Sunday, May 30, 2021

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Every day their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate. Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole. It was not so much the hatred she was interested in as the swift attenuation, as if the collective blood had made a decision. As if they were a species that released puffs of poison, or black ink in a cloud on the ocean floor. I mean, have you read that article about octopus intelligence? Have you read how octopuses are marching out of the sea and onto dry land, in slick and obedient armies?

Patricia Lockwood's No One Is Talking About This might be called the first online novel. Sure, people have tried before, but this book achieves something that, before I read it, I would have considered impossible: it turns the hyper-fleeting dross of internet culture into the stuff of literature. The private language of Twitter and Tumblr turns over so quickly, I would have thought that as soon as you put it on the page, it would prove that Nietzsche was correct when he said, "That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts." And I wonder a little how No One Is Talking About This will read twenty or thirty years from now, when Harambe and the word "binch" are no longer a circulating part of our vocabulary, but I think it's Lockwood's talent as a poet that makes the novel work, the way it smashes up the language of Twitter with something more metaphorical and luminous. For one, it's not "Twitter" the novel plumbs, but something more mysterious and profound: "the portal."

Lockwood's protagonist is internet famous, thanks to a viral tweet ("Can a dog be twins?"). This fame has transformed her life, and not only in the portal. She travels around the world, speaking about the internet and internet culture, but in private its contradictions have begun to bear down on her:

Already it was becoming impossible to explain things she had done even the  year before, why she had spent hypnotized hours of her life, say, photoshopping bags of frozen peas into pictures of historical atrocities, posting OH YES HUNNY in response to old images of Stalin, why whenever she liked anything especially, she said she was going to "chug it with her ass." Already it was impossible to explain these things.

Lockwood may be one of the few people able to express the fear that internet culture cultivates mob-like thinking without seeming like a crone or a scold. She captures, too, the way that resisting the tide of mass thinking means one can be left behind by the march of moral progress: "Go not far enough," she writes, "and find yourself guilty of complicity, a political slumping into the cushions of your time. go too far, and find yourself saying that you didn't care that a white child had been eaten by an alligator." Elsewhere she writes: "Every fiber in her being strained. She was trying to hate the police." What's so convincing about these passages, I think, is that the moral choices they demand are set momentarily aside. What is captured instead is the way internet culture can obscure one's own moral or psychological identity, the way it blurs the boundaries between the self and the great public mind.

No One Is Talking About This is, as I hope the excerpts show, extremely funny. "One hundred years ago," Lockwood writes, "her cat might have been called Mittens or Pussywillow. Now her cat was called Dr. Butthole." And also:

What had the beautiful thought been, the bright profundity she had roused herself to write down? She opened her notebook with a sense of anticipation she always felt on such occasions--perhaps this would finally be it, the one they would chisel on her gravestone. It read:

chuck e cheese can munch a hole in my you-know-what

People who, like Lockwood herself, are well-versed in "weird Twitter" will find it very funny, but those who--like the protagonist's un-online husband--don't know what a "milkshake duck" is will probably find the humor bewildering.

Can you make a whole novel out of this stuff? One of Lockwood's smartest choices is to break the novel up into brief vignettes, reminiscent, perhaps, of Renata Adler's Speedboat, but more pointedly of the experience of scrolling through Twitter. Scrolling through the equivalent of two hundred pages of Twitter, on the other hand, is a cloying, sick-making experience, something like eating two hundred macarons. But just when the surfeit of the novel seems like it will be too much, the novel swerves drastically. An emergency develops--spoiler alert--and the protagonist is drawn back to her family home in Ohio, where her sister has recently learned that her unborn daughter has a rare genetic disorder.

One expects that the novel's second half will come down with a thundering lesson like: the internet is not real life. And to some extent, that is what Lockwood offers: the protagonist faces a difficult challenge that resists being translated into the ironic language of the portal. But No One Is Talking About This is smarter, and subtler, than that, and more conflicted about what can and cannot be lived out on the internet. I was touched by the way, for instance, the protagonist's anger at a teenager taking a surreptitious photo of her disabled niece ultimately softens: "She would be so grateful, now, to have people meet the baby in the broad electric stream of things--to know a picture of her, blurred, in motion, was living its own life far from actual fate, in the place where images dwelled and dwelled."

Friday, May 28, 2021

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro

'I think I hate Capaldi because deep down I suspect he may be right. That what he claims is true. That science has now proved beyond doubt there's nothing so unique about my daughter, nothing there our modern tools can't excavate, copy, transfer. That people have been living with one another all this time, centuries, loving and hating each other, and all on a mistaken premise. A kind of superstition we kept going while we didn't know better. That's how Capaldi sees it, and there's a part of me that fears he's right.'

Klara is an Artificial Friend, model B2. She begins her life sitting in a shop, chatting with other AFs, hoping that the Manager will rotate her into the window where she will be seen by a boy or girl, chosen, purchased. For an AF, she is observant: from her vantage point in the store window, she notices much about the people who walk by, perceiving their attitudes and desires by their body language and physical appearance. She gets her wish one day when a girl named Josie appears with her mother to buy her and take her to their house in what seems to be the Hudson Valley.

The home Klara enters is one marked by turmoil. Josie, we learn, is very sick thanks to a botched gene editing operation. Her next door neighbor and boyfriend, Rick, is one of the few kids in this world who have not been "lifted" as Josie has, but both suffer the consequences of their parents' choices: Rick's future is drastically narrowed by a culture that denies opportunities to "unlifted" children, and Josie may ultimately die of the flaw introduced in her genes, as her older sister did. Josie's father, who lives back in the city, is what is called "post-employed," having been replaced in his job as an engineer by the exact kind of AI that Klara represents. Klara, then, represents both a problem and its would-be solution; technocapitalism has produced a system of increasing inequality and alienation, but so too has it provided the disaffected with a dubious kind of companionship.

In the store, it's explained to Klara that she gets her energy from the sun--that is, she's solar-powered. On cloudy days, she can sense herself becoming weaker, and she mistakenly generalizes this understanding to Josie, too. She begins to believe that, if only the Sun can be appeased, he will provide Josie with his "special nourishment," reenergizing her and bringing her back to health. It's in this way that Klara resembles Ishiguro's other narrators, all of whom live under misunderstandings they perpetuate at an unconscious level. Here it's one of the novel's greatest flaws. It's difficult to believe that Klara--whom we're asked to believe is especially perceptive, for an AF--sustains this childish misunderstanding for so long. When she runs off to a barn on the western end of the family property, where the sun sets every night, we recognize her pleading and bargaining as a form of prayer.

On a trip back to the city, Josie's mom reveals--spoiler! spoiler!--that a "portrait" she has commissioned of Josie is actually an animatronic facsimile, and she intends, if Josie were to die, to ask Klara to take her place inside this body. The implications of this request are deeply troubling. Personhood and personality--are these things that can be "learned" through observation? If observant Klara watches Josie close enough, will she really be able to "continue" her after her death? It seems obvious that the answer is no, but there's a critique here of artificial intelligence, and the possibilities for it of which we dream. It's foolish, Ishiguro suggests, to think that we can build machines to approximate ourselves. Yet, this reveals the novel's central flaw, I think: it makes this critique while narrating from the position of artificially intelligent Klara, whose credibility and sympathy make her so very human. 

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner

A good convent should have no history. Its life is hid with Christ who is above. History is of the world, costly and deadly, and the events it records are usually deplorable: the year when the roof caught fire, the year of the summer flood which swept away the haystacks and drowned the bailiff, the year when the cattle were stolen, the year when the king laid the great impost for the Scotch wars and timber for five years had to be felled to pay it, the year of the pestilence, the year when Dame Dionysia had a baby by the bishop's clerk. Yet the events of history carry a certain exhilaration with them. Decisions are made, money is spent, strangers arrive, familiar characters appear in a new light, transfigured with unexpected goodness or badness. Few calamities fall on a religious house which are not at some time or other looked back upon with wistful regret.

There is nothing much remarkable about the convent of Oby. Tucked away in a corner of the English fens, the nuns of Oby toil at their psalters and their embroidery. The convent is sometimes rich and sometimes poor, sometimes smiled upon by the overseeing Bishop and sometimes deplored; the nuns are respected and treasured by many of their neighbors and hated by others, sometimes the nuns themselves live harmoniously and sometimes the rule is resentment. A passerby might not even know it's there, at least until its spire is built at last, a project that takes decades and heaps of money, foiled once by a complete and deadly collapse. (If you ask me, Sylvia Townsend Warner's account of the raising of a spire is much more convincing and engaging than William Golding's novel The Spire, substituting as it does a kind of clear-eyed realism for Golding's high-pitched Freudian drama.)

The Corner That Held Them describes thirty years in the life of the Oby convent, beginning in the 1350's with the outbreak of the Black Death. As nuns come and go, so do the characters of the novel: entering as novices or dying, or simply appearing or vanishing in the way that real people sometimes do in the life of an institution. By 1380, the cast of characters has turned over almost completely, with the exception of Sir Ralph, the convent's resident priest, who keeps for many decades a horrible secret: he isn't really a priest. Nuns drift in and out of the novel's focus: tedious Dame Johanna, kindly Dame Isabel, melancholy Dame Lilias, shrewd Dame Lovisa, simple Dame Adela. Their individual stories are touching or heartbreaking, and well-crafted, but together they complete an image in the life of a community. As one of several prioresses thinks to herself:

And here am I, she thought, fixed in the religious life like a candle on a spike. I consume, I burn away, always lighting the same corner, always beleaguered by the same shadows; and in the end I shall burn out and another candle will be fixed in my stead.

Though well-steeped in both Biblical knowledge and the religious life of the 14th century, The Corner That Held Them is not very interested in matters of the spirit. It is money, rather, that is at the heart of he novel: how it is made, how it is kept, how it is spent. How can the convent collect the tithes of the parsonages that fall under its purview? How pay for the materials to build a spire, or mend clothes, or plant vegetables? As the Black Death fades from view, another threat emerges: violent Lollards who resent the church's hoarding of wealth. At one point the nuns, fearing an invasion, have their gold and silver buried by their bailiff--who is killed before he can tell them where he's buried it. And though individual nuns have their consciences pricked time and time again--Lilias dreams of becoming an anchoress, Adela steals the embroidery to sell for the poor--the convent as a whole moves on stolidly, too caught up in economic contingencies to tend to something as poor as souls.

I'm impressed by the wonderful range of Townsend Warner's novels; the convent of Oby seems--and is--miles and years away from the Polynesian missionary of Mr. Fortune. Even that novel's thematic focus on the nature of belief seems foreign to The Corner That Held Them, a novel in which belief seems secondary to the price of potatoes. Yet both novels share an interest in how strong ties are made and broken between people: "There can hardly be intimacy in the cloister," the prioress thinks, "before intimacy can be engendered there must be freedom, the option to approach or move away."

Friday, May 21, 2021

Kingfisher by Ildiko Szabo

The present volume deals extensively with the iconology of the chaste European common kingfisher and their North American counterpart, the belted kingfisher, plus their antithesis, the Australian swashbuckling, laughing kookaburra. The bulk of the kingfisher's appearance in Anglophone culture focuses on these three birds. It is extremely unfair to judge an entire bird family of 114-plus species on only a few iconic ones. Doubly so when considering how diverse, how bizarre and how resourceful the rest of the kingfisher clan is. Many of these lesser-known kingfishers are sensationally beautiful and fascinating in their own right. It is the iridescent plumage of the majority of them that transforms them into dazzling feathered jewels. For the birds themselves, their splendid attire is both a benefit and a curse. Some civilizations have venerated kingfishers, but more commonly they were, and still are in a few regions, hunted for food or for the economic value of their dazzling plumage.

I have a tattoo of a kingfisher on my right arm. It's a reference to Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "As kingfishers catch fire," a sonnet whose central idea is that the bronze flash of the common kingfisher is part of its essential, God-bestowed essence, and an expression of God's own being. So we all, Hopkins argues, express God through our essential qualities. The bird on my arm is not the common kingfisher, found in Europe and Asia, but the belted kingfisher, one of the first birds I remember really noticing as a child, sitting on a wire in the same spot every day on my ride to school. Today, when I see a belted kingfisher buzzing over or diving through water, or sitting by the waterside, I feel a thrill of familiarity and kinship.

Ildiko Szabo's Kingfisher is one in a series called Animal, published by Reaktion Books, each of which focuses on a different animal, detailing not only its behavior and taxonomy, but its cultural significance. Kingfisher was a knowing gift by a friend. Szabo centers his biography of the kingfisher on the Greek myth of Ceyx and Alcyone, which still provides many kingfishers with their scientific genera: Alcyone, grief-stricken by the drowning of her husband Ceyx, dives into the sea, killing herself--as kingfishers dive into the water to find a meal. Like Ceyx and Alcyone, Szabo describes, kingfishers are mongamous birds who share responsibilities with their mates--though perhaps the ancient Greeks did not know that they are frequently found in polycules with a third "helper" male.

Other cultural depictions outlined by Szabo include the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King, the Apache legend of the Fox and the Kingfisher--and, of course, Hopkins' poem. A long chapter is devoted to the Chinese practice of tian-tsui, in which the shining turquoise barbs of kingfisher feathers are painstakingly glued into ornate headdresses and jewelry. A similar practice in Angkor Wat, Cambodia, Szabo tells us, seems to have decimated the kingfisher population there--an early example, perhaps of man-made ecological collapse.

More than anything, Kingfisher--and I expect, a lot of the books in this series--provides a lot of fun knew knowledge. Did you know that the kookaburra will eat snakes too large to fit in its stomach, letting them dangle from its beak until their heads are digested and they can finish swallowing? Or that the design of Japanese bullet trains is borrowed from the kingfisher's familiar beak, which, studies show, is perfectly made to minimize the sonic booms produced by air resistance? The other principle pleasure the book provides is simply the many colorful photographs of these "family-centric kamikaze killing machines," as Szabo describes them. It's easy to see why they captured Gerard Manley Hopkins' attention all those years ago.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine

"Don't tell me you're reading it," she said, as if I were doing something to the book, whereas in fact the book was doing something to me. I'm twenty-five years old and this happened on a Monday when I didn't have to work at the Pet Library and had no plans except to sleep and maybe wash my bras in the sink, and that was a big maybe. Birds chirped, shadows fell on the linoleum, in the distance a weed trimmer whined. When I got to the point where Long John Silver's gang captures Jim Hawkins in the deserted stockade, Lars, my boyfriend, left a message on my voicemail, saying did I want to go out for a burrito.

Here is my life, I thought.

And there is the adventurous life kicking out of the covers of Stevenson's novel.

A great book can change your life. The narrator of Levine's novel has her life thrown into sharp relief by--you guessed it--Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, whose ethos of adventure makes her life look small by comparison. She throws herself headlong into a scheme of self-preservation, based on what she considers to be the four "Core Values" of the novel: BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE, and HORN-BLOWING. In the process she makes everyone else's life miserable: her boss, whose money she steals to buy a parrot, the parrot, Richard, whom she begins immediately to resent, her boyfriend Lars, her sister and parents.

The exclamation points in the title make it a perfect stand-in for the narrator's project: her life isn't Treasure Island, as much as she wants it to be, but a manic facsimile, a overeager parody. Treasure Island, in fact, is a kind of red herring. The narrator, we come to understand, is a narcissist who has never been fully aware of the practical or emotional needs of others. She doesn't need Treasure Island to become bold or independent; she has always been these things by virtue of that narcissism. The book instead is an excuse, or perhaps a psychological crutch, to rationalize her own cruelties. Though Treasure Island!!! is a deeply funny book, the humor reveals a troubled woman, warped by a repressed household. That she turns the broken edges of her psyche against her parents is the thrust of the novel--the story, perhaps, that unfolds itself while she is trying to live out a boyhood fantasy.

Richard, the parrot, sits as the symbolic center of the novel, squawking with hunger and need. No sooner does she purchase the parrot than she grows sick of him; while she loves the idea of the parrot, the actual responsibility of taking care of Richard makes her sick. "A hundred years?" she thinks, after learning just how long a parrot lives. "With a liver-spotted hand, I reached out for the birdseed; an empty house, a funeral procession, Richard on a stranger's arm, flapping his wings on my grave." Yet her boyfriend, her sister, her parents, all dote on Richard; they accommodate this symbol of her flightiness--pun intended--in exactly the way that the narrator, with her newly formed yet rigid expectations for human behavior cannot. The tension produced drives the novel's comic energy, but also results in a pair of shockingly violent acts that give it an edge.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

In March of 1919, the Reds broke through in northern Crimea, and from various ports a tumultuous evacuation of anti-Bolshevik groups began. Over a glassy sea in the bay of Sebastopol, under wild machine-gun fire from the shore (the Bolshevik troops had just taken the port), my family and I set out for Constantinople and Piraeus on a small and shoddy Greek ship Nadezhda (Hope) carrying a cargo of dried fruit. I remember trying to concentrate, as we were zigzagging out of the bay, a game of chess with my father--one of the knights had lost its head, and a poker chip replaced a missing rook--and the sense of leaving Russia was totally eclipsed by the thought that Reds or no Reds, letters from Tamara would still be coming, miraculously and needlessly, to southern Crimea, and would search there for a fugitive addressee, and weakly flap about like bewildered butterflies set loose in an alien zone, at the wrong altitude, among an unfamiliar flora.

There's something unexpected about the idea that Vladimir Nabokov would write a memoir. There's no space in a "traditional" memoir for the kind of parlor tricks that populate his novels, and the practice of putting down a real life, faithfully, on the page, seems quite at odds with the many concealed identities of Nabokov's narrators: Charles Kinbote, pretending--maybe--to be John Shade while concealing his identity as an exiled king, or Humbert Humbert entering baroque joke names into the registers of American motels. But now that I think about it, there's something Kinbote-like about Speak, Memory, which is at heart about exile.

One thing that surprised me to learn--though perhaps I knew it once--is that the young Nabokov was quite an aristocrat. His childhood at St. Petersburg was spent at a cluster of family estates, with holidays at country dachas and in Paris; his father, Vladimir Sr., was a minister whose taste for liberal reform disquieted his elders, who thought--quite correctly, it turns out--that he was ensuring his own obsolescence. Nor did I know that Nabokov's father was assassinated by Tsarists, an event that is only lightly touched on here, an event too difficult to write about, perhaps, or in its sheer magnitude lacking in the kind of impressionistic detail that develops the book's theme of nostalgia.

Though I knew Nabokov was exiled by the Bolsheviks, I was surprised at the book's rich cultivation of the early 19th century, rather than the mid-century era I associate with Nabokov's novels. (We overhear, for instance, that Tolstoy has just died.) This world is seen through a veil of nostalgia, so to speak, because we know it is lost, inaccessible not just in the way that all our childhoods are inaccessible. This is the main charge that Nabokov brings against the Bolsheviks, an apolitical charge in a book that seems to take great pains to be apolitical: 

My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the emigre who "hates the Reds" because they "stole" his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorry for lost banknotes.

Among the memoir's many pleasures is Nabokov's loving and detailed attention to the people who made up his childhood life: his hapless Swiss governess known as Mademoiselle, his rigid tutor Lenski. I loved, too, reading about the young Nabokov's love for butterflies. Nabokov's success as a lepidopterist has become a Thing to Know about him, but to read the wistful accounts of Orange Hairstreaks and Poplar Admirables (this is, I believe, Nabokov's winking nickname for those butterflies known as "Admirals") in Speak, Memory brings such knowledge to life. There is a touching bittersweetness in the knowledge that these butterflies have their own climates and regions, and that the exile of young Nabokov separated him from them. And yet Nabokov treats the event itself with a surprising lightness: on the moment he leaves Russia for the last time, he's locked in a chess match with his father, thinking of the girl he's leaving behind. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

 


Gilded Suffragists by Johanna Neuman

 

Neuman is a journalist and historian.  Gilded Suffragists is the first of two books she has written on the battle to get women the vote.  It is a very specific slice of that history- looking at the activity and contributions of New York’s wealthiest women, the doyennes of high society who financed and took leadership in much of the fight and who, Neuman argues, have been left out of much of the subsequent history.  It is a fascinating deep dive into a few years of political and social ferment in a small geographic area – largely made up of 5thAvenue in Midtown Manhattan.

 

Neumann begins with the formation of the Colony Club in 1905.  The turn of the last century was a kind of heyday for the private social club among the wealthy in NY.  The club offered a getaway from the dirt and chaos of the city, a place where the service, food, d├ęcor and clientele would be predictably within the expectations of one’s social class.  Until 1905, these clubs were exclusively male, and then Florence Jaffray Harriman (yes, her family donated the land that became the park), Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (yes, she later founded the museum) and Anne Tracy Morgan (yes, her father was J.P.)  simply decided to copy the model and make a club that was exclusively female – give the ladies somewhere to go for tea when they were in town, perhaps shopping, perhaps waiting for a train to take them to Newport or Saratoga.  

 

The idea was shocking to late-Victorian New York – that these guardians of domestic morality might look for someplace other than home.  But it proved to be more revolutionary than even its founders intended.  As part of the workings of a club, the Colony offered regular lectures and discussions – on art, science, music and the issues of the day.  It soon became clear that suffrage for women was one of the issues of the day and that there was enough disagreement among the members – the Club filled to capacity upon opening, every member a name from the Social Register – to warrant regular debates and discussions.  These debates caught the attention of the press – who liked nothing better than to report on the activities of these bold-faced names and contributed to the movement towards a state referendum to allow women to vote in NY State, which failed several times before finally passing in 1917.

 

Neumann follows the women of the Social Register most active in the movement over the next dozen years, dividing them into camps.  The more pragmatic, moderate camp of Katherine Duer Mackay (the Duer’s were active in the American Revolution) was known for her handsome figure and was not above flirting with state legislators as part of her lobbying effort.  She particularly eschewed the violent agitation that Emmeline Pankhurst was using in London, where suffragettes were throwing rocks at Parliament and attacking its members physically, and tried to make clear that if women got the vote they would continue to act like ladies.  The more assertive and demanding camp centered around Alva Vanderbilt Belmont, who made little secret of her financial and political support of Pankhurst and saw her power as coming from her wallet rather than her fashion sense.  Mackay gained the movement valuable publicity by associating herself, her followers and thus the movement with femininity and fashion.  One of her friends, Rita de Acosta Lydig, later donated her wardrobe to the Metropolitan Museum as the basis for the Costume Institute.  Meanwhile, Belmont financed campaigns to unseat legislators who opposed suffrage.  

 

Neumann stays focused on these divisions and rivalries as she outlines the role of men in the campaign and the evolution of tactics.  She observes along the way that the first time anyone pickets the White House, it is women fighting for suffrage and that the first time a house is opened for a tour in the tony section of Newport Rhode Island (such house tours are now a major tourist activity) it is Ava Belmont’s home and the tour is a fund raiser for her suffrage organization.  Contemporary activists might benefit (and continue arguing) over these tactics.  

 

Neumann has an interesting analysis of how World War I affected the suffrage movement.  Many of the suffragists were also pacifists and in the early months of the war the entire movement was accused of a lack of patriotism.  The first woman elected to Congress, Jeanette Rankin (elected from Montana, one of the first states to allow women the vote) served only one term in part because of her opposition to the war.  (She was re-elected 24 years later, again serving only one term after voting against World War II.)  Carrie Chapman Catt had become the leader of the moderate wing after Mackay’s ugly divorce forced her out of the public eye.  She turned against pacifism, arguing that suffrage was the hallmark of patriotism – women should be given the vote so that they could more fully support their country in its time of need.  At the same time, Alice Paul pressed on with picketing the White House, antagonizing Wilson, and running candidates against anti-suffragist politicians.

 

For Neumann, this represented a one-two punch, and neither tactic deserves to claim primary responsibility for the victory, though she argues that Catt’s success in getting the press and the general public to see suffrage as patriotic won the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.  She makes a strong case that the victory in New York’s state amendment was key to the national change, as New York represented 10% of the nation’s voters at the time.  She also raises the possibility that the male support that was necessary to extend the vote (since in most states, only men could vote to ratify) may not have been terribly deep.  Apparently, on the election day a few months after the amendment took effect, Teddy Roosevelt called for his car to be brought around to take him to his polling place.  When he got in the car, he discovered that his wife was already in the back seat, waiting for him.  She, too, was going to vote.  Roosevelt rode to the polls in shocked silence.

 

Perhaps the only element of the book that is not entirely satisfactory is its very thesis.  Neumann argues that the more general movement involved a coalition of forces – working class women, union organizers, progressives, intellectuals and housewives in addition to New York’s gilded elite.  She outlines how the focus on the goal of getting the vote helped keep together a coalition that was otherwise rife with conflict, jealousy, rivalry and suspicion.  The working class elements of the coalition never fully trusted the elites who, from their perspective, were simply dabbling in politics for the fun of it.  Neumann also makes clear that some of the wealthy activists were openly campaigning for the vote so that educated elites could be a counterweight to immigrant laborers who were increasingly eligible to vote, but in their eyes not truly deserving.  With victory, these fissures in the community broke open and there was a concedrted effort on the part of more professional progressives to write out the contributions of Mackay, Belmont and others.  She cites a number of histories and autobiographies that make no mention of anyone from the Social Register.

 

Her discussion of these rivalries is fascinating – even if it does dwell too much on petty jealousies – but I have a hard time believing that she is righting some historical wrong.  The notion that history as written is not entirely accurate is a given.  The idea that it was the contributions of the rich and powerful that were left out is harder to accept.  Perhaps this is clarified in her other, longer and fuller history of the movement.

The Walking Tour by Kathryn Davis

Four friends, two married couples, embarked on a journey. That's the Mabinogion. Pryderi and Cigfa, Manwydan and Rhiannon. At some point they were enveloped in a "fall of mist"; when the mist cleared, everything was different. Click on the names and make them COLEMAN and RUTH, BOBBY and CAROLE.

Four friends, two married couples, embark on a journey. Bobby Rose is a handsome charmer, a successful businessman; his partner Coleman Snow is more studious and reserved. Yet it's Snow's wife, Ruth, who is the brash looker; Bobby's wife Carole is a painter, aloof and mercurial--perhaps it would be more accurate to say a few steps away from madness. Together they go on a walking tour of Wales, where they are accompanied by a host of others, each with their own petty grievances and peccadilloes: cruel Paula, enigmatic Mr. Hsia, lovestruck Naomi, bitter tour leader Brenda. The trip, we come to understand, has ended in a moment of mysterious violence, though the exact nature of the moment, and who its victim was, are kept for the novel's end. Bobby and Carole's daughter Susan, now an adult, is trying to make sense of it, armed with various forms of documentary evidence: the postcards her mother sent her, Ruth's spiteful journal, the transcripts of the inquest that followed.

The Walking Tour is a book in which genres are smashed together so wildly it is elevated beyond them: the endless bickering of the walkers, and the forthcoming violence, seem lifted from an Agatha Christie novel. Susan's narration, though, has something of Margaret Atwood about it: she writes from a future world where an apocalyptic haze has taken over everything, crippling crops and livestock and sundering society. She's assisted, in a manner of speaking, by a nomadic "Strag" who calls himself "Monkey" who shows up at her door with a baby.

The haze, and the dissolute world it has covered, seem to have something to do with the mist of Wales, where fairies lurk menacingly, as if the atmosphere which stymied the walkers has spread to the entire world. (Ruth has written a novel called A Fall of Mist which her old frenemy Carole has panned, reigniting the rivalry between them.) And it seems to something to do, also, with the computer program which has made Bobby and Coleman rich: a program called, perhaps too cleverly, SnowWrite and RoseRead, which allows a reader to respond to what they are reading by making real-time changes. This computer stuff has a slightly anachronistic flavor that is surely inevitable--the book was published in 1999--and yet, funny to say, SnowWrite and RoseRead seems more or less like a primeval version of Google Docs. For Davis, the internet age threatens to dissolve boundaries, to work on the world like an enchantment only the arrogant think they can control.

If the world has ended, what does it matter what happened on the walking tour? What's Susan looking for? Her mother, maybe. Looking back, we're told, possesses its own dangers: "Maybe we're not supposed to look back because we're not supposed to horn in on places where we don't belong, like those time travelers in the old movies who do some inconsequential thing--eat a pomegranate, for instance--and ruin the future for everyone." Susan's investigation ends with a revelation that is shocking, otherworldly, and yet the stakes of the search have not been clear; the answers are elusive because the questions have never really been defined.

The Walking Tour is something to be admired, the way it bridges Welsh myth and Silicon valley, Christie and Atwood, past and future. Davis' prose earns its baroque flights because it's rooted in familiar language (see the way the phrase "horn in" anchors the allusion to Persephone in the passage above). But Labrador, which amazed me when I read it last year, succeeds because even at its strangest it is animated by the single-minded obsession the narrator has for her older, more popular sister. The Walking Tour has too many characters, and none are very thoroughly sketched, except perhaps for Carole. The fragments don't come together because that strong viewpoint is missing.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Margery Kempe by Robert Gluck

Jesus gazed up past his brow at Margery. His irises were disorganized blue geodes. He had been crying all weekend--it was Monday morning and he was still crying. He whispered, "I'm so abandoned." He raised his head in sadness and his face held the slow joy of deep sky above the sky.

He stood and turned on the balls of his feet and began to ascend. Margery fell half asleep when she saw the deity turn away. She felt the strongest sensation of her life, a welling of aspiration and desire embodied in the blue of dusty gold, the long smeared shadow of neck and spine, his broad hips, the semicircles of his ass, his long slightly knock-kneed legs. He rotated near the ceiling; she became conscious of the weight of her breasts and the hair down her back. The played tips of his long toes floated past her eyes. He raised his arm as darkness closed in. Later she concluded he was pointing to heaven.

A few years back I took a class on Medieval literature in graduate school; we read part of The Book of Margery Kempe, sometimes called the first autobiography in English. Margery was a 15th century Englishwoman who claimed--if I'm remembering correctly, and there's a good chance I'm not--to be married to Jesus Christ. From the perspective of our era we might think that Margery described some kind of spiritual ecstasy, but in fact she was quite literal about it: Margery considered herself the literal, physical bride of Christ, and therefore practiced celibacy with her "earthly" husband. And after all, why not? The Catholic religion is based on the mystery of a real, physical presence.

Robert Gluck's fictionalized version of Margery's story brings that physicality to the forefront: Margery and her husband Jesus enjoy each other's bodies with literal intimacy. He fondles her nipples; she fingers his asshole. Margery gives herself up to Jesus with a physical desire that is an analogue of spiritual ecstasy. Against this backdrop Gluck presents a second story: the story of his desire for L., a wealthy man many years his junior, for whom his desire is also a kind of ecstasy, but also a kind of grief or pain.

"How can the two halves of this novel ever be closed or complete?" Gluck asks. "Or the book is a triptych: I follow L. on the left, Margery follows Jesus on the right, and in the center my fear hollows out 'an empty space that I can't fill.'" The juxtaposition between Margery-and-Jesus and Bob-and-L. is sometimes foggy and sometimes quite clear: like Jesus, L.'s appeal is the stuff of mystery, in its religious meaning, a property beyond understanding and accessible only through practices of mysticism. Like Jesus, L. has power; though love forms the structure of divine creation, what power do mortals have to deny it, or withhold their own love? And like Jesus, L.'s diffidence is painful; as Jesus begins to show his boredom with Margery, so L. begins to drift away from Bob. God's love for us, if the word even suffices, may not resemble our love for God. Margery Kempe makes clear how grief and loss, in a cosmic sense, is inextricable from love.

Though Gluck's prose is often brittle and fragmented, I admired the physical language of Margery Kempe: the book is full of asses, cocks, tits, cunts, cumming, shitting, farting, etc., etc. We often project our squeamishness back onto the past; we assume that medieval people avoided talking about sex because we do. We love to think of ourselves as the endpoint of progress instead of what we are, which is the inheritors of a Victorian disdain for the body. It maybe that queer literature, disposed as it is to expose our false notions of the human body and the desire for the human body, reunites us with a medieval sense of the body as real and meaningful. Margery Kempe identifies the body as the site not only of love and lust, but of grief, loss, frustration, despair.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

I'm Dying Laughing by Christina Stead

'Haw-haw-haw.' The house rang with her gigantic laughter. 'Ha-ha-ha, oh-hoho.' She got up and tried to walk about, 'Stephen -- oh-hoho, save me!' She fell on the bed and turned on her side trying to stifle her laughter. 'Haw-haw-haw, oh, my God, oh-ho-ho, I shall die!'

She sobbed, struggled, strangled, shouted, screamed with laughter, strong, immense laughter, it seemed, not hysterical, the great roaring of big lungs and a strong heart.

Stephen turned on the light and sat up. Her face was crimson, tears poured out of her eyes. Her bosom heaved convulsively. He said, 'Stop it! You'll have convulsions. Stop. Stop it!' He slapped her.

She stopped, still heaving, and sat up to glare ferociously at him, 'Don't you dare touch me. I'll kill you.'

Stephen Howard is a walking contradiction: a rich Communist. He has inherited his wealth from his mother, or perhaps only the prestige of wealth, given the tightness of her purse strings, and yet he wears the contradiction on his sleeve. It has made him both an intellectual and a hothead, that is, a writer. On a transatlantic crossing, he meets Emily Wilkes, a spirited young fellow traveler who grew up poor in Arkansas and has scraped her way to a journalistic career. Stephen is a scarecrow, sour and bony, like Cassius; Emily is fat and full of life, yet they complement each other perfectly. They are married immediately.

I'm Dying Laughing is the last book in a small challenge I set for myself to read Australian writers. But unlike those others, Stead seems never to write about Australia; her settings are cosmopolitan. I'm Dying Laughing follows Stephen and Emily from Los Angeles to Connecticut to France, where they run to escape the Puritanical American Communist Party, who cannot stand the way the Howards court heterodoxy whenever they run their mouths. One of the best set-pieces in the novel is an early chapter where the Howards' putative friends host a dinner party as a pretext for reading a soon-to-be-published denunciation of the couple, even going so far as to say they plan on petitioning the court against the Howards' custody of their daughter Olivia. I'm Dying Laughing is about what it was like to be a Communist intellectual in the post-war period, a label riddled with its own contradictions and doubly endangered--first by Party disciplinarians and then by the scourge of McCarthyism.

Most of the novel follows the couple in France, where they settle with their four children. In France Stephen and Emily court the friendship of continental Communists and former members of the French Resistance, and yet are hyper-aware of their own hypocrisy: they are unable to live within their means, spending like capitalists and talking like Communists. They are true believers, but unable to even consider what it might look like to turn talk into action. You never know how you'll react when the crisis hits and the fascists come to power, one Resistant tells them, but such is the dilemma of the post-war American Communists: prosperity means they'll never have to put their values into practice. Stephen goes in and out of favor as a writer of polemics; Emily has far more success as a humorist, writing Mencken- or Thurber-style novels with mutedly radial politics.

Emily longs to write a serious novel, but humor and bombast are her only natural modes. She is a voluminous talker--something like 95% of this novel is dialogue, dialogue, dialogue--and prone to flights of chatter that issue from her before her thoughts are complete, and we get to see her change her mind over and over in real time:

I don't want to live this way in the bright lights, going to the gilded palaces, unable to tolerate a waiter who's been eating sour cabbage, or a waitress who hasn't washed, unable to bear a hotel if the manager doesn't scrape to me, suffering if my girl doesn't change her dress twice a day. I don't want to be like that. I am like that. Why? Because I see the funny side, I'm a wise guy. I've got the angles. I know the score. How despicable! Money's filthy. It is filthy, Stephen. Don't look down your nose. And when you think that my humour, which is me, I admit, is really the way I see things, laugh at everyone, sneer at everyone's troubles -- I really am cruel. I often wake up in the night, Stephen, to think out what I am. I'm like a doll with two faces glued together. They used to have those. I disliked them. One back, one front.

In the three novels of Stead's I've read since since The Man Who Loved Children, Emily strikes me as the closest thing to the outrageous Sam Pollitt in that novel: like Sam, her eccentricities put her beyond reason and beyond accommodation. She is incisive, a skilled wordsmith, but prone to strange and unshakeable beliefs: one of the complaints made by the American Party hacks who ambush her is that she "thinks all birds are snakes." (She does think this, and says so repeatedly, probably misunderstanding the fact that all birds are descended from dinosaurs--while snakes are not.)

Stephen, too, is outrageous, but Emily's outrageousness outpaces and overwhelms him. One of the few moments that get close to the dysfunctional family horror of The Man Who Loved Children comes when Emily, having caused a miserable Stephen to temporarily flee, begins to obsess--romantically and/or sexually, I'm not sure which--over her adopted son, Christy. Only Stead could write a scene like that, where the dream of the nuclear family turns itself inside out, and becomes grotesque melodrama. Other people try, I guess, but nobody really does it like her. Nobody captures the way such horrors emerge, without or noticing, from the commonplaces of love and family.

The Man Who Loved Children is like watching a bunch of people on a train headed toward a crash everyone but the conductor can see coming. I'm Dying Laughing is also a tragedy, ineluctably led toward bloodshed, but it's not quite the same. It's more like a party you can't leave, a party where everyone's just a little too drunk, and you know it's only a matter of time before somebody does something to bring the good feelings to an end.