Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Craig Brown, _Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret_

 I GOT NINETY-NINE problems but Margaret ain’t one, thank God. Sounds like she was a doozy of a problem for the House of Windsor, a standing argument for why British taxpayers should not be footing the bills for the lifestyles of the royals.

Brown cites early in his book the portrait of Margaret that appears in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope—domineering, insulting, insisting on the observance of protocols regarding her royal person while taking every liberty herself—and provides an abundance of corroborating examples. But some of the glimpses are of other sides of her, intelligent, generous, thwarted, locked in a role she never asked for but from which she could never escape. 

As its title suggests, Ninety-Nine Glimpses is not a conventional biography, but a collection of vignettes, a few fictional, the sequence roughly but not strictly chronological. Brown is a writer—he was at Private Eye for quite a while—and the vignettes lean largely towards Margaret’s acquaintances and frenemies in the literary-artistic-cultural milieu, whose many volumes of letters and memoirs testify repeatedly to Margaret’s pricklier and bitchier moments. But she had her defenders, too—Gore Vidal, for one, a man not at all inclined to flatter.

What I most appreciated about Brown’s book is that it is neither an unctuous dollop of reverence nor a sniggering scandal-fest—that is, it avoids both the Scylla and Charybdis of royal biography and so does justice to a complex person in a complex situation during an era of rapid change. When Margaret was born in 1930, many people then alive would have remembered Victoria, and the empire was intact; by the time she died in 2002, the empire was gone, and the royals’ sleazier moments were routine tabloid fodder. Her circumstances were hardly likely to bring out the best in anyone.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Hari Kunzru, _White Tears_

 STRUCTURALLY, SOMETHING OF a mystery-thriller: narrator Seth and his college buddy Carter, who comes from a fabulously wealthy family, use found recordings and studio wizardry to concoct a very-authentic-seeming sound file of a supposedly undiscovered old blues 78, Charlie Shaw's "Graveyard Blues." The fake creates internet buzz, in the wake of which Carter answers a mysterious summons  to a dangerous part of town, where he is assaulted so grievously he ends up in a coma.

Who did this? Why? What have these young enthusiasts of old sounds gotten involved in? Such questions pull in Carter's aspiring artist sister, Leonie, with whom Seth is desperately obsessed. Their search for answers leads them to...

Well, you get the idea. The questions do get answers, which I will not spoil for you, but the great thing is that Kunzru's novel lifts itself well clear of the gravitational pull of genre thanks to (1) some deft and genuinely spooky magical realism and (2) his skillful fashioning of his plot into a parable about white appropriation of black labor and black creativity.

One of my best friends had, in his twenties, a fascination with old interwar blues records--Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, and a few score others. He never got into collecting 78s, instead building a collection of as many of the  LPs that the 78-collectors compiled as he could find and afford. I was never into it to the degree he was, but I definitely acquired a taste for it; I have a couple dozen of those albums myself. 

What does it mean when a couple of white male midwestern twenty-somethings find themselves hunched over a re-issue of a scratchy old recording, made by a black Mississippian musician about the time their parents were born, that evokes a long-vanished culture to which they have no living connection whatsoever? One could answer by talking about the power of music to transcend its circumstances--but is something vampiric also going on, some leeching of a vitality we had small hope of generating on our own? What were we looking for, and what does it tell us that we found it in Son House and Mississippi John Hurt?

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Simon Hanselmann, _Megahex_

 HERE I AM, getting tips on great comics from the New York Review of Books. A welcome new direction for them, a sad reminder of how old I am getting for me.

Megg, a witch, and Mogg, her cat familiar, share with Owl a run-down house or apartment where they sometimes entertain guests such as Werewolf Jones, who will try anything once. Hanselmann was born in Tasmania and lived in Melbourne and the time he made the comics in this volume, but the city in which Megg and Mogg live could be about anywhere in the English-speaking world. 

Megg, Mogg, and their friends are fairly committed drug and alcohol users, and the stories have an appropriate snail's-pace, zoned-out, anti-climactic feel. Hanselmann is partial to a page of twelve equal-size panels and uses a line of unvarying thickness and watercolor, all of which lend themselves to the time-stands-still world of everyone in the room being ripped out of their gourd.  

The characters do not do a heck of a lot--they mostly watch TV and play practical jokes on each other. When they do leave the house, they tend to find themselves in awkward, unpleasant scenes. Owl is the only one with a job.

What seems truest-to-life about Hanselmann's depiction of this world, and genuinely insightful, is that the other characters like Owl well enough, but consider him a dupe and a fool. Owl--who pays most of the rent, who hopes to get a promotion or a better job, who sometimes tries to quit using--is the butt of most of the jokes and pranks, the one the others regards as clueless. That is, the one character who seems to have some slight purchase on consensus social reality is, to the other characters, ridiculous.

There seems to be something profoundly accurate here--that druggies, objects of the scorn and pity of the straights, in turn feel scorn and pity for the straights. 

As far as most of the world is concerned, Megg and Mogg and most of their friends are losers, wasteoids, parasites, a disgrace--but to themselves, they are the wised-up ones, the ones who have seen through the illusions of the goals and ambitions that were offered to them, who were too intelligent to take society's bait. 



Thursday, August 13, 2020

Marilynne Robinson, _Lila_

 FUNNY THING, MY experience with this one developed along exactly the same lines as had my experience of its predecessor, Home. I was looking forward to it, but bogged down and laid it aside before hitting the 100-page mark. Then, with the news that a new Robinson novel was imminent, I picked it up, stuck with it, and ended up finding it moving and memorable.

Lila, like Home, shares its setting and characters with Gilead. Lila is the much younger wife of the Rev. John Ames, narrator of Gilead, which is cast as a long letter to his and Lila’s son, whose maturity Ames fears he will not live to see. As Home was mainly free indirect discourse from the point of view of Glory Boughton, daughter of Ames’s best friend and fellow clergyman, Lila is mainly free indirect discourse from the point of view of Lila.

Lila has had a harder time than Glory Boughton—not that being the unmarried daughter of a Presbyterian minister in small-town Iowa in the Eisenhower era was a bed of roses, by any means. Lila’s is a grim story, though. Abandoned by her family for reasons unknown, the child Lila is taken up by Doll, one of a small group of itinerant agricultural workers, a band of outsiders who have become each other’s chosen family. They get by for a while, but eventually the rigors of the Depression disintegrate the group, and Doll gets in bad trouble for attacking (maybe killing?) a member of Lila’s family of origin. 

The by-now-teenaged Lila lands in a St. Louis brothel. Relatively plain and constitutionally unable to pretend she is having a better time than she is, she does not prove a hit with the clientele. For a time she makes herself useful in other ways, then just hits the road, catching a bus for as far as her limited funds will take her, ending up in an abandoned shack on the outskirts of Gilead, Iowa.

And somehow she meets Ames. And they fall in love. Not very swoonily, or even very becomingly as far as the town of Gilead is concerned, but le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas, as Pascal put it. The real presiding genius here, though, may be another French Christian theologian, since Robinson is a great admirer of John Calvin. By the end, we seem to watching the mysterious operations of grace. It’s not clear whether Ames is saving Lila or Lila is saving Ames, but their marriage makes no sense at all while also being the best thing that ever happened to them.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Heather Christle, _The Crying Book_

 CHRISTLE'S BOOK-LENGTH ESSAY bears an accurate title, as it does contain a lot of information about tears and draws on technical studies of why and how people cry, but it is "about" crying in the way that William Gass's On Being Blue is "about" the color. That is, crying is the book's reliable hub, but the spokes are what keeps it turning and kept me reading.

Among the spokes: Christle's pregnancy, and the birth and infancy of her daughter; Christle's mother's experience of electro-shock therapy as a young woman, and the similar experiences of Sylvia Plath as fictionalized in The Bell Jar; a class with Deborah Digges that Christle took in college, in which Plath was one of the four poets studied; Christle's learning that the death of one friend, the poet Bill Cassidy, was a suicide through the reading of a poem by another friend, Mathias Svalina; Margery Kempe, whose loud and uncontrollable weeping was such a headache to her fellow pilgrims; crying in movies, crying at movies.

The book reminded me of Christle's poetry in all sorts of good ways--its surprising juxtapositions, their logical felt more than understood; its peculiar paradoxical levitation, seemingly walking a inch or two above the ground while carrying genuinely heavy burdens.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Jenny Offill, _Weather_

NOT A SEQUEL to Dept of Speculation, but almost feels like one.The narrator, Lizzie, is a young(ish) married woman, one child, living in New York City, well-educated (ABD), who is piecing together a career in the literary-cultural sphere (university librarian, plus part-time work handling the e-mail correspondence of her former dissertation direction, a sort of female Bill-McKibben). The child in Weather is a son rather than a daughter, but in many ways we seem to be once again seeing the world through the eyes of "the wife" of Offill's previous novel.

Which is fine by me. What I loved about Dept of Speculation was the Wife's voice, and Lizzie's voice in Weather is its twin: vulnerable, sensitized, compassionate, having some tendencies to obsession, loving her child while also being somewhat in awe of her, drily funny, smart, observant. As in Dept of Speculation, the voice comes in small packets, "short swallow-flights" as Tennyson put it, dipping in and out, many sections not even a page long--as such, exactly the sort of polaroid flash-essay someone juggling the responsibilities of the Wife/Lizzie might just barely have enough time to write.

Weather has a little less plot than the Husband's infidelity created in Dept of Speculation, but it does have some. Will Lizzie have an affair with the charismatic war correspondent she met while her husband and son are on an extended visit to the west coast, a trip Lizzie did not make because she is looking after her brother, whose wife kicked him out after he lapsed from his recovery program? So there's all that.

But Weather is mainly about the voice, and what an addictive one it is.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Cathy Park Hong, _Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning_

THIS IS MY ninety-third post of the year, seven over my previous annual high. And it’s only July. What’s going on? More time to read, no doubt, what with never going out.

Hong’s book is not the typical childhood-to-maturity memoir. It has a subtle kind of chronological progression to it, but the chapters tend to center less on an era of her life than on a topic, a focus for analysis: the situation of Koreans and Korean-Americans in the US; the standup comedy of Richard Pryor as an inspiration in Hong’s artistic practice; whiteness in our culture; Hong’s relationship to the English language; the work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and the way discussions of that work have tended to occlude the terrible way she died; a meditation on indebtedness and its supposedly obligatory attendant moral phenomenon, gratitude. 

Hong’s take on gratitude reminded me of what I once heard Jamaica Kincaid say in a commencement speech: “Bite the hand that fed you.” That is, yes, you may owe things to various people, but that does not mean they get to make your important decisions for you, so don’t let them.

If you have read any of Hong’s poetry, you would probably expect her to give a quick boot to any talk of Asians being a “model minority” (hard-working, self-denying, education-focused, family-oriented, quick to assimilate) and an even quicker boot to stereotypes of Asian women as demure and docile. You won’t be disappointed.

My favorite chapter may be the one closest to conventional memoir—“An Education,” about her time at Oberlin and her friendships there with a couple of other young Asian women artists. There’s a great screenplay in here, I suspect, a Damsels in Distress with the cuteness dialed down and the angst dialed up.

But just as remarkable is “Portrait of an Artist,” about Cha. With Dictée now emerging as a contemporary classic, Hong’s chapter on Cha deserves to become a must-read.

In her chapter on Pryor and stand-up, Hong mentions occasionally trying out a standup routine on people who came to her poetry readings, which I imagine met with as much puzzlement as (but probably less heckling than) a comedian reading poetry at a comedy club. (I kept thinking this chapter was going to mention Margaret Cho, who like Hong is ready to blow up the demure-and-docile Asian woman stereotype, but it does not.)