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.