Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Don DeLillo, _Point Omega_

WITH THE NEW Roth seeming utterly Rothian, the new Powers utterly Powersian, I should not be surprised that the new DeLillo is utterly DeLillian. I'm getting nervous about picking up the new Auster, for fear it will turn out to be utterly...

...but if I like these writers, why should I be disappointed that they write like themselves? Perverse of me, really. Still, one would like to see a curveball now and again. Thank goodness for Ashbery.

Point Omega brings in again DeLillo's fascination with conceptual art (Underworld, The Body Artist, Falling Man). In its first and final chapters, we are at MOMA in 2006, taking in Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho (the iconic Hitchcock film projected so slowly that it takes twenty-four hours to screen the film) from the point of view of a strange, lonely, and (as it later appears) potentially homicidal young man (shades of Libra?). Also in the room for a few moments are Richard Elster, an intellectual formerly but no longer in the upper echelons of the Department of Defense, and Jim Finley, a young filmmaker who wants to make a documentary about Elster.

For most of the novel we are in the company of Elster and Finley, Elster waxing gnomically cosmic, Finley the ambitious disciple -- not unlike Bill Gray and Scott in Mao II, with Elster's daughter Jessie arriving presently to take the Karen role, sensitive young woman slightly out of phase with the world, haunted and haunting, dazed Cordelia to Elster's pontificating Lear.

Jessie disappears one day, leaving all her belongings behind. We never learn exactly what happened. Escaping Jim's creepy Norman-Bates-like tendency to peek into her room? Murdered by the Norman-Bates-like MOMA visitor? Lost a coin toss with Anton Chigurh?

I think it all works, though. The famous Janet Leigh shower scene, the slower-than-slow projection of which opens the novel, feels emblematic of the quintessential American fears of my lifetime. When we are in the midst of our daily routines, in the semi-autonomic performing the actions we habitually perform, made vulnerable by our own comfortable adjustment to the normal, is exactly when evil will strike -- or so we fear. We will be showering, and the murderer will yank back the shower curtain. We will be dropping the kids off at school, and the sexual predator will be lying in wait for the moment our back is turned. Or, one of the other kids will have brought a gun that day. We will be jogging in Central Park, and the gangs will be out wilding. We will be arriving from our commute to our workplace, and the terrorists will crash a jet airliner into it.

Psycho, Elster's mysterious role in the "war on terror," and Jessie's unexplained disappearance all seem to speak to how we, having achieved a level of wealth, security, and comfort scarcely imaginable to previous generations, find ourselves paralyzed in a nightmare of vulnerability.

All very DeLillian, but in the best possible way. His prose is still strong, the scenes in the desert especially:

I looked out into the blinding tides of light and sky and down toward the folded copper hills that I took to be the badlands, a series of pristine ridges rising from the desert floor in patterned alignment. Could someone be dead in there? I could not imagine this. It was too vast, it was not real, the symmetry of furrows and juts, it crushed me, the heartbreaking beauty of it, the indifference of it, and the longer I stood and looked the more certain I was that we would never have an answer. (93)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Richard Powers, _Generation_

A SLENDER VOLUME, by Powers's standards -- the first to weigh in at under 300 pages, by my reckoning. It does not really have what I think of the characteristic Powers device -- two or more seemingly independent narrative strands that wind up intersecting -- but otherwise it is certainly Powersian: lots of fine-grained local detail (about Chicago, in this instance), a tablespoon of metafictional leavening, above all the incorporation of ideas from the frontiers of mathematics, medicine, and the natural sciences (this time, bio-engineering). Powers has carved out something of a niche for himself as the Michael Crichton of literary fiction.

There's something new, though, too -- a lightness, a deftness, a willingness to risk a joke. (The best has been cited in most of the reviews: "Dada: it's not just for umbrellas anymore.") And there's Thassadit Amzwar, an Algerian refugee film student, whose DNA encodes some kind of neural chemistry that keeps her ever emotionally buoyant, delightful to be around, joyful. Her natural resiliency and cheerfulness make her an object of attention first to students and faculty of her college, then to a local paper, then to a cutting edge bio-researcher/entrepreneur, then to the Oprah-like Oona O'Donough, then to every tabloid/talk-show/preacher/clinic/you-name-it of the United States. Will her joyfulness survive such an onslaught?

For the novel to work, Thassa has to be awfully damned charming -- and to Powers's credit, she is. He has created compelling women characters before -- Laura Bodey and Karin Schluter would be my examples, and Candace Weld in this one makes a third -- but Thassa is something else again. Of Powers's previous female characters, only "Helen" of Galatea 2.2 lights up the page quite the way Thassa does, and "Helen" is a computer program. She's not sweet or angelic, really, not selfless or any kind of paragon, but Powers somehow succeeds in making it entirely credible that everyone who meets her finds her wonderful. As the forces that seek to strip-mine Thassa's being rise up and surround her in the last chapter of the novel, as Powers multiplies the examples of how in our society attention is toxic, I was genuinely terrified for her.

What the novel is at bottom most interested in, though, is how the not-yet-existent mysteriously leaps the threshold into actual being. Technological breakthroughs, theoretical breakthroughs, fictions of all kinds, inventions of all kinds... and babies of all kinds, of course. A small fragile hopefulness about the future flutters at the edge of vision in Generosity, rather as it did in Plowing the Dark, and at my age I tend to treasure such things.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Jaan Kross, _The Czar's Madman_, tr. Anselm Hollo

IT SO FELL out that I recently participated in a whirlwind two-week course on Estonian literature, and this was one of our novels. I had not so much as even heard of this writer before, but this is an astonishingly good book, a revelation for me.

The Estonian original was published in 1978, translated into English (twice) in the 1990s. It seems to be out of print at the moment -- I got a copy for, I think, one dollar plus shipping through abe.com.

It's an historical novel, and its main character is an actual historical figure, Timotheus von Bock, an Estonian nobleman who breathes in the winds of change of the early Napoleonic era and pledges his life to enlightenment and reform. He marries the woman he loves, even though she is a serf -- he has to purchase her first, in order to emancipate, then educate and wed her. Being one of Czar Alexander's most trusted companions, he hammers at the Czar to accept a constitution, create a legislature, and bring the institution of serfdom to an end. Alexander at length is mortally offended, and Timotheus is imprisoned. He is at first treated gently, to get him to recant, then brutally, with the same end in view, but he holds out, and is finally released on the grounds that he is insane. He comes home, under house arrest, obliged to do his best to maintain the pretense he is insane, for fear of being sent back to prison. Elaborate plans are made for him, his wife, and son to escape the country...

...well, I won't give away the whole thing. What's great about this book? For one thing, the evocation of the early 19th century. Timotheus before his imprisonment carries with him the electric air of Beethoven's Eroica and Shelley's Revolt of Islam, the idealism of characters like Tolstoy's Pierre and Calvino's baron in the trees.

The traumatized Timotheus is diminished but keeps his dignity, even reveals a steel core we might not have thought he had in the face of a monolithic, literal-minded authority that recognizes no acknowledgement short of perfect submission. In these parts of the novel, we're in the world of Darkness at Noon or The Joke, Timotheus reminding us of Nabokov's Krug or Malamud's Yakov Bok, but would either of those two have weighed the sweets of freedom against the taste of rowanberries, as Timotheus does in the novel's most wrenching scene?

And I haven't even mentioned the character Eeva, whose sufferings as the wife of the "madman" Kross neither conceals nor romanticizes, nor the sheer ingenuity of Kross's telling Timotheus's story through the diary of Eeva's brother.

This book really deserves to be better known. Do yourself a favor and find a copy.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

James Shea, _Star in the Eye_

"I AM THE opposite of a solipsist," the 24th section of "Dream Trial" announces, without further comment. That would be, what, someone who believes only other people exist? But what kind of voice can announce its unbelief in its own existence while it remains fully confident about yours?

Such are the slow-motion explosions brought on by the grenades James Shea impassively lobs into your cerebellum throughout Star in the Eye.

Then there is "The Riverbed," 42 quite short (most of them 3-4 lines) poems, each with its own title, all about riverbeds. Not rivers, mind you... riverbeds. How does one think of the riverbed without thinking of the river? One has never seen a riverbed, save in time of drought. But can one think of the riverbed with the river in it while still not thinking of the river? And there goes a depth charge down your spine to go with that grenade in your brain.

There is an Asian streak in Shea's poetry -- but Asian with a nod and a wink, something like the subversive japonaiserie of "Araki Yasusada" without the actionable fraud. Consider the poem "Haiku," which turns out not to be a haiku but a list of titles of haiku, from "Upon Kissing You After You Vomited" to "On Stopping at the Train Tracks and Having a Deer / Break His Head Through My Passenger Window, / Stare at Me, and Then Run Back into the Wood" (the latter, at 33 syllables, almost twice the length of a haiku). A sprawling, blowsy poem, "Haiku" seems to want to blow a big wet fart at every western cliché about haiku ("Poem / in Which I Embody a Moment So Vividly, So / Succinctly, Yet Decorate It with Such Sills, / Such Elaborations").

Shea reminds me of Robert Francis's "The Pitcher":

His art is eccentricity, his aim

How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,

His passion how to avoid the obvious,

His technique how to vary the avoidance.

The others throw to be comprehended. He

Throws to be a moment misunderstood.

Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,

But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate

Making the batter understand too late.

I expect Shea to win fifteen games this year, with an E.R.A. of 2.93.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

W. G. Sebald, _On the Natural History of Destruction_, tr. Anthea Bell

IT FELT PECULIAR to realize, upon noticing the late W. G. Sebald's birth year (1944) and this book's German publication date (1999), that at the time he published the book he was the same age I am now.

It felt peculiar because Sebald is one of a number of writers -- Thomas Bernhard and E. M. Cioran being two other salient examples -- who make me feel young. That's "young" as in green, naïve, unfledged, wet behind the ears, dewy-eyed, puppy-clueless. That hope-sapping mittel-Europa fog rolls in with the opening pages, departing when I finish the book in a world sadder and more twilit than I had ever imagined possible, without even the poignant quasi-satisfaction of interesting ruins -- just smashed concrete pylons beside cracked asphalt roads, rebar pointing crazily every direction like scorched pipe-cleaners.

There is no sadness like that mid-20th-century European sadness -- No Exit, Beckett....

It has everything to do with the war, Sebald suggests, with seeing familiar urban landscapes turned to rubble and ashes, with the realization that there is no evil, none at all, that people, even people you know and love, even you yourself, will not commit.

The thesis of the book is that German writing after the war collectively refused to acknowledge the trauma of Allied bombing. I am in no position at all to judge the validity of that thesis, my knowledge of postwar German lit scarcely going beyond Günter Grass and Heinrich Böll. I can imagine any literate German responding to Sebald's argument with "what about X?" or "he's forgetting y," but the reasons Sebald advances for the silence make sense: a wish to get on with the future, a lurking feeling that to resent the bombing opened the door for Nazi apologetics, the horror that made the experience too excruciating to recall.

The bombing of cities... what, I wonder, are people making of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke now, two years on? There was a flurry of discussion for about fifteen minutes when it was published, but did anything sink in? Or, as Sebald suggests, is this something we just aren't able to think about?

On another track entirely -- very grateful to have Sebald's appreciation of Peter Weiss included in the volume. Any news on the translation of volumes two and three of The Aesthetics of Resistance? I've been waiting for years now.