Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, July 29, 2013

Brad Gooch, _Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor_

WHEN I WAS complaining a few weeks ago about the drying-up of biography as a pursuit among the last couple of generations of academic literary scholars, I had forgotten all about Brad Gooch, author of a fine biography of Frank O'Hara and this more recent volume on O'Connor.

Gooch fills the gap left when Sally Fitzgerald died without finishing what was to have been the definitive life of O'Connor, and does so skillfully; the research is thorough, the writing graceful. Gooch gives utterly persuasive accounts of O'Connor's family, of Georgia State College for Women during O'Connor's time there, and of her largely correspondence-based friendships with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald, Betty Hester (the "A." of Habits of Being), and Maryat Lee.

However--the spine of O'Connor's fiction was her faith, and as a reader I just wasn't sure Gooch got it.  Hard to blame him--O'Connor's faith was one of a kind.  Not exactly straight-down-the-pipe Baltimore Catechism orthodoxy...but not exactly not that, either. Deeply excited about Teilhard de Chardin...but not exactly a Vatican II modernizer, either. Apparently deeply acquainted not only with the strongest Protestant theologians--Barth and Tillich--but with the wild-eyed bizarrerie of storefront churches, the itinerant self-ordained prophets banging down the back roads of the deep South. Mix in whatever she picked up about modern continental thought from hanging out with Partisan Review types.

To be honest, I don't know who could have done justice to all this. Roman Catholic critics tend to smooth over her idiosyncrasies and make her too orthodox, Protestant critics probably feel desperately under-prepared and unqualified for the attempt, secular critics can't be bothered. O'Connor's readers will never have the nuanced. historically informed, theologically sophisticated analysis of her faith that we need.

But I still want one, damn it.

Friday, July 19, 2013

David Markson, _Wittgenstein's Mistress_

WITHOUT INTENDING TO, I started at the end with Markson. Years ago, having heard often about how good his stuff was, I picked up what was at the time his most recent novel, The Last Novel, which later turned out to be, for Markson, exactly that.  I loved The Last Novel, so I started working chronologically backward through the previous several books, which seemed to be a tetralogy of sorts, each a collection of biographical minutiae about painters, composers, writers, etc.,  as redacted by "the Writer," whose own circumstances and concerns very gradually become apparent as one reads.

Wittgenstein's Mistress works with a very similar template; we get a lengthy, unpartitioned series of one-sentence paragraphs (some of the sentences are, technically, sentence fragments) written over an unspecified amount of time--months, probably--by a woman, Kate, living alone on a beach.

Like "the Writer," Kate has a deep store of information about painters, composers, and writers, some of which, as she notes, she could easily have gleaned from reference books, jacket copy, and album liner notes, and some of which may derive from actual encounters with, e.g., Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Rauschenberg, and William Gaddis.

Kate also gives an occasional description of the house she is inhabiting, of the pictures on its walls, the books on its shelves, or that seem to have disappeared from its shelves. No one else seems to be living in the house.  Indeed, Kate seems to see no one at all. Has there been some nuclear apocalypse, with Kate the sole survivior? Is Kate a hermit?  Is Kate...not right in the head?

Kate is brilliant and articulate, and we come to care for her as deeply as one can for a fictional character, but yes, Kate is not right in the head. The reader becomes unsure which of her adventures happened and which are imaginary.  Did she really visit the site of ancient Troy, the ground zero of western literature? Did she really camp out in a series of great museums? Did she really roll dozens of tennis balls down the Spanish Steps? Did she really lose a child, a son, to a house fire, for which she feels in some degree responsible?

The answer to that last one, we eventually feel, must be yes, and the fleeting glimpses we have of what must have been an unspeakable pain make the book heartbreaking, even though Kate is almost always writing of something, anything other than her loss.

It would be silly to go on at length about this book in the wake of David Foster Wallace's epic review, now widely available in the posthumous essay collection, Both Flesh and Not, but let me end by noting that Wittgenstein's Mistress, triumph of fictional experiment that it is, is also a triumph of good old fashioned mimesis, for Kate's writing sounds uncannily like what a genuinely disturbed person would produce.

Compared to the technique of Poe in "The Tell-tale Heart"and its uncountable epigones, Wittgenstein's Mistress is startling for its refusal to let its disturbed narrator have a greater propensity for exposition, description, and narrative that disturbed writers really have. Instead, Kate gets tangled in misplaced modifiers which she then apologizes for, in ceci-n'est-pas-une-pipe type conundrums, and in corrections of past misstatements, all the while resolutely and intently steering us away from what we most want to know, away from the explanation for her state that we, as dogged readers, feel we have coming. I can't think of another novelist who has gotten this right the way Markson has.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ladette Randolph, _Haven's Wake_

I DON'T READ a lot of novels about the Great Plains, because I have lived in the midwest my whole life, and though I am happy to be here, living and working on the Great Plains more than satisfies my daily adult requirement for Great-Plains-ness.  I would much sooner pick up a novel set in the Hapsburg Empire at the turn of the 20th century, or Paris at the time of Louis Philippe, or Chile in the 1970s than I would one about my neighbors and me, with our long low horizons, old grudges, and taciturnity. It suits me fine as a place to live--I'm just not keen to read about it.

I am prepared to make the occasional exception, however--Willa Cather, Marilynne Robinson, Kent Haruf--so I was good to go when the book club my spouse and I belong to chose Haven's Wake.

The Haven of the title is Haven Grebel, a farmer of the present day in Seward County, Nebraska--Mennonite, husband, father, grandfather, much respected in the community. The book is set in the days following his accidental death. The narration moves among three points of view: that of Elsa, Haven's widow; that of Jonathan, younger son, now of Boston, a successful lighting designer, estranged from the family's religion and way of life; and that of Anna June, Haven's granddaughter, youngest daughter of older-son-who-never-got-it-together and possibly bi-polar Jeffrey, ten or eleven years old, artist and visionary.

Haven's death has brought the whole family back together for his funeral; old tensions pull tight, old wounds ache again, long-kept secrets emerge. The main characters are distinct and realistic, but simultaneously seem to be fulfilling archetypal roles: Jonathan as Prodigal Son, Jonathan and Jeffrey as Cain and Abel, Elsa the grimly tenacious matriarch, Anna June a kind of mystic.

One way of sorting the characters is by their relation to the family's faith.  Elsa is a by-the-letter enforcer, even resorting to the (generally abandoned) traditional Mennonite sanction of "shunning" Anna June to make her surrender the index cards on which she has been recording various awkward episodes in the lives of the local Mennonite congregation.

Jonathan has outright rejected the faith, but this has left him feeling incomplete and disconnected, as in the old Senegalese proverb at the heart of Mariama Bâ's Scarlet Song: "When one abandons one's own hill, the next hill that one climbs crumbles."

Anna June is not only an historian, but also an artist: she has been executing (with Haven's  indispensable help) a series of baked-clay statues of angels around the edge of a pond on the farm. This would not be okay with Elsa--graven images, etc.  Jonathan's wife Nina takes it as evidence that they need to get Anna June away from the benighted influence of rural Nebraskan fundamentalists and get her to an art school. 

Only her now-dead grandfather understood that Anna June is making her faith visible in her interactions with the world, trying to live in, be in, and possibly move the world by living in the light of her faith.  With Haven gone, who will understand this?  It will take a lot, I suspect, to get Elsa, or Jonathan, or anyone else in the novel to reach this sort of realization. But the novel leaves us with a least a tablespoon of hope that it is not impossible.

I do have a complaint, though. Occasionally I felt the author was over-explaining. Here is Jonathan in his father's barn: 

In the barn Jonathan always felt the same feelings of reverence he experienced in the great cathedrals of Europe. He hadn't been a believer for almost half a century, but every time he entered that space he felt an irrational urge to pray.

The image of the cathedral gets a lot done, suggesting the height of the ceiling, the fall of the light, the sensation of a place hallowed by work and hope. The references to reverence and prayer feel like unnecessary underlining to me. This happens a few other times--but generally this is a pretty darned good novel, as we say here in the midwest. Anyone who likes Marilynne Robinson, especially Robinson's capacity for getting into the depths of relatively inarticulate and overlooked lives, will  like Haven's Wake.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Font Dissonance

I HAVEN'T FINISHED a book in a while--I keep starting on new ones. I must be up to a dozen or so. Well, soon enough there will be plenty to report.

In the meantime, here is an observation on an odd coincidence.

Two of the dozen or so books I am midway through are My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman and May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes. Two quite distinct reading experiences, to say the least, Wiman's book being a collection of very short essays or journal entries about his religious/spiritual life, Homes's being a novel about a deeply fucked-up guy in a deeply fucked-up family in ever-more-deeply fucked-up circumstances.  Apples and oranges, in other words. Chalk and cheese.

Yet--the running heads of both books are in the same font--that is, "MY BRIGHT ABYSS" shows up at the top of every other page in exactly the same font in which "MAY WE BE FORGIVEN" shows up at the top of every other page, in their respective volumes. It's a fairly distinctive font: sans-serif, but with contrasting stroke-widths, and the upper-case "W" looks like two overlapping "V"s rather than two adjacent "V"s. I haven't been able to find out the font's name, but it's quite handsome.

I doubt I would have noticed the coincidence, but for my reading the two books at the same time--still, having noticed it, I keep thinking about it.  How did this happen? Different publishers--Farrar Straus Giroux for Wiman, Viking Penguin for Homes--so presumably different designers. It can only be coincidence, yet the coincidence seems meaningful, as though Wallace Stevens and Kierkegaard somehow share a wavelength with characters who say things like "I want your cock in my hole" and kill each other with lamps.

Some of the greatest literature of the 19th century navigated a secret, subterranean river that connected the sordid to the sacred: Baudelaire, Dostoevsky. This deep, dark river has been mostly unexplored since--though Flannery O'Connor and Mary Gaitskill seemed to know it was there. And maybe some designer-for-hire also knows, and planted a clue in these two could-not-be-more-different books, wondering if anyone would even notice. And I have, and the sacral overtones in Homes's title suddenly seem all too appropriate....