Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Kevin Powers, _The Yellow Birds_

A FEW OF the reviews I saw compared Powers's prose to Hemingway's.  I'm not sure.  This is from the first paragraph:

As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers.

Papa, I believe, would have dodged even so harmless a redundancy as "cities and towns," and I would be very surprised to learn he ever described anything as "windswept." Hemingway has his lyrical effects, to be sure, but would he go for the alliteration of "grass greened" and "weather warmed" in the same sentence? I must demur. Powers may owe something to such students of E.H. as James Salter, but his writing is not all that reminiscent of E. H. himself.

It's a good novel, though, a strong debut. He'll have to do better than this to claim posterity's attention, I think, and as far as fiction about our current conflicts goes, the gold has to go to Ben Fountain, but I assigned this book for a course I teach on the literature of war, and I think my students will go for it.

Our course begins with the Iliad, and I am hoping a few of my students will notice that the novel's protagonist and narrator, John Bartle, is dealing with the loss of a comrade who was a close friend, a loss for which he feels partly responsible, a loss moreover that led him to some excessive actions. The Yellow Birds is a realistic novel, with artful arrangements of narrative chronology and closely observed contemporary detail and dialogue, but ticking away at its heart is the old, old tale of Achilles and Patroclus.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Aimee Bender, _The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake_

IT'S NOT REALLY magical realism, so we need some new name for the spooky neighborhoods, the familiar but tinged-with-supernatural-dread houses and lawns of Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and Aimee Bender. I'm not up for it today, but someone needs to get to work on that.

Whatever we call it, it's appealing.  Bender renders Los Feliz with the same exactness as to streets and shops with which Joyce rendered 1904 Dublin, but the lives of her characters are more like those of characters in Hawthorne or E. T. A. Hoffmann.

Rose Edelstein, protagonist and narrator of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, reminds one a bit of Mona Gray from An Invisible Sign of My Own (intelligent and articulate, but situated at an oblique angle from other people and from her own emotions), but reminds me even more of Eliza Naumann in Myla Goldberg's Bee Season.

Like Eliza, while still a girl Rose discovers she possesses a preternatural ability, an ability moreover that stirs the faultlines in her family.  Rose, like Eliza, has a mother who is likely to get carried away, a father withdrawn into his own pursuits, and a gifted older brother who has trouble connecting to the world. Her family, like Eliza's, comes unglued. Like Eliza, she eventually has to decide to take her life into her own hands.

Bee Season ends before we know how Eliza will fare, but indicators look promising for Rose.  Rather than flee her gift, as her brother does, or resent it, as her grandfather did, or simply do his best to avoid it, as her father does, or never quite figure out what it is, as her mother does, Rose faces her gift, owns it, steps into it, decides to make it work if she possibly can.

A bit more uplift than Bee Season, then.  Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I'm not up for deciding that today, either.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

James Salter, _All That Is_

IT MUST HAVE been decades ago that I first heard or read about how great a writer James Salter is--long enough ago, at any rate, that it became downright embarrassing that I had not gotten around to reading him. Well, he has a new novel out this year, so the time has come.

And a great writer he is.

I often tell my students that that they cannot expect to get much done with adjectives--but then look what Salter can get done with them:

In the morning there was England, green and unknown beneath broken clouds. [...] They turned onto a wide avenue, The Mall, with the dense green of a park alongside and black iron fence peeling past. At its end, far off, was a great pale arch.

Each adjective--green, unknown, broken, wide, dense, black, iron, great, pale--feels indispensable. But besides conjuring a visual backdrop, Salter seems to have folded in the perspective of someone new to the place.  And then we have the musical effects, "peeling past," park/far/arch.

Not only is there the cool grace of the prose, but Salter also begins, develops, and ends his scenes with the unfussy aplomb of a master. I was struck by this, which opens the chapter after a chapter in which the protagonist, Philip Bowman, buys a house:

The year he had the house, the spring of that year and the summer were the happiest time of his life although some of the earlier times he had forgotten.

Roth is the master of the little proleptic bombshell, the quick allusion to a catastrophe ahead in the next turn of the narrative, but I don't know if even Roth could better "the year he had the house" as a signal that circumstances are about to sucker-punch our protagonist.

Just as cool, just as apparently effortless, are Salter's shifts from one character's perspective to another's, sometimes in the same scene, sometimes devastatingly, as in the chapter "Forgiveness."

Finally, there is a feeling of lightly carried wisdom, the the novelist has seen a lot, done a lot, thought a lot--even with the greatest contemporary novelists, I rarely feel this. Shirley Hazzard is the other living novelist who gives me that feeling, perhaps the only other one. Salter contemplates his characters with that same unruffled equanimity, that same stoic acceptance that yes, like it or not, this is what people do.

The novel follows Bowman from his service in the Navy, in the Pacific, during World War II, to about the time he turns sixty.  After the war, he becomes a book editor at a small but prestigious publisher, but we learn much less about his career than we do about his relationships with women--Vivian, whom he marries but soon divorces, the Englishwoman Enid, Christine, who winds up getting the house he bought, Anet, who is Christine's daughter--revenge? probably--and finally Ann, who works at the same publishing house. Philip and Ann are contemplating a trip to Venice when the book ends--Bowman reminds me not at all of Gustav von Aschenbach, but I did get a feeling this would be his last trip.

There is something "goodbye to all that" in All That Is. In 1944, when Bowman begins his adult life, men are securely in charge of the world, martial valor is the unmistakable sign of manhood, and the novel is the pre-eminent cultural form. By the time the novel ends, though, Bowman has noticed that "the power of the novel in the nation's culture had weakened" and that women like Susan Sontag our now calling the tune, with such pronouncements as "film is the supreme art of the century," that military service has become something only boys who cannot afford college undertake...in short, all has changed.

In this respect--an unlikely comparison, I admit--All That Is puts me in mind of Abdelrahman Munif's Cities of Salt (a great book, if you have not read it), the most powerful illustration I have yet read of the truth that historical change is mainly imperceptible while it is occurring, yet tectonically profound over a lifetime.

While it is true that the novel is not the cultural cynosure it was at the end of World War II, I have to say that the scenes of All That Is that are set in the 50s and 60s make Mad Men look silly and shallow. There are still a few things at which the novel is hard to surpass, given the right novelist, and evoking the texture of the daily life of an antecedent era may be one of them.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Christian Wiman, _My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer_

STILL MULLING OVER the unlikely congruencies between this and the novel I happened to be reading at the same time, A. M. Homes's May We Be Forgiven (see "Font Dissonance," July 8). Wiman's book predisposed me to see the religious dimension of Homes's novel: the title, of course, the phrase "a prayer, an incantation" that occurs at the book's opening and close, the bar mitzvah scene, the Yom Kippur scene with is alphabetic recitation of sins. Homes's novel predisposed me to see everything that was unsettling, even disturbing in Wiman's book, the shadow of anguish that falls over it, its awareness of our irreparability.

My Bright Abyss often put me in mind of Pascal's Pensées--a mosaic of mini-essays thematically grouped, the prose somehow combining lyricism and gravitas, the concerns predominantly "modern," i.e., belonging to a moment in which faith cannot take itself for granted, and has to become aware of itself.

It's a powerful and touching book; Wiman does not spend a lot of time on the cancer he's been fighting, or on his wife and daughters, but we get enough to see that he has been stretched tightly between great joy and great pain for some years now, and that every realization he comes to in the book has cost him something.

It's hard to say who the book is for, who its audience is. Something about the presentation suggests that Farrar Straus & Giroux figured it for the Spiritual But Not Religious crowd, but Wiman seems to acknowledge that church matters to him, and he is very specifically Christian in his theology.  He mentions an editor objecting that one of the chapters has "too much Christ" in it--too much for whom? For the SBNRs, I suspect.

On the other hand, the book hardly belongs in the company of the anodyne volumes found abundantly in Catholic or evangelical bookstores. If My Bright Abyss were placed next to a Joel Osteen book, the Osteen would shrivel to dry powder and scatter in the hot desert wind gusting from Wiman's pages.

In some ways the book is its own audience, an audience that includes doubters, hecklers, naysayers. "If I ever sound like a preacher in these passages, it's only because I have a hornet's nest of voluble and conflicting parishioners inside of me," Wiman writes. As Pascal seemed to be often talking to himself, in dialogue with himself, so Wiman characterizes his writing as "exhortations to myself, mostly." Mostly--not entirely.

Wiman returns more than once to the idea that "faith in God is, finally, faith in change." Can we say "yes" to an endless process of transformation that will eventually take away everything we hold precious, will even extend to our own personal extinction as a body? To revert to Homes's novel, Harry Silver has to find a way to commit himself to just such an unpredictable hurricane of events, has to roll with it as Job had to roll with it. Wiman too finds a way to say yes.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A. M. Homes, _May We Be Forgiven_

I HAD READ two or three of Homes's short stories in Granta and elsewhere and found them worthwhile without feeling any urge to look into her novels.  She was a dab hand at describing fucked-up families--but that talent is not in short supply these days. I don't know why I went ahead and took a chance on this--something was whispering to me in the reviews, I suppose--but I did, and it is superb.

The novel opens on Thanksgiving, the fucked-up family holiday par excellence.  Our narrator and main character, married but childless Nixon scholar (shades of White Noise?) Harry Silver, has the hots for the wife of his younger, more successful, richer, altogether more intimidating brother,=
George. George is involved in an auto accident in which a hispanic couple is killed and begins behaving erratically; while he in a hospital under observation, Harry and George's wife Jane (shades of The Jetsons?) begin an affair. George sneaks out of the hospital, comes home, discovers them in bed, and smashes Jane's head in with a lamp. He is taken into custody again, and Harry now has to look after his brother's house and kids.

That all happens in the first twenty pages. Things slow down a bit at that point--but not much.

 The novel streams past in short episodes (no chapters, parts. sections, or other divisions) narrated by Harry in the present tense, and something about that stylistic decision (I don't think I've read another first-person fiction of this length written in the present tense) makes every development seem like a surprise. Lots more happens to Harry: he has a stroke, his wife leaves him, he loses his job, he begins hooking up with strangers via internet dating services, and everything seems to come out of the clear blue sky like a boulder thrown by a dyspeptic god.

Some of the events seem implausible, and intentionally so--the dog has kittens--but even the strangest have a subtle believability almost by virtue of their unpredictability, as in an inspired improvisational comedy sketch.  Characters who seem mere walk-on types suddenly acquire nuance and depth, tawdry situations become poignant, chance begins to seem like design.

Improv may even be the key to the novel. Harry learns to say Yes, and. In a sea of turbulent uncertainty, he learns to tread water and then to swim.  He turns out to have a knack for parenting. He gets the opportunity to edit Nixon's fiction. Women begin to find him intriguing. He embraces the herbal remedies of the shaman in the South African village where his nephew decides to have his bar mitzvah--Homes makes even that seem believable--and is finally able to pass his magnum opus on Nixon like a giant, barnacled kidney stone.

Somehow, his utterly fucked-up decision to make a play at his sister-in-law has led to a train of choices and contingencies that add up, by the time a year has elapsed since that fateful Thanksgiving,  to a strangely happy ending.  Harry still stands in need of being forgiven, of course, as the final sentence and title remind us.

In the acknowledgements, Homes thanks Zadie Smith, "who asked the question that got the whole thing going." What was the question?  My guess: the brief italicized bit at the opening: "Was there ever a time you thought--I am doing this on purpose, I am fucking up and I don't know why."  Some of the characters in Smith's NW certainly had reason to find themselves thinking that, as Harry does. Something in both novels seems to be about finding the other in the self, shaking hands with the stranger inside we have lived with all our lives; in Smith's book, it's a short cut to trouble, but in Homes's, it has something liberating.  For all the damage Harry SIlver's decisions do, we're left with a sense of the possibilities for himself and others that he has opened up.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Tom Driberg, _Ruling Passions_

I PROPOSE AS a general rule that you are in for a treat whenever you pick up the autobiography of anyone who crossed paths with Evelyn Waugh in the 1920s. Waugh's own A Little Learning, likable as it is, is not even the cream of the crop, considering the set includes Anthony Powell's To Keep the Ball Rolling, Cyril Connolly's Enemies of Promise and The Unquiet Grave, Harold Acton's Memoirs of an Aesthete and the even better More Memoirs of an Aesthete, Henry Green's Pack My Bag, and the volume under consideration here.

Tom Driberg's name was familiar to me from reading about London in the 1920s and 1930s. I knew he was a gossip columnist and  therefore likely to have known just about everyone, but I had no idea--we get glimpses not only of the people you would expect (Brian Howard, Guy Burgess, Edith Sitwell), but also of Aleister Crowley (Driberg tells a great story about a trick played on that Prince of Darkness), Nikita Krushchev, Dwight Eisenhower, Alfred Hitchcock, and Aung San--that is, the father of Aung San Soo Kyi. He was a one-time member of the Communist Party and a High Church Anglican; he was a gossip columnist and a member of the House of Commons.

Your having known everyone scarcely suffices to make your autobiography interesting, of course; you have to be able to write.  Driberg can really write. His prose has that bracing cocktail of Oxford erudition plus journalistic brio that the writing of the late Christopher Hitchens had--always graceful, never dull.

Driberg was also an out gay man at a time when that was a tricky and not exactly legal proposition. He mentions the "twofold theme of this book--that it is possible for a practicing homosexual to do an adequate job in public life, but that if it is known that he is homosexual he will be subject to discrimination." This theme does appear intermittently, though without being fully developed--Driberg died before the book was finished, and perhaps there would have been more on this twofold theme had he lived longer.  But its frankness (and lack of sentimentality) about Driberg's personal life makes the book all the more appealing and worthwhile.