Sunday, August 29, 2021

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah

I cannot recall having told David about my plan when we plunged into the forest but it seems to me that he came with me without my having to explain anything at all to him--a naive notion, I know. It surely cannoy be the truth yet it is what memory tells me, it is what remains sixty years later, perhaps so as to convince myself that I did not force him to follow me. Perhaps it is my only excuse.

I was full of hope, I wanted a brother, two brothers, a family as before, games as before, I wanted to be protected as before, I wanted to catch sight of those shadows out of the corner of my eye that let you know you are no alone. I was struggling desperately to resist everything that took me further away from childhood, I rejected death, rejected grief, rejected separation, and David was the answer to everything.

Raj is a young boy living in Mauritius, a small island nation east of Madagascar. His father is an abusive drunk who strikes him and his mother both, but at least he has his brothers, Anil and Vinod, one older and one younger--until one day a sudden monsoon catches the three brothers out in the forest and washes the other two to their deaths. This tragedy is, as one might suspect, life-shattering for Raj, who struggles to make sense of the loss. His father gets a job in the larger suburb of Beau-Bassin as a prison guard, but the ghosts of Anil and Vinod continue to haunt Raj from a distance:

Like me, my mother  carried the deaths of Anil and Vinod within her, throughout her life, and, like me, she was never able to put this bereavement into words. You can say you are an orphan, or a widow or a widower, but when you have lost two sons in the same day, two beloved brothers on the same day, what are you? What word is there to say what you have become? Such a word would have helped us, we would have known precisely what we were suffering from when tears came inexplicably to our eyes and when, years later, all it took was a smell, a color, a taste in the mouth, to plunge us into sadness once more, such a word could have described us, excused us, and everyone would have understood.

One day, when spying on the prison where his father works from outside the fence, Raj comes face to face with a boy about his own age, even smaller, white and with golden curls. He becomes fascinated with this boy and, when a savage beating from his father lands him in the prison hospital, meets him: his name is David, and he is one of several Jews deported to Mauritius by the British government after being turned away from Haifa at the height of the Holocaust. Raj becomes obsessed with David, who is unfamiliar but light in spirit, quick to laugh, and promises perhaps to replace the brothers that Raj has lost. When David escapes from the prison, Raj runs away with him, foolhardily hoping to cross the vast forest and reach his old village, where David can help him recover the life he had.

The Last Brother sounds as if it might be maudlin, but I was impressed by its simplicity and the lightness of its touch, which lies over a profound and complex novel about grief and loss. I was intrigued by the way that Appanah keeps the character of David at an arm's length: though Raj's love for him is entirely convincing--and, even in characters so young, romantically tinged, it seems to me--David himself is something of a locked box, sapped by the war of agency and motivation. Why does he follow Raj into the forest, where his sickness threatens to keep him from reaching their destination? A love for Raj, yes, and a habit of obedience, maybe, but if there are histories and complexities behind these feelings we never know them. One of the reasons The Last Brother works so well is that the voice of the older Raj is layered over the story, a Raj who has lost David--as he lost Anil and Vinod--but never ceased looking for him:

From that time forth I have never ceased searching for David in books, in films, in archives, to try to catch a momentary glimpse of how he had lived during those terrible years. A voice, words, an emotion that might have been his, that of a child aged five, boarding a ship wit his parents that was crammed with refugees, bound for Palestine. When and how did his parents die? Who took him in their arms to comfort him at that moment? Who watched over him? I do not know.

I picked up The Last Brother as part of a long-term project, which I mentioned in my last review, to read books by authors from countries I never have before. The Last Brother made me feel this project is already paying off dividends: not only is the novel a lovely glimpse into a corner of the world I know so little about, it is a delicate and sad little novel that I found very affecting.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Blindness by Jose Saramago

Perhaps only in a world of the blind will things be what they truly are, said the doctor. And what about people, asked the girl with the dark glasses, People, too, no one will be there to see them...

A man is stopped in his car at a red light when his vision goes suddenly white. A good samaritan slips in the driver's seat and takes him home, but instead of parking his car nearby, he decides on the spur of the moment to steal it, only to go blind himself moments later. The first blind man goes to see an ophthalmologist, who is baffled by the condition--and then he, too, goes blind. Soon dozens are stricken by the "white sickness," and the government panics. The doctor, the first blind man, the car thief, and several others--all of whom remain identified in this way, without names--are quarantined in a dilapidated mental hospital where they are guarded by armed soldiers but otherwise left to fend for themselves.

I didn't really think about the fact that Blindness, like Pale Horse, Pale Rider and The Plague, is a piece of plague literature. It captures something true about our own pandemic even better than those other books: the way contagion makes other people objects of fear and hatred, and how this fact threatens the stability of social bonds. The second man to go blind was first charitable, then predatory; his blindness is the result of his interaction with the first blind man but it cannot be said that he went blind because he treated him kindly or cruelly. A pandemic, as we know all too well, complicates our understanding of good and evil, and how link these to causality:

It was my fault, she sobbed, and it was true, no one could deny it, but it is also true, if this brings her any consolation, that if, before every action, we were to begin by weighing up the consequences, then the probable, then the possible, then the imaginable ones, we should never move beyond the point where our first thought brought us to a halt. The good and evil resulting from our words and deeds go on apportioning themselves, one assumes in a reasonably uniform and balanced way, throughout all the days to follow, including those endless days, when we shall not be here to find out, to congratulate ourselves and ask for pardon, indeed there are those who claim this is the much-talked-of immortality. Possibly, but this man is dead and must be buried.

Blindness is as chilling a dystopian novel as I've ever read. The conditions under which the blind are quarantined are remarkably vile: food is dropped off in a distant hallway and left to the blind to retrieve and distribute; hygiene and medical care are not provided; the stumbling blind are shot indiscriminately by terrified soldiers; they must bury their own dead--how?--and they are told that, in the case of a fire, their lives will not be saved. You might call that last one Chekhov's match. It's sort of funny in the year 2021 to think of the government taking a pandemic this seriously, but the "plan" seems to be to put a bottle on the problem and hope it goes away. Yet there is no severing the ties that bind people, another lesson we learned well when supply chains began to fail and essential workers bore the brunt of our fear in the spring of 2020.

The quarantined are essentially left to starve and die in their own literal filth. (For obvious reasons, the quarters begin to fill with human excrement.) A gang of thugs manages to sneak in a gun and command the distribution of food; when valuables run out they demand to be paid in rape. To show this, Saramago makes a clever choice: he lets one character see, the doctor's wife, who has lied and claimed that she has gone blind in order to stay with her husband. She becomes, to the extent that she can, a kind of seeing angel, guiding the small band of protagonists through the horrible gauntlet of blindness and squalor. When the hospital burns down, she is the one who guides the survivors through the harrowing landscape of a world in which everyone has gone blind.

Blindness is an antidote to the idea that a book can't be both literary and have a thrilling plot. I never believed that, but a bunch of Young Adult fans on Twitter seem to think so. I was fascinated by Saramago's style, which does away with sentence breaks and punctuation in favor of long run-on sentences governed by commas. It's frenetic and effective, though I suspect it should not be tried at home, and does a good job in this book at least of capturing the sense of chaos in which the newly blind find themselves.

Postscript: One of my new goals is to be better about reading international literature. I recently tallied up the number of countries from which I can say I have read at least one writer, and while I think I probably have done better than most, there are so many holes in my reading history. Saramago is officially the first Portuguese author I've read, so that's one more for the list!

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Ames, having explained the condition of juvenile elephants, drew this metaphor: Trans women are juvenile elephants. We are much stronger and more powerful than we understand. We are fifteen thousand pounds of muscle and bone forged from rage and trauma, armed with ivory spears and faces unique in nature, living in grasslands where any of the ubiquitous humans may or may not be a poacher. With our strength, we can destroy each other with ease. But we are a lost generation. We have no elders, no stable groups, no one to teach us to countenance pain. No matriarchs to tell the young girls to knock it off or show off their own long lives lived happily and well.

Ames has been seeing his boss, Katrina, but he's kept a secret from her: for years he was Amy. Born James, he transitioned after an adolescence of confusion and crossdressing, only to detransition after a brutal beating at the hands of a chaser and bigot. When Katrina becomes pregnant--something he thought his former hormone therapy would prevent--he is thrown for a loop. The possibility of becoming not just a parent but a father is so repulsive, he reaches out to his former girlfriend, a trans woman named Reese, to ask if she wants to raise the baby with them as another mother. This sounds like lunacy, of course, but Reese, who has always wanted to be a mother--a difficult prospect for a trans woman, for reasons as much social and legal as physical--is drawn to the idea, and even Katrina seems to think such an unusual family might be possible.

Detransition, Baby must be the most high-profile fiction work by a trans author and about trans people ever written. It's interesting that it would focus so much on detransition, a phenomenon that is often seized upon by transphobes writing for glossy magazines to delegitimize trans lives. Peters makes it clear that Ames' detransition occurs not because of disenchantment or regret, but because living as a cis man, without the scrutiny and threat of violence, is just easier. It's a sad decision but one the book treats with respect, and in bringing together the three women--cis, detransitioned, trans--Peters examines just some of the many paths available to women and how they intersect. In fact, perhaps one of the most sadly remarkable things about Detransition, Baby is simply that it is a work of popular culture with more than one trans character. These snapshots of diverse experiences are, one hopes, a kind of antidote to the flattening narratives about trans people in America.

At the heart of Detransition, Baby is an old question: is it better to infiltrate heteronormative institutions, or undermine them? At one point, Peters talks briefly about how trans people have always been a part of the "gay" rights movement, though often marginalized and overshadowed, and this question is an endemic one in that movement, answered in different ways by different generations. Is the triad-parent scheme at the heart of Detransition, Baby an infiltration or an undermining? Certainly it's not a version of the family that will past muster with Focus on the Family or Fox News. But Reese's maternal desires are profoundly shaped by her own normie Wisconsin upbringing, and the two mothers-to-be bond over the most normie baby ritual of all: the baby registry. When the characters imagine trans parenthood, it looks a lot like cis parenthood. Of course, parenthood is not quite like marriage--it's a necessity of life and all--but it's certainly institutionalized, and the novel effectively narrativizes the tension created by queer participation in the institution. This tension is at the heart of what works about Detransition, Baby, I think.

However. Though this tension hums at the level of theme and plot, it gets resolved at the level of style. Destransition, Baby is formally straightforward, and its language seems most to resemble those online magazines that balance the language of informed forward-thinkingness with breezy chattiness. It is intensely middlebrow, intensely book-clubbish. In fact, it is a "Roxane Gay's Audacious Book Club Pick." That is to say that aesthetically, the novel is on the side of the normies, and aesthetically, it really struggles. The best parts of the book are the "flashback" scenes in which we see Reese and Ames/James/Amy in their most formative years, when their gender dysphoria is at its most raw.

But in the "now," when the three women actually get together, the novel becomes poisonously dreary. Their first conversation together, at a GLAAD award ceremony, is so clogged with abstractions about gender, identity, and family, that Ames quips at the end, "Credit to GLAAD... Tonight they have achieved their mission of facilitating another hard-hitting discussion of LGBTQ rights." Detransition, Baby tries very hard to cover every Very Important Trans Topic: suicide, HIV, violence, chasers, hormones, surgery, etc., etc. No doubt each of these things shapes the life of trans people daily, and yet there must be a way to explore them in a story about people, rather than a "hard-hitting discussion of LGBTQ rights."

There is a moment when Katrina steps off the train to visit Reese in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (The book's loveless and sour depiction of my neighborhood is a criticism I'll keep mostly to myself.) Katrina points out the word Tranny on a nearby poster, which repulses and angers Reese, even though it turns out to be an advertisement for the memoir of that name by Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace. Now, I haven't read the memoir, but Brent tells me it depicts the musician at a moment of near-homelessness and extreme precarity. Katrina tells Reese that, as a marketing exec, she wouldn't have chosen that title. ("Can you imagine a trans woman buying that book? I mean, what, is she going to read it on the subway?") This observation supposedly endears Katrina to Reese; for the first time she's able to see Katrina as an ally and a possible partner in motherhood. But I was strongly repelled by this small detail, partly because of the authority rooted in Katrina's job as a marketing executive. Grace's title is provocative--I think the intentions, like it or not, are clear--but is it good branding?

This moment also makes the book's ambitions clear: It's the trans book that a trans woman can read on the subway. It is respectable and palatable. And you know, we probably need books like that. I suspect their power is culturally and politically limited, but what do I know? I recognize that I don't really have any standing to pass judgment in that regard. I can say that I found the book artistically limited for these reasons. I'm a little wary of saying I didn't like it, because it's so important, but I think that really gets to the heart of why I didn't like it: it's too busy being important to be good.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann

It must be here that the loneliness of the Indian country of which we have merely commenced to take possession, and at that so nominally that nothing but violence will save our claims from being laughed away, begins to march along with us, very quick and correct in its movements, although uncouth in the gaze and teeth it turns upon us, proposing to nibble us up before we notice, our desire consequently being to ride away from here , but now as long as we continue forward, everywhere we go will be again here in the dying golden grass of what is not yet America even though it will certainly become so, which is why we pursue Joseph as far as we must, our Springfields ready with a round in the chamber and our faces fixed as we seek earth stained by his sign, riding east now toward our dear United States, the general watching us without imparting anything but affable trivialities; we will carry Joseph to the gallows, and if that isn't good enough, we will kick him down to Hell.

The Nez Perce, like so many of the indigenous tribal nations of the 19th century in the land that is now the United States, were "good Indians" until they weren't. They cooperated with the U.S. government and the Army, they were friendly with settlers--even intermarrying with them--and signed a treaty agreeing to a large reservation in the land that now lies at the intersection of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon. But of course there isn't a single Indian treaty that the United States didn't break, and the thief treaty was the same: the Nez Perce saw their reservation chiseled away to a tiny fraction of what it had been. Many Christianized Nez Perce stuck to the reservation, took English names, and began the process of assimilation, but several bands totaling about 750 people decided to refuse the terms of the treaty, touching off a war of attrition that lasted from June to October of 1877. The Nez Perce led the Army on a strategic retreat through Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, before finally being routed just a few miles south of the Canadian border.

William T. Vollmann's novel The Dying Grass tells the story of the Nez Perce War from beginning to end, from both the perspective of the Nez Perce, and the Department of the Columbia that pursued them. It is the longest of Vollmann's five written Seven Dreams novels about conflict between settlers and Native Americans--at 1200 pages it is almost certainly, by page count at least, the longest book I have ever read--but also the most stylistically adventurous. When a perspective shifts--perhaps from one character to another, or from what someone is saying to what they are really thinking, or just from the action to a description of its natural surroundings--Vollmann indents that section or set of lines. The result looks and often reads like poetry, but it also reminded me of the "stacks" of computer code (sorry Brent that's probably not right). The result is that The Dying Grass seems uniquely polyphonic, woven from hundreds of different voices. More than any of the other Seven Dreams books, The Dying Grass captures the sheer breadth of the conflict and its many actors.

On the white side, Vollmann's main character is the General Oliver Otis Howard, known by his detractors as "Uh Oh Howard" for his defeat at the Battle of Chancellorville. Many of Howard's soldiers also call him "General Prayer Book" because of his piousness, and rankle under his proscription of alcohol and his friendliness toward Indians and blacks. Howard's virtues are indeed very virtuous: his sincere concern for black Americans--something that could not be said for many other Union generals--led him to found Howard University and steer the Freedman's Bureau. His attitude toward the Nez Perce is similar: when he says he had counted them friends and is aggrieved by their rebellion, we believe him, but he is blind to the limits of his own paternalism. He wants for the Nez Perce what he wanted for the Negroes--a little bit of land and assimilation into the social order of the United States--but cannot see how such largesse entails the destruction of the nation's cultural history and way of life. 

Only one of the soldiers, Howard's aide-de-camp Erskine Wood, slowly comes to believe that the Army's pursuit of the Nez Perce is a moral outrage; Vollmann's depiction of him is second only to Howard in its richness and sensitivity. And yet even Wood's protest remains in his heart only; his creeping doubt does not spur him to reject his Army commission or aid the Nez Perce (though we find, in a true and fascinating fact, that later in life Wood sent his son to learn "how to be an Indian" from the captured Nez Perce Chief Joseph). Wood's foil might be Ad Chapman, the volunteer interpreter who knows how to speak Nimipuutimt from his marriage to a Nez Perce woman. Crude, mercenary, and untrustworthy, it might be said that the whole war is Chapman's fault because he fires first on the Nez Perce, and yet his position between two worlds makes him indispensable. In a touch that is both meaningful and historically true, it's Wood and Chapman, dissident and bigot, who pen the famous translation of Chief Joseph's surrender speech: "From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."

Howard's counterpart on the Nez Perce side is Chief Joseph himself, called by his true name, Heinmot Tooyalakekt. The Nez Perce's strategic retreat bestows upon Joseph the title of the Red Napoleon, but this relies on a grave misunderstanding: Joseph is the chief of his own small band of Nez Perce, but he's never made war chief, a role given to Looking-Glass (named for the shard of mirror he keeps around his neck) or Lean Elk. Jane Smiley's review of The Dying Grass suggests that Vollmann is so sympathetic to the Nez Perce that it verges on "noble savage" ideology, but not only is this a poor moral judgment--a kind of bothsidesism projected onto the past--I'm not sure how she could have read about the great disagreements between the restrained Joseph and the more militant members of the Nez Perce party, like the "Three Red Blankets" or the bloodthirsty Toohoolhoolsote, and came away with that conclusion. One thing Vollmann, who wrote an 800-page treatise on the nature of violence, does well is to show the way violence cycles out of control, no less among the Nez Perce than the Army: their rebellion against the "Bostons" becomes all too easily an excuse to raid and murder uninvolved white settlers.

For his part, Joseph always advocates for surrender and peace, though his stature is not such that he's often heeded. But among the many disputing chiefs Joseph emerges as the most virtuous because he unerringly thinks of the welfare of his people, and women and children especially, before abstract concerns like honor. The Dying Grass suggests that the American press might have it right when they imagine Joseph to be supreme among the Nez Perce:

now his heart begins too late to understand

--although many other best men dispute this, preferring White Bird, who planned our victory a Sparse-Snowed Place and led us across the Medicine Line--

that our greatest chief was Heinmot Tooyalakekt,
he who never had hope,

desiring only to help our women, children, and old ones:

Yet The Dying Grass echoes an idea that first came to me by way of Dee Brown's history of the Indian Wars, Bury Me at Wounded Knee: in the end, the various responses to removal mattered very little. The Bannocks and Cheyennes who help the "Bluecoats" stomp out the Nez Perce will find themselves at the barrel of their guns within a year, and even the disputation between the various Nez Perce chiefs seems, in the end, meaningless: "The prudent and trusting submission of Looking-Glass," Volmann writes, "the violent resistance of the Three Red Blankets, the flight of White Bird and the restraint of Chief Joseph all produced the same result. So did General Howard's kindheartedness and General Sherman's pitiless fury." It is interesting to think of Howard and Sherman--and Wood and Chapman, perhaps--in the same boat, one which rises on the tide of history but which can barely be guided or steered. Did the rush of settlement in the latter half of the 19th century mean that the cruelty of the Indian Wars and the reservation system were foregone conclusions? In Fathers and Crows, Vollmann wrote of the Jesuit conversion of the Haudenosaunee, "If it had to be done, it could have been done differently." Is that true here, too? Or is Howard right when he tells Wood that there's no other way?

Either way, The Dying Grass is a tremendous panorama of those caught in the rush of history. Beyond Howard, Wood, Chapman, Joseph, Looking-Glass, and Toohoolhoolsote there are dozens and dozens of individual characters whose interior lives are thoughtfully imagined and evoked by the unusual structural choices of the novel. It's a novel as big and breathtaking as the mixed-grass prairie, or the mountain valley, or the camas meadows over which that history moves.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant

The dark, the ghosts, the candlelight, her tears on the scarred bar--they were real. And still, whether she wanted to see it or not, the light of imagination danced all over the square. She did not dare to turn again to the mirror, lest she confuse the two and forget which light was real. A pure white awning on a cross street seemed to her to be of indestructible beauty. The window it sheltered was hollowed with sadness and shadow. She said with the same deep sadness, "I believe you." The wave of revulsion ceded, sucked back under another wave--a powerful adolescent craving for something simple, such as true love.

Mavis Gallant's Paris Stories are not all set in Paris, although as the editor of this collection, Michael Ondaatje points out, they were all likely written in Paris, where the Canadian ex-pat Gallant lived much of her life. Yet the title refers to a kind of Parisienne spirit: a city hollowed out by war, then filled with the cast-offs of Europe--the war-wounded, refugees from Eastern Europe where the war in a way never disappeared, the profiteers looking for a scheme by which to keep profiting, the writers and drifters. More than the other two collections of Gallant's I have read (all of which have overlapping contents), Paris Stories is about the aftermath of World War II, and the new Europe that unfolds itself over five decades. (The last of these stories was written, I think, in the 1990's, or perhaps even later, though Gallant's rich, dense style seems perpetually frozen in the 1950's, not unlike some of her protagonists.) The story that deals with the war most immediately is the striking "The Latehomecomer," about a German veteran belatedly released from captivity years after the war's end, trying to determine how he fits into the life of his mother, who has remarried:

Here, where it would not be necessary to wear a label, because "latehomecomer" was written all over me, I sensed that I was an embarraassment, too; my appearance, my survival, my bleeding gums and loose teeth, my chronic dysentery and anemia, my cravings for sweets, my reticence with strangers, the cast-off rags I had worn on arrival, all said "war" when everyone wanted peace, "captivity" when the word was "freedom," and "dry bread" when everyone was thinking "jam and butter."

"The Latehomecomer," with its powerful sense of an existence wrenched slightly and forever out of place, is one of the masterpieces of Paris Stories. I think I was most taken by the sumptuousness of "The Moslem Wife," a story about a hotelier and her husband who are driven together despite their essential differences, and then separated by the war. He goes to America--and even marries an American wife--while she remains behind as the hotel is turned into a bivouac for Italians. Like the title latehomecomer, husband and wife, meeting at last in the precarious safety of the post-war era, must determine what they once were to each other, how much was real and how much imagined, and how much of what they had believed has changed or simply been exposed and discredited. Looking back at that description, it seems essentially correct to me, but it fails to capture the wonderful ambiguity of the story, an ambiguity that, like in all of Gallant's stories, hides among richly drawn portraits of material landscapes: chintz curtains, silk flowers in ormolu vases, prized and profitable view of the sea.

In "Baum, Gabriel (1945- )," Gallant describes a veteran of the French wars in Algeria who makes a meager living acting in television shows about the war and occupation. He and his friend--who actually has lines in these programs--bum around the same cafe as the other actors, until it closes suddenly and reopens with a plaque that reads: "PUB LA MEDUSE: THE OLDEST AND MOST CELEBRATED MEETING-PLACE FOR TELEVISION STARS IN PARIS." I just loved the clever humor at the heart of this story: Gabriel lives first as a real soldier in Algeria--already a kind of ersatz version of the French heroes of the World War--and then becomes a fake soldier. Then even being an actor becomes a kind of performance, an actor acting at acting, making set dressing for the cafe. This theme is repeated in "The Remission" when the soon-to-be-widow of an Englishman who has come to the French Riviera to die begins an affair with an actor whose whole talent is to look and sound very English. These stories describe a Europe always renewing itself as a facsimile of itself, always becoming a blurrier, less reliable copy.

One of the most well-known stories in the collection, "Speck's Idea," describes an art gallery collector who seeks to make a name for himself by rehabilitating the career of an overlooked artist, but settles on a dead painter whose collection is jealously guarded by an unsentimental Canadian wife. Speck is convinced that the exhibition will be a smash, and quickly rationalizes his discovery that the artist was a right-wing sympathizer during the war. Ondaatje's foreword describes it as a story about how people lurch into Fascism for non-ideological reasons; the essential performativeness of the exhibition--the carefully written biography in the catalog--resonates, to me, with the actors of "Baum, Gabriel (1945- )" and "The Remission," showing that Fascism, too, can become an act. Xenophobia and viciousness haunt the edges of these stories, like in the quietly effective "Mlle. Dias De Corta," written from the perspective of an aging Frenchwoman to the indeterminately foreign former boarder she has just seen acting in a commercial. The narrator vacillates between adding up all the rent--with interest!--the boarder ran out on, and begging her to come back to stay with them again.

Some of the later stories--I believe the collection is chronologically ordered--struck me as a little too dense, like a thicket, to penetrate. I think I liked this collection a little bit less, on the whole, than the two other Gallant collections I have read. But the best stories, like "The Latehomecomer" and "The Moslem Wife," are some of her very best.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe

And suddenly he felt himself being seized by a disgraceful desire. It had quickened in the darkness of his mind like a clot of black slugs when he had learned at the reception window that his baby was still alive, and gradually had made clear to him its meaning as it propagated with horrid vigor. Bird again dredged the question up to the surface of his conscious mind; how can we spend the rest of our lives, my wife and I, with a monster baby riding on our backs? Somehow I must get away from the monster baby.

Bird is a lecturer at a Japanese "cram-school" who is expecting his first child at any moment. Instead of being with his wife at the hospital, we see him bumming around the city unsure of what to do, failing spectacularly at a strength-measuring game at the local arcade, getting his shit rocked by a group of local youths. (A Personal Matter seems to take place in the 60's, so maybe it was not customary for a husband to be in the delivery room, but still--what a pathetic piece of shit!) He's more interested in his dreams of traveling to Africa than the reality of his wife and child. This reality emerges to shock him when he learns that his son has been born with a massive brain hernia that makes him look if he has two heads, and which the doctor tells him will make him a "vegetable" for his short life, which may only be a couple of days.

Bird is horrified by the baby's appearance and relieved that it will die soon. This deeply shameful feeling--who among us could be sure they would not feel this way? Certainly not me--is one of the subjects of Oe's book, which is admirably unflinching about the dark desires that emerge from beneath the human consciousness. (His sexual desires, which can be both exotic and violent, are another example.) And yet Bird's shame is reflected on all sides: the doctors are more interested in the novelty of the brain hernia than the life Bird's son's might lead or the choices Bird is called on to make. Bird's wife isn't even told about the hernia, only that there is an "organ problem" which has whisked the baby from her arms and into intensive care. Bird's mother-in-law pressures him not to tell her--the baby will die soon anyway and no one needs to know, right? When the baby refuses to die right away, a doctor even conspires with Bird to replace its milk with sugar water so it will waste away sooner.

For most of the novel, Bird is far away from both baby and wife. While both are in the hospital, he spends the week shacked up with an old girlfriend, Himiko, whose husband's unexpected suicide has compelled her to a newfound sexual libertinism of which Bird becomes one of many lucky recipients. Himiko helps Bird to process his shameful feelings and to exorcise his sexual desires, but she also represents a kind of fantasy life, a life Bird might have chosen instead and might still choose. When the sugar water plan fails--the baby seems to be thriving, though with what kind of mental awareness no one can say--he and Himiko hatch a plan to drop the baby off with an abortionist (ex-post facto, I guess) and run off to Africa together.

I was impressed by the complexity and honesty of A Personal Matter. I was interested in the knotty characters of both Bird and Himiko, each navigating the intersection of moral demands and their most fundamental feelings. The central moral question of the novel--what is to be done with the baby?--seems simple, but isn't; the way the needs of the baby may or may not overlap with Bird's desires--what kind of life will it have?--complicates, rather than simplifies things, and the paucity of information that Bird possesses complicates it even further. And Oe, who raised a son under similar circumstances, has special credibility.

"You're right about this being limited to me, it's entirely a personal matter," Bird tells Himiko. "But with some personal experiences that lead you way into a cave all by yourself, you must eventually come to a side tunnel or something that opens on a truth that concerns not just yourself but everyone. And with that kind of experience at least the individual is rewarded for his suffering." In this I hear a distant echo of the baby's situation: what can suffering mean when suffering is done in a locked box of the psyche? We want suffering to be redemptive, but how can the kind of suffering that takes place at such a great remove be redemptive? In the end, Bird makes what we believe is the right choice, but I think Oe suggests the terms of "right and wrong" rely on shaky epistemological grounds.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

Through the whole drive back I kept trying to steal glances at Sils to see if she looked any different. She had now gone through so many things that I hadn't, I wondered more than ever whether she could still like me, be the same as she had been, or even remember things we'd done together. Was there a ghost, an amphibious baby ghost, flying out behind us, above us, all the way home like a kite? Under Sils's arms there were dark circles of perspiration on my green shirt. her hair had grown oily and the front had separated into strands. I leaned over to loosen the buckle of my sandals, and when I turned to look up at her, from that angle, I could see a small, golden bugger floating in the dark of her right nostril like a star--odd and alone, speaking dizzily without words.

Berie Carr is sitting at a cafe in Paris eating brains with her husband. Their marriage may be at an end--he's stupid but also too clever, and boring, and on top of all that he has just recently pushed her down the stairs--and facing the watershed of that failure she begins to think back on her childhood. Growing up in the small Adirondack mountain town of Horsehearts, New York (what a name!), her life was organized around her best friend Silsby, called Sils, a luminous presence that still shines in her memory. She thinks back through the story of how she and Sils once worked together at a chintzy amusement park called Storyland--Berie as a ticket-taker, Sils as Cinderella--when Sils became pregnant by her boyfriend, a motorcycle-riding meathead. Berie, enamored with her friend without the words or judgment to explain it to herself, promises that she will take care of Sils' predicament, and begins skimming money from the park cash box to pay for Sils' abortion.

I really loved the richness and humor of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?. It reminded me of Kathryn Davis' Labrador, another novel about one young girl enamored with another, and which shares some of the same luxury of detail and sparkle of prose. But in Labrador, the narrator's obsession with her sister is rewarded with cruelty and belittlement; Sils is beautiful and kind, even as the experience widens the gulf between her and the yet-to-bloom Berie.

I never quite felt the way Berie does about Sils as a character--she's too distant--but I believed wholeheartedly in Berie's belief, which strikes at something sad and true about the fleetingness of childhood love. With a few notable exceptions, like Sils' abortion and her boyfriend's motorcycle accident--which both he and she come to associate with the abortion itself, as a kind of manifested guilt--Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? avoids high drama. There's no big break between Sils and Berie, no shouting or tears or grand pronouncement, but Lorrie Moore plumbs the great depths of the small moments that life is often truly made of.

Memory, Moore writes, "can do nothing: It pretends to eat the shrapnel of your acts, yet it cannot swallow or chew." Berie's trip down memory lane stands in stark contrast with her present marriage: though let down by the dissolution of her marriage, nothing can stand next to the slow fade of her relationship with Sils; the marriage simply never reached the same heights. Can any marriage, entered to as adults, really match the ardor of your first crushes? I thought that Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? captured this truth, as much about adulthood as it is about youth, quite beautifully.

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Fences by August Wilson

TROY: (With a quiet rage that threatens to consume him.) Alright... Mr. Death. See now... I'm gonna tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna take and build me a fence around this yard. See? I'm gonna build me a fence around what belongs to me. And then I want you to stay on the other side. See? You stay over there until you're ready for me. Then you come on. Bring your army. Bring your sickle. Bring your wrestling clothes. I ain't gonna fall down on my vigilance this time. You ain't gonna sneak up on me no more. When you ready for me... when the top of your list say Troy Maxson... that's when you come around here. You come up and knock on the front door. Ain't nobody else got nothing to do with this. This is between you and me. Man to man. You stay on the other side of that fence until you ready for me. Then you come up and knock on the front door. Anytime you want. I'll be ready for you.

I'm excited to teach the eleventh grade next year, for the first time in years--American Lit. Our department decided that our "common text"--the one book we all have to teach--would be August Wilson's Fences, part of his "Pittsburgh Cycle" of plays and an extremely popular book to read in high school. I'd never read it, but I've seen the movie with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, which I now know is a pretty faithful rendition. The story of the two-act play centers on Troy Maxson, a trash collector and former ballplayer in Pittsburgh. After years of conflict, Troy has settled into a comfortable middle-aged life with his wife Rose and son Cory. Reminders of more difficult times abound: Troy's son from another marriage, Lyons, comes asking for money, and his brother Gabe, whose traumatic war injury has damaged his brain, has recently moved out. And more trouble is on the horizon: the conflict with his son Cory over his intention to play college football, for one, and the secret affair he's been having with a woman at work.

The first act of Fences struck me as being about work and how to get ahead. Troy is in the middle of a conflict with the sanitation department about the fact that all their "lifters" are black and their drivers white; to snag a plum driving job would be the kind of incremental progress that validates his belief in hard work within the limitations of Civil Rights-era society. He has nothing but contempt for gamblers and thieves, those who would advance by irrational leaps, or cheat a system even though it's unfair. We learn somewhere in the latter half of the first act that Troy spent fifteen years in prison after an attempted robbery gone wrong, which explains this outlook.

Its worst manifestation is his conflict with Cory: Troy simply refuses to believe that powerful whites will let Cory succeed on the field, so he refuses to sign off on his release papers. Yet we feel that Cory is not wrong when he says that Troy simply doesn't want him to be better than he was, and there are unsettling intimations that Troy, too, does not owe his success entirely to hard work, as with the suggestion that he has pocketed his brother's disability payments. One way of reading Fences is as a critique of the ideology of hard work and incrementalism, an ideology which proves stronger than the will to follow it.

Many of the play's themes come to bear on the central symbol of the fence that Troy is building throughout the play's first act. In one sense, the fence is an symbol of desperate protectiveness; a symbolic barrier Troy uses to demarcate what is "his," not just against outside threats, but Rose and Cory. As Troy loses a grip on the house and the domestic life it contains--thanks to his affair--the value of this symbolic border becomes increasingly meaningful, leading to a violent showdown with Cory over who belongs within the fence. But one also hears the resonance of the phrase "swing for the fences," an echo of Troy's success as a ballplayer which puts the shrunkenness of his dreams into harsh perspective. In the passage quoted above, the fence becomes a barrier between Troy and even death, the ultimate fact of life which looms over all our beliefs about hard work and getting ahead--the one thing that Troy knows for sure will take all of this away from him.

One thing I like about Fences is that, in its own way, it reproduces themes recognizable in white American fiction and brings their racial component to the forefront. It fits in quite neatly with lots of mid-century fiction about the ennui of success--think Appointment in Samarra or Rabbit, Run--but reveals the way that, for black Americans, success means something different, is more precarious. And it is as powerful a meditation on the "American dream" as The Great Gatsby, and perhaps more honest in its knowledge that this dream has never been equally possible for all.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Severance by Ling Ma

Memories beget memories. Shen Fever being a disease of remembering, the fevered are trapped indefinitely in their memories. But what is the difference between the fevered and us? Because I remember, too, I remember perfectly. My memories replay, unprompted, on repeat. And our days, like theirs, continue in an infinite loop. We drive, we sleep, we drive some more.

A mysterious disease emerges from China. The U.S. border is shut down, but it's too late: the infection spreads uncontrollably. Things in China are even worse, we suspect, but the Chinese government keeps a tight lid on information coming out of the country. Americans try to protect themselves with mask, though not everyone believes they provide any protection at all. Basic services begin to fail; the supply chain buckles; people flee New York as it begins to collapse. Those who stay attempt to work from home, but without the interconnectedness of the modern world, things go quickly south.

In 2021, Ling Ma's Severance seems awfully prescient, doesn't it? What stands out the most is perhaps the ways in which Ma's imagination falls short of the real thing: the number of dead, for example, that provokes the U.S. to stop publishing statistics, is 280,000. (We're at 600,000 and counting.) The main character's employer offers a colossal sum to continue working from the office while everyone else transitions to remote work. This last bit seems particularly egregious, given how interested Severance is in the economic structures that seem both so fragile and so binding: of course, in the real world, many people have simply been forced into work. But these are not really criticisms, just grimly funny observations; in truth Severance seems to have gotten the shape and import of a 21st century global pandemic exactly right.

The protagonist, Candace Chen, is a Chinese-born American who, in her former life, works as a production director for a book publisher. Her job is in Bibles: sourcing the leather, the paper, the little gemstones attached to their most expensive product line. This work involves contracting Chinese companies; she travels between America and Shenzen and gives her a first-hand look at the realities of the global manufacturing economy. This job is exactly as fulfilling as you expect it might be, and she drifts through her New York existence in profound alienation: the second meaning of the word severance, and a state that the pandemic only intensifies. After the "Shen Fever" hits, she escapes the city, only to be captured by the megalomaniac leader of a group of travelers who sees her pregnancy as link to the future existence of humankind.

What I liked most about Severance is that it doesn't overexplain the connections between Candace's pre-pandemic profession and the reality of social collapse. Shen Fever, unlike Covid, is a fungal disease, and though it's not explicitly stated, one suspects that it travels around the world on the billions of products with MADE IN CHINA inscribed on them. Candace's own relationship to China, a country where all of her surviving family lives, but about which she remembers little, is a fraught one, circumscribed, like most Americans, by the logic of economics and production, rather than affection. "The future just wants more consumers," her boyfriend tells her, but Severance is a story about a future that consumes itself to death and is unable to stop. Sufferers of Shen Fever can often be discovered in zombie-like reenactments of what they loved most in life, and often this becomes acts of empty consumption: trying on clothes, walking around an abandoned mall. Severance describes a world in which production and consumption govern our most intimate and far-flung relationships, and suggests that the most frightening thing about those relationships somehow is the possibility of their collapse.