Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sanctuary by William Faulkner

The worst one of all said boys thought all girls were ugly except when they were dressed.  She said the Snake had been seeing Eve for several days and never noticed until Adam made her put on a fig leaf.  How do you know? they said, and she said because the Snake was there before Adam, because he was the first one thrown out of heaven; he was there all the time.  But that wasn't what they meant and they said, How do you know, and Temple thought of her kind of backed up against the dressing table and the rest of them in a circle around her with their combed hair and their shoulders smelling of scented soap and the light powder in the air and their eyes like knives until you could almost watch her flesh where the eyes were touching it, and her eyes in her ugly face courageous and frightened and daring, and they all saying, How do you know? until she told them and held up her hand and swore that she had.

Sanctuary is Faulkner's "potboiler," a novel that takes his familiar themes and characters and weird, poor Mississippi setting and uses them to frame a salacious and prurient story.  There's an element of pulpiness in it--check out the trashy cover in the image above--but Faulkner is too idiosyncratic and elliptical for Sanctuary to really be shocking or titillating.

The first of the novel's two main characters is Temple Drake, a Mississippi undergrad who gets mixed up with a jerkoff alcoholic frat boy who takes her against her will to a bootlegger's house where he abandons her.  There she's raped by a petty criminal named Popeye, who whisks her away to a brothel in Memphis where he stashes her away.  The second is Horace Benbow, a conflicted lawyer who has just left his wife (because of his sexual feelings for his stepdaughter--nice one, Faulkner) and who takes up the defense of the bootlegger who has been charged with a murder that Popeye committed.

Horace and Temple's stories only intersect briefly.  Horace's sympathies are oriented toward Ruby, the wife of the bootlegger Lee, and her infant child; in fact, the townspeople begin to assume that he and Ruby are carrying on an affair, explaining his pro-bono work on Lee's case.  Faulkner wants us to see that Temple is pretty much forgotten; the case hinges on a murder that has nothing to do with Temple, and though Horace tracks her down to find out what happened, his priorities are elsewhere.

Temple's character is frustrating.  We're asked to accept that her feelings toward Popeye are conflicted, and that she's not exactly his prisoner, but neither is she exactly free to leave.  A kind of Stockholm syndrome makes sense, but Faulkner wants us to believe that the rape takes away Temple's agency to a degree that makes her passiveness in the face of her imprisonment sensible.  There are hints of a retrograde notion of female hysteria.  I think we're supposed to read Temple as a cautionary tale about the teenage desire to be inducted into the world of adult sexuality, the darker side of which she and her fellow coeds are unprepared for.  But there's something about the way that's coded according to gender that makes Sanctuary seem like it's trafficking in cheap literary archetypes.

Mostly, Faulkner's elliptical style makes it difficult to really figure out what's going on.  We learn that Popeye hasn't been having sex with Temple himself; instead, he's recruited a gangster named Red to do it while he watches.  Temple has fallen for Red, in a way, making Popeye jealous, but Faulkner neglects to include any of this in the narrative.  By the time we learn about Red's existence, Popeye's already shot him, and we're expected to fill in the blanks.  Faulkner keeps the most salacious part of the ordeal close to the chest, choosing to reveal it only in the final courtroom scene: Popeye is impotent, and the initial rape is performed with a corncob.  Okay.  Honestly, the "shocking reveal" is what makes Sanctuary seem more like a pulp novel than anything else.

Still, Sanctuary has all the elements that make Faulkner worth reading: the currents of sex and death, the lack of sentimentality, the tension between the impoverished setting and the flights of decorated prose, the black humor.  The savageness of Faulkner's novels makes us underestimate how funny they can be, I think.  But it's hard not to feel that Faulkner's slumming it a little, searching for a bestseller that his style won't let him fully commit to.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Nsukka started it all; Aunty Ifeoma's little garden next to the verandah of her flat in Nsukka began to lift the silence.  Jaja's defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma's purple hibisucs: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup.  A freedom to be, to do.

Kambili is the daughter of an eminent businessman in Enugu, Nigeria.  Her father is a rich man and a brave man, who keeps supporting the local newspaper even when its criticisms of the recent military coup have become dangerous.  He is a pious man, as well-respected in his Catholic church as the priests themselves.  He also punishes his children for their perceived sins by breaking their fingers and pouring boiling water over their feet.  In a particularly theme-heavy scene, Kambili's mother gives her a little bit of food to help her stomach absorb the pills she needs to help with her menstrual cramps, but because she is supposed to be fasting before mass, her father punishes her.

Kambili and her brother Jaja are offered a vision of a different kind of life when they visit their aunt, their father's sister, Ifeoma, in the university town of Nsukka.  Ifeoma is poor but her children have a "freedom to be, to do" that Kambili had not known was possible, and sets her on the path of realizing how restrictive her father's regime has been.  In Nsukka, she can see her grandfather, from whom her father has barred her because of his traditional religion.  I really liked this observation by her grandfather about the effect of Christianity in Nigeria, which seemed to me the closest the novel ever gets to the style, namechecked on the jacket, of Adichie's fellow Igbo writer Chinua Achebe:

One day I said to them, Where is this god you worship?  They said he was like Chukwu, that he was in the sky.  I asked then, Who is the person that was killed, the person that hangs on the wood outside the mission?  They said he was the son, but that the son and the father are equal.  It was then that I knew that the white man was mad.  The father and the son are equal?  Tufia!  Do you not see?  That is why Eugene can disregard me, because he thinks we are equal.

Adichie sets the novel at a time of great social and political upheaval in Nigeria.  The student riots threaten Ifeoma's job; the fear of retaliation complicates the violent reaction of Kambili's father, who clings to a sense of supernatural order in the midst of great stress.  Adichie's depiction of Eugene is particularly sharp, as careful to show his generosity and fine principles, which grow from his piety as his abuse does.  But the story is Kambili's, who awakes into not just a realization about her family but about her home in Nigeria as well.

The symbol of the hibiscus--which grows purple only in Ifeoma's garden--is dull and heavy-handed.  I found the plain prose of the novel to be artless sometimes, but I could say the same thing about Achebe.  But I really enjoyed the complexity of the characters and the escalating tension of the novel, which I didn't expect.  Most of all I enjoyed reading a complex portrait of a place that it would be easy to spend most of my life ignoring.

The House GIrl by Tara Conklin

Those nights felt like this now: a creative energy, a limitless enthusiasm, a faith that talent and will and work would ultimately prevail, and a fatalistic wryness about the whole spectacle too-- of course we are all creative and interesting, of course everyone will know our names, but tomorrow and the next day and the next we must go to our low-paying jobs where we sit on stools or take orders for food or clean up messes that no one else wants to clean; at least tonight we can say we are artists.
Tara Conklin gives us twinned heroines in The House Girl: Josephine, the titular character, a Virginian slave in the 1850s, and Lina, a young corporate lawyer in today's New York. The novel is written in flashes-glimpses of Josephine's life the day before she runs away and Lina as she unravels the story of Josephine's life as part of a slavery reparations case. Lina uncovers the mystery of both Josephine's escape and her life as an artist--her mistress, Lu Anne Bell, was a renowned Southern painter whose lauded pieces may have been largely Josephine's.

The back and forth works well here--the interplay between the two storylines as they move closer together is well done. and Conklin builds two interesting, layered female leads. Josephine is revealed through a variety of sources: her own chapters, but also "primary" sources in Lina's portions.

Despite dealing with slavery and all of its implications, this wasn't a particularly philosophical or reflective novel. Conklin weaves an engrossing, gripping story, and I enjoyed getting swept up into the narrative arc and the suspense, but the trade-off of that much action meant not much time or space for reflection. There are moments in sections from each protagonist where the characters pause and reflect, and Conklin doesn't gloss over the cruelties of slavery, but the jumping back in forth through time and the quick pace of the narrative made it hard for the emotional impact of slavery to land.

This wasn't the most thought-provoking novel I've read all year, but it was a quick and engaging read. As long as you don't expect any life-altering revelations about slavery, and are going in looking for some interesting ladies and a good story, it's worth a read!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Image result for february house tippins

February House by Sherill Tippins

It would be the group life that Carson had been dreaming of... a sanctuary for themselves and others who were also, for financial, political, or any other reason, finding it difficult to focus on their work.... Auden was looking for a cheaper place to live.   If such a respected poet moved in, everyone else would follow. It would be an experiment... but surely it was worth trying.

February House  recounts the story of an experiment in communal living taken up by Carson McCullers, WH Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Gypsy Rose Lee in 1940.  The gathering was the brainchild of George Davis, an influential editor at Harper's Bazaar, a fashion magazine that was attempting to compete with Vogue by expanding its literary and cultural offerings.  Davis seemed to know and be liked by everyone and was the center of an intellectual and social circle in late 30's New York.  He was also a gifted editor whose gifts did not include showing up to work regularly.  When he lost his publishing job, he needed to find cheaper real estate.

He invites his new friend Carson McCullers - in her early twenties and already famous for having published The Heart is A Lonely Hunter - and his old friend, WH Auden to share expenses.  However, all three of them also want to share something more than expenses.  It is 1940 and everyone seems to know that America will eventually enter World War II.  Auden in particular believes that this second twentieth century calamity calls for artists and writers to think of new ways to be productive, to offer a higher consciousness to humanity before it is too late.  An artist's commune seems to offer Auden a chance to think through his evolving ideas about the poet's role in human culture while also allowing him to leave a nosey and judgmental landlord behind.

Gypsy Rose Lee has been an avid and adventurous reader her whole life, and has recently decided that the small press bits and commentary published in her name no longer require a ghost writer.  Davis encourages her to develop her talent as a writer and they come up with the idea for a murder mystery, The G-String Murders.  He suggests she move into one of the apartments at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights so that he can mentor her writing process.  Her presence becomes a bridge between the intelligentsia and the world of entertainment, and soon Middagh Street is place where everyone who is anyone in New York tries to get invited.

Tippins attempts to balance the serious artistic and political issues that imbue the house - centered on Auden's deepening spiritual quest, Britten's desire to find his musical voice and McCullers struggles to write what will eventually become A Member of the Wedding - with the partying hijinks of some very high-strung individuals.  For the most part, she errs on the side of the hijinks.  We learn that McCullers drinks tea spiked with sherry all day long and that Auden regularly uses benzedrine to focus on his writing and seconal to get to sleep.  We are told that after a particularly wild party, McCullers and Lee go running through the streets of Brooklyn Heights in the snow chasing a fire engine and that McCullers, while running and laughing and holding the burlesque star's hand, has an epiphany that what the character she has been struggling with really wants is to be a member of the wedding party.  I sense a bit of a stretch in Tippins' renditions of the residents' accomplishments, but their artistic struggles are carefully analyzed and make fascinating reading.

The one area where I would have liked a more thoughtful approach is sexuality.  All the men associated with 7 Middagh Street in these months are openly gay - at a time when that was illegal in New York (and virtually everywhere else).  Britten and Pears are essentially married, and Auden comes to view his relationship to Chester Kallman as a marriage during his residence in Brooklyn.  It is clear that part of the attraction of the house as a social center is that it offers a safe space to other gay artists - so that Lincoln Kirstein, Leonard Bernstein and Thomas Mann's son Klaus are regular guests, with Mann living in the attic for a time.  McCullers uses the house to explore her own desires for certain women.  George Davis is also openly gay, but uninterested in long term relationships.  He walks down the hill from the house to the Brooklyn docks and cruises for gay sailors and longshoreman to bring back to the house, giving their parties a working class representation centered on sexuality.  How the community responds to this (apparently quite well - there are no neighborhood complaints until later, when Richard Wright moves in and the white neighbors complain), what, if anything, such a gathering means in the history of gay life in New York, how the tensions around openness and secrecy were handled in a communal setting - all these are questions of interest that go largely unexplored.  Tippins treats questions of sexuality matter-of-factly - as is appropriate in the 21st Century - but has little to say about how such openness operated or what its implications were in the mid-2oth century.

Ultimately, February House is not designed to take on such issues.  While the residents artistic ambitions (and accomplishments) are well represented, and the coming war hangs over every page of the book, this is a fun read about an amazing and entertaining coincidence.  The house itself has been destroyed - torn down to build the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the two years that it was filled with artists is memorialized only by a small plaque  a block away.  February House gives us a much better way to remember.

Monday, October 2, 2017

The Republic of Wine by Mo Yan

Ancient fairy tales sooner or later become reality, liquor is mankind's greatest discovery.  Without it there would be no Bible, there would be no Egyptian pyramids, there would be no Great Wall of China, no music, no fortresses, no scaling ladders to storm others' fortresses, no nuclear fission, no salmon in the Wusuli River, and no fish or bird migrations.  A fetus in its mother's womb can detect the smell of liquor; the scaly skin of an alligator makes first-rate liquor pouches.  Martial-arts novels have advanced the brewer's art.  What was the source of Qu Yuan's lament?  There was no liquor for him to drink.

Investigator Ding Gou'er is dispatched to the city of Liquorland (rendered in the title as The Republic of Wine) to investigate a horrible crime: the administrators of the Luo Mine in that city have been accused of cooking and eating children.  These "meat boys," as they're called, are part of Liquorland's famous tradition of gourmandizing: it produces the best, most exotic liquor and the best, most exotic food.  Is the braised infant that is brought to Ding on a tray real, or is it merely a clever fake, made of lotus root, as the administrators claim?

The Republic of Wine is somehow weirder than that description suggests.  There are apes that brew liquor in a secret mountain; there's a scaly child who wanders the streets seeking revenge against those who raise boys for their meat; there's an oily archvillain who can drink as much as he wants and never get drunk; there's a hideous dwarf who vows--and nearly makes good on his promise--to bed every attractive girl in the city.  Oh, and there's this sentence:  "He tripped over something, and discovered it was a string of frozen donkey vaginas."

Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for works like this: often dreamlike, heavily biological, and pointedly satirical.  At least, I assume it's satirical, though what exactly is being satirized is probably lost on me.  I'm guessing it's about the luxurious tastes of the party classes in post-Mao China, and the way that decadence victimizes the powerless.  But the nuances of the satire are lost on me, knowing as little as I do about China, and the clunky translation doesn't really help.

The novel is interspersed with letters between Mo himself and a young admirer and would-be writer, Li Yidou.  Li lives in Liquorland, and his stories seem to provide Mo with a lot of the material he needs for The Republic of Wine; whether the stories are "true" seems to be a matter of not much consequence.  Li's stories and Mo's novel begin to converge, and the detective story that the novel presents at first becomes much more complex and troubling.  As both character and author get increasingly drunk, the semi-realist narrative is abandoned completely for an extended hallucination.  The final pages are a stream-of-consciousness riff in the demarcation between Ding and Mo is blurred, and in which Mo admits, "Damn some will say I'm obviously imitating the style of Ulysses in this section Who cares I'm drunk..."

The Republic of Wine isn't an easy read.  It's a little like reading the liner notes to a Captain Beefheart album.  But it'll reward those for whom weirdness is its own virtue, and its scatological sensibilities are pretty in tune with Joyce.  It made me want a drink.




Sunday, October 1, 2017

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

We always just miss New York. I watched it with this neighborhood. When I moved here everyone was mourning the SoHo of the seventies, Tribeca of the eighties, and already ringing the death knell for the East Village. Now people romanticize the Alphabet City of Jonathan Larson. We all walk in a cloud of mourning for the New York that just disappeared. 
Danler's Sweetbitter takes on the cliché of the blonde (I assume she's blonde...I don't actually know) ingenue coming to the Big City to Make it. I'm not sure she does much with it, but it's an enjoyable read. Tess moves to New York from middle America at twenty-two, rents a dingy room in Williamsburg, and gets a job as a backwaiter at a Union Square restaurant. She stays out late, does a lot of drugs (like really a lot...seemingly too much to be a functional human), sleeps with her colleagues, and falls for the bad boy bartender.

The two most engaging characters in the novel are New York and the restaurant where Tess works (a thinly veiled fictionalization of Union Square Cafe where Danler herself worked upon arriving in the city). Her New York is the big, roiling exciting mess that the city presents to all twenty-somethings. As she walks across the Williamsburg Bridge to a solitary lunch in Chinatown on Christmas day, Tess thinks: "It is ludicrous for anyone to live here and I can never leave." That duality comes across well in the book and captures what it felt like (minus the drugs and the late nights) to live here, doing an impossibly demanding job for no money, figuring out what it meant to be an adult: at once thrilling and terrifying.

The elite food service world, of which I know next to nothing, comes across as cutthroat and addictive, and Danler immerses us completely in its chaos. She does dialogue well, and there are sections that are just extended, unattributed snippets of conversations that submerge you in Tess' new universe in all its glory.

Tess herself, unfortunately, is pretty awful. So are basically all the other human characters. They're all young and self-centered (or old and self-centered), and their inability to acknowledge a world outside of their own experience (or even outside of the confines of their restaurant) is troubling. I realize that may be an authentic representation of what it is to be twenty-two, but it was still hard to read. Tess' romantic entanglements are even harder to swallow and her obsession with the prototypical bad boy who (spoiler alert) doesn't change for her is a snooze.

This was a fun look into a side of New York that I knew nothing about, and the food descriptions made me hungry, but the characters were disappointing at best.

Only the Little Bone by David Huddle

Vanity is not the moving force behind all that follows. On the contrary, I am wholly without awareness of self, am without sorrow or desire, nostalgia or greed, am in that state of pure, thoughtless spirit that I later come to understand as aesthetic experience, as I hold my Roy Rogers neckerchief out the car window and watch it fly gorgeously in the wind. I have had to bargain with Ralph for the place beside the door, and I have had to exercise considerable discretion in sticking my hand and arm out the window. My mother's stiff neck prevents her from turning to see what I am doing, and I am sitting behind my grandmother, whose sense of wellbeing is directly proportional to the stillness of her grandsons. 
I took a writing class this summer, and our teacher gave us the last page of this book (which I will share later) on the last day. I got halfway through it, took out my phone, and ordered the book on Amazon. In Only the Little Bone Huddle gives us a slim volume of autobiographical stories that hang gracefully together as a whole, but can also be read as individual pieces. In the foreward, Huddle describes the book as a "final elegy to my childhood," the pieces that helped him move fully into adulthood. Each story is a snapshot of a transition out of boyhood; there is the loss of innocence you would expect from a series of coming of age stories, but Huddle also brings a cinematic sense of detail, slowing down moments to fill pages and launching you back to the summer evenings of your own childhood.

Huddle's father, the taciturn yet thoughtful manager of a factory, is the most interesting character in the whole book. This is my favorite snapshot of him: "My father was a man who had faced a toolshed full of rattlesnakes, had been shot at by union strikers, had taken a knife away from Bernard Seeger at a high-school dance, but around women who came to our house as company, and especially around Susan O'Meara that past week, my father took on the persona of somebody who'd stayed indoors all his life and eaten nothing but cheese sandwiches." This one sentence description captures the mythology and the humanity of a parent so perfectly, and it evokes that period in one's life where the flaws of one's parents start to seep through the veneer, where the incongruencies start to pile up. In many ways, these stories are a grappling with those moments of realization both small and large.

The book reads more or less like a memoir. One story, "Dirge Notes," takes on a slightly different form, and I had trouble fitting it in with the rest of the stories. The story is broken up by section headers and it moves jumps between time periods and storylines without quite enough signposting to keep the reader on board, but all the other stories work together beautifully. The last one shares the book's title and is home to that famous last page. Here, Huddle has returned home as an adult and is remembering the accident that broke "only the little bone" in his leg, leaving him in a cast:
I stand there holding the cast in my hands, reading something somebody in my third-grade class wrote on the side of the knee, and I know that everything that happens is connected to everything else and nothing that happens is without consequence. I am washed by one memory after another like ripples moving backwards to their source. All of a sudden I am no one. Or I am this stranger standing in an old toolshop with memory trying in its quirky way to instruct him. A man came home to visit his parents, a man who got an office and built bookshelves, a man whose grandfather died and who was a soldier for a little while, a boy whose leg was broken by a car and who did not become a basketball or a football player, a boy who stayed a summer with his brother and his cousin inside his family's hard. The moment of my disappearance passes, and I come back to myself. Now, holding this cast in my hand, standing in this one place, I feel like I could remember all of human history. If I put my mind to it. 
These are the kind of moments, tiny and huge, that make up the stories in this book. The same moments that pave our own senses of ourselves and our histories. I love the rhythm of this section; it's a rhythm that comes up again and again in his writing, and it's one that resonates with how my own memory works, in lists and moments and fragments.

Only the Little Bone is out of print, and is somewhat tricky to track down without Amazon's help (I tried to find it in a couple of bookstores for a friend and failed). It's worth the search!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Image result for the refugees

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Phuong searched for the words to say what she had never told anyone before, how one day she, too, would leave, for Saigon was boring and the country itself not big enough for the desires in her heart. "I want to be like you," Phoung said, gripping her sister's hands in her own.

Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for his novel The Sympathizer, a dense and complex look at how the lives of Vietnamese refugees in the United States look back at the war.  He placed characters in what seemed to be every possible political point of view and attempted a plot that aimed at military, political, personal and economic truths.  While much of it was compelling, I found it too large, with digressions that felt less than fully imagined however important they might be to a whole truth.

These are short stories, many set in post-war Vietnam, again involving people looking back at the war and the effects it continues to have on their lives.   An American tries to find the Vietnamese-American who donated a liver so he could live and gets taken in by a scam-artist, a man attempts to reconcile with his wife while living with his judgmental veteran father, a veteran returns to Vietnam to face his half-Asian daughter and her desire to live and work in the country he tried to destroy.

In many cases the plots and characters are interesting, but the prose fails to grip.  Too often they are unique stories being told in ordinary language, and more than once I winced at cliche.  (Of course, had I actually winced, that would have been cliche.)

The most compelling and well-written story is the final one, "Fatherland," which tells the story of a daughter who suspects her father does not love her (for good reason) and must face a visit from the long-absent beloved half-sister by his first marriage, whom she was named after.  In that story, and the best of these, Nguyen simply does not let his writing get in the way of his material.
Image result for lock and load bettyjoyce

Lock and Load, ed by Deirdra McAfee and BettyJoyce Nash

All three women had been married, rough marriages full of fighting and black eyes and sobbing imprecations, all of them knew the trouble that came with drinking men and hair-trigger tempers.  from "A Lonely Coast" by Annie Proulx

OK, I am cheating a little on this one - I didn't have to read all the stories because I wrote one of them.  This is an anthology of gun-related fiction designed to spark thinking about the second amendment and our gun culture.  There is a wide range of material here and a wide range of quality, though it is generally a range from good to excellent.  I probably should not have been surprised at how rural the settings tended to be - that is where the guns are, after all.   But I was surprised to find that I was surprised that my story was one of the few that was urban, and one of the few that involved crime.

Proulx story does a masterful job of creating a Wyoming world awash in liquor and anger and guns, and you feel the tension toward disaster building.  The ending still surprises, though in part because it generally seems to come from nowhere.  My favorite story was "Family Reunion" by Bonnie Jo Campbell because the narrator's voice is so compelling and the final brutality creates a poetic justice I have not encountered before.  One more gem I would mention is Nicole Louise Reid's "Pearl in a Pocket."  Again there is a narrative voice you have to follow and again you are lead in surprising directions.

I was impressed by how the stories kept surprising me - given that you know the gun will appear and that you are fairly certain it will go off - and how much I enjoyed the reading.

I felt I was in good company all around.

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

"I believe in the evil of God," Father Rivas said, "but I believe in His goodness too.  He made us in His image--that is the old legend.  Eduardo, you know well how many truths in medicine lay in old legends.  It was not a modern laboratory which first discovered the use of a snake's venom.  And old women used the mold on overripe oranges long before penicillin.  So I too believe in an old legend which is almost forgotten.  He made us in His image--and so our evil is His evil too.  How could I love God if he were not like me?"

Sometimes reading a Graham Greene novel is like ordering the newest item at Taco Bell.  It's new all right, but it's mostly the same raw materials--beans, cheese, tortilla, meat--combined in a new shape.  In The Honorary Consul, it's easy to recognize some of Greene's hallmarks, his beans and cheese.  The protagonist is once again a world-weary cynic and agnostic.  Like in The Quiet American, his foil is a bumbling civil servant.  This time it's Charley Fortnum, the alcoholic honorary consul for the UK in a small Argentinian town, who gets kidnapped by Paraguayan revolutionaries thinking they've nabbed the American ambassador.  And then of course there's the ex-priest, the conflicted man of God, who over the course of the book moves backwards into his own past and rediscovers his religion.

The priest is a man named Father Rivas, who left the cloth to marry and join up with the revolutionaries.  The cynic in The Honorary Consul is Eduardo Plarr, an Anglo-Argentinian doctor whose relationship with Fortnum and the kidnappers both puts him in the middle of the botched kidnapping.  He's also, of course, sleeping with Fortnum's wife, an ex-prostitute:

In a real love affair, he thought, you are interested in a woman because she is someone distinct from yourself; then bit by bit she adapts herself to you, she picks up your habits, your ideas, even your turns of phrase, she becomes part of you, and then what interest remains?  One cannot love oneself, one cannot live for long close to oneself--everyone has need of a stranger in the bed, and a whore remains a stranger.

I don't mean to disparage Greene's books, which often get a lot of mileage out of a very narrow set of themes and situations.  There's something comforting about their familiarity.  (Of course, it's when he breaks those molds that his books are most valuable, like The Power and the Glory and Brighton Rock.)  But The Honorary Consul never finds a way to rise above that narrow set, like The Quiet American does.  It has much to say on the nature of God and the religious life--like the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, we get to watch the hapless Rivas dragged back into the life of the priest he thought he'd left behind.  And the character of Fortnum is a good and vivid one, a man who's alcoholism is self-destructive and whose life is small, but who is ennobled by the love he bears his wife.

Like those other books, it's a thriller as much as it is a religious meditation.  The kidnappers try to do their best with the honorary consul, whom they want to ransom in exchange for the release of political prisoners in Paraguay, but the Paraguayans can't understand the vast difference between the office of consul and the honorary title, which makes Fortnum such a small fish that no one--the US, the UK, or Argentina--is willing to do anything to save his life.  Everyone ends up trapped: the kidnappers, who never thought they'd have to kill anyone; Plarr, who's caught between trying to save Fortnum and bedding his wife; and of course Fortnum, who's literally trapped.  The final section of the novel, where all parties are sitting in their hut in the barrio waiting nervously for the deadline to come, is talky and slow, but manages to capture something essential to Greene's worldview: the ineluctable cruelness of international politics, and the heavy hand exerted by God.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Mystery and Manners by Flannery O'Connor

It is when the individual's faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life; and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the supernatural is apt to be lost.  Fiction, made according to its own laws, is an antidote to such a tendency, for it renews our knowledge that we live in the mystery from which we draw our abstractions.

Mystery and Manners, a carefully curated collection of Flannery O'Connor's prose, opens with a hilarious article she wrote about raising peacocks.  "Most people, I have found," she writes, "are congenitally unable to appreciate the sight of a peacock.  Once or twice I have been asked what the peacock is 'good for'--a question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none."  O'Connor's rapidly multiplying peacocks eat everything in the garden, blow dust over what they don't eat, collapse fences, and fill the air with their loud, screeching calls, but as the title says, they remain "King of the Birds."  It's the kind of affectation one might expect of a personage like O'Connor (it contains, among other interesting things, the admission that she likes to knit clothes for her chickens, including one in a "white pique coat with a lace collar" named Colonel Eggbert), but it's also possible to read it as an oblique statement on the nature of art, which is useless outside of its aesthetics and its mysterious nature.

Most of Mystery and Manners is an elaboration on that theme.  The pieces are collected from various speeches and articles O'Connor wrote on the art of writing, and they have a limited and repetitive set of points to make.  There's the degenerate relationship between the burgeoning social sciences and literature, which O'Connor claims has come to embody a kind of narrow and despiritualized realism that fails to appreciate the particularity of human life.  Literature, she says, should be about "possibilities, not probabilities."  Another is the relationship between the writer and her geographical region; O'Connor says that any writer worth her salt is steeped in the traditions of folklore of where they come from.

Much is made of the proper relationship between the Catholic and art.  (O'Connor mostly rejects the label Christian, because "the word Christian is no longer reliable.  It has come to mean anyone with a golden heart.  And a golden heart would be a positive interference in the writing of fiction.)  She pushes back at the idea that an orthodox Catholic is too limited to write fiction:

...the Christian novelist lives in a larger universe.  He believes that the natural world contains the supernatural.  And this doesn't mean that his obligation to portray the natural is less; it means it is greater.

Mystery and Manners wasn't meant to be a single piece, so when it feels repetitive, it's hard to blame O'Connor.  Every now and then pithy aphorisms appear, and it's these you're likely to hear in other locations (as I did in Bird by Bird).  When asked why she writes, O'Connor replies, "Because I'm good at it."  She strikes at the heart of teaching when she says, "Like the college student who wrote in her paper on Lincoln that he went to the movies and got shot, many students go to college unaware that the world was not made yesterday; their studies began with the present and dipped bakward occasionally when it seemed necessary or unavoidable."  Preach.

The most interesting parts perhaps are where O'Connor talks about her own work.  She talks, for example, about the wooden leg in "Good Country People," which is, yes, a symbol, but started out merely as a quirk.  (Do writers really do this stuff on purpose?, my students ask.  O'Connor shows the answer is, yeah, sort of.)  She also insists that she didn't know the Bible salesman would run off with the leg until a few lines before he did so.  Tolstoy said the same thing about his characters, that they were always surprising him.  In this case I'm not sure I believe her.  But it's interesting, and encouraging, to know that some of the greats are making it up as they go like the rest of us.