Monday, May 30, 2022

Memoirs of Many in One by Patrick White

Nothing is honest that isn't explicit. Shit is no longer a dirty word, it's a realistic expletive. Now that the press has brought us together, now that we know one another intimately, in bed and out, at breakfast, dinner, and on the dunny, we have nothing more to expect, nothing to fear. So why are we afraid, particularly of one another?

I, who have no need of any media bounty, remain afraid. I have been everywhere. I know all. Am all, I am the creator. Perhaps for that very reason I am afraid of what I have let loose, of what I have created.

Alex Xenophon Demirjian Gray--a name like a character in a YA novel, don't you think--has had many lives, has been known by many other names. She has been an acclaimed actress and socialite, and I guess in two totally different circumstances, a nun. Now she's elderly and living outside Sydney, under the care of her daughter Hilda and her old friend Patrick White, who is a writer of some kind. She is writing her memoirs, which she is entrusting to Patrick as editor, although she is not done with living yet, and frequently escapes the weary eye of her daughter to go roaming around their suburb.

Memoirs of Many in One is unique among Patrick White novels. For one, there's the postmodernist/metafictional elements of it, what with White writing himself in as a character--something that dozens of White's contemporaries did all the time but which seems, somehow, stylistically unusual. Even the cover puts Alex's name at the top with "edited by Patrick White" beneath (though the relative font size gives the game away). There's the first person narration, which I don't think White does in any of his other books. And there's the fact that it's under 200 pages. All in all, Memoirs of the Many in One gives the suggestion that it is a kind of literary joke, a setup without a punchline or vice versa. And it is pretty funny, especially in surface-level ways that White's other novels never really bother with. It's funny when, for example, the increasingly senile Alex insinuates her way into a neighbor's house where she wets the bed, or when she picks up a homeless man from the nearby park, calling him "The Mystic," and locks him in Hilda's crawlspace with a tinned meat pie.

But Memoirs of Many in One also explores several of White's common themes. Like The Eye of the Storm, it's a book about aging: the fantastic and outrageous Alex is increasingly hamstrung by the effects of aging, both in a mental sense and in the sense that she is confined to the dullness and conformity of the Sydney suburb that her daughter embodies. "No one is old," she tells a policeman who arrests her for stealing a lipstick and a handbag: "It's only their bodies. And then not always." And, like The Twyborn Affair, it's a novel about the many identities we have within us: "I could have done almost anything if I had an identity, like the furniture inside this house or the dahlias on the other side of the window. But I hadn't found the frame which fitted me." Memoirs of Many in One brings these themes together in a way that suggests to me a shocking theory about senility: as we age, senility is brought on by the fact that we are no longer able to keep up the pretense that we are a single person with a single identity. We fall apart because we always have been in pieces.

Still, the flashbacks are the weakest part of Memoirs. Alex relives her acting days, her socialite days, her two different experiences as a nun (What's up with that? Am I not reading it right? What's the point?), but none of these has the space or development to make it ring true. Much better are the contemporary sections, which are some of White's best explorations of the contrast between the immensity and multiplicity of the human soul and the dull-eyed stupidity of bourgeois suburban living. Like Alex herself, it has its bits of majesty, but it doesn't really hang together.

Friday, May 27, 2022

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Sophie stood motionless in the hall. The living room looked smudged, flat. Objects, their outlines beginning to harden in the growing light, had a shadowy, totemic menace. Chairs, tables, and lamps seemed to have only just assumed their accustomed positions. There was an echo in the air, a peculiar pulsation as of interrupted motion. Of course, it was the hour, the light, her fatigue. Only living things do harm. She sat down suddenly on a Shaker bench. Fourteen shots in the belly. Fourteen days. And even then, there was no guarantee; you died from rabies, you choked to death. What pity could she expect? Who would pity her in her childish terror, her evasion, her pretense that nothing much had happened? Life had been soft for so long a time, edgeless and spongy, and now, here in all its surface banality and submerged horror was this idiot event--her own doing--this undignified confrontation with mortality. She thought of Otto, and ran up the stairs.

One night, at her home in Brooklyn, Sophie Bentwood is bitten by a feral cat she's been feeding. Her hand swells up and her husband Otto urges her to go to a doctor, but she resists, and none seem to be available on the weekend anyway. She drags her hurt hand to a party, and then a midnight rendezvous with Otto's law firm partner Charlie, who has just been kicked out of the practice by Otto. As the bite gets worse, the fractures in her marriage, and their middle-class urban life, begin to widen. She fears tetanus, then rabies, but there is a darker fear that lurks beneath this crisis, one characterized by the old Thoreau chestnut the characters drag out to wield at each other like knives: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

On one level, Desperate Characters is a recognizable sort of mid-century novel about marriages that go to rot at the heart of the bourgeois circumstances that the 1950's promoted as the home of human flourishing: Revolutionary Road, Rabbit, Run, Light Years, Appointment in Samarra, Household Words. They feel like a literary cliche I guess, but man, those books really did exist, even if most of them were good. Cold, rigid Otto snipes at Sophie's helplessness, imperious toward the crisis of the cat bite but utterly unable to address the deeper fear that haunts her--and him as well. Sophie spends much of the short novel fantasizing about her former lover, Francis, wondering if things might have been different. There is a suggestion, as in all of these books, that such ennui is inescapable. As Otto's sentimental ex-partner Charlie tells him, "no oppression had ever been so difficult to resist as middle-class oppression, because it wears a thousand faces, even the face of revolution, and that it is an insatiable gut that can even nourish itself on the poison its enemies leave around to destroy it."

But Desperate Characters is an urban book, not a suburban one, like all those others. It's a Brooklyn book. What I liked best about it, I think, is how it depicts a gentrifying Brooklyn: the Bentwoods live in what is probably Cobble Hill--they walk to a party in Brooklyn Heights--at the time, a mix of "slum" houses and upwardly-mobile people like the Bentwoods. Otto is digusted by what he sees as the neighborhood's more unsavory elements, which are all racially coded: a drunken black man vomiting across the street, another who barges into the house, desperate to use the Bentwood's telephone. Fleeing to their Hamptons cottage, they find everything smashed by vandals, as if all their refuges have been violated. The threat of rabies, then, and the marauding cat, become a symbol for an encroaching world of disorder: "God, if I am rabid," Sophie thinks to herself, "I am equal to what is outside."

But, of course, who ever assured them that their investment property was a refuge from what is "outside" in the first place? Now that I think about it, Desperate Characters is not so much like those mid-century novels of suburbia, but about the very beginnings of "urban renewal," and the importation of suburban anxieties back onto the urban landscape. Charlie accuses Otto of insensitivity toward poorer clients, and clients of color, and this accusation aligns with the clash of personality that has driven their separation. Which is to say that, as always, the personal is political--even when it doesn't seem to be. In one turn of phrase that is indicative of the novel's richness of style, Fox describes the "official buildings" of downtown Brooklyn--the court houses--as having "the peculiarly threatening character of large carnivorous mammals momentarily asleep." What I like about Desperate Characters is how well it understands the political and economic framework that governs "quiet desperation," as surely Thoreau knew, and which Updike and John O'Hara would rather have forgotten. And it does all that in a story in which little more happens than a woman being bitten by a cat.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Driftless by David Rhodes

It was impossible to explain how in those days, in earlier times, in the past, there really were giants--people who did good things, odd things, that others would never do. Those giants were at the heart of everything. Nothing could have been the way it was without them, but how could anyone explain them after they were gone?

Last weekend I got to drive through southwest Wisconsin, part of a larger zone known as the "Driftless Area" because, unlike the surrounding Midwest, it was free of the glaciers that flattened the land and left deposits of transported the earth. It's a rolling country, filled with green hills separated by narrow valleys of golden farmland, like pockets. It's easy to understand how a town might settle in one of these pockets and become separated from the rest of the world. In David Rhodes' Driftless, that town is Words, Wisconsin, a hamlet of a few dozen farms and families. In Words there are no restaurants and no stores--though these things can be found in a nearby town called Grange--but there are farms and houses, dogs and cats and cows, a church, an anti-government militia, and a single panther on the prowl.

Driftless is what one might call "a yarn." It describes the intersecting lives of several of the people of Words, including: an old farmer named July, a married couple who are being persecuted by their milk cooperative for discovering the embezzlement of their corporate leaders, a puritanical young female priest whose life is upended by a vision, a sad-sack repairman who can't get over his wife's death, a musician who dreams of being noticed by her rock-and-roll idol, a beautiful, devout, wheelchair-bound woman cared for by her older sister, and a bunch of Amish. The threads of their lives are mostly made up of small-town stuff, blown up to comic and extravagant levels, like the saga of the perfidious milk collective. A character named Rusty learns to overcome his suspicion of the Amish when he hires them to work on his house. A tough parolee named Wade saves the wheelchair-bound Olivia from hoodlums, and they fall in love. (This last storyline has a particular resonance when one finds out that Rhodes published several successful novels in the 1970's before being paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident, this being his first novel in the thirty subsequent years.)

Those stories grabbed me, brought me in. They made the novel quick and thrilling, and rode roughshod over the novel's many flaws: a tendency to have characters say and believe stupid things, for instance, though never quite stupid enough to make them satirical. Or the sinking feeling that you're supposed to find someone like Winifred, the pastor, quirkily rigid instead of largely insufferable. Or the sense that the novel has been so delicately planned it is like a piece of architecture, even as many of its details get lost somewhere in the blueprints. (I would have liked more of the Amish, who disappear halfway through the book. And would it be too much to get a resolution to the story about the milk collective?) The novel, too, can be mawkish about rural life, but ultimately it has a winning and delicate spirit that makes it worth reading. It seemed, to my eyes at least, to do a good job of bringing this largely unnoticed corner of the American landscape to vivid life.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Breaking and Entering by Joy Williams

Liberty and Willie were wanderers, they were young but they had wandered for years, as though through a wilderness, staying for days or weeks or months or towns with names like Coy or Peachburg or Diamondhead or Hurley. Then larger towns, cities, still as through a wilderness, for there was no path for them or way--West Palm, Jacksonville, Sarasota. There was always a little work, a little place to stay, and then there was this other thing, this thing that was like an enchantment, this energy that kept them somehow going, this adopted, perverse skill of inhabiting the space others had made for themselves. For they themselves were not preparing for anything, they were not building anything, they were just moving along, and Liberty was aware that this house thing, this breaking and entering thing--time for the thing, they'd say, let's do the thing--became more frequent, accelerated, just before they left a town.

Liberty and Willie are wanderers. They have a home of their own in a trailer-park town on Florida's Gulf Coast, but they make their way into the homes of the wealthy, charming security guards, replacing the locks, living among other people's things, going to their country club parties. Willie uses his magnetism to insinuate his way into these places; he is handsome and speaks wholly in aphorisms. His wife Liberty has a simmering kind of ambivalence to their breaking and entering, that sits just beneath the surface of her life. In their town, she has become attached to two more or less abandoned children: barely verbal Little Dot, and Teddy, whose stepmother keeps him at bay by signing him up for a dozen educational classes a day. Liberty's feelings for these children may be a latent desire to settle down, to care for something--made more potent by, we learn late in the book, a child of Liberty and Willie's that did not manage to be born. And yet, she cannot tear herself from Willie, who drifts away from her, and then pulls her back, as if on a string.

Some writers make me want to get up and get writing immediately. Joy Williams makes me want to give up writing forever. Though I liked Breaking and Entering a little bit less than The Quick and the Dead, every sentence bristles with tension and imagery; everything fits but everything surprises. Who else could write: "She floated, looking upward, a little breathless as though she had climbed many, many steps, and the terrible put peaceful image came to her of her beating heart being seized from her breast, being plucked like a carp from a pond, wriggling and rising into the night, becoming a star?" Who else could describe a filthy Florida river as a "spiritual and biological abbatoir?" Williams' ability to write at levels of spiritual, metaphysical, ecological abstraction, while retaining an eye for the perfect image--a pelican, its beak sawed off by a malcontent--to ground it all?

About that pelican: from this to 99 Stories of God to The Quick and the Dead to especially Harrow, ecological disaster is one of Williams' great themes. It's no coincidence, I think, that she likes to write about places like Florida and Arizona, some of the Western hemisphere's most outrageous landscapes,  deviled by the outrages of human development. When Liberty stops to tend fruitlessly to a great blue heron caught in a wire, we understand it as an analogue for her own deep need to care for someone else. But for Williams, these things aren't metaphors; the heron is as abused and abandoned as Little Dot, or Teddy, or Liberty herself; human cruelties take their toll on the human and non-human alike.

For Willie, moving from house to house is not really a kind of play-acting, not a way of pretending to live someone else's life, but a way of living no life at all. Lives move forward, get rooted and troubled, but Willie has discovered a way of floating above it or perhaps through it, as he floats across keys by merely sitting in the water and letting himself be taken. We learn through several flashbacks how the two met as children, when Liberty's family essentially abandoned her to live with Teddy's own parents. Willie persuades Liberty to attempt suicide with him: "If I died, would you follow me?" The suicide doesn't take, though it kills the baby-to-be. Breaking and entering, then, is a kind of surrogate suicide, a way of living as if dead, as if nowhere. Liberty follows Willie into this kind of non-life, but what if what she wants is actually to live?

Like The Quick and the Dead and Harrow, Breaking and Entering is filled out with a cast of weirdos and grotesques. One of the most tense and thrilling moments comes when Liberty and Willie discover they have broken into a house that is, for once, occupied--by a 75-year old bodybuilder named Poe. What Poe wants from her sudden captives ("She's going to ask us a favor," Willie says with his usual prescience) is frightening because it is mysterious, then frightening for the watershed moment it represents in Willie and Liberty's relationship. There's a creepy self-help guru named Mr. Bobby whose phone number just happens to be one number off of Liberty's, and an alcoholic Cajun real estate agency who wants her to run away with him. They are Floridians through and through; one of them is named Duane, but in another, more spiritual way, they are all Duanes. The people of Williams' novels remind me of the down-and-outs Denis Johnson wrote about, but without the innocent certainty that among them are saints or angels. They are people you might meet, if you make a wrong turn in the resort towns outside the Everglades, or if you drop into the gulf and let the current take you.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane

He had fled, he told himself, because annihilation approached. He had done a good part in saving himself, who was a little piece of the army. He had considered the time, he said, to be one in which it was the duty of every little piece to rescue itself if possible. Later, the officers could fit the little pieces together again, and make a battle front. If none of the little pieces were wise enough to save themselves from the flurry of death at such a time, why, then, where would be the army? It was all plain that he had proceeded according to very correct and commendable rules. They had been full of strategy. They were the work of a master's legs.

Henry Fleming enters the Union Army against his mother's wishes, hoping to do great things. As his regiment waits and waits for something to happen, he wonders if he will really be up to the task when the time comes, or if he will turn and run. When the battle does come, his fears are confirmed: he high-tails it away from the battle, and spends a day wandering in confusing and frightening scenes of death and destruction. Trying to get news from another frightened soldier, he's hit in the head with the butt of a rifle, and the ensuing wound proves to be the "red badge of courage" he needs to return to his own regiment to lead them as color guard into renewed battle. Seeing it, his fellow soldiers think him heroic; seeing their admiration, he becomes the soldier they imagine him to be.

I re-read The Red Badge of Courage, along with March, because I'm writing a book with scenes in it from the Civil War, and I don't want to do the real research I really ought to do. March is full of such fine details, expert at the names of things, but ironically, Red Badge--written thirty years after the war's end--has less specificity to it. There are cannons and cartridges, sure, but Henry knows little to nothing about larger strategies or quartermaster stores or anything like that. His war has no specificity; it's a parade of grotesque images, all blood and smoke and fire. Red Badge, at times, reads like a book written sixty or seventy years after it really was, with its modernist staccato sentences and its stark and metaphor-heavy images. Shells are "strange war flowers bursting into fierce bloom." A cavalry regiment on a faraway hill is reduced to: "The tiny riders were beating the tiny horses."

It's funny, in a way, because both Red Badge and March are about idealists coming up against the limits of their ideals. Rev. March is an abolitionist who learns in great detail just how challenging the task of abolition really is, but Henry's ideals are much more vague and fluid: they are ideals of heroism and personal sacrifice, crafted not from sermons or books, but from the the cloudy stuff of boyhood dreams and old songs. The war turns out to be as shifting and ever-changing as his ideals; he turns from self-hatred to pride from one paragraph to the next, and he has no awareness of this mutability at all. It is exactly this indeterminacy of war that allows him to cast off cowardice and fashion himself into a hero; it doesn't seem to matter, really, whether he's got a "real" wound or not. The fog of war allows such lies to become truths.

Saturday, May 14, 2022

March by Geraldine Brooks

And now, a year has passed since I undertook to go to war, and I wake every day, sweating, in the solitude of the seed store at Oak Landing, to a condition of uncertainty. More than months, more than miles, now stand between me and that passionate orator perched on his tree-stump pulpit. One day, I hope to go back. To my wife, to my girls, but also to the man of moral certainty that I was that day; that innocent man, who knew with such clear confidence exactly what it was that he was meant to do.

In Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, the titular sisters must get by much of the time without their father, who has joined the Union cause as a Civil War chaplain. His letters are sparse, and his narrative role mostly about his absence, though when he take sick, the girl's mother Marmee is called away to D.C. to tend to him. In this way Little Women thrusts the girls into independence and self-sufficiency, but what is it that Rev. March is doing down there, and what is he trying to accomplish? Why does an older man with four young daughters uproot his life and leave his home to risk his life? Geraldine Brooks' March is a story meant to answer those questions, following March through his experiences in the Civil War: first, as a chaplain attached to a field hospital, then to a "contraband" farm leased to another Northerner--that is, taken from Southern hands, worked with the labor of former slaves, now paid, and always at risk of being retaken by Confederate guerillas.

I've read three of Brooks' books now: this, her book The Secret Chord about the Israelite King David, and Caleb's Crossing, about a Wampanoag man caught between his indigenous family and his white lover in the 17th century. I think I get her "deal," which is meticulously researched, middlebrow historical fiction books. What they lack in innovation or experimental qualities, they make up in a kind of well-wrought verisimilitude, and the recasting of vaguely familiar stories with historical detail. In this case, Brooks bases the life of her Rev. March on the life of Amos Bronson Alcott, Louisa May's father and another Northern abolitionist caught up in the crusade of ending slavery in the South. They are convincing, which is about 90% of what they need to be.

It's been a while since I've read Little Women, so I don't have a clear sense of how it compares, or how Brooks uses the raw material of the original novel. But the elements of March that detail March's Little Women life, including the sections in which he meets and woos the hot-headed Marmee, were by far the least interesting parts for me. Much stronger, I thought, was the entirely original story of March's experiences in the South, beginning with his return to a now-collapsed plantation, where once he had been a guest as a traveling salesman and fallen in love with an enslaved woman named Grace. When he returns with his Union regiment, Grace is still there, caring for the ancient plantation owner, who turns out to have been her father. March and Grace have a romantic dalliance that gives the book some of its moral and emotional complexity, and certainly complicates the straightforward Bob-Odenkirk style "My little women!" March of the novel.

I was also gripped by March's experience on the leased farm, where the former slaves still work under horrible conditions, not because of the racism of chattel slavery, but because of the exigencies of war. Has life really changed for these enslaved people, when their wages are delayed and their work is back-breaking? Can March's noble ideals survive the real-world crucible of the war? This question is, I think, what is most engaging about March, which is, in the end, a book about a noble man facing down the limits of his good intentions. For this reason I was put off by the novel's snide depiction of John Brown as a man with good values who let himself be carried away into unacceptable violence--a reaction that seemed confirmed to me by Grace's insistence at the novel's end that March return to his family, where she says she can do the most good. A preference for quietism, I think, dogs the book's moral complexity, though only in slight and subtle ways.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

The Diary of a Country Priest by George Bernanos

Yes, indeed, how foolish! I hoped that this diary might help me concentrate my thoughts, which will go wandering on the few occasions I have some chance to think a little. I had thought it might become a kind of communion between God and myself, an extension of prayer, a way of easing the difficulties of verbal expression which always seem insurmountable to me, due no doubt to the twinges of pain in my inside. Instead I have been made to realize what a huge inordinate part of my life is taken up with the hundred and one little daily worries which at times I used to think I had shaken off for good. Of course Our Lord takes His share of all our troubles, even the paltriest, and scorns nothing. But why record in black and white matters which should be dismissed as fast as they happen? The worst of it is I find in these outpourings such solace that this alone should suffice to put me on my guard. As I sit here scribbling in the lamplight, pages no one will ever read, I get the feeling of an invisible presence which surely could not be God--rather a friend made in my image, although distinct from me, a separate entity.

A young priest is assigned to a small village in the north of France whose residents he describes as "spiritually bored." His servant is a drunkard and thief, and the smartest teen in his catechism class tries scandalously to flirt with him in order to stir up trouble. He dedicates himself to prying into the spiritual life of the town's local nobility, the Comte, and the Comte's wife and daughter, both of whom have foresworn a spiritual life because of the immense suffering they carry within them: le Comtesse, because of the loss of her infant son many years ago, and the Comtesse's daughter because of the alienation of her mother's affections. The priest is plagued by feelings of inadequacy, as well as intensifying stomach pains, which the townsfolk attribute to a drinking problem, though they may signify a much graver physical--and spiritual--crisis.

I'd bet any amount of money that Marilynne Robinson has read The Diary of a Country Priest. Though the Reverend Ames from Gilead is old, not young, he suffers from many of the same spiritual problems: a belief in his own insufficiency when compared with God's aims, and a compulsion toward spiritual intervention that seems directed by God. And of course there's the whole "country" part of it. But whereas Ames is, in some respect, nagged by the suspicion that the love and esteem afforded him are unjustified, Bernanos' Cure is truly despised. The Comte hates his meddling, the Comte's daughter his rectitude; the people of the village believe he's a lush; Serephita mocks his probity with her sexual teasing, and spreads rumors behind his back; his superiors are suspicious of his unwillingness to get along. Once, he has a bit of spiritual success, convincing the Comtesse to embrace God's love for the first time since her son's death, but she dies hours later, taking any account of his aid to the grave.

The language of The Diary of a Country Priest is elevated, Gothic, at times even hyperbolic; the spiritual crises are as severe and intensely wrought as the stomach pains. The whole thing is one very very long dark night of the soul. And truth be told, though I found the priest himself, and the hate he inspires, compelling, half the time I didn't know what he or anyone else was talking about. The book is all disputations--priest and mentor, priest and superior, priest and doctor, priest and soldier--but the disputations are so crowded with metaphorical language it left me unsure about what some of the ideological or theological stakes of the book are. I do know that the book is interested in questions like, "Is there a spiritual honor in being poor?" and, "Is suicide truly unforgiveable?" but I am much less certain how the priest, much less Bernanos, would answer them.

Monday, May 9, 2022

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

How was it possible that my father and Costanza loved each other for so long--even before my birth--without either my mother or Mariano knowing? And how had my father fallen in love with the wife of his best friend not as the victim of a fleeting infatuation but--I said to myself--in a deliberate ways, to that his love still endured? And Costanza, so refined, so well brought up, so affectionate, a visitor in our house as long as I could remember, how had she been able to hold on to my mother's husband for fifteen years right before her eyes? And why had Mariano, who had known my mother forever, only in recent times squeezed her ankle between his under the table, and--as by now was clear, my mother swore to me over and over--without her consent? What happened, in other words, in the world of adults, in the heads of very reasonable people, in their bodies loaded with knowledge? What reduced them to the most untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles?

"Lies, lies," writes Giovanna, the narrator of Elena Ferrante's The Lying Life of Adults, "adults forbid them and yet they tell so many." For Giovanna, her entrance in to the world of lies and adult intrigue begins with a shocking comment: she overhears her father tell her mother that she, Giovanna, looks like Vittoria, his estranged sister. For Giovanna, this is equivalent to hearing that her father thinks she is extraordinarily ugly, as Vittoria exists in the conversation of their family as a kind of hideous demonic figure who long ago separated Giovanna's father from the rest of their family. Giovanna, obsessing over her father's comment, decides she must get to know her aunt, and seeks her out in the lower class section of Naples her father has left behind. This is the first in a series of events that will not only disturb Giovanna's understanding of her parents--she quickly discovers that Vittoria has a point about her father's mendacity and pride--but her parents' marriage.

It's hard, coming off of Ferrante's blockbuster Neapolitan novels, not to wonder simply: Can she do it again? And at first blush, it seems that the wonder of The Lying Life of Adults lies in the way it takes the most compelling elements of the quartet and reconstitutes them with a few snips and stitches. Easy to see in Giovanna the tumultuous adolescence of Elena, haunted by the development of her body and obsessed with the belief in her own inadequacy. And larger-than-life Vittoria, with her brazen honesty and quick temper, might be seen as an aged-up Lila.

But both Giovanna and Vittoria have a vulgarity that is never quite admitted in the Neapolitan books. Though they, too, are about the anxiety of emerging from a lower-class neighborhood, Lying Life offers a more powerful sense of the sordidness that entails, and the way one's belief in their own rotten roots can lead them to do sordid things. I found Giovanna's growing antipathy toward herself genuinely upsetting, and I won't easily forget her description of the "toilet stink" of a neighborhood boy's penis when she fondles it in a back alley. Vittoria, too, has Lila's brazenness but none of her intelligence; her inability, actually, to understand why she angers and alienates people is deeply sad. Lying Life exposes the hypocrisy and fraudulence with which social climbers distance themselves from their roots, but it also--better, perhaps, than the Neapolitan books--portrays the frightening belief that the old neighborhood is something that lives in your genes, and waits, like an inherited tumor, to metastasize within you.

Eventually, Giovanna finds a way out of her depression when she meets Roberto, a pious and well-spoken man whose esteem she craves. The ambivalence of her feelings toward Roberto--both deliriously horny and fearful that such horniness would despoil that esteem--allow her to develop a sense of self apart from the mirror-images of her father, of her aunt Vittoria. Roberto's presence adds a texture to the novel, a final piece that allows it to move from a simple psychological drama to a complex one. As he introduces a new element in Giovanna's life that unsettles the cage outlined by those three elements, so he adds a new element to the book that gives it new shape.

Lying Life doesn't compare to the Neapolitan books, but honestly, I wonder if the only difference is one of scale; four books about Giovanna and Vittoria, each in their way as compelling as Elena and Lila, might feel just as monumental. I appreciated how much raunchier this book was, how much more morbidly sex-obsessed Giovanna is. In the Neapolitan novels, Elena describes a kind of crippling sex-obsession that comes upon her in waves (if I'm remembering correctly), but she remains sort of a goody two-shoes; Giovanna's sex obsession is ruder, darker. And Lying Life explores same-sex attraction in ways that the Neapolitan novels leave folded into the margins. It doesn't, and can't, imitate the Dickensian sweep of those books, but it reimagines them as something more purely psychological, and even more unsettling.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Anagrams by Lorrie Moore

When I was little, I didn't understand that you could change a few sounds in a name or a phrase and have it mean something entirely different. When I told teachers my name was Benna and they said, "Donna who?" I would say, "Donna Gilbert." I thought close was good enough, that sloppiness was generally built into the language. I thought Bing Crosby and Bill Cosby were the same person. That Buddy Holly and Billie Holliday were the same person. That Leon Trotsky and Leo Tolstoy were the same person. It was a shock for me quite late in life to discover than Jean Cocteau and Jacques Cousteau were not even related. Meaning, if it existed at all, was unstable and could not survive even the slightest reshuffling of letters. One gust of wind and Santa became Satan. A slip of the pen and pears turned into pearls. A little interior decorating and the world became her twold, an ungrammatical and unkind assessment of an aging aunt in a singles bar. Add a d to poor, you got droop. It was that way in biology, too. Add a chromosome, get a criminal. Subtract one, get an idiot or a chipmunk. That was the way with things. When you wanted someone to say, "I love you," approximate assemblages--igloo, eyelid glue, isle of ewe--however lovely, didn't quite make it. "You are my honey bunch" was not usually interchangeable with "You are my bunny hutch." In a New York suburban bathroom, early in the morning, a plea for sight could twist, grow slightly, re-issue itself as an announcement of death.

"There was a period," writes Benna Carpenter, the protagonist of Lorrie Moore's Anagrams, "where I kept trying to make anagrams out of words that weren't anagrams? moonscape and menopause; gutless and guilts, lovesick and evil louse." Near-likenesses dominate the novel. In each section, Benna, along with her friend Gerard, leads a slightly different life: in the first, they live as quasi-lovers in two adjoining apartments, in the next they are friends collaborating on a garage sale. He's a kindergarten teacher, then an opera singer. It's enough to make the reader go back and re-read, looking for something they've missed: how did we get from A to B? But these are parallel stories, not chronological ones, versions of a life that don't quite superimpose neatly upon another. The effect is of a novel in constant self-revision, first in short bursts, then a much longer section--in which Benna is a hapless instructor of poetry who has an affair with her most talented student--finds the story it wants to tell. But what's happened to Benna's other lives?

At first, I thought I could tell that Anagrams, Moore's debut novel, was less sophisticated than her novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, which I thought was terrific. For one, it's obsessed with puns, and not always good ones: a character tossing a pillow is said to "throw cushion to the wind." Surely, I thought, this is the work of a writer who will later find more interesting and subtle kinds of wordplay. But the more I read, I became convinced that the silly puns emerge from the same place as Benna's compulsion to look for anagrams that don't really exist, or her childhood wonder at how changing a single letter can change a whole word: the frightening belief that, if one detail in one's life changes, everything might change. Which means that there are all sorts of phantom lives out there that you might have lead. They might even be collected in the same book.

For the Benna of "The Nun of That," the long last section, one of those unlived lives is the one in which she had a child. Throughout the section, Benna spars verbally with her precocious and creative young daughter George, who happens to be entirely imagined. Moore says this from the outset, "my imaginary daughter," but then drops it, so that the reader easily forgets--or thinks, perhaps, surely that's not what she meant. But George really is imaginary, and by the section's end--marked by a profound, sudden, and surprising loss, the reminder that Benna's daughter isn't real amplifies the staggering sense of being left totally alone. Though Anagrams has a silly and anarchic vibe at times, with its wordplay and silly puns, I wasn't prepared for how much of a gut-punch this would be. One expects, or hopes, to turn the page, have the narrative reset again, to see the characters in new professions, new lives, new roles, but in the end the life you receive is the one you must end up living.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So

The train came to my stop, so I stepped off and started walking. A dense fog from the ocean had crawled through the neighborhood, pulled in by the valley heat of my childhood and Ben's prior life. I couldn't see far ahead, but I knew where I was going, and I was reminded of Ishmael "working" on the masthead of the Pequod, Ishmael dozing to the cadence of his dazed reflections, diffused into the clear sky, the total opposite of my current waking moment. As I waded through the fog, I wondered, then, at the impossibility of my existence. Here I was! Living in a district that echoed a dead San Francisco. Gay, Cambodian, and not even twenty-six, carrying in my body the aftermath of war, genocide, colonialism. And yet, my task was to teach kids a decade younger, existing across an oceanic difference, what it meant to be human. How absurd, I admitted. How fucking hilarious. I was actually excited.

The nine stories in Anthony Veasna So's collection Afterparties are all lightly related accounts of first- and second-generation Cambodian immigrants living in California's Central Valley: three women who run a donut shop (this is, I infer, a rather common thing for Cambodian immigrants here to do), a young man whose father's mechanic shop is failing, a group of high school badminton players who pass around legends of their coach, a badminton star now working as the manager of a grocery. Partly, I think, because they are rich portrayals of an American community not before seen in fiction (can you think of any other books about Cambodian immigrants in the Central Valley, or anywhere else?) Afterparties was one of the buzziest books from the last couple years, and that buzz was amplified by the sudden death of author Anthony Veasna So by a drug overdose in 2020.

So's death hangs over these stories, and when his obvious stand-in writes about "carrying in [his] body the aftermath of war, genocide, colonialism," it's hard not to hear tragic echoes of So's future. But of course So's untimely death can also get in the way of the stories themselves, which are fraught with recognizable conflicts about the difficult balancing act demanded of immigrant communities in the United States, but which are also very warm and even quite optimistic ("I was actually excited").

One theme, specific to the Cambodian immigrant experience, that emerges is the way Pol Pot's genocide hangs heavy in the memory of those now living in the United States. It informs the older characters' sense of gratitude, and their dedication to making a new life in a new place, but it also divides them from the younger characters whose division and alienation from their parents seems like a recognizable aspect of immigrant stories of all kinds. I was struck by a pair of stories that depict a Cambodian belief that children can be the reincarnation of family members and the pressure this places on younger generations. When your mother commits suicide, unable to shake the memories of the Killing Fields, how do you move on when your new niece is believed to be her reincarnation? One of these stories, "Somaly Serey, Serey Somaly," about a hospice nurse who must care for her own dying aunt, is one of the strongest stories, and I'm going to use it in my class.

There is a richness to the stories, a kind of complexity that avoids easy plotlines that might underscore the generational conflicts that are their underpinning. In the opener, "Three Women of Chuck's Donuts," a mother and her two daughters watch a Cambodian man come in every night to buy an apple fritter he doesn't eat. The daughters suspect he may be a half-sibling, a child of the father who abandoned them for his second family; the mother fears he may be a cousin come to violently take back the money her absent husband borrowed from his gangster family to establish the donut shop. But the man proves to be someone else entirely; his secret fails to wrap the story up neatly but manages, in a way, to enrich it.

Stylistically, the stories are--well, fine. One of my favorites was "We Would've Been Princes!," about a pair of brothers who are determined to discover how much a successful cousin has given to the bride at a wedding--suspecting him of being stingy. The story is a fast-paced mess, but it has a kind of stylistic energy and verve that the other stories lack. Afterparties is most engaging, I think, when it breaks out of a kind of traditionally realist mode; another example is the story "Superking Son Scores Again," which uses a collective first person narrator (those breathless badminton fiends of the local high school) to great effect.

Finally, I ought to mention that these stories are deeply interested in queer themes also. "Human Development," one of the strongest stories, focuses on a narrator I suspect is the closest we get to So himself (not least because his name is Anthony) who is living in San Francisco and becomes involved with an older gay man who is also Cambodian and from the same town. The relationship is sexually and mentally thrilling for them both, but the narrator can't shake the suspicion that his new lover is interested in him specifically because he is also Cambodian, and that traditionalist expectations about reproduction and the sustaining of their small and embattled community have been transposed even into an ostensibly queer relationship. In "The Shop," a gay narrator endures the harangues of an older Cambodian woman who encourages him to marry a Cambodian woman to provide one of their own with a green card--his sexual orientation being almost irrelevant. In this way the stories often find a rich area of exploration in the overlap between immigrant stories and queer ones; sex and sexuality become, as of course they are, a battleground between more traditional first-generation immigrants and their Americanized children.