Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Steve Gehrke, _Michelangelo's Seizure_

A GREAT IDEA for a collection -- poems about painters and paintings -- but an idea that easily could gave gone oh so wrong. But not here. This is a good book.

The poems are at times ekphrastic, but take frequent detours into the life of the painter, into his (all the painters are male) circumstances and his memories, into the conflicts and disasters of the painting's historical moment, and into the physical act of depositing and moving paint on a canvas.

Gehrke's syntax makes this work. The long, unscrolling, sentences, as rhizomatically elaborated as Proust's, drift associatively from past to present, concrete to abstract, near to remote, suggesting by their sinuosity the multiple points of origin that can end in a single work of art.

"The Raft of the Medusa" is a case in point. It begins by evoking the horrible event the painting later depicted, bends into Géricault's visits to morgues to make studies for the painting, shifts into his recently-terminated affair with his aunt, then concludes with the painting's becoming an expression of discontent with the recently-restored French monarchy. This happens over the course of 13 5-line stanzas and just seven sentences.

In this sentence -- the sixth -- the image of Géricault at his canvas unfolds into imagery of the shipwreck of the Medusa due to its incompetent aristocratic commander, the mutiny that occurred on the raft, the affair with its aunt and its end, and the betrayals of another older-male-authority-figure, the king:

Still, there's something unfinished in the scene,
something not quite said, until, later, in his uncle's
bed, floating on the buoyancy of hips, he
and his aunt rowing towards completion, her body

splashing up through the bottom of his own, he looks
down into the smoke and oil of her eyes
and feels something like mutiny rise up inside
of him, so that he understands he really
could leave his uncle weeping on the floor, overthrown,

though, all at once, he feels marooned when he has come,
his aunt turning away from him again,
dressing quickly, sighing, "What have we done?"
so that watching her smooth the covers
with her palm, the canvas remakes itself inside of him again,

the scene shaded now with all the broken oaths of France,
lives cut off by the velocity of guillotines,
the constitution unrolled like a carpet for the King
to walk across on his way back to the throne.

The loose blank verse feel here is typical of the book as well -- all in all, there's something of Browning here, with third-person-interiority substituted for first person, the allusiveness a little less recondite, the syntax a little less baroque, the rhythm a little more supple. Is Gehrke the new Richard Howard? I have no idea whether he would like the idea, but Michelangelo's Seizure has a lot of what made Untitled Subjects a favorite of mine.

Friday, December 25, 2009

George Saunders, _The Braindead Megaphone: Essays_

SAUNDERS IS AMONG my favorite contemporary fiction writers, so I was looking forward to this. It was slightly disappointing, however.

Like David Foster Wallace, Saunders has a kind of perfect pitch for the peculiar deformations and degradations of our current public discourse -- he can revealingly mimic the tone and texture of the self-serving news release and the dishonest government announcement, the high-gloss bullshit of management seminars, advertising, bureaucracies. In his best short stories -- for instance, the title stories in the collections Pastoralia and In Persuasion Nation -- he enables us to see the actual cruelty and callousness this graceless, anodyne language tries to camouflage, and to sense the frustration of characters trying to describe their real pain with flimsy self-help book clichés.

Unlike Wallace, Saunders does not have an interesting prose-voice that is distinct and separate from his parody-of-debased-discourse voice. He seems himself aware of this problem, which he tries to palliate with Ironic Capitalization, by means of which the disagreeably uninformed phrase "some village guy" becomes "Some Village Guy," Saunders signalling that yes, he does sound like a shallow American journo-tourist, but at least he knows he sounds like one. This tic might not have bothered me if I had been reading the essays singly in periodicals, but read three in a row and it decidedly grates.

There are some worthwhile things in here, though. "Ask the Optimist!" is really more of a story than an essay, Saunders writing as a relentlessly cheery advice columnist whose life falls apart over the course of the column -- lots of elbow room for Saunders's ability to mimic debased discourse here, obviously.

There are two lovely literary tributes, to Donald Barthelme's great short story "The School" and to Esther Forbes, author of Johnny Tremain, the first book Saunders loved.

And there is "The United States of Huck," one of the most interesting essays I've read on Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, with Saunders skillfully navigating between the Scylla of condemnation and the Charybdis of admiration in getting at what make Twain's deeply flawed novel one of the country's greatest pieces of fiction.

The high points, though are the first and last essays (or last but for some New-Yorkerish jeu d'esprit that gets tacked on at the end). "The Braindead Megaphone" is a funny but trenchant takedown of our viciously stupid, all-yammering-all-the-time media, and in "Buddha Boy," a kind of skeptic's pilgrimage to see a 12-year-old Nepalese boy who had supposedly been meditating for seven months without taking food or drink, Saunders describes a dark night of the soul in a remarkable narrative that achieves depth without ever entirely ceasing to be funny.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Boubacar Boris Diop, _Murambi, The Book of Bones_

A NOVEL OF the Rwandan genocide, first published in French; I read the English translation by Fiona McLaughlin, published by the Indiana University Press. The author is Senegalese.

The novel has four sections. The first is set in the few days just before the massacres begin, and consists of three chapters, each from the point of view of a different character. The second section makes an unexpected move, jumping ahead to four years after the genocide has ended, introducing us to Cornelius Uvimana, a Rwandan who was out of the country at the time of the massacres and is making his first visit back. Cornelius is a writer and the child of a Tutsi mother and a Hutu father, so he has a lot to sort out. At the end of this section, about midpoint in the novel, he learns that his father, a doctor, played a signally horrible role in the massacre.

The third section takes us back to 1994. The killing is now going on. Again, we have a chapter apiece from the perspectives of several characters, including a French Army officer and Cornelius's father.

The fourth and final section brings us back to 1998 and the conclusion of Cornelius's visit, a trip to Murambi, with its mass burial pits and quicklime-dusted corpses. Cornelius has to face the full horror of what happened to his mother and siblings, of what his father did. He resolves to write about what happened in Rwanda.

To adapt Carolyn Forché's famous term, Murambi seems to be a "novel of witness," an enlistment of the resources of the literary imagination in order to report, to give an account, to keep awareness of this history alive and circulating. Diop -- wisely, I'd say -- is mainly indirect in showing the horrors of the massacres; the novel's violence occurs off-stage, so to speak. He is wise as well in not attempting a comprehensive explanation; he indicates a number of contributing factors, but does not pretend he can say exactly why the genocide happened. The novel seems mainly to want the world to remember that it did happen.

Murambi is a good book written for a good reason -- but, I somewhat reluctantly must confess, to my mind not a great book. I found myself inwardly comparing it to Chiminanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of A Yellow Sun -- similarly about violence between two African peoples in conflict within the same European-drawn borders (the Nigerian civil war, in Adichie's case), similarly ingenious in its departure from simple narrative chronology, similarly about events the author had not seen (Adichie was born after the war's end) -- and the comparison was much to the disadvantage of Murambi.

Adichie's novel is well and truly a novel -- its characters distinct, rounded, and unforgettable, its attention to the sounds, tastes, smells, and sights of quotidian life exact and evocative, its comprehension of humans in the grip of history rich and full. Diop's sympathetic characters, even Cornelius, are pasteboard, his "monster" characters cartoons. After the first chapter, we get little sense of place. The conversations are such as occur only in novels.

One has to be glad we have a novel like Murambi now, certainly, and one has to hope that some future novelist, perhaps now in diapers, will do for Rwanda what Adichie has done for Biafra.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Anne Pierson Wiese, _Floating City_

WALT WHITMAN AWARD winner for 2006 -- so obviously it has taken me a while to take this off the shelf and read it. Once reshelved, it will likely sit a while before I take it down again.

Having read the 2007 winner, Sally Van Doren's Sex at Noon Taxes, some months ago, my first thought is that the Walt Whitman judges must have a soft spot for sonnets, as all of Van Doren's poems in that volume were variations on that form, and a good many of Wiese's are as well. Those that are not fourteen lines long tend to be 28 or 42 lines long, and feel like stacked sonnets.

Wiese's poems remind me very much of the sort one frequently encountered in the New Yorker in the Alice Quinn era: built on precise observations, employing a fairly subdued emotional palette, craft-conscious, well-behaved, frequently concerned either with New York City or with whichever small middle-American town the poet grew up in. Their only flaw is that they fail to be deeply interesting.

Wiese has an interesting idea in here -- that underneath the elaborate human artifice of New York City, and occasionally and surprisingly visible, is a natural substrate of soil, rock, water. This notion has an appealing kind of stoner wisdom to it, and I wish she had been a little less risk-averse in pursuing it.