Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Independent People by Halldor Laxness

Thus did he lose his last child as he stood deep in a ditch at that stage in his career when prosperity and full sovereignty were in sight, after the long struggle for independence that had cost him all his other children.  Let those go who wish to go, probably it's all for the best.  The strongest man is he who stands alone.  A man is born alone.  A man dies alone.  Then why shouldn't he live alone?  Is not the ability to stand alone the perfection of life, the goal?

Bjartur of Summerhouses is a crofter, a smallhold farmer on the north coast of Iceland who has finally put a down payment on a plot of his own.  He hates the man he purchased it from, the imperious Bailiff Jon of Myri, and his wife, who insists that the life of the peasant farmer animates the spirit of Iceland, while she lives in the lap of luxury.  But he's determined to pay off the farm as soon as possible, and become an independent man, the only true way to be.  He's so determined that he shakes off the stories of the evil spirit, Kolumkilli, who haunts the place, even as his wives and children die, disappear, and move to America.

Independent People, the masterwork of Iceland's Nobel prize winner, Halldor Laxness, is one of those decently heavy books whose intermingling of melodrama and social commentary puts Dickens and Tolstoy to mind.  But I was also reminded of Thomas Hardy, who also adored the pastoral life and who frequently stocked his books with choruses of simple farming folk who pepper the main narrative with comic interludes or plainspoken political discourse.

But even among such a rarified crowd Laxness' Bjartur stands out.  His stubborness and idealism make him a comic figure.  When his first wife dies in childbirth, he runs to the closest farm for help, only to hem and haw when someone asks him if Rosa is all right: "Hm, whether anything's happened to her is more than I can tell you... It all depends on how you look at it.  But she lives no longer on my earth, whatever follows it."  Or when he composes a poem--in the classic Icelandic style of his forebears, not the newfangled new kind--to send to his estranged daughter because he can't say straightforwardly how much he misses her.  But his drive for independence is also incredibly noble, hard-won and hard-lost.  He's made of finer stuff than the petty Bailiff or the rest of the homespun troop of local crofters.

It's the strength of Bjartur's character--and the finely wrought depictions of his children, too--that wrings so much pathos out of the novel.  His strength in the face of loss is bewildering, but also pitiable, because we sense that Bjartur knows no other way of dealing with loss than putting up an iron jaw.  His estrangement from his eldest daughter is somehow more moving because its toll on him is mostly unseen, moving beneath the surface of his manner like the silhouette of a great Icelandic whale.  And when he finally reunites with her, he gives her this advice, which seems as good as any:

"My opinion has always been this," he said, "that you ought never to give up as long as you live, even though they have stolen everything from you.  If nothing else, you can always call the air you breathe your own, or at any rate you can claim you have it on loan..."

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Medusa Frequency by Russell Hoban

I went down to the kitchen and opened the fridge.  There were three cans of beer, most of a salami, a mouldering of old cheeses, half a tub of margarine, half a pint of milk and the head of Orpheus.

'Loss!' it said.  'That's what she was to me, you know: she was the loss of her even when she was apparently the finding of her, the having of her.  And I was the same to her, I was her the loss of me.  We were the two parts of a complementarity of loss, and that being so the loss was already an actuality in our finding of each other.  From the moment that I first tasted the honey of Eurydice I tasted also the honey of the loss of her.  What am I if not the quintessential, the brute artist?  Is not all art a celebration of loss?  From the very first moment that beauty appears to us it is passing, passing, not to be held.'

Herman Orff makes a living turning classic novels into comic books, and at night he tries to write his third novel.  He has writer's block; he's hung up with the loss of his ex Luise, who left him years ago.  He visits a London shop advertising a solution for his problem, and they give him a brief electrocution, after which he begins to see the severed head of Orpheus in the place of various spherical objects around the city.

Hoban's version of the Orpheus story--if I can try to compress what's so loose and variegated in the novel--is a story of the connection between art and loss.  Orpheus tells the story of his creation of the lyre, which was first made out of a tortoise shell, necessitating the murder of the tortoise:

The tortoise was in my left hand and my knife was in my right; my idea was the tortoise-shell empty and two posts and a yoke and some strings for a kind of little harp with the shell as a soundbox.  The man's eyes were still on me, his wide-open eyes; almost I wanted to use the knife on him to make him stop looking at me.  He let his hands drop to his sides when I cut the plastron loose and dug the body out of the shell, ugh! what a mess and my hands all slippery with blood and gore.  The entrails were mysterious.  I think about it now, how those entrails spilled out so easily when I made an emptiness for my music to sound in.  Impossible to put those entrails back.

The creation of art, then, is inseparable from the experience of loss, the distance we feel from those we have loved.  Not a way of coping, Hoban insists, but very nearly the experience of loss itself.  Into this central conceit Hoban ties a shaggy collection of symbols and motifs--the head of the Medusa, something called the "world child," Vermeer's Lady with a Pearl Earring.  In one memorable sequence, the hero Herman Orff ("her man, Orpheus"--LOL) boards a boat to Holland to see the painting in real life; but it's on loan in America so he's forced to contemplate its absence.  Hoban shares a tendency with Muriel Spark, I think, to overload slim narratives with images and ideas so that you're prevented from really seeing the whole.  But as Hoban writes about writing, "Where was the beginning of anything, how could I draw a line through endless cause and effect and say, 'Here is page one?'"

With all that cramming the fewer than 150 pages of the novel, it's surprising that Hoban is able to make it as funny as it is.  Hoban has a field day with the comic scenarios in which the head of Orpheus appears, in place of a boulder, or a globular street lamp, or half a head on a plate where half a grapefruit ought to be.  (Orff runs home trying to keep in the brains.)  I've been struck by how different Hoban's books are from each other, but here I see common links with the gleeful pantheistic personification of Kleinzeit, and the sad-sack lonely Londoners of Turtle Diary.  (One wonders what Orpheus, the turtle-killer, would think about the couple in that novel releasing their inscrutable turtles into the wild.)  But like those novels, The Medusa Frequency is truly, unforgettably, weirdly unique.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Runaway by Alice Munro

That was another world they had been in, surely.  As much as any world concocted on the stage.  Their flimsy arrangement, their ceremony of kisses, the foolhardy faith enveloping them that everything would sail ahead as planned.  Move an inch this way or that, in such a case, and you're lost.

The last collection of Munro's stories that I read Dear Life, was full of terrific moments but lacked a sense of finish or completeness.  Some of it was strangely experimental, whatever that means for Munro--perhaps suggestive or impressionistic.  But perhaps that's only true in the context of Munro's other work, like the collection Runaway, in which each story is so perfectly realized and self-contained that it seems like a coup against the plainness of the lives about which Munro writes.  Each story in Runaway is like a little novel in itself.

Munro's big theme is the ways that men terrorize women.  Blink and you'll miss it; she writes so calmly about such ordinary people that you might well not notice the parallels.  The first and title story is more explicit than most: Carla, a young woman who rejected her parents in order to marry her Bohemian husband, has slowly discovered that he is monstrously cruel.  A neighbor, an older woman whose poet husband has just died, is determined to help her run away, and sets her up with friends in Toronto.  Carla's story neatly parallels that of her goat Flora, who has gone missing.  (One of my favorite sentences in the whole collection is: "Clark posted a Lost Goat notice on the Web.")  Carla gets cold feet, and her husband shows up at Sylvia's door to shout at her, when Flora appears out of the mist:

She did not sleep, thinking of the little goat, whose appearance out of the fog seemed to her more and more magical.  She even wondered if, possibly, Leon could have had something to do with it.  if she was a poet she would write a poem about something like this.  But in her experience the subjects that she thought a poet could write about did not appeal to Leon.

It seems almost too literary, and it is.  We find out at the end of the story that the neat, poetic ending is not really the ending at all, and what really happened was less coincidental and more shocking.  I won't spoil it, but I was floored by how Munro deftly plays into our expectations of plot and symbolism, and then rebukes them.  Life is not a story, she says, cruelty is not always redeemed by beauty or by art.

I could write similarly about every story in the collection.  Three of them are about a woman, Juliet, who tries to forge a life in the furthest reaches of British Columbia with a man she meets on a train.  The stories might as well be about different people, for the thinness of their connecting threads, but something about linking them together makes each feel more profound.  I particularly liked a Munrovian dash of dark humor in the first, "Chance," in which Juliet is unable to flush her menstrual blood down the train toilet that has just stopped because it hit a suicide on the tracks.  Later, she overhears a conversation:

The woman talking to her said softly, "That's what she said.  Full of blood.  So it must have splashed in when the train went over--"

"Don't say it."

Juliet had rejected the man's advances earlier, before he hopped off the train and killed himself.  The menstrual blood is symbolically complex, suggesting a kind of feminine guilt for not giving into the sad demands of male sexuality.  But beyond that it's really funny--and it's not the first time that Munro has used menstruation for that kind of bleak joke.

Other stories tell about a provincial woman reputed to be psychic; a girl who is stalked by a woman who believes her to be a child she once gave up for adoption; a woman whose brief fling with an alcoholic precedes his death in a car accident.  Each one is really something.

Voss by Patrick White

Every man has a genius, though it is not always discoverable. Least of all when choked by the trivialities of daily existence. But in this disturbing country, it is possible to more easily discard the inessential and attempt the infinite. You will be burnt up most likely, you will have the flesh torn from your bones, you will be tortured probably in many horrible and primitive ways, but you will realize that genius of which you sometimes suspect you are possessed, and of which you are sometimes afraid.

What a book. I can't say Voss was the most moving or powerful book I've read this year (that would probably be the sadly-unreviewed Invisible Man), and I can't say it was an easy read. But what I can say is that it is like nothing I've ever read. The back cover blurb makes it sound like a western set in 1800s Australia, and a longer summary would read like a "love in spite of obstacles" story in the vein of Castaway, but in reality, Voss--named after the protagonist, a fiercely internal and independent man who leads an expedition to fill in the massive blank spot that is the outback--often barely reads like a novel at all, as White chooses words and images that evoke while often barely making logical sense, as he elides over the most desperate and disturbing happenings on Voss' excursion in favor of long passages of obscure poetry and often leaves the expedition entirely to focus on Laura Trevelyan, Voss' once-met love--but I digress.

So the plot is this--Johann Wilhelm Voss is patronized by Laura's uncle to lead the aforementioned expedition to the Outback, at the time a complete mystery. While at the kick-off party for the expedition, Voss meets Laura, an intelligent girl who has recently decided she doesn't believe in God and doesn't understand her family. After one incidental and fairly confrontational conversation about those two topics, Voss and Laura gradually realize that they are connected--in love--even as Voss and his party move further from civilization and toward almost-certain death.

The love story is an interesting construction. Not only do Laura and Voss have only one conversation, but 1/3 of the way through the book they communicate in words for the last time, as their letters start meeting ignominious fates before reaching their targets, but as Voss draws nearer to his ultimate destiny and Laura grows sick in tandem, they begin sharing psychic experiences--awfully disorienting to begin with, since White just starts talking about them as if they're together and never explains--but that's the way Voss is. Even after spending hours with the text, it's easy to slip out of concentration and miss something really important, like a death, a healing, or even a decapitation. Like Cormac McCarthy, White has little interest in the shocking for its own sake--a particularly grisly death is given less time on the page than Laura's shorn head, post-sickness haircut--and more interest in the crushing cruelty of the unloving land.

So there's so much material to unpack here, I can't even begin to do it justice, but I wanted to include a couple more samples of White's writing. As good as the book is narratively, his prose is the biggest draw. At times reminding me of McCarthy, Austen(!) and Dostoevsky, White nevertheless has a singular style that doesn't easily fit into any boxes I own. Here's Laura at a funeral:

But Laura was calm rather than cold, as, all around her, the mourners surrendered up their faces to the fear of anonymity, and above, the clouds were loading lead to aim at men. After the first shock of discovery, it had been exhilarating to know that terrestrial safety was not assured, and they solid earth does eventually swirl beneath the feet. Then, when the wind had cut the last shred of flesh from the girl's bones, and was whistling in the little cage that remained, she began even to experience a shrill happiness, to sing the wounds her flesh would never suffer. Yet, such was their weakness, her bones continued to crave earthly love, to hold his skull against the hollow where her heart had been. It appeared that pure happiness must await the final crumbling, when love would enter into love, becoming an endlessness, blowing at last, indivisible, indistinguishable, over the brown earth.

And here's Voss, facing his fear of death:

He himself, he realized, had always been most abominably frightened, even at the height of his divine power, a frail god upon a rickety throne, afraid of opening letters, of making decisions, afraid of the instinctive knowledge of in the eyes of mules, of the innocent eyes of good men, of the elastic nature of the passions, even of the devotion he had received from some men, and one woman, and dogs.

Afraid of the devotion he had received from men, a woman, and dogs. That's a whole character--maybe a whole novel!--right there in one line. Great stuff.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Fair Play by Tove Jansson

And she'd search on, all the while afraid that they'd encounter something fantastic--one of those never-to-be-repeated street events that would play out before their eyes just as the film ran out--and then have to wonder.

Fair Play is the third book I've read by Tove Jansson, and the first I've reviewed. All three books put together only totally a little over 300pp, so they're not big time investments, and the writing is often so simple as to seem shallow--I put down the wonderful Summer Book the first time I picked it up because it seemed like a little bit of nothing--but Jansson's seemingly simplistic prose is like the tip of the iceberg. Hemingway would be proud of the amount Jansson is willing to leave submerged.

Fair Play is about two women in their 70s, Mari and Jonna, and their lives together on a small island--similar to the one in The Summer Book, though no connection is ever explicitly stated--and their lives together as they create art and capture life through their stories, drawing, and videos. Like The Summer Book, the stories in Fair Play are clearly related without ever being completely clear on chronology or exposing any strong narrative throughline. The characters and their experiences together are the story, such as it is. In one of the vignettes, Mari is talking to Jonna about a story she's working on, and reads Jonna an excerpt:

Bosse said, "And why should it all fit together? In what way? What did you expect?"

"Some sort of meaning to it all."

"Stop," Jonna said. "You said that earlier. You're going on and on about it,"

Funny, but also a simple but profound truth about how we view our own stories--we want to be the center of some event, some narrative that has a distinct ending. But Fair Play ends without a proper ending--Jonna is given an opportunity to work alone in France for a year, and Mari encourages it, dreaming of what she'll accomplish in her own solitude, and we're never told if they even meet again, certainly not guaranteed given their ages. Such is life. But the last words of the book are quite moving its own simple way, and, I think, true:

Mari was hardly listening. A daring thought was taking shape in her mind. She began to anticipate a solitude of her own, peaceful and full of possibility. She felt something close to exhilaration, of a kind that people can permit themselves when they are blessed with love.


Note: I wanted to talk a little bit about how this seems like a really lovely portrait of a lesbian relationship, but since Jansson is never explicit, I decided not to be either--the intro didn't mention it but given Jansson's life it's at least an interesting way to approach the work.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I found a nest of baby snakes near the creek and killed them all; I dislike snakes and Constance had never asked me not to.  I was on my way back to the house when I found a very bad omen, one of the worst.  My book nailed to a tree in the pine woods had fallen down.  I decided that the nail had rusted away and the book--it was a little notebook of our fathers, where he used to record the names of people who owed him money, and people who ought, he thought, to do favors for him--was useless now as protection.  I had wrapped it very thoroughly in heavy paper before nailing it to the tree, but the nail had rusted and it had fallen.  I thought I had better destroy it, in case it was now actively bad, and bring something else out to the tree, perhaps a scarf of our mother's, or a glove.  It was really too late, although I did not know it then; he was already on his way to the house.  By the time I found the book he had probably already left his suitcase in the post office and was asking directions.

The Blackwoods are hated in town.  When the youngest, Mary Katherine--Merricat, to her sister Constance and Uncle Julian--descends from their isolated mansion to do the shopping, she's jeered at and threatened.  As it turns out, the townspeoples' antipathy can be traced back to the murder of most of the Blackwood family by arsenic poisoning, a crime that Constance was acquitted for many years ago.  Constance is too afraid of the public eye to go out, and old Uncle Julian is confined to his wheelchair, poring over his memoirs which describe the night of the fateful murders.  Into this hermetic household comes a distant cousin, Charles, whom Merricat distrusts, and rightly so, since he seems to be mostly after the Blackwood riches.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a slim but creepy little book, which succeeds because of the strength of the voice of Merricat's narration.  Merricat is devoted to Constance, and employs a number of different forms of sympathetic magic to protect her from the roiling anger of the townspeople.  Books nailed to trees, silver dollars buried in the field.  She treats her cat Jonas like a mercurial human, and we early begin to suspect that it might not have been the guileless, naive Constance who slipped the arsenic into the food of her family many years ago.

In many ways, We Have Always Lived in the Castle seems like an old-school Gothic novel, the kind that passed out of fashion in the 20th century.  Jackson leans into the melodramatic and the sinister, but the novel never seems as silly as it might, because of the careful, attentive detail given to Merricat and her many totems.  The plot avoids heading in the direction you might suspect--Merricat murdering Charles--and instead uses Charles' presence in the house as a kind of spark to ignite the latent tensions between the Blackwoods and the town around them, to great effect.  In fact, the novel reminded me of no one so much as that other master of 20th century Gothic, Daphne du Maurier, and the final chapter of the book borrows one of its most intense dramatic elements from Rebecca, who borrowed it in turn from Jane Eyre.  Except--time for the spoiler alert--when the house burns down, unlike du Maurier and Bronte, Jackson has her two sisters go on living there, happy in the ruins of their former glory, because they only need each other.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville

"Can I be so changed?  Look at me.  Or is it I who am mistaken?--Are you not, sir, Henry Roberts, forwarding merchant of Wheeling, Pennsylvania?  Pray, now, if you use the advertisement of business cards, and happen to have one with you, just look at it, and see whether you are not the man whom I take you for."

"Why," a bit chafed, perhaps, "I hope I know myself."

"And yet self-knowledge is thought by some not so easy.  Who knows, my dear sir, but for a time you may have taken yourself for somebody else?  Stranger things have happened."

A crippled black man begs for alms on a Mississippi Riverboat.  Among the crowd there are skeptics--those who say not only is the man not crippled, he's not even black!  The man, called the Black Guinea, exclaims that there are a number of men aboard who will vouch for him, each easily identified by their clothing: a gray suit, a hat with a weed.  And sure enough, one by one, these men appear, but are they the same as the man who was pretending to be the Black Guinea?

The Confidence Man's proponents--like our own Brent--like to think of it as a proto-modernist novel.  Are the various huckster figures, who are always trying to get one over on the ship's innocents, several confidence men, or one confidence man in various disguises?  The impenetrability of this question, and the inscrutability of the Confidence Man, or Men's, purposes, make it very modernist indeed.  Certainly he can't only want money, because he's not terribly successful in getting it, either as Black Guinea, or a charity representative, or a man with a once-in-a-lifetime investment, or a quack doctor.  No, there's something about him that wants only the trust, here called confidence, of his fellow men.  I especially liked a very modernist moment where the Confidence Man is abandoned by one companion, and then forces another one to enact the very same dialogue with another companion, using the same "hypothetical" name as the last guy.  It's weird.

It's certainly an interesting premise.  But as a book, The Confidence-Man is almost impossible to read.  It's almost entirely dialogue, and not just dialogue but Melvillean dialogue: stilted, philosophical, interminable.  For a reader with infinite reserves of patience, The Confidence-Man may have something interesting or valuable to say about the nature of trust.  I admit I wanted some of the rollicking sea-adventures of Typee and Moby Dick to temper all that dialogue.  Without it, The Confidence-Man is never as beguiling or seductive as its main character--or characters.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

We don't want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos.  For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin.  We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don't want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange.  We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact.  This is another lie.  We are only seeking Man.  We have no need of other worlds.  We need mirrors.

Kris Kelvin arrives at a base orbiting the planet Solaris, home of the living ocean, excited to study the strange life form--if it is that--that has captivated not just his imagination but all of mankind's.  When he arrives, he finds the station in shambles, his contact dead by his own hand, and two other scientists having descended into degrees of insanity.  He's told to be wary; there are strange visitors on the station.  And sure enough, the first night he's there, he's visited by an old girlfriend who committed suicide many years ago--a kind of Ghost of Girlfriends Past.

I never saw the famous Tarkovsky film, but I did see the (surprisingly good) George Clooney remake.  My recollection of the film was that the appearance of Clooney's old girlfriend (Vera Farmiga?) was a mystery.  But in the book, the mystery is tempered by the fact that Solaris has been throwing up strange mysteries for a hundred years.  The planet is covered in ocean, but the ocean exhibits a kind of intelligence, perhaps even sentience.  The liquid shifts, changes, in purposeful ways; it even hardens into facsimiles of the human objects it "sees."  Some say it present models of places and people in their memories, but what happens to Kelvin and the others on the station has never happened before.

Solaris is best when it's diving into the knotty question of whether the ocean-planet is sentient, or even alive.  One school, to which Kelvin belongs, thinks the ultimate goal of Solaristics is contact--to talk to the planet in some meaningful way.  But the major theme of Solaris is the way that our narcissism shadows even our high-minded scientific work.  We can only conceive of extrasolar life that reflects ourselves in some way, but when it comes, if it comes, it will probably be so foreign to us that we won't be able to fit it into our solipsistic categories of "life."  Is the ocean alive?  That's not a scientific question, Lem says, it's an introspective one.  What do we see in ourselves that we think is living?

The manifestation of Kelvin's ex, Rheya, could be Solaris making a kind of contact of its own--witnessing something in Kelvin's pysche that it reproduces as a kind of recognition.  The depiction of Rheya--mysterious, fragile, shadowy--seemed to me to come from the women-sure-are-mysterious genre of masculine writing.  It makes sense, I guess, if Rheya is a kind of manifestation of Kelvin's own inner thoughts, rather than a real flesh-and-blood person.  But something about the way that the mystery of women became a stand-in for the mystery of Solaris made me wary of the book as a whole.  Still, it's another piece of evidence that shows just how underrated Lem is here in America.

Monday, April 10, 2017

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take the rear facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realization, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss. 
One of my favorite parts of this project has been mining the books I read for my favorite quotes--a practice I never formalized before, and one I've always wanted build. Partly to separate my quote bookmarks from the signposts that mark my progression through a book and partly to distinguish my pages from the ones Christopher has marked in the books of his I borrow, I've started dogearing the bottoms of pages to signal that they hold passages I want to return to. I couldn't go two pages in this book without folding down a corner, and the bottom edge is so fat with dogeared pages that it won't close anymore. Solnit's meditation on loss ranges far and wide: she covers the loss of objects, of places, of people, of cultures. Reflections on her own losses alternate with researched chapters on a massive variety societal losses: European colonizers wandering into the New World and losing themselves, painters developing techniques to show the loss of objects in the distance. Her essays balance a detailed, descriptive eye with beautifully articulated reflections that both sharpen the emotional response she is able to draw out of her reader and reassure us that not all is lost.

Her experiences of loss and losing are tied to geography, so the book is anchored in a sense of place: the desert, the Bay Area, the American Southwest. Each is beautifully and poignantly described as is the bittersweet feeling of losing and gaining new homes. Even if your geographical touchstones are elsewhere, her reflections feel universal:
Perhaps it's that you can't go back in time, but you can return to the scenes of a love, of a crime, of a happiness, and of a fatal decision; the places are what remain, are what you can possess, are what is immortal. 
There isn't much of a narrative arc here--Solnit covers a truly massive amount of seemingly unrelated ground--but there is a narrative spiral. The essays are all tightly wound around this idea of loss and they circle back to it's role in the human experience. Each enumeration of loss--whether it's an explorer losing his way in the wild or the loss of a beloved friend--is paired with (sometimes rambly sometimes concise) reflections on what we learn from them:
That the world is wild, that life is unpredictable in its goodness and its danger, that the world is larger than your imagination?
As I said before, this review easily could have just been dozens and dozens of quotes. My reflections pale in comparison to hers, and there were entire pages that I underlined and filled with exclamation marks and stars. I don't think I've felt this intertwined with a book in a long time, and I spread out reading its 200 odd pages over weeks because I didn't want it to end (but then couldn't pick anything else up because nothing was as good). It reminded me how much I enjoy essays, and gave me a renewed patience for a kind of rambly, introspective writing, jumping from thought to thought and metaphor to metaphor, that I usually roll my eyes at. I'll leave you with my favorite metaphor--a two page long passage that I underlined in its entirety and re-read over and over and over:
There isn't a story to tell, because a relationship is a story you construct together and take up residence in, a story as sheltering as a house. You invent this story of how your destinies were made to entwine like porch vines, you adjust to a big view in this direction and no view in that, the doorway that you have to duck through and the window that is jammed, how who you think you are becomes a factor of who you think he is and who he thinks you are, a castle in the clouds made out of the moist air exhaled by dreamers. It's a shock to find yourself outdoors and alone again, hard to image that you could ever live in another house, big where this one was small, small where it was big, hard when your body has learned all the twists and turns of the staircase so that you could walk it in your sleep, hard when you built it from scratch and called it home, hard to imagine building again. But you lit the fire that burned it down yourself.
[...]The people close to you become mirrors and journals in which you record your history, the instruments that help you know yourself and remember yourself, and you do the same for them. When they vanish so does the use, the appreciation, the understanding of those small anecdotes, catchphrases, jokes: they become a book slammed shut or burnt. Though I came out of this house transformed, stronger and surer than I had been, and carrying with me more knowledge of myself, of men, of love, of deserts and wildernesses.  

Thursday, April 6, 2017

American Jesus by Stephen Prothero

The subject of this particular story of American religion is Jesus, more precisely Jesus as Americans have understood him.  So on its face, this book would appear to fall in the Christian nation camp.  Yet many of the most interesting appraisals of Jesus have emerged outside the churches: in music, film, and literature, and among Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and people of no religion at all.  To explore the American Jesus, therefore, is not to confine oneself to Christianity.  It is to examine how American Christianity has been formed by Christians and non-Christians alike, and how the varieties of American religious experience have been shaped by the public power of the Christian message.  Finally, to see how Americans of all stripes have cast the man from Nazareth in their own image is to examine, through the looking glass, the kaleidoscopic character of American culture.

It's easy to imagine that the story of American devotion to Jesus has been singular, steady, and monolithic.  I see it when my students transpose their own perceptions about modern Christianity onto older books, a way of flattening and disengaging not only from the text but from modern religious life.  But did you know that the America of the 17th and 18th centuries wasn't very religious at all?  And that Christianity as it did exist was not very interested in Jesus as a figure, much preferring the stern but guiding God-the-father?

Prothero traces the blossoming of a "Jesus culture" in the United States to the Second Great Awakening of the 19th century.  It transformed American Christianity by emphasizing the importance of Christ, but in doing so it unleashed the figure of Jesus onto the American landscape where it could be reimagined and reconceived.  Prothero covers a number of the various incarnations of Jesus in American culture, beginning by contrasting the loving, feminized Jesus of the 19th century with the masculine Jesus of the Teddy Roosevelt era.  He talks about the friendly, hippie-ish Jesus of the Jesus Movement of the mid-20th century, and connects it to our modern megachurches, which he describes, quite accurately, as "mimicking malls, with their large, open spaces, filled with light."

But some of the most interesting chapters cover the versions of Jesus that come from outside of what we might call the mainstream.  There's black Jesus--bringing to mind an argument I had, baffled, with a friend in youth group decades ago who insisted Jesus was black--but also the "elder brother" of Mormonism, as well as Jewish and Hindu versions of Jesus.  I was surprised to see just how important Jesus is in these communities: the first Hindu evangelists in the United States claimed Jesus as one of their own, and the proper Jewish attitude toward Jesus was apparently a huge controversy in the mid-20th century.  This goy had no idea.

Some familiar patterns recur.  From the moment when Thomas Jefferson took his scissors and snipped all the miracles and mysticism out of his Bible, Americans have gone to great pains to distinguish Jesus the figure from the religion he inspired.  Christianity sucks, the familiar line goes, but Jesus himself was the tops.  Prothero argues that this idea shows us just how attached American culture is to Jesus; even when it seeks to reject the Christian religion, America thinks Jesus is pretty much tops.  But the sheer variety and vitality of the different Jesus traditions is perhaps what makes the book so interesting, and eye-opening.  It's easy to get blinkered by one's own tradition, religious or not, and forget what a multitude of perspectives there are.  And there's something admirable, perhaps quintessentially American, about the diversity of Jesuses in our midst.