Wednesday, May 30, 2012

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

“You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you're with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion. ... The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that -- well, lucky you.”

A couple years ago, I went a Roth micro-binge and read The Counterlife and Everyman. I wasn’t extremely impressed, and, although I thought The Counterlife had some interesting ideas, I mostly wrote Roth off as an author who was clearly very talented, but maybe not for me. Fast forward a few years, and, married with a newborn daughter, I picked up American Pastoral to kill some time and  found myself completely sucked in.

The novel follows Seymour Levov, “The Swede”, a Jewish man who was once the godlike star of his high school. Handsome, athletic, friendly, the Swede was a hero to all he met, including Roth’s frequent stand-in, Zuckerman, who, at his request, agrees to write about the Swede’s father only days before the Swede dies of prostate cancer. At the meeting, Zuckerman is convinced that the Swede has led a charmed, unchallenging life, but finds that he is wrong when he learns (SPOILER) that Merry Levov, the Swede’s only child, bombed a post office as a teenager, and destroyed her family in the process.

I’m glad I waited until now to read American Pastoral, because it, like much of Roth’s later work, doesn’t really seem oriented toward the twenty-something crowd. It takes its time to get moving, spending the first third at a high school reunion after a short open paean to the Swede, and then following Zuckerman’s extrapolation of how the Swede’s life may have played out after high school. Interestingly, Roth never reveals what actually happened, never drops any hints as to the veracity of Zuckerman’s narrative, but it ultimately doesn’t matter: Zuckerman’s slow motion replay of the Swede’s life is a complete gut punch. At one point, I even did something I never do, skipping several pages detailing Merry’s debasement because it was too difficult to read in my situation. The entire second half of the novel is pretty heavy, as the Swede attempts to make sense of his daughter’s actions. His mental inventory of all his mistakes as a father bring him no closer to a sense of understanding or closure; indeed, Merry’s fate seems to have been set in motion before she was even born, pushing the nearly beatific Swede to the edge and just past.

Reading review of Pastoral is illuminating, because many readers took issue with the long digressions on glovemaking--the source of the Levov’s considerable wealth--or beauty pageants, but to me, these all served to underline the novel’s themes: no matter how hard you work or how good you are, your world is only one rash action from being turned to rubble. Or, as Roth puts it, “He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach - that it makes no sense.”  It’s easy to read the novel another way as well, with the Swede representing the 50s ideal and Merry and her friends as the whirlwind 60s, but in my mind, what really sticks out is not the fine prose or the clever parallels, but the truly terrifying portrait of a family falling to pieces, and the good man who can do nothing about it, and maybe never could.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West

Perhaps I can make you understand.  Let's start from the beginning.  A man is hired to give advice to the readers of a newspaper.  The job is a circulation stunt and the whole staff considers it a joke.  He welcomes the job, for it might lead to a gossip column, and anyway he's tired of being a leg man.  He too considers the job a joke, but after several months at it, the joke begins to escape him.  He sees that the majority of the letters are profoundly humble pleas for moral and spiritual advice, that they are inarticulate expressions of genuine suffering.  He also discovers that his correspondents take him seriously.  For the first time in his life, he is forced to examine the values by which he lives.  This examination shows him that he is the victim of the joke and not its perpetrator. -- Shrike

I was compelled to re-read Miss Lonelyhearts like a child is compelled to put his fingers in a light socket.  He knows it will be painful, yes, but it will also be exhilarating.  And perhaps--let's take this metaphor as far as it will go--for a brief second it will put him in communion with the most elemental forces of the world, to know their power.

Why is Miss Lonelyhearts so shocking?  I think it is because it successfully combines a gritty realism with the imaginative capability of good horror fiction.  That might seem silly, but I keep going back to the awful image of the girl who writes to Miss Lonelyhearts, advice columnist, lamenting that "I would like to have boy friends like the other girls and go out on Saturday nites, but no boy will take me because I was born without a nose--although I am a good dancer and have a nice shape and my father buys me pretty clothes."  Is there anything in the pantheon of H. P. Lovecraft even a fraction as horrific?  Or perhaps it is that, like horror and fantasy, the roots of Miss Lonelyhearts can be traced to apocalyptic visions like Daniel or Revelation?

Miss Lonelyhearts is an apocalyptic vision made more horrible by its insistence that it reflects reality.  "The Miss Lonelyhearts," the demonic editor Shrike tells us, "are the priests of America."  But West's America is desolate and spiritually barren, populated by suffering millions who turn to the advice columnist to explain and ameliorate their suffering.  Miss Lonelyhearts is the perfect priest for this society, because he too is desolate and spiritually barren, agonizing over the letters he receives, clawing desperately for real advice, which cannot and will not be found.  I love this vision he has while trying to write his column:

A desert, he was thinking, not of sand, but of rust and body dirt, surrounded by a back-yard fence on which are posters describing the events of the day.  Mother slays five with ax, slays seven, slays nine... Babe slams two, slams three... Inside the fence Desperate, Broken-hearted, Disillusioned-with-tubercular-husband and the rest were gravely forming the letters MISS LONELYHEARTS out of white-washed clam shells, as if decorating the lawn of a rural depot.

(By the way, how great is that detail stuck in there: "Babe slams two, slams three?"  At first, it seems to conjure up an image of a baby lashing out at its tormentors, or itself being "slammed" against something--but it's just old Babe Ruth, "slamming" runs.  The implication is that American culture itself is composed of suffering and violence.)

I love also Shrike, the editor, who torments Miss Lonelyhearts by making jokes and stirring his messiah complex.  The book opens with Shrike's prayer:

"Soul of Miss L, glorify me.
Body of Miss L, nourish me.
Blood of Miss L, intoxicate me.
Tears of Miss L, wash me.
Oh good Miss L, excuse my plea,
And hide me in your heart,
And defend me from mine enemies.
Help me, Miss L, help me, help me.
In saecula saeculorum.  Amen."

I am having a hard time describing what is so frightening about this prayer, and about Shrike (whose shenanigans are all along these lines).  One facet of it, I think, is that while Miss Lonelyhearts agonizes over fashioning words that will provide meaning or comfort, Shrike knows that the task is impossible and the trick is to say precisely what you do not know to be true.  I am reluctant to say that Shrike is a devil-figure, because I don't think that Miss Lonelyhearts allows for the legitimacy of such an archetype, but perhaps he is the ironist, the thoroughly modern soul, monopolizing the language of religion because he knows that it can be good only for parody.

Here's Brent's review; here's mine from a few years ago.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Henry IV, Part Two by William Shakespeare

CHIEF JUSTICE: Well, God send the Prince a better companion.

FALSTAFF: God send the companion a better prince.  I cannot rid my hands of him.

What is the point of Henry IV, pt. II?  I cannot tell.  The fundamental conflicts seem warmed over from Henry IV, pt. I: Prince Hal feels compelled to cast of Falstaff in order to claim his birthright; King Henry thinks little of Hal; there are some rebels.  The scene in which Hal, now Henry V, condemns Falstaff, is one of the best scenes in either play, but it lacks the impact it ought to have because we've been here already, when the Falstaff of Part I begs not to be "banished" by Hal, who replies, "I do; I will."

The rebels enter even more limply.  Instead of Hotspur--the furious, headstrong foil of Part I--Part II gives us his father Northumberland, whose defining trait is that he fails to actually show up to the rebellion.  Shakespeare promises another showdown between the rebel forces and the King's, but instead has the Prince's brother John capitulate to all their demands and then arrest them when their guard is down.  (In this case I imagine Shakespeare laughing maniacally while writing this scene, delighted to frustrate his audience's expectations.)  For these reasons it seems hard to regard Henry IV, pt. II as anything but an attempt to further capitalize on the popularity of the first part, and on Falstaff in particular.

As a play it's underwhelming, but it also seems to be a product of perverse genius.  In a way, Shakespeare gives us exactly the play we want--that is, a repeat of the last play--but refuses to give it to us the way that we want.  Probably Shakespeare knew that the greatest moments of Part I were the interactions between Falstaff and Hal, and he purposely kept their two storylines (mostly) separate until the final scene.

What a final scene it is, though.  Hal's vicious rejection of Falstaff is almost worth the price of admission:

FALSTAFF: My king, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart!

KING: I know thee not, old man.  Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester.
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing.  Know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest.
Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know--so shall the world perceive--
That I have turned away my former self.
So I will those that kept me company.

The bit about Falstaff being part of Hal's dream is especially telling, because we know that dreams will be few and far between for Hal.  In the play's other truly moving scene, Hal sees his ailing father asleep and thinks that he has died.  Reluctantly, he takes the crown as his, knowing that it represents a sleepless future:

Why doth the crown lie there upon his pillow,
Being so troublesome a bedfellow?
O polished perturbation, golden care,
That keep'st the ports of slumber open wide
To many a watchful night!  Sleep with it now;
Yet not so sound and half so deeply sweet
As he whose brow with homely biggen bound
Snores out the watch of night.

Henry will return to this thought in Henry V as he walks incognito through his military camps, soliloquizing that the trappings of a king, "laid in bed majestical, / Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave..."  Of course, Henry IV is not dead, and when he discovers that Hal has come and gone with his crown, his response could not be more off the mark:

How quickly nature falls into revolt
When gold becomes her object!

And yet this gives Hal the opportunity to admit the truth to his father--that he regards the crown not as a prize, but that creature "that hath fed upon the body of my father."  It is a rare moment of honesty from Hal, who seems so often to be nothing but a collection of performances.  And it is a deeply tragic moment, because Hal takes up a burden that he does not want to honor a man who has loved him little.  Perhaps Hal's greatest tragedy is that he will make a great king.

Whether a noble self-sacrifice or a fetishization of honor, Hal's attitude in this scene is not something he has learned from Falstaff.  But the skills that make him a great king--the play-acting and manipulation of words--show the evidence of Falstaff's tutelage.  As Hal has been proving since Part I, he is a greater jokester than even his mentor, once again outwitting him by posing as a waiter to eavesdrop on what Falstaff says about him.  (This, in turn, is a pale imitation of Hal's trickery during the Gad's Hill robbery of Part I).  I really enjoyed Falstaff's soliloquy attributing Hal's skills to heavy drinking, of which I'll share only a part:

Hereof comes it that Prince Harry is valiant, for the cold blood he did naturally inhehrit of his father he hath, like lean, sterile, and bare land, manured, husbanded, and tilled with excellent endeavor of drinking good and good store of fertile sherris, that he is become very hot and valiant.  If I had a thousand sons, the first human principle I would teach them should be to forswear thin potations and addict themselves to sack.

This is not correct, of course, but neither is it wrong.  Hal could not have got his peculiar brand of histrionic valor from his father, but with Falstaff as his father he would never have possessed the cruelty kingship requires.  In a sense Hal has two fathers; though Falstaff imagines "a thousand sons," we know that he is thinking of only Hal.  That is why it is so painful to hear Hal say, "I know thee not, old man."

But as great as that scene is, and a handful of others (including Hal's trick and the snatching of the crown, as well as some of the comic Falstaff-only scenes) Henry IV, pt. II feels awfully shoddy, like a sagging tent held up with two few poles.  Though Henry is dead and Hal is king, nothing seems to have changed or been accomplished.  It is probably for the best that Shakespeare did not make good on his epilogue, which promises another play "with Sir John [Falstaff] in it," or else Henry V might have been just as inconsequential.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

"...You are Joseph the dreamer of dreams, dear Jude.  And a tragic Don Quixote.  And sometimes you are St. Stephen, who, while they were stoning him, could see Heaven opened.  Oh, my poor friend and comrade, you'll suffer yet!" -- Sue Bridehead

When Jude Fawley is a little boy, his schoolmaster advises him, "Be a good boy, remember; and be kind to animals and birds, and read all you can."  It seems like a particularly banal and childish piece of counsel, but it turns out to be the most humane moral code Jude will ever encounter in a universe where kindness seems to have no moral value whatsoever.

Jude's dream is to elevate himself, despite his poverty, to the ranks of the learned, and as a boy he studies his Latin and Greek assiduously.  As is commonly the case, his ambitions are derailed by sex.  He falls for a girl named Arabella Donn, who, not wishing to let Jude go, seduces him and tricks him into marriage with a made-up pregnancy.  Hardy describes their marriage this way:

And so, standing before the aforesaid officiator, the two swore that at every other time of their lives till death took them, they would assuredly believe, fell, and desire precisely as they had believed, felt, and desired during the few preceding weeks.  What was as remarkable as the undertaking itself was the fact that nobody seemed at all surprised at what they swore.

Jude's foil in this is his cousin, Sue Bridehead, whom he meets long after his marriage has crumbled and Arabella has run off to Australia.  He falls for Sue, who falls for him, but not before she has married the same old schoolmaster, Phillotson, to assure her position as a teacher.  Phillotson, true to his advice to the young Jude, releases Sue from her bonds, but this remarkable act of kindness fails to change the material reality of Jude and Sue's existence, which is defined by the marriage bonds which they have made but cannot shake.

As Sue tells Jude, "There is something external to us which says, 'You shan't!'  First it said, 'You shan't learn!'  Then it said, 'You shan't labour!'  Now it says, 'You shan't love!'"  The external thing which says You shan't is the moral code which values the bond of marriage over human kindness.  For most of the book neither Jude's nor Sue's spouses assert any claim to them, but the pair are roundly denigrated for their scandalous relationship, chased out of work and home.

 Jude the Obscure caused quite a controversy in its day, one which may seem quaint compared to modern attitudes of marriage, but I think Hardy's contemporaries were right to see that the book savages much more than marriage itself: It criticizes the value of the Christian moral framework, which Hardy sees as elevating doctrine over simple kindness and love.  Not too subtly, he emphasizes this by having Jude and Sue chased off a job restoring a monument of the Ten Commandments.

But the highest tragedy of Jude is that Jude, though he ultimately abandons his religion, cannot escape his own moral snare.  At one point he stands before a gathered crowd and offers himself as "a frightful example of what not to do; and so illustrate a moral story":

"However it was my poverty and not my will that consented to be beaten.  It takes two or three generations to do what I tried to do in one; and my impulses--affections--vices perhaps they should be called--were too strong not to hamper a man without advantages; who should really be as cold-blooded as a fish and as selfish as a pig to have a really good chance of being one of his country's worthies."

See how entangled, in Jude's mind, are poverty and rectitude: a good man knows his place, in wedlock and in penury.  Jude has forgotten his schoolmaster's advice, but we have not, and are forced to ask ourselves, which is the better path--to "be kind to animals and birds," or to "be as cold-blooded as a fish and as selfish as a pig?"

It is easy to see why Hardy found the response to Jude so personally draining, and never wrote another novel.  Giving his readers the choice between human decency and old-time religion, many of them said we'll take the old-time religion, thank you.  Doubtless Hardy must have felt much like Jude.  And yet, I would argue that Jude might have been more nuanced.  A happy marriage is simply a concept that does not exist in this novel; though we laugh at the innkeeper who is suspicious of Jude and Arabella's relationship until he recognizes her "flinging a shoe at his head" to be "the note of genuine wedlock," it isn't clear to me that Hardy's opinion is very different.

Jude presents us with a handful of really gut-wrenching set-pieces where Hardy provides enough pathos to make nuance unnecessary.  In between them, I admit I found parts of it tedious and artificial.  Hardy's natural long-windedness is effective when accompanying real agonies, but does little for Sue's long campaign of mind-changing and sexual frigidity.  Did Far from the Madding Crowd suffer from the same flaws, which show as well in The Mayor of CasterbridgeProbably so, but I'll take it over those two anyway.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

During the moonlit January nights Singer continued to walk about the streets of the town each evening when he was not engaged.  The rumors about him grew bolder.  An old Negro woman told hundreds of people that he knew the ways of the spirits come back from the dead.  A certain piece-worker claimed that he had worked with the mute at another mill somewhere else in the state--and the tales he told were unique.  The rich thought that he was rich and the poor considered him a poor man like themselves.  And as there was no way to disprove these rumors they grew marvelous and very real.  Each man described the mute as he wished him to be.

Why are we lonely?  There are more people in the world now than there have ever been.  If you really wanted to, most of us could meet a hundred people a day only a few miles from our homes, but does any of us suppose that we would find among them any really kindred soul, even if we tried for a hundred years?  The diversity of people is both our wonder and our tragedy; our personalities, our goals, our experiences are too different to really eradicate loneliness.  We want desperately to communicate, to share ourselves, but we talk past each other, wanting to be understood but not seeking to understand.

John Singer, the central character--I wouldn't say protagonist or main character, exactly--of Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is genial and kind, and also a deaf-mute.  He is talked at because he cannot talk back, and in him everyone sees a perfect companion.  He acts as a lightning rod for loneliness, attracting the most isolated souls in his small Georgia town: Biff, a restaurant owner whose wife has recently died; Mick, a young girl who dreams of a career in music; Jake, a manic revolutionary who rails about social injustice.

My favorite, though, is Doctor Copeland, a black doctor obsessed with what he calls his "strong, true purpose," the education and advancement of his race.  Except for Singer, Copeland is the novel's most achingly tragic character:

When he was seventeen years old they had sent him north with eighty dollars hidden in his shoe.  He had worked in a blacksmith's shop and as a waiter and as a bellboy in a hotel.  And all the while he studied and read and went to school.  His father died and his mother did not live long without him.  After ten years of struggle he was a doctor and he knew his mission and he came south again.

He married and made a home.  He went endlessly from house to house and spoke the mission and the truth.  The hopeless suffering of his people made in him a madness, a wild and evil feeling of destruction.  In his heart there was a savage violence, and once he grasped the poker from the hearth and struck down his wife.

Copeland feels acutely the suffering of his people, but he cannot connect with the suffering of individuals, not even his own family.  He cannot understand their religiosity or their refusal to take up the mantle of the "strong, true purpose" at the expense of their own lives.  When his son-in-law loses his legs from being abandoned in a freezing prison cell, he finds that his erudition and understanding have not equipped him to do anything, or even commiserate with his daughter.  He rants to Singer about justice and equality, but like the others he can only figure out how to communicate with himself.

Singer enjoys the company of these people but is baffled when, the four of them coming to visit him at once by sheer chance, they cannot get along together.  For his part, he cares most for his deaf-mute friend Antonapoulos, who has been shipped off to a mental ward.  What the others make of Singer, Singer makes of Antonapoulos, holding him dear even though he is clearly mad:

This was the friend to whom he told all that was in his heart.  This was the Antonapoulos who no one knew was wise but him.  And as the year passed his friend seemed to grow larger in his mind, and his face looked out in a very grave and subtle way from the darkness at night.  The memories of his friend changed in his mind so that he remembered nothing that was wrong or foolish--only the wise and good.

It is also the Antonapoulos who "got drunk and threw a bowl of macaroni in his face."  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter suggests that there is something fundamentally tragic about being human, that we are stuck in a cycle of projecting ourselves onto those around us and despairing to find that those projections are proven false.  Most horrifyingly it suggests that Singer is right when he suggests that Antonapoulos is wise, though not in the way that Singer believes: that true wisdom comes from throwing off the need for human companionship, which inexorably fails, and embracing the primitive joys of feeding, sleeping, and emotion without reason or language.

Would it be easier for the characters of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter if they could step outside of themselves and see the folly of this cycle?  The novel is conspicuously (appropriately?) mute on the subject.  The existence of the novel itself, though not the experience of the characters, suggests that it is possible, but on the other hand it does not alleviate the essential tragedy of watching it happen.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Chosen by Chaim Potok

He paused for a moment, as if considering his next words carefully, then continued.  "Human beings do not live forever, Reuven.  We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity.  So it may be asked what value is there to a human life.  There is so much pain in the world.  What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?"  He paused again, his eyes misty now, then went on.  "I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing.  But the eye that blinks, that is something.  A span of a life is nothing.  But the man who lives that span, he is something."

I live not far from an Hasidic Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn.  I'm there a lot, but I'm always passing through--connecting from a below ground train to an above ground one, or on a run--and so it seems both familiar and unfamiliar to me.  Parts of it seem as if they were carted in wholesale from Eastern Europe: signs in Yiddish, men with beards and ear locks, women in demure black from head to toe, with really great hair.  (I learned some time ago that the married women wear wigs.)  I always get the sense--perhaps justified, probably not--that my presence there is not particularly welcome.  But despite that, or perhaps because of it, I have always been fascinated with the Hasidic community that lives there, so close but seemingly unknowable.

But how to investigate a society that is, or seems, so insular?  I turned to Chaim Potok's The Chosen, which is what came up first when I googled "Hasidic Jewish novel."

At first, I thought that The Chosen was a young adult novel.  Its style is simple and restrained, and not particularly thoughtful, and it starts out with a baseball game.  Both teams are from Jewish schools in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but one is Hasidic and one is not.  The star of the Hasidic team, Danny Saunders, whispers to his opponent, the narrator Reuven Malter: "[W]e're going to kill you apikorsim this afternoon."  Apikorsim is a word that means, more or less, Jews who are Jews in name only.  And for a moment, it seems as if he's going to make good on his threat, propelling a ball into Reuven's eye with such force that a piece of glass becomes embedded in his eye, nearly blinding him.

And in typical young adult fashion, this leads to a visit in hospital from a contrite Danny, and a lifelong friendship.  But from there it becomes more sophisticated, if never more sophisticatedly written, using Danny and Reuven's relationship to explore the tension between different conceptions of God, and the relationship between Jews and the wider world.  Danny is a tortured figure, a young genius who yearns to study Freud but is pegged as the tzaddik, the "chosen one" who will follow in the footsteps of his notorious father, Reb (Rabbi) Saunders.  Reuven, on the other hand, wants to be a rabbi, though his father wants him to be a mathematician.

Though Danny's agony is the stuff of great fiction, Potok doesn't seem to know what to do with it.  There are moments of powerful resonance.  One comes to mind, when Danny is forbidden from speaking to Reuven because their fathers are on opposite sides on the question of a Jewish Homeland, and for a moment in the hallway of their school their hands meet in an unspoken gesture of friendship.  But Potok is more interested in devoting long pages to discourses on Jewish history and Fruedian psychology.  Taking the form of discussions between the two ultra-bright boys, they manage not to feel false or flat, but neither do they make gripping narrative, and they made me wish for another baseball game.  And yet, I cannot say that I did not get what I wanted: a detailed exploration into the lives of Hasidic Jews.