Saturday, July 28, 2012

Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

The Thames barges, built of living wood that gave and sprang back in the face of the wind, were as much at home as anything on the river.  To their creaking and grumbling was added a new note, comparable to music.  As the tide rose, the wind shredded the clouds above them and pushed a mighty swell across the water, so that they began to roll as they had once rolled at sea.

Nenna James lives on a houseboat, the Grace, docked at Battersea Reach, London, purchased without the knowledge of her husband, who refuses to come and live on it, too.  Her children, Tilda and Martha, are there, growing up amid the strange and motley collection of people who decide to live on houseboats: Willis, the old painter, who lives on the Dreadnought; Richard, who lives on the Lord Jim; Maurice, the prostitute who lives on the Maurice.

Their lives, like their boats, are in various states of disrepair.  Some, like Nenna's husband Edward and Richard's wife Laura, cannot understand the appeal of living on a houseboat, especially those which never sail.  They are a kind of liminal place, existing between worlds, which perhaps explains the motivations of those who love them as well as those who don't:


[Nenna said,] 'But, you know, by myself I can't make my mind up.'

'You shouldn't do it at all.'

'Why not, Maurice?'

'Why should you think it's a good thing to do?  Why should it make you any happier?  There isn't one kind of happiness, there's all kinds.  Decision is torment for anyone with imagination.  When you decide, you multiply the things you might have done and now never can.  If there's even one person who might be hurt by a decision, you should never make it.  They tell you, make up your mind or it will be too late, but if it's really too late, we should be grateful.  You know very well that we're two of the same kind, Nenna.  It's right for us to live where we do, between land and water.  You, my dear, you're half in love with your husband, then there's Martha who's half a child and half a girl, Richard who can't give up being half in the Navy, Willis who's half an artist and half a longshoreman, a cat who's half alive and half dead...'

He stopped before describing himself, if, indeed, he had been going to do so.


Fitzgerald's work has such an elegant simplicity; that's one of the things I like best about her.  (Offshore clocks in under 50,000 words.)  The other things I like about her: One, she didn't publish her first novel until she was 60, and won the Booker Prize for Offshore when she was 63.  Nice to know not everyone has to be Ned Beauman.

Two, she has a real knack for detail; Offshore, like The Blue Flower, slim as it is, offers up a couple dozen minor but wonderfully expressive, crystalline moments.  There is, for example, the moment when Nenna goes to see her estranged husband, accidentally announcing herself at the door as Grace.  Or when she, lost in the rain miles from Battersea without her purse for busfare, is accosted by a man as she leans over to fix her shoe.  For a moment it seems as if we are going to witness a sexual assault; instead he takes her shoe and throws it into the road.  Or when Maurice adorns the deck of his boat with flagstones and an antique lamp to make it look like a Venetian street corner.  Such details are minor, and often silly, but together they manage to create a vital sense of reality with a minimum of fuss.

It's a testament to Fitzgerald's skill and restraint that she grew up in a houseboat community like the one in the novel, and yet decided not to pile everything she knew about it into one massive tome.  Offshore lacks the rounded totality of The Blue Flower, and seems more like a single slice, randomly chosen, of the life of a peculiar community.  My greatest misgiving, then, is that I wish it had been a little longer.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Known to Evil by Walter Mosley

"Years of orphanages and foster homes, uneducated teachers and corrupt officials, from crossing guards to the president of entire nations, have shown me the Einstein was right: the connection between A and B is questionable at best, and there' no such thing as a straight line."

Known to Evil is the second book in a series by Walter Mosley featuring Leonid McGilll, a African American private detective working in modern day New York City. McGill is asked to check on a young girl, to make sure of her well being. An odd request, but it came from a special assistant--so special that he doesn't exist on paper--to City Hall, so McGill accepts. When he shows up at the girl's apartment, it is a crime scene, and she is nowhere to be found. His search for the girl pulls McGill back into circles that he had purposely left behind long ago.

Race is nearly always an important factor in Mosley's works. However, Mosley's approach to race in the McGill series is markedly different from his Easy Rollins or Socrates Fortlow series. Rather than floating on the surface, demanding to be seen, issues of race are a strong undercurrent. McGill's is married to a Scandinavian woman. His son has fallen in love with a Russian prostitute and become mixed up in her less than savory world--a problem with McGill has to address. Mosley describes the color of people's skin like he does their clothing. In the hand s of Mosley, race has the feel of being simultaneously important and inconsequential.

Mosley uses the detective story framework to analyze relationships between the characters that populate McGill's world. Ideas of innocence and honesty take on new dimensions when viewed through the prism of this PI's world.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

DUKE: Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, 'twere all alike
As if we had them not.

Measure for Measure is a play about justice: What it is, what it ought to be, who determines it and why.  The play begins as Duke Vincentio of Vienna announces to his advisers that he is going to go away for a short time, placing his deputy Angelo in charge of the city.  Angelo, a power-hungry, puritanical scold, pursues the city's dormant fornication laws with vigor, condemning the young Claudio to death for impregnating his lover Juliet before marriage.  Claudio's sister Isabella, a novice nun, comes to beg for her brother's life:


ISABELLA: Go to your bosom,
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That's like my brother's fault.  If it confess
A natural guiltiness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother's life.

ANGELO (aside): She speaks, and 'tis such sense
That my sense breeds with it.


And it is sense: Isabella is saying that if Angelo has ever committed a sin like Claudio's, he must have mercy.  She is soon to take orders as a nun, and her vision of mercy is a Christian one, echoing Christ's words: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."  And yet Isabella's tack is mistaken, as Angelo, "a man whose blood / Is very snow-broth," has never committed such a sin--that is, until he met Isabella.  Inflamed with passion, Angelo tells her that he will spare her brother if she surrenders her virginity to him.

The brilliance of these scenes lies in the fact that Angelo seems to be paradoxically turned on not by Isabella's beauty, but by her chastity and rectitude:


...Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman's lightness?  Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there?


Angelo asks in that last sentence, in effect, though Vienna has prostitutes ("waste ground") enough, why do I want so badly to defile a nun ("raze the sanctuary")?  Of course, every heterosexual male knows that the forbidden fruit is the most tempting, and modesty more enticing than promiscuity, but Angelo's response to Isabella's virtue is something stranger.

Isabella refuses, and with the help of the Duke, who has not left Vienna but is hanging around in the disguise of a visiting friar so that he might spy on Angelo's rule, they concoct a comic scheme to snare Angelo that involves switching Isabella for Angelo's spurned lover Mariana, and substituting another prisoner's head for Claudio's.

It is easy to read Measure for Measure in a very straightforward (and conservative) way: The Duke and Isabella represent the rectitude of mercy and Angelo represents hypocrisy and severity.  But moral authority is undermined in subtle ways in this play.  Are we meant to interpret Isabella's stand as virtue, or an indifference to her brother's life not unlike Angelo's puritanism?:


CLAUDIO: Sweet sister, let me live.
What sin you do to save a brother's life,
Nature dispense with the deed so far
That it becomes a virtue.

ISABELLA: O, you beast!
O faithless coward, O dishonest wretch,
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is 't not a kind of incest to take life
From thine own sister's shame?  What should I think?
Heaven shield my mother played my father fair,
For such a warped slip of wilderness
Ne'er issued from his blood.  Take my defiance;
Die, perish.


In Isabella's mind, Claudio's fear of death is a perversity, leading to a "kind of incest" and making him a "warped slip of wilderness."

And then there's the Duke, who moves through the play with the air of beneficence.  We are invited to view the Duke as a paragon of virtue, but by the end of the play our regard for him becomes unsettled.  Why, for instance, does he set out on this mad scheme in the first place?  He confides that he does it so that Vienna's "strict statutes and most biting laws" might return under Angelo's authority, but this is exactly what he seeks to undermine in the matter of Isabella and Claudio, without any proof of a change of heart.  Once the mistaken-identity games go on a little too long and become a little too complex, we are left to wonder if the Duke doesn't simply enjoy treating the lives of his subjects as a plaything.

Moreover, he disguises himself as a friar, and proceeds to give religious counseling and advice.  For example, he instructs Claudio:


Be absolute for death.  Either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter.  Reason thus with life:
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep.  A breath thou art,
Servile to all the skyey influences
That doth this habitation where thou keep'st
Hourly afflict.  Merely, thou art death's fool
For him thou labor'st by thy flight to shun,
And yet runn'st toward him still.


Coming from a priest, these words might seem wise, but how do we regard them when we remember that the Friar is actually the Duke, in whom the power of life and death still ultimately rests?  Isabella's "Take my defiance; / Die, perish," are chilling enough when they are the words of a powerless woman in an impossibly place; here, the Duke's authority make them both sinister (because he has the power to sentence Claudio to death) and mocking (because he already knows he won't let it happen).

Finally, in the long last scene which occupies the entirety of Act V, the Duke goes about putting everything to rights, spares Claudio, and tells Isabella, "Give me your hand and say you will be mine, / He is my brother too."  In most plays this marriage might be fortuitous, but this proposal promises to destroy Isabella's intention to join the convent.  She does not protest, nor does she assent--for the remainder of the play, Isabella has no lines.  The Duke essentially silences her.  Ultimately, are the Duke's actions any different from Angelo's, except that there is no higher authority present in the play to appeal to?  It's a stark reminder that justice lies not with the virtuous but with the powerful.

Friday, July 20, 2012

I Hardly Ever Wash My Hands: The Other Side of OCD by J.J. Keeler

"I have always imagined my obsessions to be like little demons working inside the brain: the have little faces and bodies and work inside cubicles. Sometimes, a particular demon endorsing a specific obsession will get a promotion. He will be moved to a bigger office, get a little demon secretary, and suddenly have a lot more influence."

With I Hardly Ever Wash My Hands, J.J. Keeler gives readers a glimpse inside the mind of someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder. As someone with OCD, Keeler is able to describe how the disorder has effected her on a daily basis for much of her life and how she has been able to manage.

The book is essentially a memoir. Keeler takes us through some of her experiences coping with OCD at various points throughout her life, and she manages to do so with a good deal of humor and wit. As a young child, she was obsessed with contracting AIDS and for weeks was convinced that a stuffed teddy given to her by a neighbor had a bomb implanted inside of it. As she grew older, so did her obsessive fears. They transitioned into a fear of inadvertently causing a car accident and incredibly detailed harming obsessions.

I had never heard or read of harming obsessions before this book. According to Keeler, they are not uncommon among those suffering from OCD. Keeper started fearing that she would stab strangers as she walked past them, intentionally hitting pedestrians with her car, and strangling people. She makes it clear that these are not fantasies, but rather fears. She does not wish to do these things, but is terrified that she will or in many cases, already has. Driving over a speed bump in her car meant spending the next few minutes checking her mirror and even pulling over or circling back to verify that she hadn't run anyone over.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter "A Talk with God." Keeler explains how some aspects of religion can exacerbate OCD. As she puts it, "The problem with being religious and having OCD is an underlying, and unrelenting, need to know." When her grandmother was in the hospital, Keeler started praying for her to get better. She crafted meticulous prayers that had to be said just so in order for them to have the desired effect. If she messed up, even in the slightest way, she would start over from the beginning.

Keeler isn't someone who blames the everyday worries of life on OCD. As she says, "A lot of the time, people with OCD have fears and worries that have nothing to do with being obsessive-complusive--they merely have to do with being alive."

The final chapter of the books is directed at those with OCD. Keeler imparts some advice and tricks--some of them quite interesting--that have helped her manage. Despite this last chapter, the book doesn't strike me as having been specifically written for those with OCD. Keeler wants to dispel some of the misinformation and challenge the stereotypical portrayals of the disorder in films and television. Toward the end of the book, Keeler states, "If there is one thing you take away from this book, I hope you learn that OCD is not a disease as cut and dry as people think."

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Postmortal by Drew Magary

“I’ve always known it was a lie. You cannot hide from the world. It will find you. It always does. And now it has found me. My split second of immortality is over. All that’s left now is the end, which is all any of us really has.”

“Who wants to live forever?” - Queen

I struggled to find a piece of prose to headline this review, because The Postmortal isn’t really built around strong prose. It’s got very little style, beyond its unique structure, which intersperses a first-person narrative with blog posts, news stories, and television transcripts and is sometimes a little clumsy or overfamiliar. It’s also not really character-based—outside of two or three characters, most of the cast was thinly sketched. It also has serious third-act problems. In spite of all that, I can’t help but qualify it as a success, largely due to its setting, a world in which science has conquered death.

The novel focuses on John Ferrell, an average guy who chooses to have his physical state frozen at the age of twenty-nine. Author Drew Magary follows Ferrell through the next 60 years, as the face of the world changes in light of mankind’s newfound immortality. Ferrell changes along with the world, gradually transforming from an average Joe who just happens to be immortal into a cynical jerk into a government-sponsored “End Specialist”—essentially a euthanasiast. In spite of the novel’s combination first-person/epistolary, it sustains some serious momentum throughout, and, even when events strain credulity, it maintains an emotional core that directs the twists, including a particularly Whedonesque one near the midpoint, directly at the gut.

Magary starts from a simple premise—what if, barring disease or violent death, we could live forever?—and extrapolates from it a worldwide culture which is surprisingly believable. Following the cure from its pre-legal stages all the way to a nuclear apocalypse, Magary takes the long view, speculating on how immortality would affect religion, marriage, healthcare, politics and personal behavior. There’s very little that doesn’t receive at least cursory treatment, and Magary’s conclusions seem logical enough. As it turns out, this is enough to sustain the whole enterprise. Even when things take a turn toward action-movie clichés, John maintains a sense of humanity that grounds the sensational events surrounding him. There’s thought-provoking material in The Postmortal, ranging from the things everyone has thought about—won’t everyone I know die, is immortality really something desirable—to the extremely unsettling, as in a transcribed interview with a woman who injected her baby girl with the cure at 9 months, rendering her an eternal infant.

However, it’s not all sunshine. In spite of some good moments, including the ending, the last third of the novel, where Ferrell (spoiler) hooks up with the most beautiful woman in the world after saving her life, feels a lot like shallow wish fulfillment and somewhat undercuts the rest of the novel’s willingness to pull the rug out from under the reader just when things started seeming too familiar. Still, none of these problems took me out of the story too much. The themes were just too universal, too primal, and the world too well conceived, to be derailed by plot contrivances. Who waits forever anyway?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

How many times had he told himself that her love was happiness; and here she loved him as only a woman can for whom love outweighs all that is good in life--yet he was much further from happiness than when he had followed her from Moscow.  Then he had considered himself unhappy, but happiness was ahead of him; while now he felt that the best happiness was already behind.

Anna Karenina begins with one of the most famous lines of literature: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."  But I think it's impossible to read Anna Karenina and think that this is something Tolstoy believes--perhaps it is what Stiva Oblonsky believes, as the novel opens, exiled to the sofa by his wife on account of his recent affair.  Oblonsky's adultery nearly tears his family apart--passions in Anna Karenina are a force of great power, both creative and destructive--but a false dichotomy between the passionate and the mundane life turns one's moral transgressions into the stuff of art.

By contrast, Anna Karenina rejects this statement by giving us a pair of vivid, lifelike romances, one more or less happy and one more or less unhappy, as simplistic as that might sound.  The first is the titular story of Anna Karenina, who falls in love with the young soldier Count Vronsky, for whom she abandons her husband and young son.  Anna and Vronsky's love is the stuff of romance novels--immediate, passionate, overwhelming--but it always threatens to topple into disaster and heartbreak, and it causes Anna as much pain as it does joy.  Their love is so powerful that it envelops her:


The more she knew of Vronsky, the more she loved him.  She loved him for himself and for his love of her.  To possess him fully was a constant joy for her.  His nearness was always pleasing to her.  All the traits of his character, which she was coming to know more and more, were inexpressibly dear to her.  His appearance, changed by civilian clothes, was as attractive to her as to a young girl in love.  In everything he said, thought and did, she saw something especially noble and lofty.  Her admiration for him often frightened her: she sought and failed to find anything not beautiful in him.  She did not dare show him her awareness of her own nullity before him.  It seemed to her that if he knew it, he would stop loving her sooner; and she feared nothing so much now, though she had no reason for it, as losing his love.


This passage terrifies me, because it is the perfect image of perfect love, the kind of love we look for in literature and film in order to assure ourselves that it exists for us.  In it, Anna and Vronsky exist only for each other, but look at the frightening implication: She did not dare show him her awareness of her own nullity before him.  Anna, devoted to Vronsky, ceases, in a way, to be Anna.  Tolstoy shows us the real-world implications of this, including the devastation of Anna's husband Karenin, a shallow, self-obsessed bureaucrat whom we pity because he does not share Anna's romantic sensibilities and therefore cannot really express his own anguish.

Because of Russian custody laws, Anna must give up her son, Seryozha, whom she loves with as much intensity as she does Vronsky.  One of the lines that hits me hardest comes at the end of a chapter in which Anna has snuck into her husband's house in order to see Seryozha, but is caught and flees:


She had no time to take out the toys she had selected with such love and sadness in the shop the day before, and so brought them home with her.


Oof.  Something about that image--Anna, brooding over a package of toys she cannot deliver to the son she cannot see--breaks my heart.  Later on, Anna, mentally unraveling, regrets the choice she has made:


'...Seryozha?' she remembered.  'I also thought I loved him and used to be moved by my own tenderness.  But I did live without him, exchanged him for another love, and didn't complain of the exchange as long as I was satisfied by that love.'  And with disgust she remembered what it was she called 'that live.'


The "happy family" that provides a counterpoint to Anna and Vronsky is that of Konstantin "Kostya" Levin and Kitty Scherbatsky (sister to Dolly, who is the wife of Stiva, who is the brother of Anna...).  Kitty at first rejects Kostya's proposal of marriage, because she is in love with no one other than Vronsky--that is, before he meets Anna and they become swept up in each other.  They spend half the novel apart before the timid Kostya dares to renew his advances.  In one of my favorite scenes, he renews his proposal by secretaire, a game in which one player writes the initial letters of sentence in chalk for the other player to guess:


He seized the chalk with tense, trembling fingers and, breaking it, wrote the initial letters of the following: 'I have nothing to forgive and forget, I have never stopped loving you.'

She glanced at him, the smile staying on her lips.

'I understand,' she said in a whisper.

He sat down and wrote a long phrase.  She understood everything and, without asking him if she was right, took the chalk and replied at once.

For a long time he could not understand what she had written and kept glancing in her eyes.  A darkening came over him from happiness.  He simply could not pick out the words she had in mind; but in her lovely eyes shining with happiness he understood everything he needed to know!  And he wrote three letters.  But she was reading after his hand, and before he finished writing, she finished it herself and wrote the answer: 'Yes.'


Unless all happy families begin this way, they cannot be all alike.  This, if I understand correctly, is how Tolstoy composed to his own wife, and Kostya resembles his creator in many other ways: A landowner, more comfortable on his farms than in the city, introverted and philosophical, shy but thoughtful and loyal.  My favorite description of him comes when Tolstoy writes that "[h]e had heard that women often love unattractive, simple people, but he did not believe it, because he judged by himself, and he could only love beautiful, mysterious and special women."  Anna and Vronsky are so volatile, so closed off to anyone but themselves, that it is impossible to really empathize with them; they can only be pitied.  Kostya and Kitty, on the other hand, draw all of our empathy, and perhaps that too is part of the tragedy of Anna's life.

Anna Karenina is immense.  I haven't even touched on a fraction of what it contains.  Among other things, Tolstoy deals with the nature of art, the morality of 19th century Russian politics, the proper way to manage the farms on a country estate, the reality of death, and Kostya's slow conversion to the Christianity of his youth.  Probably these last two things are what Tolstoy cared the most about.  But the indelible impression left on me is of two loves, one impossibly unhappy, one impossibly happy, but neither one like anything else I've ever read.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

"What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They're a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives."

I hesitate to call The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a spy novel, because I think that phrase brings with it certain modern connotations. This book is an espionage novel.

The events in the book occur in the late 1950s and early 1960s, during the Cold War. The British Secret Intelligence Service asks Alec Leamas to pretend to defect to East Germany and then feed them misinformation that would lead them to believe that one of their men was a British double agent. This is the crux of the story. To make Leamas seem prime for defection, he is unceremoniously sacked and provided with only a meager pension. Leamas is given a job at a small library, from which is promptly gets fired.

By the time the East German Communists decide to come calling on Leamas, he has drunk himself into a hole. What Leamas and British Intelligence did not count on was that someone else would also coming calling on him. Liz Gold, a woman that he met while working at the library is concerned for Leamas, and comes to find him and make sure he is alright. It is unclear to the reader how much Leamas is still in control of his life at this point and--at least initially--if he has actual feelings for Gold. Perhaps Leamas wasn't sure himself. Needless to say, Gold's involvement with Leamas complicates everything.

I cannot think of a a novel with an ending that was more taut than The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser


OVER THE LAST THREE DECADES, fast food has infiltrated every nook and cranny of American society. An industry that began with a handful of modest hot dog and hamburger stands in southern California has spread to every corner of the nation, selling a broad range of foods wherever paying customers may be found. Fast food is now served at restaurants and drive-throughs, at stadiums, airports, zoos, high schools, elementary schools, and universities, on cruise ships, trains, and airplanes, at K- Marts, Wal-Marts, gas stations, and even at hospital cafeterias. In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2000, they spent more than $110 billion. Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music -- combined.

Reading Fast Food Nation isn’t eye-opening on a page-by-page basis. That isn’t to say that all the information contained in its covers is common knowledge, but it’s fair to say that most Americans are familiar with the broad strokes. Who among us believes that a Taco Bell taco is a nutritious meal, or that the person taking our order is a skilled worker—and I say this as a semi-long-term employee of McDonald’s. We’re aware that the meat we eat is frequently raised and slaughtered using inhumane and sometimes grotesque methods, and, to all these things, we’re more or less forced to give semi-informed consent, either by pretending that they’re not so bad or pushing them out of our minds entirely so that we can eat our Big Mac in peace.

Fast Food Nation’s power comes not from its depth—although it is one of the most detailed studies of America’s #1 export—but from its breadth. Where many micro-histories take a narrow view of their topics and trust the reader to place it in a larger context, Fast Food Nation covers nearly every facet of the fast food sprawl, from its growth in post-WW1 America to its impact of school lunches, food science, the meat-and-potatoes industries and beyond and, ultimately, offers a solution. One of the blurbs on the back cover describe the book as a seminal work of muckraking, and that seems a fair assessment, even if this particular work’s assertions are backed up by copious footnotes. Fast Food Nation is definitely, for better or worse, a book with an agenda—reforming the eating habits of a country.

There are points at which it becomes a bit too didactic, but for the most part, author Eric Schlosser maintains a remarkably even-handed tone while dealing with some fairly infuriating material. While the chapters on the quality of meat used by restaurants—spoiler, there’s poop involved—and school lunches—which are held to lower federal quality standards than fast food—are gross and disturbing, it’s the chapters about individual workers caught up in the unforgiving system that sting the most. From an immigrant Subway franchisee who purchased a money pit disguised as a gold mine, to the story of the man who literally gave his body and his life to a slaughterhouse that didn’t even tell him, after twenty years on the job, when he was fired, the inhumanity of the great machine is what got to me the most. Like the helpless immigrants in Upton Sinclair’s Jungle, the real-life characters throughout Fast Food Nation are tragic, everyday people—mostly poor ones—sold a dream and a vision that was never really going to happen, but at least the hamburgers are only 99 cents.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

Miss Sarah was a fat, silly, sweet woman with small intelligence but with an amplitude of good cheer that enabled her to disgorge without effort peals of jolly, senseless laughter.  She could read and write with some strain and had a little inherited money (it had been her funds, I later divined, which allowed Moore to purchase me), and there was about her a plump unmean simplicity of nature that caused her, alone among the household, to treat me at times with what might pass, fleetingly, as genuine affection: this took the form of sneaking me an extra piece of lean meat or finding me a castoff blanket in the winter and once she actually knitted me a pair of socks, and I do not wish easily to malign her by declaring that the affection she bore toward me resembled the warm impulsive tenderness which might be lavished carelessly upon a dog.  I even came to be fond of the woman in a distant way (but largely with attentive, houndlike awareness of her occasional favors) and I intend no sarcasm when I say that much later, when she became almost the very first victim of my retribution, I felt an honest wrench of regret at the sight of the blood gushing like a red sluiceway from her headless neck, and almost wished I had spared her such an ending.

In 1831 a slave named Nat Turner gathered a small army of fellow slaves who, over a couple of days, slaughtered more than sixty white people in the county of Southampton, Virginia.  It is, as far as I know, the only recorded instance of major premeditated violence by slaves toward their masters in the history of American slavery.  This is a remarkable fact--millions of people were systematically oppressed over a period of hundreds of years, and only once did they fight back in any significant way?  It serves as an illustration of how truly oppressive such a system was, and how completely it controlled those it subjugated, but it also invites fascination--who was Nat Turner, who stands so gruesomely alone in history?

Styron's afterword admits that, if we go by Turner's real confession and the scanty historical data we have, the answer is morally and artistically disappointing: Turner was a psychopath and a religious extremist, a statistical outlier like the rebellion he led.  In Styron's hands, he becomes a good and sympathetic man, marked by the dangerous combination of indignant rage and extensive learning, convinced that God has commanded him to slaughter all the whites in Southampton.

As slave lives go, the young Nat has it easy.  He is the son of a cook and a "house" slave, whose beneficent master recognizes in him a latent intelligence that he wishes to master.  Ironically, it is this beginning, that might have created a "toady" out of a man with less moral compunction, that sets Nat on his path to slaughter:


Suppose in the first place I had lived out my life at Turner's Mill.  Suppose then I had been considerably less avid in my thirst for knowledge, so that it would not have occurred to me to steal that book.  Or suppose, even more simply, that Samuel Turner--however decent and just an owner he might have remained anyway--had been less affected with that feverish and idealistic conviction that slaves were capable of intellectual enlightenment and enrichment of the spirit and had not, in his passion to prove this to himself and to all who would bear witness, fastened upon me as an "experiment."

...For the Preacher was right: He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.  And Samuel Turner (whom I shall call Marse Samuel from now on, for that is how he was known to me) could not have realized, in his innocence and decency, in his awesome goodness and softness of heart, what sorrow he was guilty of creating by feeding me that half-loaf of learning: far more bearable no loaf at all.


Styron's Turner is designed to answer the two questions I alluded to above: How is it that slave rebellions were so rare, and what made Turner so different?  The answer to the first can be seen in the way that Nat often responds with the most hatred toward those who treat him most kindly, because regarding him as half-human (and deserving of only "that half-loaf of learning") only underscores the great mental treason of a system which reduces a man to a commodity.  The cruelest slave masters inspire revulsion, as a senseless carrion animal might, but the initial decency of someone like Marse Samuel, who has taught Nat to read and write, only makes his eventual sale of Nat a greater moral breach.

To the second question, Styron responds by making Nat an educated and religious man.  The scenes in which Turner's daughter instruct him in memorizing Bible verses are chilling when we know what Nat has done with them.  The adult Nat, having become regarded as a preacher in his own right, has visions like these:


I started to cry out in terror, but at this moment the second black angel seemed to pour back into the clouds, faded, vanished, and in his place came still another angel--this angel white yet strangely faceless and resembling no living white being I had ever known.  Silent, in glittering silver armor, he smote the remaining black angel with his sword, yet as in a dream I saw the sword noiselessly shatter and break in two; now the black angel raised his shield to face down his white foe, and the two spirits were locked in celestial battle high above the forest.


(I will leave it to you to work out the symbolism of a white angel fighting a black one.)  Thankfully, Styron does not try to piece together whether Nat's visions are genuine or not; it's enough to know that Nat believes in them and that he is reluctant to follow what they portend, as Abraham instructed to kill Isaac.  Nat's struggle to follow a path he considers horrific but morally necessary provide the novel with its most compelling conflict and keep it from being a stale account of historical pontification.  More agonizing than the actual scenes of bloodshed, of which there are few, is the long first section in which Nat, already arrested for his crimes, wrestles with the value of his actions.  Though he has only done what, in his mind, God has asked, in his jail cell he feels bereft of God:


Beyond my maddest imaginings I had never known it possible to feel so removed from God--a separation which had nothing to do with faith or desire, for both of these I still possessed, but with a forsaken solitary apartness so beyond hope that I could not have felt more sundered rom the divine spirit had I been cast alive like some wriggling insect beneath the largest rock on earth, there to live in hideous, perpetual dark.


Though their actions are clearly incomparable, and Styron lacks Twain's guiding sense of irony, I hear echoes of Huck Finn's insistence that he'll go to hell to protect Jim, the runaway slave.  Both Huck and Nat struggle with the gulf between God and morality, both damn themselves by doing (what they see as good), and I don't think it's a coincidence that they occupy similar historical places--when inhumanity is codified into law, culture, and religion, as slavery was, the moral ambiguity forces good men into contradictions.  But you don't have to ponder that to be affected when Nat is forced to wonder whether his actions have only entrenched slavery and shamed God:


"Here's what it got you, Reverend, if you'll pardon the crudity.  It got you a pissy-assed record of total futility, the likes of which are hard to equal.  Threescore white people slain in random butchery, yet the white people still firmly holdin' the reins.  Seventeen niggers hung, including you and old Hark there, nevermore to see the light of day.  A dozen or more other nigger boys shipped out of an amiable way of life to Alabama, where you can bet your bottom dollar that in five years the whole pack of 'em will b e dead of work and fever.  I've seen them cotton plantations.  I've seen them rice layouts too, Reverend--niggers up to their necks in shit from day clean to first dark, with a big black driver to whip 'em, and mosquitoes the size of buzzards.  This is what you brung on them kids, Reverend, this is what Christianity brung on them boys.  I reckon you didn't figure on that back then, did you?"


These words, spoken by Thomas Gray, the historical lawyer who took down Turners' confession, have a little too much down-home cornponiness for me and are a good example of how stilted Styron's dialogue can be at points.  But they do a good job of expressing Nat's awful moral dilemma.  Nat must face the contradiction that it's he that has chased the presence of God away, that, as Gray says, "Nineteen hundred years of Christian teaching plus a black preacher is all it takes--Is all it takes to prove that God is a God durned lie!"

Styron comes close, toward the end, to giving Nat a Hollywoodesque moment of recant and redemption, but fortunately has enough restraint to limit Nat's sense of regret, which would undercut our unsettling notion that Nat is not entirely unjustified.  That unsettling ambiguity, after all, is what makes Nat Turner so powerful.