Thursday, July 20, 2017

Gods of Gotham by Lyndsay Faye

Nobody chased her. But that was nobody's fault, really, not in a city of this size. It was only the callousness of four hundred thousand people, blending into a single blue-black pool of unconcern. That's what we copper stars are for, I think... to be the few who stop and look.
I was given Gods of Gotham by a friend, years ago, during an extended sick leave. I didn't read it then (I did, however, watch four seasons of Scandal in about a week), and I wish now that I had. It's the perfect book for being sick or otherwise somewhat addled (summer vacation, for example!). Faye gives us the story of Timothy Wilde, a grizzled (literally grizzled: half of his face is burned off in a fire in the opening pages) member of New York's brand new police force. Wilde stumbles upon a haunting mystery in his first days on the force, and the novel unspools around his attempts to solve it.

There is nothing particularly meaty or revolutionary here, but Faye has written a great mystery with an added layer of historical fiction. I enjoyed her portrait of poverty in New York in the 1840's, and while her attempts to recreate "flash" (Irish-American slang) were a little jolting at times, she captures the xenophobia and fear mongering of both that age and ours as the citizens of New York are stirred into an anti-Catholic frenzy by a series of increasingly gruesome crimes.

The novel is fast paced and full of colorful, interesting characters. There were twists I didn't see coming (I've read enough mystery novels over the years that this is rare), and Timothy's various lady friends--some romantic interests, some not--are a cast of strong, independent women. Not a single damsel in distress to be found here.

This was a fun, fast read, and I think I might have vaguely learned something about New York history by accident along the way. I'm not sure I'm invested enough to read the sequels, but it was a great, immersive experience.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Girl with Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace

Also because she went around calling herself a post-modernist.  No matter where you are, you Don't Do This.  By convention it's seen as pompous and dumb.  She made a big deal of flouting convention, but there was little to love about her convention-flouting; she honestly, it seemed to us, couldn't see far enough past her infatuation with her own crafted cleverness to separate posture from pose, desire from supplication.  She wasn't the sort of free spirit you could love: she did what she wanted, but it was neither valuable nor free.

Girl with Curious Hair is my first crack at David Foster Wallace.  It's hard to come at him with fresh eyes; he's become so quickly legendary--something his suicide probably encouraged.  It's hard to ignore the way in which he became like a character in one of his own stories, navigating the reality of celebrity and the problems it poses to sincerity and mental integrity.  In the story "My Appearance," Wallace asks, is David Letterman really the same person he seems to be?  Are any of us?  The modern maelstrom of television, pop culture--we would say social media, which Wallace never really got to weigh in on, I think--exacerbates those kinds of questions.

As in "My Appearance," one of Wallace's tried-and-true methods is to depict a real-life celebrity.  Besides Letterman, there's Alex Trebek in "Little Expressionless Animals" and Hawaii Five-0 star Jack Lord in "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way."  Some of these depictions are more insightful than others.  Wallace's Trebek and Letterman in particular seemed to me to be treading the same ground, and canceling each other out in a way.  The most successful of these, for me, is "Lyndon," an account of LBJ's intimacy with a loyal and fictitious gay staff member.  Unlike the satirical edge of "My Appearance" or "Animals," "Lyndon" plays it mostly straight, which is why its investigation of the overlap between sexual love and other kinds of intimacy is so powerful.  It helps that Wallace's LBJ really seems like LBJ--not like a parodic simulacrum, which is the case for the others.

You can see the young Wallace trying his hand at several other strategies over and over.  There are at least three stories here from multiple viewpoints, two of which are about a failing relationship, and neither of which is very successful.  There's a lot of mimicry in different shades.  One story, "John Billy," adopts a Shakespearean kind of West-Texas drawl that produces lines like,

How Chuck Nunn Junior's color was that of the land and how his sweat smelled like copper and how the good ladies of Minogue got infallibly behooved to sit down whenever he passed, walking as walks a man who is in communion with Forces, legs bandy and boots singing with the Amarillo spurs he won himself at the '65 State Fair in O. City for kicking the public ass of a bull without but one horn, but a sharp one.

The title story is a parody of Bret Easton Ellis, in which a Yuppie sadist pals around with a group of crusty nihilist punks making violent havoc at a Keith Jarrett concert.  (It might be the reason why Ellis hated Wallace so much.)

The collection ends with a long novella, "Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way."  The plot is difficult to summarize, because it's so self-consciously stupid: A pair of creative writing students fly to central Illinois to take place in a massive reunion for everyone who's ever been in a McDonald's commercial.  The adman responsible for the reunion is also bankrolling a series of Funhouses based on their creative writing professor's story "Lost in the Funhouse" (an actual postmodernist story by John Barth, on whom the professor is modeled).  "Westward" is meant to be a parody, too, of Barthian postmodernism, with its obsession with form and its suspicion of realism or sentimentality.  But while Wallace craves a literature without irony, that can communicate human truths without illusive games of feints, these stories show little ability to provide it.  The problem with "Westward" is that the parody is at times indistinguishable from Wallace's own work.  The novella ends up being largely tedious and obscure, and its observations about fiction are mostly a loop of postmodern anxieties with no exit ramp.  It is neither, as Wallace writes about one of the characters in "Westward," valuable nor free.

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

Here were a mother and her daughter, nothing less.  A mother and child--in a world that could barely be bothered with mothers and children--who were going to be taken apart.  Everybody believed it.  Possibly Turtle believed it.  I did.

Taylor Greer leaves home in a beat-up car, vowing to take it as far as it will carry her away from the hills of Kentucky.  She wants to escape the cycle of poverty and pregnancy that dogs people in that hardscrabble part of Appalachia.  But in Oklahoma, something strange happens: a Native American woman in a diner follows her out to her car and bestows a three-year old child on her.  Taylor takes the child with her, not knowing what else to do, before the car finally gives out in Tucson, Arizona.  She names the kid Turtle because she clings to her "just like a mud-turtle."

Conflict in The Bean Trees is rarely near-at-hand. The trauma that Turtle faced is back in Oklahoma, the torture that Taylor's newfound friends Estevan and Esperanza faced in Guatemala is, well, back in Guatemala.  There's an episode where Turtle is nearly snatched by a predator in a park because Taylor leaves her in charge of a freaking blind woman, but it reads as if Kingsolver is too guarded to actually imagine what such a person might look like.  The Bean Trees has little to say about the sociopolitical unrest that would lead people to abandon their home in Central America, and less to say about domestic conflicts--beyond a vague sense that Taylor, like the two refugees, is in danger from bureaucratic forces who would be so mean as to separate her from Turtle.

Arrayed against these forces are the powers of sisterhood and motherhood.  Taylor and Turtle lead a not-perfect but heartwarming life in Tucson with Lou Ann, another single mother who's been abandoned by her husband, and various other (mostly female) well-wishers.  The novel conveniently forgets that Taylor escapes Kentucky for the express purpose of avoiding becoming a mother.  Or, I hope it forgets, because the other option is that The Bean Trees wants to suggest that Taylor's independence is misguided, and what she really needs is the purpose that motherhood brings.  Kingsolver masks these troubling conclusions with cloying cuteness and schmaltz.  Here's the last paragraph of the novel, which refers to Turtle's precocious knowledge of plant life:

But it didn't seem to matter to Turtle, she was happy where she was.  The sky went from dust-color to gray and then cool black sparked with stars, and she was still wide awake.  She watched the dark highway and entertained me with her vegetable-soup song, except that now there were people mixed in with the beans and potatoes: Dwayne Ray, Mattie, Esperanza, Lou Ann and all the rest.

And me.  I was the main ingredient.

This novel should have been titled Love Soup.  Or maybe Vegetable Soup for the Single Mother's Soul.  That would give an accurate impression of its intellectual and spiritual depth, as well as its pathological avoidance of anything like real conflict.  Sisterhood and motherhood--and, for that matter, un-motherhood--deserve better.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Fifth Business by Robertson Davies

This is one of the cruelties of the theatre of life; we all think of ourselves as stars and rarely recognize it when we are indeed mere supporting characters or even supernumeraries.

As a young boy, Dunstan Ramsay carefully evades a snowball thrown by a rival.  The snowball hits Mary Dempster, the pregnant wife of the small Ontario town's minister, and causes her to go into labor early.  She comes out of the labor in a state some might call "touched"--a kind of simplicity en route to madness that makes her the subject of the town's whispers.  Dunstan grows up feeling protective of her, and her son Paul, whom he teaches the rudiments of stage magic.  Paul grows up and leaves home to become a famous magician, while Ramsay becomes convinced that the near-mad Ms. Dempster is a kind of saint, complete with three miracles.  Meanwhile, the boy who actually threw the snowball, a rich kid actually called Boy, suppresses the act past remembrance.

Writing all that out, I'm struck by the fragile complexity of Robertson Davies' Fifth Business.  All that is really the set-up; the novel follows Ramsay through his entire life, first as an accidental war hero in World War I (one of Mrs. Dempster's "miracles" is appearing in the face of a Madonna at the battlefield at Passchendaele) and then a respected teacher and scholar on the saints.  But Davies has a true novelists' touch in plotting, and though it takes a long time for the form of the narrative to take shape, the snowball turns out to have serious and far-reaching consequences for both Paul and Boy that resonate throughout their lives.

And for Ramsay, too, but in a different way.  A woman tells him that he is a part of the "Fifth Business": the fifth character in an opera, separate from the two main couples, without whom the plot cannot function.  It's a sad idea, to think of yourself as a minor character in the story of your own life, but it comes with it a kind of power and a kind of freedom from the mechanisms of fate.  The novel ends as it begins, with Paul, Boy, and Ramsay, but Ramsay's peculiar position means he comes out of the scenario relatively unscathed by the ponderous history the two others share.

Fifth Business speaks also to the importance of myth and legend in the world.  Ramsay isn't really a war hero, except by accident, but he accepts the role when he wakes up in a European hospital, sans one leg, and tries to occupy it the best he can.  There's a moment where, having a medal pinned on him by the King of England, he feels a twinge of recognition and sympathy for the King: neither is quite what myth demands of them, but they recognize the importance of sustaining the myth for others.  This regard for myth becomes Ramsay's interest in the saints, and his desperate need to have Mrs. Dempster's sainthood recognized by others.  A priest tells him:

Oh, miracles!  They happen everywhere.  They are conditional.  If I take a photograph of you, it is a compliment and perhaps rather a bore.  If I go into the South African jungle and take a photograph of a primitive, he probably thinks it a miracle and he may be afraid I have stolen a part of his soul.  If I take a picture of a dog and show it to him, he does not even know what he looks like, so he is not impressed; he is lost in a collective of dogginess.  Miracles are things people cannot explain.  Your artificial leg would have been a miracle in the Middle Ages--probably a Devil's miracle.  Miracles depend much on time, and place, and what we know and do not know.

Miracles are conditional, Davies tells us, but that does not cheapen their value.  Instead, it should alert us to the possibility of miracles in the everyday, and resist the kind of shallow realism that thinks it can escape the importance of context.  Even when you're the fifth business--a supernumerary in your own story--miracles can still happen for you, and their meaning need not be validated by anyone else.

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz by Mordecai Richler

Duddy trudged up and down through the snow with an owner's sharp eye for fire hazards and signs of mischief.  He tried the ice on the lake with his foot.  It cracked.  He urinated into a snowbank, writing his name.  It's my land, he thought.  But the wind began to cut quicker across the fields, suddenly the sun went out like a light, it was dark, and Duddy began to shiver.  Jeez, he thought, why didn't I leave the car lights on?  He buttoned up the collar and began to strike matches.  Duddy was able to trace his footsteps until the snow began to fall again, and then he was in bad trouble.  He circled round and round, his teeth chattered, and twice he began to run.  He ran and ran to no purpose until he collapsed panting in the snow.  His feet burned from the cold, his eyes felt as if they were stuffed with sand, and he began to think what in the hell am I doing lost in a blizzard, a Jewish boy?  Moses, he recalled from Bible Comics, died without ever reaching the Promised Land, but I've got my future to think of.

Duddel Kravitz is what you might call an "operator": a man with his hand in many money-making schemes, from selling pinball machines to filming bar mitzvahs.  He has his eyes set on a pristine tract of land surrounding a lake in Quebec's Laurentian Mountains, because as his grandfather tells him, "a man without land is nothing."  He buys up the parcels of land, one by one, using his older girlfriend Yvette's name because he's still too young to buy property legally--somewhere, over the course of the book, between sixteen and twenty.

I picked up this book because it's set in Montreal, where I was about to spend a couple of days.  Richler is well-known in Montreal, but his legacy is controversial because he was a longtime critic of the Quebec language policies that are designed to affirm the city's Francophone character.  As an Anglophone Jew who grew up in Montreal's Mile End neighborhood (now, like the Lower East Side, a trendy neighborhood), Richler was highly attuned to the way that the language laws enshrined Quebecker Jews as Other.  The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is steeped in Jewish culture and mannerisms, like a Malamud novel or a Woody Allen film.  It has the kind of self-deprecating humor that seems so characteristic of Jewish writing: observe how Duddy, having made friends with a goyische millionaire, can't understand why soliciting his new friend for the contract collecting scrap at his factories would be considered gauche, or that the millionaire has never heard of a Jewish criminal magnate known in Duddy's community as "the Boy Wonder."

The book is often wildly funny; at one point Duddy hires a blacklisted filmmaker to help him make his bar miztvah movies.  The filmmaker insists on total artistic control, and the film ends up a cut-rate Un Chien Andalou:

NARRATOR: Today you are a man, Bernard son of Moses.

18.  (Montage) Lightning.  Close shot of Michelangelo's statue of David.  Cartoon of a Thurber husband.  African tribal dance.  Close shot of a venereal disease warning in a public urinal.

Duddy's lust for money could, in the hands of a non-Jew or a less capable writer, make him seem like a walking stereotype.  But Duddy's greed is counterbalanced by a boyish simplicity and a sensitivity for others that even he seems not aware of.  When an epileptic he employs as a driver--a great, absurdly earnest character who considers Duddy the "Branch Rickey of epileptics" for giving him a chance--is paralyzed in an accident, he is crushed with guilt and lets his business empire go to ruin--at least temporarily.  But these qualities are often in direct competition with his greed, and his obsessive need for the land.  As his uncle writes him, "A boy can be two, three, four potential people, but a man is only one.  He murders the others."  The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, for all its excellent humor, gets is pathos from the overriding question of what man Duddy will choose to be, and which of his two selves he'll murder.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it, this downward motion: so lovely, like flying, and yet at the same time so dire, so extreme, so unlikely. God is love, they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.

And sometimes it happened, for a time. That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past, and you would be filled with a sense of wonder, because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done; and you would know too why your friends had been evasive about it, at the time.

There is a good deal of comfort, now, in remembering this.

There’s been so much written about The Handmaid’s Tale recently, that this review hardly felt necessary. Atwood calls the novel “speculative fiction,” and the speculation feels that much harrowing with every passing day of the Trump administration. One of the (few) things I’ve enjoyed about the slow decline of our democracy is how much airtime Atwood is getting, with pieces in the Times and a profile in the New Yorker. The New Yorker story quotes a letter she wrote to a Texas school district who had just banned The Handmaids Tale: “If you see a person heading toward a huge hole in the ground, is it not a friendly act to warn him?” That, more than anything I could write, sums up why you should stop everything and read the book if you haven’t already (no, watching the Hulu miniseries isn’t enough). Atwood emphasizes over and over that nothing in her novel is fully made up. Her alma mater in Canada hosts the cartons of newspaper clippings she used when researching the book, documenting the subjugation and enslavement of women everywhere from Puritan New England to Saudi Arabia to North Korea. This isn't science fiction.

I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale several times now and taught it twice, but this reading, my first since 45’s election, definitely felt different. The gentle slip into an authoritarian regime was especially haunting: Atwood’s narrator flashes back to the time before Handmaids and remembers the moments that connect forward to where she has ended up: the day they did away with paper money, the day any bank account with an “F” associated with it was shut down, the day the government is taken over. Throughout it all, the familiar complacency: "There were marches, of course, a lot of women and some men. But they were smaller than you might have thought." Atwood is a master of the disconcerting detail that shifts the reader from reality into nightmare. Here the narrator describes the day she (and all other women) lost her job to her husband: 
I described the director coming in, blurting out his announcement. It would have been funny if it wasn't so awful, I said. I thought he was drunk. Maybe he was. The army was there, and everything.
Then I remembered something I'd seen and hadn't noticed at the time. It wasn't the army. It was some other army. 
Her prose is peppered with moments like this with details so small and so disturbing that you can’t get them out of your brain. I'm sure I've wondered this each time I've read this novel, but it feels so much more imminent now: What would I do? I want to imagine myself into a rebellious heroine (and there are several in the novel), but it seems more likely that I would Wait and See, much like the narrator, until it is too late.

One of the new things that stuck out to me this reading was the prominence of all-female spaces. I've made an effort this year to read more female authors and have been rewarded with more female protagonists and storylines, but I can't think of a book that is so full of purely female gatherings. Of course the gatherings here are monstrous--betrothals of child brides, collective lynchings, and births of babies immediately stolen from their mothers--but it's shocking that it took a dystopian tale of female subjugation to give me a room full of women that passes the Bechdel test. 

Atwood is such a fabulous writer that the ending of the novel, a "Historical Notes" section that provides some reflection, has always disappointed me a little. You have to read it--I accidentally skipped it the first time and was very confused by what I thought was the last scene--but it's an odd departure from the rest of the novel and it feels didactic and heavy-handed after an entire novel that is artfully oblique. Perhaps the most jarring is that the bulk of the addendum is a speech delivered by a male academic. 

In one of my favorite redemptive moments in the text, the narrator finds a message left behind by her Handmaid predecessor. Scratched into the baseboard of a closet she reads: Nolite te bastardes carborundurum. She later learns that the phrase is Latin (sort of) for "Don't let the bastards grind you down." Even with the mansplained ending, Atwood manages to stay away from anything resembling oversimplification, but she does weave in flashes of hope, moments of women supporting each other and pulling each other through the depths. They aren't big or dramatic, they're messages scratched on baseboards, but they do make you think that we may make it through. 

A Death in the Family by James Agee

"Look at me, Poll," he said.  She looked at him.  "That's when you're going to need every ounce of common sense you've got," he said.  "Just spunk won't be enough; you've got to have gumption.  You've got to bear it in mind that nobody that ever lived is specially privileged; the axe can fall at any moment, on any neck, without any warning or any regard for justice.  You've got to keep your mind off pitying your own rotten luck and setting up any kind of howl about it.  You've got to remember that things as bad as this and a hell of a lot worse have happened to millions of people before and that they've come through it and that you will too.  You'll bear it because it isn't any choice--except to go to pieces."

Jay Follet is headed home to his wife and kids in the early hours outside Knoxville, Tennessee, when a pin comes lose from the steering mechanism of his car, he crashes, and dies.  A Death in the Family is the story of the days just before and after this accident, and follows the reactions of Jay's wife and his young son.  The story is autobiographical: it happened to Agee's father when he, like the boy Rufus, was only six years old.

That kind of firsthand experience brings, obviously, a subtlety of feeling and observance that only the most imaginative could supply secondhand.  But I wonder if it doesn't make Agee too close to the central moment of the story, too willing to imbue it with mythopoetic meaning about the nature of God and existence.  Agee goes on long discursive jags of free association that get mired in high-flown but disorganized prose.  Does it help explain the inscrutability of death to you if we call it "that inconceivable chasm of invulnerable silence in which cataclysms of galaxies rave mute as amber?"  Even good observations, such as, "Where grief and shock surpass endurance there occur phases of exhaustion, of anesthesia in which relatively little is left and one has the illusion of recognizing, and understanding, a good deal," pale when you realize that Emily Dickinson has already said them more pithily: "After pain a formal feeling comes..."  Agee considers but can't really effectively communicate Auden's observation that suffering "takes place / When someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along."

The mix of overwriting and sincerity is deadly.  What A Death in the Family reminded me of the most was the tediousness of Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, AngelThe sections with Jay's widow are the worst: her husband's death poses a serious crisis of faith which is somehow resolved in a matter of days.  Much better are the sections that see the death through the eyes of the boy Rufus, trying to understand death through the limited viewpoint of a child.  Agee gives Rufus a much younger sister, even less prepared to understand death than her brother, and perceives the subtle differences between the mind of a four year-old and a six year-old.  And these sections provide some much-needed levity and irony, as when Rufus and Catherine try to understand the man in black--the priest--who seems to be causing their mother so much grief, but for which she seems to be grateful.  Or Rufus' confusion as to the cause of death--was it God, or a concussion?  And how can it be both?  A novel entirely like this, in the mode of What Maisie Knew or other books narrated from a child's perspective, might have worked much better.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote

"Never love a wild thing, Mr. Bell," Holly advised him.  "That was Doc's mistake.  He was always lugging home wild things.  A hawk with a hurt wing.  One time it was a full-grown bobcat with a broken leg.  But you can't give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do, the stronger they get.  Until they're strong enough to run into the woods.  Or fly into the woods.  Or fly into a tree.  Then a taller tree.  Then the sky.  That's how you'll end up, Mr. Bell.  If you let yourself love a wild thing.  You'll end up looking at the sky."

There's a funny moment in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's where the narrator, Fred, and Holly Golightly are talking about Fred's stories, and Fred asks her to name a work that means something to her.  Wuthering Heights, she says.  That's not fair, says Fred, that's a work of genius.  "It was, wasn't it?," Holly replies.  "My wild sweet Cathy.  God, I cried buckets."  She's talking about the movie.

It's funny because it's difficult to talk about Breakfast at Tiffany's without reference to the Audrey Hepburn film.  I've never seen it (I know) so I was able to read the novel with fresh eyes; Brent, on the other hand, tells me that he saw the movie before reading the novel and the difference between them really soured the book for him.

But it's also a great character moment that gets to the heart of who Holly Golightly is, and why she's so captivating, not just for Fred, but for the reader.  She's sensitive and intelligent, but somehow also incredibly obtuse and naive; she's defensive about her own sophistication--a trait which stems from her childhood as a rural child bride, of all things--but with a deep philistine streak.  In today's ergot she'd be a manic pixie dream girl, one of those characters defined by their endearing quirkiness, though I think Capote's queerness keeps him from turning her idiosyncrasies toward sexual objectification.  Ultimately, she's a tragic figure: a woman whose outsized personality and charm attracts everyone around her, including assholes and criminals.  The character she reminds me of most is actually Jay Gatsby, another provincial whose self-transformation into a glamorous icon is derailed by the shallow and the venal.

It's a slim novel with a handful of standout moments--my favorite kind.  There's the appearance of Holly's former husband, Doc, a horse farmer from Tulip, Texas, who Fred mistakes at first for Holly's father.  There's the sudden death of Holly's brother, also named Fred, in the war--despite her multitude of attachments, the only man who has her entire devotion.  There's the moment at the end o the novel where Holly, running to the airport to escape prosecution on charges of criminal conspiracy, abandons her nameless cat, a wild thing, only to make the cab stop ten blocks later and go back so she can find it again.  These moments work because Holly is such a confidently and clearly drawn character, up there, I think, with folks like Holden Caulfield in the truest characters of 20th century American novels.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys

As he bore a vague resemblance to the Emperor, the sailors on board the Hermann-Augustus Stoeffer had nicknamed him Napoleon.  And so, for convenience, that is what we shall call him.

Besides, he was Napoleon.

It's the mid-19th century and Napoleon has escaped from his exile on St. Helena, leaving behind a lookalike.  He's planning to return to France under the name Eugene with the help of a complex network of supporters.  On the ship where he's disguised as a sailor, his peers nickname him Napoleon because of his resemblance to the emperor, but the Emperor's most devoted followers on the ship are taken aback that anyone could compare this clumsy and ugly little man to their idol.

Simon Leys' small and funny novel explores the nature of identity.  Who is Napoleon, if he's walking around disguised as someone else?  Is he still Napoleon, or is Napoleon really defined by the uniform, and the adulation of his followers?

At the very moment, it was an obscure army sergeant who was cast in the role of the wounded eagle, of the solitary prisoner, of the tragic exile, while the true Emperor existed only as a vision of the future.  Between the persona he had shed, and the one he had not yet created, he was no one.  For a time, Eugene would have to fill this blank interval with his mediocre existence; he had no right to a destiny of his own; at most he could be granted inglorious little misfortunes and a few petty pleasures.

The ship is blown off course and Napoleon enters Europe without his network of supporters to help him reclaim his identity.  He visits the battlefield at Waterloo, where every inn advertises, "Napoleon slept here," and fraudsters try to regale him with their first-hand accounts of the "battle."  He makes it to Paris, but instead of starting a revolution, becomes attached to the widow of an old fruiterer.  The Paris sections of the novel produce two great, funny moments: One is when a jealous rival traps Napoleon in a mental hospital where everyone thinks they're Napoleon.  The second is when Napoleon rediscovers his strategic skill and charisma, only to use it in service of selling the widow's stock of melons:

1. The time factor
The heat wave which we are now experiencing does not, on the face of it, favor our campaign, since it makes the melons ripen quickly.  In reality, it also contains an element that could benefit us, one we should exploit to the full, and that is the thirst it creates in the townspeople.  If we act swiftly there is nothing to stop us form turning these weather conditions to our advantage.  Indeed, swiftness of action will allow us to make use of the inherent advantages of the situation (i.e., the increased thirst of potential customers), and to avoid the harmful effects (progressive stock loss through spoilage).

Napoleon's melon-strategy is funny, but also sad in the way that all mock-heroics are sad.  Do grand actions have to take place over a grand scale?  Could every successful fruiterer be, in his way, a Napoleon?  Is every Napoleon at heart no more admirable than a successful fruiterer?  These are old, old questions, but Leys manages to imbue them with a fresh sense of humor and a simple pathos that makes The Death of Napoleon affecting.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Bachelors by Muriel Spark

Marlene Cooper led the way, as she had done regularly since the year after her husband died, and she had taken to thoughts of the spirit.  For how, she felt, could it be that Harry Cooper, who his worst business enemies agreed was sheer dynamite, could come to nought in the end?  'No,' she said, 'Harry is as alive as he ever was.  He is communicating with me and I am communicating with him.'

There is a moment in Muriel Spark's The Bachelors that is as good an illustration of her approach to novel-writing as any.  Marlene Cooper, a devotee of the spiritual medium Patrick Seton, enters into a room where a seance is going badly:

The room was in turmoil when Marlene flung wide the door.  'What is this turmoil?' she said, trembling with the impatience she had been repressing throughout her service-hatch vigil.

That repeated word turmoil is completely Sparkian: Spark uses it, and so does Muriel.  The illusion of the distance between the author and the character is completely obliterated.  What's the point, you might imagine Spark saying, of imagining that these assortments of words we call characters have any inner life?

Which is funny, because The Bachelors, which centers on a circle of spiritualists who perform these seances, is all about inner life, and the presence of the spirit, and the question of what happens to it when one dies.  Patrick is accused by a seance-goer of being a fake, and bilking her out of her money.  Is Patrick a fake?  The question hardly seems to matter to Spark.  Although, since Seton is planning on killing his pregnant girlfriend by an accidental overdose of insulin, it might be fair to observe he doesn't seem too worried about her coming back during a seance with her grievances.

Seton is one of those classic Spark characters, all shallowness and self-interest masked as spiritualism.  (Thinking of Hubert in The Takeover.)  For a spiritualist, his spirit is thin:

There is a lot of nasty stuff in life which comes breaking up our ecstasy, our inheritance.  I think, said Patrick, people should read more poetry and dream their dreams, and I do not recognize man-made laws and dogmas.  There is always a fuss about some petty cash, or punctuality.  'Tread softly,' he recites to the young girls he meets, 'because you tread on my dreams.'  The girls are usually enchanted.  'I have spread my dreams under your feet,' he says, 'tread softly...'

Just, like, dream your dreams, man.  Of course, his claim to a spiritual life is a kind of cover for his own ego, and it's hard not to think that he would include the murder of his girlfriend or the defrauding of a lonely woman in the ranks of "a fuss about some petty cash."

The Bachelors is joined by other great personages: Ronald, an expert in handwriting and forgery whose epilepsy is mistaken for a spiritual fit is one.  Another is Marlene, who can't imagine her husband could ever die because he was such "sheer dynamite" in his business.  A favorite of mine is a bachelor who eats onions before dates so that women will reject him and he won't be tempted into lewdness.  Other "bachelors" fill out the pages with less interest, but in service of one of those silly shaggy-dog plots where nothing really happens but spinning wheels.

The Bachelors was Spark's second novel; it might have been her twentieth.  Its best moments are small and cynical, and never quite reach the heights of Miss Jean Brodie or The Girls of Slender Means, which manage to make cynicism seem huge.  But it shows a fully-formed style and a wholesome lack of sentimentality.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro

The tiny share we have of time appalls me, though my father seems to regard it with tranquillity.  Even my father, who sometimes seems to me to have been at home in the world as long as it has lasted, has really lived on this earth only a little longer than I have, in terms of all the time there has been to live in.  He has not known a time, any more than I, when automobiles and electric lights did not at least exist.  He was not alive when this century started.  I will be barely alive--old, old--when it ends.  I do not like to think of it.  I wish the Lake to be always just a lake, with the safe-swimming floats marking it, and the breakwater and the lights of Tuppertown.

Gosh.  If I could write like anyone in the world, I'd write like Alice Munro.  In so many ways her writing is so unextraordinary--there's nothing particularly strange, or experimental, about her--but it always seems to me the embodiment of the mot juste, the search for the perfect word.  Who else but Alice Munro can describe the "snowdrifts curled around our house like sleeping whales?"

Dance of the Happy Shades is especially affecting because it's Munro's first collection.  I don't want to know how old she was when she wrote these stories; I'm sure it would depress me.  The stories are incredibly self-assured, but do very similar things; they lack a kind of structural weirdness that characterizes some of the stories in Runaway or Dear LifeThey're very similar to Lives of Girls and Women, my favorite, and in fact at least two of the stories are narrated by Del Jordan, the narrator of all the stories in Girls and Women.  Kind of like a dry run, I guess.  Those stories are excellent: in one, Del accompanies her traveling salesman father to a house of a strange woman whom she discovers is her father's old flame.  In another, she and her father end up at the house of a strange, mentally challenged, possibly dangerous man who gives his cat whiskey.  They keep it a secret between them:

Like the children in fairy stories who have seen their parents make pacts with terrifying strangers, who have discovered that our fears are based on nothing but the truth, but who come back fresh from marvellous escapes and take up their knives and forks, with humility and good manners, prepared ot live happily ever after--like them, dazed and powerful with secrets, I never said a word.

These "slice of life" stories epitomize the idea that domestic lives are "deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum," as she writes in Girls and Women.  They share something with the epiphanic moments of Joyce, in which ordinary life becomes elevated for a moment, but Munro always manages to suggest that all of life has the potential for that superadded meaning or elevation.

I particularly loved a story called "The Office," which might have been autobiographical.  The narrator, an amateur writer, wants an office to do her writing in.  It's impossible, she says, for a woman to write at home:

A house is all right for a man to work in.  He brings his work into the house, a place is cleared for it; the house rearranges itself as best it can around him  Everybody recognizes that his work exists.  He is not expected to answer the telephone, to find things that are lost, to see why the children are crying, or feed the cat.  He can shut his door.  Imagine (I said) a mother shutting her door, and the children knowing she is behind it; why, the very thought of it is outrageous to them.  A woman who sits staring into space, into a country that is not her husband's or her children's is likewise known to be an offence against nature.  So a house is not the same for a woman.  She is not someone who walks into the house, to make use of it, and will walk out again.  She is the house; there is no separation possible.

She finds an office, but the male landlord keeps bugging her with a kind of aggressive friendliness, or friendly aggression.  He brings her plants to make the office more like home, not realizing that "home" is the last thing she wants; he bugs her with his own story, thinking that she, as a writer might like to use it.  When she rebuffs his presumptions, he begins to believe conspiratorial things about her, accusing her of using the office as a place for secret sex trysts.  Ultimately, she's forced to give up the office.  Virginia Woolf wrote about the necessity of women having "a room of one's own," and "The Office" is the story of just how difficult such a thing can be to come by for women.  It's simple and it wears Woolf's idea on its sleeve, but the story wrings a great deal of power out of this single idea.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle

While I--Good Heaven!--have thatched myself over with the dead fleeces of sheep, the bark of vegetables, the entrails of worms, the hides of oxen or seals, the felt of furred beats; and walk abroad a moving Rag-screen, overheaped with shreds and tatters raked from the Charnel-house of Nature, where they would have rotted, to rot on me more slowly! ... Am I a botched mass of tailors' and cobblers' shreds, then; or a tightly-articulated, homogeneous little Figure, automatic, nay alive?

I really enjoyed Stanislaw Lem's collection of review of books that do not exist, A Perfect Vacuum, when I read it earlier this year.  Lem's book comes from a larger tradition of fake literary treatment that is traced back through Borges to Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, which claims to be a commentary on a book by one Diogenes Teufelsdrockh called Clothes, their Origin and Influence.  The whole exercise, like in Lem and Borges, is inherently silly: Teufelsdrockh is a "Professor of Things in General," and his name means "Devil's Turd."

The effectiveness of the genre comes from the author's ability to discuss ideas without wholly committing to them.  There's a lot of tension between the unnamed Editor, who only dimly seems to understand Teufelsdrockh or his clothes-philosophy, and Teufelsdrockh himself.  Are we supposed to agree with the Editor that Teufelsdrockh is stylistically obscure, and philosophically extreme?  Or are we supposed to reject the Editor's (relative) literalism and shortsightedness?

The Editor hopes that having some biographical information about Teufelsdrockh will help; so he writes away to the Professor for any relevant information.  What he gets is a mess of receipts, scraps, and notes, organized for no apparent reason into six bags labeled with the signs of the Zodiac.  Teufelsdrockh's life, as the Editor sorts it out, is a kind of parody of the hypersensitive young hero of The Sorrows of Young Werther, whose trouble in the sensual world leads him to embrace the life of the mind.  Teufelsdrockh doesn't kill himself, like Werther; instead he writes a philosophy about clothes.

For Teufelsdrockh, and perhaps Carlyle, clothes represent the symbolic order of things: a monk is made by his cowl, a king by his crown, et cetera.  But the symbolic order of things is very important, and in fact, may be the closest language we have to the divine.  I really liked this passage, which I'm going to use in the future when my students wonder if an author really meant to include that symbol in her novel:

Have not I myself known five hundred living soldiers sabred into crows' meat, for a piece of glazed cotton, which they called their Flag; which, had you sold it at any market-cross, would not have brought above three groschen?  Did not the whole Hungarian Nation rise, like some tumultuous moon-stirred Atlantic, when Kaiser Joseph pocketed their Iron Crown; an implement as was sagaciously observed, in size and commercial value, little differing from a horse-shoe?  It is in and through Symbols that man, consciously or unconsciously lives, works, and has his being: those ages, moreover, are accounting the noblest which can the best recognise symbolical worth, and prize it to the highest.  For is not a Symbol ever, to him who has eyes for it, some dimmer or clearer revelation of the Godlike?

Sartor Resartus, beneath its silliness and floridity, is an investigation into what it means to be a human being.  Carlyle ends up endorsing a mind-body dualism that embraces man's spiritual nature without really attaching to any programmatic religion.  Teufelsdrockh moves from a Wertherian despondency and separation from religious ideals he calls the "Everlasting No" to an affirmation of the spiritual nature of the world called the "Everlasting Yes."  For the Professor, what seems to matter is a willingness to see the world as properly spiritual, rather than sensual.  But then again, the book is so difficult, and the "clothes-philosophy" so removed from Carlyle himself that I could be completely wrong.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Nobody is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

Some people make us feel more human and some people make us feel less human  and this is a fact as much as gravity is a fact and maybe there are ways to prove it, but the proof of it matters less than the existence of it--how a stranger can show up and look at you and make you make more sense to yourself and the world, even if that sense is extremely fragile and only comes around occasionally and is prone to wander or fade--what matters is that sometimes sense is made between two people and I don't know if it's random or there is any kind of order to it, what combinations of people work the best and why and how do we find these people and how do we keep these people around, and I don't know if it's chaos or not chaos but it feels like chaos to me so I suppose it is. 
We meet Elyria, the narrator of Nobody is Ever Missing on the side of the road in New Zealand where she is hitchhiking her way to the farm of an author she has met only once. It slowly becomes clear that Elyria is in the middle of a long overdue unraveling and her inner monologue vacillates between rambling spirals and flashes of clarity. The book shifts between flashbacks to the traumas that led her here--her sister's suicide, the slow death of her marriage--and her slow and erratic progress through New Zealand. She has left her husband, job, and family behind without warning--simply walking out of the door and onto a plane, and her choices throughout feel just as abrupt and illogical as that first one. She wanders deeper and deeper into her own mind as the book progresses and becomes harder and harder to follow both literally and figuratively.

Elyria's slow fall into mental illness feels eerily possible. Where she ends up--lost, alone, and broke on the other side of the planet--seems totally out of reach and alien, but the steps that get her there are terrifyingly small. The slow accumulation of crazy is something that I always feel like could be just around the corner, and Lacey does a nice job of capturing those minute shifts that get us there. Elyria's moments of more delirious stream of consciousness have just the right balance of thoughts you've had with thoughts you like to think you'd never have that you wonder just how far off you really are. Her sentences trip into long, run-on paragraphs with just enough to ground you but plenty to knock you off your guard.

The glimpses into her life before--both the tragic and the mundane moments--are written with much more clarity, much more stability, but her isolation and sadness still lurk below the surface. Some of these, especially those describing her relationship with her husband, are especially beautiful and sad:
His oldest friends always said he looked the same as he had at college graduation but I knew his face closely enough to know that wasn't true--I knew I had missed so many delicate years of life and the man I had married was the hard remainder; I had missed years of innocent longing and late nights and odd jobs and girlfriends who were now mothers of someone else's children. I had missed wrinkleless eyes and his hair before the grey crept in and his mouth before it had said I love you to other people, shadowy other women I never knew, would never know. All those selves my husband practiced in the decade before me felt unfair because my past didn't have any of those secret selves because everyone's childhood and adolescence are more or less the same, dear struggle, and my husband had seen me change from an old child to a young adult and I didn't have a past like he did--I didn't have a smoother version of me tucked away in other people's memories. 
I loved this passage. I love the intimacy of "tucked away" at the end, the idea that all the iterations of our former selves are being carried around in the pockets of friends and lovers and parents. I remember so well  The contrast between these moments and her spirals of anxiety and paranoia make her fall that much more tragic and frustrating.

I read this book in a day. The pages flew by; usually I hate paragraph long stream of consciousness sentences, but here they had a movement, a rhythm, and a purpose that made them manageable. I was often very frustrated with Elyria; she seems simultaneously so capable of insight and so oblivious to her effect on others that I wanted to shake her, but that's kind of the point. Her husband infuriated me; we don't get his side of the story, but even without it, he seems callous and uncaring in his dismissal of her even when it is clear that she is in the midst of a breakdown. She isn't a particularly reliable narrator so there may be entire chapters in their relationship that have gone missing, but I was still shocked at how little he seemed willing to care for her.

There is a lot to unhouse you here, but the thing that has stuck with me, even afterward, is how seamlessly a person can slip from rational to irrational, how razor thin the edge is between having crazy thoughts and being a crazy person. Elyria glides too effortlessly between the two, and that, more than anything, crawled under my skin and sat there.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

How much of our lives, good and bad, should we credit to our personal decisions, and now much is just the inheritance of our culture, our families, and our parents who have failed their children? How much is Mom's life her own fault? Where does the blame stop and sympathy begin?
Vance, a self-proclaimed hillbilly (an affectionate term when coming from him), traces his family's (infrequent) rises and (much more frequent) falls in Jackson, Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio--a town so replete with former Kentuckians Vance dubs it "Middletucky." After reading Arlie Hochschild's Strangers in Their Own Land, I was hoping for the other side of the story, and, on some level Vance provided. This is much more a memoir than it is an anthropological study (although Vance does bring social science into the picture with statistics and studies to reinforce his reflections); Vance rarely strays from his experiences or those of his immediate family, so we get a narrow slice, but it's a deep slice. As Christopher points out in his much more eloquent review, it feels meaningful to get the perspective of someone who is actually from this community, not a liberal academic outsider.

While Vance is an insider, he is also an anomaly. After a stint in the Marines, he attends Ohio State and then Yale Law; the only graduate of his high school to attend an Ivy League school. He's an exception to the rule in Middletown, but he's also an exception to the rule at Yale, prompting another series of questions:
Why has no one else from my high school made it to the Ivy League? Why are people like me so poorly represented in America's elite institutions? Why is domestic strife so common in families like mine? Why did I think that places like Yale and Harvard were so unreachable? Why did successful people feel so different?
The book is peppered with questions like these; some of them are answered, but many of them are not, at least not definitively. Which gets, I think, at the core of why we're in so much trouble: there aren't simple solutions to the questions and problems that plague our poorest communities. There isn't a clear way to connect the dots back to where it started or plan or legislate our way out. Vance doesn't offer much in the way of policy solutions or culture shifts that would solve the alienation and destruction of the Appalachian poor. He made it out himself, but his success story seems like such an abnormality--an alignment of supports and challenges at just the right times--that it's hardly a prescription.

He is able to pin both his success and the stagnation of those around him on a few broad themes. As has been chronicled and explored elsewhere, the devastation left behind as rust belt jobs died out has left communities like Middletown stuck in cycles of poverty that seem impossible to break out of. Section 8 housing further segregates these communities, and drug and alcohol use push them further away from upward mobility. None of this is particularly novel, but hearing the individual stories of family members living out these cycles did make it more real.

Vance is more engaging, though, when he treads on more controversial ground. Ground that he is perhaps uniquely qualified to tread on, and ground that armchair liberals are (perhaps reasonably) less willing to touch. One of the issues that he sees is the decline of the work ethic that made his grandparents successful: "To the average Middletonian, hard work doesn't matter as much as raw talent." He gives dozens of examples of the low expectations and fixed mindsets that plagued his high school classmates, and while part of me was made very uneasy reading this, Vance grounds it in anecdote and data enough to make it feel a little less subjective. A quote from one of his teachers made me actually laugh out loud on the subway because I had had almost verbatim the same conversation with a student that day: "You have the kids who plan on being baseball players, but don't even play on the high school team because coach is mean to them." This is a mentality I see over and over again in my own students, and one that I have no trouble believing is pervasive in both urban poor and rural poor communities. Add onto that a toxic dose of pride (preventing men from seeking "women's work" or even part time jobs lacking prestige), and people get permanently stuck. This discussion of stagnation left me a little uncomfortable; whether it is with my students or with Vance's hillbillies, I'm reluctant to pin the downfall of entire communities on what amounts to laziness. I think Vance is on to something, but he doesn't delve deep enough here into where these attitudes come from. He discusses the ways in which conservative ideology has encouraged this kind of thinking--"there is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day"--but again, doesn't really get at how or why.

Vance credits his own ability to break that mold on his grandparents who consistently reinforced that hard work paid off, that change was possible with effort. In other words, his grandparents fed him a steady diet of Carol Dweck until he believed in himself enough to break out. His grandmother, in particular, was his savior; the one who consistently pushed, motivated and encouraged him. If there is a solution to poverty presented in this book, it is this: one (or, ideally several) adults who provide a stable, trauma-free safety net and plenty of growth mindset frames for success. If my own students are any measure of this theory, it definitely seems plausible. The hard part is that mandating stable households is not a reasonable policy position, so offering this as a solution to a broader problem doesn't work.

Clearly, I wanted more solutions from this book than Vance was willing to offer. It's hard to blame him since the point of memoirs isn't to present possible solutions, but I do think that grappling with the questions Vance poses and immersing oneself his world is a part of the larger solution. I was struck with the commonalities between him and my students, but also between him and myself (while I am white, I'm not sure I could be more culturally distant). Even without spelled out solutions, a glance into this world is definitely a first step.

The Chess Garden by Brooks Hansen

Dear Sonja,

How is one to know, I wonder, if a backgammon counter is sleeping, or if its only resting?  If it is dreaming or daydreaming, and what of its dreams--what must they contain?  Beside me lies the answer--polished, red, round, and perfectly still--a young counter and my newest friend.  Still, I haven't the faintest idea if it is napping now, or listening in as I compose my thoughts for you.

Once every few weeks, the adults and children of Dayton, Ohio gather in the Chess Garden of Mrs. Sonja Uyterhoeven--so called because it has long been a place where people of all ages have gathered to play chess and other games, using the many sets that the Uyterhoevens have collected over the years--to listen to the latest letter from Sonja's husband Gustav, who has set off to visit a mysterious land called the Antipodes.  The Antipodes, he writes, are inhabited by sentient game pieces.  Most of those he meets are chess figures, but also checkers, dice, and backgammon counters.  And from time to time, as if heralding a letter about to arrive, mysterious chess pieces appear in the garden, too.

The letters themselves are terrific fantasy, borrowing equally from Tolkien and Lewis Carroll.  Dr. Uyterhoeven's letters contain no end of arresting images: a dripping tree of candles, making wax stalacites; a chasm of rolling, colliding dice that forces the hands of chance; a group of monks piecing together fallen leaves like a puzzle.  Uyterhoeven's letters tell how he meets Eugene, the keeper of "goods"--that is, objects that embody the essence of their type.  Break the "good" ladder, and everyone in the Antipodes might forget what a ladder is and what it is for.  Uyterhoeven becomes caught between two forces in the Antipodes, one who wants to protect these goods, and a cabal of shadowy figures who wants to collect and break them all, sending the Antipodes into a kind of forgetful infancy.

These letters take up about half the novel; the rest is the story of Dr. Uyterhoeven's life.  We learn that he is a famous Dutch physician who comes under fire for supporting homeopathic medicine.  In a world of rationalism, Uyterhoeven is a vitalist, one who believes that life is an animating force separate from biology or phyiscs.  He objects not only to the prevailing medical ideas of pathology but the very idea of cause itself.  The letters from the Antipodes are a kind of expression of these ideals, exploring the possibility of bridging reason and the spirit, which is apart from words.  Could destroying the words, and getting down to the spirit of things, be an invigorating moment, rather than a terrifying one?

Dr. Uyterhoeven isn't in the Antipodes, of course; he's in South Africa, treating those ravaged by the onset of the Boer Wars.  He's old enough to know that he won't return from such a trip, and the letters are a last link to his community, and his wife, the mother of a son who died in childhood.  This loss informs everything about the letters, which are in the idiom of children, those who the Doctor has devoted his late life to teaching chess.  But the message is really to Sonja, and their message of linking the reasoning to the spiritual world is meant to preserve their connection to each other, and to their lost son.

A while back I asked my friends a question: What's the best book you've read that no one else you know has read?  This is the first response I got--from my friend Greg--that I've gotten around to reading, and I'm glad I did.  The Chess Garden manages a fine balance of whimsy, pathos, and deep intelligence that is rare.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes

Love becomes the deposit of the heart, analogous in all degrees to the "findings" in a tomb.  As in one will be charted the taken place of the body, the raiment, the utensils necessary to its other life, so in the heart of the lover will be traced, as an indelible shadow, that which he loves.  In Nora's heart lay the fossil of Robin, intaglio of her identity, and about it for its maintenance ran Nora's blood.

What is the great gay novel?  Forget the homoerotic and the homosocial, what is the great novel about gay lives as they're lived?  It's arresting to stop and think about how few there have been, especially considering how many of our greatest writers have been queer of some stripe or another.  Carson McCullers and Evelyn Waugh went at it obliquely, Virginia Woolf in the mode of legend; E. M. Forster went at it head on but felt as if he couldn't publish.  Even Oscar Wilde flaunted his queerness more in life than in fiction.

So it's worth pausing to observe just what a rare bird Djuna Barnes' Nightwood is: a novel about explicitly gay relationships from 1936, and lesbian ones at that, which seems even rarer.  It's the story of Robin Vote, for whose love many people nearly ruin themselves: Felix, the fraud aristocrat who marries Robin and has a son, Nora Flood, who introduces her to the love of women, and the horrendous Jenny Petherbridge, who steals Robin jealously from Nora.  These four are brought together by the figure of Matthew O'Connor, a flamboyant and philosophical doctor prone to go on long discursive jags.

Nightwood is, at the level of the sentence, one of the most difficult books I have ever read.  Do you know what it means to say that the "foetus of symmetry nourishes itself on cross purposes?"  If so, please let me know.  Perhaps you could explain this Homeric simile:

Such a person's every movement will reduce to an image of a forgotten experience; a mirage of an eternal wedding cast on the racial memory; as insupportable joy as would be the vision of an eland coming down an aisle of trees, chapleted with orange blossoms and bridal veil, a hoof raised in the economy of fear, stepping in the trepidation of flesh that will become myth; as the unicorn is neither man nor beast deprived, but human hunger pressing its beast to its prey.

Sentences that begin in familiar ways go quickly south, or sideways.  Jeanette Winterson wrote the introduction for this edition, and it's easy to see Barnes' influence (for the worse, I'd say) on her work.  But the unexpectedness of Barnes' prose is equally likely to throw up an unforgettable phrase or sentence, as when she describes Robin's timeless clothing as making her look "newly ancient," or Matthew's assertion that humans "are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality."  Matthew advises Felix to treat the mind of his peculiar son with care, "like a bowl picked up in the dark."  I particularly loved the simple beauty of Barnes' description of Robin and Nora in love with "their two heads in their four hands."

The middle section of the book is a long conversation between Nora and Matthew, both equally distraught.  Nora because Robin is gone, and Matthew because he was born a man.  (As Nora storms into his room in the middle of the night, she catches him in a gown and wig.)  His confession about his own sense of misplaced identity resounds strongly with the current cultural recognition of transgender men and women, and strikingly captures the feeling of being born wrong:

Misericordia, am I not the girl to know of what I speak?  We go to our Houses by our nature--and our nature, no matter how it is, we all have to stand--as for me, so God has made me, my house is the pissing port.  Am I to blame if I've been summoned before and this my last and oddest call?  In the old days I was possibly a girl in Marseilles thumping the dock with a sailor, and perhaps it's that memory that haunts me.  The wise men say that the remembrance of things past is all that we have for a future, and am I to blame if I've turned up this time as I shouldn't have been, when it was a high soprano I wanted, and deep corn curls to my bum, with a womb as big as the king's kettle, and a bosom as high as the bowsprit of a fishing schooner?  And what do I get but a face on me like an old child's bottom--is that a happiness, do you think?

"God," Matthew tells Nora, "I never asked better than to boil some good man's potatoes and toss up a child for him every nine months by the calendar."  Barnes' style is fittingly alien, coming from the world of the "invert," as Matthew calls himself and Nora, attuned to the improvisational and marginal nature of queer folks.  We have a language for these things now--sometimes a deadening language, I often think--but much of the pleasure and challenge of Nightwood is seeing Barnes invent such a language on the fly.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

"For example, then," continued Holgrave.  "A dead man, if he happen to have made a will, disposes of wealth no longer his own; or, if he die intestate, it is distributed in accordance with the notions of men much longer dead than he.  A dead man sits on all our judgment seats; and living judges do but search out and repeat his decisions.  We read in dead men's books!  We laugh at dead men's jokes, and cry at dead men's pathos!  We are sick of dead men's diseases, physical and moral, and die of the same remedies with which dead doctors killed their patients!  We worship the living Deity according to dead men's forms and creeds.  Whatever we seek to do, of our own free motion, an icy head obstructs us!  Turn our eyes to what point we may, a dead man's white, immitigable face encounters them, and freezes our very heart!  And we must be dead ourselves before we can have our proper influence on the world, which will be no longer our world, but the world of another generation, with which we shall have no shadow of a right to interfere.  I ought to have said, too, that we live in dead men's houses; as, for instance, in this of the Seven Gables!"

In Puritan New England, Colonel Pyncheon manages to swindle the poor Matthew Maule out of a plot of land that Pyncheon uses to build a great, seven-gabled house.  Maule, accused of witchcraft, uses his last breath before he is hanged to curse the house and the Pyncheon family, declaring, "God hath given them blood to drink!"  And true enough, on the day of his housewarming party, Colonel Pyncheon is found dead in his study as if by an unseen hand.

The main narrative of The House of Seven Gables occurs 150 years later, as the Pyncheon family, having come down in the world, still struggles under the weight of Maule's curse.  The only inhabitants of the House of the Seven Gables are Hepzibah, an elderly woman forced to open a store to make ends meet, and a daguerreotypist named Holgrave who rents a room.  To this are quickly added the sunny, saintly Phoebe, a Pyncheon cousin, and Clifford Pyncheon, released after thirty years of wrongful imprisonment and unsurprisingly maladjusted to the outside world.  A wealthy cousin, Judge Jaffrey Pyncheon, lurks at the edge of the story with some very vague evil intent.

Once you take Hawthorne's prose with a grain of salt, his books are a lot of fun.  He violates that first principle of modern writing--show, don't tell--with such gleeful abandon and wordiness that I often laugh.  At the same time, his writing is not very difficult, on the level of the sentence, and there's something delightful about the sheer weirdness and silliness he's capable of.  (I particularly like the detail of the old chicken family, made imbecile by inbreeding, that Hawthorne uses as a representation of the Pyncheons.)  And he also manages to capture really finely nuanced human emotions and relationships in a way that the modern show-don't-tell-iness leaves intentionally vague.

The best parts of The House of Seven Gables are all historical: the story of Colonel Pyncheon and Matthew Maule, and another interstitial story about a descendant of Maule who uses his powers of mesmerism to bind young Alice Pyncheon to him for life.  The "modern-day" narrative, which tries to show us how the curse lives on in the penury of Hepzibah and the injustice done against Clifford, shies away from a direct approach of the supernatural and puts more demands on the reader's patience.  The novel's major flaw is that Hawthorne jealously reserves two pieces of crucial information until the end--spoiler alert: that Holgrave is a descendant of Matthew Maule, and that it's Jaffrey Pyncheon who committed the murder for which Clifford took the fall.  Hawthorne reserves these facts to give us a kind of typical Gothic reveal at the end, but I wonder if knowing these things wouldn't deepen the relationships between Holgrave and Phoebe--thrust together from warring families like Romeo and Juliet--or Clifford and Jaffrey.  (It seems typically Hawthornean that Jaffrey's whole role in the story is to walk past the house and be menacing, then finally get inside and immediately die in an arm chair.)

The big theme of The House of Seven Gables is the past: the way that it exerts an effect on the living, and the possibility of escape or reconciliation.  Holgrave's marriage to Phoebe and the death of Jaffrey, who looks exactly like the portrait of old Colonel Pyncheon, put the curse to rest once and for all.  In this way it doesn't have the complexity or conflicted nature of The Scarlet Letter.  Like a lot of Gothic novels, it really has a heart of pure sunshine.