Loads of Learned Lumber

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.