Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

The tongue is a rhyming fool. It wants to rhyme because that’s how it stores what it knows. It’s got a detailed checklist of muscle moves for every consonant and vowel and diphthong and fricative and flap and plosive. Pull, relax, twitch, curl, touch.... Rhyme taught us to talk.

I came into The Anthologist with a chip on my shoulder. The only other book I’ve read of Baker’s is The Fermata, which was awful. I’ve been reading reviews of his newest book, House of Holes, and it sounds equally stupid. But, on the other hand, I read about The Anthologist years ago, before I knew who Baker was, and was fascinated by its central conceit: that a man, hired to write an introduction for a poetry anthology, would be unable to write it without digressing over and over again. This was before I read Pale Fire, or heard of Tristam Shandy, but the idea still held appeal. Plus, it was short.

So I am happy and somewhat surprised to say that I really enjoyed this book, even though my mental comparison to Pale Fire was way off. Where the latter is a chess puzzle, The Anthologist is a diary (unsurprising) and a light, enjoyable primer on poetry (unexpected). There is a story here, about the titular anthologist and part-time poet, Paul, pining for his long-time girlfriend, Roz, who left him over his inability to finish the introduction, but while it’s the primary narrative spring, the gears that turn around it are more interesting. What’s effective though, is how the relationship narrative actually lends weight to the technical talk surrounding it. It feels surprisingly organic, and even though the writing isn’t amazing, it is sometimes funny and never embarrassing.

This might seem like damning with faint praise, but I don’t see it that way. The Anthologist feels like a beach read for the serious reader, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but I still don’t think I’m going to be picking up House of Holes.

Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark

She had married him for his looks which were admittedly star quality; but marriage was not a film; Cora was not a director; she had cast him in the role of a husband and he was hopeless at it. In screenplays the husband has a script to go by. Johnny had next to none.

The only other Spark book I’ve read, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, did not in any way prepare me for this slim volume. Strangely, it reminded me much more of late-era Don DeLillo: it is similarly dispassionate, features a lot of stylized dialog, and even the plotline reminded me a lot of DeLillo’s Point Omega. It is, however, much colder and crueler than that; no one does distant like Muriel Spark.

The story follows Tom Richards, a film auteur whose entire live revolves around his film career. Not only does he spend most of his time either on the film set or working on his scripts, he sees the world as a giant set itself. He wonders, more than once, if the world is just a dream God is having, and it isn’t hard to see why the question fascinates him—in his mind, the world is a dream in his head. The story begins after Tom has a fall from a crane while shooting a difficult shot, which brings his family together. The family consists of Claire, his sort-of, open-relationship wife, Cora, his child from an earlier marriage, about whom Tom nurses some disturbingly romantic feelings, and Marigold, Tom and Claire’s daughter, who no one else in the family really understands or likes.

Redundancy is a recurring theme in the book, both the American and British sense. American, in the sense that all the characters feel redundant to one another—Tom’s stream of young actresses are ultimately made redundant by Claire; Marigold is born redundant, since Cora already exists—and British in the sense that everyone seems to be losing their jobs, to such an extent that Marigold decides to make a documentary about redundancy. At some point in the novel, Marigold disappears, and, since this seems to be one of the few Spark books that has a mystery at its center, I won’t spoil what eventually happens. I will say that this is where the book most closely reminded me of Point Omega—in both novels, a strange girl disappears and no one seems especially miffed. Here, though, the reasons no one really cares are spelled out, and boy, are they cold. It’s hard not to see some parallels with Spark’s own life—as covered here—and her estrangement from her own child.

Everything ultimately explodes in violence, according to the blurb on the back, although “explode” is probably a bit strong. Instead, things fall into a not-so-nice cyclical arc. Things get a little muddled thematically, but Reality and Dreams is a funny, nasty, thoughtful piece of work.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Far Away Home by Susan Denning

She had no strength to stay awake and bid the disappointing year goodbye.

I picked it up on a lark (cheap on kindle, good reviews), and while it started strong by the end it was only disappointing. Far Away Home tells the story of Aislynn, a teenager from New York in the late 1860s who moves west to fully realize her independence after her father dies. According to blurbs on Amazon, Denning put in a lot of effort to make sure her book was historically accurate, which allowed her to paint vivid portrayals of the characters and settings that I appreciated. The first quarter or so of the book was especially good. Denning brings the characters to life through several moving scenes, at least at first. But then, about when Aislynn heads west, the book starts to unravel. Gone is the depth of all the characters except our protagonist, and she becomes uneven. Whereas I was moved by Aislynn's neighbor/love interest's recollection of Aislynn's mother's death (when Aislynn's mother doesn't even actually appear in the book), when one of the main characters dies towards the end I could only muster up a hearty, "Eh." I find a good rule of thumb when evaluating books is that if you start rooting for the protagonist to die in the end because they are annoying, the book has become boring, or both, then it's not a great book. Also, Denning drops the ball on the conclusion; Where she was probably going for meaningful and hopeful, she ended up with my-editor-needs-a-final-draft-by-wednesday-shit-how-am-I-going-to-finish-this-oh-well-here-goes-nothing...

Also, Denning doesn't do a good job of making the conflict matter. For example, at one point a couple that Aislynn befriends on the trip out West tips over in their covered wagon and drowns as Aislynn looks on. And at this point if I wrote one more sentence I'd have equaled the amount of time that Denning spends on this presumably traumatizing event.

I could go on, but hopefully no one else will read this book, so I'll leave it at that.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Pincher Martin by William Golding

He was struggling in every direction, he was the centre of the writhing and kicking knot of his own body. There was no up or down, no light and no air. He felt his mouth open of itself and the shrieked word burst out.


William Golding loves shipwrecks. His most famous book, Lord of the Flies, is a sort of social parable about a group of children stranded on a deserted island. Pincher Martin is what you might call an anti-social parable, about one man stranded on a desert rock in the middle of the Atlantic, fighting for survival and against sickness, madness, and dissolution.

The beginning of the book is, for me at least, almost inscrutable, a chronicle of sheer impressionistic and sensory experience that is frequently difficult to follow:

The pattern was white and black but mostly white. It existed in two layers, one behind the other, one for each eye. He thought nothing, did nothing while the pattern changed a trifle and made little noises. The hardnesses under his cheek began to insist. They passed through pressure to a burning without heat, to a localized pain. They became vicious in their insistence like the nag of an aching tooth. They began to pull him back into himself and organize him again as a single being.

Once "organize[d]... again as a single being," the story becomes more lucid: Christopher Martin, a navy officer and professional actor, has been stranded on a rock because his ship was struck by a German u-boat. In the feverish sensory assault of the wreck and its aftereffects, Christopher nearly loses himself, his personality subsumed by pure feeling. Throughout his ordeal of survival, he fears a return to this state of fragmentation, which he imagines as a kind of madness brought about by isolation. He imposes civilization on his rock, naming its various features, and tries to employ his mental faculties to prop up his own sanity:

He spoke out loud, using the voice hoarsely and with a kind of astonishment.

"Christopher Hadley Martin. Martin. Chris. I am what I always was!"

All at once it seemed to him that he came out of his curious isolation inside the globe of his head and was extended normally through his limbs. He lived again on the surface of his eyes, he was out in the air...

He looked at the quiet sea.

"I don't claim to be a hero. But I've got health and education and intelligence. I'll beat you."

Through flashbacks--which Golding suggests are the symptoms of the coming madness Christopher tries to resist--we learn that in his former life Christopher was something of an asshole. He tries to rape a girl, Mary, "the Mary who carried, poised on her two little feet, a treasure of demoniac and musky attractiveness that was all the more terrible because she was almost unconscious of it." When he learns that Mary has become engaged to his best friend, Nathaniel, he tries to murder him. He is, as an actor, fit to play Greed in the old morality plays:

"This painted bastard here takes anything he can lay his hands on. Not food, Chris, that's far too simple. He takes the best part, the best seat, the most money, the best notice, the best woman. He was born with his mouth and his flies open and both hands out to grab. He's a cosmic case of the bugger who gets his penny and someone else's bun."

Christopher's will to survive, then, is nothing but a greed for life, a manifestation of his own entitled feeling of primacy extended even over death, which threatens to dissolve the self. But in the manner of the Greek tragedian who unwittingly fashions his own demise, it is his self which threatens to devour him. In a really horrifying moment (which might have been more horrifying if I hadn't read about it already, so--spoiler alert) Chris realizes that the rock he's been set on is a perfect copy of one of his own teeth:

His tongue was remembering. It pried into the gap between the teeth and re-created the old, aching shape. It touched the rough edge of the cliff, traced the slope down, trench after aching trench, down towards the smooth surface... just above the fum--understood what was so hauntingly familiar and painful about an isolated and decaying rock in the middle of the sea.

This is the realization that launches him into full madness, or perhaps the realization that he is mad already. His greed for existence cannot stop the "black lightning" that ends the novel by tearing the universe apart, and finally dissolving him in death. Like the beginning of the book, this end part is something of a slog, phantasmagorical and anti-sensory, but unlike the beginning it seems like an earned slog, and it is terrifying even when inscrutable.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Doctor Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party by Graham Greene

I think I used to detest Doctor Fischer more than any other man I have known just as I loved his daughter more than any other woman. What a strange thing that she and I ever came to meet, leave alone to marry.

Both James Wood and Gabriel Josipovici have invoked Graham Greene as a sort of bogeyman of realism, terrorizing the modern consciousness with his inert prose. Waugh accused him of lacking a "specifically literary style at all." It is true that Greene is no great experimentalist, but I have always thought these charges were trumped up, and inadequately appreciative of some of the more startling bits of The Power and the Glory or The Heart of the Matter, among others. But Greene put out a lot of work in his life, and I think it might be fair to say that much of it is inconsistent, and it may be accurate even to say that some of it is lazy.

Doctor Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party is a remarkably weak Greene novel, mostly because it relies, crutchlike, on a rather brilliant premise. The protagonist, Alf Jones, marries a wonderful woman many years his junior, and comes to find out that her father, Doctor Fischer, is a wealthy psychopath who likes to throw parties where he humiliates a set of cronies. These cronies--his daughter, Anna-Luise, calls them the Toads--put up with the Doctor's savagery because at the end of each party they receive a ridiculously extravagant present. Fischer channels all of his genius until these humiliations:

"Of course you don't know what Mr. Kips looks like."

"I do. I saw him when I tried to see your father the first time."

"Then you know he's bent almost double. Something wrong with his spine."

"Yes. I thought he looked like the number seven."

"He hired a well-known writer for children and a very good cartoonist and between them they produced a kind of strip-cartoon book called The Adventures of Mr. Kips in Search of a Dollar. He gave me an advance copy. I didn't know there was a real Mr. Kips and I found the book very funny and very cruel. Mr. Kips in the book was always bent double and always seeing coins people had dropped on the pavement... The book--I suppose most children are cruel--became a popular success. There were many reprints."

And yet, Mr. Kips comes faithfully to every one of Doctor Fischer's party, in the promise of receiving an eighteen-karat gold lighter or a piece of expensive jewelry. Doctor Fischer's wealth gives him great power, and Greene's narrator is always pausing to note that Fischer is, in his own way, like God. In what should be a really striking moment, Jones is waiting for his wife at a ski lodge when he discovers that she has been in an accident. The waiter at the lodge, not knowing what has happened, is angry at Jones for reserving and abandoning his table:

The waiter was more surly than ever. He told me, "You reserved this table for lunch. I have had to turn away customers.

"There's one customer you'll never see again," I told him back, and I threw a fifty-centime piece on the table which fell on the floor. Then I waited by the door to see if he would pick it up. He did and I felt ashamed. But if it had been in my power I would have revenged myself for what had happened on all the world--like Doctor Fischer, I thought, just like Doctor Fischer. I heard the scream of the ambulance and I returned to the ski lift.

Yes, there is a nice symmetry here when Jones--having just parted the side of his dying wife!--waits to see if the waiter will endure the humiliation that Jones, in his despair, wants to inflict. But must we have it explained to us so plainly? Do we need awkward little bon mots like these?:

"He didn't invite your to a party?"


"Thank God for that."

"Thank Doctor Fischer," I said, "or is it the same thing?"

Many of the book's flaws are redeemed by the last scene, in which Doctor Fischer throws one last party. Each guest gets to pick out a Christmas cracker, all of which save one contain a check for two million francs. The last contains a bomb. Fischer's cynicism tells him that his guests will endure the enormous personal risk for the money, and he is right, except in the case of Jones, who, ravaged by his wife's death, seeks out the cracker with the bomb in it.

This is rich stuff, but it is only a small part of a short book that seems wrought with too little care. The most interesting part about it may be the way that it ends, on a note that is uncharacteristic in that it is both rather upbeat and insistently agnostic:

Evil was as dead as a dog, and why should goodness have more immortality than evil? There was no longer any reason to follow Anna-Luise if it was only into nothingness. As long as I lived, I could at least remember her. I had two snapshots of her and a note in her hand written to make an appointment before we lived together; there was the chair which she used to sit in, and the kitchen where she had jangled the plates before we bought the machine. All those were like the relics of bone they keep in Roman Catholic churches. Once as I boiled myself an egg for my supper, I heard myself repeating a line which I had heard spoken by a priest at the midnight Mass at Saint Maurice: "As often as your do these things you shall do them in memory of me." Death was no longer an answer--it was an irrelevance.

Doctor Fischer was one of Greene's final novels. Are these words an insight into a man whose long attachment to his faith had waned, or lost power, for whom death and what comes after had become an irrelevance? And is it possible that the weakness of the novel is not unrelated?

Perhaps not. More likely it is Greene's long tendency to slip into pulpiness that, in his best works, is overcrowded by his talents. Greene himself made the distinction between his more literary works and "entertainments," though it is unclear which Doctor Fischer is meant to be. If you're looking for a masterpiece lurking in Greene's minor works, though, I'd suggest skipping Doctor Fischer and going for A Burnt-Out Case.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt

Toward the end of Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt relates a story about Shakespeare's dealings as a property owner. When a set of wealthy landowners threatened to enclose a large area of land, some Shakespeare's, essentially transforming common land into private property, he protested the move, as it would have staunched the income he received from the tenants. Having reached a protective agreement with the landowners, however, Shakespeare quite non-heroically dropped his protest--even though the enclosure still promised to evict and impoverish many farmers. "It is not a terrible story," Greenblatt writes, "but it is not uplifting either. It is merely and disagreeably ordinary."

Merely and disagreeable ordinary--this phrase perfectly encapsulates the problem of Greenblatt's method. That is, Shakespeare's life is not particularly thrilling. While Christopher Marlowe was being assassinated by fellow spies in faked bar fights, Shakespeare quietly spent his days turning himself into a shrewd businessman, writing two or three plays a year, and avoiding his wife and children. The details we have of his life, which are extremely few, are strikingly banal.

The result is that Greenblatt's book is composed primarily of conjecture. Shakespeare may have done or seen this, if he was in this place or did that thing, and isn't it possible that that experience is reflected, here, in Much Ado About Nothing?

Shakespeare's plays then combine, on the one hand, an overall diffidence in depicting marriages and, on the other hand, the image of a kind of nightmare in the two marriages [in Hamlet and Macbeth] they do depict with some care. It is difficult not to read his works in the context of his decision to live for most of a long marriage away from his wife. Perhaps, for whatever reason, Shakespeare feared to be taken in fully by his spouse or by anyone else; perhaps he could not let anyone so completely in; or perhaps he simply made a disastrous mistake, when he was eighteen, and had to live with the consequences as a husband and a writer... And perhaps, beyond these, he told himself, in imagining Hamlet and Macbeth, Othello and The Winter's Tale, that marital intimacy is dangerous, and the very dream is a threat.

This makes for a remarkably readable and interesting biography, but what are the chances that even the most careful reader of Shakespeare--the most aloof of all writers--can sketch the map of his interiority, as Greenblatt pretends that he can do? He reminds us over and over again that this is, at best, guesswork, but that doesn't make it any more trustworthy.

Some of the surmises here seem innocent enough--it seems probable that the mobs in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus show Shakespeare's familiarity with, and suspicion of, similar occurrences in London. Some of it seems dangerous, like the long story about the show trial of Elizabeth I's once-Jewish adviser Dr. Ruy Lopez, which suggests to Greenblatt a wariness about public anti-Semitism that informs The Merchant of Venice.

Will in the World can be compelling, and convincing, and as far as biographies of Shakespeare go, it's probably the best that we're going to get. But the method of cherry-picking passages from the plays and matching them to biographical possibilities makes me deeply uneasy, not least because it is the method that leads a whole host of otherwise reasonable people to believe that Shakespeare's plays were written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

It probably isn't Greenblatt's fault. It is ours, who crave to see the man "behind the plays," and who want Shakespeare to be as interesting as Marlowe or Greene or Kyd. Shakespeare's texts are so compelling, it seems inconceivable that he could be "merely and disagreeably ordinary," but that may be a fact we shall all have to accept.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Henry V by William Shakespeare

CHORUS: O, for a muse of fire that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment.

You will forgive me for skipping straight from Henry IV pt. 1 to Henry V without reading the second part of the trilogy; I am taking part, you see, in the NEH Summer Shakespeare Institute at Columbia University and this is one of the plays we have been asked to read. While I enjoyed it more than the other two (The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet) it has less immediacy than 4H1, and without this class I may not have appreciated it as much as I do now.

Henry V is, more than anything else Shakespeare wrote, a war-play. Henry, the once reckless Prince Hal, has ascended to the throne and wants to legitimize his power by invading France, having a (somewhat tangential) claim to that country's throne. The Dauphin, the heir to the French throne, thinks that this is a hilarious prospect and sends Henry a gift of tennis balls as a jest regarding his reputation. Henry's response would surprise the Dauphin for its savagery, if he could hear it:

And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gun-stones, and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them; for many a thousand widows
Shall this mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin's scorn.

Whether this causes you to like Henry more or less I will leave to your judgement, but it resounds with the king's personal history. Though he has cast off Falstaff and his Eastcheap companions, the king does love a good mock--later in the play he plays a somewhat more harmless trick on a pair of his men--but there is no joy or levity in this speech; Henry's jesting has become much more humorless and much more dangerous.

This is just one example of how problematic Henry's war-making is. The most famous lines from the speech are Henry's rousing speech before his unmatched soldiers prior to the Battle of Agincourt, on St. Crispin's Day:

The story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered--
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Shakespeare clearly bestowed Henry with all of his own verbal prowess, and Henry's ability to inspire gulls many of us into taking his claims to glory and honor seriously. They are, of course, quite serious, but they are not the only thing that exists in this play. Henry's words and actions are repeatedly parodized by a group of soldiers in his army that were once his friends at Eastcheap. So Henry's memorable call, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, / Or close the wall up with our English dead!" becomes Bardolph's ludicrous, "On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach!" While Henry refuses to make a deal with the French and rationalizes his decision to kill his prisoners of war, the Eastcheap soldiers steal remorselessly, shake down French soldiers, and engage in petty squabbles. Henry himself promises that the battle will "gentle [the] condition" of the commoners who fight with him, but when the list of the dead is read out, he forgets everyone but the titled corpses.

At the same time, we are constantly reminded that we are sheltered from this war. There are no actual scenes of battle--unless you count when Fluellen beats Pistol senseless with a leek--and the chorus reminds us repeatedly that we are watching only a play. The sense that, through theater, we can share in the glory of one of England's most admired monarchs is repeatedly undermined. We are so enamored of Henry and his golden tongue that we--like Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier--may miss the many signs that the war Henry fights is not the one he describes. Am I the only one that thinks the bravest, most honorable character in the play is the soldier Michael Williams, who refuses the king's money as recompense for the practical joke that Henry plays on him?

(Perhaps I am not--members of the Supreme Court and other judges found for the French during a 2010 mock trial.)

In the end, I must admit that my perception of war in the play is inextricable from my opinion of Hal's character and actions in the first part of Henry IV, and my general attitude about Shakespeare's political opinions. But there is much in the plays for Branaghs and the Oliviers of the world to point to, and ultimately that is a testament to Shakespeare's unequaled ability to negotiate multiple perspectives without giving any supremacy.