Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

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

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

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

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

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Pitch Dark by Renata Adler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

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

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

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

Stoner by John Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Republic of Pirates by Colin Woodard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

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

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

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

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

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

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

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

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Twyborn Affair by Patrick White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry by William Gass

The privacy which a book makes public is nevertheless made public very privately--not like the billboard which shouts at the street, or the movie whose image is so open we need darkness to cover the clad-ass and naked face that's settled in our seat.  A fictional text enters consciousness so discreetly it is never seen outdoors... from house to house it travels like a whore... so even on a common carrier I can quite safely fill my thoughts with obscene adjectives and dirty verbs although the place I occupy is thigh-sided by a parson.

William Gass' single-essay book, On Being Blue, isn't quite about the color blue.  Well, it is, I guess, but not quite in the way I expected when I got it as a Christmas present.  (From my mother no less-sorry, Mom; I'm not sure either of us knew what was really in here.)  In fact, On Being Blue vacillates between two poles: one, a meditation on the proliferation of the color blue in all its forms and habitations, and the other an investigation into one particular shade of the word "blue"--that is, the blue of blue films and working blue.  That is, obscenity and sex.

Gass' essay is diffident, without a clear purpose or center.  But his style, fluid and exuberant, is worth the price of admission in and of itself, as illustrated by his facility with repetition that ought to make the book's opening a dull sentence indeed:

Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep hole in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit--dumps, mopes, Mondays--all that's dismal--low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in, or the call for trumps in whist (but who remembers whist or what the death of unplayed games is like?), and correspondingly the flag, Blue Peter,which is our signal for getting underway; a swift pitch, Confederate money, the shaded slopes of clouds and mountains, and so the constantly increasingly absentness of heaven (ins Blaue hinein, the Germans say), consequently the color of everything that's empty: blue bottles, bank accounts, and compliments, for insurance, or, when the sky's turned turtle, the blue-green bleat of ocean (both the same), and, when in Hell, its neatly landscaped rows of concrete huts and gas-blue flames; social registers, examination booklets, blue bloods, balls, and bonnets, beards, coats, collars, chips, and cheese... the pedantic, indecent and censorious... watered twilight, sour sea: through a scrambling of accidents, blue has become their color, just as it's stood for fidelity.

Whew!  That was a beast to type.  But it's an incredible thing to see--Gass clearly takes his cues on how to deal with the repeated word from D. H. Lawrence, who gets special recognition in the essay for his failure to write about sex convincingly.

It's not just Lawrence, though his case is the most tragic--Gass thinks that no one can really write about sex sufficiently.  It's one of the few cogent points that emerge now and then from the essay.  We retreat from sex, literarily speaking, because our efforts to treat it directly are doomed to failure.  So we embrace terms that are emptied of signification because they are the best we can do.  ("When, with an expression so ill-bred as to be fatherless," Gass writes, "I enjoin a small offensive fellow to 'fuck a duck,' I don't mean he should.")  Blue, a color Gass conceives of as taking an especially wide range of meanings and connotations, easily takes on the ineffable connotation of the sexual act.  That's what links the two poles together.

Around this idea, the essay meanders with only a modicum of purpose or organization.  Were Gass' prose itself not so captivating, it would hardly be tolerable.  In contrast, read Michael Gorra's laudatory introduction, which apes, or falls despite itself into an imitation of, Gass' style, but far less effectively.  And the central connection of the book suffers today because, forty years after the essay's writing, we don't really use the word in the same way.  Who calls porn "blue movies" now anyway?  I didn't close On Being Blue feeling especially enlightened, either on sex or the color wheel, but I enjoyed reading it anyhow.