Tuesday, June 28, 2022

The Unpassing by Chia-Chia Lin

"You can't do anything," I said. He looked at me, surprised. I had never spoken like this to him before, but I found that it was easy. The words were already formed and only had to be released. "You sure know how to talk, I said, "about the things you'll never do." I snatched the whole cold urn. "You wanted to leave her here, didn't you?"

I held the urn with two rigid hands as we stared at each other. He did not move. I dropped the lid to the mud and pulled out the dusty bag. It was knotted but came undone easily. It was intolerable to me that she had been kept inside this plastic; I hadn't known until now. My father watched as I held the bag by a corner and, with a hard flick, dumped everything out. I didn't want her in the water, I didn't want her washed away. I wanted her mired. Stuck here. The mudflats were hungry. They would take her, and they would keep her.

Let's read some books about Alaska.

Ten-year old Gavin lives with his family in the outskirts of Anchorage. His mother and father are immigrants from Taiwan, trying to piece together a life for their four children. When Gavin comes down with a dangerous case of meningitis, he falls into a coma for a week. When he comes out of it, he discovers that he has passed the illness onto his little sister Ruby, who has not survived. Ruby's death destabilizes the family, tearing them apart: His younger brother Natty continuously searches for the sister he's been told is "lost"; his older sister Pei-Pei starts calling herself "Paige" and distancing herself from her Taiwanese family. Mom becomes more cruel, Dad more aloof; in his distraction he botches the installation of a well, which poisons another young boy, and the family finds themselves on the brink of starvation.

One thing I liked about The Unpassing is how well it evokes a sense of place. Anchorage is not Denali. Though it's ringed by mountains, the city itself and its environs lie in a lowland bowl on the precipice of huge mudflats. It feels hemmed in and on the edge of some wildness; a quality that The Unpassing uses to great effect. I had a small kick of joy out of following their journey--when they are evicted from their house--down through Portage Glacier and the Kenai Peninsula, places I remember from visiting long ago. And the particular racial and cultural dynamics of being Taiwanese in this place are subtly wrought. It's never fully stated, but Lin gives the reader the sense that the father's racial identity marks him as an outsider in the legal case against him. As the mother describes it to Gavin, walking into the courtroom she recognizes that this place is not "for them," and that by walking in they have already lost.

The Unpassing is, perhaps at its heart, a story about repression: no one in the family is able to confront what has happened to Ruby, because they don't know how to talk to each other about it. Gavin is shocked to learn from his sister that Ruby's ashes are still in the house--he didn't even know she'd been cremated--and later, he slips away with his father to scatter them on the mudflats without the mother's knowledge. The shame and anger possessed by mother and father are buried deep behind spiky, resentful dialogue that is one of the novel's greatest strengths. But there's a sense that perhaps these things are buried too deeply: Gavin struggles with his own guilt over passing the meningitis to his sister, but for a first person narrative, we get remarkably little of Gavin's feelings, which are buried as deep, if not deeper, as his mother and father's. As a result, when the guilt does emerge, it can seem narratively incongruous: Where has this been the whole time?

The Unpassing both thrives on and suffers from a kind of prose style that is associated, in my mind, with MFA programs (and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, of which Lin is an alum) specifically. The language itself is crisp, crystalline, and the detail especially sharp. But the story gets easily lost in the detail, and the larger structure of the narrative, how the pieces fit together, gets obscured. Take, for example, a scene where Gavin's mother takes them to a cheap-o department store in Anchorage to replace their clothes, where Gavin gets in a fight with his siblings. There is a great subtlety here--we come to understand mom's penny-pinching as a reaction to their poverty--but no sense of whether things are different now than they were before Ruby died, or how Gavin feels about it. And at times I yearned for a more authentic ten-year old voice, or perhaps a more developed sense that an adult Gavin is speaking back through time.

Still, I enjoyed The Unpassing. Its cryptic and subtle qualities are its most frustrating, but also its most engaging. It's also just an honest story about a side of the United States that has not been seen, which rarely or never gets told, and which it tells with faithfulness and precision.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe

You that read this, who have never, perhaps, possessed more than a single consciousness, cannot know what it is to have two or three, much less hundreds. They lived in me and were joyful, each in his own way, to find they had new life. The dead Autarch, whose face I had seen in scarlet ruin a few moments before, now lived again. My eyes and hands were his, I knew the work of the hives of the bees of the House Absolute and the sacredness of them, who steer by the sun and fetch gold of Urth's fertility. I knew his course to the Phoenix Throne, and to the stars, and back. His mind was mine and filled mine with lore whose existence I had never suspected and with the knowledge other minds had brought to this. The phenomenal world seemed dim and vague as a picture sketched in sand over which an errant wind veered and moaned. I could not have concentrated on it if I had wished to, and I had no such wish.

The Citadel of the Autarch is the final book in Gene Wolf's Book of the New Sun series, about the torturer Severian living in a distant future in which the sun is dying. We know, from the first book, that Severian has somehow risen to the office of the Autarch, the leader of the immense leader of the southern part of the world; Citadel tells this final part of the story, though a reader expecting a more traditional story of sword-and-shield conquest, or even of recognizable cause-and-effect logic, might find themselves disappointed. At the end of the third book, The Sword of the Lictor, Severian has discovered that a race of hideous aliens called hierodules has a vested interest in raising him to the office, and that the office holds more than earthly power: by raising him to the level of Autarch, they hope that Severian will be the one who brings the New Sun to the world, reversing the planet's inevitable decline and death.

I felt, a little, that The Sword of the Lictor was strangely ordinary among the Book of the New Sun novels; and speculated that the final book would be stranger and quicker in pace. It was strange to see, then, that most of the first third of The Citadel of the Autarch, finds Severian languishing in a field hospital among the soldiers fighting the Autarch's war against the northern Ascians. Severian passes the time hear listening to stories by several of the prisoners, who have asked him to judge their quality--Wolfe seems to really love a story-within-a-story. The most memorable of these is by a captured Ascian, whose race has been taught only to speak in a combination of a few thousand stock phrases extolling the virtues of their ruling leadership. And yet, the Ascian tells a whole story this way, relying on interpretation by a woman who has learned to understand what lies behind what is said. As Severian notes, most of us only speak with a limited number of phrases and sentences we have picked up from somewhere else; but the paucity of our language conceals a great depth of feeling and experience.

After leaving the hospital, the novel picks up pace, sending Severian off into the battlefield. One of the most memorable moments is Severian's mission to the Last House, a difficult-to-find place where every floor exists at a different point in time. As Severian looks out from the top floor over a sheet of ice--one possible future for his world--the resident, Ash, explains that he has been sent to monitor the past. Time travelers are a big motif in these novels; Severian's android friend Jonas is one, and so are the 20th-century tourists who appear as if ghosts in the Botanic Gardens of the series' first novel. The alien hierodules, and the mysterious figures they represent, can do it, too. And yet all this time travel has not dimmed the urgency of the mission of bringing forth the New Sun; still the common destiny of humanity, and the promise of rebirth, governs the whole logic of the series.

The final sections of the novel are about Severian's ascent to the office of Autarch. The old Autarch, whom Severian met in an earlier novel disguised as a lower official in his own great house, rescues Severian from the war and is badly wounded in the process. Before he dies, he insists that Severian drink from a vial around his neck and drink a little of his blood, which will incorporate his own consciousness into Severian's. This process is reminiscent of the ritual of the alzabo from the second book, by which Severian eats the flesh of his former love Thecla and takes her consciousness in him. But the Autarch, as Severian will be, is the end point of such a process repeated thousands of times, and contains thousands of consciousnesses. Part of Severian's role as Autarch and hero of the New Sun is to take on all these consciousnesses, the literal embodiment of his burden.

The Catholic Wolfe called Severian a "Christian" figure, pointedly distinct from a "Christian figure." It's interesting to think about the way that Severian's role as the Autarch is a kind of Christian story in spirit. As the novel closes, Severian is planning on attempting a vague test administered by the alien hierodules that will either end with the coming of the New Sun or Severian's castration; these images of rebirth and renewal seem deeply rooted in Christian mysteries. And Severian's accretion of consciousness seems to me not so different from Christian ideas of the Holy Spirit, or the language inherent in the term "Son of Man." And of course, you can't forget that in a literal sense, all these people are dead, and Severian offers them an incarnation and rebirth. For Severian to succeed is for the multitude to succeed. In this way, The Book of the New Sun subverts the kind of "chosen one" narratives familiar from fantasy novels, that raise one special figure above the others. One might wonder: "Why Severian?" But in some sense this question becomes moot as Severian becomes a vessel for many people.

I'm sad for this series to be over for me. It has the kind of intense imaginativeness and creativity that I'm always hoping to find in a science fiction book, and which I feel like I rarely find. I'm more convinced now than I was when I started it that these books are true classics, works that expand the notion of what not only genre literature can be, but literature full stop. And I have a greater appreciation for the prose, which touches on the parodic, but is capable of great subtlety and power. (I remember seeing on Twitter that someone said they stopped reading the first book after ten pages because the writing was so bad; I really think that person Did Not Get It.) And though it's a shame to think this story is over, I'm looking forward to checking out some of the other novels that Wolfe wrote set in the same universe.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer

If we don't get out of here soon she won't stand it much longer, this dusty hell of my place. She'll go back there. The big trees round her cottage. The grass a black man came to cut. Her kind; that Cafe. The beautiful terrace for lunch on Sunday. Permanent Residence: so many applications, so many ways, any kind of way, tried, for that status anywhere. Anywhere but here. If she had been one of the ways snatched at when he gave his smile in response to her attraction to him that day in the garage (or was it only on the street), if she had failed him, failed the influence he had counted on through her secure status of birth, whiteness, family position, money, if it didn't achieve any right for his Permanent Residence in her country--she had come (didn't she say it) all the way with him; the way of refusal, failure, buried back here in the cursed village in the sand, his home, that claimed him. Love. He had to believe in it, existing in her.

Julie Summers is a white South African, the daughter of a rich businessman who rejects her parentage, at least symbolically, by hanging out in a cafe with a group of mixed-race bohemians. One day, when her car breaks down in the middle of the street, she takes it to a garage, where an Arab man going by Abdu fixes it for her. Julie, intrigued by the handsome mechanic, finds ways to keep Abdu in her company, and eventually this relationship becomes physical, romantic. Her friends are tolerant of her "pickup," if distantly amused by it. It's less funny to her father, though his circle, too, is tolerant of Abdu in their way: they don't need to be dismissive or defensive when it's clear to everyone that Julie and Abdu do not belong together, their worlds do not overlap, and eventually their relationship will founder against this fact and disintegrate. When Abdu--real name Ibrahim--is tracked down at last by the immigration authorities and expelled, Julie insists on traveling with him to his unnamed home country.

Before leaving, Julie and Abdu-Ibrahim visit with Hamilton Motsamai, the brilliant black lawyer from Gordimer's novel The House Gun, and it seems as if The Pickup will be, like that other novel, a book about the ways South Africa's racial fault lines are exposed by the political process, only with immigrant experiences added to the familiar black-white divide. But The Pickup actually reminded me most of July's People, another Gordimer novel about upper-class whites cast into an unfamiliar and disorienting cultural universe. Most of the book takes place not in South Africa but the unnamed Arab country of Ibrahim's birth, as Julie struggles to fit into his wary family, teaching English to members of the small desert village Ibrahim has struggled all his life to escape.

Honestly, I find this ability of Gordimer's incredible. What other white writer can write so empathetically and imaginatively about what it would be like for white people to live under the kind of circumstances that people of color--black Africans in July's People and Arab immigrants in The Pickup--have endured so long? There's no hedging, no tone-deafness, no heavy-handed clash of cultures. July's People ends with an image of tremendous ambiguity, as the white housewife who has been hiding in her former servant's traditional village heads to the sound of an incoming helicopter, not knowing if it holds her salvation or certain death. But The Pickup--spoiler alert--ends with Julie refusing to emigrate with Ibrahim to the USA, choosing to stay with his family. Who else could imagine the circumstances in which a white woman chooses to stay with a traditional Muslim family, rather than, as Ibrahim constantly expects, returning to the life of racial privilege available to her? Or who else could imagine it so convincingly? It's hard for me to describe it without making it seem congratulatory--great job, white lady!--but to make such a choice really seem true, both character and author really do have to reject everything that is familiar and safe.

Among other things, The Pickup reveals the difficult and complex demands the world places on "third world" emigrants. What Julie experiences as a kind of personal reformation, Ibrahim experiences as a familiar but tedious period of waiting, of suspension: the endless paperwork, the fruitless interviews at consulate after consulate, the greasing of palms, not even being able to choose which country one would wish to emigrate to, even before the dreary work of finding work and housing begins. What Ibrahim learns is that "the world," whatever that might be, belongs to others. Julie is "not for him," in the sense that she is made for someone else, belonging to somewhere else, but when the two make love, they conceive of it as a different kind of country, one to which they both belong. Amazingly, The Pickup was published in September of 2001, which means that things have only gotten worse since then. There are more refugees, more emigrants, and fewer places for them. But unlike Gordimer's apartheid-era novels, which express a kind of knowledgeable pessimism about race relations in South Africa, Julie's final choice in The Pickup seems, to me, to hold a grain of optimism.

Friday, June 17, 2022

God's Bits of Wood by Sembene Ousmane

Ever since they left Thies, the women had not stopped singing. As soon as one group allowed the refrain to die, another picked it up, and new verses were born at the hazard of chance or inspiration, one word leading to another and each finding, in its turn, rhythm and its place. No one was very sure any longer where the song began, or if it had an ending. It rolled out over its own length, like the movement of a serpent. It was as long as a life.

I was disappointed by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr's recent novel Brotherhood, a portrait of Senegal under Islamic fascism that struck me as flat and didactic. Honestly, I might never have read it if I'd realized I had another book from Senegal, Sembene Ousmane's God's Bits of Wood sitting on my shelf. But Ousmane's novel about the 1948 Dakar-Niger railway strike cleared away the bad taste I had of Sarr's book, because it is in many ways the opposite: where Sarr creates characters who seem like virtues or vices dressed up in human clothing, the characters of God's Bits of Wood are remarkably real and vivid people caught up in the pressures of colonial politics. In its detail and specificity--helped along by a reliance, as I understand it, on real events--it tells a universal story of resilience and courage.

God's Bits of Wood resembles one of those Dickensian or Tolstoyan social-realist novels in its scope, encompassing a couple dozen characters who take part in, or resist, the railway strike. There's old Fa Keita, who vividly remembers the bloody strike of ten years prior; Penda, the feisty prostitute who helps lead the women's march from Thies to Dakar; blind Maimouna, who refuses to tell anyone who the father of her son is (imaginatively christened "Strike"); young Ad'jibid'ji, a young girl who sneaks into the meetings of the striking union workers, wishing to take part in the struggle. There are the male leaders of the strike, of course, like Lahbib, Doudou, and Beaugosse, but they are overshadowed by the absent figure of Ibrahim Bakayoko, an almost legendary figure who spends much of the novel "down the line."

Bakayoko might be the novel's most interesting figure: the strikers centered at Thies seem to believe his determination and eloquence are what's needed to make the strike successful, and they await his return with a messianic anxiety. And in truth, it's Bakayoko's speech at the final colloquy with the white toubabs who run the railway--crucially, in the local languages of Wolof and Bambara as well as French--that seems to give the strikers the nerve they need to stand up to the toubabs. But he's also a man who refuses to attend the funeral of his own wife after she's killed by strike-breaking police, asserting that he's needed by the cause and has no time. As N'deye, the woman who falls in love with him, discovers, there is no room in Bakayoko's heart for anything else but the struggle. In ordinary times he might be heartless and cruel, but perhaps, in moments like this, he is the most necessary kind of person.

But most of the novel focuses on ordinary villagers caught up in the strike. Without pay or rations, the people along the railway line begin to starve; first the food runs out, and then the water. One funny interlude depicts Ramatoulaye, who captures and kills the prize ram of her brother, who has taken the side of the white toubabs, and distributes the meat to the families of the town. God's Bits of Wood has a special focus on the women who support the strike; though they are not workers like the men, it's their solidarity that allows the strike to succeed. It's the woman's march to Dakar, in the end, that brings the toubabs to the negotiating table. Still, there is a cost, and it's born by these ordinary people: marchers who die of heatstroke, old men who starve, women and children who are shot.

And they are real: when Sarr's characters are hurt or killed, it's hard to weep, because they are only paper, avatars of ideas that can't really die. But for Ousmane, the strike tells a story of real people who put their lives on the line for a great cause. And though the railway strike has its martyrs and idols, like Bakayoko, what's most remarkable about it is how convincingly it depicts a collective victory for working people. To read it is to wonder how we in the U.S. could ever reproduce solidarity like that.

Monday, June 13, 2022

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

In the books I've written about my childhood I can't remember, suddenly, what I left out, what I said. I think I wrote about our love for our mother, but I don't know if I wrote about how we hated her too, or about or love for one another, and our terrible hatred too, in that common family history of ruin and death which was ours whatever happened, in love or in hate, and which I still can't understand however hard I try, which is still beyond my reach, hidden in teh very depths of my flesh, blind as a newborn child. It's the area on whose brink silence begins. What happens there is silence, the slow travail of my whole life. I'm still there, watching those possessed children, as far away from the mystery now as I was then. I've never written, thought I thought I wrote, never loved, though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door.

A fifteen year old French girl, traveling by ferry from her home in Sadec, Vietnam, to her boarding school in Saigon, meets a Chinese man being driven in a black town car. She is wearing a man's fedora and gold high-heeled shoes. Instead of returning to the school, she goes with him to his home, where she has sex for the first time. The affair they have hastens the mental and physical deterioration of her recently widowed mother, and somewhere in China, in the city of Cholon, the Chinese man's father isn't too happy, either. Their relationship, both troublesome and doomed, emerges from a deep sadness they share, and the adult writer--a narrator, perhaps, but one that seems very close to the real life Duras, writing in her 70's--imagines the whole of her troubled childhood balanced on the pinhead of these moments.

I thought The Lover was a remarkable book. Remarkable in one sense, because you couldn't write it today. I know hack writers and comedians say stuff like that all the time, because they can't handle any kind social progress, but in this case it strikes me as being true. You couldn't write about a relationship between a 27-year old man and a 15-year old girl without making certain ethical prefaces, and you certainly couldn't explore the extent to which she desired the relationship, or how it develops in tandem with a desire for self-annihilation. Nor could you see him, as Duras does, as inherently pathetic, as squashed and bruised by a suffocating family life as the teenager he seduces. It has the benefit of likely being true, and being published after Duras was a known quantity (she was nominated for an Oscar!) and the things that make such a book unlikely are worth the price, in my opinion, but still, such a book seems to speak from a different era.

But remarkable, more importantly, for the quality of the writing, which possesses a superficial simplicity that's quickly complicated by a deeper intricacy that unfolds as the novel unfolds. Duras writes as one remembering a story from long ago, one in which what remains is not the narrative but the images. She lingers on these images--the man's hat, the gold high-heeled shoes, the black town car--layered over one another like transparencies, still moments that come forward and recede, but don't really move. At times I felt like the titular "lover" is really a distraction, only a moment to look through and see what Duras is really interested in, the tortured relationship she had with her mother and two brothers after their father's death, stranded in a strange and foreign country.

In her brothers, Duras describes a Manichaean division of good and evil. You know, like Goofus and Gallant, but with psychic and violent stakes. Her elder brother is a gambler, an amoral thief and destroyer. She describes him as a murderer, though it wasn't ever clear to me if she meant this in a literal or metaphorical sense. She blames the death of her younger brother, the pure and guileless one, on this older brother, even many years after they went their separate ways in life. It's this relationship, really, which hovers just beyond the scene of The Lover, and somehow the relationship between the young Marguerite and the Chinese millionaire's son is a way of looking past it, or not looking at it, or looking at it obliquely. Her younger brother's death, the image held till the end of the book, like something kept at the edge of the mind, gives Duras the chance to write some of the book's finest prose:

It was a mistake, and that momentary error filled the universe. The outrage was on the scale of God. My younger brother was immortal and they hadn't noticed. Immortality had been concealed in my brother's body when he was alive, and we hadn't noticed that it dwelt there. Now my brother's body was dead, and immortality with it. And the world went on without that visited body, and without its visitation. It was a complete mistake. And the error, the outrage, filled the whole universe.

There's a wonderful universality to that, the feeling of grief as an immortality being stolen from the world. One of those feelings that good writing reveals to exist, when you hadn't realized it existed before. But it has a specificity, too, a sense of truth, that reveals the writer behind the images, and which seems like it can hardly be invented. The Lover sits in that uncomfortable space, perhaps, between novel and memoir, and it's not like anything else I've ever read.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

Brotherhood by Mohamed Mbougar Sarr

It was true that in spite of what the Brotherhood had done, there was something that it would never be able to kill in this city: its memory. The memory of the city as it used to be, filled with old noises, with murmurs of rainstorms five years past, with the invigorating laughs and the ever-present smells. All of these things, the had-beens of Kalep, its memory, would never disappear, at the very least not as long as the people refused to forget them. He believed this was where the real battle was. Every war, in his eyes, was a war for memory, in other words a war that must be fought in the name of the survival of memory.

The Senegalese city of Kalep has been under the yoke of an Islamic fundamentalist group calling itself the Brotherhood for years. Their rule is harsh and violent: the novel begins with the beheading of two unmarried lovers, caught by the Islamic police. In the basement of a local bar, a resistance group forms, centered around the doctor Malamine, whose wife Ndey Joor has been badly beaten for not wearing her veil in public, and whose son Ismaila left years ago to join the fundamentalists. Along with a handful of others, Malamine prints a newsletter detailing the crimes of the Brotherhood, exposing its cruelty and provoking the locals to resist. Meanwhile, the calculating, vicious leader of the Brotherhood, Abdel Karim, vows to track down whoever is behind the newsletter and punish them.

Man, I did not think this book was good. I can't remember the last time I read a book that felt so punishingly didactic. Take, for instance, the moment where Malamine's son Idrissa reflects on how the Brotherhood has made it difficult for him to talk to his mother, Ndey Joor. "By relieving them of their right to speak," Mbougar Sarr writes, "the Brotherhood was also relieving them of their need to speak." He then writes, "Every authoritarian regime rises in this way: it manages to convince its people of the futility of communication." Well, who's thinking that? Not Idrissa! Why would he know that "every authoritarian regime rises in this way?" Time and time again, the narrative abandons the immediacy of the characters for abstract political theorizing like this. And rarely are these moments illuminating. The characters become avatars of political struggle; they rarely talk or react like real people. One night in the basement of the bar, Malamine looks at his comrades and assigns each of them an abstract principle:

Dethie was freedom. Codou was Justice. Madjigueen was Equality. Vieux was Denial. Alioune was Beauty. Pere Badji was Mystery. Man was all of these qualities together.

This just doesn't work, I think. It's like an old medieval morality play, but it's not a story that really illuminates the life of people living under fundamentalist regimes.

What worked best about the novel was the exchange of letters between Aissata and Sadobo, the mothers of the two lovers killed in the novel's opening scene. One mother appeared as witness, the other stayed home. In their letters, they discuss--again, much too abstractly, but in a way that is more rooted in real feeling--how to respond to the harsh rule in which they live. This story was, I thought, much more interesting than the "main narrative" about the resistance (all they do is print a newsletter???). That's the novel I sort of wish I had read.

Sadly, I didn't like this book. On a happier note, the addition of Senegal means my "countries read" list is up to 65!

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Consider This, Senora by Harriet Doerr

It was now that Ursula, nearing the end of her days, discovered at last what life is. She could hear the voices but not the words of her guests. They spoke in shallow waves that rose and broke, subsided, and rose again. Occasionally, someone laughed. Frances had lit two lamps, and as people moved about, their shadows came and went on Ursula's bedroom wall. She found herself enjoying this silent company.

Our lives are brief beyond our comprehension or our desire, she told herself. We drop like cottonwood leaves from trees after a single frost. The interval between birth and death is scarcely more than a breathing space. Tonight, in her house on a Mexican hill, Ursula Bowles listened to the five assembled in her sala and thought she heard the faint rustle of their days slipping by. She could see now that an individual life is, in the end, nothing more than a stirring of air, a shifting of light. No one of us, finally, can be more than that. Even Einstein. Even Brahms.

Then the widow slept.

Sue Ames, an American artist, decides on a whim that she wishes to buy a parcel of land in the small Mexican village of Amapolas. An American businessman, Bud Loomis--running from the taxes he owes in California--decides to do the same, and since neither of them has the funds to do so on their own, they decide, despite being strangers, to buy the lot together. Bud is keen to separate it into lots to be sold, but Sue only wants to live out a half-buried dream. Alas for Bud, Amapolas is too out of the way, too obscure to be transformed to the Mexican suburb he imagines, but a few lots are sold, one to a German pianist, then one to another American, Fran Bowles. Then, next to Fran, her mother Ursula, who has come to Mexico to die near the town where she was born.

Some authors really do write variations on the same theme over and over. Like Stones for Ibarra, Consider This, Senora is a story about white "North Americans" who try to make a life for themselves in a small Mexican village, to the bemusement of the tolerant locals. It might be easy enough to blame Consider This for being too much a pale imitator of that other novel--it isn't as good, it's true--but then again, if you see it perhaps as a sequel to that novel, a collection of ideas that didn't make it into the first edition, it becomes nearly as wistful and affecting. The prose, so clearly a word-by-word homage to the pastoralisms of Willa Cather, is just as powerful.

What sets Consider This apart, perhaps, is the novel's treatment of death. In Stones for Ibarra, the husband's illness is something that comes on suddenly and without warning, interrupting the life the Norteamericanos have planned for themselves. But in Consider This, it's Ursula Bowles, the 79-year old widow, who comes to Amapolas to die. ("In late summer, Ursula Bowles, accompanied by a drumroll of thunder, lightning, and drenching rain, arrived in the Mexican village where she expected, sooner or later, to die.") It's no coincidence that the Amapolas bluff where Ursula lives looks down on the panteon, the cemetery. Early on, Doerr introduces the reader to an old woman named Goya, who pretends to be deaf and who is never seen without a goat tied to her waist. The goat, we are told, once belonged to her son, and when it was sold, he went to visit it, and was hit and killed by a truck. Deaths like that happen in Amapolas; they are grievous occasions but they are not ignored or treated as if they are anomalous, just as when the goat gets to close to the edge of the bluff, and topples over it, along with Goya herself. To die here, for the widow Bowles, might be not just to return home but to look death in the face as it approaches.

Now that I think about it, that "widow" part matters, too: Bowles is a widow, and Sue Ames, the land's half-owner, is a divorcee who is constantly battling unbidden thoughts of her former husband, Tim. Ursula's daughter Fran is a lovelorn fool who lets every man she falls for lead her far away from the home she's said she desires. These women come to Amapolas looking for a life away from the wreckage and disorder of love. But the contracts of love are built here, too, as with Bud Loomis, who lets his mind off his money just long enough to impregnate his beautiful--and much younger--house maid. What a contrast, I suppose, to Stones, a novel about an already established couple who come to Mexico to try to live out a shared dream.

It's entirely possible that I would prefer Consider This, Senora to Stones for Ibarra if I'd read them in opposite order. They are, after all, extremely similar books. But I don't think so: Consider This is missing something of the spark that made Stones for Ibarra such a heartbreaker. But when the writing is so lovely, it's hard to complain about getting more of the same.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Earthworks Rising by Chadwick Allen and Shell Shaker by LeAnne Howe

For many who either seek or stumble upon them, burial mounds signal loss, herald doom: dead Indians, dead savage civilizations, dead pagan pasts ground to dust and now overgrown in brush, obscured by weeds and trees. And yet for others burial mounds announce regeneration, the possibilities of reclamation and renewal; they continue to connect and bloom. Native individuals, families, communities, and nations rise up against narratives of loss and doom to reclaim and repatriate, restore and reactivate. On their lived experiences and felt knowledges. On their abilities to dream intensely. But there are no easy divisions, no clear-cut binaries of Indigenous and settler in the twenty-first century (if there ever were), and there are no easy escape routes out of dominant ideologies and worldviews.

Two weeks ago, I got to visit Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa, a place I have long wanted to go: a green bluff overlooking the Mississippi, the monument is dotted with Indigenous earthwork mounds, some in the shapes of birds and bears, some perhaps over two thousand years old. In most cases they're no more than a few feet tall--you might miss them completely if they hadn't been cleared of trees and neatly mowed--but where else in what is now the United States can you see human architecture that old? To walk around them is to connect with a deeper past, and reform a present understanding of the land. Photographed from above, the bird and the bear appears, but on the ground, no effigy can be seen totally at once; you have to walk around and experience the shifting perspective of the earth to really "see."

Effigies like these have, from time to time, captured the imagination of modern writers and artists, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. Chickasaw scholar Chadwick Allen's Earthworks Rising is a new critical work that examines some of the ways that Native American mounds and earthworks have been used in art and literature. His scope is vast, taking in non-Native works like Alice Walker's novel Meridian and 20th-century pulp novels like Mog the Mound Builder and The Horror From the Mound by Conan the Barbarian creator Robert Howard. In non-Native imaginations, earthworks tend to speak of vanished races, whose creation of the mounds is shrouded in irrecoverable mystery. No one knows why they were created, we are told, and no one knows what happened to those who made them. (Of course, we do know, because their descendants--Choctaws and Chickasaws and other Native nations--are still around.)

By contrast, the Indigenous works Allen explores offer interpretations of the earthworks that emphasize the possibility that they are still sites that produce meaning, for Native peoples and through Native epistemologies. Allen devotes chapters to the work of visual artists Jimmie Durham and Alyssa Hinton, whose brightly colored photo collages of burial mounds are contrasted with the kind of clinical cross-sections you might find in a museum gallery. Literary sources include Allison Hedge Coke's Blood Run, a poem cycle in which the Mounds themselves--and associated elements like the River and Trees--are allowed to "speak," not as mute or ghostly voices--like the Indian curse unleashed in The Horror from the Mound--but as interlocutors that connect the present to the past and the future both, and sit at the axis mundi between earth and sky. Allen's methods are a mix of recognizably academic cultural criticism and more Indigenous ways of knowing. I rolled my eyes a little at Allen's reliance on numerology to understand the structure of Blood Run, but an anecdote where Allen watches on as Choctaw scholar LeAnne Howe records a song she hears being sung by a "little girl" in a burial mound seems beyond my powers of judgment or evaluation.

Attention woman, listen to my remarks. The gravediggers are wrong. Not all the ancient burial mounds were stuffed with beloved leaders. Some contain bad people who were given everything in death that they had coveted in life. Shell beads, copper, axes, knives, pottery bowls, baskets, animal skins, blankets. There were times when good people followed the bad ones into the spirit world to care for them. Like the parent of a spoiled child, they were there to give things to the band ones. Make them comfortable so that they would not want to leave their resting place and harass the living. But when the mounds were opened by gravediggers, these flawed spirits escaped like flesh-eating flies. They passed through many changes. Always becoming predatory. Put your dead chief in a mound so he will be protected from escaping again. Give him everything in death he wanted in live. That way he will never leave it again.

Howe figures large in Allen's book, as a colleague who helps guide his thinking about the mounds themselves and their significance. On more than one occasion, Allen describes traveling to a significant earthwork site with Howe, walking around it, laying down upon it and feeling its physical presence. I'd read a couple of Howe's works--the excellent play Savage Conversations and the baseball novel Miko Kings--but not Shell Shaker, which Allen analyzes at length. Shell Shaker is a novel about two murders, which take place at different points in time but which are presented as analogs of one another: in the present, Choctaw vice chief Auda Billy's apparent murder of the chief Redford Macalester. In the past, the murder of Red Shoes, a Choctaw warrior who played the English and French off of each other and who ended up igniting a bloody war between the colonial powers, Choctaw factions, and neighboring tribes.

Redford, like Red Shoes before him, begins his career with noble ambitions that are corrupted by greed and violence. The casino he brought into the Choctaw Nation has brought economic prosperity, but also an alliance with the mafia, from whom he has been embezzling money in order to send to the Irish Republican Army (!). Like Red Shoes, he has become too much warrior and not enough peacemaker, and his belief that he can play one side of hostile forces off the other threatens to bring a lot of violence. Moreover, his ego has made him into a monster: when the book opens, we see him raping his longtime assistant and former lover Auda.

Auda, like Redford, has an analog in the past, named Anoleta. Like Auda, Anoleta is accused of Red Shoes' murder, and Auda's mother Susan--like Anoleta's mother Shakbatina--takes credit for the deed to spare her daughter's life. The parallels don't end there: Auda's two sisters each have an analog, as do her father, her uncle, her cousin. Howe gives us a sense not so much of the past repeating itself as a kind of mythical story that emanates in different temporal registers; past and present are brought together and made the same, thus rejecting traditional notions of Indigenous disappearance or disintegration. It was too much for me, frankly. Howe juggles the two time periods, and the numerous figures between them, with careful dexterity, but I found myself easily lost, wishing that the two stories had been simplified. The particulars of the Choctaw Civil War that Red Shoes ushers in were especially opaque to me. I had a much better time with the present narrative, whose magical realist elements and focus on generational ties reminded me of Louise Erdrich, and not merely, or even particularly, because of the novel's Indigenous themes.

In one memorable scene, which looms large in Allen's analysis of the novel, Auda's aunts are kneading dough in the kitchen when it turns into mud. And not just any mud: the rich black earth of the family's ancestral Choctaw homelands, in Mississippi. In visions they are instructed to take the dead chief Macalester's body to Mississippi and bury it in a mound for safekeeping, along with the embezzled cash. Far from being the burial of an honored person, the mound becomes a way to keep a troublesome spirit from making more trouble, and perhaps from reappearing in a different time, in a different guise, the way that Red Shoes reappears as Redford Macalester. There's some resonance here with the despised "curse" narrative of The Horror From the Mound that goes unremarked upon, but both Allen and Howe depict the act of burying Redford in a mound as a sort of kindness as well as a defense. By reintegrating Redford into the land, they are not merely imprisoning him, but bringing him back into the fold--bringing him home.

Along the railings at Effigy Mounds National Monument, you can see prayer ties, little scraps of cloth tied there, that mark it as a sacred site. Not a site of death or disappearance, of a vanished mystery, but a living place that still speaks to Indigenous people who visit it. I really got a kick of reading both Earthworks Rising and Shell Shaker, which helped me see these mounds a little more fully, a little more clearly.