Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Haruki Murakami, _The WInd-Up Bird Chronicle_

A FAVORITE OF my sister, who gave me this for Christmas in 2006. As it is a novel of somewhat daunting length, over 600 pages, I was slow to pick it up, but along about Christmas 2008, I thought it was high time to get to it. I have been reading away at it regularly but not continually for just over half a year, and now have finished. So...what do I think. Hmm.

It was fun to read, certainly. A noir-ish plot -- first person narrator's wife disappears suddenly, possibly having run off with another man out of her frustration with narrator's joblessness and general lack of initiative, but he suspects foul play. Her brother is a media star about to launch a political career, she possibly knows something that would derail his ambitions...the plot thickens. Then the plot aetherealizes when narrator consults psychics and finds himself having a series of supernatural/paranormal experiences. Several characters turn out to have links to Japanese occupation of, oppression of, and eventual expulsion from Manchuria in the 1930s and 1940s -- this repression of traumatic truth is analogous to and possibly interwoven with whatever the narrator's ambitious and ruthless brother-in-law is trying to hide. All this is wrapped enough local Tokyo detail to satisfy Emile Zola.

It's more than enough to keep one reading. But Murakami has been so highly praised that the question becomes whether one thinks his work is "great" or not, Nobel-worthy or not, and so on. So, is it great? Maybe.

I've heard Murakami compared unfavorably to Kobo Abe, as doing much the same sort of thing his predecessor did, but not as well. Murakami's narrator does have the dislocated, alienated relationship to his world that some of Abe's characters have, but without their angst-y, existentialista aura, as if they might suddenly lurch and find themselves in an Antonioni film. Murakami's narrator's edges have been worn smooth by global consumer culture, and he has the equanimity of people who don't entirely grasp the depth of their predicament. But is that a fault? Such characters seem as true to Murakami's moment as Abe's did to his.

What the heck, I'll read a couple more and see what I think.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, _Dictée_

I'M DRAWN TO the sheer bookness of this book -- that it wholly eludes being any kind of book (fiction, memoir, poetry, history) yet remains very definitely a book, something that even physically seems designed to inhabit book-space, book dimensions, to be book and nothing but book, to shed with a slight shake any other descriptors.

What else is there like this? Some of Susan Howe's books and some of Cole Swenson's share in Dictée's blurring of generic categories, in its use of graphic elements, in its integrity as a project that had to be a book, could only be a book, was bound (ha!) to be a book. Lisa Robertson, perhaps. Some artists, perhaps. Blake?

There need to be more books like this, and surely they will come, as digital media increasingly make distinguish what need not necessarily be a book from what can only be a book.

Mallarmé famously claimed that "tout, au monde, existe pour aboutir à un livre." Books like this make one think he must have been right.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

John Williams, _Stoner_

LIKE REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, another masterpiece of mid-century American realism that I had not gotten around to until this year -- in this case, prompted by the NYRB Classics edition, a typically elegant production.

Stoner lives up to its reputation -- obviously the work of a master from the first page, deft, objective, keen-eyed, never less than graceful in its prose, sometimes arresting.

Arrested is literally what I was by the plot, however. Twice in the course of reading the novel I simply put it away for two or three weeks because the protagonist, University of Missouri English professor William Stoner, blundered so colossally that I couldn't bear to watch and had to stop reading. First, his marriage, which from almost the earliest jerky onset of its courtship phase we know will be a costly wreck. And so it turns out, when I found the heart to pick up the book again -- a nerve-scraping, soul-eating Tom-&-Vivienne affair. There is a daughter, quiet and nearly will-less, who we know will not get out whole, and she doesn't.

My reading resumed, there I was, cruising along again, glad to see that Stoner was at least finding great satisfaction in his teaching and his scholarship, when he has a run-in with a lazy, ignorant, and insolent grad student -- a grad student who happens to be the particular protegé of Stoner's incoming department chair. I had to stop there -- it was too, too apparent that the new chair was going to make Stoner's working life hell.

Two weeks later, after some deep cleansing breaths, I resumed reading, and sure enough, the chair was as vindictive towards Stoner as anyone could have feared. But Stoner finds some consolation... in an affair with a graduate student. The affair is sweet, tender, and true...no one is taking advantage of anyone...but...well, obviously both Stoner and the student, Katherine Driscoll, will have to pay for their stolen joys. They do.

I suspect the problem is that I found it fatally easy to identify with Stoner, being male, middle-aged, in the same line of work, and temperamentally a kindred spirit. This made the spectacle of the recurring failure of his instincts of self-preservation a bit... painful for me. I am left to find what comfort I can from the Williams interview quoted in this edition's introduction: "A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing."

Well -- maybe.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mark Levine, _Debt_

THE SAME PERSON who recommended to me Joshua Clover's Madonna Anno Domini as one of the best volumes of new poetry of the 1990s also recommended this -- which must have some serious buzz, since at Amazon.com used copies of Debt start at $28 and go as high as $170. Yikes. Fortunately, at abebooks.com I found a copy for about seven dollars.

Levine is, like Clover, a 90s-era Writers' Workshop alum, though I wouldn't say either's poetry much resembles the other's. Debt was a 1992 National Poetry Series selection, chosen by Jorie Graham, who happened to be one of Levine's teachers, so there's a bit of Foetry-tinged scandal to the book, as a kind of bonus.

Well, enough gossip. What is the book like? It's excellent. Liked it even more than I liked Clover's.

Every poem seems to have a first person perspective, "I" or "we," but even though the poems conjure up direly real settings and events -- wars, financial collapses, famines, plagues -- the "I" doesn't seem to be Levine in any specifiable way, nor the events so conjured precisely those of
our own world. Now and then the reader suspects he or she is in some dystopic future, but there is nothing futuristic about the references to Brink's trucks or Borkum Riff.

I seem to use the word "oneiric" a lot lately, and I probably ought to cease and desist, but I am weary of "surreal," and "dreamlike" is too likely to evoke some gauzy Maxfield Parrish world, luminously lit, where nothing awful ever happens. So "oneiric" it is -- Levine's poems in Debt operate by a dream-logic, simultaneously precise and vague, set in a world that we recognize as ours even if it be dissimilar in every detail, where we ourselves are somehow in new identities without ceasing to be ourselves.

We cannot say anything we want to say
until we are fed the white paste
and the planks have been carefully laid,
giant cranes gliding behind us.
The flow from the gray pump continues.
We slip in the wet grass.

Or try this on for size, from "Poem": "The soldiers torched the crops while retreating. / It only seemed fair." The defeated soldiers want to deny their advancing conquerors food, I suppose -- though what are we civilians to eat in the meantime? Does "only" modify "seemed" -- that is, burning the crops only appeared to be fair, but in fact was cruel and unnecessary? Or is the sentence a colloquial equivalent of "what else could they do, what options did they have"? And what do those advancing conquerors have in mind for us, do you suppose? Meanwhile, in formal terms, what a marvelous collection of [r] sounds, and what a great touch that verb is, making you see the soldiers starting the fires.

"Notes on the Pyramids (II)" might be the Pharaoh's thoughts on Moses, as suggested by the line "I tell him not to make the firstborn decree" -- if we could account for the smokestacks and cement trucks. Perhaps it were better to say it's about one powerful but weary will confronting another, each knowing what cards the other holds, together inhabiting a sphere that the followers of neither would understand:

The pulleys pull between us, setting in place
the last flesh stones. Each of us holds
the other's starred birth papers.
My God, what we've got on each other.

I can open this book anywhere and find myself hooked. "Self-Portrait" begins:

Lying impatient for the burning copper thread

OK, you got me. What independent clause can follow that?

I wake next to me on the too narrow for two bedcage.

Ah, yes. I'm yours, Mr. Levine.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Joshua Clover, _Madonna Anno Domini_

SOMEONE WHOSE OPINIONS I heed recommended this as one of the best volumes of poetry to appear in the 1990s, so off to amazon.com I went. The cover art was impressive -- it reproduces a print by Guy Debord -- but the jacket flap photo disturbed me a bit: a handsome man in shades and tousled hair, shirt open to reveal a surfer's torso, standing in front of a magnificent mountain landscape. People that photogenic shouldn't be good poets as well. It isn't fair.

Turns out Joshua Clover is, in addition to being a writer of poems, a writer of philosophically rigorous leftist politico-cultural essays and the son of an influential feminist scholar and critic, Carol Clover, and writes a blog called "Jane Dark's Sugarhigh," which got my attention, since Jane Dark is a character in the excellent novel Notable American Women by Ben Marcus, himself the son of an influential feminist scholar and critic, Jane Marcus. Hmm and hmm. So Clover is not only good-looking, not only a denizen of magnificent landscapes, but was born well-connected to the American arts-&-letters world. All this and he is supposedly a good poet too. So not fair.

But I have to admit -- an extremely good book. Oddly enough, it reminded me of a book published four years later, Spencer Short's Tremolo, which as fortune had it I read first. Witty, often elegant, knowingly allusive (as in "Ouro Prêto," which is about Elizabeth Bishop without naming her), very serious about not taking itself too seriously (a poem about nuclear tests in Nevada begins, "Ka-boom!"), faintly giving the impression that the writer has occasionally made some very risky personal choices... all in all, the epitome of Iowa City, circa mid-90s...

...which sounds dismissive, but the Graham Era must have been an extremely interesting time to be in Iowa City, if this book and Short's and Radio Radio and Robyn Schiff's Worth are anything to go by. Virtually every poem here has the dazzle and audacity of a high-wire act. They sometimes seem born of wilfully perverse self-assignments to combine elements as heterogeneous as possible -- continental railroads and Buddhism, Haussmann's Paris and Rodney King -- so as to yield a poem that seems compelling and inevitable. Clover seems always to be telling himself, "I bet I can't do this," then doing it. And having fun doing it.

A very gifted writer. Despite his galling advantages.

And then one hears he was invited to be in the anthology Legitimate Dangers and opted out. What, he can afford to turn down chances to be in an anthology? Not fair at all.