Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, _Americanah_

ADICHIE'S THIRD NOVEL has some of the scope of her second (Half of A Yellow Sun, about Biafra and the Nigerian civil war), since it is set on three continents, but also some of the intimacy of her first (Purple Hibiscus), since it focuses on a particular couple. I would say it is not quite as satisfying as either of those books, but certainly worthwhile.

Adichie has become one of my favorite novelists. Her prose is supple and brisk. She has a new subject matter: not the rural villages of the classic African novels, but the world of the educated, prosperous, and cosmopolitan. (The educated, prosperous, and cosmopolitan get more than their share of attention in most national literatures, I know, but in African literature they have been scarce, so it feels like Adichie is filling a yawning gap.) Best of all, Adichie's has a true novelist's eye and ear.  She notices things, she knows how people talk, she knows how to make her novel's world pop into being in your readerly imagination.

Americanah concerns Ifemelu and Obinze, secondary school sweethearts in Lagos. Circumstances separate them--Ifemelu departs on a scholarship to an American university; Obinze, after a difficult sojourn in the U.K., returns to Nigeria to a comfy job in the family business and an arranged marriage. Years later, Ifemelu comes home. Will their affair re-ignite?

Well, duh.  Yes.

Oddly, though, this is the least interesting part of the book. It barely seems to interest Adichie, who dashes rather cursorily through the reunion and the renewal of the affair. The novel seems much, much more interested in Ifemelu's years in the United States, which, truth to tell, are quite a bit more interesting than anything that goes on between her and Obinze.  We get her take on being an African in America, her take on African-Americans, her take on the men she is attracted to and who are attracted to her, her alliances, her antagonists, her friends, her loved ones, including a young male cousin struggling to grow up in a culture that sees young black males as the scariest of threats. We get several of her blog entries, which are always sharp and funny and would make good reading all on their own. Her conversations in the hair salon--a recurring element--are a highlight of the book.

One feels that the novel wanted Ifemelu's American wanderjahre to be some necessary maturation that prepares for the fulfillment of her homecoming, but she's more interesting when she is wandering.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Dave Eggers, _Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?_

I READ THIS on a long plane trip about five weeks ago. In the early going, it reminded me a bit of Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint--first, because it is all dialogue, and second, because in the first chapter one speaker has gone to a reckless, indignant extreme in his desire to hold the powers to be responsible for their wrongdoing, and the other speaker is trying to talk him down.

Hard to imagine Leon Wieseltier taking time out of his busy day to scotch this snake, though, because it turns out what we have is more of a radio play. The reckless, indignant, somewhat crazed kidnapper of chapter one turns out to be Thomas, a no-longer-young man whose life has never quite found its track. His whole generation, he feels, has been gypped, and he embarks on a series of kidnappings trying to get to the bottom of the scam, keeping his victims (most of whom he knows and all of whom he holds to some degree accountable) tied up in the barracks of a de-commissioned military base while he questions/harangues them.

As the interrogations/harangues proceed, Thomas seems less and less the John Brown of the millennials and more and more someone who just never solved the puzzle of being an adult. The people whom he forces onto the witness stand of this improvised trial--a worldly senator, a substance-abusing mom, a pedophile former teacher, the policeman who perhaps unnecessarily gunned down one of Thomas's friends--all turn out to be, as we hear them speak, not the clichés they come on stage as, but ordinary fallible people trying to figure out how to live. Thomas wants to turn them into the power-abusing villains who have wrecked his and his generation's hopes, but they all turn out to be just people trying, like him, to get by somehow. With every interview, one's conviction grows that Thomas is basically a (mostly) good-hearted fuckup, and that things have failed to pan out for him for the most obvious and ordinary kind of reasons.

Thomas is about to be captured as the novel ends; we don't have much hope for his future, although he does seem to have stumbled upon a vocation, having demonstrated a rare and real talent for kidnapping.

Whatever happened to radio plays, anyway? I would definitely give this a listen if NPR, say, gave it two hours.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Knausgaard vs. "speculative fiction"

FOR ADMIRERS OF genre fiction, I often have occasion to notice, it is not enough that their favorite reading sells by the truckload and is readily available at airports, drugstores, and such. No, they are not satisfied with mere popularity; they envy literary fiction's prestige, reduced to rags though it is.

Case in point, Marcel Theroux's review of Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things in the November 2 New York Times Book Review,  which after several hyperbolic paragraphs ends so: "Defiantly unclassifiable, 'The Book of Strange New Things' is, among other things, a rebuke to the credo of literary seriousness for which there is no higher art than a Norwegian man taking pains  to describe his breakfast cereal."

Oh, is it, now? It will take more than big scoops of praise for Jules Verne's latest descendant for me to feel rebuked, I can tell you that, especially since the praise admits--e.g., in the phrase "taking a standard science fiction premise and unfolding it with the patience and focus of a tai chi master"--that the work in question squats squarely within the familiar tropes of its genre.

Obviously, The Book of Strange New Things is another instance of the kind of thing one likes  if one likes this kind of thing--not that strange and not that new, certainly not as strange and new as a writer persuading you, for the first time in your life, to be mindful of your breakfast cereal.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Karl Ove Knausgaard, _My Struggle_, vol. 1

OKAY, GO AHEAD, say it--"Theobald's been drinking the Kool-Aid again!" Any time any writer starts getting plenty of buzz, I line up like the sucker I am, plunk down my $16 (in the present instance), and start at page one like a good little sheep...

...thing is, the buzz sometimes gets it right. The buzz led me to David Foster Wallace in the 1990s, and thereafter I bought every books the week it came out. In the oh-ties, the buzz led me to Roberto Bolaño, and no, I have not read them all, but I've read six, and they were all worthwhile. Thomas Bernhard, W. G. Sebald, James McCourt?  Buzz, buzz, and buzz. Believe me, you can do a sight worse than lend an ear to the buzz.

Take Knausgaard. Is My Struggle as compelling as the somewhat baffled reviewers keep telling us it is? Well...in a word, and somewhat to my surprise, yes. The comparison to Proust does not strike me as quite just, even though they both can describe the baldest, most ordinary event with the same extraordinary infinite patience; Proust's sentences seem symphonic to me, Knausgaard's like a drunk man's tour of the neighborhood. Knausgaard seems to me more like Wallace, the later Wallace of The Pale King, made ill by the society of the spectacle but unable to look away, the big wooly sentences with their demotic clumps, the unwillingness to dismiss anything as not worth mentioning.

My increasingly Ranciére-ified sense of things has been leading me to think of the history of the novel as the history of attention, the ever-extending, ever-broadening search to find the poetry and tragedy in lives, places, and events that had been previously written off as beneath literature's notice. Defoe, Sterne, Austen, Flaubert, Eliot (G.), Joyce, Proust, Woolf...they all opened up territory by daring to bring into the novel material that the novel up to their time had deemed insignificant. This is why, for me, Nicholson Baker is an important contemporary writer, but John Irving or Jonathan Franzen, not so much.

Knausgaard may not be in Proust's class, exactly, but a writer who can keep you interested in a teenager's attempt to score beer for a party or in the elbow-busting effort to clean the squalor of a dead father's house--the novel has not been here before, and here we are, silent, upon a peak in Darien.

And that account of his teenage band's first gig at that shopping mall...damn near perfect. I almost feel I was in that band.  God knows I was in several all too similar to it....

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Julie Schumacher, _Dear Committee Members_

I HAD TO stop reading this for a few weeks when I was about a third of the way in--it was just too sad. Not as sad as John Williams's Stoner, perhaps; the unlucky English professor in Schumacher's novel is often his own worst enemy, given to angry hyperbole, airing of old grievances, and intemperate rants of all kinds, and thus not nearly as sympathetic or as cruelly thwarted as poor Prof. Stoner. But little to nothing has gone as it was supposed to go for Jason Fitger, and seeing him make his bad situation worse from week to week is rough if you identify with him a little, as I, Lord help me, do.

Schumacher has hit on the extraordinary device of revealing Fitger's works and days through an epistolary novel that is all recommendation letters, all of them by Fitger, written over the course of one academic year. Most of the letters are on behalf of current or former students desperately hoping to catch on somewhere in a professional world that has little regard for the humanities in which they have been trained.

Fitger writes many letters on behalf of Darren Browles, a doctoral candidate, whose success Fitger hopes will revive the floundering graduate creative writing program he heads. Browles has been working away for years on a massive historical novel in which Melville's scrivener Bartleby works in a bordello. Unsurprisingly, every editor, agent, foundation, and writer's colony Fitger tries to interest in Browles takes a pass.

In his letters, Fitger seems unable to stop himself from diving tangentially into such topics as the decline of the humanities, the parlous state of the English department's facilities, his ex-wife, his ex-girlfriends, his clueless department chair, his several-bricks-shy-of-a-load colleagues, and...you get the picture. In his letters, he's a complaint machine with a gift for invective, the principal power of which seems to be to worsen his own situation. Everyone is pissed off at him, and as readers, we know exactly why.

We also gradually learn about his past, his apprenticeship in the legendary workshop of H. Reginald Hanf (which seems to have the status of being a Stegner Fellow, say, or working with Gordon Lish), the friends and enemies he made there, the tell-all roman à clef he wrote about it, and so on, leading to his now-ended marriage, his appointment at Payne University (too obvious a touch, maybe--the chair is named Boti), and the mess he generally is in.

But the clouds clear a bit towards the end. For all his cantankerousness, Fitger is generous, does really value the humanities, and sincerely hopes to help his students. Thanks to Fitger's letters, one of them hits it big with a novel about a human-cheetah hybrid, and an old friend, a shy man but a conscientious craftsman, gets a spot in a writers' colony. No such luck for Browles--his fate resembles John Kennedy Toole's, without much prospect for posthumous vindication. But Fitger does struggle towards some kind of reconciliation  with his exes, with his former colleagues in the workshop, and even gets voted chair of the department. Now, I have immediate and empirical cause to know that becoming chair of an English department is not the very happiest of endings, but Schumacher gives us at least a little dry, firm land after this often brinily hilarious march through Fitger's Slough of Despond.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

David Runciman, _The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present_

LIKE A GOOD many people, perhaps including yourself, I spent a portion of last summer dutifully doing my best to read Thomas Piketty's Capital, getting not quite two hundred pages in. Well, I tried. Perhaps I will finish next summer, too late to be altogether au courant, but it's been a good while (decades!) since I was even close to being au courant, so I may as well just relax and not have a panic attack about it. I hope we are of one mind on that.

I did, however, manage to read this--comparatively a romp at 326 pages, lucid, witty,  illuminating, and buzz-worthy, not that I noticed it getting a lot of buzz. I think of it in conjunction with Capital because much of the power of Piketty's book (I read enough to discern) was his ability to combine his extraordinary sophistication as an economist with an historian's patient perseverance in working through an enormous archive, and Runciman's book is persuasive because of his ability to combine his expertise as a political scientist with a nuanced grasp of twentieth century history.

Runciman's book springs from Tocqueville's insights (have I mentioned that I love Democracy in America? I do, reader, I do) into what democracies tend not to do well. One, they are bad at solving deep, long-term problems, because democratic politicians have difficulty seeing beyond the horizon of the next election; two, they are fumbling and inefficient in the early stages of any crisis, because they do not have the total, speedy, centralized authority of dictators.

He then looks at seven twentieth century crises (involving a suddenly emerging threat, or a need to think about the long-term, or both) and tries to understand how democracy, despite its disadvantages, was able to pull its chestnuts out of the fire in time: the aftermath of World War, the Great Depression, the aftermath of World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the energy crisis of the early 1970s, the 1989 fall of the Soviet bloc and later the USSR itself, and the 2008 slump.

Runciman has sufficiently mastered the history of these crises to narrate them briskly and analyze them cogently. In each instance, democracy avoided catastrophe. What he wants to emphasize, though, is that it was by no means inevitable that democracy would succeed. Democracies can fail, and he also shows how narrowly it sometimes escaped failing in these crises.

Hence his title. A record of success can persuade us that democracy will always find a solution, whatever the problem, and that politicians will get what they have to get done when they absolutely have to.  This can make us complacent, and complacency could be our undoing:

   So democracy becomes a game of chicken. When things get really bad, we will adapt. Until they get really bad, we need not adapt, because democracies are ultimately adaptable. Both sides [i.e., Democrats and Republicans, Labor and Tories] play this game. Games of chicken are harmless, until they go wrong, at which they become lethal.

Runciman points to four contemporary challenges--militarization, financial regulation, climate change, and the new economic power of China--of the sort that democracy tends to fudge, defer, or ignore. Democracy may very well be able to meet these challenges, but we  should not assume that the solutions will come about of themselves, out of a complacent conviction that democracy is just that good. That is the "confidence trap." Democracies, even ours, can fail, if we forget there is no one at the tiller but ourselves.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Joyce Carol Oates, _The Accursed_

MICHAEL DIRDA IS not a reviewer whose advice I normally heed, but I was just finishing up an independent  study with three enthusiastic students of the classic Gothic novels when he praised both this and Oates's latest, Carthage, in the NYRB, quoting Stephen King's opinion that The Accursed is "the world's finest postmodern Gothic novel."

I was unlikely ever to be better positioned to appreciated a Gothic novel, for one thing, and since Oates is a "major American writer" according to Dirda and quite a few other people, it was high time I read one of her books, no? So, The Accursed it was.

Oates is, so far as I can tell, not a big deal in my (essentially academic) world; certainly not as big a deal as Toni Morrison or Margaret Atwood, who outgun her 3- or 4-to-1 in an EBSCO peer-reviewed article search, nor as big a deal in the MFA world as Lydia Davis, Raymond Carver, Thomas Bernhard, and so on. She gets admiring reviews and sells well, but she does not get assigned at the pace that even Sandra Cisneros does. Is academia unfair to JCO?

Not so unfair as all that, I would answer, on the basis of this novel...which was interesting enough to finish, though, and that is saying something at 667 pages. A mysterious evil plagues the leading families of the village of Princeton, NJ, in 1905-06, and one gradually susses that straight white elite class males, complacently wallowing in unexamined privilege since 1776, are inclined to interpret the mounting claims of women, the working class, ethnic minorities, gays, and other marginalized folks as demonic  possession, an evil fit that has to be valiantly combated but will eventually pass. No such luck, as the subsequent history of the 20th century will show.

A really good idea--but a 600+ idea? It wore a little thin at that length, I thought. For one thing, most of the book is narrated by local historian M. W. Van Dyck, to whom Oates has given a Polonius-like rotundity of phrase and intellectual vapidity that is, while appropriate, wearying unto death. I needed frequent breaks from the prose of Mr. Van Dyck. For another thing, Upton Sinclair's writing of The Jungle is loosely knit into the novel, and Oates's vision of Sinclair seemed to me several degrees less insightful than of Chris Bachelder in U.S.!

I should probably read another Oates (one of the realistic ones--but which?) before I permanently assign her to my personal reader's limbo of don't-bother, but next time I need a dollop of American Gothic, it's Shirley Jackson for me.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Spencer Reece, _The Road to Emmaus_

HERE I WAS not too long ago (August 10) getting snippy about how dull the poetry coming out of FSG can be--only to come across this just a little while later, which turns out to be excellent.

(Another danger sign--"Log-Rolling Ahead"--was that Reece had blurbed Richard Blanco's Looking for the Gulf Motel, which I had recently read, and Blanco had reciprocated by blurbing this. Whenever I notice this going on, I'm less inclined than I might have been to give either blurb much credence. But here too my skepticism turned out to be unfounded. )

What is excellent about it? Well there is the title poem, which appeared in Best American Poetry 2012 and is the main reason I took a chance on this volume. It's a poem of some length, a little over twenty pages, about a man Reece knew years ago, apparently through AA or a similar program, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  "Durell" is his name in the poem; he is a bit of a mess, despite coming from a somewhat distinguished family and having received an elite education.   Things just didn't work out. But Reece "needed a liberator / and liberators can come in some unexpected guises"--just as, he goes on to mention, Jesus after his death appeared in an unexpected guise to some of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, so far indeed from his usual appearance that only after the stranger had disappeared did they realize to whom they had been talking. Similarly, Reece is, many years on, still unpacking what Durell meant to him. Durell had been long estranged from his family, but after his death, Reece tracks down Durell's sister, trying to get at who the man was. He is not quite able to say, but does come up these extraordinary lines, quoted by Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss: "All I know now / is the more he loved me, the more I loved the world."

"The Road to Emmaus" is a highlight, but there are other extraordinary long poems here: "Gilgamesh," where Reece's relationship with another man is convincingly braided with a queer reading of the Babylonian epic; "Hartford," a prose-poem or perhaps a D'Agatian "next American essay" about the city where Reece was born, which with subtle sleight of hand blends Bob Marley, Wallace Stevens, and Mary Macleod Bethune; "The Upper Room," another poem that convincingly binds a New Testament story to the poet's memory of a particular time in his life.

Reece is a priest in the Reformed Episcopal Church, and much of the book is about spiritual concerns, but you will have to go elsewhere if you are looking for uplift and consolation; we're just barely out of the Slough of Despond most of the time here, and staying out is a fairly arduous business. There is lots of elegant dry wit to get by on, though, as when Reece describes the figure on the silver crucifix he wears, "a man I now relied on," as "a childless, bachelor Jew, slightly feminine," or as when a slightly acid-flavored portrait of an elderly couple ("she is reading Vita Sackville-West, / he has food on his moth-eaten sweater vest") is titled "The Fifth Commandment"--that is, "Honor thy father and thy mother."

Friday, August 15, 2014

Richard Blanco, _Looking for the Gulf Motel_

I PICKED THIS up because I enjoyed Blanco's inauguration poem (okay, yes, it did take me a while to get around to reading the book) for its Whitman-like qualities: its long lines, its deep-breath sweep, its embrace of the details of many different kinds of lives. Turns out, that's not the way he usually writes--at least, there is nothing of that sort in this book, but it was worthwhile all the same.

In Looking for the Gulf Motel, at least, Blanco is not really a wide-screen, Whitman kind of poet. His subject matter comes mainly from the intimate and close-to-home, family, partners, memories of growing up. His form is loosely closed, the lines perhaps not technically iambic pentameter but recalling iambic rhythms, with a penchant for 5- and 6-line stanzas.

His poetic voice is one of those that makes you think the poet is probably a terrific person to hang out with--perceptive, honest, sometimes quite funny, capable of deep attachment. This means nothing, I realize. I've met poets whose work was light, bright, and sparkling, but seemed mired in depression themselves, and poets whose work was of a funereal grimness, yet were an absolute hoot to spend time with. But, as Will Cuppy once wrote, great writers should be read, not met.  The two hours (say) you spend reading this book will feel like time  pleasantly spent.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Christian Wiman, _Every Riven Thing_

I READ WIMAN'S My Bright Abyss about a year ago, and re-read it this summer as part of a group, so it seemed like a good time to try his poetry. He included quite a few of these in My Bright Abyss, so I knew more or less what to expect, but they still came as a bit of a surprise.

Wiman's having outed himself, so to speak, as a Christian believer led me to expect all his poems to be roughly of the sort that we hear Garrison Keillor read in the morning: close observation of an ordinary scene, a slightly more graceful version of ordinary speech, a teaspoon of affirmation lightly concealed in the close. Wiman can do that sort of thing--"From a Window" is a good example.

But his usual vein is more wrought, more knotted, more clotted. This is from "Hermitage":

                He found
shells brittling back toward their sea,
leaves and twigs more sun
than themselves, and a thousand other fragments
eternity was tugging at,
and wrought it all into a tenuous, tenacious form
as if he were founding ruins--
a man who himself seemed half-born.
half hewn, his skin mapped
with damage, sweat slicking the juts and
cliffs of flesh, eyes so like the sky
he seemed at once all-seeing and all skull.

Wiman's music is not always that percussive and emphatic, but the above is not an atypical passage. There's something of Browning's or Donne's willingness to make noise. Or Hopkins's willingness to fracture the poem's surface, creating a kaleidoscopic effect:

until my fixed self, my fluorescent self
my grief-nibbling, unbewildered, wall-to-wall self
withers in me like a salted slug

He seems to want to connect with the tradition of religious poetry that gives itself permission to be difficult, something you have to wrestle with--Donne, Hopkins, Eliot (or Herbert, who is a shade more accessible than Donne but not at all easy, if you ask me).  The title poem in Every Riven Thing, for instance, is nothing but knuckle balls, its statements looking plain enough until you take a swing at one and find yourself whiffing.

That teaspoon of affirmation is usually there...much more than lightly concealed, though.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Aravind Adiga, _The White Tiger_

HOW OFTEN DOES a first novel win the Man Booker? With a quick internet check, we learn that Adiga was preceded in that accomplishment by Keri Hulme, DBC Pierre, and Salman Rushdie (if we don't count Grimus). An odd assortment, I'd say. The White  Tiger is the goods, though.

Adiga has found a terrific voice for the narrator, for instance; the whole novel is an immense memo to (then) Chinese Premier We Jiabao, explaining how free market capitalism works in India, which turns into an account of how Balram Halwai became the successful entrepreneur he is today. Balram's voice begins in bluster, swings into satire, and finally plunges into confession. He makes every page interesting.

As in, say, The Great Gatsby, our theme is self-invention; unlike Gatsby, in The White Tiger we hear directly from the self-inventor himself.  Self-invention is never easy, but Gatsby had something of an advantage in being in the country that invented it, rather than in a country with a millennia-old caste system, where your ancestors have been in the same village doing the same work for centuries, and your very name broadcasts your lot in life. Balram has to generate genuinely terrifying amounts of escape velocity to get out of what he was born to it--and that is just what he so memorably does.

That yeasty old class ferment of prejudice and ambition that proved so heady for Balzac and Dickens is still cooking away in the sub-continent, it appears.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Wong May, _Picasso's Tears: Poems 1978-2013_

I WROTE A short review of this that I hope will appear elsewhere, so here I will simply (a) note that I do not expect to see a more intriguing volume of poems this year and (b) take David Orr to task.

 In his NYTBR review of James Franco's new book of poems (July 20), Orr imagined that "if James Franco were just another M.F.A. student struggling to catch the attention of the two part-time employees of Origami Arthropod Press, he'd probably be reading this piece and fuming about all the attention being given, yet again, to James Franco."

Is there a whiff of condescension in there towards those two part-time employees? I think there is, and it is surely misplaced. Those two part-time employees of Orr's imaginary poetry publisher are probably both poets, hence much likelier to recognize exciting poetry when they see it than are their counterparts at FSG or Knopf or maybe even Graywolf and Sarabande. I, for one, would be a lot more curious to see what is on offer at the fictional "Origami Arthropod Press" than I would be to see the next Copper Canyon volume. So three big huzzahs for the poet-publishers at Octopus, and Action Books, and Wave, and Omnidawn, and Apostrophe, and all the other enterprises where a great era in American poetry is underway in, as usual, a place where almost no one would notice it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Barbara Ehrenreich, _Living with a Wild God: A Nonbeliever's Search for the Truth about Everything_

IS BARBARA EHRENREICH really, as the jacket flap announces, "one of the most important thinkers of our time"? She is a terrific journalist--one of those, like Garry Wills or Malcolm Gladwell, who are more worth reading on a given topic than most experts--but the claim still feels like a stretch, to me.

Well.  Moving on.

Living with a Wild God is a memoir with a very specific focus. As a teenager, Ehrenreich had a series of peculiarly charged psychological episodes, in which her powers of perception suddenly, as it were, amped up to a paranormal level, seeming to reveal to her some not-exactly-human agency in things. Sometimes the episodes would have an all-is-one feeling, but the most powerful one, contrarily, conveyed a profound apartness and desolation--like the experience Henry James, Senior (the novelist's father) called his "vastation."

Someone brought up in a religious tradition would likely think of these episodes as mystical experiences, but Ehrenreich, raised by atheists and in those days aiming at a career in the sciences, rejected that possibility.  Nonetheless, she kept a journal in which she (among other things) pondered what the experiences might have meant.

In her early twenties, she got inadvertently sidetracked into anti-Vietnam-war activism, and a whole other life opened up: she became an organizer, a movement journalist, also a wife and mother...became Barbara Ehrenreich, in short, and stopped thinking about the episodes, which had become less frequent, less intense.

About 2001, collecting her papers for a university archive, she comes across the journal, and starts thinking again about the experiences. She is still an atheist, but the life she has lived and the topics she has researched in the intervening years now lead her to wonder if there is indeed some non-human Presence or Other that, for the time being, we are unable to detect or measure, but which we may eventually discover to be as real as microbes, or sub-atomic particles, or black holes, or other entities that existed long before we humans were able to ascertain their existence.

Interesting book.  It often, occasionally for pages at a time, seemed to be turning into a more ordinary memoir, dwelling on her parents, or her teachers, or her early interests without too keen a concern to stay focused on the book's putative topic. Ehrenreich emphasizes that the book is not an autobiography, but any number of pages to which one might open randomly would persuade a reader that an autobiography is exactly what it is.

Still, given the ever-expanding literature on experiences of this sort, and given the way accounts of such experiences veer almost immediately into religious speculation, having a non-believer's account of how such an episode feels together with a non-believer's speculations about its causes is helpful.

Coincidentally, the day after I finished Living with a Wild God, I read a fine essay by Sallie Tisdale (in Conjunctions 61) about her underwater encounters with manta rays, and her sense of the power of engaging with non-human intelligence seemed to resonate with Ehrenreich's. Of one such meeting, Tisdale writes, "I felt blessed--not by some imagined connection, not by recognition or a meeting of minds, but by the strange that will remain forever strange and by its strangeness tell me who I am." Ehrenreich's book is another testimony to the preciousness of that strangeness.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Frank Bidart, _In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-90_

I BOUGHT THIS eight years ago, and I don't remember why, exactly. For some reason I mentally group Bidart with Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, and Richard Howard, all of whom I deeply enjoy, Bishop especially so, but something about his (as I saw it) alignment with those poets or his being published by FSG made me think he was probably a little cautious, maybe even fussy, precise in his craftsmanship and a bit confessional at times but not likely to be audacious or startling...well, wrong again. When will I learn to mistrust my own preconceptions?

Someone, many someones perhaps, must have told Bidart along the way not to resort to ALL CAPS so often, to say nothing of frequent recourse to italics, but he just ignored them, apparently, and good for him. That was my first clue--these are not well-behaved poems, really, and you notice that most immediately when they can't stop themselves from disdained modes of emphasis.

Then, there is Bidart's willingness to ventriloquize the mad, bad, and dangerous to know--Nijinsky, a young anorexic woman, a child murderer. Or this, about a kind of relationship so obviously exploitative and even predatory that one can hardly imagine a redeeming feature, which somehow he nevertheless finds:

The boys who lie back, or stand up,
allowing their flies to be unzipped

however much they charge
however much they charge

give more than they get.

To state the commercial nature of the encounter so plainly, then to say it again, and to italicize it both times--and then to see the encounter as a gift! Not what I was expecting.

Then there are the extraordinarily exposed poems about his parents, "Confessional" and "Golden State," which seem as though they are going to be Lowell-esque but wind up as different from Lowell as California is from Massachusetts.

And then there is "The First Hour of the Night," inaugural installment of a long poem he has, I gather, continued.  The poem starts as a narrative, veers into the ekphrastic about Raphael's School of Athens, then becomes a kind of dream-vision of the history of western philosophy.  It reminded me, in a way I find hard to describe, of Shelley's magnificent fragment The Triumph of Life, one of the last Romantic poems I would expect to find any contemporary analogue for. I need to read the sequels.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Jenny Offill, _Dept. of Speculation_

I HOPE THIS novel is not as autobiographical as one suspects it must be, since just reading it hurts, and living it would be like having every bone broken. But it is an extraordinarily fine book.

The plot is relatively simple. Married couple (he composes music, she writes and teaches) lives in New York City with one young daughter. The husband--otherwise decent, intelligent, even kindly--has an affair.  The wife, our p.o.v. character finds out. They try to mend things, go into counseling, even move to a new town. By the end of the book, they have made some progress.

Sounds like a 350-page package of realistic literary fiction of a fairly ordinary kind, doesn't it? But what we have here is a little more like David Markson or Renata Adler, 177 pages of quick glimpses, sometimes only a sentence or two long, of what the wife sees, hears, does, thinks, writes, feels. For example--to makes end meet, the wife agrees to be the ghost writer of a vanity publishing project, a book about the space program "by" a man who came close to going into space:

A few weeks later, the almost astronaut calls me to tell me that Voyager 2 may be nearing the edge of our galaxy. "Perfect timing," he says. "We'll tie it into marketing."

That's the whole passage. For conveying the particular discombobulation of depending on the exasperating delusions of others for our income, though, one needs no more. The would-be author's faith that the world is still curious about a space probe launched in 1977 or occurrences on the edge of the galaxy makes a perfect analogue to his belief that the world is waiting to hear what he and only he has to say about NASA. But is there any way to bring that up when he is the one writing those checks?

Offill is equally laconic about the traumatized marriage, sometimes devastatingly:

That night, the wife gets up and goes to sleep in her daughter's room.  If he asks, she can lie and say she called for her.

Did he ask? Well, maybe. But we know the crucial thing when we take in her preparing a lie.

Way back in the 1920s, Virginia Woolf asked in the essay "Modern Fiction" whether the novel really needed all the baggage that seemed indispensable to its Edwardian incarnation--the descriptions of clothes and furniture, the trundling of characters from place to place, the long ponderings over marital or career choices, everything that seemed necessary to create the impression of actual life. If you abstracted all that out, she wondered, would you still have a novel?  Then, in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, she showed that yes, you would.

Offill does without all kinds of connective tissue, scene-setting, explanation of motives, dialogue, even proper names, does without any number of things that seem as indispensable to the novel as flour is to bread, and somehow still has a novel, a story about people that seem so real you could touch them, undergoing a pain that almost seems yours. Even the minor characters--the almost astronaut, the daughter, the creative writing student who attempts suicide--have a distinctness and presence that most writers could not approach achieving, even while deploying all the devices Offill has left unexercised.

I noticed that Adler's Speedboat, though published in 1976, got a spot in  The Believer magazine's readers' poll of the best novels of 2013, an annual list in which I do not recall having previously spotted a reprint.  What does that mean?  I myself think it is good news. And Dept. of Speculation, with all its almost unbearable heartache, is even better news. The novel is dead; long live the novel!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Caleb Crain, _Necessary Errors_

CERTAINLY NOT THE first novel about a young literary American at loose ends in the former Soviet bloc--that wave must have peaked ten years ago--but it may be the best.

I've been an admirer of Caleb Crain's writing since his contributions to the much-missed Lingua Franca in the nineties--contributions which, if he is the same age as the novel's Jacob Putnam, he must have made as a mere lad.

Jacob is teaching English as a second language in Czechoslovakia circa 1989-90, and in a neat little irony is doing a lot more learning than teaching, and furthermore, as the title signals, is generally learning in that most indelible of ways, by getting things wrong. Part of the strength of the novel is that it is about a young man of 22 or 23 and does a wholly convincing job of sticking to that point of view, but leavens it with insight gained later (making it seem truly fortunate for us readers that Crain did not publish ten years ago). The young Jacob grasps how extraordinary the experience he is having is, yet at odd moments the narration also lets us see that it is not extraordinary only in the ways he thinks it is.

Sounds like a bildungsroman, no? Well-educated but inexperienced, idealistic but a bit on the make, looking for love but keeping his options open, Jacob joins a long line that runs from Wilhelm Meister to Heinrich Lee to Frederic Moreau to Stephen Dedalus--with a nod to Dorothea Brooke and Isabel Archer as well. I expect this will be the most 19th-century 21st-century novel I will read this year: full, nuanced descriptions of exteriors and interiors; a wealth of richly extensive ensemble scenes; the arc of the development of the young protagonist's soul, a development simultaneously short (one year) and long (full of incident, surprises, blind turns, re-evaluations).

"I hate postmodernism," Jacob declares, and the novel's triple-decker-ish solidity suggests that Crain may be none too enamored of contemporary literary fashion, either. Even so, the novel possesses a willy-nilly po-mo-ism in that Jacob is a bildungsroman character who knows what a bildungsroman is--while in Prague, he is working through La Chartreuse de Parme in French--and in that, as an aspiring writer, he seems to undergo each experience with the intention of sooner or later writing about it. The whole cast, in fact, seem to know they are performing a very old script. Melinda, contemplating leaving her boyfriend for Jacob's fascinating friend Carl, notes that she will need a new place to stay:

     "That's very kind [Jacob has offered her a place in his flat], but I can doss down at the Dum, you know. It's my right as a teacher. Annie will set me up. She's offered to before."
     "Don't they keep track of your comings and goings?"
     "Oh, it's socialism. There's no mistaking it. It would be like taking to a nunnery at the end of a novel."
     "After the rogue leaves," suggested Jacob.
     "Hey," said Carl.

At the core of Necessary Errors is the idea that the truths of maturation upon which the bildungsroman is founded remain true even if one learns all about them while still immature. Jacob, fairly early in the novel, ponders his having found out that his first Czech lover was, actually, a hustler:

It was in trying to sort out this sense of betrayal that he began to have an inkling of the mission he had set himself in Prague. He had to feel his way toward it at first. It was like trying to find something set down absentmindedly in the dark. When he did put a conscious hand in it, it seemed so ridiculous that he nearly drew his hand back. It seemed youthful and foolish. But perhaps it had only become ridiculous because he had abandoned it. Perhaps his abandonment, however temporary or optative had damaged it. [...] But then, abruptly, he found himself inside the idea again--and on the train, too, and looking out the window at the gray sky and black water. He would find it, if he didn't give up. The shadow at least was still here. He would have to find a way to keep patient.

A young man chiding himself for having been youthful, after encountering a disenchantment his reading has long prepared him for; aware of being a cliché, yet through some ghost of an intuition believing the cliché could nonetheless be the making of him...spot on, say I. Necessary Errors honors its 19th century tradition in a resonantly contemporary way.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The YA Question, Part 2: Suzanne Collins, _The Hunger Games_

NONE OF MY "Modern Novel" students felt like writing about this, though two of the novels they did want to write about (Maze Runner and Divergent) seemed at least indirectly indebted to it, being built around the idea of young people in some sort of desperate competition.

Is that the appeal, I wonder? Has the high-stakes testing from an early age and the fierce competition to get into various special programs and elite colleges, combined with the socioeconomic fact of the top 1% getting an increasingly larger share of the pie, given a whole generation the feeling that they are locked in some deadly, winner-take-all competition with each other?

Given the ubiquity of "reality" television, there is something potent, too, in the suggestion of a possible future in which we are not only drugged by spectacle, as Debord argued, but will also be required to provide the spectacle.

To tell you the truth, I found myself enjoying this considerably. The film was a little more interesting, as it was not locked into Catniss's first person narration--what's up with that, by the way?  This, The Fault in Our Stars, Twilight, Fifty Shades of Gray, all young female first-person narrators. I guess that's the way it's done nowadays.

Another good thing about the film was how it looked Walker Evans-ish in the scenes of Catniss's district, then went all Baz Luhrmann in the Capitol. Nice to see there is at least a trace of this in the book as well.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The YA Question, Part 1: John Green, _The Fault in Our Stars_

THIS PAST SPRING, I taught for the eighth or ninth time a course called "Modern Novel." As usual, for the final paper, the students had to read, research, and write on a recent (since 2000) novel of their own choosing. No student had before proposed reading a Young Adult novel, but this year four of them did, nominating The Book Thief, The Maze Runner, Divergent, and this one.

I decided to let all four projects proceed, although I asked the students to include in their papers discussion of the question of YA's relationship to other literary fiction. Basically, they all decided YA was OK.

The question has been circulated a good deal lately, thanks to Ruth Graham at Slate, who took the not-all-that-OK position, and the many people who responded to her. Since, in the line of professional duty, I actually did read The Fault in Our Stars, I figured I was qualified to ring in.

The novel is the first person narrative of a 16-year-old girl who has cancer. In a support group, she meets a boy her age who is in remission after a leg amputation. They fall in love, partly out of shared fandom, both being devotees of a (fictional) novel, An Imperial Affliction. Mystified by the novel's lack of  a proper ending, they use a Make-A-Wish Foundation sort of gift to go to Amsterdam to interview its famously reclusive and curmudgeonly author. No luck on that front, but they do consummate their relationship. However, it turns out the boy's cancer has returned; the last third or so of the book is about his dying.

I would say this is certainly an above-average YA novel. The narrator had her appealing side--she's a reader, obviously, and she was attractively impatient with cliché and even snarky about the support group's drumbeat of positive thoughts. I also appreciated the message that love, even when brief, temporary, and abruptly terminated, even with its promise of inevitable pain, is worthwhile; "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all," as Tennyson wrote, or, as Eliot wrote of "the awful daring of a moment's surrender," "by this, and this only, have we existed." As it may not be a good idea for a 14- or 15-year-old to tackle In Memoriam or The Waste Land, it's good to have something like The Fault in Our Stars around.

However--if one is a grown-up, and capable of reading grown-up books, one is better off doing exactly that, methinks. Given that in this brief, temporary, likely to be abruptly terminated life, one has only so much time to read, you should choose wisely how to spend that time. I acknowledge that my position goes against our broad American follow-your-bliss ethos, but suppose you had a 40-year-old friend who every day had Froot Loops for breakfast, macaroni and cheese for lunch, and pizza for dinner.  Suppose further this friend got no exercise.

Wouldn't you say, "You can't keep eating like a teenager"? Doesn't that guy (has to be a guy, don't you think?) need to re-evaluate how he follows his bliss?

One has to be mindful of the nourishment one takes in and the exercise one gets, no?

The mind too needs nourishment, and the mind too needs exercise. The adult mind is not going to get what it needs from YA.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Hilton Als, _White Girls_

HAVING READ ALS'S reviews here and there for many years, I expected to enjoy this, and some of it I had already read, but I was not at all prepared for anything as ambitious and outside-the-box as the two longer pieces here, "You and Whose Army?" and "Tristes Tropiques."

"You and Whose Army?" seems for a while to be a short story written in the voice of an actress who does vocal overdubs for porn, but then we tumble to the speaker's being Richard Pryor's sister...and then, about the time we realize, "oh, he's re-working Woolf's 'Shakespeare's Sister' passage," we hit a major dismantling of Woolf... and a far from wholly undeserved one, since Woolf has tended to get a free pass on the more rebarbative observations about servants and her Jewish in-laws that show up in her letters and journals. Things only accelerate from there.

Even more inventive and audacious is "Tristes Tropiques," about a... friend? companion? one hardly knows what to designate Als's relationship with the person he calls SL (for "Sir or Lady") in this sustained essay of not quite ninety pages; Als needs that much room to give us the dimensions of this relationship, and by the end of the essay you will know a lot about that relationship while still not having a name tag for it. The references and allusions throughout tend to be esoterically private, completely transparent only to a handful of people, one guesses, but as with James McCourt the insider-liness of the piece somehow manages to be enchanting rather than off-putting.

"Tristes Tropiques" ought to become a stable of ethnic, gender, and sexuality courses all over this land of ours--probably too much to hope for, but who knows?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Jim Walsh, _All Over but the Shouting: The Replacements: An Oral History_

ON THE EVIDENCE of this and McNeil's and McCain's superb Please Kill Me, the oral history form admirably suits the task of chronicling the fortunes of the Cool-but-not-Big rock band.

The Cool-vs.-Big dynamic has defined rock music in my lifetime, I would say. In the 1950s, Cool and Big tended to align: Elvis, Chuck Berry, the Everlys, Little Richard...all both Cool and Big.  Thanks to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and quite a few others, Cool and Big kept frequent company throughout the 1960s, even though we also saw such Big-but-not-Cool phenomena as Paul Anka and Frankie Avalon at the beginning of the decade and  the Grassroots and Three Dog Night at its end. More importantly, though, the 60s saw the advent of the first important Cool-but-not-Big band, the Velvet Underground.

The rift really opened in the 1970s. In addition to the usual wave of Big-but-not-Cool acts (the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Boston, Peter Frampton), we had an unprecedented wave of the Cool-but-not-Big: Big Star, the New York Dolls, the Stooges, Gram Parsons, Nick Drake, the Modern Lovers, Television, Patti Smith.  (The Sex Pistols would make the list in  the USA, but in the UK I gather they were actually pretty big.) The Big-and-Cool category was getting underpopulated. Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, perhaps Pink Floyd. (Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac, it seems to me, only became Cool later. Critical respect for them was sparse at the time.)

By the 1980s, Cool and Big had essentially divorced. Prince was Cool and Big; Madonna, possibly, though the only Madonna song I myself love is "Ray of Light." Some basically Cool 1980s bands hit the jackpot in the 1990s (REM, U2), but by and large the Cool Bands--Husker Du, Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma, and the irreplaceable Replacements--came not within miles of being Big. (Partly because a Cool band that betrayed any glimmer of a wish to be Big got pilloried in print by Steve Albini or Gerard Cosloy or some other self-appointed guardian of integrity.)

So back to my first point: would anyone ever want an oral history of Bon Jovi, which would be from the outset a tale of ambition, aesthetic compromises, opportunistic positioning, and eventual poisoned success?


But an oral history that included the one cool record store in town, the bands practicing in basements, the xeroxed homemade flyers and zines, the van knee-deep in empty beer cans, the sticky-floored dives with a two dollar cover, the wing-and-a-prayer record labels...and, crucially, the passion? That is a story made for oral history, my friends, and Walsh puts together a nice one here. It was a story happening in much the same way all over the country, as Michael Azerrad's beautiful Our Band Could Be Your Life illustrates, but the Minneapolis version has an appeal uniquely its own.

Who knew Slim Dunlap was so thoughtful and articulate?  He is the real revelation here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Edward St. Aubyn, _At Last_

BEFORE WE PROCEED to what is now St. Aubyn's next-to-most-recent novel--I found the normally reliable John Banville annoying when reviewing the most recent (Lost for Words) in NYRB.  Banville keeps his distance, for instance, from the praise St. Aubyn has won from his fellow novelists:

Edward St. Aubyn is a fine writer, much respected by his contemporaries. The five Patrick Melrose novels—the first of which, Never Mind, was published in 1992, and the last, appropriately titled At Last, in 2012—have received remarkable praise within the guild and without.

Calling St. Aubyn "lavishly gifted" at one point, he complains about "an impatient and unfinished quality" and "a not quite satisfactory mélange of styles and artistic attitudes," and so on. 

The new one is about a Booker-like novel prize, so perhaps they asked Banville  to write about it because he won a Booker…? (Cf. Anne Enright getting the invitation to review from the New York Times.)  Whatever it was, it's too bad. St. Aubyn deserves better.

Banville mentions Waugh, an almost inevitable touchstone for St. Aubyn's reviewers, only in order to get in a cheap shot:

St. Aubyn is regarded by many, including himself, perhaps, as the direct heir of Evelyn Waugh, and indeed, the Patrick Melrose series has many extended bravura passages of heartless comedy worthy of the master. But if St. Aubyn is no Proust, he is no Waugh, either.

Even though the Waugh comparison immediately suggest itself, At Last reminded me most of a different English novelist--Christopher Isherwood. First of all, there is the poise and control of the prose; Isherwood does not have quite the reputation in that department that Waugh does, but he deserves to, and he is just as witty as Waugh, too, when he chooses.

More crucially, Isherwood and Waugh are both insightful in their satire of the class in which they were raised, but Isherwood is more honest and intelligent about the way it fucked him up than Waugh is, and it is here--that insight into one's own fucked-up-ness--that St. Aubyn rivals Isherwood and surpasses Waugh. Again as in Isherwood, the intelligence that permits the insight into one's own fucked-up-ness cuts both ways, as it also slices and dices whatever suggests itself as a remedy to the fucked-up-ness; having seen through one's own problems, one also sees through whatever is sham or hypocritical about religion, or therapy, or philosophy…but then, in both Isherwood and St. Aubyn (and, I think, e.g., in Infinite Jest) the intelligence is also keen enough to understand its own limitations, self-justifications, subterfuges, and  the like.  Waugh almost got there once, in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, but not the way Isherwood does in A Meeting at the River or St. Aubyn does in the final chapter of At Last, which is a strong conclusion to an amazing series of novels.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Thomas Pynchon, _Inherent Vice_

IT TOOK A while, as I was reading this, to decide whether I was enjoying it. In the early going, it seemed to be an (early-ish) Jonathan Lethem novel set in California. Eventually it occurred to me that Jonathan Lethem novels could be seen as Thomas Pynchon novels set in New York City, at which point I decided, well, okay, let's just have a good time.

To venture a broad generalization, I am going to say that through Inherent Vice (I have not read Bleeding Edge), Pynchon novels have tended to be either encyclopedic, immersive projects that span continents and embrace historico-philosophical themes (V., Gravity's Rainbow, Mason and Dixon, Against  the Day) or relatively focused exercises in California Noir that tried to understand the 1960s:  The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, and now this one.

The novel is set in 1970, and private investigator Larry "Doc" Sportello...actually, there seems little point to summarizing the plot. It has the usual noir elements: mysterious clients, sleazy clubs, cars, cigarettes, low-pH wise-cracking dialogue, sexual opportunities, fisticuffs, deepening revelations, twists, betrayals, even the scene where a bad guy tells the bound hero, slated for execution, some important plot points and then leaves him alone for a few minutes in which he can engineer an escape. Behind it all, corrupted authority--"the Mob behind the Mob"--which indicates the true Pynchonian theme uniting his longer and his shorter projects: the Paranoid American Sublime.

Accordingly, we can read Inherent Vice as a pendant (admittedly, at 369 pages, a heavy pendant) to Against the Day, asking the larger novel's question about why some historical possibilities thrived and others withered, about what became of the possible liberation that was the blighted twin of the atrocity-ridden 20th century, but asking it about the 1960s. What happened to the 1960s? Heroin and COINTELPRO, which are linked in the plot in the character of Coy Harlingen.

Doc Sportello cannot un-do the wreckage of the 1960s, but Marlowe-like he does what he can, gets Coy back together with his wife and child and off the crypto-fascists' payroll. And in the novel's beuatiful coda, he follows an impromptu community of taillights through the fog blanketing the freeway, in an image that infallibly called to mind for me the close of Auden's "September 1, 1939." We must love one another or die. Amen.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Shirley Jackson, _The Haunting of Hill House_

AN APPROPRIATELY ODD kind of convergence led me to this.

First, my mother, who died a little over twenty years ago, really loved Shirley Jackson. I never read any, though, save that middle school standby "The Lottery"--just wasn't that curious.  Still, when we packed up the paperbacks at my parents' house a year ago, most of them to return to the Planned Parenthood booksale from whence years ago they had come, I set aside We Have Always Lived in a Castle, thinking it might be a way of keeping up ties with Mom, in a way. (I still haven't read that one, though.)

Second, this past semester I supervised an independent study on the Gothic--Walpole, Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis, and so on up to Dracula--not because I know a lot about the Gothic, but just because I was willing to help the three Gothic-hungry students out. Their enthusiasm made an impression on me. I'm still not all that fond of the Gothic, but I did have a chance to see what its devotees find exciting about it.

Third: a few weeks ago we were visiting Elder Daughter in her new home in Tennessee. Wherever we go, I insist on visiting the local bookstores, which in this case took us to a large used book store called McKay's. Browsing the fiction shelves, my eye fell on this. Things seemed to click into place. Okay, I thought, this is the right time to read this.

I started that afternoon, and finished a couple of days later--obviously, it worked for me.

For one thing, Jackson's prose is really good--which cannot be said of the prose of Radcliffe, Lewis, Charles Maturin, Bram Stoker, or even Mary Shelley or Poe, if you ask me, however inventive their imaginations are. Jackson's writing is lean, undecorated, its music subtle.

For another, the book passes the Bechdel test, thanks to the relationship between Eleanor (our point-of-view character) and Theodora.  Theodora's resources and strategies for attracting and holding male attention are multiple and effective, Eleanor's few and feeble, but the rivalry one expects to develop out of this discrepancy never quite materializes as they find each other somewhat more interesting than the available male company.

Finally, like my other favorites in this vein (James's Turn of the Screw and Blake Butler's There Is No Year), The Haunting of the Hill House never does explain what the hell is going on, what the source of the various noises and disturbances and psychic disintegrations is. Explanations, I find, always disappoint. Puzzles are more interesting than solutions. We never do learn what is haunting Hill House, and that's just as it is should be.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Paisley Rekdal, _Animal Eye_

FUNNY THING, GIVEN Paisley Rekdal's age and background, but as I read this book I kept thinking of Seamus Heaney.

Consider the opening of "Ballard Locks":

Air-struck, wound-gilled, ladder
      upon ladder of them thrashing
through froth, herds of us climb
     the cement stair to watch
this annual plunge back to dying, spawn;
     so much twisted light
the whole tank seethes in a welter of bubbles: [...]

Note the virtuoso command of syntax, the compound-adjectives, the scrutiny of wildlife--the wildlife in Animal Eye is often so turbulent and sharp-toothed as to be more that of Ted Hughes than that of Heaney, but nevertheless we're out there where the plants and animals are, as Heaney so often was.

Something about the play of the consonants puts me in mind of Heaney, too, in the above lines or here:

[...] like a spray of feathers from the bird
that has begun feasting now on the apples
in a corner of the orchard. Its dark head darts
into the branches for the fruit before the bird rises
again, flies off, its wings shuddering their streaks of blue
that fade into the darkness.

As in Heaney, we hear the rhythm of that old accentual-syllabic music:

[...] otherwise how would the green
     or red or blue body fly,
how hover like the compass point
     over the hyssop's

sweet stamens?

That's from "Dragonfly," which you ought to find just so that you can read it aloud.

Sometimes I thought, "this is darker than Heaney," but Heaney could get dark, as in "Punishment," with its fatal triangle of young adulteress, murderous crowd, and poet-observer-voyeur, its mobile identifications; and oddly enough, one of the more striking poems here, "Yes," has its own triangle, its own take on adultery and punishment, its own mobile points of view.

Of the two long poems here, "Wax" seems, in its conjunction of art and illness, more Mark Doty circa My Alexandria than Heaney, but the versatile and inventive modernization of terza rima and honest self-appraisal of "Easter in Lisbon" took me right back to Station Island.

I re-read some Heaney when he died a while back, but I don't know that I have looked at him again since. But I should.  This whole book somehow served to remind me vividly how much I loved his work. Probably not at all what Rekdal had in mind, but I feel as though she has done me an important favor.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, _Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine_

CRITCHLEY IS A philosopher and Webster a psychoanalyst, and their book on Hamlet scants the ponderously large amount of work done on the play by professional literary scholars, as C. & W. acknowledge in an apology-cum-vaunt in their closing paragraph:

It is not without bucketfuls of shame that we write about Hamlet. The Shakespeare Industry is heavy with cultural gravitas, to say nothing of the mountainous literature that exists on Hamlet alone. It should take a scholar a lifetime to master it. We are but inauthentic amateurs, like some of those we have undertaken to work with in this book. [...] We write as outsiders, for shame, about Shakespeare, with the added shame of doing so as husband and wife with the implicit intent of writing about love.

Do you get the feeling they actually think rather highly of themselves, in spite of all the shame, etc.? After all, the fellow "inauthentic amateurs" that they "work with in this book" include Hegel, Freud, Nietzsche, Lacan, Walter Benjamin, and Carl Schmitt, with cameos by Bataille, Schopenhauer, Mallarmé, Adorno... that kind of amateur. In short, C. & W. are way too in with the cool kids to be hanging out with a bunch of dryasdust Shakespeare scholars.  I mean... euuuh.

Which is too bad, because one can think of literary critics who would have gotten them a lot farther along in their arguments than does, say, Schmitt, whose speculations about the play as a political allegory are as dazzling as soap bubbles and about as sturdy. Janet Adelman. Marjorie Garber. Stephen Greenblatt.  (Greenblatt does get a participial phrase on p. 66.  One wonders if their editor insisted.)

Still, though somewhat grudgingly, I have to admit the book is worth reading, for they draw heavily on a new and apparently unpublished translation, by Cormac Gallagher, of Lacan's seminar "Desire and its Interpretation"--significantly different, they say, from the version that appeared in Yale French Studies in the 1970s. I tend to think of Lacan as someone who has passed his sell-by date, but the chapters in which Critchley & Webster engage Lacan on the play (basically, a latter half of Part Two) are enlightening.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Mars-Jones on Roth: WTF?

I ALWAYS READ Adam Mars-Jones's pieces in the London Review of Books, even when I am not at all curious about the book he is reviewing, because he is consistently intelligent and often provocative.  I also just like the way he writes. I had been waiting to read his review of Claudia Roth Pierpont's Roth Unbound, which appeared in January, until I had read the book, so I only got to it a few days ago. The review is lengthy, eight 4-columned LRB pages, more about Roth's career than about Pierpont's book, and, it seems to me, utterly wrong on a number of points.

Okay, my seeing M-J as wrong probably simply has to do with my liking Roth's novels much more than Mars-Jones does. This can happen with one's favorite critics.

But a number of pronouncements in Mars-Jones review seem bizarrely ungrounded. His final sentence, for instance:

   Even allowing for some overcast days, Philip Roth's writing life since Sabbath's Theater represents an extraordinary Indian summer of creativity, balancing the long strange stretch, becalmed in mid-career, when he tried to deform his raging talent into subtlety.

First of all, I though they called it "St. Martin's summer" over there.  Second, I'm relieved that Mars-Jones was impressed by Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral, and The Human Stain, at least. But, on the whole--what the fuck?! 

Now, I can see that The Ghost Writer and Patrimony attempt (and achieve) subtlety, even though Zuckerman stands on a copy of Henry James to eavesdrop in the former and a holocaust survivor recounts his sexual escapades in Hitler's Berlin in the latter, but My Life as a Man, The Anatomy Lesson, The Counterlife, The Facts, Deception, Operation Shylock...too subtle? Sophisticated, sure, lots of metafictional fast-and-loose going on, but has Roth really left his rage, his extravagance, his humor, his willingness to go too far out of these books? The author who lets his fictional alter ego get the last word in his autobiography, who comes up with "Diasporism," with Alvin Pepler, with Mordecai Lippman, was straining and failing to achieve subtlety? No.  Nope. No way.

Speaking of Lippman...Mars-Jones is not impressed with Roth's willingness to let various beyond-the-pale characters get up on a soapbox and stay there for pages.

What this method produces in The Counterlife is a gridlock of voices. Only if drama is defined as the grinding together of opposites, each intensified to the highest pitch, does Roth count as an accomplished dramatist. 

"The yoking together of of extreme positions and a cryptic indeterminacy," Mars-Jones goes on to say, is unlikely to "produce either a sophisticated model of the world or a satisfying experience of reading."

Or is it? It strikes me that what Mars-Jones is talking about here is the tension Hegel found in Antigone that made it the greatest of the Greek tragedies, or the polyphony Bakhtin saw in Dostoyevsky. A sophisticated model of the world is exactly what it produces, according to Bakhtin on the novel.

Then there's this: "Postmodern games have a necrotising effect on a novel's flesh." No, they don't. Calvino? Perec? Auster? Any technique can go dead when practiced without imagination, when ham-fistedly imitated, but postmodern "games" only make novels more interesting when a master is playing the game, and the Roth of The Counterlife was such a master. To dismiss this whole approach of fiction so off-handedly is the gesture of a know-nothing, and I still can't quite believe M-J stooped to it.

As for The Plot against America, according to M-J, the "development of the situation" lacks "relentlessness." What, I say again, the fuck? That book was so relentless it scared me into an insomniac night or two. Roth made something that did not happen so believable I was waiting for the knock on the door. If it had been any more relentless, I would have had a stroke.  Maybe you have to live here...

Friday, June 13, 2014

Rusty Morrison, _After Urgency_

RUSTY MORRISON'S WORK again shows a gravitational pull towards form here, as in the true keep calm biding its story (LLL, August 4, 2010). All the poems in that book were written in a fixed form created for the occasion of that project; After Urgency contains several such forms, as well as having an overarching symmetrical or chiasmic structure as a volume.

The volume begins and ends with poems called "After urgency," written in couplets, each line with (to my ear) six accented syllables. Of the five sections thus bookended, the first and the fifth have poems written in eight to twelve longish, widely spaced lines, with titles that vary a theme (e.g., "In-solence" and "In-solving" in Part One, "Derivations in agriculture" and "Agriculture of derivatives" in Part Five).

Parts Two and Four have fifteen poems apiece, but the poems share five titles: "Commonplace," "An intersection of leaves not likeness," "After urgency," "Field particulars," and "Aftermath." We go through the series of five titles three times in Part Two, and again three times in Part Four. Additionally, each title-group has its own form.  For instance, all the "Commonplace" poems have four three-line stanzas, the first and fourth usually containing a reasonably ordinary and simple poetic perception, the second and third, inset a little farther, usually bending that perception a bit, questioning it, re-directing it.

Then, in Part Three, a kind of center pivot: a poem in four sections, each section in three two-line stanzas.

What raises the stakes is that, just as the true keeps calm biding its story revolved around the final illness of her father, After Urgency revolves around losing her mother as well. So, on the one hand, we have fairly specific and demanding self-imposed formal restraints--on the other, an unchartable stormfront of inchoate emotion.

The book enacts a kind of drama.  The forms visibly insist on being followed, page after repeating page, but the speaker also objects that the forms are inadequate to the emotions, de-naturing or falsifying them. "How to demand of composition that its contrivance come apart // but leave the pieces intact? // How might I live death all the way to the edge of its form?" one poem asks; another imagines the relief of being "Released from the guilt of order and arrangement." But how can we be released from that guilt, when poetry moves towards form the way water runs downhill, and form always begins to generate its own meanings?-- "perilous, sometimes, to make any motion at all. //Any movement becomes design. // Any design an ethos."

The opening poem places the speaker on a house's threshold, "neither // immersed in nor protected from the suffusion / in the air of nearly imperceptible rainfall," and for much of the volume we are looking out at the natural world, principally skies and trees, for clues or reassurance or just something that seems adequate to the emotion of the moment.  Occasionally we are indoors--Morrison captures with what was for me scary accuracy the feeling of going through the possessions a dead parent has left behind, in an arboreal image that could almost be the nucleus of the book:

I fill cardboard boxes with my mother's things,

which are almost porous to time's passage

through this nearly emptied house.

I stop several times--a form of branching.

Which is also a form of being severed.

Among the oldest of poetic forms is the elegy, with its movement from grief to acceptance, and something like that happens here, but Morrison resists letting the logic of the form overrule the particularity of her feeling. Feelings subside, the normal resumes, but are we really reconciled to our loss?  Maybe not: "What passes for understanding is just the restored anonymities in summer rain." Nonetheless, the world is changed for us, wears a new aspects: "Background is stealing out toward the wood myth, // more treeful now than ever."

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Paul Auster, _Winter Journal_

I'M OBVIOUSLY IN summer catching-up mode. Deep catching-up mode, in fact, since this appeared in 2012; in fact, its sequel has already been out for a while.  If you want up-to-date lit talk, you'll just have to go to Bookslut or something.

First question: what do we have here? Despite the title, it does not seem like a journal, exactly, since journals ordinarily range widely and randomly over their topics, and this text seems to stay on the topic of things that happen to bodies, Auster's in particular.  At the same time, it's much looser than a memoir.  Among Auster's other texts, it most reminds me of "The Book of Memory," the second part of The Invention of Solitude: a sort of free essayistic movement around a well-defined constellation of concerns.

Composed, we learn, around the tine of Auster's 64th birthday, the book seems prompted by Auster's own aging; as one eventually has to acknowledge that one is no longer young, so one has eventually to acknowledge that one is no longer middle-aged, either, and that death will be along presently. This is not a new thing for Auster, I would say--The Book of Illusions, Man in the Dark, The Brooklyn Follies, and Travels in the Scriptorium all had something valedictory about them; somehow, Auster has always been about departures, especially the more abrupt and inexplicable ones. But he does introduce some new notes.

For instance, part of the book is about mishaps Auster's body has experienced, auto accidents, near misses, that sort of thing, and one anxiety attack. The anxiety attack occurred in particular circumstances (a phone call from a deeply annoying relative) at the time of Auster's mother's death--and this incident opens up the topic of Auster's mother, a mostly unexplored realm for him. Fathers are a recurring topic in Auster; mothers, not so much, so this is a new note for him, and very much the best thing in the book, I'd say. Quite a few pages on his second marriage, too, which as nearly as I can tell has left little impress on his fiction, perhaps because it has been such a happy one.

Another highlight, for me, was the annotated catalog of places he has lived--a simple list that uncorks long trains of association. An arresting entry:

5. 25 Van Velsor Place; Newark, New Jersey. A two-bedroom apartment not far from Weequahic High School and the hospital where you [Auster refers to himself in the second person throughout] were born, rented by your mother after she and your father separated and then divorced.

Weequahic! It intrigues me that Auster and Roth have roots in the same locale, born fourteen years apart...both Jewish (Auster has more to say about this in Winter Journal than he has before), both deeply influenced by continental writers...presumably they have met, or at least read each other. I found myself asking if Auster's mentioning Weequahic by name (Auster didn't himself go there, sticking with his high school in the suburbs) was a flag waved at the Roth readers out there. Probably not--but for me, it's as if he mentioned Clongowes, which is a real school with a real history, but for me screams Joyce! Weequahic screams Roth! What does Auster think of Roth, Roth of Auster? For some reason, I find myself caring.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wong May, _Superstitions: Poems 1971-1976_

SO, HERE IS an interesting story. A poet born in China, raised in Singapore, but writing in English, publishes three books with a major publisher (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) in the 1970s, but then stops publishing. A young poet, Zachary Schomburg, accidentally comes across her first book in a public library, tracks her down, brings out a new collection 36 years after the poet's previous book. I learned all this from the short interview that Schomburg conducted with Wong May and published in the May issue of The Believer.

That is one hook-y story line, I hope you will agree. I, for one, had to go straight to the Octopus Books website and order my copy of Picasso's Tears. There are few publishers I trust more than Octopus, in any case.

I also thought I might pick up some of Wong May's earlier collections while they were still bargains--but I was late to the party, it seems. I had no luck at all finding her first book, A Bad Girl's Book of Animals, and her second (Reports) and third (this one) were already fetching high-gravity prices. I got this one relatively reasonably, though ($16).

So, here I am, with $40 spent on books by a poet I have not read a word of.  All because of a romantic story of artistic vindication. There's one born every minute, you are probably thinking…

…but it does turn out that Wong May is worth reading. Superstitions arrived in the mail yesterday--a substantial hardbound volume, 135 pages, 7" by 10" (you'd have to be Ashbery to get that kind of presentation from a trade publisher these days), deaccessioned (what a word) from the Salt Lake County LIbrary system--and I immediately sat down with it.

Is it astonishing, revelatory, transformative? Well, I wouldn't go that far. Wong May writes out of the territory that, for me, is broadly defined by the Pound of The Cantos, William Carlos Williams, Robert Duncan, Rachel Blau DuPlessis: paratactic, imagistic, engaged in various ways with the physical space of the page, cosmopolitan, chary of explanations. She is well to the left of Pound, though, if the poems here on Victor Jara and the death of Franco are anything to go by, and more a Williams than a Duncan on the visionary/grounded spectrum.

She must have been traveling a lot in these years--the poems are set all over Europe and sometimes in Asia. Glimpses of personal history are few and brief, even though almost all the poems are closely based on her own perceptions; they document not so much her circumstances as her sensibility--its patterns of attention, its varying intensities, its commitments. The actual first-person pronoun does not occur that often, but the sensibility and its voice unify the book.

Among the passages that struck me was this from "Iona, 73":

&          Grace
                     the adjournment of
                           to a later
date               (Who

              vouchsafes this:
All escapes
               being one
being equal

Will,      the will of
                       the vortices

& the hem of spray flung in the sun
             stiff breeze decorous with the smell of thyme

Brecan   Brecan
Gather moss  &   bracken

&       morning to find
            pebbles on the windowsill
                             like eyes
           that hath once shone for
                              St Columba

Effective, no, the way the abstract, slightly bureaucratic diction is suddenly broken by the sea imagery, and the ancient mythic names are placed next to the humble pebbles of the windowsill?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Brenda Shaughnessy, _Our Andromeda_

As I was reading the first half of this, I kept thinking of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Shaughnessy certainly does not sound like Millay or share much with her thematically, so I was at a loss for why the connection kept suggesting itself, but eventually I came up with the hypothesis that like Millay, Shaughnessy has the knack of presenting her own experience on a frequency that many people of her roughly her age and roughly her educational background would find resonant. Without specifically intending to do so, she seems to be speaking of lots of people, as Millay did in the 1920s, or Joni Mitchell did in the 1970s, or Tori Amos in the 1990s.

My impression partly derives, I am guessing, from Shaughnessy's way of ending poems with an aphoristic snap, frequently a rhyming one.  "Miracles" ends this way:

fire out of water, blood out of stone.
We can read us.  We are not alone.

As does "Big Game":

O that roaring, not yet and yet
and not yet dead.

So many fires start in my head.

As does "All Possible Pain":

hanging like the sentenced
under one sky's roof.

But my feelings, well,
they had no such proof.

Do people still read Barbara Herrnstein-Smith on poetic closure?  Probably not. But Shaughnessy's closings convey authority without resorting to pronouncements.

So when, in the closing sections of the book, Shaghnessy marries that authority to close-to-the-bone candor, the blend is potent. The three poems to her younger selves should be mentioned in this regard, but it is above all in the closing title poem, twenty-two pages long and addressed to her son, who suffered a traumatic birth injury with serious and enduring consequences, that she seems to find a way to speak for a whole generation of women while writing about her own very specific and far from typical circumstances. Like Millay, in fact, even though it now takes a special imaginative effort to hear what the 1920s heard in Millay.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Trey Moody, _Thought That Nature_

THERE IS A vein of phenomenology in this, Trey Moody's first book, that reminded me of another recent volume by a young poet that I also liked, Robert Fernandez's Pink Reef; stylistically, as is also the case with Fernandez, Moody tends to zero in rather than zoom out, working in a relatively narrow range, but achieving intensity within it.

Moody's poems begin with something present, something occurring, but the poems' attention tends to bend towards the perceptual apparatus that brought that presence or occurrence before us, and then on to consideration of the awareness in which those perceptions seat themselves. Perceptions occurring in the present line up alongside remembered ones ("What memory performs as opposed to, / say, the sounds outside this window"). The organs of perception themselves are somehow a part of everything that takes place:

                In the history of human suffering
this must be what we meant:
                                      an eye or an ear
replaced with hard clay, or a plum.

We have some ability to affect what occurs, but not such that we can control what occurs:

                                  The river, crystal-clear

between the floorboards, under
my feet, and under your feet, and the way we stand may
or may not alter its course.

Consider the weather: we cannot control it, but we are capable of an infinity of adjustments to it (shelter, clothing); we are both a part of it and apart from it; as the adage famously has it, we can talk about it at any length, but do nothing about it.  Twelve of the pieces in Thought That Nature are titled "A Weather," each a prose poem (although a lot of unpatterned rhyming occurs) carefully noting hot and cold, moisture and dryness, and their effects on animals, plants, and ourselves.

Worth singling out are two instances in which Moody's fascination with perception and awareness combines itself tellingly with particular circumstances: "Dear Ghosts," a ten-poem sequence that put me in mind of Frost's "Hill-Wife," a narrative enigma involving a house, a landscape, and (I'm guessing) a marriage; and the middle section of the book, "Lancaster County Notebook," a kind of palimpsest in which the spaces in the poet's notes about his exploration of a new territory afford glimpses of the journals of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Keith Richards, _Life_

THIS ONE WAS a bit disappointing, too.  As usual, no one is going to catch up with Dylan.

Begins well--an account of being arrested in Arkansas on the 1975 tour, as loopy and shaggy a British narrative as we have had since Tristram Shandy. Literary minder James Fox (or somebody at Little, Brown, perhaps) takes over the wheel in chapter two, however, and things begin to unwind in more or less coherent chronological order, unfortunately.

Chapters 3 through 10 (pages 67 to 421, about two-thirds of the book) cover the arc from the Crawdaddy Club to the Toronto trial and Some Girls--that is, they cover episodes that, if you are the sort of person who reads books about the Rolling Stones, you already know a lot about. Not much new here. We do learn that Keith is still sore at Brian Jones for being an asshole, still sore at Donald Cammell for coming up with the idea for Performance, and still sore at Mick for having sex with Anita while making Performance.

I was hoping Keith would come clean about his debt to Ry Cooder and the open G tuning (speaking of the making of Performance). No such luck. According to Keith, what he does is a whole 'nother thing than what Ry does, because Keith takes off the sixth string.  Okay.  Right.

On the plus side, Chapter 12 was worthwhile: a beguiling account of the Great Glimmer Civil War of the mid-1980s, Keith's participation in the Chuck Berry concert film, and the making of Talk Is Cheap, the only great solo album by a Rolling Stone.

For my money, the best thing to read about Keith Richards is that long interview he did with Robert Greenfield in 1971, published in consecutive issues of Rolling Stone. (Ironically, that interview was crucial in forming the Brian Jones mythology, a mythology Keith has since set himself to piss all over whenever he can.)  Find that, and skip this.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Patti Smith, _Just Kids_

GOOD ON HER for winning the National Book Award, certainly, and she is plainly still a force to be reckoned with--I love Banga--but I got this when it came out (late 2010?), started it almost immediately, yet finished it only this week. In other words--not that compelling, is my own private assessment.

Just Kids is like the first half of Mulholland Drive without the darker second half, where we get the underside of the story of a wide-eyed kid with a crazy dream coming to the cultural capital. In Just Kids, one has the feeling, we are only getting the parts of the story that Smith would tell her grandkids. While Mulholland Drive went on to pull the myth inside out, Just Kids never does.

Smith and Mapplethorpe certainly qualify as crazy kids with dream, though, dropping themselves into Manhattan without any connections, credentials, or accomplishments. All they had, really, was the conviction that they were Artists.  They did not even know, when they arrived, what they were good at--Mapplethorpe had not yet done any photography, Smith had not yet fronted a band.   Yet they both become legendary, thanks to persistence, chutzpah, and willingness to attempt more than they had good reason to believe they could pull off. They Leaned In.

 (Something that can only occur in what Rancière calls the aesthetic regime of art, I would say, this having the conviction that one is an artist even before one has discovered in oneself any unusual talent for any art.)

It's a great story, so I wish Smith had had the nerve to really tell it.  This story of a south Jersey Lucien de Rubempré needs a Balzac. But where will we find one these days?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Claudia Roth Pierpont, _Roth Unbound: A Man and his Books_

NOT A BIOGRAPHY, Pierpont emphasizes--a full-dress, authorized one is apparently in the works by someone else--but "an examination of Roth's development as a writer, considering his themes, his thoughts, and his language." Sounds like a work of literary criticism, then, or literary criticism circa 1957, but as one reads one finds that Roth Unbound is not really literary criticism, either. What it is, I would say, is a New Yorker profile, one from the expansive William Shawn days when a New Yorker article might be spread over several consecutive issues and then appear as a book.

And a New Yorker profile of Philip Roth, let me immediately go on to say, is an excellent thing to have.  For one thing, Pierpont is a master of the form, as her previous book Passionate Minds amply demonstrates. For another thing, New Yorker profiles are a cultural institution in themselves, sometimes capable of becoming a definitive portrait: Wolcott Gibbs on Henry Luce, Lillian Ross on Hemingway, Truman Capote on Marlon Brando (the May Believer had a good article by Anne Helen Petersen that discussed Capote on Brando).

This is not one of those classic New Yorker takedowns, though.  Pierpont is respectful, almost reverential, throughout, which is fine by me. Much more importantly, she is perceptive, intelligent, and knowledgeable, her prose lucid and graceful. This will certainly do for anyone interested in Roth's life until the definitive doorstop comes out--and it may do for even longer than that, since definitive doorstops occasionally turn out to be unreadable.

What I would really like to see, though, is Roth criticism that just leaves the biographical dimension alone. I would like to have something like Hugh Kenner on Joyce, Gerard Genette on Proust, criticism that took the various links to the life for granted, that did not see finding the links as sufficient explanation for the power of the fiction, that instead got down in the paragraphs and asked, what is this fiction doing that makes it so distinct from the other fictions of its era? That's what we need. Not another reading of I Married a Communist as payback for Claire Bloom. Perhaps it is, but at the same time, that is the least interesting thing about it. What about its portrait of the American left? What about its narratological structure? What about Zuckerman's perspective?  And does Eve Frame come off looking all that bad even, really?

There is a good article on Roth by Loren Glass in a recent PMLA (!), about how celebrity and authorship played out in the Zuckerman novels--but it was still basically a biographical approach, though of a sophisticated and (I will concede) illuminating kind.  What I want is a rigorous reading of The Anatomy Lesson that does not even mention Irving Howe, of The Human Stain that does not even mention Anatole Broyard. Leave it to the biographers to tell me who Elstir, or Bergotte, or Buck Mulligan, or Coleman Silk was. What I want to know from you, literary analyst, is how Coleman Silk becomes as real to me as my neighbors.

Anyway--hats off, Claudia Roth Pierpont.  A terrific profile. And how about a shout out for Charlotte Strick?  What a great cover! That curlicued, somehow playfully libidinous font that graced every Roth cover from Portnoy's Complaint to Reading Myself and Others, a photo of Roth at, I would guess, forty, seeming to address you head-on but actually, once you look at the face, looking down at you from a commanding height.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Margaret Atwood, _The Year of the Flood_

I WOULD HAVE bet money that Margaret Atwood would be the first Canadian writer to get a Nobel Prize (I'm not counting Bellow, mind you).  Alice Munro is a tremendous writer--but the Swedes usually look past the short story writers and go for novelists with big ideas, e'g., Atwood. Three cheers for Munro, richly well-deserved, but I hope Atwood is still alive and eligible next time Canada's turn comes around.

As often happens here at LLL, I did not get around to the second volume in this trilogy until the third had already appeared.  I try to keep up, but... you know... it's hard.

I read this after having recently re-read Oryx and Crake (which I assigned in my "Modern Novel"course this past spring), so its nicely-tuned complementarity to the first installment especially struck me. Like its predecessor, it alternates between time-frames, the before and the after of a catastrophe that wipes out most of humankind and instantly deprives the survivors of all the technological infrastructure they had come to depend on. The key difference, of course, is that this time we know from the outset what the catastrophe was, but beyond that--

1. In Oryx and Crake, the pre-catastrophe episodes are ,mainly set in the privileged world of the "compounds," the corporate-owned city-states, where the livin' is easy, the bio-engineered fish are jumping', and the genetically-modified purple cotton is high. In The Year of the Flood, we are out in the "pleeblands" and the filthy, teeming, blaring, consumption-fuelled megalopolises where the 99% live, eating suspect food, swallowing suspect drugs, locked into the bottom-end of the chain of human predation... more or less where almost all of us will be in a generation if we don't wise up, one might say.

2. The narrative perspective in Oryx and Crake is consistently male, from the point of view of Jimmy/Snowman. In The Year of the Flood, our perspective is both dual and female, sometimes that of Brenda/Ren, formerly a sex worker in "Scales and Tails," sometimes that of Toby, one of the staff in the upscale "Anoo Yoo" beauty spa.

3. In Oryx and Crake we inhabit the gleamingly brilliant world of elite education and bio-tech labs, but Ren and Toby were, pre-catastrophe, part of "God's Gardeners," a fringe group glancingly alluded to in Oryx and Crake but here presented in its full weird glory, with its braiding of Thoreau, neo-Ludditism, belief in scriptural inerrancy, and whole-hearted embrace of Darwin. Inventing the Gardeners' hymns and Adam One's sermons was, I very much suspect, the most fun Atwood had in writing this novel.

Altogether, the book gives us a convincing and illuminating reverse angle shot not only on the fleetingly-glimpsed Jimmy/Snowman and Glenn/Crake of the earlier novel, but also on the whole world of Oryx and Crake, here both immediately recognizable and intriguingly different. As Dr. Johnson said of The Rape of the Lock, "In this work are exhibited in a very high degree the two most engaging powers of an author: new things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new. " 

And I don't even have to wait for the next one, having bought Maddaddam the month it came out.

How about you, Swedish Academy?  Have you been keeping up?