Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, January 31, 2015

David Mitchell, _The Bone Clocks_

I WONDER WHETHER the London Review of Books has decided, so far as David Mitchell goes, that it is just not having any, thanks. Matthew Reynolds gave The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet a fairly rough handling, and Theo Tait gets downright churlish about The Bone Clocks.

Conceding that "Mitchell's dexterity, stylistic range, and ability to build fictional worlds are very impressive," Tait finds his themes "so generalized as to be entirely uninteresting," his fiction "far too cartoonish and second-hand to have any real bite." The Bone Clocks, Tait concludes, "is admirable only if you think ambition and vitality trump every other literary virtue."

The tone of the final sentence suggests that we are tyros indeed if we think ambition and vitality trump every other literary virtue. I wish he had gone on to say exactly what literary virtues we should rank more highly; he does not actually name any. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that ambition and vitality are worthy of admiration, really, especially in the rare instances when they occur together. One can think of many works that are ambitious but lifeless, or lively but shallow. So, if Tait is willing to grant that the novel is both lively and ambitious, why does he choose to withhold whatever laurels are his to bestow?

Well, reviewers will be reviewers, I suppose. Among the principal characters of The Bone Clocks is a novelist who arranges that a formerly supportive reviewer who has turned nasty (Philip Hensher?) gets locked away in a South American jail for a few years.

Anyway, if you admired Cloud Atlas, and enjoyed Black Swan Green and Thousand Autumns but were ready for a return to the old razzle-dazzle, you will probably admire--as I did--the ambition and vitality of The Bone Clocks. As in Cloud Atlas, the narrative begins in the past, catches up with the present, and leaps into the future. Again, we have a kind of Manichean cosmic war of the children of light and the children of darkness, the nurturing versus the predatory; again, we have a whiff of the supernatural--not just a migrating birthmark this time, but a full-blown mythology of re-incarnation.  (Tait, showing fine critical discrimination: "the novel's supernatural underpinnings are a load of awful bollocks.") Again, we have a virtuosic handling of several types of fiction: after a chapter that could be a Young Adult novel, we have a St. Aubyn-like tale of depravity among the aristos, a novelist-coming-unglued story like Amis's The Information, a Rowling-ish wizard's battle, a post-apocalyptic scenario...

...wait, didn't we have that already, in "Sloosha's Crossing"? Yes, and it turns out, thanks to a deft touch Mitchell holds back for a few dozen pages, to be the same post-apocalyptic scenario, but in the other hemisphere. I enjoy this sort thing; not everyone does (Tait: "For the Mitchell trainspotters, there are the correspondences between this and his other novels").

Well, you can't please everyone. But whatever we want to call what Mitchell has--"ambition" and "vitality" certainly fit--he's still got it.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Jill Lepore, _Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin_

IN A WAY, this is another instance of what I was talking about in the Lockwood post of a few days ago. In a richly rewarding appendix titled "Methods and Sources," Lepore acknowledges that the "paper trail" of Benjamin Franklin's sister, Jane Franklin Mecom, is "miserably scant," so scanty that Lepore for a while "abandoned the project" and "thought about writing a novel instead."

If any American historian writing today shows signs of having a novelist's gifts, it is Lepore, but it is a fine thing that she ultimately chose to write "a history, a biography," but one that "borrows from the conventions of fiction."

 Not, I am happy to report, that she invents scenes or dialogue or spirals off into juicy speculations. Rather, she handles the evidence at her disposal with sympathy, insight, intelligence, and about as good a grasp of life in colonial North America as any historian now living does.

So, the "conventions of fiction" she has in mind are not, say, those of the Gothic, but those of imaginative fidelity to experience--those of Austen, I would argue, who is in fact invoked in a short essayistic chapter at the end of the book's penultimate section. In Austen's day, Lepore writes, the novel stepped in to construct imaginatively the histories of those whom history--or History--chose to ignore, particularly the lives of women. I've had students try to research the lives of women during Austen's lifetime and find that no source gives a clearer picture than does Austen herself.

To return to a favorite theme of mine--the history of the novel is the history of attention. The novel started paying attention to the lives of women before the histories did, and thus was able to bequeath to inspired historians like Lepore the equipment needed to write a book as fine as this one.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Patricia Lockwood, _Balloon Pop Outlaw Black_

HEATHER CHRISTLE'S FIRST two books were published by Octopus before her third was published by Wesleyan, and now, Patricia Lockwood's first book having been published by Octopus, her second is published by Penguin. The good folks at Octopus are turning out to be poetry talent scouts of no mean skills, I would say.

I have not read Lockwood's new book, only (like a good many folks) "Rape Joke." I am very curious, though, whether her second follows in the vein of her first, for her first turns out not to be much like "Rape Joke." Balloon Pop Outlaw Black draws more on the Tate-isms and Ashbery-isms that crowd the work of a very large number of poets under forty these days.

Some poetry readers are unhappy, I know, that surrealism of this stripe has become the current default mode of American poetry--Lockwood makes it work, though, I would say.

The book is in three sections, each section named for the long poem that opens it, and each long poem is in dialogue with an animated cartoon: Popeye in the first two sections, Pinocchio in the final one. This seems cannily chosen, for cartoons are the surrealism that even children love.

Cartoons inhabit a world both ours and not-ours. Both worlds have houses, but the walls of our houses do not take on a sudden elasticity; both worlds have pockets, but our pockets cannot produce sledgehammers and dynamite at an instant's notice.

Literary writing takes place in the same kind of interzone, trading in both representation and fantasy. What unites figures as diverse as Shakespeare, Dickens, Nabokov, and Toni Morrison is their knowing how to blend representation and fantasy, to make it real by making it up. Cartoons have a secret underground connection to literature. Surrealism is where the kinship becomes most visible.

This is why surrealism will always wbe with us. It always was with us. "The wife soothes the cow as it makes a copy, and skims cream-colored stationery off her milk," writes Lockwood, bowing towards fantasy, but the book builds gender into its dream--Popeye has a mother in these poems, and the whale in which Pinocchio lives is female--in a way that feels insistently real and things-as-they-are.

Works for me. But I wonder whether she kept up this sort of thing as a Penguin Poet. Seems unlikely, somehow. We will see.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Not that much like Nabokov, Part One: Aleksandar Hemon, _The Lazarus Project_

NO FEWER THAN three of  the blurbs on the paperback compare Hemon to Nabokov, so there must be something to the comparison...but what? Both are Slavic, and both have fashioned an intriguing prose style without English being their mother tongue--but that's as far as it goes, so far as I can tell.

They are both literate and witty, but not at all in similar ways. They are both interested in dislocation, but Nabokov's is an exile-from-Eden kind of dislocation, Hemon's more the emigrant/immigrant kind of not-really-at-home anywhere dislocation.

Hemon does remind me a lot of Richard Powers, though, at least in this novel; like most of Powers's novels, it's braided, two independent yet interwoven strands of narrative. In one, based on an historical event in turn-of-the-century Chicago, Lazarus Averbuch, whose escape from the pogroms of Moldova has brought him to the U.S., is brutally murdered by the Chicago chief of police, who has jumped to the conclusion that Averbuch is an anarchist terrorist wishing  to assassinate him. The novel begins with this episode, then traces its consequences for Averbuch's friend Isador, who has to go into hiding, and his sister Olga, who has to deal with the various parties hoping to spin her young brother's death one way or another.

In the second strand, Vladimir Brik, a writer in circumstances a bit like Hemon 's (Bosnian, living in Chicago, an aspiring writer deft at getting grants) finds out about Lazarus Averbuch and decides to write a book about him. To that end, he and a photographer acquaintance (also Bosnian) travel to Averbuch's native territory, still caught in its post-Soviet-bloc turbulence and straitened circumstances. Possibly, the Averbuch strand in the novel is Brik's work.

As in Powers, the two strands criss-cross and illuminate each other in many ways, small and large. An opportunistic journalist named Miller figuires in both; the vicious shooting of the Averbuch strand is eventually mirrored in the Brik strand; in both, we have a bereaved sister.

And in both, dislocation matters. Averbuch, as a Jew, was an outsider even in his birthplace; in his adopted country, he is readily and fatally mistaken for a threat. Brik can never feel quite at home in Chicago, but once he is back in Bosnia, he cannot really pick up the thread of the lfe he left behind--too much has happened, to him and to Bosnia. The pain of this double dislocation shadows each strand of the book, very effectively.

It's a strong book. It's just not a Nabokovian book.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

John Ashbery, _Quick Question_

A NEW DYLAN album drops soon, I hear, and I have already ordered mine--and you can be assured I will be nearly that prompt whenever the next Ashbery volume ambles down the pike. I mention his Bobness in this context because it recently struck me that 21st century Dylan is a bit like 21st century Ashbery: both have found in their later phase a vein that they can keep working apparently ad infinitum with satisfying results.

Dylan can take almost any assortment of old blues riffs and/or Carter Family strums, weave in ragged fragmentary narratives in which nothing is revealed, end each verse with a repeated line that somehow gains in weight with every repoetition, add several instances of his particular brand of non sequitur, and bang, we have a new Dylan album. Maybe not another Blonde on Blonde or Blood on  the Tracks, but still, you know, worth repeated listening: Love and Theft, Modern Times,  Together through Life, and Tempest are all solidly listenable and well as the years go by.

Ashbery's recent volumes similarly rely on an identifiable repertoire of knuckleballs, sinkers, and of-speed pitches. You know they're coming, but they still goose you.

There's the dropped-in colloquial term, like "gunk" ("Unlike the Camelopard") or "no-brainer" ("The Allegations"), sometimes with the whiff of a distant era, like "gimcrack" ("Double Whoopee") or "glommed" ("The Queen's Apron").

There are the teeterings on contradiction, with the concluding phrase turning against the grain of the first part of the sentence: "The check was duly deposited / in the wrong bank" ("The Allegations"), "The municipality lacks water, except for the sea" ("Laughing Creek"), "Best not to dwell on the situation, but to dwell in it is deeply refereshing" ("Homeless Heart").

There are the unfulfillable imperatives--"Give us silly, damaged things / felony cruisers, and hours after the moon" ("Laughing Creek"), "You who are always right about everything, come fight us" ("Auburn-tinted Fences").

There are the clich├ęs: "had a pretty good run" ("Northeast Building"), "the full bill of goods" ("The Cost of Sleep"), familiar faces made suddenly strange by appearing in a context containing sentences like "We wove closer to the abyss, a maze of sunflowers, / The dauphin said to take our time" ("Elective Infinities").

There are the questions. There are the personal pronouns, "we," "you," "she," "they," that are not about to let themselves be pinned down to an antecedent. There are the inexplicable juxtapositions.

It's the same old bag of tricks--"Why do these templates trail me the way they do?" ("Unfit to Stand Trial")--but somehow the magic still happens. Let them trail you the way they do, Mr. Ashbery; we love those templates. We won't be getting another As We Know or Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror any more than we will be getting another Blonde on Blonde, but the old masters remain masters.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Claudia Rankine, _Citizen: An American Lyric_

BALDWIN, THOU SHOULDST be living at this hour. But in his absence, it's good to have this, which like Baldwin's essays has an anger so cold you would hesitate to call it anger save that, like dry ice, it burns.

Not that there is an angry word in it, or even anything that looks much like sustained argument. Its rhetorical power lies in its refusal of rhetoric gestures, maybe, a bit like the deadpan anecdote-by-anecdote method of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke. Consider this. Now this. And this. All the argument lies in the withholding of argumentation, which somehow multiplies its force.

There are risks to timeliness (discussed 3/16/2013), but since most of this book must have been written before Michael Brown and Eric Garner were shot, its timeliness feels more like prescience, like the Zagajewski poem that ran on the last page of the New Yorker the issue after 9/11--actually composed before the event, but somehow eerily, proleptically attuned to what had not yet happened.

Except that the pockets of racism that even a well-established poet on a progressive-minded campus will keep encountering had been happening all along, I guess, had never stopped happening, "post-racial" though we supposedly were. The allusion to Trayvon Martin in the image on the book's cover (a hoodie's detached and empty hood) reminds you that the "post-racial" idea was already pretty much exploded before the summer of 2014.

I've been asking myself why Rankine called the book "lyric," so far without success. It would take a very ambitious composer to set it to music--Anthony Braxton, Art Ensemble of Chicago, say. The text is hybrid, some poetry, some prose, some documentation, some quotations (including Baldwin); if there were a word for the kind of texts John D'Agata collected in The Next American Essay, it would be one of those.

It's the form of thing, I suspect, something in the subtlety of its arrangement, that leads me to think it will be read long after its peculiarly grim moment of autumn 2014 is over.

That and the irony that so painful a book is, as an object, so beautiful--the design, by John Lucas, is a page-to-page astonishment. Hats off to him, and to Graywolf Press, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the College of St. Benedict for ponying up to support this kind of work.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Ian McEwan, _The Children Act_

I USED TO think of McEwan as the least interesting of the trio he formed with Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, but now I don't know...he's looking strong in the latter laps. This new one is not a vaultingly ambitious novel, but it's brisk and alive, which is more than you can say for Amis's recent production, I think.

The novel opens immediately after our protagonist, High Court Judge Fiona Maye, sixty-ish, has received the shocking humiliation of her husband's announcement that he wants to have an affair--"I want one last go, even if you don't." They have not had sex for a while, apparently, and the husband, Jack, is...what? Seeking anticipatory forgiveness? Permission?  Just keeping her in the loop? Anyway,  he is writing her off as a sexual being, and it's a blow.

The next 200 pages are about Fiona Getting Her Groove Back. She adroitly handles a very tricky and highly publicized case involving a brilliant almost-adult young man whose Jehovah's Witness family forbids the blood transfusion that could save his life. The young man falls a bit in love with her. Jack comes  crawling back. his hopes for one last ride on the roller coaster of ecstasy having crashed and burned. As the novel heads for its close, she demonstrates her classical piano chops for an audience of her peers and leaves them slack-jawed at her near-professional virtuosity. She and Jack head home, and the old glint is back in Jack's eye.

Fiona has Still Got It at sixty, in short, and her convincing display of said Still Having It would be a perfectrly satisfactory wrap-up for a novel as stylistically sharp and as keen in its perceptions as this one--but then McEwan has the sheer audacity to turn the novel's end into a revision of the ending of Joyce's "The Dead," but as it were from Gretta Conroy's perspective. The devotion of the young man who died before his devotion could ebb, the song in the rain--"Down by the Salley Gardens" standing in for "The Lass of Aughrim," a nice touch--the horny hoping-to-score husband abruptly brought face-to-face with his wife's ability to inspire a passion he himself may scarcely be capable of...it's all there.

The Children Act turns out to be ambitious after all--appropriating the justly famous ending of one of the greatest short stories in the English language takes some chutzpah, and damned if McEwan doesn't make it work. Yes, he may be pulling away a bit in these latter laps.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Edmund White, _Jack Holmes and His Friend_

JACK HOLMES IS, like Edmund White, from "an eccentric Midwestern family," like White attended a boarding school outside Detroit--Cranbrook Academy pops up as frequently in White's fiction as Weequahic High does in Philip Roth's--and like White arrives in New York City at the dawn of the 1960s, hoping for work in the literary world. And like White, Jack is gay.

Well, we've been here before, you may be thinking--The Beautiful Room is Empty, The Farewell Symphony, My Lives, City Boy--well, of course we have. With luck, we will be here a few more times. A White book set in New York City in the 1960s and 1970s, like a Roth novel set in Newark in the late 1940s and early 1950s, is a sign unto you that God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.

Jack's friend is Will Wright, from the Virginia fox hunting country, a would-be novelist, and straight. Jack loves Will. Thanks to Jack's good offices, Will meets not only the woman he will marry, but also the woman who will turn out to be the most charismatic of his mistresses. Jack will go to extraordinary lengths for Will, who seems hardly grateful for, or even cognizant of, Jack's devotion. Will, the reader is compelled to see, is a preening, self-involved, and painfully shallow man, an impression deepened rather than dispelled by the two length first-person-narration sections the novel grants him (Jack's sections are in close third person).

Very near the novel's end, Jack ponders the fact that Will is really not that lovable. But love is not about the lovableness of the beloved, is it? As Jack tells himself:

You love him, though he's as stiff as a scarecrow and about as human. He's a talentless writer. I've done a little snooping around, and I know his business is about to go under. He's turning into a drunk; he's a heartless father and a faithless husband married to a maniac.
     But I do love him. He's as attached to me in his way as I am to him. We belong together. We could grow into two old libertines together, beauty patches on our zinc-oxided cheeks, pitiless in destroying young lives, as devoted to each other as two alligators dozing in the mud.

At this point in the novel, Will is avoiding his home, virtually living with Jack, and Jack at last gets a quick glimpse of that long fantasized-about penis (Will is worried about a venereal infection he has contracted and wants advice). And what does he find?

Nice shape. Looks like the circumcision was botched, with that extra dewlap of flesh hanging down on one side. Milk white skin with that ropy blue vein rushing down the shaft. Neither big nor little. Just big enough to satisfy anyone.

And that's it. As unremarkable as that. But desire is as unaccountable as love.

Somewhat to my surprise, the opening section of Jack Holmes and His Friend kept reminding me of James Salter's All That Is. In both, a young man arrives in New York (Salter's novel starts about a decade earlier), finds a good-enough job in the verging-on-prestigious-but-not-all-that-remunerative publishing world, fools around a bit, and winds up attached to someone from Virginia old money (precipitating a memorably-narrated awkward visit to Old Dominion). From there, though, Salter's novel seems to wind down and dissipate its energies, while White's manages to gather liftoff velocity and land on the the epiphany quoted above. Mistake me not--both are fine books. But White's, I suspect, will stay with me longer.