Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Something was lying untoward below us, in a box inside that little house
 

Untoward    ly

May I tell you something?

It had the face of a worm

A worm, I say!    A worm the size of a boy    Wearing my suit

Horrors.

My first impression upon reading Lincoln in the Bardo was plain gratitude.  I felt gratitude to think that a book like this could be published, for all its weirdness, its unapproachability, its extravagance.  The subject matter is weird enough: Willie Lincoln, the president's son, awakes after his death in a kind of purgatory populated by the spirits of those in his cemetery who refuse to "pass on" to the other side.  But the book is also stylistically weird: it's written in snippets of those spirits' voices, who both speak to each other and narrate what they see, without any clear demarcation between those modes.  It's also interspersed with quoted passages, both eyewitness and historical, about Willie's death and the president's grief.  (Some, I am pretty sure, are made up, but not all--Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals makes an appearance.)  That it all hangs together is a miracle; that it could be published is a testament to the many years of excellent short stories Saunders has produced.  The compactness of stories lends itself to experimentation, but everything in Tenth of December seems now like prologue to me.

The spirits in Georgetown's Oak Hill cemetery all have their reasons for clinging to life instead of passing on to the next world.  Roger Bevins III committed suicide because he was unable to be with his male lover, but at the last minute he realized how much he will miss about the world, just on a sensory level ("swarms of insects dancing in slant-rays of August sun; a trio of black horses standing hock-deep and head-to-head in a field of snow; a waft of beef broth arrive breeze-borne from an orange-hued window on a chilled autumn--").  Hans Vollmann gets hit with a wooden beam before he can consummate his marriage with his much younger wife.  The premise allows Saunders the opportunity to emphasize these stories with Beetlejuice-style comic exaggeration: as Roger waxes poetic, his eyes, noses, and hands multiply into the hundreds.  Hans has an eternally enormous erection.

These two are the protagonists, more or less; it's principally through their (hundreds of) eyes that we see and understand Willie and Lincoln.  But the book is so full of funny, believable portraits of dead folks.  Some I liked especially: the miser woman who collects rocks, sticks, and motes in the afterlife.  The hunter who sits in front of a pile of all the animals he's ever killed, staring at each one until he has given it its proper due before it gets up and walks away.  A cruel slaveowner who gets exponentially taller as he rails against the laziness and perfidy of his slaves.  (Okay, some are less funny than others.)  One of the most chilling is a reverend who has already been judged and sent to Hell by Christ, a fate from which he has run back into this purgatory.  All of these are compelled to repeat their story over and over, speaking themselves into existence.  Their coffins they call "sick-boxes"; their bodies are "sick-forms."

Into this ecosystem comes the spirit of Willie Lincoln.  The president, utterly distraught by Willie's death, comes to visit the body, even going so far as to pick it up and hold it.  This makes Willie a kind of celebrity in the graveyard, and they flock to him to tell their stories, hundreds at a time, as if being held by the living Lincoln makes Willie a little bit closer to resurrection than they.  But children are not meant to stay long in this realm, and the longer Willie stays--he lingers knowing his father might return and pick him again--the more he is at risk for a kind of permanent eternal entrapment.  Hans and Roger do their best to get Willie to let go and pass on, a plot which inspires more of what you might call hijinks than you'd expect.

Though it's a lot of fun, Lincoln in the Bardo is at its best when its in an elegiac mode.  More than anything else, the novel is a meditation on grief and loss.  Lincoln struggles mightily with the loss of his son.  He memorably summarizes the paradox of death this way: "Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another."  And of course, the political context looms large here.  The war is going badly and bloodily for the Union, and Lincoln is deeply aware that he has sent other men's sons to die. 

Saunders recognizes, I'm happy to say, that any novel about the moral implications of the Civil War needs to dwell extensively on black Americans.  Willie's presence helps to bring down a psychic barrier between Oak Hill and the mass grave beyond the nearby fence, letting in a number of the black dead, including former slaves.  These characters provide some of the most profound pathos in the novel.  One man can't figure out why, when his masters were so kind to him, he feels the powerful urge to murder them.  Another meditates that he had his moments of freedom like most men, but is haunted by "[t]he thought, specifically, that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments."  A victim of rape is utterly mute.  These stories are so vital to the novel because as a nation we still reckon with the political valence of black loss and grief, with our attitude toward black bodies quite literally.  Saunders bends the rules of his world a little to let one of these men to literally walk out of the cemetery inside Lincoln's body.

I can say, hands down, this is the funniest novel about a cemetery featuring a man with a comically large penis that I have ever read.  If that praise is too faint, I'll add this: Lincoln in the Bardo is a tremendous exploration of what it means to die, to lose, to grieve.  May all our deaths be as full of joy as Willie Lincoln's, when he finally realizes he is dead:

All is    All is allowed now    All is allowed me now    All is allowed lightlightlight me now

Getting up out of bed and going down to the party, allowed

Candy bees, allowed

Chunks of cake, allowed!

Punch (even rum punch), allowed!

Let that band play louder!

Swinging from the chandelier, allowed; floating up to the ceiling, allowed going to the window to have a look out, allowed allowed allowed!

Warlock by Oakley Hall

"Bitter?" he heard Kate say. above the humming in his ears. "Why yes I am bitter! Because men have found a way to crucify every decent man, starting with Our Lord. No, it is not even bitter--it is just common sense. They will admire him because he killed a man they wouldn't've had the guts to go against. But they will hate him for it, because of that."

I cut my grown-up reading teeth on Westerns, mostly Louis L'Amour and numerous knock-offs. I can recite the structure of those books now. It's a bonding ritual amongst those who've read many. A loner comes to town, usually with a dark past. The town is run by the seemingly benevolent but actually malevolent "largest rancher in the valley". There's a grudging gunfight as a cowboy who's had too much to drink can't help but throw iron on the stranger. There's at least one fistfight that usually ends with the stranger taking his bruises, and then a final gunfight against overwhelming odds. And there's usually a girl there to help pick up the pieces. Within this framework, there's a lot of fun stuff that can happen, but the structure is sacrosanct.

Warlock, one of the numerous award winners that NYRB has rescused from obscurity, has a full-length blurb from the rarely terse Thomas Pynchon on the back cover, and that might lead you to believe that it's the sort of book that would wildly buck those conventions--an ambiguous ending, perhaps? Historical characters behaving anachronisitically? Or, at a minimum, a modernistic nihilism like Unforgiven. But you'd be wrong, because in many ways, Warlock follows the aforementioned structure to a T. The way it follows it is sometimes surprising, sometimes moving, sometimes predictable, but after finishing and taking a step back, it's not hard to see the contours of L'Amour and John Wayne.

Where it bests most Westerns though, is the thoroughness with which it examines the mining town of Warlock and its denizens. Although most of the book focuses on hired-gun sheriff Clay Blaisdell, black-sheep former outlaw John Gannon, amoral drifter Morgan, and the mysterious Kate, plenty of other citizens get moments of focus to make them more than the cardboard cutouts that tertiary characters in these sorts of books tend to be. We get a side-plot about the organizers of a miner's strike, a look at the politics in the little big Bright's City and their uncaring--and half crazy--beauracracy, and about 1/4 of the book is told through the diary entries of Henry Holmes-Goodpasture, a put-upon store owner who, in a clever bit of metacommentary on the genre, keeps getting his front window smashed.

But Gannon and Blaisedell form the beating heart of Warlock. Blaisdell has killed so many men that he can't seem to stop, in spite of the wear on his spirit. And Gannon reluctantly but unwaveringly takes up the office of deputy after Blaisedell steps down early in the novel, after killing Gannon's brother. Though the gunman-stranger is usually--and even here, is--the magnetic center that holds everything together, Gannon gets the most character work, starting the book regretting a massacre he participated in and ending it... well, there's a fistfight and a gunfight, but anything more would be telling.

Warlock is able to sustain its tight-broad paradoxical focus because Hall recognizes that the town itself is too small for anyone or anything to really be a sideplot. Often we learn about events after the fact second-hand, and while there's no real unreliable narrator here, that level of remove is engaging in a way that a straightforward telling might not be. There are plenty of frontier ruminations on the nature of society, and of man, but in the end, it comes down to guns and fists because the land, the people, the government, the mines, they are brutal. It takes a certain constitution to make it through with both life and soul intact, and Hall expertly breaks down his archtypical characters until they feel like real people. Then, in an epilogue, he tells what ultimately became of them all, bringing the archetypes to the foreground and showing us that the cycle never really ends. It's only the geography that's different.
To my mind, Blaisdell is only a small and temporary blight on the body politic; with all else healthy and aright he will automatically disappear. Like the rest of us, but perhaps for different reasons, he too is no longer interested in the Citizens Committee. I am apathetic of his ambitions; I am contemptuous of his optimism. The old, corrupt, and careless god has been replaced in his Heaven, and so, he feels, all will be well with the world, which is, after all, the best of all possible ones. It is a touching faith. But I am more drawn to those who wander the night not with excitement but with dread for it.

I see many of them through my window, unable to sleep now that the fire is out. For what fire is out, and what is newly lighted and what will burn forever and consume us all? How can men live, and know that in the end they will merely die?

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Scientist in the Crib by Alison Gopnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl

Motherese seems to teach children about people and objects as well as about words. Korean-speaking mothers emphasize actions when they speak to their babies, while English speakers emphasize objects. Just as babies seem responsive to the differences in sounds, they also seem responsive to the differences in content. The Korean-speaking babies seem to focus more on actions, while the English-speaking babies pay more attention to objects. The grown-ups' language seems to lead the children toward new ideas about the world. 
One of the most exciting and bizarre things about being a new parent is the mystery of what, exactly, is going on inside your baby's head at any given moment. Gopnik et al tackle that mystery here, and give an overview of the state of infant and child development (at least where it stood 18 years ago). They divide the development of the mind into three categories: The Other Minds problem (our ability to recognize the ways in which other humans are both similar to and different from us), the External World problem (our ability to translate the onslaught of sensory data we receive into a coherent perception of the world around us), and the Language problem (our ability to parse sounds into thought and thoughts into sounds). Each of these problems is still, on some level, unsolved, but the authors lay out the research and studies that get us close to answers.

The overarching theme, as suggested by the title, is that babies are the original scientists. All of their energy is devoted to testing out and reforming hypotheses about the world around them to solve those three problems. They're constantly collecting and analyzing data and using it make sense of the world around them. As a parenting book (Gopnik apparently hates "parenting" as a verb...sorry, Alison!), it is both frustrating and relieving to discover that we play a relatively minimal role in all of this. The things we do naturally--talking to our children, narrating the world around them--are about all we can do.

The organization of this book was a little wonky. They don't go chronologically (a baby's brain is doing such and such and such and such age), but they also don't clearly organize it according to the problems they lay out in the opening pages either (although the chapter headings suggest that they have). It's clearly written, witty and accessible, but the thread is often hard to follow. That being said, I learned a ton about babies' brains, and I look at my son and his astonished babbling in a new light.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Romola by George Eliot

The law was sacred.  Yes, but rebellion might be sacred too.  It flashed upon her mind that the problem before her was essentially the same as that which had lain before Savonarola--the problem where the sacredness of obedience ended and where the sacredness of rebellion began.

My wife and I just started watching Netflix's Wild Wild Country, a docuseries about Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, who transplanted his utopian ashram from India to Oregon in the 1980's, leading to a catastrophic conflict with local Oregonians.  The charismatic Baghwan put into my mind the figure of medieval Florentine monk Fra Girolamo Savonarola as interpreted by George Eliot in the historical novel Romola: Both are charismatic religious leaders, whose message is one of a special dispensation for the time and place in which they live.  The world will be changed, they argue, but it will begin to be changed here and now, through us.  And both ended up embracing the ordinary dirtiness of politics they wanted to believe themselves apart from.

If you know about Savonarola, you probably associate his name with the bonfire of the vanities--enormous literal bonfires of things thought to distract from a holy life, like jewelry, fancy clothes, and proscribed books.  It's hard today to imagine how a guy like that amassed such a huge following.  He sounds like such a prude!  But Eliot does a great job of showing how such attitudes might sweep through an entire city, and entire culture, not just because of their Puritan repressiveness but because they offered a glimpse of a new social order in which the poor and the mighty are equal.

Against this backdrop Eliot tells the story of Tito Melema, a learned Greek who arrives in Florence after a shipwreck.  Tito becomes an assistant to a blind scholar named Bardo Bardi, and falls in love with his daughter Romola.  Bardo is reminiscent of Casaubon from Middlemarch--a determined scholar whose prime worry is that he will die before his great work is complete.  (In fact, the level of historical detail of Romola shows Eliot herself to be a little Casaubon-like, I think.)  But Bardo is kind, rather than selfish, and Tito's devotion to him has a great effect on Romola.  When they marry, she has no idea that he has another wife, the peasant Tessa, whom he's married in a mock "ceremony" during a festival (she doesn't understand it was a farce--it's complicated), and with whom he'll end up having several children.  Nor does she know that he has decided not to go looking for his father Baldassare, shipwrecked and enslaved by Turks.

Tito's character arc is well-done.  He begins as a charming protagonist but becomes a thoroughgoing villain.  Tito becomes a bad guy for the simplest of reasons: he doesn't want to give up his comfort.  He doesn't want to search for Baldassare because he'd rather sell the jewels he might use for ransom, and live in comfort with Romola.  He has two wives because he just likes them both.  He knows his love for Romola is more profound, but man, Tessa sure is nice to be around.  Eliot gets to a sad truth: some of the worst things we do are for the dumbest, most self-serving reasons:

Under every guilty secret there is a hidden brood of guilty wishes, whose unwholesome infecting life is cherished by the darkness.  The contaminating effect of deeds often lies less in the commission than in the consequent adjustment of our desires--the enlistment of our self-interest on the side of falsity; as, on the other hand, the purifying influence of public confession springs from the fact, that by it the hope in lies is forever swept away, and the soul recovers the noble attitude of simplicity.

Of course, this being a Victorian novel, you would expect Baldassare to end up in Florence, and he does, looking for revenge.  This offers Tito the opportunity to dig his moral hole deeper, to reject his own father and drive him to madness.  Later he becomes embroiled in the political affairs of Florence, perfecting a self-serving strategy of double-dealing, allying with the Mediceans against the forces of Savonarola, and vice versa.

It takes the novel a long time to get around to the title character of Romola.  She doesn't seem present or real until Tito's perfidy is already very clear to her, and to us.  Her moral arc is predicated on her unhappy marriage.  Trying to flee the city, she runs into Savonarola, who convinces her to return and accept the burden of the marriage vows she's made.  She becomes one of the monk's acolytes, and begins to devote her life to helping the needy.  As Savonarola's influence wanes and his own flaws become clear, she begins to reflect on the difficult question represented in the passage I quoted at top: when is it right to obey and when is it right to rebel?  In a dreamlike passage, she lies down in a boat and floats away from Florence, only to find herself in a village decimated by the plague, which she helps to nurse back to life.  (Again, the parallels with Middlemarch abound--like Dorothea Brooke, Romola also turns to selflessness to cope with a failed marriage.)

Romola is a long novel.  It's about 700 pages.  It's full of compelling characters: Tito and Romola especially, but also Baldo and Baldassare, and several strong supporting characters.  Niccolo Machiavelli is here, in addition to Savonarola, and several other real-life figures from late 15th-century Florence.  To be honest, most of the politicking went over my head.  Eliot clearly has a deep and intricate understanding of the political scene in this place and time, and punctuates the main narrative with a lot of conversation between common folks about what's going on with the Medici and the devotees and Savonarola and all of that.  I gave into the urge to skim through a lot of it, in order to get to the stuff with Tito and Romola.  But you can't say that Romola doesn't give a sense of life to the 15th century, or make a strange relic like Savonarola a little easier to understand.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Peregrine by J. A. Baker

Warm and firm-footed in long grass smelling of the sun, I sank into the skin and blood and bones of the hawk.  The ground became a branch to my feet, the sun on my eyelids was heavy and warm.  Like the hawk, I heard and hated the sound of man, that faceless horror of the stony places.  I stifled in the same filthy sack of fear.  I shared the same hunter's longing for the wild home none can know, alone with the sight and smell of the quarry, under the indifferent sky.  I felt the pull of the north, the mystery and fascination of the migrating gulls.  I shared the same strange yearning to be gone.  I slept into the feather-light sleep of the hawk.  Then I woke him with my waking.

In H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald describes how much she dislikes J. A. Baker's The Peregrine.  As someone who knows and trains hawks, she finds Baker's sense of a hawk's alienness off-putting.  Though Macdonald warns against easy anthropomorphizing, she sees in her hawks a number of moods--playfulness, fear, shyness--that aren't represented in Baker's account of peregrine falcons, whom he describes mostly as single-minded murder machines.

The Peregrine is a strange book.  It really is very little more than a diary following the movements of a pair of peregrine falcons on the northeast coast of England from the fall through the spring of a single year.  Baker watches his hawks sleep, kill, eat, soar, and play games with their prey.  His observations are drawn with an understated poetic flair: the peregrine flies in a "tremendous wing-lit parabola"; it drives apart a flock of gulls, "shattering them apart like flinging white foam."  But I don't think the most exquisite poetry in the world could keep The Peregrine from being what it is: a six-month birdwatching diary.

I suspect part of the problem is me.  Do I lack such a sense of the variety of the natural world that the finely-tuned observations of The Peregrine are lost on me?  We lack a language of flora and fauna in the 21st century; we see trees instead of sycamores and oaks, flowers instead of columbine and thistle.  I wonder if, in another time and place, I would be more sensitive to the kinds of landscape that Baker describes.  I might have more patience then, and be able to see the finer distinctions being made.  But still, there's little drama to The Peregrine beyond the quotidian and repetitive game in which the peregrines hunt and kill ducks and mice.

Baker finds himself, after months of watching and writing, turning into a peregrine himself, turning away from human society (not that there's any in this book to turn away from) and sympathizing with the hawk's indifference to anything but hunting.  The transformation is incomplete, of course, because Baker can never enter the peregrines' confidence: "No pain, no death, is more terrible to a wild creature than its fear of man," he writes.  The hawk regards him as "part hawk, part man; worth flying over to look at from time to time, but never wholly to be trusted; a crippled hawk, perhaps, unable to fly or kill cleanly, uncertain and sour of temper."  Kind of like Brundlefly, I guess--Bakerhawk?

Honestly, I didn't believe it.  First of all, I don't think a dude that spends six months tramping around the countryside doing nothing but birdwatching needs to be seduced into being indifferent or antisocial.  But mostly, it feels too stagey, too inevitable, too much like a desperate injection of mysticism.  A refusal, perhaps, to let the book be the mundane and quotidian thing that it really is.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Image result for coates the beautiful struggle


Fuck what you have heard or what you have seen in your son.  He may lie about homework and laugh when the teacher calls home.  He may curse his teacher, propose arson for the whole public system.  But inside is the same sense that was in me.  None of us ever want to fail.  None of us want to be unworthy, to not measure up.

Ta-Nehisi Coates became famous for his second book, Between the World and Me, a letter about being a black man in America that he wrote to his son.  This is his first book, a memoir about becoming a black man in America and under the tutelage of his own father.  In it, he is bracingly honest about his father, himself and his family in prose that is never less than compelling and beautiful. 

A map of Baltimore with various sites and neighborhoods marked and a Coates family tree with Ta-Nehisi’s grandparents, parents, his father’s three other wives and his 7 siblings and half siblings precede the text.  It is as if Coates is locating this story as much in the specific and the particular as possible, even while he is constantly reaching for the universal.  He captures the angst and pain of middle school, the challenges of figuring out adulthood, the struggles that occur between teens and parents, with insights that virtually anyone over 20 can relate to without every watering down his account of a very specific set of family, gender and race issues that are specific to black men and ultimately to Ta-Nehisi alone.

While it is clear his father is his hero, Coates is clear about that hero’s behavior, his style of discipline and his failings as a family man.  William Coates was a dedicated member of the Black Panther party and the relationship between his politics and his ideas of parenthood are discussed in detail.  Ta-Nehisi’s own politics are clear, and he gives his father much of the credit for teaching him to see the world through a radical lens.  Coates is equally clear about his decision to see women and children differently than his father did. 

Some of the later chapters feel like an advertisement for Howard University and a primarily black gifted and talented high school Ta-Nehisi briefly attended.  These serve to narrate his growing intellectual strength and independence, but also make a case for how poorly served blacks have been by ordinary, supposedly integrated, public schools.  It is clear that much of his education comes from his father – a dedicated, self-educated scholar of African and African American history and culture.

This is not a full-length autobiography.  Coates was only 33 when he wrote it.  It covers his teen years – opening with a frightening gang incident when Ta-Nehisi was 12 and closing as he enters Howard six years later.  It shows off his intimate and encyclopedic knowledge of pop-culture, hip-hop in particular and probably will have a valuable air of nostalgia for a reader younger than me.  Even here, Coates touches the universal because I was able to insert songs and movies from my own era where I did not recognize his references. 


I did not grow up in the world Coates is describing here, and I am certain that much of this went over my head.  But I found myself wishing I had read it at 12 myself – to prepare for the gauntlet that is male adolescence -  and reread it when each of my boys was 12.  There is much valuable wisdom here about what we do to boys in the name of manhood.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

With the plucking of the pigeon came more revelations, as if with its uncovering other things were uncovered.  I thought of the dreams I'd had that spring of the hawk slipping away into air.  I'd wanted to follow it, fly with it, and disappear.  I had thought for a long while that I was the hawk--one of those sulky goshawks able to vanish into another world, sitting high in the winter trees.  But I was not the hawk, no matter how much I pared myself away, no matter how many times I lost myself in blood and leaves and fields.  I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return.

Helen Macdonald's father died suddenly, of a heart attack, along the Thames while taking photographs.  He was a photographer.  It was his job to photograph things, to notice and capture them; and it's a similar talent that Macdonald exhibits in this finely noticed account of grief and loss.  Macdonald is a Cambridge academic and an amateur falconer (are there professional ones?) and the way she copes, or attempts to cope, with her father's death is through the challenge of training a goshawk, a bird known to be notoriously bloodthirsty and difficult.

What does the hawk, named Mabel, have to do with the father?  That's not an easy question to answer, because H is for Hawk gives a picture of Helen in the process of figuring out her own motives and motivations.  She offers up several explanations for what she's trying to accomplish with Mabel, and rejects some and modifies others.  At the same time she presents a reading of T. H. White's The Goshawk, a book written about the closeted man's attempts to do the same thing while drastically underinformed and underprepared.  Her analysis of White is as lucid and thoughtful as you might expect from a literary critic, but it's hard to shake the feeling sometimes that White's presence in the text makes one dead man too many.

I say that not to criticize, but to ponder the way that H is for Hawk captures the essential messiness of grief, the alienation it provokes from one's own feelings and thoughts.  H is for Hawk can be all over the place, but that doesn't feel wrong, and it's kept together by the strong throughline of the narrative--woman trains hawk--and the unfussy beauty of the prose, evidence of Macdonald's other career is a poet.

Few other books capture the feeling of bereavement so well.  "The memories," she writes, "are like heavy blocks of glass.  I can put them down in different places but they don't make a story."  She says she's been crashing her father's car, scraping it against walls.  Is it because she's trying to punish her absent father?  No, she says--it's that she no longer understands the shape of the car.  She writes with a chill:

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things.  And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all.  You see that life will become a thing made of holes.  Absences.  Losses.  Things that were there and are there no longer.  And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining fullness of the space where the memories are.

In some respect, Mabel is something to throw herself into, a distraction.  In another, she's a familiar kind of figure: a female companion who helps the traumatized protagonist heal through her companionship.  (Reading the old 19th-century accounts of falconers who excoriated goshawks, she recognizes the male tropes of sulkiness and mysteriousness that get applied to women.)  In another, she's a metaphor, the father who is lost among the clouds, but who will return at the call of a whistle as trained.  And perhaps not least she is an escape, a running from the world of men and women into a closed society of woman and hawk that occludes healing as much as it fosters it:

"Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions," wrote John Muir.  "Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal."

Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie.  I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed.  Hands are for other human hands to hold.  They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks.  And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.

She likes that line so much--"hands are for other human hands to hold"--that she repeats it at least once.  It has the pithiness of an aphorism, or a bromide, but Macdonald has earned it.  The novel ends with Mabel placed in an aviary, where she will moult for the summer, and Helen distraught, a repetition on a smaller scale of the mechanics of loss.  But it's tempered by the suggestion that Helen will return to friendships and to human life.  It's a vision of healing that is honest, and never too pat or neat.

To be honest, I wasn't sure they wrote books like this anymore, much less turned them into bestsellers.  There's an Oxbridge fussiness to it, a Victorian solipsism borrowed from White and  other falconers that Macdonald reads about.  (And despite Macdonald's insistence that austringers, hawk-trainers, are thought of as a lower breed than genteel falconers, it's hard for this American to see the pastime as anything but tweedy.)  But its beauty and honesty make it a book out of its own time, and one I'm grateful to have read.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Mislaid by Nell Zink

Besides, adulthood is never something girls grow into. It is something they have thrust upon them, menstruation being only the first of many two-edged swords subsumed under the rubric “becoming a woman,” all of them occasions to stay home from school and weep.
Zink's Peggy goes off to a women's college thinking she has finally found a place where her gender identity and sexuality will be allowed to blossom. Instead of finding love in the thriving lesbian community, she ends up pregnant by one of the few male professors, Lee, a gay poet, and her life takes an unexpected turn. After a decade of living as her approximation of a housewife, Peggy leaves with their baby daughter, Mireille, and starts a new life from scratch, complete with stolen identities and abject poverty.

Mislaid deals with the entire mess of identity in one relatively short package; gender, sexuality, race, class--no identity stone is left unturned, and therefore no one aspect is dealt with in much detail. Peggy's own gender identity and sexuality are revisited throughout, but the life that she chooses for her and Mireille is that of a poor Black woman and her daughter. She assumes the paired mantles of Blackness and poverty almost on a whim; stealing the identity of a dead African American girl for Mireille and assuming the role of her light-skinned black mother. The mother and daughter exist on the outskirts of society at first, but they inch closer and closer, with the daughter eventually earning an affirmative action spot at UVA. Blackness is more of a plot device than anything else, and Peggy and Mireille (or Meg and Karen Brown) remain largely oblivious to the cultural implications of "passing" as Black. It's unclear how purposeful this oblivion is (and unclear whether Zink shares in it), but trying to tackle all of these dimensions at once seems overly ambitious at best and tone deaf at worse.

As a family drama, Mislaid is an enjoyable and unpredictable read. Perhaps because Peggy is largely inscrutable, I had a lot of trouble figuring out where she was coming from or what she would do next, but that kept me engaged and on my toes. Overall, this was an interesting read that left me wanting more depth.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

We the Animals by Justin Torres

We were monsters--Frankenstein, the bride of Frankenstein, the baby of Frankenstein.  We fashioned slingshots out of butter knives and rubber bands, crouched under cars, and flung pebbles at white women--we were the Three Bears, taking revenge on Goldilocks for our missing porridge.

The magic of God is three.

We were the magic of God.

Justin Torres' We the Animals tells the story of three brothers--Manny, Joel, and an unnamed narrator, who live in upstate New York.  They live with Ma, white, and sometimes with Paps, who is Latino, both from Brooklyn.  Ma works a graveyard shift at the brewery, getting the hours of the day confused: "She would wake up randomly, mixed up, mistaking one day for another, one hour for the next, order us to brush our teeth and get into PJs and lie in bed in the middle of the day; or when we came into the kitchen in the morning half asleep, she'd be pulling a meat loaf out of the oven, saying, 'What is wrong with you boys?  I been calling and calling for dinner.'"  This hectic air of confusion characterizes their lives, a chaotic freedom that is only exacerbated by the collective energy of their boyhood.  That's reflected in the energy of the prose, which possesses tremendous vitality.

The voice begins in the plural, the narrator's self diffused into a "we" that captures the sense that the brothers are of one piece.  Even when they ally with one and turn on the third, as kids do, it doesn't matter because they are a unit.  Torres manages to make this seem not so much a function of intimacy, but of chaos, as if in the absence of structures that would delineate the limits of family and personhood, each boy dissipates into the other.

Together, the boys witness the pain of their parents' marriage: Paps' frequent absence, his cruelty--toward Ma, toward them--but also, less frequently, his love.  When Paps rapes her, Ma takes the boys to sleep overnight in a park--will this be their life, from now on?  How about when Paps makes them spend nights on the factory floor because both parents work night shifts?  Among other things, We the Animals is a sensitive and complex portrayal of a poor family of color.

The novel is arranged as a series of titled vignettes, and each one is self-contained, though some are stronger than the others.  Over the course of these we see the collective voice disintegrate, as the younger boy begins to be more individuated from his brothers, more sensitive, less prone to violence.  And yet it's a shock when one of the stories begins, not with "we," but "they"--as if the narrator has finally broken away, and become able to look at his brothers with distance.

This separation is caused, or perhaps just accentuated, by his realization that he's gay.  At a bus station bathroom in the middle of the night he searches out another kind of male companionship, fundamentally different from that his brothers had provided, and ultimately is institutionalized for violent homoerotic fantasies, kept in a journal, discovered by his family.  When they confront him, they are arrayed in a line which he stands outside of, like a single point.  And though the novel leaves hope of reconciliation, it clearly sees the loss of the collective identity as something only possible and youth, and something that's lost at a dear price.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munro

And I thought, all these things don't seem much like life, when you're doing them, they're just what you do, how you feel up your days, and you think all the time something is going to crack open, and you'll find yourself, then you'll find yourself, in life.  It's not even that you particularly want this to happen, this cracking open, you're comfortable enough the way things are, but you do expect it.  Then you're dying, Mother is dying, and it's just the same plastic chairs and plastic plants and ordinary day outside with people getting groceries and what you've had is all there is, and going to a Library, just a thing like that, coming back up the hill on the bus with books and a bag of grapes now seems worth wanting, O God doesn't it, you'd break your heart wanting back there.

Brent, where was it we read some internet commenter using Alice Munro as a stand-in for a kind of fiction they could not stand, the kind of blanched realism you might see in The New Yorker?  It was a comment from someone who didn't understand, perhaps even had never read, Munro.  Surely it was a man.  If such things are worth responding to, one might steer him toward this collection, Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, which opened my eyes to just how modernist and metafictional Munro can be.  These stories are all about the way that we tell stories, and how we do so even in moments where we're not sure we're telling stories at all.  The elderly man who is the protagonist of "Walking on Water" considers his dreams about his mother and siblings, all dead:

This dream always left some weight on his mind.  He supposed it was because he was still carrying around, for part of the day, the presences of dead people, father and mother, brother and sister, whose faces he could not clearly remember when he was awake.  How to convey the solidity, the complexity, reality, of those presences--even if he had anybody to convey them to?  It almost seemed to him there must be a place where they moved with independence, undiminished authority, outside his own mind: it was hard to believe he had authored them himself.

And the word "author" is no coincidence.  Dreaming is not a conscious or deliberate act, but sometimes neither is writing a story, and both are a process of describing the world using the unreliable tools we are given, up to and including those who have been most real to us.  You can tell a story about your dead mother, or you can dream about her, but is the story you are really telling, and every story, about yourself?  In "Tell Me Yes or No," a woman imagines a really complicated chain of events in which she travels to a faraway city where a man lived, and recently died, whom she had pursued a brief flirtation.  She hangs around his widow's bookstore, she gets spotted, and given a sheaf of letters, which she takes, but--here's the twist--the letters are not hers, they are from some other woman.  But what do we make of the way Munro has framed the story, gently remind us in the end that none of this "really" happened?:

Never mind.  I invented her.  I invented you, as far as my purposes go.  I invented loving you and I invented your death.  I have my tricks and my trap doors, too.  I don't understand their workings at the present moment, but I have to be careful, I won't speak against them.

The story of the flirtation and the letters would be good, would be Munrovian, enough.  The pretense of imagination actually throws the story off kilter somehow, and makes it deeply, perhaps intentionally, unsatisfying.  Munro, one of the least stylistically artificial writers I know, feels compelled to remind is that all of it is a fiction.  Like the protagonist of "Walking on Water," and the storyteller in "Yes or No," Munro seems to believe that the engines that drive storytelling are inscrutable, they happen at the level of instinct.  In "The Ottawa Valley," a woman telling a story about her mother (it's always mothers) tells us, "Yet I have not invented it, I really believe it.  Without any proof I believe it, and so I must believe that we get messages another way, that we have connections that cannot be investigated, but have to be relied on."  You have to trust the thing that tells stories in you, Munro says, even as you know the stories are not the same as the real.

Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You is also obsessed with hippies.  That makes sense: as a collection it was released in 1974.  The elderly man of "Walking on Water" befriends a young hippie man who tries, and fails, to walk on water like Jesus, but the practical failure of his attempt only emphasizes the gulf between their understandings of the world.  In "Marrakesh," an old woman watches her daughter grow up into hippiedom, and thinks of how different women are these days, who move "as smoothly as eels among their varied and innocent and transitory loves."  The forgiveness in "Forgiveness in Families" is granted toward the sibling who has taken up with a bunch of Hare Krishna-types.  It seems a bit quaint, this use of hippie culture to mark the alienating effects of time, but it works because Munro is too wise to think of such change as anything but cyclical.  And she fascinates, too, because so often she writes from the perspective of the conventional, understanding its appeal far better than most:

You know, everybody knows, the catalogue of delusions we described to in the fifties; it is too easy to mock them, to announce that maturity was indicated by possession of automatic washers and a muting of political discontent, by addiction to childbearing and station wagons.  Too easy and not the whole truth, because it leaves out something that was appealing, I think, in our heaviness and docility, our love of limits.

What a finely tuned thing to write, I think, and not detract from the fierce undercurrent of feminism that runs through almost all of Munro's stories.  My favorite here is the black-hearted "Material," about a woman who thinks with regret on her first marriage, to a self-absorbed writer who hadn't yet made it big.  She writes about how once he turned off a noisy pump, knowing it might flood the apartment of the eccentric woman downstairs, so he could sleep better, and thus write better.  What a terrific expression of the cruelty of self-professed male genius, which victimizes real women under the pretense of art.  (Lord knows we've seen examples enough of that in the past year.)  But years later, Hugo writes a story about her, the neighbor, and the narrator must admit that it's very good:

How honest this is and how lovely, I had to say as I read.  I had to admit.  I was moved by Hugo's story; I was, I am, glad of it, and I am not moved by tricks.  Or if I am, they have to be good tricks.  Lovely tricks, honest tricks.  There is Dotty lifted out of life and held in light, suspended in the marvelous clear jelly that Hugo has spent all his life learning how to make.  It is an act of magic, there is no getting around it; it is an act, you might say, of special, unsparing, unsentimental love.  A fine and lucky benevolence.  Dotty was a lucky person, people who understand and value this act might say (not everybody, of course, does understand and value this act); she was lucky to live in that basement for a few months and eventually to have this done to her, though she doesn't know what has been done and wouldn't care for it, probably, if she did know.  She has passed into Art.  It doesn't happen to everyone.

This incredible passage returns us to the metafictional stuff I mentioned, the obsession with how the fact of a life is transmuted into narrative in its many forms.  Hugo does it, but so does the narrator in her own account of Dotty, and so does Munro, who should not be pardoned because Dotty wasn't real; she's real enough.  The contradictory nature of the act is captured in the oxymoron "honest tricks," and that's what a good story is: a trick you let someone play on you, which somehow reflects the truth of the world.  This act she calls an "act of love," the gift of noticing Dotty--if you want to write about life, the narrator told Hugo once upon a time, you ought to write about Dotty--and putting her on the page.  Nor is the love lessened by the presumption that Dotty would reject it.

But how does that act of love balance against the cruelty of the pump?  The question goes to the very heart of the discussion we cannot stop ourselves from having, about the moral value of art, and how it can or cannot be extricated from malice.  Can we read a kind of self-incrimination, a confession that writing about a person can be both love and erasure?  Or does the accusation extend only to men and their suffering muses?  Just when you think Munro, a master of the unresolved, is going to leave us with only questions to ponder, the narrator scribbles out this letter to her ex-husband:

This is not enough, Hugo.  You think it is, but it isn't.  You are mistaken.

There you go.  It's not enough.