Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Han Kang, _The Vegetarian_, trans. Deborah Smith

JUST ABOUT ANY Man Booker winner is worth reading, but this one may be a classic.

The vegetarian of the title is Heong-hye Kim, a young Korean woman, raised in a strict patriarchal family, married to a businessman chosen by her father. She has an older sister, who is married to a video artist; they have a young son, and she runs a small cosmetics shop. Finally, there is a younger brother (of whom we see little), cut from the same cloth as the father.

The book is about rebellion, I'd say. Imagine The Awakening, but rather than getting Edna Pontellier's point of view, we get only those of her family and friends as they try to fathom what is going on with her, try to "help" her, correct her, chastise her, take advantage of her, sympathize with her. This strategy makes Heong-hye more difficult to identify with than Edna, but also more enigmatic, eventually more formidable, ultimately more challenging. There is something of Kafka's hunger artist in her, or something of Catherine of Siena...or maybe she's a goddess. She says little, almost nothing after the first of the novel's three sections, but everything she says seems oracular, touched by fire.

The three sections were apparently published as separate novellas in Korean. In the first, we primarily  have the perspective of Heong-hye's husband, annoyed by the possibility that his wife's eccentric diet will spoil his chances of promotion; he sends her back to her family as defective merchandise. In the second, her artist brother-in-law is fascinated by her and seeks to incorporate her weird power into his art, to possess her, but as a mere mortal ends up scorched by his contact with divinity. In the the third, with Heong-hye now in a mental institution, we have the perspective of the sister, whose conformity to the ideal Korean daughter/wife/mother roles begins to shiver and crack as she contemplates her sister's life.

This should be on a thousand syllabusses in ten years' time, thanks in no small part to the translation by Deborah Smith, the fidelity of which I cannot vouch for, but which is swift, elegant, and powerful. Kang has her Rabassa, and her conquest of English-speaking readerdom is assured.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rae Armantrout, _Versed_

TOOK ME A while to get around to this; it appeared in 2010. To tell the truth, I usually skip Pultizer Prize winners.  They tend to be worthwhile without being quite the sort of thing I most like. I was curious about this one, though, because Armantrout seems very left-field compared to most Pulitzer winners for poetry. She was in In the American Tree, after all. As far as I can determine, no one else included in that volume has won either a Pulitzer or a National Book Award--for which prize Versed was a finalist, by the way.

I find myself wondering how this sort of development occurs. I have not read a lot of Armantrout's work, but Versed does not strike me much more accessible or domesticated than her poetry from back in the 1980s and 1990s--a bit so, perhaps, but not dramatically. The poems are still elliptical, elusive, still have a measurable WTF factor:

Repeat wake measurement.

"Check to see."

"Check to see,"

Birds say,

"That enough time

Has passed."

Sometimes there is a vein of dark humor, especially in the prose poems, that could appeal broadly: "I call 911 but reach a psychic hotline." Sometimes, there is a recognizble allusion to popular culture: e.g., Anna Nicole Smith or reality television, as in the lines "One tells the story / of his illness / in such a way / as to make the others love him."

Sometimes there is a cosmo-theological thematic, as in the poem "Dark Matter," or a glimpse at family psychology, as in "Birth Order," but you also wonder if both poems aren't really more about writing than anything else (the latter, for instance, may be about how second stanzas have a peculiar ontological status, inevitably being seen within the contexts created by first stanzas).

So...it just seems surprising that the book got a Pulitzer. Not an unprecedented development (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror got a Pulitzer, for instance), and certainly a welcome one, but how does this happen? Is it just who gets picked as judges? Do attitudes change? How does the unlikely become possible?

The really funny thing is that I keep thinking the poems in Versed address exactly these questions.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Jackie French, _Ophelia, Queen of Denmark_ , and Lisa Klein, _Ophelia_

PAUL GRIFFITH'S BRILLIANT Let Me Tell You got me thinking about Ophelia as a Young Adult Novel theme, and it turns out that attempts have already been made. I sampled these two--Klein's novel is from 2006, French's from 2015.

French and Klein had several of the same ideas about how to make Ophelia's story YA-friendly. First person narration, for one thing. More crucially, no madness and no drowning/suicide. Ophelia only pretends to be insane in both novels, then fakes her own drowning, to enable her escape from the infected snakebite that is Elsinore.

Gertrude is fascinating and enigmatic in both--we are for a while kept guessing at how much she knows about Claudius and how sincere her interest in Ophelia's well-being is. Hamlet is likewise fascinating and enigmatic, and his and Ophelia's love is key to both plots, but in both novels he is revealed to be Mr. Seems-Right-but-Not-Quite, a Frank Churchill/Henry Crawford/William Elliott figure, too wrapped up in his obsession with avenging his father to sustain his relationship with Ophelia (in Klein, they are even secretly married, à la Romeo and Juliet).

The true Mr. Right turns out in both novels to be someone else that Ophelia settles down with once all the drama has blown over--Fortinbras in French's novel, Horatio in Klein's.

Both Ophelias have an episode or two in male drag; both are plucky, passionate, perceptive, and possessed of enviable survival skills.

French's Ophelia is an expert on cheese (is this a Danish thing?). French seems to have set herself the challenge of mentioning cheese in every chapter, sometimes to odd effect. On hearing of Polonius' death, Ophelia tells us, "My first thought was of cheese."

Klein's Ophelia (more plausibly) is an herbalist (Klein is a scholar of early modern lit). Klein's Ophelia escapes Elsinore and winds up in...a nunnery. Which is witty, I admit. The novel's Part 3, though, set in the nunnery (where Horatio finds her), gets a bit talky, a bit like a YA Magic Mountain (God, authority, nature).

Both novels had some good passages--getting Ophelia's version of the "nunnery" scene and the "play-within-the-play" scene definitely worked. Klein's is the better-written of the two.

If the mad scene is just a charade, though, and if there is no drowning, is this still the Ophelia we love? One misses the dark, doomy subtext, the black undercurrent. These are Ophelias for the Katniss era, I guess.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Jonathon Sturgeon, "Divine Indigestion"

YET ANOTHER COINCIDENCE (as in immediately preceding post): I finished Nell Zink's Mislaid on the plane, proceeded to a year-old issue of The Baffler that I had not yet gotten around to, and lo and behold, I found an article with a smart, interesting point about Mislaid.

To an extent, Sturgeon's article is an effort to revive interest in Quentin Anderson's The Imperial Self (1971), "largely forgotten," Sturgeon accurately notes, but worth renewed attention: "A closer look at The Imperial Self reveals a critique of a literary intellectualism that holds up because it is imaginative, yes, but also because the condition of the novel has not changed that much." Anderson, he writes, "examined the 'imaginative desocialization' of American literature at the hands of a radical individualism" and sought to "ground literature in social context."

Mislaid and Paul Beatty's The Sellout are Sturgeon's examples of strong contemporary novels that pull against the tide of this all-devouring Emersonian individualism.

The selves is Mislaid are fluid, but they don't absorb other selves, nature, matter, or information. They exist instead in a near-Spinozistic web of pressured relationships. [...] Karen, who is open to being affected by others rather than guzzling them down, is what Quentin Anderson would have called "the transitive person," one "whose world is constituted by [her] ties to other people."

That's a spot-on observation about the book and about its most appealing character. And I need to find Anderson's book.

I wish, though, that in arraigning his "bad" exemplar (Jonathan Franzen), Sturgeon had not resorted to  the lazy argument of taking one of a novelist's characters to represent the situation of the novelist. Sturgeon says of Andreas Wolf from Purity, "Well, Wolf is just Franzen after the divorce, but before he learned to subsume birds." Urk. I don't think so. I have reservations about Franzen's novels myself, but that point won't hold.

Wolf is someone whom the world takes to be a selfless, even saintly apostle of honesty and transparency, but who actually has a terrible secret he will go to almost any lengths to protect, and who eventually succumbs to the tragic contradiction of his own life. That does not seem like even the loosest kind of analogue to Franzen's circumstances.

Reminds me of Amy Hungerford's basing part of her argument in "On Not Reading DFW" on the claim that anything that comes from Mark Nechtr's mouth ("Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way") as good as comes from Wallace's.

Come on, now. We can do better than that.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Brad Gregory, _The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society_ via Mark Lilla

I ORDINARILY DO not write an entry on a book until I have finished it, but since it may be years before I finish Gregory's fairly dense study, I feel an urge to note right now the odd coincidence that I was in the middle of its second chapter when I read the review of it ("From Luther to Walmart") included in Lilla's The Shipwrecked Mind.

(In fact, this was the only chapter of The Shipwrecked Mind that I had not read before; the other pieces had appeared in New York Review of Books, but "From Luther to Walmart" had been published in the New Republic--not one of my usual stops.)

Lilla is none too complimentary. He sees Gregory's book as typical of the nostalgia he diagnoses as central to conservative thought. Conservative intellectuals, Lilla argues, posit a Golden Age that preceded a fall into modernity (and our present bloody-minded anxieties) and then attribute that fall to some thinker or idea, such as the gnosticism and "immanentizing the eschaton" (Voegelin) or Machiavelli (Strauss).

For Gregory, according to Lilla, "before the Reformation the harmony of the heavens was mirrored in Christian life and thought." Reformation theology, which sought only to correct some problems with the church, had unintended philosophical consequences that led to the secularization of the natural sciences, education, and political economy--and their attendant alienation and anomie.

The thing is---since I had just started Gregory's book not long before I read Lilla's review, I happened to know that Gregory explicitly denies having written the kind of book Lilla is describing. In his introduction, he states, "This is neither a study of decline from a Golden Age nor a narrative of progress toward an ever brighter future, but rather an analysis of  unintended consequences that derived from transformative responses to major, perceived human problems" (20-21; emphasis mine).


Still, even though Gregory, in his own estimation, is not writing out of philosophical nostalgia, and even though he is obviously a thorough and careful scholar and writer, I'm not sure Lilla's characterization is unfair. Gregory is meticulous about drawing connections between Reformation thinking and secularizing social trends, but something in his tone suggests not just that the secularization of the west was contingent upon certain philosophical developments within Protestant thinking, not just that it was avoidable, but that it was also undesirable, and may even be reversible.

As Jeremiahs go, Gregory is subdued. But is there a little Jeremiah in there? Lilla has a point, I think. I plan to carry on with the book, though--Gregory may be no Franz Rosenzweig, but he's an intellectual mensch nonetheless.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Nell Zink, _Mislaid_

SOMEWHAT TO MY surprise, Zink's second novel is a bit more grounded, "normal," and domesticated than her first; family conflicts in Virginia circa 1960-1980, set alternately in a small college town and in the backwoods, easily tracked plot, interesting minor characters, plenty of humorous asides…realism of a familiar sort, then, but nonetheless with a bit of an edge, like A. M. Homes, say.

And as with Homes's May We Be Forgiven, and a good many of the stories in the Ludmilla Petrushevskaya collection I read last month, we have (what I would count as) a happy ending, despite plenty of ingredients for a disastrous, traumatic, scarred-for-life blow-up.

The happy ending of Mislaid is not all the plausible, indeed flies in the face of what would most likely happen in the circumstances created by the plot, but its very implausibility is what redeems it, makes it a wondrous thing. While Mislaid certainly unfolds in the voice and pace of of the realist novel, it ends up seeming akin to Shakespeare's late romances, in which similar potentially traumatic accidents, mistakes, and decisions turn out, years later, to have prepared the ground for forgiveness, reconciliation, and content.

How likely is it that Prospero's betraying brother would fall into his hands years later? That the blindly jealous Leontes would have a chance to be reconciled with the wife whom his suspiciousness had killed sixteen years previously?  That after long separations and thinking the other dead, Posthumus would recover Imogen, or Pericles Marina? Not at all likely. Flat out incredible, really. Yet Shakespeare is able to make us see that the world is always more than the likely, more than the plausible.  And a good thing it is, too.

Zink manages something like that. And as with Miranda, Marina, Perdita, and Imogen, a young girl shall lead them. Karen Brown, a.k.a. Mireille "Mickey" Fleming, is a Perdita for our times. She's a minor miracle.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mark Lilla, _The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction_

LILLA IS A particular favorite of mine. The Stillborn God is brilliant intellectual history of the old kind (A. O. Lovejoy, Erich Auerbach, above all Isaiah Berlin), and his essays on the careers of various thinkers have the swiftness, assurance, and clarity of the Edmund Wilson of To the Finland Station and Patriotric Gore. His being skeptical about Marxism and respectful of certain conservative thinkers may explain, I'm guessing, why he does not have the cachet of, say, George Scialabba, the same way Berlin does not have the cachet of, say, Raymond Williams. I have to confess, though, that that skepticism and that willingness to entertain other perspectives are exactly what I appreciatre about him.

Superficially, this book has a lot in common with the Corey Robin book I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. It consists mainly of republished pieces, aims to create a kind of collage map of the intellectual right by examining the careers of crucial figures, and uses its introduction and conclusion to sketch an argument that unifies the book's various individual pieces.

Lilla finds (in spots) a greater integrity and coherence on the right than Robin does, though. Robin sees the right's arguments as inescapably founded on making cases for threatened or vanished privileges. Lilla sees them as founded on nostalgia. "Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody's nostalgia," he writes (xiv); each right-wing thinker he examines "believes that a discrete Golden Age existed and that he possesses the esoteric knowledge of why it ended" and thus of how it might possibly be restored (xx-xxi).

I wonder, though, whether the Robin and Lilla summations of reaction do not so much oppose as complement each other, as in the old vase-or-two-profiles optical lllusion, in which you could see one or the other but not both at once. May one describe Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign as nostalgic? Yes--hazily articulated, not necessarily even sincere on his part, but probably authentic  enough as regards many who voted for him. Was Trump also appealing to a sense that male privilege and white privilege and straight privilege were crumbling? Well, yes. But do we have to choose which analysis is more true? Is there a way to think about both of these ideas at once?

A wide stream in my 2017 reading has been trying to understand the advent of Trump, and both Lilla and Robin helped. Next stop--Arlie Hochschild?