Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, January 18, 2010

Narayan, _The Ramayana_

WELL, YES, I really should have read a translation of the complete original Sanskrit version. Maybe someday. This version, written in English by the 20th century novelist R. K. Narayan, is not even based on that Sanskrit original; it jumps off from a version written in Tamil by the poet Kamban in the 11th century C.E. So no authenticity points for me. That concession made, I found this a marvelous book, witty, highly colored, brisk, charming, utterly engaging. Given the likelihood of my bogging down at p. 43 of whatever late-Victorian translation I would likely have been able to procure at the library, I think I made a good call in picking this up. The effect is rather like reading Edith Hamilton -- if Hamilton had brought in a few sly jokes and had risked a Fielding/Gogol kind of intimacy with the reader.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Zoé Heller, _What Was She Thinking?_

A REVIEW I read of Heller's latest novel mentioned how good this one was; I took the bait, read it, and I agree -- it's very good.

As we begin, one of the characters, Sheba Hart, is the much-beleaguered center of a scandal; an arts teacher in her mid-30s, married and the mother of two, she has been discovered to have been conducting an affair with one of her teenaged students, Stephen Connolly. Dismissed from her job, dropped by her underage lover, abandoned by her family, hounded by the tabloids, she is being looked after by her friend and fellow teacher, Barbara Covett. Barbara is our narrator, and she embarks on a reconstruction of the affair, told in parallel to the story how she became friends with Sheba.

So, we are in Unreliable-Narrator-Land. As James Wood has pointed out, unreliable narrators actually have to be more reliable than most -- the strategy works only when we can detect that the narrator's account is systematic in its distortions and omissions. Barbara takes a while to sort out, though. Her last name is a clue that there's a streak of envy in the friendship (Heller is obviously not above such Wauvian signal-names: the passionate Sheba is "Hart," the smarmy headmaster of their school "Pabblem"). There is also admiration... resentment... a longing for intimacy... a lust to dominate. Complicated.

For instance, it turns out that Barbara is not only Sheba's last refuge, but also the person who let out her secret. Somewhat impulsively, even somewhat inadvertently, as a way of getting back at a third party for a perceived slight... or does she really want to destroy Sheba? Or does Barbara perhaps intuit that this a way for her to have Sheba to herself?

The novel put me in mind of Mary Gaitskill's two novels, both of which have partly to do with the dangerous waters of friendships between two women, one of whom is attractive and popular, the other of whom is plain, lonely, intelligent. It's easy to see why Sheba would become friends with Barbara, who is the one gleaming intelligence on the school's dull faculty, wickedly witty, a promising candidate for confidante. It's easy to see why Barbara would become friends with the sophisticated, dashing, talented, cosmopolitan new arts teacher. But is it going to matter that Sheba is well-off, with an elite education, an interesting past, a successful husband, a big rambling house, and two kids, while Barbara, dateless for decades, has a flat, a cat, a dispiriting job, and no future prospects for anything but more of the same?

Oh, yes, it is going to matter. And we haven't really gotten to the whole class thing yet. In the truly unnerving final scene, we realize that Barbara has Sheba wholly within her power, and that the prison term Sheba is hoping to avoid may be the better of her two possible outcomes.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Juliana Spahr, _The Transformation_

IN THE LAST few years I've been coming across examples of poets' autobiographical prose taking surprising forms. There was Under Albany by Ron Silliman, a memoir in the form of a commentary on the first section of his poem The Alphabet. I'm about halfway through Jennifer Moxley's The Middle Room, which surprises by its Edwardian detail and amplitude. And there is this, The Transformation by Juliana Spahr, a memoir which dispenses almost entirely with proper names and even with first-person pronouns.

"This book tells a barely truthful story of the years 1997-2001," Spahr tells us in her afterword. In the book, Spahr and two other women resolve to form a household and together move to Hawaii for a university teaching job (that is, one of them has the job; another I think is an adjunct, and the third has a non-academic job). They love the natural beauty and the perfect climate of the islands, but become increasingly conscience-stricken about the ways their being in Hawaii involves them in the legacy of imperialism. Their politics tend to align them with the Hawaiians who want to restore the cultural and political autonomy of the islands, but their livelihoods connect them to an institution firmly cemented to the cultural and political power of the imperial interlopers. Eventually, the sense of living in bad faith drives them to relocate to New York City (perhaps Long Island?) in the summer of 2001, where they become eyewitnesses to the attack on the World Trade Center, prompting further reflection on what James Baldwin called "the weight of white people in the world." Furthermore, the world is warming. On the other hand, there is the community of writers, a countervailing source of hope and joy.

The thing is...The Transformation is really nothing like the book I would imagine after reading the above paragraph. First of all, there is the avoidance of proper nouns. Hawaii is referred to as "the island in the middle of the Pacific" (later in the book, Manhattan and Long Island are designated as "islands in the Atlantic"). Academia is "the complex," and the University of Hawaii at Manoa is "the local branch of the complex." Native Hawaiians are "those who had genealogical ties to the island from before the whaling ships arrived." Spahr even avoids phrases like "avant-garde poetry" or "experimental poetry"; this kind of writing is always identified as "writing that uses fragmentation, quotation, disruption, disjunction, agrammatical syntax, and so on." Persons are not identified by name (though some are identified in the afterword), not even the other two women in the household. The collective identity of the household is so crucial that Spahr does not refer to herself as "I." She rejects even the cozy comforts of "we." The household is always "they." Whenever it becomes necessary to refer to a single member, the designation is "one of them."

My problem of description is deepening, for The Transformation is nothing like the book I would imagine from that paragraph, either. It sounds unreadable, doesn't it? Trying too hard to achieve some politically correct purity, stiff as cardboard, bleached-out, flavorless? I don't know why, but that's not what happens. Somehow, a phrase that would be clunky and ungainly if used once gains a peculiar balletic-hippo kind of grace by dint of repetition. Something like this also happened in the This-is-the-house-that-Stein-built repetitions of This Connection of Everyone with Lungs. Spahr knows what she's doing -- she writes at one point, "they refused to get rid of any of the awkward repetitions or the weird turns of phrase that they heard in their writing as musical but they knew those in the complex often heard as just weird and awkward" (62). Like a dancer that has for some reason decided to perform with five-pound weights on each ankle, the Spahr's prose is graceful with a different grace.

Graceful -- and purposeful, too. Hers is a language continually alert for what it may be complicit with , not unlike the household's anxiety over its (I would say) very attenuated links with imperialism. That alertness leads to détournements and anomalies aplenty, but as I read I became increasingly confident that Spahr always had a good reason to insist of her chosen designations. Also worth noting is that even though the book often touches upon the controversies of high academe and the most rarefied flights of aesthetic theory, the vocabulary stays resolutely on a plain-language level. There's scarcely a word in here that a smart 8th grader wouldn't know.

This will sound odd -- one more failed attempt at trying to describe this utterly singular book -- but it often reminded me of the autobiography of Teresa of Avila. (A book I admire, I ought to say). The household's painstaking self-scrutiny of its complicity in imperialism reminded me of Teresa's continual examination of her own conscience for traces of pride and vanity. When the household begins to feel "uncomfortable among their friends who did not think about colonialism all the time [...] so uncomfortable it was hard to hang out with them" (112), I thought of Teresa finding it harder and harder to talk with people who did not share her pursuit of union with God. Like Spahr, Teresa develops an idiosyncratic language with a certain amount of sprawl and repetition to it, but so deeply hers you wouldn't alter a word.

So -- St. Juliana of Spahr. She would bridle any such suggestion, I'm sure. For all I know, she curls up on the couch with Cheetos and a beer to watch the Oscars just like the rest of us. But there's something inspiring about this book. The account in chapter 4 of trying to fit into what Spahr calls "the complex" is perhaps the most painfully truthful I've come across.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

S. Yizhar, _Khirbet Khizeh_

AS THIS NOVELLA is about historical events that Israel would prefer to have disappear down Orwell's memory hole -- the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes in 1948-49 -- it would matter even if executed at journeyman level. Turns out it's much better than that.

The narrative begins in the morning and simply describes the Israeli soldiers doing a job, surprising the village, rounding up the villagers, putting them on the trucks. The soldiers make jokes, talk about family, break for lunch -- it's all routine, and the routine insulates them from thinking too hard about what they are doing. The first person narrator finds himself, nonetheless, thinking about what he is doing, in long, somewhat Thomas Bernhard-like sentences that wind between observation and reflection, bumping into realizations that the narrator backs away from, then is led back to even more forcibly. Here he gazes over the villagers' fields:

Some plots were left fallow, and others were sown, by design, everything was carefully thought out, they had looked at the clouds and observed the wind, and they might also have foreseen drought, flooding, mildew, and even field mice; they had also calculated the implications of rising and falling prices, so that if you were beset by a loss in one sector you'd be saved by a gain in another, and if you lost on grain, the onions might come to the rescue, apart, of course, from the one calculation they had failed to make, and that was the one that was stalking around, here and now, descending into their spacious fields in order to dispossess them.

The translation by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck is that dry, that sober, throughout, and the narrative has the same understated plainness. The narrator murmurs, but does not make any great gestures. The similarity of the rounding-up of the Palestinians to the rounding-up of Europe's Jews only a few years previously is visible, but not melodramatically underlined.

The novella has been well-known, though controversial, in Israel for a long time, but had to wait until 2008 for it English translation. Hmm. Well, we can be glad it's here, for many reasons.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ben Doller, _FAQ:_

As an admirer of Radio, Radio, Ben Doller's first book (he was then Ben Doyle), I've been looking forward to reading FAQ:.

Each poem is an answer to an unstated but presumably frequently asked question; almost all begin with "Thank you for your question." Occasionally one can deduce from the answer what the question was, but not always, so I found helpful the index at book's end listing all the questions.

The format has a lot of interesting angles. For one thing, "FAQ" sections, often encountered in websites and brochures, have a reader-writer transaction all their own.

As a reader, one turns to the "FAQ" section when one has a question, but the questions it contains may or may not include yours; they address questions that are statistically probable, as determined by the tabulation of inquiries preceding yours, but is your question among the statistically probable ones? Do you fit in the schema created by those who have already asked questions? Or does the "FAQ" section ask you as a reader to inhabit a kind of fictional subject position, asking questions that in fact are not the questions you would have asked?

As a writer of an "FAQ" section, you are under a variety of awkward obligations. You do not get to choose the questions you will answer; the history of questions has done that. You are nonetheless obliged to be helpful, to know what the asker seeks and be able to provide it. But you do not get to assume that the reader has the basic background he or she needs; if the reader had such background, why would he or she be checking the "FAQ" section? The audience for an "FAQ" section is a writer's nightmare: numerous, anonymous, needy, ignorant.

Both writers and readers of "FAQ" sections are at a disadvantage going in. Neither is in control of the transaction (statistical probability is in control), both have a lot to live up to (the reader has to have "normal" questions, the writer has to know things "normal"people don't know). It's a format designed to be maximally helpful that has enormous room for frustration, misunderstanding, and self-doubt. Using it as the format for a book of poems is a stroke of weird genius.

Doller ups the ante by having his frequently-asked questions include not only classics of the FAQ form like "What is a widget?" but also questions that are genuinely frequently asked: How's the weather? What is your name and what do you do? What do you say? Why didn't you just pick up the phone? There is even the unanswerable question of Eliot's woman whose nerves are bad tonight, "What thinking, what?"

Doller's answerer tries hard, answering the weather question almost intelligibly, giving us dozens of names and occupations, going nuts with with "what do you say?" --

Shirt, I say.

Shirt shirt.

I said shirt.

-- and so on for several pages, like a soul singer exhorting the crowd to let it all go (in homage to the Bonzo Dog Band? I can only hope).

At times the answerer begins to sound beleaguered, ready to give up. In response to the question "And just what song would that be?", we get an unintelligible word-blizzard that may, sung to the right melody, turn out to be an anamorphized version of familiar pop song lyrics, on the order "'scuse me while I kiss this guy."

But our answerer, having tested us to our limits and tested himself to his, seems at peace by volume's end. In the penultimate poem, he looks back in weary and wary amazement at what he has done:

I simply imagined a shape & I stepped into it. Like a trans-fat, straight up, spackled into a capillary. There was the moment before, then this other moment. A very long moment. A shot of air.

And then, answering the final question, "How do you feel?", he can give James Brown's answer. And he deserves to feel good, as he knew that he would.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Margaret Atwood, _Oryx and Crake_

I LOVE ATWOOD, but care little for science fiction, so it took the publication of the sequel for me finally to open Oryx and Crake. I should have given her more credit, seeing how good A Handmaid's Tale was, but I've now learned my lesson.

The novel has two chronological tracks. In one, some terrible catastrophe has occurred, wiping out virtually all human beings. We get the point of view of one, perhaps the only, surviving human, Snowman, who devotes himself to scavenging food, avoiding predators, and looking after the "Crakers," a small community of new, improved humans with DNA re-engineered by Snowman's brilliant but now dead friend, Crake.

In the other, we get Snowman's memories of the pre-catastrophe world. He was then Jimmy, and grew up in a compound -- some kind of autonomous corporate city-state, a kind of armed-&-gated suburb, devoted to bio-tech research and production of consumer goods for the "pleeblands," that is, those parts of the world that are not compounds -- these parts being dirty, dangerous, toxic, a non-stop bazaar where all is for sale, but where there are also occasional gestures of resistance to the power of the compounds. In good speculative fiction fashion, this world is a terrifying extrapolation of our own, with all checks on global capitalism removed, its tendencies to social stratification and environmental degradation utterly triumphant.

It is in the compounds that young Jimmy meets Crake, whose brilliance as a DNA-magician later lands him at the top of a corporate pyramid. Crake plucks his boyhood friend from obscurity to a plum job at his compound, where they both become involved with the beautiful and mysterious Oryx, former child-porn star, currently goddess-figure-cum-tutor for the new, improved humans Crake has designed.

Atwood's deft handling of the two then-&-now narrative time-lines (which reminded me of my favorite among her novels, Alias Grace) places the revelation of the nature of the catastrophe at novel's end. It's a doozy. Crake has come up not only with a species of new Adams and new Eves, programmed to avoid our worst mistakes, but also with the means to wipe the slate, to cleanse the world and ready it for their emergence.

In the closing pages, Snowman/Jimmy has a Crusoe-on-the-beach moment, discovering the presence of other old-model humans like himself. So he locates one of the last of the old weapons and heads out to kill them -- an act of evil undertaken to preserve the innocence of the Crakers. At which point one can only think, here we go again.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Lynda Barry, ed., _The Best American Comics 2008_

OLDER AND SLOWER, yea verily, so much older and slower indeed that I am a full year behind in the Best American Comics series -- there is really no excuse for that, is there? How could one possibly not get around to reading comics? I'm also now two years behind in Bst American Non-Required Reading.

I've been a fan of Lynda Barry since the early '80s and her (so far as I know) first book, Girls and Boys, right up through One Hundred Demons, so I was expecting to enjoy the volume, and I did, but the selection I enjoyed the most was Barry's introduction, with its homage to Bil Keane.

Everything else was at least interesting, but there was only one really intriguing new discovery for me, that being Cathy Malkasian, whose sepia fable "Percy Gloom" had an original child's-tale-for-adults quality.

Unsurprisingly, Barry also has a great eye for true and moving comics about childhood.

Long live Marlys!

Friday, January 8, 2010

Thomas Frank, _The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Rule_

WHAT I LOVE about Thomas Frank is the scholarliness of his journalism -- the footnotes, the historical connections, the literate asides -- all of which he incorporates without sacrificing briskness, contemporaneity, sharpness. It was a stroke of genius to invoke William Allen White in What's the Matter with Kansas?, as it is here to bring in the 1945 "civics primer" We Are the Government, Warren Harding's 1921 inaugural address, and Richard Hofstadter. Frank has a doctorate in history, and he puts it to good use throughout.

Frank here dissects what happened when people programmatically disdainful of government got to run the government, as in the Reagan Administration and the administrations of the first and second Bushes, especially the latter. Under the second Bush, especially, as Frank shows, there was a systematic dismantling of every constraint on private enterprise that could be dismantled. Good old corruption played a role (Abramoff, DeLay), but equally important were the ideologues (Grover Norquist, Heritage Foundation).

Millions of people -- and a substantial majority of the good folks in the red state where I live -- assume that shrinking the government will increase opportunities for individuals, as if power is a zero-sum-game in which the more of it the government has, the less of it individuals have. What they fail to see, I believe, is that whenever the power of the government diminishes, the power of corporations increases, corporations having both the resources and clout of governments and the liberties and rights of individuals. Whenever the government's grip on us slackens, corporate America's grip tightens. As for me, I'd rather be gripped by the government, which is at least supposedly interested in my welfare rather than that of stockholders, is democratically chosen, and is not actively destroying the environment.

Frank spoke here in my town in September, 2008, and closed with the same question a friend put to him that he closes the book with: "So you think all this is just going to go away if Obama gets in?" It hasn't gone away, obviously, as the insurance industry's impact on the health care bill makes clear, or the continuing private contractor profiteering in Afghanistan, or TARP, or... but are we getting out of the habit of thinking of government as the bad guy? Is it becoming clear to more of us that the teabaggers are nuts?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

John D'Agata, ed., _The Lost Origins of the Essay_

I'M GOING TO say that this was the best book I read in 2009. Not a meaningful statement, perhaps, seeing as the book is an historical anthology, and the bulk of its contents are pieces long acknowledged as masterpieces by writers long acknowledged as masters -- Heraclitus, Sei Shonagon, Basho, Montaigne, Swift, Blake, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and so on. But since even these long-familiar texts gain new resonance by being in each other's company, since the pieces new to me are astonishing (excerpts from Yourcenar's Fires and Pessoa's Book of Disquiet, both of which I promptly ordered) and the right contemporary pieces chosen with unerring instinct (Lisa Robertson's "Seven Walks," Kamau Braithwaite's "Trench Town Rock"), I nonetheless have to say it -- best book I read in 2009.

D'Agata's previous anthology, The Next American Essay, was one of those anthologies that changed the landscape -- like Rothenberg's Technicians of the Sacred or Silliman's In the American Tree, or, to shift from literature to music, Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music or Lenny Kaye's Nuggets. Now, if you can imagine Ron Silliman following up In the American Tree with an even fatter book of the historical precursors to language poetry, imagining a kind of tradition that language poetry could be seen as belonging to -- how amazing would that have been? That's how amazing The Lost Origins of the Essay is. Indeed, some of the same writers who might have been in an historical anthology of language poetry are here -- Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Christopher Smart, Francis Ponge.

By showing the next essay was always already here, D'Agata has immeasurably advanced his claims for it, it seems to me. It's a whole new ballgame.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Lydia Davis, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant_

FOR YEARS I'VE had a grudge against the New Yorker for keeping American short fiction in a strait jacket, as it were. By virtue of its circulation, its reputation, and its rates of payment, the New Yorker remains the place an American short story writer would most want to be published, but for the longest time the fiction editors seemed almost exclusively interested in the classic realist short story, featuring the subdued, minor key epiphanies of middle-class characters in middle-class settings. Cheever and Updike territory, basically. The New Yorker typically had excellent material in this vein -- Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro -- but they seemed never to be outside of this vein, and squads of literary quarterlies followed suit. The sum effect, it seemed to me, was to keep American short fiction on a very short leash, creating a disincentive for innovation and experiment. How, I wondered, would the landscape change if the New Yorker published Diane Williams, Gary Lutz, Ben Marcus, Lydia Davis? What renaissance might ensue?

This was unfair of me, to some extent. After all, the New Yorker published lots of Donald Barthelme and Vladimir Nabokov, both of whom did risky things, and George Saunders, who goes out on a limb sometimes. The New Yorker has even published Lydia Davis, I learn from the acknowledgments page of Samuel Johnson Is Indignant: "Thyroid Diary," one of the several memoir-like pieces here (e.g., "Jury Duty"), was published there in 2000.

Still, they have published four or five by Moore in the last ten years, and at least ten by Munro, and only that one by Davis. So, if you've been taking your cues on what American short fiction to read from the New Yorker, you have missed out on her, and this volume goes to show what a loss that was. It includes 55 pieces first published over a quarter century's time, from 1976 to 2001, including eight from her first collection of stories, though most (I gather) have not previously been collected in a book.

(This collection, it so happens, was first published by McSweeney's Books, but the edition I read was produced by Picador. Is the selection and arrangement Davis's, or someone else's? I have no idea.)

Some of the stories are very brief, a paragraph or less; the title story is only the second half of a sentence (the title itself being the first half):


that Scotland has so few trees.

This is a story? I think it is. It tells us about our sense of entitlement, about what sorts of things we give ourselves permission to be angry about, about our tendency to insist that places conform to our expectations. They knew I was coming, Davis's Johnson seems to protest, why couldn't they have planted some goddamn trees? It helps to know that Samuel Johnson was a the great man of 18th century English letters, that he had a prejudice against Scotland, that he was an upholder of standards and could be a bit of an intellectual bully on a bad day. But even without knowing all that, one can feel the story in that sentence.

It could, of course, have been turned into the sort of historical short story that Guy Davenport was so brilliant at (speaking of great short fiction writers never published by the New Yorker), with Boswell chattering away, descriptions of coaches and horses and inns, but... does one actually need all that? Not so much.

But would the New Yorker dare publish a half-sentence long short story? No. There's our problem.