Saturday, March 17, 2018

When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka

In early autumn the farm recruiters arrived to sign up new workers, and the War Relocation Authority allowed many of the young men and women to go out and help harvest the crops. Some came back wearing the same shoes they'd left in and swore they would never go out there again. They said they'd been shot at. Spat on. Refused entrance to the local diner. The movie theater. The dry goods store. They said the signs in the windows were the same wherever they went: 'No Japs Allowed.' Life was easier, they said, on this side of the fence.

The Japanese internment during World War II may be the least-discussed major shame in American history. In spite of resistance from some fronts, there is at least a general recognition that slavery was bad and we shouldn't have killed all the the Indians. The Japanese internment, on the other hand, I didn't even learn about in high school. Right-wing shill Michelle Malkin wrote a book in defense of internment, no doubt hoping it would spur a smililar movement toward her own group non grata, Muslims. And Asians, now treated as a model minority by the "I'm not racist but" crowd, are often spoken of as though their American experience has been smooth sailing, never mind that even high profile figures like George Takai were actually in these camps. This isn't ancient history.

I'm not confident I've read anything about the internment in the course of Fifty Books, and When the Emperor Was King did a good job whetting my appetite for more. It's a terse, unsentimental little novel that doesn't even name its characters even as it follows them through the arrest of their father, their own move to and life in an internment camp, and their eventual return home, where they are finally, after several years, reuinited.

When I say this book is unsentimental, it's no joke. The first section--the book is split into five--follows the unnamed mother as she prepares their house for their indefinite absence. Some of the preparations are benign--packing things aways, making sure the faucets are off. Others are more chilling and speak to uncertainty and permenance of their dislocation, like when we follow her to the store where she purchases a new shovel with which to kill and bury the family dog. Does this make her sad? Angry? Resigned? We're never told, just as the children are never told why White Dog isn't coming when she's called.

The train ride to the camp and life in the camp itself is endless monotony punctuated by the terror of being completely powerless and surrounded by those who are indifferent. The girl thinks she seems some humanity on a guard's face, but the reader has no reason to think its real. Shades are kept low lest a passby lob a brick through a window upon realizing the bus is full of 'the enemy'.

And finally, the family returns home, to a house that's been destroyed by tenants who paid no rent or respect; they are greeted, or not greeted, by old friends who now see them as the enemy; they sleep every night with the threat of vandalism, arson, or worse; and they wait for their father to come home. But when he does, he's not the man they remember:

As the days grew longer our father began spending more and more time alone in his room. He stopped reading the newspaper. He no longer listened to Dr. IQ. with us on the radio. "There's already enough noise in my head," he explained. The handwriting in his notebook grew smaller and fainter and then disappeared from the page altogether. Now whenever we passed by his door we saw him sitting on the edge of his bed with his hands in his lap, staring out through the window as though he were waiting for something to happen. Sometimes he'd get dressed and put on his coat but he could not make himself walk out the front door.

In the evening he often went to bed early, at seven, right after supper - 'Might as well get the day over with' - but he slept poorly and woke often from the same recurring dream: It was five minutes past curfew and he was trapped outside, in the world, on the wrong side of the fence. "I've got to get back,' he'd wake up shouting.

'You're home now,' our mother would remind him. 'It's all right. You can stay.”

That "You can stay" breaks my heart. It communicates so much that has been surpressed in the book and in history itself. The heartbreak of disassociation, the despair of rejection, the pointless brokenness resulting from racism and fear. And it's a message that can't help but resonate now in the age of Trump, with Muslim bans, mosque bombings, "the wall", and the desire to Make America Great Again--when the question that really needs to be asked is, "Was there ever a time when America was really great?" The least of these would probably answer "no." But maybe instead of repeating history, there is a faint hope that we can learn.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Beetle Leg by John Hawkes

It was a sarcophagus of mud.  It filled the gap between the lesser hills and prevented, by raising spit and shoals to sight, the flag flying traffic of river boats where a few had glittered in the night and crawled before.  The dam caused to be beached the homemade leaking skiffs of ranchers whose land backed up to the mud colored misty fathoms trailing seaward.  Where once bleak needles and spines had popped crookedly from the banks and a few flowers increasingly withered into the plain and disappeared, only the dust from the southward slope, swirling into the air, and a few animal bones and tin cans from a still deeper generation, survived.  One small city of the plain lasted to welcome the tourist trade and issue reports on the depth of the almost foreign, dark pan of water.

The beetle leg of The Beetle Leg is the infinitesimal tilt of the dam outside the western town of Government City: "Visitors hung their mouths and would not believe, and yet the hill eased down the rotting shale a beetle's leg each several anniversaries."  The dam has come to define the lives of the people living in the area.  Its mutability is a threat, a reminder that the settlements they have built are impermanent on a less than cosmic scale; eventually the dam will fall and the towns will be destroyed.  It's already claimed one life: that of Mulge Lampson, who is obsessively remembered by not only his brother Luke, who spends his days spreading flower-seeds upon the hill that swallowed up is brother in the Great Slide, and Mulge's widow Ma, but everyone in town.

McCarthy fans will recognize in The Beetle Leg an appealing combination of the Western and the grotesque.  One character is a thirty-year old man beset by so many deformities that he looks three times his age.  His grotesqueness, we understand, is because he was cut out of the belly of his deceased mother, and he is "drawn to the expressionless genitals of animal."  Okay.  Another character, Cap Leech, is a quack medicine man who travels around in a baroque red wagon that serves as office and home.  There is a menacing group of bikers called the Red Devils around town, gunning their motorcycles and generally up to no good.  Like a good Western, The Beetle Leg culminates with the Sheriff rounding up a posse to take out the Red Devils, though it's never clear whether the Red Devils deserve to be taken out, or whether the posse is a manifestation of senseless animal violence spurred by the existential vacuity of life beneath the dam.

But I found a more meaningful similarity between Hawkes and Djuna Barnes, whose Nightwood, like The Beetle Leg, often left me with the singular response, What the fuck did I just read?  The language, while spare and sere in the familiar McCarthy style, is deliberately obscure, eliding obvious referents, throwing up clauses like boulders fallen on desert roads, and focusing on the evocative at the expense of the realistic.  But Barnes' tricky, slippery novel has at its heart a real human yearning.  Hawkes, who famously said that the "enemies of the novel" were "plot, character, setting, and theme" refuses to provide any recognizable human motivations to anyone.  The realest emotions belong to the women: Mulge's mother Hattie, who is buried at her request upside down in the hill so that she can look down at her son lost in the earth, and Ma, who wanders the hill trying to find her lost husband's burying place: "Miles from the Lampson place, seated quietly in the middle of acres which only Luke dared tread upon in daylight, Ma moaned and nodded as if she had lost him only the day before."

Too often I found myself unsure of the very basic facts of what I was reading.  Is a scene late in the book when Luke, fishing, hooks a dead infant, meant to be taken literally?  I'm not even sure why he's fishing in the first place, or how he got to the lake from where he just was.  I guess this is what is meant by "experimental fiction."  I don't mean to be snide.  I think if you read The Beetle Leg ten times, you might come to a fine appreciation of its sheer weirdness, its slippery prose, its bleak vision of a Western frontier bleached of the mythological grandeur of the human spirit we often apply to it.  But the first reading left me frustrated more than fascinated.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

All her knowledge is gone now. Everything she ever learned, or heard, or saw. Her particular way of looking at Hamlet or daisies or thinking about love, all her private intricate thoughts, her inconsequential secret musings – they’re gone too. I heard this expression once: Each time someone dies, a library burns. I’m watching it burn right to the ground.
I loved Nelson's I'll Give You the Sun, so I added this to my stockpile of nursing reads before giving birth. Nelson seems drawn to tragedy; this novel centers around the sudden death of Lennie's sister, Bailey, and charts Lennie's progression through both her grief and her first brush with romance. In true YA fashion, her two love interests are the New Kid in Town (a French musician with an infectious smile), and her dead sister's boyfriend (tall, dark, brooding...).

Nelson does (slightly melodramatic) teen-in-crisis internality well. Lennie's deluge of emotions are believably laid out, and even her most outrageous behaviors--almost sleeping with her sister's boyfriend!-- have an internal logic that makes them understandable. She also has a supporting cast of delightfully odd family members who make the book a little more interesting than your standard YA drama, including an uncle focused on reviving dead bugs and plants with scale replicas of Mayan ruins while embarking on marriage number six and a grandma who paints only green women and whose roses are famous for making people fall in love.

Along with an engaging inner monologue, Nelson also gives us a series of poems, scattered throughout the novel, that Lennie has written on scraps of paper and backs of napkins and abandoned.  These are mostly snippets of memories of her sister--conversations they had as they fell asleep, ruminations on grief. Some of them are unimpressive teenage drivel, but some of them make up the best writing in the book. As a device for building up the sister as a character and for showcasing their relationship, it could have fallen flat, but it works.

Overall, this was a great YA venture. It was a little white and a little heteronormative (a disappointment after Nelson's last novel), but it was emotionally engaging and well done. I'll be adding it to my classroom library in the fall!

Monday, March 12, 2018

Flying Home by Ralph Ellison

I wanted to be sure and review Ralph Ellison's Flying Home. Unfortunately, I can't find my copy of the book, and there's not much in the way of excerpts online. Which is a real shame because Ellison is an author that can hardly be summed up via review. Certainly there's plenty thematically in Invisible Man and this collection to unpack, plenty of modernist allusions to decipher, and plenty of stylistic tricks to dissect. But ultimately, Ellison is a visceral author, an ostensible modernist who mocks the often mock-chaos of modernist prose with some of the most fiery verbiage I've ever experienced.

That experience, in Flying Home, kicks in right away, with 'A Party Down at the Square'. Said party is a lynching, observed by a young white kid--the only white protagonist in the book--and the story is absolutely harrowing. Some authors paint pictures for the reader to observe--Ellison in high drama mode is Jackson Pollack, throwing paint wildly and in control, and daring the reader to look away. As things escalate, a woman is electrocuted, immolated really, a plane crashes, a riot nearly breaks out, and yet Ellison manages to keep the lynching, an event so sadly common in American history that it can almost seem mundane, as the real horror. And this isn't as simple as a man hanging from a tree either. Ellison literally burns it down as a miscarriage of justice descends into an infernal orgy of violence and fear.

But most of the collection finds Ellison in a more pastoral mode. There is a several story cycle in the middle following the same characters, friends Buster and Riley, which form a loose Bildungsroman spanning their grade school years discussing the omission of black war heroes from their cirriculums until Riley's first sexual encounter, with the "town witch". Presented in chronological order, Ellison's voice grows more assured, reaching it's apex in the witch story and one where a young Riley decides to tie parachutes to chickens, a vignette that swings from humor to tragedy quickly and innocently.

The rest of the collection is worthwhile, but apart from 'Party', the only story here that really captures the controlled burn of Invisible Man is 'King of the Bingo Game', a frenzied fever dream that follows a poor black man as he plays bingo to win money to survive. But the prose is mad, jumping back and forth in time, swooping woozily through the head of a desperate man whose susperstition has fixated on a bingo wheel in front of an unsympathetic crowd. When the police show up, there's only one possible ending. But like the "boxing" scene in Invisible Man, Ellison ratchets up the tension, madness, and sympathy in equal measure so the anticlimax hits like a chick hitting a barn floor from 20 feet.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson

Beauty is grandly present in the architecture of the cosmos, minutely present in the structure of the atom, and yet we humans can seem capable of utter indifference to it.  But I have begun to feel that our ability to do wrong is the basis of our moral nature, that our bias toward error gives meaning and urgency to our seeking after truth, that our blindnesses make the beautiful, pervasive as it is, always an object of discovery, a thing to be yearned for.  Just as the norms of our experience of existence are radically untypical of the universe of Being we can reasonably infer, with its entanglements and indeterminacies, its dark matter and antigravity, so we are singular among creatures precisely in our capacity to refine and elaborate our understanding in the awareness of its shortfall.  It is this in us that has made tiny blue earth a singular, seraphic presence in the great cosmos, watching and pondering, rapt with wonder.  We can feel deficiency in what we know or do, we can hear inadequacy in our most painfully considered phrases.  And gracious and chimerical beauty will bless us with the certainty that there is more to be hoped for, more to be tried.  The theologian can say all this implies divine intention and also continuous, loving engagement.  Because God created the universe, humankind is at the center of it all.

I was listening to a quartet of students in my Creative Writing class the other day complain about their English classes.  What's the point of it, they wanted to know.  They felt simultaneously that the things they were asked to do, like literary analysis, were too demanding and not rigorous enough, that they were asked to see what was not there while ignoring the skills that might actually be useful.  I didn't say anything.  For one, I was flattered that they felt comfortable enough to have that conversation when I was sitting right next to them.  For another, I feel, perhaps ironically, that those kind of conversations are exactly the ones that a good English or Humanities curriculum ought to make possible.  I didn't feel that I could articulate that to them in that moment in a way that wouldn't overwhelm the conversation they were having.  I also did not feel that I could pull out Marilynne Robinson's new collection of lectures, What Are We Doing Here? and find the passage I really wanted to share with them.  But I've found it, and I share it with you:

The contemporary assault on the humanities has something of the same objective and would employ similar methods.  Workers, a category that seems to subsume us all except the idlest rich, should learn what they need to learn to be competitive in the new economy.  All the rest is waste and distraction.

Competitive with whom?  On what terms?  To what end?  With anyone whose vigor and good fortune allows them to prosper, apparently.  And will these competitors of ours be left to enjoy the miserable advantage of low wages and compromised health?  And is there any particular reason to debase human life in order to produce more, faster, without reference to the worth of the product or to the value of the things sacrificed to its manufacture?  Wouldn't most people, given an hour or two to reflect, consider this an intolerably trivial use to be put to, for them and their children?  Life is brief and fragile, after all.  Then what is this new economy whose demands we must always be ready to fill?  We may assume it will be driven by innovation and by what are called market forces, which can be fads or speculation or chicanery.  Oh yes, rowdy old capitalism.  Let it ply its music.  Then again, in the all-consuming form proposed for it now, it is a little like those wars I mentioned earlier.  It is equally inimical to poetry, eloquence, memory, the beauty of wit, the fires of imagination, the depth of thought.  It is equally disinclined to reward gifts that cannot be turned to its uses.  The urgency of war or crisis has been brought to bear on our civil institutions, which is to say, on the reserves and resources of civility we have created over many generations.

The answer I would give my students is not an answer but a question: what are your Math and Science classes "good for?"  I don't meant to diminish those fields, and neither does Robinson, who makes repeated allusions to the twentieth century's great scientific discoveries.  But we never ask the question what those classes are good for because we think we know: they help us get jobs, to be competitive, whether on the personal or national scale, and to make money.  The intuitive leap from the money to the happiness goes unsaid, even as we say we believe that money can't buy happiness.  But Chemistry and Biology and Algebra won't tell you how to cope when you wake up in the middle of the night with your wife or husband beside you in a California King bed in your beautiful, well-apportioned home and wonder why you feel so deeply unsatisfied.  A painting or a book or a poem might help you, or it might help you understand why and how such a thing could come to pass, or it might merely give you a kind of satisfaction that has eluded you.  We find it difficult to think of art as an end rather than a means, even as we take it as evidence of a flourishing culture.

The "here" in Robinson's title is the university.  But it serves also for the cosmos.  The questions, why are we here at school, and why are we here in the universe, are not unrelated.  Robinson holds up the American university system, with its roots in the Puritan belief that education is for all people, as an institution created in accordance with the basic worth of the human being.  That's her big subject: the special position of the human being in the universe, a quality which she reveals as self-evident despite the many millennia we have spent trying to diminish or conceal that fact.  She offers up old-time religion as a mode of thinking that accommodates this special position, at odds with the positivism and determinism that have characterized 20th-century thinking.  She saves a special rage for the attitudes, like Freudianism, Darwinism, and neurobiology, which would eliminate ideas of the soul or the mind, and thus, she feels, the human being.  I'm not sure I agree with the particulars all the time (Freud gets dragged a little too much these days, I think) but the central argument seems to me to be one of the truest things I have ever read.

All this sounds familiar because it's the same general thrust of her last collection of essays, The Givenness of ThingsIf it's repetitive, I don't mind; most of it bears repeating.  What Are We Doing? is repetitive within itself.  As a series of lectures given at disparate moments, a pattern of key ideas begins to emerge.  It will be difficult to forget, after reading these, that no one was put to death under Oliver Cromwell for religious reasons, or that Einstein's remark that the universe is remarkable in the fact that we can comprehend it ought to suggest that we are equally remarkable.  Robinson hammers especially hard a point that she begins making in Givenness, that the Puritans are in need of a critical and cultural rehabilitation.  I spent too much time in graduate school writing about John Milton to disagree with that.

With Robinson, it's hard to complain about more of the same because the same comes from a place that strikes me as deeply wise.  What this collection adds to the previous might be a knife's-edge awareness of our particular historical moment.  Besides the full-throated defense of the American university, there's an encomium to President Obama, who famously interview Robinson a few years ago.  There's a single reference to Trump, at the end, and it's a dismissal of theories of Russian collision.  But there's no ignoring her critique of nativists, "these lovers of country, these patriots," who "are wildly unhappy with the country they claim to love and are bent on remaking it to suit their own preferences, which they feel no need to justify or even fully articulate."  And the final lecture, called "Slander," Robinson tells the story of how her mother's obsession with Fox News caused them to be alienated from one another.  "She went to her rest before she would have had to deal with the ignominy of my conversation with the president," Robinson writes.  What a deeply sad sentence to have to write.  But it underscores the ways in which a return to the humanist ideals of our early modern forebears might present an antidote to our parochialism, our fear, our ennui, and our profound feelings of diminution.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Heartburn by Nora Ephron

“Sometimes I believe that love dies but hope springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that hope dies but love springs eternal. Sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals love, and sometimes I believe that sex plus guilt equals good sex. Sometimes I believe that love is as natural as the tides, and sometimes I believe that love is an act of will. Sometimes I believe that some people are better at love than others, and sometimes I believe that everyone is faking it. Sometimes I believe that love is essential, and sometimes I believe that only reason love is essential is that otherwise you spend all your time looking for it.”

I suspect that everyone reading this blog likes at least one of the big three Nora Ephron movies: When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and You've Got Mail. I like all three. They don't comprise her entire ouvre, but they do demonstrate her best qualities in the best way. In a way, watching only Ephron movies can give you a mistaken impression about the Romantic Comedy genre as a whole--at her best, Ephron captures real people saying impossibly witty things in ways that seem believable. There's real intelligence and humanity in her work that 2nd tier RCs like Sweet Home Alabama just don't possess.

I had no idea Ephron also wrote a novel, and if I had, I'm not sure I would have been interested in reading it. As much as I like the aforementioned movies, it's very easy to attribute their success to their charismatic leads and give the script the short shrift. But the weird cover drew me in when I passed by at the library and I'm glad it did. Heartburn is one of the most fun books I've read in years, and, like she does with her movies, Ephron manages to squeeze pathos out of a screwball comedy about her divorce.

I say "her divorce": it seems well known that Heartburn is Ephron's fictionalized version of her own divorce from Carl Bernstein, of Woodward and Bernstein, but she's mostly uninterested in the politics aside from some DC-centric one-liners. Indeed, a reucrring theme is her desire to be back in New York, where Ephron spent most of her life. And she does indeed have a New York voice, and a heavily-Jewish one at that. In fact, more than anything else, I was often reminded of a more madcap, funnier (yep) Philip Roth. When I read the blurb for Portnoy's Complaint, this is the sort of thing I was expecting.

The story opens with an 8-months pregnant Rachel Samstat learning that her husband, Mark, has been having an affair with a mutual friend since she got pregnant. Upon confronting him, expecting an apology, she's taken aback when he tells her he's in love, he's going to continue seeing her, and that she needs to accept it. And there she is, about to be single at 30-something, 8 months pregnant with a 3 year old.

Now, this all sounds like rather dour stuff, and at times, Ephrom takes a break from all the wisecracking to let us get a peek at the sadness that underlies even the silliest bits in this story. And there is a lot of (very witty) silliness mixed in:

That's the catch about betrayal, of course: that it feels good, that there's something immensely pleasurable about moving from a complicated relationship which involves minor atrocities on both sides to a nice, neat, simple one where one person has done something so horrible and unforgivable that the other person is immediately absolved of all the low-grade sins of sloth, envy, gluttony, avarice and I forget the other three.

There is a bit of a twist at the midpoint, wherein Mark seems interested in reconciliation, but it doesn't seem like much of a spoiler to say that they don't end the book together--their last interaction is a pie thrown at a dinner party. More surprisingly, perhaps, given Ephron's filmography, is that Rachel ends the book definitively alone. Her aloneness is hopeful--she's in good spirits, cracking wise in the last pages--but it does underscore how even a comedic book about separation is really no picnic underneath, and that in the end, there are always pieces remaining to pick up.

And then the dreams break into a million tiny pieces. The dream dies. Which leaves you with a choice: you can settle for reality, or you can go off, like a fool, and dream another dream.

It occurs to me now that most of the passages I marked were serious, sad observations, but I laughed out loud repeatedly while reading. I'll leave you with this, gentle reader:

There was a time when I thought galloping neuroses were wildly romantic, when I longed to be the sort of girl who knew the names of wildflowers and fed baby birds with eyedroppers and rescued bugs from swimming pools and wanted from time to time to end it all. Now, in my golden years, I have become very impatient with [this] in others. Show me a woman who cries when the trees lose their leaves in autumn and I'll show you a real asshole.


Thursday, March 8, 2018

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

This is what Pop does when we are alone, sitting up late at night in the living room or out in the yard or woods. He tells me stories. Stories about eating cattails after his daddy been out gathering them from the marsh. Stories about his his mama and her people used to collect Spanish moss to stuff their mattresses. Sometimes he'd tell me the same story three, even four times. Hearing him tell them makes me feel like his voice is a hand he's reached out to me, like he's rubbing my back and I can duck whatever makes me feel like I'll never be able to stand as tall as Pop, never be as sure. 
Sing, Unburied, Sing was a real gut-punch of a novel; I'm not sure what I expected, having read Salvage the Bones (which also won the National Book Award), and, last year, Men We Reaped --both of which are gorgeously written and heart wrenchingly sad. In this, her most recent National Book Award winning effort, Ward gives us another Southern epic which revolves around Jojo, a 13 year old being raised by his grandparents. His white father, Michael, is in prison, presumably on meth-related charges, and his black mother, Leonie, drifts in and out of his life. The novel chronicles the days after his 13th birthday as he, his mother, and his baby sister, Kayla, drive to prison to pick up his father.

There is a cacophony of narrative voices here. Jojo is at the center, but we also hear from Leonie, Pop (through a fragmented haunting story from his own young adulthood broken up and presented throughout), and Richie, a ghost from from Pop's past. It's an almost Faulknerian cast of narrative figures, and it layers nuance on artfully. Leonie, who initially seems an incredibly unsympathetic character and awful mother, manages to emerge as a complicated, broken person whose poor choices are more a result of her circumstances than her character.

While Leonie and Michael's relationship with their children is violently heartbreaking and difficult to read, there are pockets of redemption throughout. Jojo's love and devotion for his younger sister is beautiful, and Pop's gruff care for his grandson makes you think the boy may emerge from this whole disaster at some point.

This was a rough read, especially as a newly minted mother. There is endless heartbreak here, for almost every character, but Leonie's neglect and lack of care for her children was especially hard to wade through. Ward is a powerful writer, and this novel is written to her standard of excellence, but I don't know that this was the right time for me to read it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

And then it was that my brother Rwzfs, an infant at the time; at a certain point I felt him--who knows?--slamming or digging or writhing in some way, and I asked: 'What are you doing?'  And he said: 'I'm playing.'

'Playing?  With what?'

'With a thing,' he said.

You understand?  It was the first time.  There had never been things to play with before.  And how could we have played?  With that pap of gaseous matter?  Some fun: that sort of stuff was all right perhaps for my sister G'd(w)n.  If Rwzfs was playing, it meant he had found something new; in fact, afterwards, exaggerating as usual, they said he had found a pebble.  It wasn't a pebble, but it was surely a collection of more solid matter or--let's say--something less gaseous.  He was never very clear on this point; that is, he told stories, as they occurred to him, and when the period came when nickel was formed and nobody talked of anything but nickel, he said: "That's it: it was nickel.  I was playing with some nickel!"

Each of Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics begins with an assertion about the earth or the universe before the advent of human beings: once, the moon was much closer to the earth, or, the more distant a galaxy is from us, the farther away it moves.  Then the voice of the narrator, an immortal named Qwfwq, chimes in to tell us exactly what it was like in those days.  Sure, he says, the moon was much closer; we used to row our boats out to it and jump on to harvest moon milk.  The stories are both fanciful and charming, melding speculative science with a casual and playful voice.  Qwfwq has been a single-celled organism, a mollusk, a dinosaur, a camel.  Qwfwq's immortality is not explained; the cosmicomics aren't those kinds of stories.  In mode they hew closer to the tall tales of the American frontier than hard science fiction, like the unbelievable tales of Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill.

The subtle brilliance of the Cosmicomics, collected here in total, is that they encourage us to enlarge our view of the universe in its entirety, temporally as well as spatially.  It's all well and good to be told that everything that exists used to be crammed into a single infinitesimal point, but it's quite another to imagine what that was actually like, when everyone's all ass-to-elbows on top of each other like a crowed tenement building.  Of course, it wasn't like that at all; there is no way to describe what it would be like to be alive before the Big Bang because the circumstances would permit neither human existence nor sensory experience, but that's not the point.  The point is that the very thought that you could imagine it is breathtakingly bold.

But the Cosmicomics rely also on a canny set of observations about contemporary human nature.  One of the best stories, "The Aquatic Uncle," provides a sketch of a fish who refuses to adapt once everyone else in his family has grown legs and started living on the land:

This business about warts was a widespread prejudice among the old fish: a notion that, from living on dry land, we would develop warts all over our bodies, exuding liquid matter: this was true enough for the toads, but we had nothing in common with them; on the contrary, our skin, smooth and slippery, was such as no fish had ever had; and our great-uncle knew this perfectly well, but he still couldn't stop larding his talk with all the slanders and intolerance he had grown up in the midst of.

Qwfwq's great-uncle is an image of every uncle whose prejudices are indulged at the Thanksgiving table; no one wants to upset him too much by insisting that his worldview is antiquated.  But it also extends a great sympathy toward the uncle, whose world has changed very rapidly, and presents an understanding of how and why particular atavisms can be so beguiling (Qwfwq's land-raised fiancee ends up running off with his aquatic uncle).  In "All at One Point," the universe begins to expand because a single beloved woman laments that she does not have enough space to "make tagliatelle for all you boys," and the very conception of such generosity pushes the limits of the known universe.  These are finely drawn portraits of human nature, even as they find their setting in places and times that no human ever was.

The Cosmicomics were a life's work for Calvino, and they are perhaps not best read all in a row--they too can get to feeling like a universe's worth of knowledge pressed into a single point.  Later logic experiments with probability and time get very tedious, borrowing from Borges with less purpose and clarity.  But when Qwfwq's voice is strongest--casual, insightful, funny, but a little smug--the stories are really inspired.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Granny looked sad.  "I've never been able to see anything wrong with your being--"

"Don't say it," I said, "don't say that word."

"Nobody else who is one feels this way about it," gran said in the aggrieved voice she always uses for this particular conversation, the conversation about our condition, so to call it.  I'm sorry to grieve her or deny her the pleasure, but I have to make things clear, because no one of my grandmother's temperament and sensibilities can understand what it's like to be bound to a way of life like ours--a situation we inwardly glory in, but one we have to protect at every turn from the menacing mass of cliches that are thrust on us from the outside.  To be like us isn't easy, it requires a constant attention to detail.  I've thought it out; we've thought it out together.  I've tried to explain to my doctor that it's a question of working ceaselessly at being as different as possible because there must be a gap before it can be bridge.  And the bridge is the real project.

The first time we see Cassandra Edwards in Dorothy Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding, she's alone in her apartment in Berkeley, looking out over the Golden Gate Bridge.  "The sun was on it," she tells us, "and it took on something of the appeal of a bright exit sign in an auditorium that is crowded and airless and where you are listening to a lecture, as I so often do, that is in no way brilliant."  It's her alone-ness that brings on these thoughts of casual suicide; we come to find out that several months ago her identical twin sister Judith absconded to New York, leaving her with two halves of a shared piano, and coming back with a fiance.

Cassandra drives out to her family's ranch outside of Bakersfield for the wedding, which she is determined, though perhaps in a way that remains buried in her subconscious for much of the novel's first half, not to let it happen.  But the book isn't a farce; Cassandra doesn't go around plotting like she's in a sitcom.  Rather, she's convinced that her connection with her sister--the kind of fabled tie that identical twins have, and which is so perfectly rendered in this novel--will allow her to convince Judith that it's all a mistake, and the two of them are really meant to go on living together as a unit, as they've always done.

The complexity of Cassandra and Judith's relationship provides Cassandra at the Wedding with most of its tremendous energy and believeability.  Cassandra bristles at the "menacing cliches" that come along with being an identical twin, and both sisters have long resisted their bougie grandmother's encouragement that they dress alike.  It turns out that Cassandra has purchased the exact same dress for the ceremony that her sister has, a symbolic development that sends her into a psychic tailspin.  Yes, the sisters have a preternatural bond, but the bond is predicated on their difference; if they are truly identical, then one is superfluous.  And yet the other extreme--her sister's unexpected flight from her to New York and to marriage--seems equally threatening to the preservation of Cassandra's ego.  It helps that Baker's dialogue is so full of life and well-rendered.  The sisters don't speak a private language, as the common trope about identical twins goes, but they do have a shared voice.

Ultimately, what the opening foreshadows comes true: Cassandra tries to take her own life with a bottle of pills.  (I don't think that's really a spoiler--it happens smack-dab in the middle of the book.)  Baker captures Cassandra's inner voice so well; I don't think I've read an account of suicide that seems as believable as this one.  There's no high melodrama; instead, Baker depicts the suicide as an inevitability, a decision that was made before Cassandra realizes herself that she has made it.  For a moment the first-person voice jumps over to Judith--a wry suggestion, perhaps, that when one identical twin is incapacitated, the other will have to do--but I wanted to highlight this bravura passage from Cassandra's perspective.  She's recovering from the attempt, and imagining, in a still-drugged state, a wedding of her own: 

It was quick, I think--a treat deal of it but soon finished, and then, though it's not simple, or even sensible, to try to reconstruct nothingness, I believe I almost achieved it for a while--a great stretch of purest black velvet, smooth, soundless, the very piece of black velvet I'd been looking for for so long.  I can remember feeling it drop, weightless, over me, swathing and swaddling me and then becoming one with me so that there was no way to tell which was velvet and which was Cassandra.  But I never made it all the way to nowhere; there was a dogged spark of consciousness, very small, very feeble, but dogged, and it could just as well be called conscience, damn it, as consciousness, because I knew in some beating depth that I was engaged in illicit communion with the one great howling beauty of them all, and that there would have to be what there always has to be in this kind of affair--repercussions.  There would be jealousy, accusations, recriminations, the full deck of threats and noises.  I couldn't stay all night, I'd have to leave by an inconspicuous exit and try not to kick anything over on the way out, and remember to pick up my things--my bag, my lipstick, all marks of identification, including the ostentatious monogrammed items my friends are forever giving me.  Collect them and leave without lingering, because nobody will bless this union, not even granny, who will bless practically anything if you set it up right.  No chance for me and the one of my choice, my calm sweet quiet black-velvet love--no receiving line, no friends to wish us all the happiness and success in the world in our new life, which of course is the wrong world, but how would they know enough to believe I could prefer the opposite number?  How could they, when the best thing they can think of is life?  And wish you all success and happiness in it, unless they happened to be tipped off that you want to marry a bolt of black velvet and you like it that way.  Then they don't wish you anything; they shake their heads, they pity you, they say you jumped the gun.  Cassandra Edwards too her own life, because the headlong fool could not quiet down and wait for a natural cause.

That's one of those passages that really is too long to include in a review, but is so good that I just can't stop myself.  I don't know where to cut it off.  I love the black humor of Cassandra imagining that she's marrying a "bolt of black velvet," this representation of death itself.  I love the "dogged spark of consciousness."  Most of all I love the strength of Cassandra's voice, so similar to Judith's but wilder, somehow, bigger.  Cassandra's presence is so big, so real, yet so strange, it's easy to sympathize with her--of course there's no one else out there that can make a companion to it but that of her sister, and if not that, than obliteration.  It's that voice that gives Cassandra at the Wedding its power.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

Jamaica had faded into the past.  England to which they had supposed they were going, and of which a very curious picture had formerly been built up in their minds by their parents' constant reference to it, receded again into the mists of myth.  They lived in the present, adapted themselves to it, and might have been born in a hammock and christened at a binnacle before the had been there many weeks.  They seemed to have no natural fear of heights, and the farther they were above the deck, the happier.

The Bas-Thornton children live in Jamaica with their parents, but when a terrible hurricane levels their estate, the parents decide that it's time the children were educated in England.  They send the kids off on what is to be a lengthy voyage by ship, but along the way, the ship is boarded by pirates.  The pirates take everything they can, including the kids.  They're kind of a nuisance to have upon a pirate ship--always underfoot, inventing games, chasing the pig or the monkey, making common objects into dolls, getting in the rigging, murdering captured sailors out of abject fear--but in a matter of months the impressionable children have pretty much forgotten all about their former life.

A High Wind in Jamaica is, above all things, a study in the peculiarity of children.  The pirates are an odd bunch, but they hold no candle to the eccentricities of the Bas-Thornton kids, for whom the pirate ship adventure is all mixed up with imagination and ignorance.  Hughes does a good job capturing the mental processes of kids, especially with the oldest, Emily, who idly suspects that she might be God--a clever sort of expression of the way the experience of youth is suffused with an infinite possibility that is whittled down as you become a teenager.  But he refuses to enter the consciousnesses of the younger kids, insisting that it is almost impossible:

Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it.  Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child at least in a partial degree--and even if one's success is infinitesimal it invalidates the case: while one can more think like a baby, in the smallest respect, than one can think like a bee.

Hughes walks an interesting tightrope here, capturing the life of children as well as he does while still operating at a remove from them that suggests he doesn't really know what's going on in their minds at all.

He shows us how mutable they can be, for one.  Life on a pirate ship, for a child, is no more nightmarish or weird than the productions of their own brains.  See how Emily treasures the memory of the earthquake she experienced in Jamaica as a real happening, but seems to have no recognition that being captured by pirates is something out of the ordinary.  (In fact, most of the children seem unaware that they've been captured at all, assuming that the transfer from one ship to another is just a part of the voyage they keep forgetting.)  There are more chilling--and spoilery--examples.  One of the children dies by falling from a parapet in Cuba, trying to see a fight between circus animals, and is quickly forgot by all of his siblings.  (Hughes does a good job making us forget him, too, until the end when the children are reunited with their parents, and their mother asks, "Wait, where's John?")  Somehow worse than that is the coda, when Emily, who grows close to the captain Jonsen over the voyage, in the unexamined way that children do, takes the stand in England and fails to exonerate the captain for a murder he did not commit, never realizing that she sends him to the gallows.

A High Wind in Jamaica is weird, funny, and dark, a kind of poisonous take on Peter Pan, which itself is actually quite dark.  Here it's the pirates who are the victims, locked out as they are from the impenetrable psyche of their own captives, who can't even understand that they are captive.  Unlike Peter Pan, in which growing up is frightening specter, it's childhood itself that is terrifying.