose best friend has been forbidden to see her by her mother, on a flimsy pretext about needing to be surrounded by the "right people"; the one about the lesbian who returns to the small village she left behind. As the stories and months plod forward, the narrative moves away from Petropavlovsk and closer and closer to the heart of Kamchatka, the home of the indigenous Evens. The girls' disappearance inflames many of the most wearyingly familiar anxieties of insider and outsider, suspicion of indigenous people and migrants, and the inequality of settler culture. An Even girl, we are slowly informed, disappeared in similar circumstances years before, her case closed, without much inquiry or evidence, as a runaway.

I had the unsettling feeling, perhaps wrongly, that Disappearing Earth is an American novel wearing Russian clothing. I'm sure the dynamics of racism and xenophobia in Kamchatka are broadly recognizable, but it seemed to me that many of these stories could be air-dropped into Washington state or Indiana with only the names changed--and maybe the food the characters eat. That's part of the point, I suppose: isolated Kamchatka is really no more isolated than anywhere else. We are always trying to make our communities into islands, thinking it will keep us safe.

But if there is a specific perspective or understanding that living in Kamchatka granted to Phillips, I missed it. The closest thing to it--and the best moment in the novel--comes in the final story, when the mother of the two disappeared white girls and the mother of the disappeared indigenous girl meet at an Even cultural festival. The Even mother begs the white one to tell her how much she paid to have the police search for her children as long as they did, even though the search turned up nothing. But of course, the white mother paid nothing--she was merely white. This was, for me, the truest and sharpest moment of the book.

Monday, February 8, 2021

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious and had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.

Frederic Henry is, as Hemingway himself was, an ambulance driver in World War I. Henry is an American serving in the Italian army, seemingly for no other reason than he was bumming around in Italy at the time that the war began. In the novel's beginning, he falls in love with a British nurse named Catherine Barkley; when he's injured by a shell, Catherine is able to tend to him during his convalescence. Convalescence is itself a kind of idyll, a reprieve from the drudgery of war--even with the injury, Henry has not seen much that could be called horror--and Catherine ends up pregnant. When Henry recuperates and it cast back to the front to endure the bloody chaos of a long retreat, one in which the ashamed and defeated Italians have begun to shoot their own officers. It is a long and horrible road back to Catherine, and even once reconciled, they must hatch a plan to escape Italy.

Hemingway's writing seems so simplistic, and its character has become such a truism, that it's easy to forget how remarkable it is. No one has ever invented a better style than Hemingway's plain language for writing about war, an experience whose sheer awfulness cannot be emphasized, only concealed, by stylistic tricks. The wearying, interminable nature of Henry's journey from the alto piano back to Milan through the driving rain is reflected in that language, which at times seems like the writing of a man for whom all pretense has at last been stripped away. It belongs to the "proclamations" on billboards. And Henry/Hemingway cut through such pretense with horrible lucidity:

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

I'm no Hemingway expert, but I've often thought that his lit-Twitter critics often fail to understand him. He led a macho sort of life but his best works are often trenchant critiques of machismo, and A Farewell to Arms is one of the best critiques of the machismo that leads to war I've ever read. Its message is actually, at its heart, sort of simple: war is extremely stupid. Henry is absolutely unable to articulate to anyone why he participates in it, much less why he joined the army of a foreign country. Over and over again he is mistaken by Italians, who know no better, for something other than American: even a doctor at the hospital refuses to talk to him because he thinks he is an Austrian. By the end, it doesn't even matter; the alliances have broken down and the Italians, having failed to shoot the Austrians, simply settle for shooting other Italians.

I also thought Catherine was a marvelous character for an author who has a reputation for not writing well about women. I can see how others might disagree: she copes with war service by living inside of fantasies, and her relationship with Henry, while not a fantasy itself, becomes a vessel for these. When these fantasies break down we find behind them terrible presentiments of wreck: "I'm afraid of the rain," she tells Henry, "because sometimes I see me dead in it... And sometimes I see you dead in it." What's more, there's no doubt that what Henry and Catherine have is really love, the head-over-heels Hollywood kind.

I wasn't prepared for the ending of this book. I won't spoil it, even though I don't think you really ought to care too much about spoiling books that are a century old, because it hit me very hard. The world has seemed, to varying degrees, to be so heavy with death over the past year, and this past week has felt like this even moreso. I'm not sure I've ever read an ending that is so pitiless or without redemption. But that, too, is Hemingway's clear eye: war and death are pitiless and without redemption. There is no point to them, and when they come, there really isn't anything left to say.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Girls Against God by Jenny Hval

The girl slurps up more and more spaghetti. It turns out the body and head of this demon are made entirely of spaghetti, and it slowly begins to unravel. In the end, the cloak is the only thing left on the chair. The girl devours the last strand of pasta, and happily continues to eat what's left on her plate. As if the demonic spaghetti isn't real food, but satisfies some other need.

"I hate God," begins the narrator of experimental musician Jenny Hval's novel Girls Against God. What is the God that she hates? It's the stifling atmosphere (we are told) of southern Norway, its churches, its conformities, its cherished authors and artists, its whiteness--racial, yes, but also an aesthetic and essential whiteness that obliterates subversiveness. Hval's narrator hates God because to hate God is to hate hierarchy and paternalism. She describes, as a young girl, searching for a mode to express her hatred in the form of black metal music, but she's born too late; the metal scene has already come and gone, exhausted of its subversive potential, emptied out, already antiquated.

What can be done to subvert whiteness and God when black metal is no longer possible? The narrator forms a coven with two other witches, Therese and Venke, a pair of women she seems also to have invented on the page. The coven is also a band, and the band seems to sometimes play music, but it explores other kinds of subversion, too: the introduction, for example, of a horrible stench that no one in Oslo can identify or trace. A stench that is a hex and is also, somehow, a kind of music: this is the kind of surrealism that Girls Against God is made of.

One thing that interested me about Girls Against God is its embrace of the possibilities of modern technology. In one image, a group of high school girls fight each other for possession of the USB cords around their necks, which contain the whole of their identities. The language of the novel is both extremely physical and ethereal, as the internet is, as light is: vaginas shine with the otherworldly lights of laptops and tanning beds. The coven creates what they call the cosmic internet, a second internet that is summoned in the same way as a spell and which binds its users in both bodied and unbodied space: "We agree in the most extreme instances, you should be able to log on to the cosmic internet and exchange small pieces of flesh with other bodies out there in the hereafter, an then feel a leg or an arm snatched at, as your body comes into contact with the half-composted dimensions." For Hval, the internet is--metaphorically, at least--a subversive space, one in which the hierarchies represented by God are flattened, boundaries melted.

But the machine that interests Girls Against God most is the film camera. Hval's narrator frames everything in terms of a film being written--as when Terese and Venke are invented, as characters in a script. The final section of the book is titled "A Film," and follows the coven as they move through the woods, encountering a member of a metal band filming a music video. Eventually he melts into black goo and produces a mystical egg. Much of Girls Against God seems like an attempt to transfer the modes of surrealist and experimental film onto the page. At times it invites the question, why write a book at all? Why not just make a film? Perhaps because what Girls Against God captures is the creative process of writing the film, which is one of the many things that a film like the one Hval imagines cannot capture. It captures not just the idea of subversion but the generative process of thinking through what subversion is, what it looks like on the screen, on the page. Not just the hatred of God but the contemplation of the hatred of God.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson

True or false, what does it matter? Michael's truth lives only in the myth. In the facts and the details, it dies.

And while you, my superiors, may think I've come to join him in Africa because you dispatched me here, you're mistaken. I've come back because I love the mess. Anarchy. Madness. Things falling apart. Michael only makes my excuse for returning.

And if he thinks I'd like an army and a harem, Michael mistakes me too. I don't want to live like a king--I just want to live. I can't make it happen by myself. I've got all the ingredients, but I need a wizard to stir the cauldron. I need Michael.

"Since nine-eleven," a U.S. naval officer tells Roland Nair, who has been captured by the Lord's Resistance Army in the Congo and ransomed, more or less, by the United States, "chasing myths and fairy tales has turned into a serious business. An industry. A lucrative one." It's an idea that's obvious enough: just imagine Colin Powell, standing before the United Nations and spinning a myth, a fairy tale, about weapons of mass destruction. It would be too much to say the world went crazy, because it always has been, or to say that myths and fairy tales took control of the world after 9/11; they always have been in control. But there's something canny in Johnson's observation here, something about the way that mythmaking became a way of focusing the enormous powers of the intelligence and military leviathans, and a funnel for lots and lots of money.

Nair, the narrator of The Laughing Monsters, has returned to Freetown, Sierra Leone on assignment for NATO looking for an old friend, a Congolese named Michael Adriko. Michael--affable, garrulous--and Nair--cynical and sour--have a long history stretching back to Afghanistan. On the surface, it seems that Nair is meant to spy on Michael, but Michael is a charismatic actor who charms and spellbinds nearly everyone, including--perhaps most of all--his old friend. When Nair agrees to partner with Michael in a harebrained scheme to sell the location of a non-existent cache of fissionable uranium to the Mossad, is he planning on snitching, or is NATO the mark? You get the sense that Nair doesn't really know, and that like Schrodinger's cat, the truth will be revealed when the box is open, even the truth about his own intentions and motivations. The one thing that is clear is that Nair's attachment to Michael is more than mercenary, and so is his attachment to Michael's American fiancee Davidia St. Claire.

I made these connections in my review of Johnson's epic Tree of Smoke, but I see Graham Greene's fingerprints all over The Laughing Monsters. If Tree of Smoke is Johnson's The Quiet American, The Laughing Monsters is his The Heart of the Matter. Like Greene, Johnson understands spycraft as something perpetrated not by nations but by people, whose loyalties are as liquid as their desires. And like Greene, for Johnson's spies there is always a layer of knowledge that remains inaccessible, another shoe left to drop. "More will be revealed," Michael says about his vague plan to cross the Ugandan border into the Congo, but what is revealed is only more confusion, a chaotic descent into the African bush where even the native Michael is a stranger. Like I said that Tree of Smoke review, Johnson is like DeLillo in this way: intelligence always ends up being self-referential, the spies end up unraveling spycraft itself, a recursion that has no bottom. And of course Michael, Nair, and Davidia's journey into inland Africa is a revision of Heart of Darkness.

Throughout the novel, Johnson's wonderful sense of moment and detail, sputtering like a half-dead lamp, illuminates:

Now a beggar dressed in rags came out of the dark and wrote swiftly on the floor with white chalk: MR. PHILO KRON / DR. OF ACROBATICS. He started doing cartwheels in place while holding a platter of raw rice, never spilling a grain. He repeated the trick, now holding a glass of water, also without spilling.

The staff, the patrons, everybody ignored him, but Davidia said, "Michael, give him something."

Michael only offered him a scowl and said, "Don't encourage these people."

Davidia smiled and met the acrobat's eyes, or one of his eyes--the other's socket was scarred and pinched shut--and this inspired him to talk, or to signal his thoughts by a series of squeaks, as he seemed to be missing, also, one of his vocal cords. "Sometimes it's feeling like the Prophet was just here," he told Davidia, kneeling before her, touching her hand, trembling with the intensity of his message, "the Prophet himself, on that spot, and he went around the corner of the building there, and see, there, the dust still stirred up by the motion of his garments." Satisfied with that, Dr. Kron took himself and his piece of chalk back into the night, and one of our waiters came quickly with a rag and wiped away his title and his name.

Isn't that wonderful? As Nair gets further and further involved with Michael's schemes, the possibility of being cut off from everything becomes greater and greater, the possibility of breaking off from NATO, from the US, from Denmark, in whose army Nair seems to be a captain, from the vast intelligence networks that cross Africa like a net and which are waiting to be exposed at the right price. The possibility of complete self-erasure, like Dr. Kron, and becoming the fake name on the cheap Ghanaian passport. After 9/11, can you really disappear? Can you become a myth or a fairy tale?