Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, January 13, 2012

Amy Gerstler and David Lehman, eds., _The Best American Poetry 2010_

HERE I AM a year behind again, but this one was well worth reading once I got around to it -- the best since Heather McHugh's, I think. A very broad spectrum of publications represented, nice mix of the conventional and not-at-all conventional, some great old hands and some intriguing work by names new to me. Among the latter: Mark Bibbins, Peter Davis, Gabriel Gudding, Dolly Lemke, Camille Norton, Gregory Pardlo. Mr. Gudding apparently has published a 436-page poem with Dalkey Archive. Dalkey Archive, how I love you!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

David Mitchell, _Black Swan Green_

A CURVEBALL (or googly?) from Mitchell, heretofore given to razzle-dazzle in his fiction, as Black Swan Green is a relatively straightforward coming of age story, set in a small town in the southern part of England in 1982, the year of the Falklands War.

Jason Taylor, the narrator, is thirteen, and faces the quintessential dilemma of thirteen-year-olds in the western world: are you one of the cool kids who can seemingly get away with anything, one of the large mass of the nondescript who blend in and manage to avoid the worst kinds of trouble, or one of the persecuted preterite singled out for the torments of the damned? As a stammerer (like Mitchell, according to interviews), Jason is at graver-than-usual risk of falling into the third category. Quick-witted and capable of bravery, he gets a shot at joining the local gang, which would make him a cool kid, but he loses that opportunity when he chooses to stand by a friend who disastrously failed the initiation (good for you, Jace). From then on, he is increasingly in the sights of the King Bully, and things go from bad to worse to even worse.

Pluck (in shop class, Jason crushes the expensive calculator of one of the bullies in a vise, thus getting the authorities' attention while also demonstrating nerve) and luck (he finds the King Bully's lost wallet at the fair) win Jason a degree of redemption; there's also the fact that the bullies don't grow up to write the books. A conversation with Mme. Crommelynk, whom we met in very different circumstances in Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, helps Jason discern a vocation as a writer.

Ordinarily, I'm disappointed when someone who successfully writes the more adventurous kinds of fiction decides to play it straight, but Mitchell is so good at it that I could only marvel and enjoy. The holiday verbal death match between Jason's father and his uncle... the three teenaged girls emerging from a photo booth singing Duran Duran's "Hungry Like a Wolf"... the perfect counterpointing of the Falklands War with the contest of wills between Jason's parents... all the NYTBR and New Republic folks wishfully scanning the horizon for a great contemporary version of 19th century realism should be looking right here.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Steve Stern, _The Frozen Rabbi_

A nerdish teenaged Jewish boy living in Memphis, searching his family's deep freeze for a piece of liver in which to masturbate รก la Alex Portnoy, discovers a frozen Hasidic rabbi. Alternating chapters in Stern's wonderful novel lay out (a) how the frozen rabbi wound up in a suburban Memphis deep freeze and (b) what happened when he was thawed out.

Stern's evocations of a century of Jewish milieus (and a century of slow assimilation) are brilliant, especially thanks to his unequalled gift for the depiction of luftmenschen. The novel's comic/satiric vein -- the thawed rabbi opens a New-Age-ish spirituality center and more or less immediately succumbs to temptations of every kind, while the teenaged boy discovers he has the makings of a tzaddik -- is a tad more predictable but still enjoyable.

Jewish as it all is, the novel's conclusion left me thinking of Greene's The Power and The Glory and its trio of miracles proving the sainthood of the whiskey priest. Stern's final pages, even with one more bit of Rothian outlandish outrageousness at the very end, likewise beautifully conjure miracles and sanctity.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Ben Lerner, _Leaving the Atocha Station_

A BRILLIANT SHORT novel, perhaps of autobiographical inspiration, since Lerner himself grew up in Kansas, went to an Ivy League school, and did a Fulbright year in Spain, and the novel's narrator, Adam Gordon, grew up in Kansas, went to an Ivy League school, and has a grant to live in Spain for a year and write a long poem about the Spanish Civil War... except that Adam, a good Ashberyean, does not believe poems are "about" anything, so the idea that the book is "about" Lerner himself may be a red herring.

The novel could hardly be more convincing, though. It feels as knobbily real as anyone could wish, Ashbery notwithstanding. Lerner makes little to no effort to make Adam Gordon likeable, even in a roguish bad-boy way. He's a bit self-absorbed, not always honest, and given to pretending he understands more of what his Spanish interlocutors are saying than he really does. (Hilariously, Lerner often gives several versions of what a Spanish character just said.)

Adam's warts-and-all self-presentation does tend to win the reader over as the book proceeds, though, mainly because his engagement in the place and the people deepen. At first, he devotes almost all of his time either to writing poems by substituting words and rearranging lines in English translations of Garcia Lorca poems or to getting stoned. His first acquaintances occur in a fog of guesswork translation. Luckily, though, he gets the benefit of a doubt from some young Spanish artists and writers, who befriend him in, set up readings for him, and let him into their world. If these bright, energetic people like Adam, I found myself thinking, he must be OK.

Tension between the real and the represented heaves into view again at the end of Part 2, when Adam has an instant-messaging chat with a stateside friend who has actually witnessed a stranger's death, and then History raises the stakes in the question when Adam is in Madrid at the time of the Al-Quaeda bombing and the election that ousts Spain's pro-Bush government. Suddenly, in his po-mo, multiply-mediated way, he's in the tradition of Auden, Orwell, and the other writers who came to Spain during the crisis of the civil war. By the end of the novel, he's planning to stay in Spain. One suspects he won't...but his wanting to suggests to me that his heart has found its over-medicated, wandering way to the right place.