Sunday, June 25, 2017

Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro

The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquillity.  Even my father, who sometimes seems to me to have been at home in the world as long as it has lasted, has really lived on this earth only a little longer than I have, in terms of all the time there has been to live in.  He has not known a time, any more than I, when automobiles and electric lights did not at least exist.  He was not alive when this century started.  I will be barely alive--old, old--when it ends.  I do not like to think of it.  I wish the Lake to be always just a lake, with the safe-swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown.

Gosh.  If I could write like anyone in the world, I'd write like Alice Munro.  In so many ways her writing is so unextraordinary--there's nothing particularly strange, or experimental, about her--but it always seems to me the embodiment of the mot juste, the search for the perfect word.  Who else but Alice Munro can describe the "snowdrifts curled around our house like sleeping whales?"

Dance of the Happy Shades is especially affecting because it's Munro's first collection.  I don't want to know how old she was when she wrote these stories; I'm sure it would depress me.  The stories are incredibly self-assured, but do very similar things; they lack a kind of structural weirdness that characterizes some of the stories in Runaway or Dear LifeThey're very similar to Lives of Girls and Women, my favorite, and in fact at least two of the stories are narrated by Del Jordan, the narrator of all the stories in Girls and Women.  Kind of like a dry run, I guess.  Those stories are excellent: in one, Del accompanies her traveling salesman father to a house of a strange woman whom she discovers is her father's old flame.  In another, she and her father end up at the house of a strange, mentally challenged, possibly dangerous man who gives his cat whiskey.  They keep it a secret between them:

Like the children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who have discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth, but who come back fresh from marvellous escapes and take up their knives and forks, with humility and good manners, prepared ot live happily ever after--like them, dazed and powerful with secrets, I never said a word.

These "slice of life" stories epitomize the idea that domestic lives are "deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum," as she writes in Girls and Women.  They share something with the epiphanic moments of Joyce, in which ordinary life becomes elevated for a moment, but Munro always manages to suggest that all of life has the potential for that superadded meaning or elevation.

I particularly loved a story called "The Office," which might have been autobiographical.  The narrator, an amateur writer, wants an office to do her writing in.  It's impossible, she says, for a woman to write at home:

A house is all right for a man to work in.  He brings his work into the house, a place is cleared for it; the house rearranges itself as best it can around him  Everybody recognizes that his work exists.  He is not expected to answer the telephone, to find things that are lost, to see why the children are crying, or feed the cat.  He can shut his door.  Imagine (I said) a mother shutting her door, and the children knowing she is behind it; why, the very thought of it is outrageous to them.  A woman who sits staring into space, into a country that is not her husband's or her children's is likewise known to be an offence against nature.  So a house is not the same for a woman.  She is not someone who walks into the house, to make use of it, and will walk out again.  She is the house; there is no separation possible.

She finds an office, but the male landlord keeps bugging her with a kind of aggressive friendliness, or friendly aggression.  He brings her plants to make the office more like home, not realizing that "home" is the last thing she wants; he bugs her with his own story, thinking that she, as a writer might like to use it.  When she rebuffs his presumptions, he begins to believe conspiratorial things about her, accusing her of using the office as a place for secret sex trysts.  Ultimately, she's forced to give up the office.  Virginia Woolf wrote about the necessity of women having "a room of one's own," and "The Office" is the story of just how difficult such a thing can be to come by for women.  It's simple and it wears Woolf's idea on its sleeve, but the story wrings a great deal of power out of this single idea.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle

While I--Good Heaven!--have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms, the hides of oxen or seals, the felt of furred beats; and walk abroad a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature, where they would have rotted, to rot on me more slowly! ... Am I a botched mass of tailors' and cobblers' shreds, then; or a tightly-articulated, homogeneous little Figure, automatic, nay alive?

I really enjoyed Stanislaw Lem's collection of review of books that do not exist, A Perfect Vacuum, when I read it earlier this year.  Lem's book comes from a larger tradition of fake literary treatment that is traced back through Borges to Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, which claims to be a commentary on a book by one Diogenes Teufelsdrockh called Clothes, their Origin and Influence.  The whole exercise, like in Lem and Borges, is inherently silly: Teufelsdrockh is a "Professor of Things in General," and his name means "Devil's Turd."

The effectiveness of the genre comes from the author's ability to discuss ideas without wholly committing to them.  There's a lot of tension between the unnamed Editor, who only dimly seems to understand Teufelsdrockh or his clothes-philosophy, and Teufelsdrockh himself.  Are we supposed to agree with the Editor that Teufelsdrockh is stylistically obscure, and philosophically extreme?  Or are we supposed to reject the Editor's (relative) literalism and shortsightedness?

The Editor hopes that having some biographical information about Teufelsdrockh will help; so he writes away to the Professor for any relevant information.  What he gets is a mess of receipts, scraps, and notes, organized for no apparent reason into six bags labeled with the signs of the Zodiac.  Teufelsdrockh's life, as the Editor sorts it out, is a kind of parody of the hypersensitive young hero of The Sorrows of Young Werther, whose trouble in the sensual world leads him to embrace the life of the mind.  Teufelsdrockh doesn't kill himself, like Werther; instead he writes a philosophy about clothes.

For Teufelsdrockh, and perhaps Carlyle, clothes represent the symbolic order of things: a monk is made by his cowl, a king by his crown, et cetera.  But the symbolic order of things is very important, and in fact, may be the closest language we have to the divine.  I really liked this passage, which I'm going to use in the future when my students wonder if an author really meant to include that symbol in her novel:

Have not I myself known five hundred living soldiers sabred into crows' meat, for a piece of glazed cotton, which they called their Flag; which, had you sold it at any market-cross, would not have brought above three groschen?  Did not the whole Hungarian Nation rise, like some tumultuous moon-stirred Atlantic, when Kaiser Joseph pocketed their Iron Crown; an implement as was sagaciously observed, in size and commercial value, little differing from a horse-shoe?  It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously lives, works, and has his being: those ages, moreover, are accounting the noblest which can the best recognise symbolical worth, and prize it to the highest.  For is not a Symbol ever, to him who has eyes for it, some dimmer or clearer revelation of the Godlike?

Sartor Resartus, beneath its silliness and floridity, is an investigation into what it means to be a human being.  Carlyle ends up endorsing a mind-body dualism that embraces man's spiritual nature without really attaching to any programmatic religion.  Teufelsdrockh moves from a Wertherian despondency and separation from religious ideals he calls the "Everlasting No" to an affirmation of the spiritual nature of the world called the "Everlasting Yes."  For the Professor, what seems to matter is a willingness to see the world as properly spiritual, rather than sensual.  But then again, the book is so difficult, and the "clothes-philosophy" so removed from Carlyle himself that I could be completely wrong.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

Some people make us feel more human and some people make us feel less human  and this is a fact as much as gravity is a fact and maybe there are ways to prove it, but the proof of it matters less than the existence of it--how a stranger can show up and look at you and make you make more sense to yourself and the world, even if that sense is extremely fragile and only comes around occasionally and is prone to wander or fade--what matters is that sometimes sense is made between two people and I don't know if it's random or there is any kind of order to it, what combinations of people work the best and why and how do we find these people and how do we keep these people around, and I don't know if it's chaos or not chaos but it feels like chaos to me so I suppose it is. 
We meet Elyria, the narrator of Nobody is Ever Missing on the side of the road in New Zealand where she is hitchhiking her way to the farm of an author she has met only once. It slowly becomes clear that Elyria is in the middle of a long overdue unraveling and her inner monologue vacillates between rambling spirals and flashes of clarity. The book shifts between flashbacks to the traumas that led her here--her sister's suicide, the slow death of her marriage--and her slow and erratic progress through New Zealand. She has left her husband, job, and family behind without warning--simply walking out of the door and onto a plane, and her choices throughout feel just as abrupt and illogical as that first one. She wanders deeper and deeper into her own mind as the book progresses and becomes harder and harder to follow both literally and figuratively.

Elyria's slow fall into mental illness feels eerily possible. Where she ends up--lost, alone, and broke on the other side of the planet--seems totally out of reach and alien, but the steps that get her there are terrifyingly small. The slow accumulation of crazy is something that I always feel like could be just around the corner, and Lacey does a nice job of capturing those minute shifts that get us there. Elyria's moments of more delirious stream of consciousness have just the right balance of thoughts you've had with thoughts you like to think you'd never have that you wonder just how far off you really are. Her sentences trip into long, run-on paragraphs with just enough to ground you but plenty to knock you off your guard.

The glimpses into her life before--both the tragic and the mundane moments--are written with much more clarity, much more stability, but her isolation and sadness still lurk below the surface. Some of these, especially those describing her relationship with her husband, are especially beautiful and sad:
His oldest friends always said he looked the same as he had at college graduation but I knew his face closely enough to know that wasn't true--I knew I had missed so many delicate years of life and the man I had married was the hard remainder; I had missed years of innocent longing and late nights and odd jobs and girlfriends who were now mothers of someone else's children. I had missed wrinkleless eyes and his hair before the grey crept in and his mouth before it had said I love you to other people, shadowy other women I never knew, would never know. All those selves my husband practiced in the decade before me felt unfair because my past didn't have any of those secret selves because everyone's childhood and adolescence are more or less the same, dear struggle, and my husband had seen me change from an old child to a young adult and I didn't have a past like he did--I didn't have a smoother version of me tucked away in other people's memories. 
I loved this passage. I love the intimacy of "tucked away" at the end, the idea that all the iterations of our former selves are being carried around in the pockets of friends and lovers and parents. I remember so well  The contrast between these moments and her spirals of anxiety and paranoia make her fall that much more tragic and frustrating.

I read this book in a day. The pages flew by; usually I hate paragraph long stream of consciousness sentences, but here they had a movement, a rhythm, and a purpose that made them manageable. I was often very frustrated with Elyria; she seems simultaneously so capable of insight and so oblivious to her effect on others that I wanted to shake her, but that's kind of the point. Her husband infuriated me; we don't get his side of the story, but even without it, he seems callous and uncaring in his dismissal of her even when it is clear that she is in the midst of a breakdown. She isn't a particularly reliable narrator so there may be entire chapters in their relationship that have gone missing, but I was still shocked at how little he seemed willing to care for her.

There is a lot to unhouse you here, but the thing that has stuck with me, even afterward, is how seamlessly a person can slip from rational to irrational, how razor thin the edge is between having crazy thoughts and being a crazy person. Elyria glides too effortlessly between the two, and that, more than anything, crawled under my skin and sat there.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and now much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom's life her own fault? Where does the blame stop and sympathy begin?
Vance, a self-proclaimed hillbilly (an affectionate term when coming from him), traces his family's (infrequent) rises and (much more frequent) falls in Jackson, Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio--a town so replete with former Kentuckians Vance dubs it "Middletucky." After reading Arlie Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land, I was hoping for the other side of the story, and, on some level Vance provided. This is much more a memoir than it is an anthropological study (although Vance does bring social science into the picture with statistics and studies to reinforce his reflections); Vance rarely strays from his experiences or those of his immediate family, so we get a narrow slice, but it's a deep slice. As Christopher points out in his much more eloquent review, it feels meaningful to get the perspective of someone who is actually from this community, not a liberal academic outsider.

While Vance is an insider, he is also an anomaly. After a stint in the Marines, he attends Ohio State and then Yale Law; the only graduate of his high school to attend an Ivy League school. He's an exception to the rule in Middletown, but he's also an exception to the rule at Yale, prompting another series of questions:
Why has no one else from my high school made it to the Ivy League? Why are people like me so poorly represented in America's elite institutions? Why is domestic strife so common in families like mine? Why did I think that places like Yale and Harvard were so unreachable? Why did successful people feel so different?
The book is peppered with questions like these; some of them are answered, but many of them are not, at least not definitively. Which gets, I think, at the core of why we're in so much trouble: there aren't simple solutions to the questions and problems that plague our poorest communities. There isn't a clear way to connect the dots back to where it started or plan or legislate our way out. Vance doesn't offer much in the way of policy solutions or culture shifts that would solve the alienation and destruction of the Appalachian poor. He made it out himself, but his success story seems like such an abnormality--an alignment of supports and challenges at just the right times--that it's hardly a prescription.

He is able to pin both his success and the stagnation of those around him on a few broad themes. As has been chronicled and explored elsewhere, the devastation left behind as rust belt jobs died out has left communities like Middletown stuck in cycles of poverty that seem impossible to break out of. Section 8 housing further segregates these communities, and drug and alcohol use push them further away from upward mobility. None of this is particularly novel, but hearing the individual stories of family members living out these cycles did make it more real.

Vance is more engaging, though, when he treads on more controversial ground. Ground that he is perhaps uniquely qualified to tread on, and ground that armchair liberals are (perhaps reasonably) less willing to touch. One of the issues that he sees is the decline of the work ethic that made his grandparents successful: "To the average Middletonian, hard work doesn't matter as much as raw talent." He gives dozens of examples of the low expectations and fixed mindsets that plagued his high school classmates, and while part of me was made very uneasy reading this, Vance grounds it in anecdote and data enough to make it feel a little less subjective. A quote from one of his teachers made me actually laugh out loud on the subway because I had had almost verbatim the same conversation with a student that day: "You have the kids who plan on being baseball players, but don't even play on the high school team because coach is mean to them." This is a mentality I see over and over again in my own students, and one that I have no trouble believing is pervasive in both urban poor and rural poor communities. Add onto that a toxic dose of pride (preventing men from seeking "women's work" or even part time jobs lacking prestige), and people get permanently stuck. This discussion of stagnation left me a little uncomfortable; whether it is with my students or with Vance's hillbillies, I'm reluctant to pin the downfall of entire communities on what amounts to laziness. I think Vance is on to something, but he doesn't delve deep enough here into where these attitudes come from. He discusses the ways in which conservative ideology has encouraged this kind of thinking--"there is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day"--but again, doesn't really get at how or why.

Vance credits his own ability to break that mold on his grandparents who consistently reinforced that hard work paid off, that change was possible with effort. In other words, his grandparents fed him a steady diet of Carol Dweck until he believed in himself enough to break out. His grandmother, in particular, was his savior; the one who consistently pushed, motivated and encouraged him. If there is a solution to poverty presented in this book, it is this: one (or, ideally several) adults who provide a stable, trauma-free safety net and plenty of growth mindset frames for success. If my own students are any measure of this theory, it definitely seems plausible. The hard part is that mandating stable households is not a reasonable policy position, so offering this as a solution to a broader problem doesn't work.

Clearly, I wanted more solutions from this book than Vance was willing to offer. It's hard to blame him since the point of memoirs isn't to present possible solutions, but I do think that grappling with the questions Vance poses and immersing oneself his world is a part of the larger solution. I was struck with the commonalities between him and my students, but also between him and myself (while I am white, I'm not sure I could be more culturally distant). Even without spelled out solutions, a glance into this world is definitely a first step.

The Chess Garden by Brooks Hansen

Dear Sonja,

How is one to know, I wonder, if a backgammon counter is sleeping, or if its only resting?  If it is dreaming or daydreaming, and what of its dreams--what must they contain?  Beside me lies the answer--polished, red, round, and perfectly still--a young counter and my newest friend.  Still, I haven't the faintest idea if it is napping now, or listening in as I compose my thoughts for you.

Once every few weeks, the adults and children of Dayton, Ohio gather in the Chess Garden of Mrs. Sonja Uyterhoeven--so called because it has long been a place where people of all ages have gathered to play chess and other games, using the many sets that the Uyterhoevens have collected over the years--to listen to the latest letter from Sonja's husband Gustav, who has set off to visit a mysterious land called the Antipodes.  The Antipodes, he writes, are inhabited by sentient game pieces.  Most of those he meets are chess figures, but also checkers, dice, and backgammon counters.  And from time to time, as if heralding a letter about to arrive, mysterious chess pieces appear in the garden, too.

The letters themselves are terrific fantasy, borrowing equally from Tolkien and Lewis Carroll.  Dr. Uyterhoeven's letters contain no end of arresting images: a dripping tree of candles, making wax stalacites; a chasm of rolling, colliding dice that forces the hands of chance; a group of monks piecing together fallen leaves like a puzzle.  Uyterhoeven's letters tell how he meets Eugene, the keeper of "goods"--that is, objects that embody the essence of their type.  Break the "good" ladder, and everyone in the Antipodes might forget what a ladder is and what it is for.  Uyterhoeven becomes caught between two forces in the Antipodes, one who wants to protect these goods, and a cabal of shadowy figures who wants to collect and break them all, sending the Antipodes into a kind of forgetful infancy.

These letters take up about half the novel; the rest is the story of Dr. Uyterhoeven's life.  We learn that he is a famous Dutch physician who comes under fire for supporting homeopathic medicine.  In a world of rationalism, Uyterhoeven is a vitalist, one who believes that life is an animating force separate from biology or phyiscs.  He objects not only to the prevailing medical ideas of pathology but the very idea of cause itself.  The letters from the Antipodes are a kind of expression of these ideals, exploring the possibility of bridging reason and the spirit, which is apart from words.  Could destroying the words, and getting down to the spirit of things, be an invigorating moment, rather than a terrifying one?

Dr. Uyterhoeven isn't in the Antipodes, of course; he's in South Africa, treating those ravaged by the onset of the Boer Wars.  He's old enough to know that he won't return from such a trip, and the letters are a last link to his community, and his wife, the mother of a son who died in childhood.  This loss informs everything about the letters, which are in the idiom of children, those who the Doctor has devoted his late life to teaching chess.  But the message is really to Sonja, and their message of linking the reasoning to the spiritual world is meant to preserve their connection to each other, and to their lost son.

A while back I asked my friends a question: What's the best book you've read that no one else you know has read?  This is the first response I got--from my friend Greg--that I've gotten around to reading, and I'm glad I did.  The Chess Garden manages a fine balance of whimsy, pathos, and deep intelligence that is rare.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Love becomes the deposit of the heart, analogous in all degrees to the "findings" in a tomb.  As in one will be charted the taken place of the body, the raiment, the utensils necessary to its other life, so in the heart of the lover will be traced, as an indelible shadow, that which he loves.  In Nora's heart lay the fossil of Robin, intaglio of her identity, and about it for its maintenance ran Nora's blood.

What is the great gay novel?  Forget the homoerotic and the homosocial, what is the great novel about gay lives as they're lived?  It's arresting to stop and think about how few there have been, especially considering how many of our greatest writers have been queer of some stripe or another.  Carson McCullers and Evelyn Waugh went at it obliquely, Virginia Woolf in the mode of legend; E. M. Forster went at it head on but felt as if he couldn't publish.  Even Oscar Wilde flaunted his queerness more in life than in fiction.

So it's worth pausing to observe just what a rare bird Djuna Barnes' Nightwood is: a novel about explicitly gay relationships from 1936, and lesbian ones at that, which seems even rarer.  It's the story of Robin Vote, for whose love many people nearly ruin themselves: Felix, the fraud aristocrat who marries Robin and has a son, Nora Flood, who introduces her to the love of women, and the horrendous Jenny Petherbridge, who steals Robin jealously from Nora.  These four are brought together by the figure of Matthew O'Connor, a flamboyant and philosophical doctor prone to go on long discursive jags.

Nightwood is, at the level of the sentence, one of the most difficult books I have ever read.  Do you know what it means to say that the "foetus of symmetry nourishes itself on cross purposes?"  If so, please let me know.  Perhaps you could explain this Homeric simile:

Such a person's every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory; as insupportable joy as would be the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear, stepping in the trepidation of flesh that will become myth; as the unicorn is neither man nor beast deprived, but human hunger pressing its beast to its prey.

Sentences that begin in familiar ways go quickly south, or sideways.  Jeanette Winterson wrote the introduction for this edition, and it's easy to see Barnes' influence (for the worse, I'd say) on her work.  But the unexpectedness of Barnes' prose is equally likely to throw up an unforgettable phrase or sentence, as when she describes Robin's timeless clothing as making her look "newly ancient," or Matthew's assertion that humans "are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality."  Matthew advises Felix to treat the mind of his peculiar son with care, "like a bowl picked up in the dark."  I particularly loved the simple beauty of Barnes' description of Robin and Nora in love with "their two heads in their four hands."

The middle section of the book is a long conversation between Nora and Matthew, both equally distraught.  Nora because Robin is gone, and Matthew because he was born a man.  (As Nora storms into his room in the middle of the night, she catches him in a gown and wig.)  His confession about his own sense of misplaced identity resounds strongly with the current cultural recognition of transgender men and women, and strikingly captures the feeling of being born wrong:

Misericordia, am I not the girl to know of what I speak?  We go to our Houses by our nature--and our nature, no matter how it is, we all have to stand--as for me, so God has made me, my house is the pissing port.  Am I to blame if I've been summoned before and this my last and oddest call?  In the old days I was possibly a girl in Marseilles thumping the dock with a sailor, and perhaps it's that memory that haunts me.  The wise men say that the remembrance of things past is all that we have for a future, and am I to blame if I've turned up this time as I shouldn't have been, when it was a high soprano I wanted, and deep corn curls to my bum, with a womb as big as the king's kettle, and a bosom as high as the bowsprit of a fishing schooner?  And what do I get but a face on me like an old child's bottom--is that a happiness, do you think?

"God," Matthew tells Nora, "I never asked better than to boil some good man's potatoes and toss up a child for him every nine months by the calendar."  Barnes' style is fittingly alien, coming from the world of the "invert," as Matthew calls himself and Nora, attuned to the improvisational and marginal nature of queer folks.  We have a language for these things now--sometimes a deadening language, I often think--but much of the pleasure and challenge of Nightwood is seeing Barnes invent such a language on the fly.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

"For example, then," continued Holgrave.  "A dead man, if he happen to have made a will, disposes of wealth no longer his own; or, if he die intestate, it is distributed in accordance with the notions of men much longer dead than he.  A dead man sits on all our judgment seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions.  We read in dead men's books!  We laugh at dead men's jokes, and cry at dead men's pathos!  We are sick of dead men's diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients!  We worship the living Deity according to dead men's forms and creeds.  Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, an icy head obstructs us!  Turn our eyes to what point we may, a dead man's white, immitigable face encounters them, and freezes our very heart!  And we must be dead ourselves before we can have our proper influence on the world, which will be no longer our world, but the world of another generation, with which we shall have no shadow of a right to interfere.  I ought to have said, too, that we live in dead men's houses; as, for instance, in this of the Seven Gables!"

In Puritan New England, Colonel Pyncheon manages to swindle the poor Matthew Maule out of a plot of land that Pyncheon uses to build a great, seven-gabled house.  Maule, accused of witchcraft, uses his last breath before he is hanged to curse the house and the Pyncheon family, declaring, "God hath given them blood to drink!"  And true enough, on the day of his housewarming party, Colonel Pyncheon is found dead in his study as if by an unseen hand.

The main narrative of The House of Seven Gables occurs 150 years later, as the Pyncheon family, having come down in the world, still struggles under the weight of Maule's curse.  The only inhabitants of the House of the Seven Gables are Hepzibah, an elderly woman forced to open a store to make ends meet, and a daguerreotypist named Holgrave who rents a room.  To this are quickly added the sunny, saintly Phoebe, a Pyncheon cousin, and Clifford Pyncheon, released after thirty years of wrongful imprisonment and unsurprisingly maladjusted to the outside world.  A wealthy cousin, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, lurks at the edge of the story with some very vague evil intent.

Once you take Hawthorne's prose with a grain of salt, his books are a lot of fun.  He violates that first principle of modern writing--show, don't tell--with such gleeful abandon and wordiness that I often laugh.  At the same time, his writing is not very difficult, on the level of the sentence, and there's something delightful about the sheer weirdness and silliness he's capable of.  (I particularly like the detail of the old chicken family, made imbecile by inbreeding, that Hawthorne uses as a representation of the Pyncheons.)  And he also manages to capture really finely nuanced human emotions and relationships in a way that the modern show-don't-tell-iness leaves intentionally vague.

The best parts of The House of Seven Gables are all historical: the story of Colonel Pyncheon and Matthew Maule, and another interstitial story about a descendant of Maule who uses his powers of mesmerism to bind young Alice Pyncheon to him for life.  The "modern-day" narrative, which tries to show us how the curse lives on in the penury of Hepzibah and the injustice done against Clifford, shies away from a direct approach of the supernatural and puts more demands on the reader's patience.  The novel's major flaw is that Hawthorne jealously reserves two pieces of crucial information until the end--spoiler alert: that Holgrave is a descendant of Matthew Maule, and that it's Jaffrey Pyncheon who committed the murder for which Clifford took the fall.  Hawthorne reserves these facts to give us a kind of typical Gothic reveal at the end, but I wonder if knowing these things wouldn't deepen the relationships between Holgrave and Phoebe--thrust together from warring families like Romeo and Juliet--or Clifford and Jaffrey.  (It seems typically Hawthornean that Jaffrey's whole role in the story is to walk past the house and be menacing, then finally get inside and immediately die in an arm chair.)

The big theme of The House of Seven Gables is the past: the way that it exerts an effect on the living, and the possibility of escape or reconciliation.  Holgrave's marriage to Phoebe and the death of Jaffrey, who looks exactly like the portrait of old Colonel Pyncheon, put the curse to rest once and for all.  In this way it doesn't have the complexity or conflicted nature of The Scarlet Letter.  Like a lot of Gothic novels, it really has a heart of pure sunshine.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

In open spaces people begin to think about the world of possibilities, about things that might happen that they couldn't have foreseen: possibly our daughter will grow up to be president, possibly swords will be beaten into plowshares, possibly we will all climb into spaceships and go live on the moon.  The substance of things hoped for, an endless open field.  But there's another region in that realm, and it's actually the biggest spot on the map: that place in which none of this will happen at all, and everything instead will remain exactly as it is--quiet, unremarkable, well ordered and well lit, just exactly enough of everything for the people within its boundaries.  A little drab from the outside, maybe: slow, or plain.  But who will ever see it, or learn the subtleties of its textures, the specific tensions of its warp and weft?  You have to get inside to see anything worth seeing, you have to listen long enough to hear the music.  Or possibly that's a thing you just tell yourself when it becomes clear you won't be leaving.  Sometimes that seems more likely.  It's hard to say for sure.

In his work as The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle has always had an ear for a sort of young small-town anguish.  Jeremy, the Nevada, Iowa video store clerk in his new novel Universal Harvester is one of those, toiling not unhappily in his small and unexceptional place in the universe.  When he considers "getting out" of Nevada, it's not the dream of rock and roll stardom he indulges in, but the possibility of taking a shipping job in Des Moines.

Against this backdrop Darnielle introduces a story drawn from the horror tropes of the Blair Witch Project.  Jeremy, watching one of the video store tapes, finds a scene spliced in of a woman with a burlap sack over her head, in what seems to be an empty building in a local cornfield.  Others are found by customers, each brief and chilling.  Some of these scenes are tremendously affecting, as when an unidentified hand draws a menacing face on the sack over the subject's face.

It's a great premise that Darnielle, I'm sad to say, mostly squanders.  He teases the possibility of a teen-movie partnership between Jeremy and his local crush, who's interested in the tapes, but keeps getting distracted by the minutiae--fast food restaurants and big box stores, a kind of particular American poetry that Darnielle loves--of Jeremy's world.  And then, with the mystery of the tapes still in its amniotic stages, he shuffles us off to narrative in which a woman, who is obscurely connected to the tapes, slowly detaches from her family to join a Christian cult.

Spoiler alert--it's the abandoned daughter from this narrative who's been splicing the tapes.  To what end?  No satisfactory end is given to this question, and I think we are meant to take the unsatisfactoriness as a sign of human mystery, but mostly it leaves the book feeling limp and unconsidered.  A third narrative, in which a brother and sister discover the tapes a decade after Jeremy does, shuttles the promise of returning to the story of Jeremy completely.  Universal Harvester is like a book started three times, but never really ended.

I was disappointed not to like Universal Harvester more; I love Darnielle's music and I liked his first novel, Wolf in White Van.  The two novels share a lot, including the way Darnielle sets the ghoulish against the troubling banality of the 20th century American landscape.  In Darnielle's imagination, monsters don't appear at the windows of charming New England cottages, but at, like, an Arby's.  And the meditations on small-town prairie life are some of the best parts of Universal Harvester, but they hang loosely from an ungainly plot.

Monday, May 29, 2017

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

"There's all different types of ways to leave somebody. Maybe it's sadder that she's there, and she just feels far away."
Wilkerson Sexton's debut novel follows three generations of a New Orleans family from the depths of 1940s Jim Crow up through the ravages of Katrina and the War on Drugs. Despite being only 250 pages long, the novel has massive range and Wilkerson Sexton weaves amongst the three story lines effortlessly, giving us depth and connection in short vignettes. The narrative arc is heartbreaking and riveting, and the depiction of New Orleans is nuanced and almost as interesting as the characters' evolution.

The novel starts us off in the thick of WWII with Evelyn falling for Renard, an orphaned, penniless student and disappointing her father, a black doctor who wants more for his daughter. Renard goes off to war to help fund his education and to try to build a space for himself in an America that seems to reluctant to claim him. This sets up the two central tensions of the novel: the private push and pull of parents and their children and the historic riptide of racism and discrimination which drags the characters back no matter how hard they strive for more.

Evelyn and Renard have Jackie who falls for charismatic Terry. Terry, after climbing his way to a successful job as a pharmacist falls prey to the crack epidemic, and leaves Jackie and their son T.C. to fend for herself. T.C., despite his mother and grandmother's best efforts becomes entrenched in drugs and is caught in an endless cycle of incarceration. The fierce, almost self-destructive love these mothers feel for their children is a thread throughout the novel, as is their frequent inability to express that same love effectively. The central heartbreak is that everyone is trying so hard to break the cycle, to do the right thing, to rise above, and it just never quite seems to be enough.

The circular narrative, turning from decade to decade, sets us up with the idea from the start that the backslide is going to keep dragging these characters, especially T.C., back. The women for the most part seem to find solace in their roles as partners and mothers, but each of the men seems to struggle to find his place in the world. Their struggle to provide for their families through the various societal barriers set up to hold them back seems to destroy each of them in different ways, but the men all seem far more broken than their female counterparts. Evelyn's father, the earliest and most successful of these men, is hyper aware of how tenuous his position is, and that awareness is almost as painful as the others' inability to climb as high.

New Orleans is its own character here, and her evolution over half a century is beautifully and tragically documented. The devastation of Katrina felt especially potent and Wilkerson Sexton's ability to capture enormous pain in a single detail shone through in the Katrina chapters:
They were halfway to Alabama when the Levee broke. Daryl, his brother from another mother, the friend he'd walked to school with every day for 15 years, had decided to ride it out. They got word three weeks later that his body was found in his house under a moldering sofa. 
Her sentences pack serious punch and stick with you: bodies under moldering sofas are hard to forget. Wilkerson Sexton gives this same, surgically precise and sharp treatment to each of the historical aspects of the narrative; she doesn't shy away from or gloss over the atrocities, but she doesn't overblow them either. This is a personal account, not a journalistic one, and it feels that way.

It isn't all bad news; each generation is able to find redemption at least on some small level. There is hope in each new generation, and T.C.'s son leaves us with a glimmer that things could be on the upswing. Maybe.

This is the part where I admit that I got to read this because Margaret is my friend and asked me to read an early copy. I am so so so impressed with this novel--with its scope and its specificity, with the joy and the pain contained therein. Read it! Tell your friends to read it! Push it on your friends who read only dead white dudes! In a world where the "bootstraps" narrative continues to rear its ugly head in discussions of race and inequality, it's a powerful, well-written reminder that hard work is rarely enough.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

[A]s I looked down now on the crowds in Oxford Street and stroked Mars's head I felt neither happy nor sad, only rather unreal, like a man shut in a glass.  Events stream past us like these crowds and the face of each is seen only for a minute.  All work and all love, the search for wealth and fame, the search for truth, life itself, are made up of moments which pass and become nothing.  Yet through this shaft of nothings we drive onward with that miraculous vitality that creates our precarious habitations in the past and the future.  So we live; a spirit that broods and hovers over the continual death of time, the lost meaning, the unrecaptured moment, the unremembered face, until the final chop chop that ends all our moments and plunges that spirit back into the void from which it came.

To the loyal readers (lol) of our little blog here, I'd like to apologize for using the same excerpt Chris did in his review. But it's such a razor-sharp, poignant piece of writing. Let's just savor it for a moment, shall we?

Aaaand... done. And now let's consider the sad fact that this piece of writing, wonderful as it is, can never really communicate to us as readers what Murdoch intended for it to communicate. If thinking about that makes you feel a little melancholy, you might like Under the Net. If it makes you chuckle at the absurdity of life, giggle at the realization that we can never really burrow into the brains of others and know exactly what they mean, then you should pick this up right now. That gauzy haze of miscommunication hangs heavy over Under the Net which is, I should clarify, not a heavy book.

Jake Donaghue is a translator of books he doesn't like, living with a girlfriend he doesn't love, coasting through a life he barely understands. When his girlfriend gets engaged--to another man, naturally--Jake's search for a new place to stay leads him to an old flame, Anna Quentin, and, eventually, to his old philosophical sparring partner, Hugo Belfounder, an eccentric millionaire who owns a firework factory. In the course of things, Jake kidnaps a dog, breaks into a hospital, crashes a mime theater performance, and, in my favorite setpiece, gets corned by police on a film set and is saved by Hugo pulling a huge firework out of his pocket and blowing a hole in the wall, bringing down ancient Rome around their ears. Pretentions, Under the Net is not.

At the same time, much of the book sits on the melancholy foundation of obfuscated ideas, muffled relationships, and the improbability of true connection. Repeatedly, plans are thwarted and friendships strained by a misunderstood word or misconstrued action. Life exists in the moment for Jake and his friends, and any moment can be the one that alters things forever, usually on accident.

But, as befits a novel with such a light tone--I laughed out loud several times reading it--the conclusion is hopeful, if still realistic. Maybe full disclosure never is possible--perhaps we'll always be trying to project our whole self through a keyhole, as David Foster Wallace says--but Jake finally reaches a pleasant stasis, his life once again open-ended and hopeful. Whether we always understand each other or not, Murdoch seems to say, we must muddle through anyway, and take what pleasure we can in the muddling.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

From the minute the dragon of our fertility came on the scene, we learned to chain it up and forget about it. Fertility meant nothing to us in our twenties; it was something to be secured in the dungeon and left there to molder. In our early thirties, we remembered it existed and wondered if we should check on it, and then--abruptly, horrifyingly--it became urgent: Somebody find that dragon! It was time to rouse it, get it ready for action. But the beast had not grown stronger during the decades of hibernation. By the time we tried to wake it, the dragon was weakened, wizened. Old. 
Ariel Levy's memoir is not for the faint of heart. After building a an elaborate dream life for herself, she guides us through its brutal dismantling. She tells us "When I got on the plane to Mongolia, I was pregnant, living with my spouse, moving to a lovely apartment, and financially insulated by a wealthy man. A month later, none of that was true." The memoir centers around the twinned tragedies of Levy's loss of her baby in her second trimester and the disintegrating of her relationship with her wife.

A few paragraphs in to the chapter, late in the memoir, where Levy describes her miscarriage, I remembered that I had read the New Yorker article the entire book is based off of (which went on to win her an award). The article (and the chapter) describe in vivid detail her miscarriage in a hotel bathroom in Mongolia, a loss so awful and graphic that I had trouble revisiting it again. As if that weren't enough, her alcoholic wife Lucy spirals away from her, and Levy ends up cutting herself off soon after her return. The grief she describes is so deep and sharp and gut wrenching that it can be hard to read, and it's made worse by the unintentional cruelty of others: the suggestion that if only she hadn't flown to Mongolia, the baby would have been fine (something every doctor seems to refute) or, my least favorite, the refrain that "Everything happens for a reason." Levy is careful not to come to this conclusion, and it was refreshing to read a memoir filled with real, visceral pain that didn't try to pair it with too much saccharine reflection on the broader meaning of suffering.

The notion of privilege came up again and again for me in this book. My own heteronormative privilege guided my assumptions throughout the opening chapters; Levy refers to her "spouse" who I just assumed was a man. I could have sworn that I remembered reading the word "husband" and re-read the first few pages only to find that I had gendered her partner myself. Despite being a woman in a male-centric journalism world, Levy does exhibit her own massive privilege before her fall--she is hugely successful almost by accident, and builds a career and a life seemingly effortlessly. Her success, however, doesn't shield her from the terrifying lack of control that comes with pregnancy, and it means she falls from that much higher a height. After the fall, the ease with which practical strangers comment on her reproductive decisions is shocking but also familiar: pregnancy and motherhood seem to give anyone license to share their expertise and opinion, and tragedy during pregnancy doesn't shield Levy from that rule.

This was a rough one to read as a woman in her thirties who has already entered a (hopefully permanent) partnership and is considering motherhood. The degree to which none of any of this is within our control is just terrifying, and I'm not sure I needed to read that miscarriage scene again, but Levy is funny and honest and makes a sympathetic guide.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

As he jumped the stile he heard the whirr of wings.  A black-backed gull dived down at him from the sky, missed, swerved in flight, and rose to dive again.  In a moment it was joined by others, six, seven, a dozen, black-backed and herring mixed.  Nat dropped his hoe.  The hoe was useless.  Covering his head with his arms he ran towards the cottage.  They kept coming at him from the air, silent save for the beating wings.  The terrible, fluttering wings.  He could feel the blood on his hands, his wrists, his neck.  Each stab of a swooping beak tore his flesh.  If only he could keep them from his eyes.  They had not learnt yet how to cling to a shoulder, how to strip clothing, how to dive in mass upon the head, upon the body.  But with each dive, with each attack, they became bolder.  And they had no thought for themselves.  When they dived low and missed, they crashed, bruised and broken, on the ground.  As Nat ran he stumbled, kicking their spent bodies in front of him.

I picked up the new NYRB collection of Daphne du Maurier's stories, Don't Look Now, because Brent had enjoyed it so much when he read it.  As it turns out, except for the title story, the collections are almost completely different.  Oh well.  That story, at least, is pretty good: a man and a woman vacationing in Italy after the loss of their daughter are approached by a set of older female twins, one of which claims to be able to see their dead daughter alongside them.  The woman is grateful and the man is skeptical.  And yet--while in the back alleys of Venice he sees a mysterious young girl hopping between the boats on the canal.  It's the kind of story where the details, like that one, suggest to you one ending, but the actual direction the story heads is completely unexpected.

Not so with "The Birds," which is far and away the best story here, and du Maurier's most famous, thanks to Hitchcock.  The premise is simple: one day, all the world's birds seem to declare war on the world's humans, and begin to attack.  There's no twists here, because it's a fight in which we're hopelessly outmatched--there's only one possible outcome, really.  The protagonist is a hardscrabble farmhand named Nat who is dedicated to protecting his family, boarding up the windows, scavenging his employers' house for good.  He's meant to contrast his gleeful boss, who heads out, foolhardy, with a gun, to see how many birds he can bag.

But he also contrasts the institutions of human society, which prove unable to meet the challenge of the birds.  In a modern film (one without Hitchcock's deftness, though even that is hardly the same as du Maurier's story) you'd have an obligatory scene in the president's war room, where they shout at each other about how their efforts are failing, but here, there's only the uncomfortable silence of the BBC Home channel on the radio in Nat's house.  Nat's wife asks why the planes they hear outside are dropping bombs, but Nat knows that what they're really hearing is the crashing of the planes.  It's chilling because it's not a personal or a private horror, but one that encompasses the whole world--yet it's deftly imagined through the lens of a single family.

Not all the stories are so successful.  I was underwhelmed by "Escort," which is like a hastily sketched version of the X-Files episode "Triangle."  "La Saint-Vierge" is essentially a dirty joke dressed up as a horror story.  I did like "Blue Lenses," in which a woman recovers from eye surgery to find that everyone's heads have been replaced by those of the animals that match their personality.  That story, which sounds so much like an episode of The Twilight Zone, has some of the same chilling absurdity of "The Birds."  I also liked the long final story, "Monte Verita," in which a mountain climbing-enthusiast loses his wife to a monastic community of women living in seclusion on a remote mountaintop, who are rumored to have discovered immortality.  Like "Don't Look Now," "Monte Verita" takes a good premise and adds a final, unexpected screw-turn that elevates the story and turns our expectations on their heads.  Du Maurier was an expert at that--just think about Rebecca--because the twists always seem to recontextualize the story and make it more awful, rather than a kind of cheap curtain-pulling.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Pitch Dark by Renata Adler

What's new? the biography of the opera star says she used to ask in every phone call, and What else?  I'm not sure the biographer understand another thing about the opera star, but I do believe that What's new.  What else.  They may be the first question of the story, of the morning, of consciousness.  What's new.  What else.  What next.  What's happened here, says the inspector, or the family man looking at the rubble of his house.  What's it to you, says the street tough or the bystander.  What's it worth to you, says the paid informer or the extortionist.  What is it now, says the executive or the husband, disturbed by the fifteenth knock at the door, or phone call, or sigh in the small hours of the night.  What does it mean, says the cryptographer.  What does it all mean, says the student or the philosopher on his barstool.  What do I care.  What's the use.  What's the matter.  What's the action.  What kind of fun is that.  Let me say that everyone's story in the end is the old whore's, or the Ancient Mariner's: I was not always as you see me now.  And the sentient man, the sentient person says in his heart, from time to time, What have I done.

I loved Renata Adler's Speedboat.  It seemed hardly like a novel; it was an effusion of anecdotes and impression that nevertheless told a story, because real stories--as they're lived--are like that.  They're not particularly linear, and they don't have the ancient unities of time and place.  Adler, a lifelong journalist, knew from observation the fitful and scattered nature of human life.

Pitch Dark, another of Adler's novels (the only other one?  I'm not sure) has much in common with Speedboat.  The frenetic pace and style is instantly recognizable; it cares no more about situating the reader in time, place, or narrative than that other novel.  Stories are told that seem to have little, perhaps nothing, to do with the main plot.  And it can, like Speedboat, be tremendously funny:

He mentioned the Ku Klux Klan.  He alluded to it several times, the Klan.  And each time, he referred to its membership, the members of the Klan, he called them.  Clamsmen.  No question about it, that's how he pronounced it.  Clamsmen.  It was no reflection on the Attorney General.  True, the judge's wife had never thought much of his diction.  True, in the court's most important decisions, he had been so often in dissent.  But the years had passed.  He had come to speak well and to do honor.  And this business of the Clamsmen, well, it may have had to do with molluscs, bivalves.  Even crustaceans.  I remember a young radical, in the sixties, denouncing her roommates as prawns of imperialism.

But at its heart, Pitch Dark is much more troubling, and troubled.  It simultaneously boasts a more coherent main narrative and is more disorienting.  It tells the story of Kate Ennis, a journalist who has ended a long-term affair with a married man.  And if you figured that out, good on you, because Adler is stingy with context.  In fact, the man's only presence is in a repeated motif of short dialogues and recurrent statements that are devoid of any context at all.  Adler repeats them, obsessively, many pages before she gives them context or explanation: "The truth was, there was something in the ice cube.""Not here, Diana said, to her lasting regret, to her own daughter, who approached her crying, in front of all those people."  "Did I throw the most important thing, perhaps, by accident away?"

All this contributes to an image of a woman who is not well; who has unraveled along with her love affair.  If Speedboat rejoices in the fragmentary and ad hoc nature of the world, Pitch Dark is a frightening warning about the dissolution of the mind and the soul.  The main narrative, such as it is, sees Kate taking up residence in a friend's Irish castle, where she suspects the staff and is tortured by the possibility that a local cop is planning to extort her after a fender bender.  She abandons her rental car, leaving it in Ireland in the dead of night--but the abandonment, in this book, comes far before the fender bender.  Kate's paranoia, we are meant to understand, is not exactly the consequence of the fender bender.

Living in a cabin, Kate feeds a raccoon who visits her daily:

He left through his crawl space as soon as he saw me.  But because, on every subsequent evening, he stayed longer and left less abruptly; because he returned most nights, and slouched, on the stove, leaning against the stove pipe, all night, until morning; because he sometimes touched, though rarely, the water I left in a dish beside the stove for him; because he was, after all, a wild thing, growing ever more docile; we arrived at our misunderstanding.  I thought he was growing to trust me, when in fact he was dying.  So are we all, of course.  But we do not normally mistake progressions of weakness, the loss of the simple capacity to escape, for the onset of love.

Ultimately, that's what Pitch Dark is about: mistakes, and love, and abandonment, and whether one of the last two, or both, are the same as the first.  "Did I throw the most important thing, perhaps, by accident away?"  It's a challenge where Speedboat is a delight, and sparing in its rewards, but intentionally so.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Indeed, Jasper's sole flaw, in Liz's opinion, apart from his girlfriend, was that he wore a gold ring from Stanford University, his alma mater; Lis did not care for either jewelry on men or academic ostentatiousness. But she actually was glad to have identified the one thing about Jasper she'd change, because it was similar to realizing what you'd forgotten to take on a trip, and if it were only perfume, as opposed to your driver's license, you were relieved. 
Sittenfeld wrote Eligible as part of the Austen Project, a series of modern retellings of Austen classics by contemporary authors. Eligible is an updated Pride and Prejudice, and, despite being based on an oft re-told Austen novel, it was exciting and fresh enough that I read it through in almost one sitting, including straight through two meals.

The novel takes its title from a Bachelor style show whose former star, Chip Bingley, has moved to Cincinnati to resume his career in medicine just as Liz and Jane Bennet come home from New York City to care for their aging father. At a barbecue, the Bennet sisters meet Chip (sparks fly between him and Jane) and his friend Fitzwilliam Darcy. The story proceeds predictably from there (with an entertaining, reality show twist at the end), but even though I knew exactly who everyone would end up with, I still couldn't put it down. Just as with Austen's novel, the Bennet sisters are unevenly portrayed--Liz and Jane have depth and substance; Kitty, Lydia, and Mary are one dimensional caricatures of themselves. Sittenfeld does sisters well, so the relationships, especially the more difficult ones, are satisfyingly written, but I was hoping for a little more, especially from Mary, the reclusive nerd whose biggest scandal is that she (spoiler alert) secretly bowls in a league every Tuesday.

Jasper, Eligible's George Wickham, is pretty awful right from the start (more obviously so than I remember Wickham being), and he makes Liz a little less credible. She falls for every trick in the book, and even though the ultimate deception isn't revealed until later, it's clear from the get-go to all the rest of us that she's being strung along. Liz's terrible taste in men is balanced out by her wry observations of her dysfunctional family, especially her sisters:
About a year before, Kitty and Lydia had embraced CrossFit, the intense strength and conditioning regimen that involved weight lifting, kettle bells, battle ropes, obscure acronyms, the eschewal of most foods other than meat, and a derisive attitude toward the weak and unenlightened masses who still believed that jogging was a sufficient workout and a bagel was an acceptable breakfast. Naturally, all Bennets except Kitty and Lydia were among these masses. 
This wasn't the most cerebral book I've read this year, but it was really fun. Sittenfeld carefully brings even the most peripheral characters into the modern age, and I loved rediscovering them in their new setting. Sittenfeld has to go a little farther to titillate her 21st century audience (the updated Darcy and Liz also have "hate sex," one of the sisters falls for a trans man, and Jasper's scandal goes a few steps further than Wickhams), but it never felt ridiculous or overblown. If you're an Austen fan who can handle some liberties being taken with a classic, read it!

Stoner by John Williams

In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion, toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia.  Now in his middle age he began to know that it was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified moment by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart.

William Stoner is the son of dirt-poor Missouri farmers, and when he goes off to the University of Missouri it's to enter the agricultural program so that he in turn can become a better farmer.  He's a good student, but meets his match in the English program, where a cantankerous teacher demands to know what Shakespeare's Sonnet 73 (my favorite) means.  Stoner is unable to answer, but the mystery has awakened something to him, and he embarks on the long and lonely life of an English academic.

Williams, like Stoner, was a relatively unimportant academic who toiled in obscurity.  It's easy to overdo the parallels and wonder if he too suffered from an unhappy marriage to a neurotic socialite, or finally found love as a late-life affair with a younger colleague.  But certainly Williams knew something of the life as lived by Stoner, measured not in its successes--Stoner publishes only one book, mediocrely reviewed, which bestows upon him a pride not related to its quality--but in its ineffable quietness and dignity.  At the book's end, on Stoner's deathbed, he thinks of himself as having been like a clergyman of literature, having led a monastic life.  Williams' prose, sometimes self-consciously plain, is designed to complement Stoner exactly.

What was it like to read this, as a teacher?  Well, I recognized certainly the feeling of "knowing something through words that could not be put in words"--perhaps as good a defense of the value of literature as ever written.  And I recognized, too, the way in which the things that touch you most deeply about the study of literature as being those things which are impossible to impress upon your students:

Always, from the time he had fumbled through his first classes of freshman English, he had been aware of the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom.  He had hoped that time and experience would repair the gulf; but they had not done so.  Those things that he held most deeply were most profoundly betrayed when he spoke of them to his classes; what was most alive withered in his words; and what moved him most became cold in its utterance.

I recognized also, I'm sad to say, the kind of student represented in the text by Charles Walker: the knowitall who really knows nothing, mistakes platitudes for depth, and despises the tedious and elaborate work of analysis without knowing he really despises it.  In Stoner's case, it's his noble insistence that Walker should not be awarded a degree that puts him at odds with the chairman of the English department and scuttles his chances of professional enjoyment or advancement for decades.  In this way Stoner is one of those stories in which a good man is attacked on all sides by selfishness and vindictiveness, and even his goodness turned into a weapon to destroy him.  But it's the simplicity of Stoner's motives that make his nobility believable, and his suffering, such as it is, profound.

I have always wondered: can anyone really write about failure, or mediocrity, successfully?  It seems to me that even the most affecting literary accounts of these things are tempered by the very fact that you can read them, that they are, in a sense, successes.  Even Williams won a National Book Award in his lifetime, though the recently renewed attention to his work is (apparently) thanks to a new posthumous French translation.  But Stoner comes as close to anything I've ever read at finding the value in a life quietly and unobtrusively lived.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard

Engaging as their legends are--particularly as enhanced by Robert Louis Stevenson and Walt Disney--the true story of the pirates of the Caribbean is even more captivating; a long-lost tale of tyranny and resistance, a maritime revolt that shook the very foundations of the newly formed British Empire, bringing transatlantic commerce to a standstill and fueling the democratic sentiments that would later drive the American revolution.  At its center was a pirate republic, a zone of freedom in the midst of an authoritarian age.

Psychologists say you're more willing to accomplish something if you commit to it by sharing your goal with others, so: I'm trying to write a book.  It involves, for some reason, pirates.  But like most people, I think, what I know about pirates is filtered through the lens of Hollywood movies, bad cartoons, and my childhood abridged copy Treasure Island: yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, etc., etc.  So I picked up Colin Woodard's book about the history of the pirates of the Caribbean and their short-lived haven at Nassau in the Bahamas.

Woodard's book is antiprogrammatic; there's no real historical argument here except perhaps an emphasis on the surprisingly humane and democratic sentiments of the pirates involved.  Mostly it's a straightforward history about a surprisingly brief period of time.  Among the interesting things I learned are:

  • The whole pirate thing was really very brief.  The Golden Age of Piracy starts at the turn of the century, around 1700, and extends only to about the 1730's.  By that time the bigwig pirates like Blackbeard, Sam Bellamy, and Charles Vane, are dead, and the pirate hunter and Bahamian governor Woodes Rogers--those are the four focal points of Woodard's book, Rogers and the three pirates--has reestablished peace at Nassau.
  • Blackbeard was more bark than bite.  In all of the recorded stories about him, there's not a single instance of Blackbeard killing another human being.  Instead, he relied on a sense of theatricality, including placing lit fuses under this hat to look like a scary smoke monster, to intimidate those whose ships he wanted to plunder into submission.  This was in contrast to the raping and pillaging ways of the ruthless Charles Vane.
  • Pirates were political.  Many of them started out as privateers during Queen Anne's Wars, attacking French ships with commissions from the British government.  When the war ended, they found themselves without government support, and turned to piracy as sort of a way of keeping their careers going.  But beyond that, many pirates were Jacobites, meaning they supported the right of James Stuart of Scotland to the throne over George I, a German imported in order to avoid having a Catholic King.  Some of them even plotted aiding James in an attack on British soil, though that was never carried out.

Similarly, pirate ships could be highly democratic.  They tended to elect their captains, and the captains took a far smaller share of the plunder than commissioned privateers.  Most decisions were made by voting.  They often returned to the owners of the ships they plundered what they could not used, and even paid for what they took, though forcibly.  And pirate ships were one of the only places in Americas where black Africans shared in the freedom of whites--it's possibly that a quarter of Blackbeard's men were, at one time, escaped slaves from the Middle Passage.

The stories of piracy which captivated the world in the 1710's and 20's are engaging enough, but for me the most interesting part of Woodard's account comes at the end, when George I, operating under the advice of Woodes Rogers, offers a pardon to any pirate willing to take it.  This tears the pirates, who thought they'd never be able to live on the right side of the law again, into warring pro-pardon and anti-pardon factions.  Blackbeard's mentor Benjamin Hornigold even takes up pirate hunting after receiving his pardon, helping to chase down the staunchly anti-pardon Vane.

All in all, The Republic of Pirates was a fun look at a period of history that's often clouded by popular myth.  One thing the movies do get right is the rum: those pirates couldn't get enough rum.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

The Medium lost the delighted smile she had worn till then. "Oh, why must you make me look at unpleasant things when there are so many delightful ones to see?"Again Mrs. Which's voice reverberated through the cave. "Therre will nno llonggerr bee sso many pplleasanntt thinggss too llookk att iff rressponssible ppeoplle ddo nnott ddoo ssomethingg abboutt thee unnppleasanntt oness."
I loved this book when I was a kid--I read it over and over so often that I felt like I lived in it, especially the opening chapters in the Murry household. Like Calvin, a classmate of Meg Murry's, I felt like I'd found my place in the world: "I've never even seen your house, and I have the funniest feeling that for the first time in my life I'm going home!" The Murrys live in a rambly old house: Meg, the misfit, only understood by her mother and her brother Charles Wallace, and Sandy and Dennys, the "normal" athletic twins. Their mother, an absent-minded scientist who balances motherhood and research by making stew over bunsen burners in her lab, seems to delight in her children's oddities, especially Charles Wallace and Meg's. It's the family that every nerdlet longs for except, of course, that Meg's father is missing. Charles Wallace, Meg, and their new friend Calvin form a little triad of weird and together with Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which they travel across the universe to save Mr. Murry. 
Tessering explained by Mrs. Whatsit
A Wrinkle in Time held up better than I expected. It's full of powerful, smart (scientist!), female characters, and the science fiction part of the novel doesn't come off as cheesy or overdone as I expected, although the light vs. dark dynamic is a little on the nose throughout; the evil force threatening the universe is a dark shroud, and the good guys are shrouded in light. The physics of space travel is clearly written, and the novel has the neatest explanation of wormholes ("tesseracts" in this novel) that I've read. I understand physics now!

I bristled a little at how Calvin, Charles Wallace (even as a much younger brother), and Mr. Murray each try to protect Meg: "Calvin walked with Meg, his fingers barely touching her arm in a protective gesture." I would read this as a budding romance, except it happens with her father and her younger brother throughout the novel. Meg, despite being brilliant, still comes off as a little helpless, reliant on the men who surround her to pull through. That being said, for a young adult novel written in the early 60's, it has far more impressive women than I'm used to. 

Overall, this definitely bears revisiting if you haven't read it in a while, and it absolutely is worth picking up if you never have. 


Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
My seniors are reading The Road in English class, and while we have a history of reading some less than uplifting titles with them (Handmaids Tale! Night! Macbeth!), this one is certainly hard to get through. The Road takes places somewhere on the East coast in a nuclear winter that has wiped out most of humanity along with all plant and animal life. A man and his son are trying to make their way to the coast, along a road studded with danger and completely devoid of anything remotely resembling sustenance.

It's McCarthy, so there are gorgeous descriptions of desolation, but more surprising is the heart-wrenchingly tender dialogue; it would be misleading to say this is a book about parenting, but the father-son relationship in this book is so beautiful that it almost outshines the darkness. Almost.
In a pocket of his knapsack he'd found a last half packet of cocoa and he fixed it for the boy and then poured his own cup with hot water and sat blowing at the rim.
You promised not to do that, the boy said.
What?
You know what, Pop.
He poured the hot water back into the pan and took the boy's cup and poured some of the cocoa into his own and then handed it back.
I have to watch you all the time, they boy said.
I know.
If you break little promises, you'll break big ones. That's what you said.
I know. But I won't. 
Desperation has brought out the "calculating reptile brain" in everyone else--pushing them to give up or become completely self serving. These two have managed to keep each other alive, hopeful, sane; they each look out more for the other than they do for themselves. I like to think that I would do the same, but the book forces you to wonder how long you would be able to hold out. It also makes you wonder how long you would last with your complete lack of survival skills and utter reliance on the internet for information. Would I give up sooner because I'm a woman, susceptible to rape, less physically powerful? Would I die sooner because I can't see farther than three feet without my (very breakable) glasses? Would I eat an enemy? A stranger?  My dog? My students had a field day with the eating people side of things (I left for five minutes and came back to find them discussing with my co-teacher who in the class they would eat first), but the question of what most people would do and whether or not you are most people is the most haunting part of the whole novel.

I felt physically sick a few times while reading this; McCarthy doesn't shy away from graphic violence or deeply disturbing scenarios, but the father and son do their job as "carriers of the light" and pull you through. It wasn't light reading by any means, but it wasn't as dark as I expected either.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark

What actually happened to Freddy between the late Saturday afternoon when he lost his memory in Jordan and the early Tuesday afternoon when he regained it in Israel was to come back to him a little later--the outlines of his movements forcing themselves back to him, at first, in a series of meaningless threads. The details followed gradually, throughout the days and into the years ahead and occurred, then, in those fragments, more or less distorted, which are the normal formations and decor of human memory. 

Muriel Spark's The Mandelbaum Gate is the first novel of hers that hasn't grabbed me from the start. She tends to throw her reader into the middle of whatever mess she's writing her way out of, and typically I've enjoyed the orientation process in the opening chapters. Here, I found myself more disoriented than intrigued, and I struggled to keep reading.

The book is presented in flashes--mirroring Freddy Hamilton's episodic memories--and it pieces together a pilgrimage gone awry. Barbara Vaughn is a half Jewish Catholic convert in Jerusalem in pursuit of her beau, an archeologist whom she hopes to marry despite his recent divorce and her Catholicism.  As Ms. Vaughn travels from Israel to Jordan through the Mandelbaum Gate, she puts herself in danger (her Jewish heritage puts her at risk in the tumultuous 1960's), and as the gallant Freddy Hamilton intervenes, chaos (and scarlet fever!) ensues. Freddy loses all memory of his intervention and the book retraces his steps as the incidents of the long weekend slowly return to him. Spark jumps back and forth in her narration and circles back to phrases and scenes, shifting them every so slightly each time so that you can't always right away whether she's returned to a past scene or moved on to a new one. It left me feeling somewhat unmoored as a reader; this was clearly Spark's intention, but it made made the novel difficult to follow and hard to invest in.

I enjoyed the descriptions of Israel and Jordan--places I haven't read much about or thought of much outside of the context of the Bible or modern day conflicts (which leaves me with a massive, thousands year long gap in my understanding of its history). The holy sites and shrines are described with Spark's usual ability to capture the mood of a place with a well-chosen handful of details (and her usual ability to make everything feel just a little bit off). Ms. Vaughn even gets to attend a day of Eichmann's trial, a nice historical marker that grounded the story in a particular time and place.

Chris suggests in his review that Barbara Vaughn is a somewhat autobiographical character. If that's the case, this feels like something of a missed opportunity. One of my issues with the novel was how little of Barbara's internality we got to see. I've come to rely on Spark for funny, headstrong female leads, and while Barbara was certainly interesting and stubborn, she wasn't nearly as vibrant as some of Spark's other heroines. I wanted more of her and less of Freddy (who is constantly writing dogroll in his head, and drove me somewhat bonkers).

Overall, I struggled too much with this one to really enjoy it. I liked the idea of it, and I appreciated the stylistic echo of Freddy's memories and the stilted narration, but it took me over 200 pages to hit my stride and fully grasp what was going on. As a result, I kept putting it down and picking it back up days later (which may have led to further confusion on my part). While I enjoy some level of disorientation, this was a little much for me with not quite enough pay off.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White

She would have had to admit she had not existed in any of her several lives, unless in relationship with innocents, often only servants of ignoble masters, or those who believed themselves her parents or lovers.  She was accepted as real, or so it appeared, by the girls she farmed out for love, and who, if she were to be honest, amounted to fragments of a single image.  Yet whatever form she took, or whatever the illusion temporarily possessing her, the reality of love, which is the core of reality itself, had eluded her, and perhaps always would.

To read descriptions of the plot of The Twyborn Affair, all of them out of date, you might expect something psychologically supernatural, like the connection between Laura and Voss in VossThe back of the book speaks of "a single soul" living "three different lives."  I was expecting reincarnation.  But in truth The Twyborn Affair is about something much more realist, and more familiar to us than it might have been when White wrote the novel: it's about being transgender.

When we first meet the protagonist, Eudoxia Vatatzes, she's a young woman renting a house in the French Riviera with her older husband, a Greek named Angelos who suffers from fits where he thinks he's a Byzantine Emperor.  Probably Angelos is based on White's lover, the Greek Manoly Lascaris.  In the second part, Eudoxia has resumed her birth name, Eddie Twyborn.  (Twice-born, that is--once as a man and once as a woman; or perhaps tri-born, for the three parts of the book.)  Eddie, back home in Australia and living as a man, becomes a hired laborer in the Outback, where he gets caught up in affairs with both his boss' wife and the male manager of the ranch.  In the third, thirty years later, Eddie has escaped to London where he has become the madame of a brothel under the Eadith Trist.  (No analysis on that surname needed, I think.)

Although like all of White's novels the line between the mental world and the real one is pretty blurred, it seems clear to me that The Twyborn Affair was ahead of its time in thinking about the psychological and social travails of a transgender woman.  The old reviews shy away from it, but there is a genuine pathos in Eudoxia/Eddie/Eadith's search for an identity that stands out among White's darker psychological explorations.  Eudoxia records her sense of rootlessness in a diary:

My olive-tree is standing.  The garden would seem an argument for permanence--only one or two insignificant, dispensable branches lying uncouth amongst the silver tussocks, the hummocks and cushions of lavender, dianthus, southernwood, and thrift.  My rented garden.  Nothing is mine except for the coaxing I've put into it.  For that matter, nothing of me is mine, not even the body I was given to inhabit, nor the disguises chosen for it -- A. decides on these, seldom without my agreement.  The real E. has not yet been discovered, and perhaps never will be.

Is "the real E." ever discovered?  There's a nice scene at the end where Eadith meets her estranged mother by chance in London.  Her mother, speechless, writes on thy flyleaf of a prayer book: "Are you my son Eddie?"  And Eadith writes back, "No, but I am your daughter Eadith."  Of course, White can't leave it at that; the end has to be less sentimental and more ghoulish.  But he allows his protagonist a moment of recognition, face-to-face with the mother with whom she has long identified herself, a mother with her own history of conflicted gender identity and sexuality.  Neither the Eddie nor the Eadith portions are as vivid or as captivating as the first section, but this moment feels true because the sensual and adventurous Eudoxia still remains in the body of Eadith, searching for "the real E."  It makes you wonder, without wanting too much to project the work onto its author, what path White himself might have taken in a different time and place.