Thursday, September 30, 2021

In the Time of the Blue Ball by Manuela Drager

Like everyone I know, Lili Nebraska had never been talented at police work, and she surely didn’t jump for joy to know that, from now on, she would replace the police. But you can be sure that she is doing her best. Since being put in charge, if you need her, well, she does her best.

Reading the paragraph above, you might assume that Lili Nebraska is a human woman who has, through some sequence of events, found herself as the head of the police department. This is a reasonable assumption, and is also wrong. The next paragraph goes on to say:

For a long time, Lili Nebraska had been a street violinist, a virtuoso brown as gingerbread with adorable black patterning on her face and around her navel, and with a violin under her arm, a bow in her hand and no other clothing. Even behind the crate of vegetables, she had not lost this proud musician’s appearance.

In the Time of the Blue Ball is like this: lucid and peaceful at sentence by sentence level but surreal and unknowable when seen from a distance. There’s no complicated prose, no metafictional tricks, no intricate plotting. Each of the stories follows the same structure: the narrator Bobby Potemkine--who is also a private investigator--is given a job: find the man who created fire; save Auguste Didion, a sentient piece of macaroni(!); find out where all the baby pelicans are coming from since there are no grown pelicans anymore. He sets out on these journeys with the help of friends he meets along the way, like Lili Nebraska above, or Gershwin, a tiger that smells strongly of urine and can’t help but eat anything that moves like a rodent, or his dog Djinn, who accidentally eats a performing fly and becomes a virtuoso on the vaguely woodwind-sounding “nanoctiluphe”. Each story ends with the task being accomplished, and in the course of things Bobby always runs into the “very pretty” Lili Niagara, a “batte”--which I assume is a batlike creature--with whom he was infatuated in grade school and who may like him now. But of course Battes like to mock other people/creatures and she may just be gathering gossip material.

Of these three stories, I liked Our Baby Pelicans the best. It asks, in an absurd way, for us to consider various relationships: parent and child, friend and “lover”, wage slave and artist, oppressor and oppressed, but it provides very little in the way of concrete anchor points. Does Lili Niagara like Bobby Potemkine, and by the way, what even are all these characters we follow? There’s a sense of isolation and lostness about the whole enterprise, as whimsical as it is.

The last story ends with Bobby having convinced a large lake to become a mother to all the baby pelicans. Through his words and her sheer force of will, they are able to remake the world in a way that leaves everyone happy, or so it seems. But the story ends the same as the earlier two: with the mission accomplished, the companions cheerful, and Bobby alone.

The title refers to the passage of time. Rather than years, months, hours, minutes, periods are indicated by spheres of varying color. Blue, red, Azure, green, periwinkle. No reference point is given for these units, so these characters all, including Bobby, exist in a space outside our comfortable reference points, and sometimes, we suspect, theirs as well. It’s never explained why the world is as it is, or even how it was before. In the end, the people living there are as confused as the reader, and left grasping at the same fleeting moments of lucidity and hope--fire, love, a pretty face, a beautifully patterned belly, a musical fly, a stinky tiger, a baby pelican hung about the neck of someone who’s still alone.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Concluding by Henry Green

She had been looking at the other curtains, and now she rose from her place to walk daintily across. She paused an instant, then, courage in both hands, she swept these back as dramatically as the scene disclosed shone on her now smiling eyes. Because, except for what still hung over the water, the mist was evaporating fast, the first beech trees away to the right were quite freed, her Park itself was brilliantly clear, the sun up, a lovely day had opened and, as she watched, a cloud of starlings rose from the nearest of her Woods, they ascended in a spiral up to the blue sky; a thousand dots revolving on a wave, the shape of a vast black seashell pointed to the morning; and she was about to exclaim in delight when, throughout the dormitories upstairs, with a sound of bees in this distant Sanctum, buzzers called her girls to rise so that two hundred and eighty nine turned over to that sound, stretched and yawned, opened blue eyes on their white sheets to this new day which would stretch on, clinging to its light, until at length, when night should fall at last, would be time for the violins and the dance.

Henry Green's Concluding takes place over a single day at a state-run school for girls. It's Founder's Day, a holiday ending in a schoolwide dance, but in the morning two girls are discovered missing from their beds, which have not been slept in. Over the course of the day, one girl is discovered in the woods in torn pajamas; later, the still missing girl's doll--painted to look exactly like her--is discovered, too. This mystery, you might think, would wholly occupy everyone at the school, but for the most part it lurks in the minds of each behind their personal preoccupations: There's Mr. Rock, an aging scientist who has been gifted a cottage on the institute's land for his services to the state; Edge and Baker, the school principals who are set on scheming Rock out of the same cottage for the institute; Rock's granddaughter Elizabeth, staying with him while recovering from a vaguely alluded-to mental breakdown; and her lover, a charmless economics teacher named Sebastian Birt. The girl's disappearance brings these characters together, but as is typical in Green's novels, all conversation produces only crosstalk and misunderstanding; these people are too wrapped up in their own concerns to even hear each other, much less collaborate to solve an urgent mystery.

Green's toryism runs through Concluding. The institute--school seems like hardly the right word--is part of a vast future welfare state that has subsumed England. The red tape of bureaucracy circumscribes the characters' lives completely, and regulations loom over every possible action: a teacher's suggestion that they cut down fir branches instead of azaleas for the evening dance, for example, is dismissed out of hand as being against strict protocol. Regulations prevent Edge and Baker from interrogating the discovered girl, Merode, until she has been cleared by a doctor; yet they are all too happy to let the regulations prevent them from the task of finding the missing girl, Mary. Far from wanting to find the missing girls, they resent them for "laying their Institute open to the Grand Inquisition of a State Enquiry, and the horror of reports."

It's possible to read Concluding, then, as a jeremiad against the growth of the modern welfare state, which compartmentalizes moral obligation, sectioning it off as someone's--and always someone else's--parochial duty. Green is sharp in the ways that bureaucracy enables and justifies the baser ambitions of bureaucrats; the moral question of Rock's cottage, for example, is intentionally obscured by questions of protocol and paperwork. The resulting dehumanization is represented by the frustrating interchangeability of the institute's wards, all of whose names begin with M: Mary, Merode, Moira, Marion, Melissa, etc. The sixteen-year old girls, brimming with incipient sexuality and bright futures, parade through the novel as a mass dressed in white, becoming something like livestock, like Rock's white goose, white cat, and white sow. At the dance, Mr. Rock is escorted down to a mysterious basement door by a flirtatious student, and we feel that we are about to be ushered into the secret of what happened to the girls, but it's only a secret club: a place outside of the bureaucratic strictures of the institute and the state, where the girls can be at last themselves.

Concluding is a curious title: in one respect, I think it refers to the final stages of life of the aging Rock, whose retirement and residence are the urgent question that hangs over the immediate crisis of the day. It suggests also the deliberation and solution of a mystery; but--spoiler alert--the novel never comes close to revealing what happened to the absent Mary or the hapless Merode. Instead, the novel provides a series of images of occlusion: the veiling fog of the early morning, which gives way to the obliterating light of the afternoon, which in turn gives way to the difficult darkness just outside the nighttime dance. Green's world is one in which people always jump to conclusions because life and people give them so little to work with. Talking to someone else is only a variation of conversing with the version of the person we invent in our heads. We may never know what happened to Mary or why she left, but that's only a little less than we know about those in front of our faces.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

I try to find an explanation for him. I tell him that many of us are tired of the materialism of the West, and even if we have no particular attraction towards the spiritual message of the East, we come here in the hope of finding a simpler and more natural way of life. This explanation hurts him. He feels it to be a mockery. He says why should people who have everything--motor cars, refrigerators--come here to such a place where there is nothing?

Heat and Dust is the story of Olivia, the wife of a young English administrator during the Raj, who leaves her husband for the charismatic Nawab, a minor prince. This momentous act serves as the book's climax, but it's explained at the very beginning, so this is one of those books who makes the reader ask the question, How did we get here? For Olivia, her personal motivations intersect with the great forces that push and pull between the British and their Indian subjects. The Nawab is very charming and magnetic, though flighty: he lives with another young British man whose ardor for the Nawab approaches, or simply is, homosexual obsession, and he charms Olivia, too. In fact, the Nawab--powerful but jealous of the more powerful English, sneaky, needy, selfish--is the book's most interesting character; he seduces us, too, though we might flatter ourselves that we have better judgment than Olivia.

But Olivia, too, sees in the Nawab an escape from the stolid, condescending British empire, whose worst qualities soon become apparent in her apparatchik husband, Douglas. As Douglas and the other colonials talk smugly about the Indians as if they were unruly children, Olivia finds herself identifying with the Nawab's rebellious and, to her, exotic spirit. Their first dalliance occurs at a shrine famous for its association with suttees, wives who ritually throw themselves on their husband's funeral parlors. At a party, Olivia unnerves everyone by insisting she would commit this most romantic of acts for Douglas, but soon it becomes clear to her that Douglas neither wants nor deserves this. Yet perhaps the Nawab, and India, are worthy of that kind of passion, which the British have meticulously repressed.

Olivia's story is told by her step-granddaughter who, fifty years after Olivia abandoned her husband, has gone to India to understand why she did what she did. She arrives in a 1970's India that is quite different from Olivia's time; the British have left, and the Nawab's palace is in ruins, as are the palaces of many minor princes who were essentially propped up by the British regime. Westerners no longer come to India for their political ambitions but, like the American Buddhist sage she begins sleeping with, spiritual ones. Somehow, even though the context has changed completely, she finds herself retracing Olivia's steps almost exactly, becoming pregnant--not by a prince but by her landlord--and heading up into the mountains to have her child. Prawer Jhabvala seems to suggest that, even as the world changes, the anxious interdependence of the Western World and India persists, both beguiling and repelling those whites who long for something they believe India can provide.

Heat and Dust has an obvious analog in A Passage to India, but it also reminded me quite a bit of W. Somerset Maugham's novel The Painted Veil, a novel set not in India but in Hong Kong, but whose central character--the wife of a diplomat whose exposure to a foreign culture transforms her--is much like Olivia. I didn't know until reading this that Prawer Jhabvala was not Indian--she took her husband's last name--but I also didn't know that she was a vital third partner in Merchant-Ivory Productions, and wrote nearly all of the director-producer's novels for decades and decades. Heat and Dust, which became a Merchant-Ivory movie in the 1980's, fits really neatly within that universe.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021


American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins


One of the very first bullets comes in through the open window above the toilet where Luca is standing.  He doesn't immediately understand that it's a bullet at all, and it's only luck that it doesn't strike him between the eyes.  Luca hardly registers the mild noise it makes as it flies past and lodges into the tiled wall behind him.  But the wash of bullets that follows is loud, booming, and thudding, clack-clacking with helicopter speed.  There is a raft of screams, too, but that noise is short-lived, soon exterminated by the gunfire.  Before Luca can zip his pants, lower the lid, climb up to look out, before he has time to verify the source of that terrible clamor, the bathroom door swings open and Mami is there.


Having been chosen for Oprah’s Book Club and later been accused of engaging in “brownface” because it involves a white woman telling the story of a Mexican woman’s plight, Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt has seen both sides of how media hype can build up a cultural work and tear one down.  Behind the positive and negative hype is an exciting story that, despite some clunky attempts at depicting the inner emotions and thoughts of a variety of characters, ends up being quite moving.


Lydia Perez lives in Acapulco with her husband Sebastian, a journalist, and her son Luca.  She runs a small bookstore and leads a happily exhausting middle-class life.  She befriends an older gentleman of taste and refinement who shops in her bookstore and this new friendship provides her with the stimulating conversation that is sometimes lacking in the hurly burly of her marriage.  We learn all this in flashback:  the novel opens with Lydia draping her body over Luca’s while hiding in the shower from hired assassins that are killing sixteen members of her family at her niece’s quinceanera.  Unable to find Lydia and Luca, the somewhat lazy assassins leave, determined to kill them both where ever they find her.   


She and Luca emerge from hiding suddenly without family and fugitives from injustice.  They cannot turn to the police for fear that the cartel leader who has ordered the assassinations – in retaliation for an exposé Sebastian has written about the cartel – has informants in the police department.  They must leave Acapulco with little more than the clothes on their backs, and after some thought in the early hours and days of hiding it becomes clear that they must ride La Bestia – the freight trains that travel north towards the United States – and find a coyote who will smuggle them across the border.  The bulk of the novel is the story of that trip.  Through this clever – and seemingly realistic – plot device, Cummins builds a narrative that centers on both the danger and corruption middle class Mexicans face from the cartels and narcotraficantes and the plight of Central American migrants fleeing their own dangers and corruption.


The blurb on the front of the book compares it to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; the similarity is structural: as Lydia and Luca move north, they meet and travel with a growing group of fellow migrants, each with their own stories of horror and fear.  The beautiful twins, Rebeca and Soledad, are fleeing the sexual violence of their hometown in Honduras – itself controlled by narcotraficantes; Lorenzo is a former cartel soldier now claiming to want a more decent life; Marisol, who has lived for years in the United States, is trying to return to her family after a recent deportation and Beto, a child only slightly older than Luca who has lived on his own in the garbage dumps around Tijuana, is now trying to get north.  Although Lorenzo is not to be trusted, the group in general forms a kind of family, sacrificing and supporting each other through extremely difficult, brutal incidents.  The novel portrays the trip north as a kind of collective exercise in which the migrants form a mini-community of mutual aid.


Along the way they encounter many Mexicans who want to help them, let them hide in their tool shed, leave them water, offer them protection and sometimes transportation through a landscape filled with murder, accidental death, gang rape and robbery.


The novel is thoroughly believable.  I am not generally dissuaded by questions of an author’s authentic connection to her material – fiction is supposed to be an act of imagination – but I did find myself wondering about Cummins’ research, which must have been substantial.  She imagines horrific scenes in desolate landscapes among desperate people in language that is often gripping and close to beautiful.  Her decision to move in and out of character’s minds is, I think, a mistake.  She takes on too many of these characters and often the transitions are jarring and break the spell of her more general narrator.  And the voices themselves are only barely differentiated – Luca thinks in vocabulary and style very much like Lydia, who thinks very much like several other characters.  Cummins does not limit this device to her main characters.  We move into the head of a nurse back in Honduras learning of her impressions of her patient and his family even though we don’t really encounter this nurse again and we never see the patient.  We move into the consciousness of a character that has been barely introduced to experience his near-drowning.  These strike the reader like a violation of the fourth wall of the novel, we had been locked in on the world of La Bestia, and then suddenly reminded that we are in a novel.


I would say that these issues are slightly more than quibbles, but they do not change the ultimate fact of Cummins’ achievement: whatever her background or ethnic insight, she has imagined and allowed us to imagine a world I will never see, but that is intrinsically part of the world I live in every day.  It does more than to humanize the figures we see in the news (and in the supermarket, restaurants, and on delivery trucks).  It makes real for the reader the world they fight their way through for the simple right to live with us.

Monday, September 20, 2021

The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric

The life and existence of every great, beautiful and useful building, as well as its relation to the place where it has been built, often bears within itself complex and mysterious drama and history. However, one thing is clear; that between the life of the townsmen and that bridge, there existed a centuries-old bond. Their fates were so intertwined that they could not be imagined separately and could not be told separately. Therefore the story of the foundation and destiny of the bridge is at the same time the story of the life of the town and its people, from generation to generation, even as through all the tales about the town stretches the line of the stone bridge with its eleven arches and the kapia in the middle, like a crown.

A stone bridge passes over the Drina River at the town of Visegrad, in Bosnia. The bridge was built in the 16th century by the order of Mehmed Pasha, an Ottoman Vizier who had spent part of his childhood in Visegrad. Ivo Andric's novel The Bridge on the Drina tells a fictionalized version of the story of the bridge, and of the town of Visegrad, which like many others found itself at the mercy of the great historical forces that rocked the Balkan Peninsula over many hundreds of years. The novel begins with the construction of the bridge in 1577, detailing the lives of the townspeople who cross it, and who make it the center of town life, up until the outbreak of World War I and the partial destruction of the bridge by Austrian forces. As Andric--Bosnia's only Nobel Prize winner in Literature--describes above, the story of the bridge is in many ways identical to the story of the town, and the town itself is a representation of Bosnia in miniature.

The best stories about the bridge are often the most tragic, death-tainted ones: the story of Radisav, for example, the enslaved builder who dares to rebel in secret against the cruel Turkish administrator, and for his crime is impaled--carefully through the anus, making sure to slip past any vital organs to keep him alive--on a pike in the middle of the bridge. Or the story of Fata, a young woman caught between obeying her father's command to marry a man she does not love and her private vow never to step into the man's house, who finds a way out by marrying him and then throwing herself off the bridge to her death. Or Milan, a guard in the service of the Austrian occupiers who lets himself be fooled by a pretty Turkish girl intent on sneaking a renowned rebel through in the guise of her grandmother, complete with Muslim veil. But there are stories, too, in which the bridge serves as the meeting place for lovers or the backdrop for acts of great bravery.

For Andric, the bridge is a symbol of permanency in the midst of great upheaval. Though Ottoman power recedes and the Austrians take over, the bridge remains. The development of the railroad bypasses the bridge, depleting its significance as a link between the East and West, but still the bridge itself remains. It's for this reason that the final scene, against the backdrop of history's as-of-yet deadliest conflict, is so shocking. The bridge's destruction ultimately serves as an indictment, it seems to me, of the faddish revolutionary Marxism that spreads among the Serbian youth of Bosnia prior to the war. An ideology which has no respect for those things which have existed long enough to become intertwined with national identity and history, Andric saying, is one that presages the most horrible kinds of violence.

The Bridge on the Drina is part of my ongoing project to read a book from every country. With the addition of Bosnia, I've read 49 countries so far!

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Pillars of Salt by Fadia Faqir

Why couldn't I touch the passing days, smell them, or even sense them? I would have tried to prevent the days treading over the plains of my face. You look in the mirror and see the gray hair, the lines running down the face like permanent tears, and the dimming eyes. Once, I was young and attractive. Everything around me was getting loose: my skin, my clothes, my world. A creature inside me kept shrinking and shrinking, tired of life and its treasury, it sought peace and quiet. Even the palm and orange trees were becoming harder to see. I spun and spun like a silkworm; I dug and dug the soil like an earthworm; and at night I curled my spine like a hedgehog and went to sleep under the solitary sky.

Two women meet in a Jordanian mental hospital: Maha, a bedouin woman from the Jordan Valley, and Um Saad, from the Jordanian capital of Amman. Over many days Um Saad tells Maha the story of how she came to this place: her youthful love for the Circassian Mohammed, her tragic marriage to the cruel Abu Saad, the younger wife he brings into their home, and how he shuffled her off her to get rid of her. Maha has a story of her own, one that is told to us but not to Um Saad, the story of how her husband Harb was killed by the British, and how her sadistic brother and collaborator with the British, Daffash, had her committed in order to take from her the orchard left to her by their father. Though they are from very different families and cultures, both Maha and Um Saad have been shut away in the mental hospital by the cruelties of the men in their lives.

Fadia Faqir's Pillars of Salt is told in three woven strands: first, the sections titled "Maha," more or less the novel's main narrative. These follow young Maha's shy love for Harb, their marriage and difficulty conceiving, and Harb's murder, as well as the posthumous birth of their son Mubarak, whom Maha considers the last remaining piece of Harb himself. Though Maha cannot read or write and understands little of the political situation, the creation of the British Mandate has tragic consequences for her and her Bedouin village. She and her fellow Bedouin women talk about the British planes as "metal eagles" that drop exploding eggs, and yet Maha and these women understand much better than Daffash, who sucks up to the British and sleeps with a white Englishwoman, what British occupation means. As the men who protect Maha disappear one by one--first Harb, then her father--she is increasingly menaced by the greedy and short-sighted men who launder their lust and greed through the patriarchal values of their religion.

A second strand, the sections titled "Um Saad," is not, as you might suspect, told from Um Saad's point-of-view, but Maha's, listening later to Um Saad's story of woe in the hospital. Um Saad's story acts as a kind of echo to Maha's, a troubling reminder that the cruelties done to Maha are the norm, not an exception. The third strand is told by a "Storyteller" passing through the Bedouin village, who witnesses the travails of Maha. The Storyteller's strand operates on a wholly different logic, borrowed from the fantastical stories of the Arabian Nights, with its djinns and demons and quests. But the Storyteller takes the side of Daffash and the men, retelling Maha's story as that of a "black widow" who seduces men with dark powers, opposed by her virtuous brother. It's the Storyteller's strand that elevates Pillars of Salt into something rather extraordinary: the spikily ironic way that the woman's story is retold by a man, and through the language of Islam. Daffash says, She is mad, and the Storyteller, She is Evil, and yet no one--not even her "sister" Um Saad--seems willing to hear Maha's version.

Pillars of Salt is part of my ongoing project to read a book from every country. With the addition of Jordan, I've read 48 countries so far!

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Riders of the Purple Sage by Zane Grey

Conscience thundered that she should be grateful on her knees for this baptism of fire; that through misfortune, sacrifice, and suffering her soul might be fused pure gold. But the old, spontaneous, rapturous spirit no more exalted her. She wanted to be a woman--not a martyr.

Jane Withersteen is a beautiful and wealthy Mormon homesteader in Cottonwoods, Utah. She is well known for her generosity to those who "ride" for her, driving and protecting her cattle, even those who are "Gentiles." Elder Tull has his eye on her, desiring to add her to his stable of wives, and her extensive property to his. His methods are underhanded: "calling in" the Mormons among her riders, and partnering with the notorious cattle rustler Oldring to drive her herds away. Into this tense atmosphere rides the gunman Lassiter, an avowed Mormon-hater on a mysterious mission of vengeance. Jane vows that she can soften him toward her people, but can he save her from Tull and the conniving Bishop Dyer?

Riders of the Purple Sage is one of the first and most important western novels of the early 20th century. It's got all the elements: cattle rustling, gunmen who live by their own code, damsels in distress. It strikes me as a link in a long chain of popular culture that runs from Shakespeare to the MCU: scenes of action and tension are actually subordinate to cornier and more maudlin elements. There's even an adorable little child who says things to Lassiter like, "Will oo be my favver?" Christ. On the other hand, the book has an almost hilariously sour view of Mormons, who are consistently depicted as sneaky and cruel. Jane is the exception to the rule, and though she vows to make Lassiter give up his Mormon-hating ways, it's him that drives her out of the church in the end. (The novel paints Jane as intensely devout, but the thinness of detail about the religious life of a 19th century Mormon makes me think that Grey knew very little about their practices.)

I actually preferred what you might call Riders of the Purple Sage's "b-plot": one of Jane's riders, Bern Venters, is exiled by the Mormons of Cottonwoods. Riding out, he encounters the cattle rustler Oldring and shoots a notorious lieutenant known only as "the Masked Rider," only to discover that the Masked Rider is really a young woman named Bess who Oldring has disguised. Venters nurses Bess back to health in a secret canyon decked with ancient Pueblo cliff dwellings. These sections really give Grey license to do what he does best, which is describe in affectionate detail the striking landscape of southern Utah. Here Bess and Venters' meditations on the long-gone cliff dwellers--"What was the good of their living at all!" Bess asks, "They're gone! What's the meaning of it all--of us?"--briefly elevate the book above melodrama.

Monday, September 6, 2021

American Meteor by Norman Lock

I've always said that a man made his own bed. But now that I'm dying--there's no point in arguing the fact--now that I am, I realize the futility of struggling against fate. Our bed is made for us: We do as we are obliged. Leastways, enough to humble us. That's a bitter pill to swallow late in the day. While we're alive, we're like the man who steps in horseshit on his way to church. Only when he's home again and has cleaned his shoes can he smile at his humiliation and--more to the point--his helplessness before what lies in wait and is beyond his power to prevent. Here's what I think: Behind every gunman stands another gunman, in a concatenation of death and destruction, difficult to break.

Stephen Moran is only sixteen when he loses his eye in the Civil War. While languishing in his hospital bed, he looks up and sees a familiar face, friendly and long-bearded: a man Stephen used to see throwing rocks into the sea many miles away in Coney Island. The face belongs to Walt Whitman, who really did volunteer as Civil War nurse, and who shares with Stephen a copy of his new poetry book Leaves of Grass. When Stephen invents a story of heroism to explain his lost eye, Whitman shares it with the military brass, who pin a medal on Stephen and make him the official bugler on Lincoln's funeral train.

American Meteor is something like a Forrest Gump for the 19th century: though a mostly ordinary person himself, Moran's destiny intersects with Whitman, Lincoln, Grant, Union Pacific railroad magnate Thomas Durant, Western photographer William Henry Jackson, Custer, and Crazy Horse. Part of its appeal is the sheer madcap joy of recognizing these figures, like Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the television set. As Stephen says, if nothing else, his story is a "hell of a yarn." But it's also a fascinating meditation on the tumultuous 19th century--the century in which the United States concretized, reabsorbing the south and expanding all the way to the Pacific, a territory bought with much blood--and the nature of destiny. The title symbol of the meteor evokes ancient omens of both fortune and disaster, but it also represents something evanescent: "I might as well be a meteor as a man," Stephen says, "for all the difference I've made on earth."

American Meteor is also a love letter to the West. I brought it with me on a trip to Utah, where we drove out to the spot north of the Great Salt Lake where the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad lines were finally joined by a golden spike, a moment witnessed by Stephen. In that remote and wide open space it's easy to appreciate how momentous it was to have the west opened by the railroad, but Stephen also talks about it as the moment the West began to disappear, flooded by capitalists, frozen by photographers. (It reminded me of Willa Cather's A Lost Lady, which has much the same thesis, though American Meteor turns a much more skeptical eye toward the myth of the wild West in the first place.) At several points in the book, Stephen exhibits the power to look into the future--a dubious power we learn was granted him by Crazy Horse--and see the continued bloodshed and conquest of the 20th century, as if reminding us that the turmoils of the 19th century are not long past but resonating still today.

American Meteor is, for a book clearly enamored with the great figures of the American West, remarkably cynical about Western expansion. All the worst qualities of manifest destiny are collected in Custer, a vain braggart and genocidal maniac for whom Stephen acts as an official photographer. Stephen decides to kill Custer, the apotheosis of all that is poisonous about the 19th century--and does! This part of the book was the weakest, I thought: its brisk pace--American Meteor gives a crash course of westward expansion pages--doesn't allow Lock to develop the moral choice to kill Custer in a sufficient way, but the logical sense of the choice is obvious.

American Meteor, which was published in 2015, really seems like a book of its moment. It's a book for the statue-toppling era of American cultural memory: how do treasure the vision and boldness of the 19th century, which made the America of today, while excising the bloodlust and greed? Even Whitman and Lincoln are not exempt from the contradictions: "In my opinion," Stephen writes, "Lincoln was a good man." But the next sentence disquiets: "If a man can be good."

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Homesick for Another World by Otessa Moshfegh

Those first few months in Los Angeles, I lived off powered cinnamon doughnuts and orange soda, fries from Astro Burger, and occasional joints rolled with stale weed my stepdad had given me back in Utah as a graduation present. Most days I took the bus around Hollywood, listening to the Eagles on my Walkman and imagining what life was like for all those people way up in the hills. I'd walk up Rossmore, which turned into Vine once you hit Hollywood, and then I'd get on a crosstown local down Santa Monica Boulevard. I liked to sit with all the young kids in school uniforms, the teenage runaways in rags and leather jackets, the crazies, the drunks, housekeepers with their romance novels, old men with their spittle, whores with their hair spray. That was miraculous to me. I'd never seen people like that before.

The protagonist of the first story in Otessa Moshfegh's collection Homesick for Another World, "Bettering Myself," is a teacher at a Ukrainian Orthodox school in the East Village who cares more about nursing her drinking problem than her teaching. The protagonist of "Dark and Winding Road" is a disaffected middle-aged man who has run off to his family's cabin to punish his pregnant wife, where he gets drunk and psychically tortures his brother's girlfriend, an unexpected guest. The protagonist of "An Honest Woman" is a New Yorker who spends all summer "slumming" it in an upstate town full of people she despises. Oh, she also has a drug and alcohol problem.

The characters in Homesick for Another World reminded me most of Denis Johnson, another short fiction writer with a passion for lowlifes and reprobates. But in Jesus' Son, Johnson has a powerful empathy for the junkies he writes about: he seems to believe that their position at the fringes of society gives them a kind of saintliness, like holy fools. Moshfegh, by contrast, seems to hate the people she writes about, who abuse not only substances but other people. I have never been the kind of person who believes a protagonist needs to be sympathetic, but I often found myself repulsed by the sourness of the people in these stories. I especially hated the character Takashi in the mercifully brief "The Locked Room," a violin prodigy who's described as mutilating himself and puking everywhere to shock people. Yet, the same strategies work in Moshfegh's novel Eileen, which is also about an aimless, needy drunk--maybe because Moshfegh has more time and room to explore the sources and nuances of the character's dissolute personality. Or because it gives the reader time and room to become attached, despite it.

The best stories in Homesick for Another World are the ones that trade in the junkies and lowlifes for good people. I really enjoyed "No Place for Good People," about a retired man who takes a part time job caring for developmentally delayed adults at a daycare facility. The plot is simple--he takes three of them out for a birthday party, but the Hooters one of them has his heart set on has been torn down and replaced with a Friendly's--but the three are drawn with empathy and respect, and the struggle of the protagonist to do right by people who can't and won't understand his intentions is compelling. I also really liked "Nothing Ever Happens Here," about a handsome but untalented man trying to make his break in Hollywood, and the kindly Jewish landlady who takes him under her wing. Another, "The Surrogate," is about a woman who takes a job pretending to be the vice president of a business, and who is invited into a kind of makeshift family with the Chinese immigrants who really run it. These stories struck me as sharing the same world as the others--one at the margins of the respectable world--but with a moral richness that the collection often lacks.