Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, November 27, 2015

Joshua Cohen, _The Book of Numbers_, and Adam Mars-Jones

ANOTHER BRILLIANT PERFORMANCE by Mr. Cohen, among whose unabashed fans I count myself, and something of a banking turn away from Yiddishkeit into the Way We Live Now by my favorite American under-40 fiction writer...though still within the gravitational pull of Judaica, obviously, with its title drawn from the Torah. My guess: the conflict in the (original) Book of Numbers between those Hebrews who are going to enter the Promised Land and those who are not is being compared, tongue I suppose a bit in cheek, to the conflict in the novel between the paper-and-ink literatus Joshua Cohen I (not to be mistaken for the author) and the internet zillionaire Joshua Cohen II (clearly not to be mistaken for the author). What Promised Land is this, one has to wonder...

...but since some of my thoughts on this novel are scheduled to appear in paper-and-ink next spring, I am going to proceed to the topic of Adam Mars-Jones's review of it in the London Review of Books, which seemed uncharacteristically impercipient to me.

In particular, I was dismayed by Mars-Jones's statement that "I've never before come across a book that finds its feet a third of the way through," which he later elaborates as "it's common enough for a long novel to have a short one inside it, wildly signaling to be let out [...]." M-J admires the voice Cohen the novelist has invented for Cohen-the-entrepreneur and even seems to think the middle third of the novel (i.e., Cohen I's drafts, fragments, and transcripts of the ghosted autobiography of Cohen II) could stand as a work of fiction by itself.

Well, maybe it could. It's obviously better where it is, though, because of the whole who-shall-enter theme.

Can't blame M-J for falling in love with Cohen II's language--Cohen the novelist, showing the same flair for heteroglossia he has shown elsewhere, nails early 21st century American geekspeak: its abbreviations, its predilection for coining verbs out of nouns, its shortcuts and pithiness. But Cohen-the-novelist just does as well with blogger-speak, lawyer-speak, agent-speak, and so on, and the voice he gives Cohen I is (I think) is as perfectly tuned to its character in its luxuriantly lyrical way as Cohen II's is. That account of the publication party...perfect.

Maybe it's a British thing. M-J's attraction to the voice of Cohen II reminds me of the way Martin Amis and James Wood talk about Bellow's style. The chewier, the better. Well.

Still, I'm delighted to see the LRB gave The Book of Numbers about as much space as and a stronger reviewer than Purity got. Things are looking up!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Jonathan Haidt, _The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion_

MALCOLM GLADWELL'S SUCCESS has, I think, persuaded many academic psychologists that their research can land them on the bestseller list, if presented with timely everyday examples in crisp, inviting prose. Nuances are lost, I imagine, rough spots in the findings glossed over, but since I am unlikely to ever plow through any actual psychology journals, I am glad that people like Haidt are having a go at writing for the lay reader.

Haidt is a social psychologist particularly interested in our perception of the moral, and  his book is in three parts, each with its "central metaphor."

First, "The mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider's job is to serve the elephant." Reversing somewhat Plato's image of horse (appetites) and rider (reason), Haidt argues that our moral judgements tend be immediate and intuitive, and we use our reason not to arrive at them but to justify them after the fact.

Second, "The righteous mind is like a tongue with six taste receptors." That is, just as (if Steven Pinker is right) our brains are born with a predisposition to analyze and acquire language, we are born with a predisposition to evaluate situations in six different moral dimensions: care vs. harm, fairness vs. cheating, liberty vs. oppression, loyalty vs. betrayal, authority vs. subversion, and sanctity vs. degradation. Not that we all prioritize the six in the same way; those on the right, for example, value authority and sanctity more than do those on the left.

Third, "We are 90% chimp and 10% bee." That is--and here is where Haidt is getting venturesome--he is willing to argue there has been some group selection going on in human evolution, that some kinds of co-operation was both inheritable and enhanced out survival odds. I gather he is a bit unorthodox or at least controversial here, but he seems to have a point--being able to use language, for example, can immensely enhance one's chances for survival, but only if your fellow humans have the same ability. Certain circumstances have the power to make us (but not chimps, apparently) function as a group, like bees or ants. Religions, sports, rock concerts can all flick what he calls the "hive switch," and Haidt argues that you cannot understand human morality if you leave that out of account (as do, he thinks, the "new atheists").

Interesting stuff, and highly readable. Haidt apparently hopes that understanding all the above will improve our national discourse--understanding where the other person is coming from, why minds are so hard to change, that sort of thing. I don't think even Malcolm Gladwell could make that happen, though.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

J. D. Schraffenberger, _The Waxen Poor_

THE BOOK'S TITLE is a curveball; my first guess was that it referred to the effects of a inadequate diet on the complexion. One of the blurb writers went similarly astray, I suspect: "With words that melt us down like fire burning candle wax," etc. Turns out that the modifier "waxen" is in this instance derived not from the noun "wax" but from the verb "wax," to grow or to become, as in the verse from Leviticus that serves as epigraph: "And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee."

Roughly the first third and the final third of the book are devoted to poems about Schraffenberger's brother Tom, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic in his early teens, institutionalized soon after, and died young. The Leviticus verse is clearly not only about blood relatives, but its pertinence is apparent; Tom did fall into decay, did become a kind of stranger or someone on a lonely journey, and the poems are about what one could and could not do to relieve him.

As in his first book, Schraffenberger seems drawn to not-entirely-closed forms; the unrhymed sonnets of Saint Joe's Passion have a kind of parallel here in several poems with unrhymed couplets and unrhymed terza rima (if it isn't an oxymoron to so designate them). We even have some rare examples  of that most closed of closed forms, the acrostic, in a series of poems called "Meds," in each of which the side effects of a particular drug are described in poems that vertically spell out its name.

The poems that really open out the book, though, are prose poems--"Full Gospel" and a series of untitled short pieces halfway into the book (which may be part of "The Once and Future Me"; I couldn't quite tell). "Full Gospel" places Tom's psychotic break in the context of the Pentecostal faith of his and the author's grandparents, linking up with other religiously-themed poems ("Communion," "Messianic," "Judas"), but at a kind of oblique angle, both formally and (shall we say) theologically. The poems at mid-volume likewise feel like a departure from the rest of the volume, but a departure that somewhat mysteriously belongs, adding a dimension without being part of the picture in any immediately identifiable way.

Nice cover, too, from Twelve Winters Press. No nice way to say this, but the cover of Saint Joe's Passion was god-awful. What is it with Etruscan? They publish good poets, but their covers always look like self-published volumes of devotional verse.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

J. D. Schraffenberger, _Saint Joe's Passion_

A FIRST BOOK, frrom 2008, Saint Joe's Passion is a bit like a novel in sixty poems. Joseph Johnstone is a professional voice-over artist who discovers he has a throat cancer; the main through-line of the book concerns the diagnosis and his hospital stay for an operation, but some poems function as flashbacks to his childhood, young manhood, marriage (ended quite a while ago).

Some poems are in the first person, some in the third; all have a closed-form feel, but not fussily so. Schraffenberger seems especially attracted to a kind of unrhymed sonnet.

The poems are respectful of tradition, then, but in an unshowy way, tend to be plainspoken, rarely have anything very dramatic to offer, and in these respects they resemble the protagonist.  Joe is educated and appreciates the poems of Catullus and Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. He's a conscientious professional, but his career has lain in using his voice for words written by others, and we get the feeling that a lot of what was on his mind he never got to say. He tried to be a good husband and father but struggled to hit the right note.

He's a relatively ordinary man, then, but he is facing the final thing, so even the ordinary has a peculiar weightiness; parking in the hospital's lot, he wonders if he is unbuckling a seatbelt for the final time.

Saint Joe's Passion put me in mind of Tinkers by Paul Harding, or Ironweed by William Kennedy, understated novels that derive a lot of their strength from sheer quietness, from refraining from emphasis, whose characters acquire definition only gradually, but seem the more real for that.