Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Timothy Donnelly, _The Cloud Corporation_

A LONGISH WAIT -- seven years -- who does he think he is, Elizabeth Bishop? -- but worth it. Donnelly still has the capacity, demonstrated repeatedly in Twenty-Seven Props..., to keep you teetering off-balance while moving recklessly forward, ultimately landing you in some spot you never saw coming until you were already there.

I keep thinking I detect some of the same species of way-too-late-Romanticism that Harold Bloom detected in middle-period Ashbery. "In His Tree" seems a contemporary busted-quest poem, along the lines of Shelley's Alastor, Browning's Pauline, Rimbaud's Le Bateau Ivre or Hart Crane's "The Broken Tower."

I set out to find that thing, drawn down by an under-
water instinct true to the warp and weft of a small
false deafness, locked deep in the blue-green private
compartment broken up into shifts and strung
in accordance to the wiles of arachnid light, a light too
truant from its source to reflect a compact back

with fidelity: the sun its half-remembered lozenge
trapped among the birch.

I plucked this virtually at random, but it's a good sample of the pleasures of the volume: the whiplash-inducing enjambment of "a small / false deafness," the twisty syntax (does "strung in accordance" modify "compartment" or "deafness"?), the baffled engagement with the natural world... which baffled engagement makes one think of the Romantics again, as does Donnelly's juggling with religious feelings he's not sure what to do with:

a lifelong feeling that I feel now, remembering
down the highway half-hypnotized in the
backseat feeling what I feel now, and moderate

happiness has nothing to do with it: I want to press
my face against the cold black window until
there is a deity whose only purpose is to stop this.

("The New Hymns")

There are hi-jinks as well, such as a hilariously terrifying blending of phrases from Springsteen's "Born to Run" with phrases from the Patriot Act ("The Last Dream of Light Released from Seaports"). "Dream of a Poetry of Defense" works almost as well -- it blends Shelley's Defense of Poetry and the 9/11 Commission Report -- but the one blending the Beverly Hillbillies theme song with one of Osama bin Laden's addresses, ennh, I don't know. But the hits far outnumber the odd misses in The Cloud Corporation.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Jonathan Safran Foer, _Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close_

TO BE HONEST, I did not care for Everything Is Illuminated and had no plans to read Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, but then it ended up being one of the monthly selections of the book club, so... oh, well.

I enjoyed it more than I did Everything Is Illuminated. It certainly has what we could call a family resemblance. Oskar Schell, our narrator, is as richly provided with quirks as was Alex Perchov. We again have personal traumas nested within historical ones, the Holocaust in Everything, 9/11 and the Dresden fire-bombing in Extremely. In both novels, New World descendants come to terms with what happened to Old World ancestors.

I cannot quell my suspicion that J. S. F. is drawn to historical trauma and Old World settings because they all by themselves (he might hope) lend a gravitas that his fictions otherwise would not quite attain. For my money, Joshua Cohen blows him out of the water.

But I was fond of the almost Dickensian A. R. Black, his index cards and exclamation points, and I loved that Oskar was cast as Yorick in his school's streamlined production of Hamlet. I may give Foer's third novel, when it comes, a shot. I won't be letting him tell me what to eat, however.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Jonathan Franzen, _Freedom_

FINISHED THIS A few months ago, but you know how it gets once the semester starts... in any case, I emerged thinking Freedom certainly a good novel, but not a great one; not as compelling as The Corrections, I would say, which might turn out to be a great one. There is nothing in Freedom to match the streak of satiric fantasy that came up with Corecktall, for one thing, and more damagingly Franzen does not inhabit any of the characters of this novel -- save Joey Berglund, perhaps -- with the uncanny intimacy he brought to the Lambert siblings.

As for the comparisons to Tolstoy that were in the air a year ago... what were people thinking? After all, Tolstoy did write about an infidelity-racked marriage, so direct comparisons are possible. In the fascinatingly caddish betrayer with rare flashes of conscience role, the matchup is Richard Katz vs. Vronsky. No contest, really. There is no scene here to rival Vronsky's steeplechase on Frou-Frou. One gets the feeling Richard was supposed to be a swirling vortex of nihilistic energy, but he more often comes off as just a grouch. Moreover, his putative status as 80s indie rock cult figure is unpersuasive next to Jennifer Egan's much more knowing depiction of that scene in A Visit from the Goon Squad.

In the role of the devoted, conscientious, uncharismatic plodder occasionally capable of lashing out, we have Walter Berglund and Alexei Karenin. We can call it even, I suppose.

Then we have Anna herself and... Patty Berglund. Oy.

The best part of Freedom is the subplot with the Berglunds' son Joey, his doggedly (and doggily) devoted high school girlfriend Connie, and the dazzlingly well-connected rich girl who is the sister of his college roommate. Is it as rich as the Levin-Kitty subplot? Erm, no. But Franzen knows Joey to the bone, and everything about the character convinces.

Still -- if posterity ever wants to know how the white American professional class of the late 20th and early 21st century walked, talked, argued, and fought, what they read, watched, and listened to, they could hardly do better than to pick up Freedom. Franzen is not our Tolstoy, but he may well be our William Dean Howells.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Barry Unsworth, _The Songs of the Kings_

IPHIGENIA IN AULIS, in historical novel mode -- operating under the assumption that Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles, et al. were every bit as petty, hypocritical, opportunistic, duplicitous, and unwilling to acknowledge their real motives as Bush, Blair, & Co.

And not an assumption you need strain much at, provided you are willing to go along with the premise that these fictional characters are the real scoop on characters who were fictional in the first place.

The Songs of the Kings thus belongs in "twas ever thus" category of historical novels, rather than the Lukács-approved "things were wholly different once" category. Or perhaps the historical-novel-as-oblique-commentary-on-contemporary-events category, like, mmm, Felix Holt the Radical, perhaps, or Wajda's film Danton.

A good novel, but I found myself continually making unfavorable comparisons to Mark Merlis's An Arrow's Flight, one of the great novels of recent decades, to my mind, as well as one of the most compelling contemporary re-imaginings of the matter of Troy, and one which so far as I can discern gets nothing like the accolades it deserves. It's up there with Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, if you ask me. So get around to asking me, won't you? Thanks.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Sixth note on _Witz_

6. Cohen likes long, extraordinarily long sentences. Here is what Benjamin encounters as he crosses from New Jersey into New York City via the Holland Tunnel (p. 520):

Landscaped from one of the two mouths of the tunnel, for the many tunnels of this mutated city are monstrous throats that never digest or ever waste what they swallow, without intestine or stomached gargle, how they merely gorge then regurgitate and then gorge themselves again down to the bottom of Broadway – willows groved tightly, their trunks lashed together to prevcnt from being uprooted by the tunneling wind, their boughs hung with many other objects, or forsakings, the harps of the Philharmonic, disbanded since last season’s interruption, and then with their strings, all their sections: their violins firsts and seconds, violas and violoncellos, the occasional weepy, drooping bass, their strings wilting in memory, going loose and detuned in the howl coming up from the bay – trees hung not just with bisbiglissandoing harps and with fiddles gutted and bows but with memories, too, and forgettings, pleas and supplications, signs and notes slipped and tied dire: help me find my father, one says, have you seen my partner? Another, this posted alongside a photo faced grainy from its constant reproduction, a losingly lined courtroomsketch, if so contact Sassoon & Silver LLP., cash reward for information leading to his recovery, all (succor) wanted, need, & offered […]

That’s not the end of the sentence, but let’s stop and take the census so far. We begin with a participial phrase, but have to wait a bit for the noun it modifies (“willows”) because the tunnel’s having a “mouth” triggers a short excursus on its being the maw of this Moloch of a city. The willows get an interesting nonce verb – “groved” – then turn out to be lashed together, which seems peculiar, but even more peculiarly have been festooned with the abandoned instruments of the Philharmonic, disbanded since so many its musicians died (a lot of the orchestra’s members are, indeed, Jewish, but these days the Asian musician might be able to keep it going). The surreal image of the now useless string instruments in the willows shifts suddenly as we next are presented with the kind of notes that appeared all over Manhattan after 9/11, with a striking inversion (‘tied dire”) and another noun-into-verb transformation (“photo faced grainy”). Then there’s the “losingly lined courtroomsketch” – does the hand-drawn image that Sassoon provides of Silver (or Silver of Sassoon) somehow suggest that their law practice has been infrequently victorious?

Cohen often makes use of absolute phrases – “their strings wilting,” “signs and notes slipped and tied dire,” “trees hung etc” – a classic maximalist’s device for adding detail after detail to a sentence, as we see as the catalog of objects left in memory of the dead continues:

…tins of spam dangling from giftribbons, plastic liters of generic soda, empty jars of mayo weeping ornamentally wrapped from these trees, trays of decorative cupcakes and cookies, novelty balloons; these groves nymphabandoned, lining Canal Street west to the Bowery with equity neckties, daytrader suits on hangers commoditized fresh from the drycleaners, high heels, dressy pearls’ strands – this the highest rate of return, a reversion to our natural state, a great comfort unconfined: this season, menschs let out their bellies; womenfolk smear their makeup onto the faces of streets, pink and streaks of red like rainbows trailed by snails, then pray for an innerly inclement weather, asking the cloudfall to cool their lusts, to purify their souls; their kinder pitch pennies worthless into the sewer green and gold, dogs once theirs now stray dash lame from snow to snow … skyscrapers once new, abandoned to scaffolds; earthworming giants idle, dumpster hulks sanctifying as symbols of an emptiness within; ambition unfinished, thrusts unfulfilled; lorded over by an inutile silence and the holy stillness of cranes. (520-21)

We note the Yiddish – the novel invariably uses “mensch” for “man” or “person,” “kinder” for “children” – and the high modernist touches, the Joycean aversion to the hyphen, for example, as in what may be an allusion to Eliot’s Waste Land: “these groves nymphabandoned”. The plague has laid waste not only to symphony orchestra but to Wall Street, with homely details (drycleaned suits still on hangers) and grimly ironic puns (“highest rate of return”), an image of made-up women collapsing on the street heightened with a simile both beautiful and queasy-making (like rainbows trailed by snails). Next, we have an image of orphaned children, perhaps not long to live themselves, and abandoned dogs in a stunning string of monosyllabic words (‘dogs once theirs now stray dash lame from snow to snow”) that almost sounds like a William Carlos Williams poems. Then Cohen pulls out all the stops, piling up absolute phrases that read like Whitman-out-of-Ginsberg (‘earthworming giants idle, dumpster hulks sanctifying”) before flipping in a wholly surprising but perfect French adjective and a final image that sounds like Li Bai until you realize it completes the picture of arrested construction.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Joshua Cohen, _A Heaven of Others_

LITERARY HEAVENS, FROM Dante to Mitch Albom, gravitate towards explanation, clearing up the big questions, reconciliations, and the like, but Joshua Cohen's afterlife in A Heaven for Others is if anything stranger, more bewildering, and more abounding in loose ends than ordinary earthly existence.

On his tenth birthday, Jonathan Schwartzstein of Jerusalem is in a shoe store with his father when a suicide bomber crashes in. The explosion kills Jonathan, but due to some cosmic missed exit he winds up in the Muslim heaven, complete with houris, camels, and a K'aba ("Schawartzstein" could be translated "Black Stone"). He sets off on a pilgrimage to find Muhammad and learn how and why he is there, but Muhammad is unlocatable. He does come across a boy his own age who seems be the suicide bomber who crashed into the shoe store.

There is a risk of sentimentality in this scenario (the text is dated "Yom Hazikaron, 2004," an Israeli holiday honoring fallen soldiers and civilian victims of terrorism), and Cohen is not wholly successful in avoiding it (e.g., p. 142). But the book's uniqueness and strangeness prevent one from drawing ready conclusions. Why the occasional shift from Jonathan's first-person narration to that of an omniscient third person? (God? Cohen?) Why the three poems, titled "Alef," "Beit," and again "Alef," prefaced by designs by Michael Hafftka based on those three letters, which spell "ABA," that is, "father"? Why the epigraph from Russian Hebrew poet Saul Tchernichovsky, about a student acquiring a disgust for what his teachers most want him to learn?

And what can we make of Jonathan's gnomic utterances such as "Limitation is what I now understand to be the sole attribute of God [...]"? That the lesson we emphatically learn about God is that God is a God of some (us) but not all (them)? Or what about "heaven must be understood as borderless if it is to have any borders at all" or "an eternal boy matures eternally"? We are far indeed from Albom or Alice Sebold here -- as we are from Beatrice's painstakingly precise scholastic commentaries.

Plenty to ponder, then; fair enough. But I was most taken with the final section, "A 'Metaphor'," in which Jonathan recalls his bath on what was to be the last night of his life in the river-overflowing-its-banks prose of Witz.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fifth note on _Witz_

5. I began by saying that the events of the story are readily summarized, and have just noted that the book vividly conjures up its settings, but event and setting are always seen through the decorated scrim of the book’s narrative style; like a scrim, the style is not fully transparent, and as with a decorated scrim you may find yourself paying as much attention to the decorations as to the action occurring behind it. More attention, perhaps – as in Gaddis’s Recognitions, tracking the turns of the sentence is so absorbing that you may fail to take in what is being narrated. The reader is always conscious of Cohen’s style: le style, c’est le livre.

And his style beggars description. It’s a torrent, for one thing, a deluge, an outpouring. Sentences routinely take up most of a page. The sentences are self-interrupting, constantly breaking in on themselves to illustrate, expand, make a joke. They usually embrace several tonal registers during their course, from the demotic to the epic, sometimes sounding like Lenny Bruce on amphetamines, sometimes biblically ornate like Cormac McCarthy, if McCarthy liked to pepper his prose with Yiddish and Hebrew. Alliteration and puns abound.
Consider some of the phrases from the sentence on the fart salvoes, quoted above. “[E]normous sortie wet and thick” – note the little internal rhyme on the “or” sound, the adjectives before and after the noun, the military flavor of the noun, conveying how men enjoy bringing a martial ardor into even the most ludicrous circumstances, figured later in the sentence with “barrage,” “booms,” “bombs.” Or “bucking the uppers,” with its surprising assonance, the animated-cartoon image of bunks lifting and falling from the abrupt shock of the farts. The odd Miltonic inversion of “from cot to cot echoing.” The quirky juxtaposition of homonyms in “there their.” The outlandishly apt figuration of farts as “dark graffiti.”

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Arielle Greenberg, _My Kafka Century_

HERE IS THE book's back jacket copy:

"In My Kafka Century, Arielle Greenberg raises the gothic European ghosts sealed under the glib facade of contemporary American culture. Trying on the sometimes hilarious, sometimes discomforting guises of Jewish folk humor, pop eroticism, and kiddie epistemology, she reveals and revels in the cracks and contradictions of a bristling, brainy Babel."

I despair of improving upon that. I don't know about "glib facade" -- if you recall the original meaning of the word "facade," the figure may seem silly -- but the writer seems to have read the book and actually grasped something of its strategies and achievements, as opposed to 99% of jacket copy for volumes of poetry ("So-&-so's brilliant new collection embraces themes of change, vision, and history in astonishingly evocative language"). The jacket copy is a much better indicator of the volume's contents and quality than the blurbs: "intellectually challenging" (zzz), "dazzling explorations" (yawn), "a dark confection" (nice try, but...).

So who was writing the jacket copy for Action Books in 2005? Some U. of Alabama grad student, I suppose, but whoever it was, he or she sure nailed it. As you might gather from the copy, this volume is like some sweet, funny, clever kid you met in fourth grade who turns out to have a pet tarantula and a scab collection.

That would be plenty, I'd say, but there's more -- startling, strange, moving poems on pregnancy ("Honey," "One Hundred and Eighty," "Red Rover," "Katie Smith Says [...]," for instance, and remarkably original meditations on Jewishness. The final poem, "Synopsis," reads like a highly compressed and highly idiosyncratic montage of the history of the Jews -- or of one person's memories of learning that history -- in 46 short sentences. Lines 18-30:

Boys are plied with wine and snipped.
I pray according to daylight.
Next year will return to the city of gold.
I shield my eyes from the priests' blessing.
Girls get two candles each.
I stood at the bottom of a mountain with my soul.
A very small parcel of real estate was promised.
I was taken for a fool by my village to make a story.
He offered the angels his most finely sifted flour.
I hid in an attic with my diary.
The tents are goodly.
I was a lost tribe and came out black.

Fourth note on _Witz_

4. As for plain-label realism itself, the book has many episodes of nuanced social observation, vividly presented. There’s an extraordinary account of Israel and Hanna’s wedding (241-46); the museum gala with which the Benjamin part of the book closes is another excellent set piece. Ditto for the accounts of the Florida apartment complex of Benjamin’s grandfather, or of the Vegas hotel in “Los Siegeles,” or of the Southwest, or the suburban development in which the Israelsteins live, of Israel’s law office, of Chinatown. The novel is very good at the kind of thing novelists like Trollope and Updike are good at – noticing what it is about the way we live now that we are too inattentive to notice, helping us to see our own world.

The novel’s many extraordinarily effective mimetic passages are all cast in the book’s idiosyncratic style, however, which is a whole other topic.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gary Shteyngart, _Super Sad True Love Story_

I STARTED THIS soon after finishing Sam Lipsyte's The Ask, and that may be why they seemed to have so much in common. The central main character in both is a shlimazel, a misfortune magnet, whose hold on his job is tenuous and whose beloved is starting to notice better prospects. Both have a satirical thrust, Lipsyte's novel exaggerating (slightly) the vice and folly of our time to blackly humorous effect, Shteyngart's extrapolating from that vice and folly to create an all-too-possible near future (all are rigorously judged according to youthfulness, wealth, and conformity to current fashion, the country erupts in violence when China and the E.U. call in their chits), again to blackly humorous effect. Both seemed to me...

Time out. OK, what is the right way to form an adjective based on Evelyn Waugh's name? "Waughian" won't do. Perhaps add a "v," on analogy with Shaw --> Shavian? We'll go with that.

...Wauvian (looks peculiar, but I'm sticking with it), especially the Waugh on Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust, hilarious and chilling, laughter with a bleak, frozen wasteland at its core.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Third note on _Witz_

3. Magical realism? Kinda sorta, maybe. Benjamin is born bearded, wearing glasses. The first catastrophic dying-off of the Jews occurs on the eve of the day his bris would have been celebrated, so he is uncircumcised – except that his foreskin magically circumcises itself, then grows back, removes itself again, and so on. A pack of feral dogs out of some mittel-european forest almost hunts him down as he is being returned from Florida to New Jersey. That Benjamin is set up in a simulacrum of his family home with thirteen shiksas playing the parts of his mother and sisters has a kind of fantastic quality. A certain hyperbole prevails throughout – but in this respect the book seems not at all like deadpan accounts of the incredible we get in Garcia Marquez, hence not all that magical-realist.

Is it a Jewish magical realism, then? Hmm. Jonathan Safran Foer (ptoo, ptoo, ptoo) seemed to be attempting something of the sort in the shtetl chapters of Everything Is Illuminated; Witz never sounds like that (like I. B. Singer crippled by an MFA). But here is Cohen describing a contagious outbreak of farting that occurs in the Great Hall on Ellis Island, which has temporarily become a dorm for Jewish first-born sons:

He grunts, then as if to say hello, to introduce himself he farts, a poof, a toot, is answered by that mensch neighboring, a response given upon permission, shameless, with another fart, this rip huge, Rrrrrrrip! an enormous sortie wet and thick, which tears a hole right out of his uniform pajamas, this sound echoed six beds down then maybe two over with another, is duetted with, a ffrrip, and yet another, pow, pow, -- and – pow from opposite sides of the barracks, a barrage of miniexplosions, from cot to cot echoing against the corroded collapsing wet walls, stacked booms rocking the lower bunks, bucking the uppers, bombs from the rafters to incise there their own dark graffiti, signing a scatology’s name. (155-56)

There are two more even longer sentences on this festival of flatulence. Not magical realism, exactly, but an embrace of fabulism, perhaps? A willingness to go over the top, road of excess, palace of wisdom, etc.? Its ancestor seems not so much Garcia Marquez as Philip Roth in his especially manic mid-70s phase, the Roth of Our Gang and The Great American Novel, and, later, my favorite bits of Operation Shylock.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Jill Lepore, _The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History_

THIS IS LEPORE more in her New Yorker mode, writing for a general audience, than in her Bancroft Prize mode (even so, there are 30-plus pages of notes), seven chapters with the grace and movement of essays that braid together several strands: her conversations with current Tea Party members at various rallies and other events in Boston, other movements and events (abolition, the bicentennial) when Americans looked back and tried to see an image of themselves in the people and ideas of the founding of the republic, and her own accounts of those people, events, and ideas (the original Tea Party, Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, Phyllis Wheatley, Paul Revere...).

A fine book, really -- well-informed, well-written, thoughtful. All in all, hard to figure out why Gordon Wood decided to blow the whistle on it in NYRB.

Lepore knocks down the Tea Party's vision of the Revolution without even really trying -- the number of people who know more about the period than she does is probably in the low single digits -- but she does not disrespect the people she interviews, it seems to me, nor suggest that they are more ignorant than most about the Revolution. People with politics 180 degrees away from those of the Tea Party, she acknowledges, are just as likely to make up self-serving myths about the founding era. She seems to welcome curiosity and interest in the period, and even takes historians to task a bit for not trying harder to connect with a broader reading public (67-69).

All in all, hard to tell how the bee got in Professor Wood's bonnet. It couldn't be because Lepore gave Wood's contribution to the Oxford History of the United States a respectful ho-hum when she was in the reviewer's chair? Surely not.

Second note on _Witz_

2. So far, so picaresque. From even this bare summary, we glimpse many ways in which Cohen’s narrative has Judaic resonances. Hanna and Israel’s family is an inversion of Jacob’s, with twelve daughters instead of twelve sons; the disaster in which all Jews but first-born sons die is an inversion of the tenth plague visited upon the Egyptians in Exodus, with Santa Claus re-cast as the Angel of Death; Las Vegas’s new name honors the Jewish gangster, Bugsy Siegel, whose vision the city embodies; “Polandland” is an inversion of the Holocaust, in which Gentiles die for being Gentiles.

But we’re just getting started. Ben has oral sex with his ersatz mother on Tisha B’av (“The Ninth of Av”), the day on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, ever since a day of mourning, and according to some traditions the day on which the Messiah will be born. Ben performs cunnilingus on “Hanna” so energetically that he winds up in her uterus, which is described as a Jerusalem, then tumbles back out – so is he “born”? The novel keeps the idea of Ben-as-Messiah constantly in play. He emerges in “Palestein” not only horned (as, in one mistranslation, Moses was, hence Michelangelo’s statue) but in the company of a red heifer, red heifers being a crucial criterion for the future construction of the Third Temple, to be accomplished when the Messiah comes.

It would take days to list the allusions to Jewish traditions, learning, and folkways that occur in the novel. One striking example: Cohen’s description of the facility for Jewish first-borns, in which their submission to bureaucracy and authority is shot through with memories of both Ellis Island and of the Nazi concentration camps.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

J. M. Coetzee, _Slow Man_

AS IN DISGRACE and Diary of a Bad Year, we have a case of ill-targeted desire; after losing a leg in a bad bicycle accident, Paul Rayment falls in love with his nurse, prompting a number of exaggeratedly generous offers to help her children, perhaps with the goal of swaying her love from her husband to herself.

Divorced and childless as well as missing a leg, Rayment is perhaps trying to turn his life into a Hollywood screenplay in which a loss is amply compensated by making possible some greater gain. Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino and Victor Nunez's Ulee's Gold come to mind, Rayment being an older man, but examples abound. A kind of secularized theodicy -- yes, there is pain and loss, but in the bigger picture... etc.

However, the nurse and her family do not play along. They appreciate Rayment's gestures, up to a point, but find him a little weird, a little off-putting, and resist being adopted the way he wants to adopt them.

Elizabeth Costello -- a writer/animal rights activist from Coetzee's novel that bears her name -- shows up, invites herself into Rayment's home and life, and tries to talk him out of his deluded project. Her abrupt comings and goings and her mysteriously exact knowledge of Rayment's circumstances lead the reader to think that Rayment is actually a character in a novel Costello is writing. But he is a character with a mind of his own. She wants him to go in a certain direction -- he resists.

The nurse's family's resistance to Rayment's project goes to show that people don't want to be merely characters in someone else's novel -- the Costello vein of the novel goes to show that even characters in novels don't want to be characters in other people's novels. Rayment's resistance to and resentment of Costello should enable him to understand his situation vis-à-vis the nurse's family, and by novel's end, he is perhaps beginning to. Perhaps. As the title indicates, he's not quick.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

First note on _Witz_

1. Even though this is a very long novel (817 pages), its main story line is readily summarized. On December 17, 1999, a son, Benjamin, is born to Israel and Hanna Israelien of New Jersey, who already have twelve daughters. A week later, on Christmas Eve, all the Jews in the United States die, except those who are first-born sons. Ben is temporarily put in the care of his grandfather in Florida (also a first-born son), but the surviving first-born sons, including Ben, are gathered into a special institution by government command. At Passover, however, a second catastrophe strikes, and all of the first-born son Jews die as well, except Ben. Somehow, in the wake of this catastrophe, almost all of the United States converts to Judaism, or we might say adopts it, there being no Jews left to conduct any formal conversions.

Ben is now a precious commodity; he is provided with a model of his family’ home, complete with women performing the roles of his mother and sisters, is being groomed as a kind of royalty-celebrity, and is engaged to the president’s daughter. The wedding is to be held on the 4th of July in Las Vegas – here, Los Siegeles – but Ben lights out for the territory. He roams the southwest, then makes his way eastward, finding his way to his family’s abandoned house in New Jersey, then reuniting with his ersatz mother and sisters. He has a spectacular episode of cunnilingus with his ersatz mother (in the course of which his tongue is ripped out), news of which leaks out via a hotel maid, leading to his disgrace and fall. Now an outlaw, he flees to Poland – here, “Polandland,” now owned and administered by the U.S. as a kind of Old World theme park with a sinister purpose: those who have refused to become Jews are brought here to be put to death.

Ben, however – I’m not sure how – emerges in “Palestein,” which in the alternate universe of this novel is an Arab monarchy. He has grown horns. He has an extraordinary visionary experience that ends, I suspect, in his death. In the final chapter of this main story line of the book, a museum holds a gala event to celebrate the acquisition of a sacred relic—Ben’s tongue.

The novel has a coda of some thirty pages in which the last living Holocaust survivor muses in unpunctuated, Molly-Bloom fashion over his past and present. He is 108, and the novel ends with the punchlines – only the punchlines – of 108 Jewish jokes.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A. R. Ammons, _The Selected Poems: Expanded Edition_

I RECENTLY LEARNED that a contemporary poet of interest to me had been influenced by Ammons, whom I knew only through a few anthology pieces, e.g. "Corsons Inlet." It seemed like a good enough reason to drink more deeply of A. R. A.

Not all selected poems volumes are arranged by order of composition (and in this instance the publishers give us no clue), but I always tend to read them that way, and in this instance the succession of poems did suggest the progress of a career. Early on, a certain Eliotesque quality in which the landscapes seem more metaphysical than actual, even tipping into allegory -- then a Whitmanian era, long-lined, deep-breathed poems embracing process and heterogeneity -- then short-lined, imagistic poems (W.C.W.?) dropping down the page like a plumb line -- then a phase of unrhymed, heavily enjambed terza rima.

These last seemed to me the least compelling -- there's even a poem, "Sorting," which by talking about how dry the heights are suggests that inspiration can slow to a trickle with age. But some of the late stuff is superb: "Easter Morning," for instance, which reminded me a lot of Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, which I saw only a couple of days ago -- the shards of memory, the insolubility of the past, the profusion of the natural world, the sudden sucker-punch of grace.

Easy to see why Harold Bloom thought well of Ammons -- deep affinities with Wordsworth, Shelley, Whitman, Stevens, consciousness in dialogue with nature, identifying with it at one moment, insisting on its difference in another, interrogating, surrendering. The wind seems to be Ammons's totemic image throughout his career, going through a spectrum of permutations: "So I Said I Am Ezra," "In the Wind My Rescue Is," "Guide," "Project," "Small Song," "Conserving the Magnitude of Uselessness."

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Stacy Doris, _Cheerleader's Guide to the World: Council Book_

I PICKED THIS up because of intriguing excerpts in Swenson & St. John's American Hybrid. It was as intriguing as a whole as it was in part, but it's hard to describe.

In a prefatory note, Doris herself describes the book as "a sort of sandwich-translation read-through of four books: Popul Vuh, Paterson, Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the Secret Autobiographies of Jigme Lingpa." So... suppose you are reading something from an ancient civilization quite remote from your own, and recall that feeling one often has in reading such texts, that sense of missing something, that feeling that even though the words have been translated into your own language, some necessary contextual framing is unavailable to you, there are frequencies humming in the work that you can sense but not really hear. Imagine there are illustrations brought in from the original text, that seem to bear some relation to it, but again, what exactly are they illustrating, why in this way? Would the illustrations explain all if we knew what we were looking at?

So, imagine that sense of fascinated bafflement, understanding something of what you are reading, but being aware of likely missing more, and not being wholly confident that you really understood anything at all.

OK. Now imagine a text produced by our own culture that could conceivably create that same feeling in someone for whom our civilization is ancient and remote.

And now imagine a text that will give us here and now that feeling of bewilderment that our present cultural products will someday create in that reader for whom our culture is ancient and remote. Good? That text is Cheerleader's Guide to the World: Council Book.

The poems are uttered by (I think) the collective consciousness of the cheerleaders as they ponder the activities of the football players and the coaches. The poems are paratactic, disjunctive, elusive, but with an occasional startling lyricism ("Molten so praised bottle / bent to sand congratulations. / An improved carnage") -- quite a bit like reading a conscientiously literal translation of an unseizable ancient text.

Accompanying most of the poems are diagrams of American football plays (drawn by Bill Baker). Do these comment on the poems somehow, or vice versa? Are these the plays to which the cheerleaders are reacting? In any case, they are not at all self-explanatory, their relation to the text unguessable, swirling us again into that strangely satisfying limbo of confronting something decipherable which we lack the means to decipher.

Finally, allegory may be at work. The book reflects Doris's interest in "Money-Love-Writing," Doris says in her note, leading me to wonder if the cheerleaders represent writers -- Pindar was a cheerleader, she notes, his odes dedicated to celebrating the achievements of Olympic athletes -- while the football players represent those executing the fly patterns and end sweeps of capitalism, arcane to outsiders, overseen by the coaches of the Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, et alia? And then who loves whom in this allegory -- or is getting screwed by whom?

Yeah! Lose to win!
Scatter yourselves!
Bloodspill depicts
the reason for life.
Rain's made of it.
Go quench your thirst.

I wouldn't bet the farm on my allegorical interpretation, to tell you the truth, but it hovered in the back of my mind nonetheless as I read this utterly unique book.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Chris Bachelder, _Abbott Awaits_

THIS, TOO, I reviewed elsewhere, although it will likely be a while before the review sees the light of day, so rather than go into matters in detail I will confine myself to an observation and a question.

The observation: what a fine, fulfilling, complete book this is, confirming Bachelder's status as one of my favorite young contemporary novelists.

The question: so why is it this guy is being published by a university press? LSU Press has a reputation for publishing excellent fiction (e.g., Confederacy of Dunces), and a lot of university presses do a nice job of promoting the fiction they publish (e.g., U. of Nebraska), but still...! This is Bachelder's third novel, all three have been original, intelligent, funny, and moving, but apparently commercial publishers are not (as justice would require) beating down his door, even though he's every bit as or more interesting than -- well, let's say Claire Messud, or Jonathan Safran Foer, or Nicole Krauss, or Joshua Ferris, or any number of folks who books lie in stacks at my local Barnes & Noble, get ads in the NYTBR, get shortlisted for prizes, and so and so forth. It's an old, old story, I know, but the older I get the more I resent it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Butler, _There Is No Year_

I WROTE SOMETHING about this that is eventually to appear in another venue, so I will here content myself with saying the novel lives up to its anticipatory buzz -- which is saying much. It really does turn out to be as strong as it was said to be (in contradistinction to, I would say, Freedom).

According to an interview I found on an internet trawl, Butler decided to write fiction after discovering Infinite Jest, and Wallace's death is noted in the novel at about its midpoint, at the end of Part Two. This seems fitting to me. I haven't encountered a novel by a young writer this original, this ambitious, and this rich since I picked up Infinite Jest, going on fifteen years ago.
In that same internet trawl, I saw a couple of references to the book being perhaps indebted to Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. Urkgkh. I think not. Yes, there are the same use of unusual typographical and other design elements and the same conceit of a house capable of gaming the rules of time and space. But House of Leaves is a sophisticated horror tale, I would say. I gave up about p. 250, I think, because the prose is simply too gaseous to tolerate.

An argument could be made, I grant, that since Zampanó is writing an academic treatise with generous slabs of quotations from other academics, his prose needs to be as stiff and dry as cardboard, as Johnny Truant's needs to have a stoner's vagueness and looseness. But this translates into hundreds of pages of bad writing.

The prose in This Is No Year is lean, feral, cold, almost merciless. It remains austere even when creating its most outlandish, sensational effects. It is built to last.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Mark Levine, _The Wilds_

THIS ONE MAKES Enola Gay feel a bit sophomore-slumpish in retrospect; one wouldn't call it a "return to form" or anything like that, but it has an integrity and energy that Enola Gay didn't quite have, and I expect it to stay with me longer.

Made me think of -- of all people -- Dylan Thomas. It must be fifty years or so since any American poet would welcome being compared to Dylan Thomas, but I have a soft spot for him.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, a cock on his shoulder, it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

That's from "Fern Hill." What with the dew and the maiden and the "wanderer white," the poem does not sound much like anyone writing today, and certainly not like Levine, but --

When you were in possession
of the pods and pens and octagonal plots
and your grappling hooks clattered in summer wind
and you loosed the bitter petal

-- that's from "Hand," and something, the idea of a memory vaguely rural, of a paradise which was lost, or just "summer" (as in "boys of...") rang a Thomas bell for me. Above all, there is a feeling for childhood being paradoxically very near and very far away at the same time ("more distant than stars and nearer than the eye," as Eliot wrote) in "Hand, " "Ontario," "Quarry," and "Grade Three."

Hard to think of anyone who renders being outdoors better than Levine:

We were there yet
sizing up the scenery
through the spokes of
the one wheel moving
this way, the other
that. There were four
corners of us promenading
in the sensation of
walking boots. The countryside
yielded a desert flower
on which a bee
reeled in the rain.
A mill wheel spun.
This was a place
we were in it
in sensation going there.


But it's complicated -- there is a gulf between the human and the wild, even if you're as attuned as Levine, as the final poem, "Willow," seems to suggest:

You take it in or you don't
You hide the sky or else.
Things lived in you.
You, stranger.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Michael Earl Craig, _Thin Kimono_

HIS THIRD BOOK, but the first I've read. Grounded, plain-spoken, drily funny -- in some ways, not the kind of book I expect from Wave Books. I do enjoy Wave Books and I did enjoy Thin Kimono, you understand -- it's just that they occupy what seem to me different points in the spectrum. So no offense to anyone, OK? OK.

Not that Craig is incapable of the kind of legerdemain that is one of the characteristics of Wave Books. "Diana" is a 6-page poem all but entirely composed of lines from Diana, a 1927 novel by Vida Hurst. Judging from what we get, Diana was a fairly ordinary novel about the reckless and feckless privileged types in the 20s, and the poem has something of the fizzy, heady quality of watching a two-hour Gloria Swanson melodrama that has been edited down to eight minutes. At one point in both novel and poem, Diana "dropped her clothes to floor, wrapped a thin kimono about her aching body and threw herself on the bed"-- hence the title.

And what a great title! It's half of the reason why I bought the book. (Plus one-quarter its being short-listed by The Believer for poetry volume of the year and one-quarter Craig's giving a reading in the town where I live.)

Another particularly intriguing part of the book is the 18 8-line poems that constitute Part II of the book. Craig did not intend them to constitute a whole -- I know because I took the trouble to ask him -- but the consistent form, the grouping of them together as a section without titles, and a sustained, wry observational humor nonetheless make the eighteen poems feel like they belong together, that they are having a kind of indirect conversation among themselves, with more than a few loose ends, true, but enjoying each other's company. Here too, as in Doller's Dead Ahead, one might detect a Muldoonian note or two:

He said she was like a gorge to him.
How so? she said.
He didn't say. She said something
to rhyme with meconium and
turned, and walked away.
He had a Pernod on the coaster before him
The seals were indeed in the harbor,
floating queerly like rockets.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Julia Holmes, _Meeks_

A BRILLIANT SHORT novel, hard to categorize. The only comparison that comes to mind is with Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, set in a wholly imaginary place, but with the texture of realism rather than fantasy, while still being loosely enough attached to reality to sustain a parable-like quality. An auspicious debut, that's for sure.

Most of the book is devoted to two characters, Ben and Meeks -- Ben a young, single man whose parents are both dead and who is without visible means of support, Meeks a homeless man of indeterminate age who is under the impression that he is a police officer. Ben's sections are narrated in the third person from Ben's POV, Meeks's in the first person.

For most of the book, one's readerly attention is less absorbed by the situations of Ben and Meeks than by the task of figuring out how the society they imhabit works. As a "bachelor," Ben lives in a special rooming house, and needs a pale suit -- he has only a black one, thus is excluded from "Listening Parties," his best bet for finding a woman to marry. If he does not find a woman to marry by "Independence Day," this community's big September commemoration of its founding by Captain Meeks, he will have to put on a gray suit and become a manual laborer. Meeks (named for the captain, we suppose), known to the community as the crazy man who sleeps in the park, is not a player in this high-stakes marriage market but has worries of his own, e.g., being carted off to parts unspecified by the "Brothers of Mercy."

Holmes gradually reveals that Captain Meeks founded the community on two principles, that communities endure because they are united by a threat and because social norms are rigorously conformed to. Thus we have the "Enemy," in the unending war against whom Ben's father died, the stringent duty to marry or toil for those who have, and the sacrifice which (we at length learn) forms the central act of Independence Day observances.

All too accurate an allegorical analogue, methinks, to the Bush II years. The elements are familiar -- we have a bit of M. Night Shymalan's Village (as read by Zizek), a bit of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," a bit of Auden's "Horae Canonicae" even (as Girard might read it) -- but at the same time the book has its own atmosphere, mainly due to Holmes's fresh and precise prose. One of Ben's memories:

He smelled the narrow, speckled fish cooking, spiked on sharpened sticks stabbed deep into the sand beside small fires, blazes of yellow-orange flower. Beached jellyfish were thick lenses on the sand. His mother brought him a mango; he peeled away the skin inexpertly; he bit into the sweet sherbet-colored fruit; he scraped the hard pit with his teeth. He buried the pit in the sand and rinsed his hands in the seawater. He followed the paranoid, supercilious crabs from wet rock to wet rock. He stared down the long, narrow, speckled fish that gathered in the tidal pools when the tide went out, the fish all facing forward dourly like parishioners in the cool cathedral space between the jetty rocks.

Holmes's ability to animate such moments ensures that the parable unfolds without a dull page.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Ben Doller, _Dead Ahead_

HERE I WAS just writing that I have detected little of Paul Muldoon's influence among younger American poets (younger, that is, than I -- an alarmingly numerous class these days), and then the final poem in Doller's new volume not only rhymes ingeniously (e.g., adjacent/patient) and breaks at one point into sonnet form, but uses the peculiarly Muldoonian trick of using the last line of a section of a long poem to begin the next section.

The poem, "Period Style," is one of three excellent longer poems in the book, along with "Prescription Window"and "The Widow Ching Poems," and the three are strikingly different. "Prescription Window" alternates long lines and short lines while also alternating left justification and right justification to original and intriguing effect, and the Widow Ching sequence handles the theme of love well, and we can always use more of those.

Shall I sing
(I rarely sing)
of the patina
of promotion
the name unlike the name
that going
you gave


the promotion
that came relinquishing the fleet

The Lustre of True Instruction

Lovely, no? A little like Cummings filtered through Pound's Cathay.

Since Doller's last book, FAQ (see LLL, January 2010), was a programmatic work with fairly exacting constraints, Dead Ahead was bound to be more formally and tonally various, but I'm happy to see it's even more formally and tonally various than it had any need to be. Doller is now three-for-three in my book, definitely on my List of Reliables.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Paul Muldoon, _Maggot_

FOR YEARS I have been ready, should anyone ask me which Muldoon volume to try -- no one ever has -- to recommend Quoof. "The More a Man Has, the More a Man Wants" seems, if not the best, perhaps the quintessential Muldoon long poem, and the rest of the book has all the perversely ingenious rhyming, the yoking of unlikely concepts, and the deadpan, too-cool humor that make Muldoon unmistakeable.

Now, I think I would recommend Maggot. It has all of the above, but Muldoon sets himself even more daunting formal challenges, keeps even more plates spinning... all without seeming to make any visible effort, nattering away as if free-associating while the plates spin in perfect equilibrium without his seeming even to approach them. There's no single poem here that, for me, dislodges "7 Middagh Street" or "Incantata" from the top of the pile, but it's a really strong volume.

Muldoon is too much a trickster to be a confessional poet, but there is pain here, too, and a wisdom about it that Muldoon has not reached before. He has written about pain and loss before -- but a problem master formalists share (Alexander Pope, James Merrill, say) is that we automatically assume surfaces so perfect must conceal shallows. The young Muldoon was one of those poets about whom people (not me) would say, "Undeniably clever, but...." Maggot is always clever, but there's a bruised remorsefulness, an agenbite of inwit, even when Muldoon is rhyming "bento box" with "hollyhocks" and writing a poem about his testicles.

In his NYRB review of the book, Nick Laird suggests Maggot reflects the emotional strain of an episode (or more than one) of marital infidelity, with the betrayed dolphin of "A Christmas in the Fifties" and a few other poems figuring the betrayed wife, perhaps. Could be, for all I know. But the serial infidelities described in the poem "Maggot" seem more the fulfilment of a formal scheme than an autobiographical confession. Still, would Laird make the suggestion if he didn't know something? In the NYRB, no less. Oy.

The blurbs on the book emphasize Muldoon as influence: "the poet's poet of his generation," "Muldoon has enfranchised a whole generation," "one of the five or so best poets alive; to most of Britain and Ireland, he seems the single most influential" (that last by the rarely-off-the-mark Stephen Burt). High though his standing is, he doesn't seem nearly the influence on American poetry that Ashbery is, or Frank O'Hara, or even Jack Spicer. Who knows, though, I may be missing something. I would sure like to think Muldoon is a major influence on contemporary poetry.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Chris Hedges, _Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle_

THE AMERICAN JEREMIAD is alive and well, if this book is any indication. It covers a wide spectrum of topics -- television, the pornography industry, academia, and the "positive psychology" movement all get sustained attention -- with the overarching thesis that as the real circumstances and prospects of we the citizenry have deteriorated, the tools and resources of those who would bamboozle us have become more powerful and more sophisticated, and our ability to pierce the illusion weaker.

The main culprit: corporations, with their insatiable appetite for profit and greater profit and their inability to take into account any future prospect save the next quarterly statement. Keep the marks bedazzled, the government regulators impotent or bribed, the media watchdogs drugged or muzzled.

Geez, what a downer! Hard to disagree with, though.

Hedges sounds some inspiring notes in the last few pages, but he keeps comparing the contemporary U.S. to Weimar Germany, and seems to think we would be a pushover if the right flag-waving, Bible-toting charismatic maniac came along. Sarah Palin's name comes up....

Not even a single reference, though, to Guy DeBord, an obligatory touchstone for the topic, or so I would think. Hedges takes a few smacks at "arcane academic jargon" and ivory tower-ism, but there is some critical theory out there that he could read with profit.

Edmund White, _My Lives: An Autobiography_

THIS MAY SERVE as counter-evidence to David Shields's thesis in Reality Hunger (see LLL, December 2010). White drew on many of the same experiences and encounters he writes of here in his trilogy of autobiographical novels, A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony, and as far as I'm concerned, the fictional version takes the prize, hands down. (Any list of the 50 greatest post-WW II American novels that does not include White is not to be trusted.) Nor is it merely a case of déjà lu; the presentation here just seems more diffuse, more loosely associative, generally of a lower wattage.

I started reading this book two years ago, got about 70 pages in, and paused; picked it up a year ago, read another 70 pages, paused again; picked it up again this summer, and pushed on through. I've never before been so slow to finish a book by White (and this is the tenth I've read). Whatever it is I find irresistible about White's writing, this book does not have in abundance.

It has some amazing chapters, to be sure. It's arranged by topics (e.g., "My Shrinks," "My Women," "My Blonds") rather than by chronology, and the chapters devoted to topics that White has not so thoroughly mined in his fiction -- "My Master," "My Europe," "My Genet" -- are echt White. Even so, I found myself wishing he had used some of this material for fiction -- his astonishing portrait of Foucault, for instance.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Sam Lipsyte, _The Ask_

IN BROADEST OUTLINE, The Ask resembles (I would say) Lipsyte's previous novel, Home Land: witty, linguistically inventive no-longer-young man with foibles a-plenty, whose life has jumped the rails, struggles from disaster to disaster to apparent turnaround that nonetheless implodes into disaster, ending the novel no better off save for some hard-won nugget that may turn out to be wisdom, but probably not.

Milo Burke is the kind of main character that almost no reader likes; I can almost hear everyone in my book club and most of my students declaring, "I couldn't stand him." He is poignantly aware of this himself:

"No, I mean, if I were the protagonist of a book or movie, it would be hard to like me, to identify with me, right?
"I would never read a book like that, Milo. I can't think of anyone who would. There's no reason for it."

Besides reminding me of Lipsyte, Lipsyte reminds me of the early (pre-Brideshead, let's say) Evelyn Waugh. Yes, they are easy to tell apart; on the basis of the two novels I know, Lipsyte likes first-person narration, which Waugh rarely used, and Waugh's style is spare and tight-lipped, while Lipsyte's is an exploding jukebox. But both Waugh and Lipsyte walk a nice line between realism and satire; all the implausible exaggerations seem within whispering distance of the plausible (e.g., ideological schism among the teachers at an experimental pre-school). Both zero in on the softest, rottenest underparts of charlatanry of the moment and whatever special patois it speaks (e.g., "a balm that not only heals but promotes understanding, especially in a world, a globe, as global as ours, where isolation is no option, where the only choices are globality or chaos"). Both are utterly disabused of any idea that the wealthy and powerful are at all like you or me.

Different as their styles are, they are both novelists one would read for the joy of the style alone. Both may come up a little short in the Arnoldian High Seriousness category, which I think is the main reason Waugh is often overlooked as a great 20th century British novelist -- it's hard to seem important when you're funny. But if Vile Bodies or Decline and Fall deserve a place on the list of great novels, there may turn out to to be room for The Ask.

Loved the Cooper Black on the dust jacket. Hurrah for Charlotte Strick and whoever did the design for the Black Keys' Brothers.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Francine Prose, _Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife_

AN EXCELLENT BOOK. Informed and judicious on the history of the text of the diary and on the debates surrounding its theater and film adaptations, its authenticity, its use in the schools, its value as a document of the Holocaust (and the limits of that value), but also does justice to Anne Frank's real literary skill and accomplishment. That Anne Frank was truly a writer as well as a victim of the Nazis has been pointed out before, by Philip Roth, John Berryman, Cynthia Ozick, and others, but I rejoice in seeing the case made once again so thoroughly and authoritatively.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jessica Savitz, _Hunting Is Painting_

THE TITLE SETS the tone for the volume: a baffling assertion, but so calm and so clear that it creates a micro-climate in which the truth of the proposition seems incontrovertible. The book as a whole, its seven mysteriously-titled sections (e.g., "Conception is the Breaking Chain of a Burning Torch"), and its individual poems constitute a series of nested micro-climates that resemble consensual reality in some respects (containing trees, water, fire, and birthdays) but operate according to causal modalities all their own.


Brown shirt littered in dove's blood;
Hunting is painting and excavating some greater forest.
And hose-water and knife through scales
Cooks alcohol of supper --
I spread the light in salt over my food
And often use a knife to remove a bruise
From the golden peach.

There is bait in the mouths of ice-fishermen.

The cutting knife heals, the fuel becomes the meal, the anglers themselves have taken the bait -- every poem has similar ostranenie-effects, lying at some tangent to the known world yet making the known world come into clearer focus by being obscurely different.

Some lines in "Ceremonial" suggest the title may derive from cave paintings like those of Lascaux, that the poems perhaps represent some intersection of document, dream, and desire.

it's greened, it's ruined
braided minerals on the cave walls
I went into the cave
of my own consciousness
and painted animals on the rounds and ledges there
I am standing or crouching on the shelf of the cave there in
the mind

I am The Neanderthal Kings
with this sweaty ash and jeweled eye

Like Medbh McGuckian, Savitz homes in on the True Earth-Wyrd.

Let's not forget the images drawn by Allison Hawkins, either, the perfect complement to this small book of charms and spells.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Ta-Nehisi Coates, _The Beautiful Struggle: a father, two sons, and an unlikely road to manhood_

I SO MUCH enjoyed the super-carbonated fizz of Ta-Nehisi Coates's prose in an article I read in The Nation a couple of years ago that I decided to see if he had published a book. Sure enough, he had -- this one, which came out in 2008.

A coming-of-age memoir by a male African-American writer has to make its way past some monumental precursors: Black Boy, Notes of a Native Son, Manchild in the Promised Land, to name some of the obvious ones; Daryl Pinckney's High Cotton, to name a less obvious one. The Beautiful Struggle is not quite in that class, but worth the time nonetheless.

Coates grew up in West Baltimore in an interesting situation. His father was a committed member of the Black Consciousness movement of the 1960s and 1970s, whose calling was maintaining a small press devoted to that cause, and who simultaneously worked on the maintenance crew at Howard University so his kids could take advantage of a tuition remission program there. Born in 1975, Coates as a child was surrounded by DuBois, drums, African mythology; the family did not observe Christmas or the Fourth of July. He grows up with constant reminders that he has to get the grades he needs to get into Howard, or, as the book always calls it, "Mecca."

Just outside the door, though, as Coates comes of age, is the crack epidemic, gangsta rap, and the flight of the black middle class to the 'burbs. It's a bit like the story of a red diaper baby born in the late 1930s, suckled on legends of the Spartacists, the Wobblies, and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, coming of age in the McCarthy era.

Intriguing as these circumstances are, though, the book does not quite get its narrative arc all the way off the ground. Coates has more than his share of difficulties at school and in the neighborhood, and there is some drama at home (his father believes in corporal punishment, but not in monogamy), but the potential energy of the story tends to become diffused.

Fortunately, there's enough combustion in the prose to keep the pistons moving and the pages turning. Coates draws a bit on street vernacular, a bit on the language of comic books and sword-and-sorcery fantasy, but he has a way with a trope that is distinctly his own. To pluck an example almost at random, here is a bit on how Coates, forced to miss drum ensemble practice in order to take driver's ed, daydreamed his way through the class:

I just placed my palms on my thighs in ready position, leaned back in my wooden chair until I was five hundred years away, until I stood in the court of Mansa Musa, in a kufi and a dark robe. My djembe hung from my shoulders, and when the Lion of Mali nodded, my hands fired and called across the Sahel. The teacher would lower the lights and show films on driver safety. But I would play lead on my lap, imagining dancers who kicked and leaped through the dark like great black flamingoes.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ariana Reines, _Coeur de Lion_

HOW I GOT a hold of this is a story in itself. Intrigued by Reines's The Cow (see LLL for January 2011) and noticing that she had a second book out, I decided to find a copy. Checking my usual online outlets, I discovered not only that were there no new copies available, even though the book had been published as recently as 2007, but also that the cheapest available used copies were going for eighty or ninety dollars apiece. Surprising, no? Well, thanks to the powers that be for inter-library loan, and thanks especially to Mills College Library, whose copy found its way to me all the way here in Nebraska. I hope they put it in their rare book room when they got it back.

Fence Books, I gather, will be putting out a new edition in September, so soon Reinesians will not have to go the lengths I did to read Coeur de Lion.

And it was well worth the trouble. Very different from The Cow, which was a kind of high-wire act with flaming batons, bristling with startling appropriations, difficult, jarring, staring the reader in the eye with "hold on tight or get out now" look. Coeur de Lion is almost... confessional. Not to mention compulsively readable, hard to put down. Is it OK to say that? I think of Tina Celona's poem "Sangria," in Octopus # 11:

Confessional poetry is not very popular right now. Transparency is also out of favor, so that if you write in a style that is invisible people will hate you. Nonetheless some people are able to get away with it, if they approach it in a way that is not naïve and that contributes something new. For instance, Lydia Davis. I think it is possible to get away with such a thing, but I would not recommend it for everyone.

Coeur de Lion, which seems to have been written during and about a fairly short timeframe, orbits around a relationship that seems to have foundered, with a certain amount of attention devoted to Reines's studies, writing, and memories. I would describe it as both confessional and transparent. For instance:

Did I tell you
That I finally
Read your novel
All the way through?
When I reread
The first few pages
I thought
I might have been
Too hasty
When I told you
That day in the
Valley that
It was terrible but
Then I read on
And it is pretty
Bad, not in a
Good way. Sometimes
There is an excellent
Sentence and
My heart swells
With hope -- now
That I sort of hate
Myself for having
Fallen for you.

So, is the book, to pick up Tina Celona's criteria, not-naïve? Is it something new? The final lines of the excerpt I've quoted could almost come from a high school girl's journal, so Reines is apparently willing at least to sound naïve. The prevailing mood is not exactly new, either, as it seems to be that of Dickinson's Master Letters, a profoundly intelligent woman in love with an attractive but not nearly as intelligent man, swinging from abjection and unworthiness to bemusement and indignation in vertiginous swoops.

Not exactly not-naïve, not exactly new, but if we ask "does it work?", I would have to say yes, it does. It has the gravitational pull of a black hole. It won't let you go.

I remember heading off to college nearly forty years ago and discovering in the dorm room of nearly every woman with whom I became acquainted a copy of Ariel or The Bell Jar or both. At that time, both books were about nine years old. I like imagining that girls currently negotiating the reefs of third and fourth grade will as high schoolers come across Coeur de Lion (and, for good measure, Maximum Gaga) and bring much-read copies to their dorm rooms and then later write the dissertations that will make the Mills College copy of the Mal-O-Mar edition worth even more than it is now.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Jennifer Egan, _A Visit from the Goon Squad_

AMONG MY RESOLUTIONS for the remainder of May 2011 is to finish at least a few of the books I left one-half, one-third, or one-quarter read in 2010. I started with this one... we'll see how far I get.

The Pulitzer people and I are not often on the same wavelength, but this book is a gem. It has the same jaded fascination with the pinging adrenal buzz of the fashion/entertainment world as Look at Me, the same probing of the way friendship can be braided with abandonment and betrayal as The Keep, but it's a stronger book than either of those.

It has some of the effect of a collection of short stories, as each chapter could be read independently, but works well as a novel, since we re-encounter characters from story to story, a peripheral figure in one chapter becoming the POV character in another. Each story/chapter focuses on a fairly narrow time frame of a day or a few days, but since we see characters at several different stages in their lives (and not in chronological order, just to make things more interesting), and since Egan has an extraordinary deftness at filling in antecedent action in a swiftly-paced paragraph, we get a novel-esque depth of time.

And time is our theme here. Although the music industry types we meet seem capable of hiring thugs, and although "The Goon Squad" would be an OK name for the kind of late 70s/early 80s alt-indie bands we meet in these pages, the "goon" of the title is time itself. Time, too, can rearrange your facial design, cripple you for life, leave you for dead. Much of the novel is about how we lose things, leave them behind, how we change, how things are taken away.

Intriguingly, though, a lot of it is about how time also restores things, about unexpected second chances, how life can resume after a pause. Lincoln Blake, a mildly autistic teenager in the second-to-last story (which takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation by his sister Alison) collects pauses in popular songs. Bix, an early e-mail adopter we glimpse in a story set in the early 90s, foresees a time when the Internet will do what people used to imagine heaven would do, i.e., bring back into your life everyone you ever knew. Scotty, a brilliant guitarist who did a Syd Barrett, re-emerges to play a legendary free concert in the "Footprint," Egan imagining the Twin Towers site transformed into an open-air performance space.

And then there are Alison Blake and Lulu, who, like the Miranda/Perdita/Marina characters in Shakespeare's late plays, have the power to make the world seem new again.

Delightful to find in the acknowledgements a shout-out to Jacob Slichter's excellent rock-n-roll memoir So You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star, which, among other things, describes the genesis of that pause in Semisonic's "Closing Time," which quite rightly makes Lincoln's list.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Olivia Manning, _The Great Fortune_

This is the first volume of "The Balkan Trilogy," a paperback of which I picked up remaindered for $1.99 or so back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, shortly after it had been turned into a Masterpiece Theatre production starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (ditto its sequel, "The Levant Trilogy"). Somehow twenty years slipped away without my so much as opening it, even though it had the signal honor of being reprinted as a New York Review of Books Classic in 2010. Then, somewhat out of the blue, it was tapped by the book club my spouse and I belong to...

... and it turns out to be excellent. All six novels center upon Guy and Harriet Pringle, a recently married young English couple, who owing to Guy's teaching position at a university in Bucharest are in Romania in the fall of 1939 when Germany and the Soviet Union descend on Poland. The Great Fortune takes us up to the fall of Paris in 1940. The ambiguities and uncertainties of the "phoney war" period find their analogue in the the tentative, what-in-the-world-is-he-thinking, what-have-I-done-now feints and parries of the Pringles' brand new marriage. As the marriage gets serious when Harriet has to deal with a strange rebuff from Guy (he casts her for, then dismisses her from, an amateur Shakespeare production he is organizing) and at the same time gets a sudden offer to run off with one of his colleagues, so the war, after a winter's hibernation, gets serious as the Germans invade Belgium.

The writing is strong, brisk, intelligent, the characters sharply drawn (especially the shamelessly cadging Russian aristocratic exile, Prince Yakimov), the sense of history looming over one's shoulder convincing. Not surprising that Anthony Burgess called this "the finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer." It certainly measures up to the the other British WW II novels I've read (Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh).

It's a stroke of genius, for instance, that the Shakespeare play Guy Pringle is mounting in Bucharest is Troilus and Cressida -- a systematic dismantling of the romance of war. On virtually every page is a deft descriptive touch; from a balcony on a rainy afternoon, Harriet looks out on the crowd watching the funeral procession of an assassinated prime minister: "As the band drew near, the umbrellas, quilted below, moved towards the kerb: the police, wearing mourning bands on their arms, rushed wildly along the gutter pushing them back again." It had never occurred to me that a crowd of umbrellas, seen from above, would resemble a quilt; but as soon as I read that, the whole scene popped into my imagination.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nell Freudenberger, _Lucky Girls_

THIS BOOK AND its author have collected quite a few honors: the PEN/Malamud Award (for "excellence in the art of the short story"), designation as a New York Times Notable Book, Freudenberger's being chosen by the New Yorker last summer as one of the "Forty Under Forty" fiction writers.

There are five stories here -- generally speaking, they are intelligent, subtle, well-mannered stories about intelligent, subtle, well-mannered people, for the most part U.S. citizens whom circumstances have taken to the south Asian sub-continent. Nuanced, evocative descriptions of settings... carefully integrated exposition of the characters' pasts... faintly enigmatic, open-ended final paragraphs...

... left me almost perfectly unaffected, to tell you the truth. Everything perfectly just-so, like a 19th century academy piece.

The last story, however, won me over and gave me reason to look forward to the next Freudenberger that wafts my way in Granta or the New Yorker. "Letter from the Last Bastion" is original in form (a 60-page college application essay that its author will never send), its plot revelations surprising and effectively paced, and it actually has something interesting to present about the composition of fiction.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, _Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses_

MY FACULTY COLLEAGUES and I are being encouraged to read this, and being the co-operative faculty member I (sometimes -- nay, often) am, I read it. Unwelcome news.

Arum and Roksa conducted an extensive study (almost 2400 students on 24 different campuses) and found that most undergraduates are not making much headway in mastering "critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills" during their first two years of college.

Why not? Well, they're spending a lot less time studying than they used to, with more time than formerly devoted to part-time jobs, volunteering, clubs and activities, and general hanging out. It also turns out that they can get away with studying less because their instructors are assigning less work (specifically, reading and writing) than they once did. It's a sweet deal all around; the faculty can spend more time on their research, the path to bigger rewards and more prestige, and the students can spend more time hanging out.

Specifically, courses in explicitly pre-professional majors -- business, education, communication, computer science, social work -- seem to require less in the way of reading and writing, with concomitant slowed acquisition of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. Not exactly a surprise.

More surprisingly, "active learning," "collaborative learning," and greater involvement in student life activities, which have been energetically advanced in recent years as means to increase student engagement in learning, turn out not to be helpful in developing critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. So, what is helpful? More reading, more writing, studying alone. Which doesn't sound fun.

The takeaway seems obvious to me: those faculty in business, education, communication, computer science, and social work better get cracking and build a little rigor (rig-gah as Teddy Roosevelt would say) into their curricula toot sweet.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Franzen again

I FIND MYSELF enjoying the discourse about Jonathan Franzen more than I enjoy Franzen's actual novels. The Corrections was a fine book -- an excellent book, even -- but, to me, a degree or two less compelling than the discourse around the Oprah flap, or the broadside against Gaddis and the counter-broadside from Ben Marcus, or that piece in Granta by his (then?) girlfriend, or the piece in The Believer by the slightly-younger writer who had grown up in the same suburb and feared that Franzen had exhausted or would exhaust her town's potential as subject for fiction. I was beginning to find Franzen as cultural counter just a little more interesting than Franzen as novelist.

Then. last summer and fall, the Freedom buzz. Proclaimed a masterpiece in the NYTBR, praised in Time for saving American fiction from the ponderous involutions of David Foster Wallace and the maundering preciosities of a thousand MFAs. A minority report from across the water, as the London Review of Books refuses to go along. Then a symposium in n + 1, four of the editors weighing in... and being funnier, smarter, and more interesting than Freedom itself. Again, the discourse about Freedom is a better novel than Freedom.

But this all may be premature. I haven't finished the damned thing.

Jonathan Franzen, _Freedom_ (interim report)

I HAVEN'T ACTUALLY finished this. I expect I will, perhaps in May, but I got through Patty Berglund's autobiography and decided to give the novel a rest for a bit. As I read, I was increasingly bothered that Patty, supposedly a person who writes and reads little, is a masterful stylist. Occasionally Franzen gives her a clunky, graceless passage, but more often she writes like someone who has devoted her life to shaping sentences and structuring narratives... which, in the realm of the novel, she has not. Her discourse is that of a person who could not conceivably exist. Interesting though her circumstances and conflict are, the further along I read, the more Patty seemed as fabulous as a hippogriff.

I imagine readers are not supposed to notice how well Patty writes, as we are not supposed to notice that Shakespeare's characters have mastered blank verse. A suspension-of-disbelief sort of thing. Okay, but didn't Bakhtin show us that the novel-ness of the novel lay in its self-awareness about its own discourses?

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Cole Swensen & David St. John, eds., _American Hybrid_

LAST SUMMER, AS I was reading Against the Day and wondering how many people still actually read 1000-page literary novels, I also started in on this (finishing yesterday), which made me wonder how many people still actually read 500-page poetry anthologies. Surely I am not the only one, but there can't be many of us. I don't imagine poets read them, save for skimming the introductions and tables of contents to see whose oxen have been gored. They must be mainly purchased by libraries, with a few bought by non-poets like myself, but how many of those copies purchased, in either category, actually get read?

Most anthologies have a purpose -- the idea of American Hybrid is that there are two broad tendencies in contemporary American poetry, the relatively traditional, comprised of poets whose work maintains a discernible continuity with the poetry of the past, and the relatively innovative, comprised of poets whose work breaks away from the techniques and assumptions of the poetry of the past.

(This is a much-argued point; is there really such a division, or not? I'm willing to grant there is -- even though there is many a murky precinct between the two tendencies, and attempts to define one approach as against the approach deconstruct themselves in seconds.)

American Hybrid is devoted to work that is innovative/experimental in some respects, traditional/conventional in others. The implied argument is that a lot of vital, worthwhile poetry is emerging from the murky precinct between the two broad tendencies.

Part of me -- the Steve Evans-influenced part, I might call it -- wants to say, "make up your mind! Be one or the other! Quit trying to have it both ways!" If you try to steer between Scylla and Charybdis here, aren't you likely to end up with posing, untheorized gestures towards the avant-garde, or pandering gestures towards the traditional without the honest commitment to craft that would make them work? Aren't you avoiding the challenge of pursuing the logic of your poetic, whichever it may be?

But as we read along, it turns out the work here tends to be good. I didn't like everything -- but I found everything was worth the reading. Just about all of it is by very-well-known to moderately-well-known poets with long publishing histories, and the quality of the work tends to be high. I could not figure out what exactly is experimental in James Galvin or traditional in Alice Notley, but 5-6 pages of either tend to be pages well worth reading, so why complain?

Still... anthologies tend to be more memorable if they are synecdoches of a tendency or movement. The feeling that the poets gathered share a poetic -- even if they would never agree to any explicit statement of what that poetic is -- can make an anthology feel greater than the sum of its poems. American Hybrid is a synecdoche, let's say, of a tendency to blend tendencies. But to appreciate how a traditional poet is embracing innovation, or how an innovative poet is embracing tradition, you have to read a lot of that poet's work. A 5-6 page selection of his or her work does not suffice, even if the poems are excellent. And the poems don't speak to each other, quite. If the goal of an anthology like this is to announce, "something's going on," then American Hybrid leaves us with no idea of what that something is, other than that a lot of strong, interesting poems are getting written these days.

Maybe that's enough. This is a Cole Swensen project, after all. It's hard to imagine her being off base about anything.

I hope neither she nor St. John had anything to do with the author bios, however, which are written in the most dreadful blurb-ese. "Their intense musicality links them to the Romantics and their seventeenth century precursors, while his use of collage, rupture, and fragmentation position his work firmly within postmodernism and its critique of the consolidated subject, which dovetails with his interest in the Middle English notion of the lyric as public song." Oh, does it now? That's a fine thing, indeed, the dovetailing. And thank goodness the musicality is so intense -- were it less so, it might remind us only of the Romantics, without quite evoking their seventeenth century precursors (and who would that be for fuck's sake, Traherne? Milton?). There's a gem like this in almost every bio. If the anthology goes to a new edition, I say out with 'em.