Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Sebastian Barry, _Days Without End_

THIS NOVEL IS a bit of a knuckleball. In the first place, it is an historical novel set in the USA of the 19th century, but Barry himself is Irish--don't they have enough 19th century themselves to write about?  (Tóibín's Brooklyn is a precedent, I suppose).

The narrator and principal character, Thomas McNulty, is Irish, a Famine survivor who has managed to get to the United States; Thomas is also gay, and furthermore an occasional cross-dresser. He and his best friend-lover-partner John Cole end up in the army, serving both in the Civil War and in the Indian Wars, the latter (and their brutality) getting a large swathe of the narrative.

So--the other swerve of the knuckleball--I kept expecting that the plot was going to turn on Thomas's being Irish, gay, and an occasional cross-dresser. He and John Cole were going to be discovered, I assumed, persecuted and punished in some way...but nothing of the sort happens. In fact, for the first two-thirds of the novel, the narration is virtually a chronicle, soldiers crossing the prairie, the occasional atrocity, but nothing particularly plot-like emerging at all.

Which turns out to be okay, because Thomas is good company. He is uneducated, his narration not always grammatical, but even so his voice has a lyricism, a homemade eloquence, even a kind of who-knows-how-acquired erudition. Some of the folks in our book club did not quite buy this--that someone who thought the past tense of "know" was "knowed" would nonetheless have in his quiver vocabulary like "conflagration" and "maelstrom" and a few Shakespearean allusions. But, for me, it was as credible as the voice of Ned Kelly in Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang. There was something Irish about it, the kind of elevation a bright kid could have picked up from sermons or political oratory, mixed with the touch of linguistic music that is virtually a national birthright.

The last third of the novel is brisk, as we do suddenly get plenty of plot, about the feud between Major Neale and the Sioux chieftain Caught-His-Horse-First, kidnapped daughters, rescued daughters, courts martial, a certain amount of shoot-'em-up. All pretty exciting, but what I will remember best is Thomas's voice.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Jorie Graham, _Fast_

THE OFFICIAL PUBLICATION date of Fast was May 2, 2017, coincidentally my birthday. I bought  it within a few weeks of that, but only read it a month ago.

I find myself wondering what I would have thought about the book had I read as soon as I bought it, because several poems are about the decline and death of Graham's father and several more are about her own cancer treatments, and, as it happens, my own father died last July and last December I was myself diagnosed with cancer (a very treatable kind). The book made a deep impression on me, but having read the book in the circumstances I did, I'm not sure whether the depth of that impression has to do with the poems themselves or with their being concerned with situations I have freshly experienced myself.

However one wants to account for it, I thought the book was superb. It affected me more than any Graham volume since Region of Unlikeness, I would say.  In some of her books on this side of the millennium--I'm thinking of Sea Change and Overlord--Graham seemed to be trying too assiduously to be the major American poet just about anyone would concede she is, as if she wanted to live up to her reputation but was finding that living up to it was a pain in the tush. This one, though, for me, is undeniably a great book by a major American poet, the kind that had me muttering "goddamn, that's good" every other page.

The jacket flap calls Fast "her most exhilarating, personal, and formally inventive [collection] to date." Maybe that's it, but I dunno. I wouldn't call it exhilarating, I know that. I felt like she was engraving something on my bones. Most personal? It is personal, but so was The Errancy, wasn't it?

Most formally inventive...yes, there is some striking technique going on. I was noticing a lot of what I think of as a J. H. Prynne device, several long lines flush left, then a few much shorter lines placed well to the right; someone needs to analyze what this does, because it is certainly doing something, and the weird burst of speed it imparts delivers an unusual kick. Graham is really good at it. But is she at her most formally inventive here? I wouldn't sign off on that, given what we've seen from her already.

So, I'm not sure why I feel this way, and it might just be me, but I think this is the real thing, a classic.


Friday, March 23, 2018

Laura Kipnis on Lynne Tillman

WHILE I AM generally pleased to see so many new bylines in  the New York Review of Books under new editor Ian Buruma, I hope I will not be seeing that of Laura Kipnis often if her review of Lynne Tillman represents her typical approach.

Her first paragraph ends, "I suspect that revering writers does them no favors, but don't worry, this isn't the setup for a hit job." But I say unto you: Worry. This is a setup for a hit job. That sentence is only the first of several instances of disingenuousness.

Far too much of the review is devoted to making an invidious distinction between "downtown" writers, like Tillman, and "uptown" writers, like Kipnis. Uptown writers are rigorously edited while downtown writers are not, Kipnis explains, with the result that downtown writers, who think of themselves as avant-garde and uncompromising, are actually prolix, self-indulgent, and tiresome.

So there, I guess.

This sort of thing just does not belong in the NYRB. Venting is fine in a blog, but in the NYRB I hope to find something a little more cool and considered. I've read many a takedown in the NYRB, but they never had the oniony anti-intellectual rankness that this one does.

And speaking of editing, would "by the ton," "fount of wisdom," "set the world on fire," and "with the best of them" have gotten by Barbara Epstein? No. No, no, no.


Sunday, January 14, 2018

Roz Chast (ed.) and Bill Kartalopoulos (series ed.), _The Best American Comics 2016_

JUST GOES TO show me not to presume--since Roz Chast's New Yorker cartoons, which I enjoy, derive a lot of their humor from the timidity and circumspection of mild-mannered, utterly domesticated people in utterly normal settings, I expected this volume to stay put in the respectable middle of the road.

And certainly most of the book is about in that range--strong, excellent work that is not particularly risky: Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, Joe Sacco, Richard McGuire, Nina Bunjevac. But then there are also some nerve-scraping pages from Casanova Frankenstein (a nom de plume, do you think?) the E.C.-Segar-on-bad-acid of Marc Bell's Stroppy, and the self-published "Don't Leave Me Alone"by G.G., which is terrifying.

So you never know--more to the point, I never know. As Bill K. announces in the very first sentence of the foreword, "There is no 'mainstream' in comics."

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Elif Batuman, _The Idiot_

AN AMAZING DEBUT novel, I thought. Best novel of the year, possibly.

As with Batuman's non-fiction book of a few years back, The Possessed, the title evokes Dostoevsky. The main character is Selin Karadag, which I am guessing is metrically equivalent to "Elif Batuman." Like Batuman, Selin is the American-born daughter of Turkish parents, and like Batuman, she is matriculating at Harvard in the fall of 1995. I suspect Batuman drew on her own experiences in the novel, but who knows?

Selin is not a figure of unworldly saintliness like Prince Myshkin, but she is, like just about every first-year college student before or after 1995, a bit clueless and blundering. The biggest misstep is becoming obsessed with Ivan, a Harvard senior from Hungary. A great deal of flirting via e-mail occurs (e-mail was a newish thing in 1995), but Ivan cannot figure out quite what Selin wants, and Selin seems not altogether sure either. She even takes a summer job teaching English in Hungary with a view towards somehow crossing paths and getting together with Ivan, but then, once she is actually in Hungary, she waits two weeks before calling him.

Thus the 19th century novel that seems the closest precedent to Batuman's The Idiot is not Dostoevsky's novel of the same name, but Flaubert's L'Education Sentimentale, for Selin and Ivan rival Fréderic Moreau and Mme. Arnoux in the never-quite-getting-there department. (Or even the all-time champs, John Marcher and May Bartram.) The plot event we are anticipating for most of the novel's 400 pages never occurs.

Which seems perfect, to me.

But what I most enjoyed were Batuman's powers of observation, her ability to conjure up a milieu (a college dorm, a transatlantic flight), and particularly her voice. Deeper than that, the themes of the novel--not just Selin's sentimental education, but the vagaries of translation (hilarious and tragic), the peculiar entitlement of the USA, the ironies of elite education--could make this novel a classic down the line. I don't think I've relished a first novel this much since White Teeth. Is White Teeth a classic yet (17 years old already)? Well, I'm going to say it is.


Friday, January 5, 2018

Eula Biss, _On Immunity: An Inoculation_

MAINLY ABOUT THE anxiety over infant immunizations of a few years back, now largely quelled I think, but this book does not depend on topicality all that much. Walden has tips for living in the countryside, but we read it more for the sensibility it presents and the grain of its voice; On Immunity similarly is more than the information it conveys. It's contemplative, in a down-to-earth way; it contains information, but is more thoughtful, personal, exploratory than advisory.

Immunity, in the medical sense, has a lot to do with what the body recognizes as its own and what it identifies as a hostile intruder, and Biss spins out the metaphorical potential of this in pondering self-and-other, us-and-them questions, as well as science-and-superstition, reason-and-emotion, expert-and-layperson sorts of agons. The chapters are short and would work (I think) as free-standing essays, vivid, graceful, humane.

Which reminds me of my guess about the subtitle, "An Inoculation." In what sense is the book about a small quantity of illness taken from one body and placed in another, giving that other body a little dose of evil to prevent a greater one from taking hold?

In the sense that Biss's anxiety-verging-on-panic for her infant son (that is, the recognizably perfectly normal behavior of a new mother) turns out to inoculate us (supposing we have infants arriving in our own lives) against the follies that anxiety and panic all too readily lend themselves to.

Biss is probably a lot better grounded and less susceptible to jumpiness than the persona of the book is, but the contrast between the "I" of the book and her calm of her husband, the common sense of her oncologist father, and the liveliness and imagination of her pre-schooler, who somehow survived infancy, repeatedly testifies to the wisdom of not letting what you read on the internet get the better of you.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Jeff Gold, _Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges, as Told by Iggy Pop_

IF YOU HAVE read or seen Paul Trynka's Open Up and Bleed or Jim Jarmusch's Gimme Danger or Iggy's own I Need More, as I have, you have already seen a lot of these photos and heard or read a lot of these stories...but you are going to acquire this book anyway, as I did, because...well, because.

The punk band I was in from 1979 to 1983 had a standing policy: we covered at least one song from each Stooges album and each Iggy album. I think we had three apiece from the debut and from Raw Power.

Total Chaos is a coffee table book, in effect, lots of large format photos, most of Iggy and the band but also of news clippings, show posters and legal correspondence, plus Gold's interview with Mr. Osterberg himself providing a running commentary on the images, a kind of voiceover for the slide show.

The very idea a coffee-table book about the Stooges is a little incongruous. It's hard to imagine them having anything so bourgeois as a coffee table at the Funhouse, to say nothing of having a book whose main purpose was to be available for browsing on a coffee table, unless it was of Nazi regalia.

And, as noted above, it's mainly photos you've seen before, glittery Iggy, dog-collar Iggy, Iggy at King's Cross, and stories you've heard before, Danny Fields discovering them at the U. of M. student union, recording with John Cale in a cape, drugs, groupies, John Sinclair, David Bowie....

...but we don't mind hearing the story of Hamburg, the Cavern, Brian Epstein, and the Maharishi again and again, do we? Or the story of Greenwich Village, Joan Baez, booed at Newport, motorcycle accident, basement tapes? For me, this is one of those stories. If there's ever a Total Chaos II, I'm getting that one too.