Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Gary Shteyngart, _Little Failure_

GIVEN THAT MEMOIRS by Russian-born novelists who emigrated to the United States and write in English are not that frequently encountered, it's hard to read this and not think of Nabokov's Speak, Memory. Once we do think of Nabokov, though, we are mainly struck by contrasts.

On the one hand, a butterfly-collecting princeling, his parents' pride and joy, grows up in the twilight of the Romanovs; forced into exile, he attends Oxford, becomes the shining star of the émigré literary scene, endures the assassination of his beloved father, and (after a series of romances) marries a devoted wife. On the other hand, a sci-fi devouring child of the Brezhnev years, whose parents call him "snotnose" and "little failure," ends up in Queens, majors in marijuana at Oberlin, suffers writer's block, and can never keep a girlfriend for long.

I wondered if Shteyngart was deliberately playing up the contrast, actually. He mentions Speak, Memory in passing (p. 261), and the almost absurd abyss between his circumstances and Nabokov's is the kind of sly joke that his novels often make.

Just as the memoir's comedy is a lot like that of the novels, the persona of the memoir often reminds one of the schlimazels whose beleaguered adventures feature in the novels. And just as one discerns behind the hapless narrators of Shteyngart's novels a novelist who is intelligent, perceptive, and resourceful, Shteyngart the memoirist is as skillful and deliberate as Garry the subject is naive and deluded.

The latter chapters of the book steer close to the edge of the topoi of celebrity memoir--drug and alcohol excesses, ethical lapses, recovered memories of rough treatment in childhood, therapy--but even while sustaining the tone of class-clown self-disparagement that runs throughout the book, Shteyngart handles this material with tact and even--not at all what one has come to expect from him--dignity. So in some subtle way the book may have a lot in common with Nabokov after all.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Lucy Ives, _The Hermit_

GIVEN THE NEWS that Lucy Ives has a novel forthcoming in 2017, and given that her work tends to be aware of its own processes, and even aware of its own awareness of its own processes, one wonders whether The Hermit somehow reflects on the composition of the novel that Ives was (I suppose) writing at about the same time that she was writing The Hermit.

Truth to tell, this is not even my idea. It occurs in section 9 of The Hermit: "Rebecca says, "This is a poem about trying to write a novel.'"

Rebecca is on to something, I think. The Hermit has quite a few reflections own novels and novel-writing, e.g., "Thus the novel could be the elaboration of nearly real situations as an aid, a kind of paradoxical recovery from the actual," and "When I was 13 I swore to myself that I would become a novelist."

Is that first one true, do you think? While it's a bit reductive to think of novel-writing as a large-scale game of fort-da, but I would say it does account for a lot of novels, including some great ones, such as Herzog or nearly every Roth novel.

Not that The Hermit is that much like Woolf's A Writer's Diary. It's quite a bit more mercurial, more glancing, more what-just-happened than that. But I do plan to read it again after I read the novel.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Colson Whitehead, _The Underground Railroad_

I HAD NOT noticed this before, but novels about slavery tend to traffic a bit in fabulism and fantasy. The ghost in Morrison's Beloved, for instance. The time traveling and chronological slippages in Butler's Kindred and Reed's Flight to Canada. Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale and Middle Passage  do not deal in the supernatural, but they do draw on the kind of wild invention and gleeful disregard of plausibility that one finds in an older kind of pre-Flaubert novel, like Smollett or the picaresque. About the only example I can call to mind of genuine straight-up-and-down realism is Edward Jones's The Known World.

Jones can't be the only example, but still I wonder, why so frequent a resort to the imaginary? Tentative answer: a fiction writer immersing her- or himself in a reality so grim, dehumanizing, and hopeless as racialized, commodified slavery would naturally want to conjure up some magical escape.  Something like this may happen in the death camp chapters of David Grossman's See Under: Love as well. Is Beloved about Sethe's wanting a magical escape from the reality of her past so badly that she actually conjures it up, then lets it almost swallow her?

Whitehead's Underground Railroad is a bit of a return to the fictional vein of The Intuitionist, but by so returning it also participates in the lineage outlined in the first paragraph. For the first several dozen pages, we seem to be in a normally realistic novel about slavery, but when Cora and Caesar escape and find their way to a station of the underground railroad, it's in a tunnel, and has tracks, and a steam locomotive...in other words, Whitehead has with no forewarning at all whisked us into an alternative-history historical novel (à la Roth's Plot Against America) by the simple device of making literal the metaphor of the "underground railroad"--the network of people who assisted escaping slaves. (In historical fact, apparently, hardly regular or reliable enough to deserve the metaphor.)

The rest of the novel tracks Cora's progress along the railroad through various states, which turn out to have a variety of institutions and attitudes around slavery, slaves, emancipated slaves, and African-Americans generally.  None of the institutions or attitudes correspond precisely to anything in actual historical existence in the Carolinas or Tennessee circa 1850, but they do seem emblematic of post-emancipation history in the alteration of hope and dread, in the many shades of white obtuseness, in the ever-renewed striving after liberation and the ever-returning unkillable slavecatcher. The novel thus cunningly telescopes a lot of African-American history into a story lasting (maybe) a year or two in (maybe) the 1850s.

Thinking about The Plot Against America in our President-elect Trump moment makes me wish a certain someone had not retired. Roth, thou should'st be writing at this hour.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sherman Alexie with David Lehman, eds., _The Best American Poetry 2015_

AS OFTEN HAPPENS, the poetry in the 2015 volume reminded me of the work of its editor--in this case, a mild but not obsessive fascination with closed forms, an occasionally surreal humor, a recurring interest in matters of identity. As with the editor's poetry, I found myself appreciating it and respecting it without being particularly excited by it.

About the usual proportion of familiar to unfamiliar names. No great new discoveries, though. I am often motivated to pick up a book or three because of what I read in BAP, but not this year.

To tell the truth, I had stopped about halfway through, and only picked it up when I saw the new one was out.

Bit of an off-year for BAP, it seemed to me. New one looks promising at first glance, though.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Katherine Anne Porter, _Pale Horse, Pale Rider_

RE-READ THIS LAST week for the book club, not having looked at it since I read it for a modern American fiction class in college some few decades ago, and was struck by how good it was. Three lengthy (50+ pages) short stories, or more what James called "tales," two about a young woman named Miranda breaking away from her upper-class Southern family and trying to make her own way (apparently autobiographical). The second of the Miranda tales, and the title story of the collection, is about Miranda catching the great influenza of 1918, and contains the best description of hallucinatory dreaming this side of De Quincey.

So, made me wonder--given the rocket boost that feminist scholarship has given the standing of many  once relatively neglected women writers since I was in college (top-of-the-head list: Elizabeth Gaskell, Willa Cather, Zora Neale Hurston, Jean Rhys, Dawn Powell, Mina Loy, Shirley Jackson), why not Porter? Not that she gets none whatsoever--some 500 items in the MLA International Bibliography--but Cather comes in at 2300.

Is it because there is just one novel (Ship of Fools)? I think, though, that even now a lot of her short stories get anthologized.

Something a little too cool, a little too analytically detached or Jamesian in the tone? You could say the same of Flannery O'Connor, though, and her reputation seems secure for the moment.

Did she commit some political misstep in the 1960s? I've known folks who dislike Elizabeth Bishop because she supported the mid-1960s Brazilian coup.

I can see why Pearl Buck (American writing about Chinese peasants) and Mary Ward (wrong, wrong, wrong on women's suffrage) are still waiting for their revival, but why Porter?

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Chigozie Obioma, _The Fishermen_

ON THE ONE hand, here is a novel of a fully contemporary Nigeria, with the World Cup, Peugeots, office jobs, and election rallies, but on the other, we have a tale as dark and terrible as anything in Genesis or Greek mythology: lethal sibling rivalries, ominous prophecies, devouring revenge.

One often encounters the weird and elemental in Nigerian literature--Amos Tutuola, Wole Soyinka, Ben Okri--and likewise one can think of plenty of examples of classic mimetic realism--Chinua Achebe, Buchi Emecheta, Chimananda Ngozie Adichie.  (Is this a Yoruba-as-opposed-to-Igbo thing?) Obioma seems to be channeling both at once.

How does he pull this off? It helps, I think, that his principal characters and narrator are children, for whom plain quotidian details have a kind of distinctness and glowing presence, who can feel the wonder in the arrival of a helicopter and sense something demonic in the local homeless man given to   oracular pronouncements:

He smelt of rotten food, and unhealed wounds and pus, and of bodily fluids and waste. He was redolent of rusting metals, putrefying matter, old clothes, ditched underwear he sometimes wore. He smelt, too, of leaves, creepers, decaying mangoes by the Omi-Ala, the sand of the riverbank, and even of the water itself [...] But these were not all; he smelt of immaterial things. He smelt of the broken lives of others, and of the stillness in their souls. He smelt of unknown things, of strange elements, and of fearsome and forgotten things. He smelt of death.

Fearsome and forgotten things, right alongside cinderblock walls, homework assignments (Things Fall Apart, naturally), and juvenile courts. The Fishermen is not quite like anything else, and I expect it will stay in my mind for quite a while.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Thomas Frank, _Listen, Liberal, or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?_

IT'S THE QUESTION of the year, and I suppose of the next four: What do all those salt-of-the-earth folks see in Donald Trump? That question--or its ancestor, i.e., what do all those salt-of-the-earth folks see in the Republicans?--lay explicitly or implicitly at the heart of several books this year, and I have been reading a few of of them.

Let's start with this one by Thomas Frank, whose 2004 What's the Matter with Kansas? perhaps founded the genre. Trump is mentioned but once by name in Listen, Liberal, and Frank's answer to the question has little to do with what Trump is offering. Instead, it has much to do with what the Democrats are not offering, namely, attention to the issues of the working class (of any color or any region).

Frank argues that an influential cadre within the Democrat party, going back to the McGovern reforms of the early 1970s, believed that the Democrats could prevail nationally by being the party of the educated liberals, the professional class, women, and ethnic minorities, and thus could stop kissing the ring of crusty old labor types like George Meany. In other words, the Democrats had, in a way, told the Reagan Democrats to get lost before even before Reagan came along to scoop them up.

Bill Clinton exemplifies the trend. Frank's chapter "It Takes a Democrat" (on the model of "it took a Republican to open relations with China," since the Republicans would have crucified any Democrat who attempted it) portrays Bill Clinton's presidency as eight years of selling out the former heart of the Democratic Party constituency, with one measure after another undermining the nation's most vulnerable: NAFTA, welfare "reform," sentencing "reform," and financial deregulation.

Obama, Frank thinks, was not a great improvement ("Chapter 8, "The Defects of a Superior Mind"), and Hillary seemed  to him even less of one (Chapter 11, "Liberal Gilt"). Bernie Sanders does not come up, but I suspect Frank found his program a bit closer to what the Democrats ought to be talking about. Frank obviously views with distaste any cozying up to Wall Street or to various internet gazillionaires (see Chapters 9 and 10).

I've found all the books by Frank that I have read cogent and persuasive, and I think he's right this time, too, Can the Democrats re-connect to folks? Mark Lilla in the Sunday Times gave pretty much the same advice, and the scorched earth in the comments section made me think we're not there yet.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Claudia Rankine, _Don't Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric_

WHILE I REMEMBER hearing Don't Let Me Be Lonely praised back when it appeared (2004), I had not read any of Rankine's books before Citizen, so high time I got around to it, no? And this one is actually a bit more intriguing than Citizen, without quite the same level of topical urgency.

It does (did?) have a certain amount of topical urgency, though. Like Alice Notley's Alma or Carla Harryman's Adorno's Noise, or (more obliquely) Peter Gizzi's The Outernationale or Richard Greenfield's Tracer, Don't Let Me Be Lonely speaks to the depredations and anomie of the Bush II era. (That may be his jug-eared phiz dimly visible on the image of a snowy television screen that punctuates the book--his, or that of Alfred E. Neuman.) However, while references to deaths of James Byrd and Amadou Diallo and to the second Gulf War cross the horizon of the text, a lot of the attention is closer to home: depression, insomnia, medication, anxiety about one's liver.

Which may be a clue as to why this volume shares a subtitle with Citizen. Both volumes are interested in what happens to bodies, in particular certain darker-skinned bodies in a society with a particular history at a particular time. The emphasis here falls more medically than in Citizen--there is more about pharmacology and suicide hotlines--and we get more of the background noise of the culture here, with allusions to Coetzee, Zadie Smith, and the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, but a continuity is detectable in the multi-layered response to a historical moment, in the wit so dry it burns and so cool it has to be measured in degrees Kelvin.

If this one is a response to the Bush II years, and Citizen a response to the Obama years, will we get another American Lyric on (let's hope) the Clinton years or (please god no) the Trump years?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Kathryn Neurnberger, _The End of Pink_

THE LAUGHLIN AWARD winner is usually a good bet (LLL is looking forward to the appearance of Mary Hickman's volume, which won the honor this year), and The End of Pink confirms the rule. The poems successfully conjoin the confession al and the learned, the abstract and the particular, the plain and the lyrical.

The volume has three parts. Most of the poems in the first part involve the intersection of memories from girlhood, adolescence, or young womanhood with one or another volume out of the history of natural science, e.g., More Experiments with the Mysterious Properties of Animal Magnetism, or Birds of Ohio, or of not-exactly-science (The Symbolical Head) or of just plain hucksterism ("Testimonial"). What gets to count as knowledge, and why, the poems keep asking, with particular attention to the differences gender makes.

Or, we could say, the differences that sexual experience, pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, and motherhood make, as these possibilities create the volume's most compelling through-line. The title poem, which occurs at the end of the first section, turns out to be about just that kind of difference, once we take in its first line, "My nipples are brown now."

The second and third sections cover different ends of the spectrum. In the second are nine prose poems about "the saint girl" situated among aspirations and temptations. The third is haunted by two familiars, a peacock the speaker keeps tucked behind an ear (and who may be a trace of the dreamlife of the saint girl) and a daughter of pre-school age. In "Peacock and Sister," a little miracle of a poem read in its context in the book, the two familiars merge:

My peacock became a tassel of grass 
and a field, a wind, and also a flower.
It was so sad when she left 
and said, No more now.
But then she put herself behind 
that much smaller ear 
that didn't hear her, 
but had a pretty hydrangea there
and knew it to be pretty, 
so pretty and the petals so soft.

There is quite a bit of pain and bewilderment in The End of Pink, a lot of education that flips on its belly to reveal itself as vanity ("I haven't yet written about Teach for America, / which is a kind of Peace Corps putting silvery-spoon summa cum laudes / in inner city schools"), and a certain amount of cruelty--all of which that pre-school daughter, the volume knows, will someday have to negotiate. But she has that peacock.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Robert Fernandez, _Scarecrow_

ANOTHER GREAT BOOK from Fernandez. Not the fever-tunnel that Pink Reef was--still intense, though, but in a different way. Scarecrow lets you up for air once in a while, but threads of visionary obsession (colors, rhythms) still hold things closely together.

I want to be careful here, because I have noticed that poets under forty are not as keen about being compared to T. S. Eliot as they were back when I myself was under forty (over twenty years ago...let's leave it at that). As with, say, Stevens, these days Eliot's prestige is a little frayed around the edges--all that Anglican, Royalist, Classicist side of him, I imagine, not to mention the poisonous anti-Semitism.

But there is a visionary obsessive vein in Eliot, too. "What the Thunder Said," for instance, or some of the middle sections of Ash Wednesday, or the more hallucinatory passages in Four Quartets--"Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clot the bedded axletree"--that vein.

The jacket flap copy notes, "Taking Dante and other catalogers of failure and ruin (Baudelaire, Trakl, Rimbaud) as its guiding lights, Scarecrow charts situations of extremity and madness." Dante filtered through the Symbolists--exactly. That's the Eliot I'm talking about, and that's the Eliot I love, and that's the Eliot who would make a useful Virgil as you negotiated the landscape of Scarecrow.

The title poem, which opens the volume, could almost  be a brilliant re-mix of "The Hollow Men": the scarecrow, the heat, the dust, the suggestion of a setting in the afterlife ("all detritus of coming near / the realm of the dead"), the abrupt fragment of Biblical language ("Pity / them Lord for they know not / what they do"), the shards of lyricism hinting at both ecstasy and terror:

          I drool
on locust bouquets and steps
of honey. Come 

Meet your master
in the dust; with his
one tooth, he drains
you dry.

If that gave you, as it did me, that weird little feeling at the top of the spine, you need to go find Scarecrow now and not wait until Garrison Keillor reads it on "Writer's Almanac," because...well, you know, because that is probably not going to happen.

John Palatella

THE OCTOBER 10 issue of The Nation was excellent--Naomi Klein on the Orland Letelier murder forty years ago, a photo-essay-with-oral-history of some of the women of the Black Panthers, Ange Mlinko on Denise Riley, Barry Schwabsky on David Hammons--but I was sorry to see that with that issue John Palatella handed off his responsibilities as literary editor.

I'd say his tenure there has been a brilliant one--for me, at least, the back pages The Nation during the Palatella years have been a go-to place for the best ideas on what to read next, especially for translated fiction. I think I read about Alejandro Zambra, Evelio Rosero, Roberto Bolaño, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Elena Ferrante in The Nation before I did anywhere else. Contributors included folks like Joshua Clover, Ta-Nehisi Coates, George Scialabba, and the amazing William Deresiewicz. And if Palatella had anything to do with getting Peter Gizzi and Ange Mlinko on board for the magazine's poetry department, I am thankful to him for that as well.

Not sure about his (perhaps) final "Shelf Life" column, a tone-deaf (say I) assessment of Ben Lerner's The Hatred of Poetry...but what the heck, I didn't love the back pages of The Nation because I always agreed with everything I read there. I  loved them because they were intelligent, fresh, surprising, and illuminating, issue after issue. So thank you, John Palatella.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Erik Campbell, _The Corpse Pose_

IT HAS BEEN ten years since Campbell's previous (and first) collection, Arguments for Stillness, and in the interval he has apparently seen some serious reverses; several poems are about the death of his father and quite a few are about a divorce precipitated by his former wife's infidelity. (There are no poems about the death of Sandy Taylor, founder of Curbstone Press, who published Campbell's first book, but that event too probably played a part in the long wait for the second.)

Plenty of bad news, then, and even the somewhat more upbeat, highly colored poems written when he was still married and living in Papua New Guinea are gathered in a section titled "Canaries in the Mine," as though hinting that already the oxygen was getting thin.

The good news, though, is that the poems are stronger, more varied, tonally and emotionally more complex, and equal to the losses they address. It is exactly the kind of second collection one hopes to see after a promising debut.

The playfully sardonic humor that was the characteristic note of Arguments for Stillness has not entirely gone away--here it appears most often in the several poems featuring the minutes of meetings of the Village Green Preservation Society, in which the League of Young Curmudgeons imagined in the Ray Davies song take on such topics as recent elections and the Kool-Aid Man. Traces of it appear as well in poems like "The Sorrow of the Cold War Re-Enactor" ("Everyday the battlefield is everywhere") or "One Day the Kids Were All Reading Books about Zombies" ("imagine a zombie / being interviewed on the  red carpet: / 'Is that decay you're wearing?'").

The humor now has shadows and hauntings, though. One of the best poems, "Things Nabokov Knew" is about the presence of what could not quite be uttered lying under the perfectly enameled surface of the prose: "So much was hidden in / the hired rooms of paragraphs."

The poems about the most painful memories--one says this with a little reluctance, because of what they must have cost--are probably the strongest. Sometimes they remind one of the trimmed-to-the-bone ironies of Dickinson:

There will be a life
you did not choose;

it will include
many rooms.

There will be a room
you will not leave;

it will be a room
you did not choose.

The poems about the end of the marriage describe psychological turmoil with an almost eerie calm, the syntax negotiating the bends of the enjambments in always surprising, always telling ways.

I was surprised she recognized the allusion,
but it does explain the why behind the crisis

team standing in my living room at 2 a.m., 
trying to give me a raison d'être.

In yoga, the "corpse pose" is performed lying stretched out on one's back. "Like all things practiced," one poem tells us, "it seems simple but isn't." Poetry like Campbell's can seem simple, as in the loosely-stitched "A Partial Summary" (reminiscent, for me, of James Schuyler), or its conversational just-sayin' rhythms, or its frequent invocations of Bruce Willis. But it isn't.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Peter Gizzi, _The Outernationale_

I READ THIS years ago, before I was doing this blog, but I was revisiting it because it contains one of my favorite contemporary (say, last twenty years) poems, "On What Became of Matthew Brady's Battle Photographs." I read it first in Conjunctions, I think, then heard him read it at a reading, read it again in this volume, which I think I bought at that reading or soon after, and still read every now and again.

Hard to pin down what I like about it--as is so often the case--but for the sake of saying something rather than nothing about a poem I hope more people will read, it seems to be about both the urgency and the sacrifice of any art of witness--how one is obliged to try, but the trying is committing yourself to a vanishing.  The urgency of the moment will pass, and no one will know what to do with the archive it cost you so much to compile, that seemed so necessary it drove out whatever other artistic imperative you felt. It will all just evaporate, give itself up to oblivion, with a sweet cry. But it will somehow have mattered that you wanted to record something, wanted to show people something.

So, I recently picked up Gizzi's selected poems, In Defense of Nothing, which of course includes several poems from The Outernationale, and "On What Became of Matthew Brady's Battle Photographs" is not there.

Oof. Damn. I wonder if Gizzi thought it was just too slight, or didn't like it anymore...whatever the reason, an occasion to let folks have another opportunity to read "On What Became of Matthew Brady's Battle Photographs" has slipped.

I have often thought that it would make a dandy anthology poem--it's short and powerful--but that hasn't happened, either. Gizzi shows up in a few good anthologies (American Hybrid, the Rankine and Sewell, and, I just discovered, a volume called The New American Poetry of Engagement), but it's always other poems. Good ones, but not my favorite.

For that matter, while scouring through the tables of contents of a few anthologies of contemporary poetry, I noticed that consensus about which poems ought to be more circulated is elusive. Sometimes two anthologies may have no poets in common at all--I didn't do a rigorous check, but Paul Hoover's post-modern Norton anthology and Billy Collins's 180 Poems apparently do not overlap at all. Some poets show up often, like Jorie Graham and Mark Doty, but the poems selected are completely different in each case.

Is that a cause for worry? Should a canon be coalescing, or is it fine that a thousand flowers are blooming? Need we fear no frost?

Me, I'd like a few fragments to shore against my ruins. Well...I still have my copy of The Outernationale, and it's still a superb book. Engaged, to be sure--"Protest Song" from this book is the poem included in the aforementioned anthology of the new American poetry of engagement--painful, yes, as a lot of Gizzi's work is, but with a difference as well, a knowing, astringent joy, and astonishing beauty.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Miriam Toews, _All My Puny Sorrows_

THIS IS TOEWS'S sixth novel, but I had not even heard of her before I read Curtis Sittenfield's review of this one...perhaps because it's hard for Canadian novelists to get on the radar in the U.S. But if the others are even almost as good as this one, they must be excellent.

Our narrator, Yolanda (Yoli) Van Riesen, has arrived in mid-middle-age with a couple of kids, a couple of divorces, a sputtering career as a writer of children's fiction, an offer to produce an adult fiction manuscript that she is struggling to take advantage of, and a tendency to drink a little more than she should. Her life is teetering on the brink of chaos most of the time.

Her sister, and the primary object of her attention for most of the novel, is her sister Elfriede (Elf), an internationally renowned and beloved concert pianist whose high-achieving husband is utterly devoted to her.

So--which sister is suicidally depressed?


Can Yoli pull Elf out of it? Should she pull Elf out of it? Should she, as Elf so keenly desires, take Elf to Switzerland, where suicide is legal?

Yoli has an enormous deficit in managerial skills, but Toews is beyond deft is narratively toggling between Yoli's memories of growing up (in a small Mennonite-dominated town) with the prodigally gifted but always tortured Elf and Yoli's exhausting efforts in the novel's present to get Elf to see the Bright Side and Get On With Her Life.

Toews likewise excels in portraiture, particularly with Yoli's and Elf's parents and Elf's husband. It is Elf who is most profoundly unforgettable, for the reach of her mind, the energy of her artistic gift, and the depth of her suffering.

This may seem like backhanded praise, but this is a sort of young adult novel for adults. It has the tenderness and emotional wallop of a really good young adult novel, but the narrative depth of Alice Munro. It could take the books clubs of America by storm if word gets out.  

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Ben Lerner, _The Hatred of Poetry_

A CURSORY SURVEY of online commentray suggests that quite a few people have one complaint or another about this book, but I thought it was very good--lucid, sensible, helpful.

Taking off, as anyone might expect, from Marianne Moore's most famous line, Lerner considers poetry's situation as one of those arts that, on the one hand, enjoys some prestige--prizes, professorships, hushed reverence within a few straitly-bound precincts--yet, on the other, gets routinely ignored even by people who pride themselves as keeping current with, say, film or fiction or  ambitious varieties of popular music. Like opera, ballet, and chamber music, poetry is sometimes dismissed as too abstruse, or antique, or solipsistic, or elitist...for some reason, no one loses much cred for saying they dislike poetry.

Lerner usefully points out that even poets themselves, like Moore, in a way dislike it, or are frustrated  with its or their own limitations. The poets we must honor today (Lerner mentions Dickinson and Whitman) were those who did their utmost to get beyond whatever the prevailing notion of poetry was in their own time. Poetry is language that tries to transcend the possibilities of language, as Lerner argues, and failure and disappointment await in nearly every attempt.

So the prestige, he says, in effect attaches to Poetry, the dislike (disdain, ridicule) to poems and, erm, poets: "Hating on actual poems, then, is often an ironic if sometimes unwitting way of expressing the utopian ideal of Poetry, and the jeremiads in that regard are defenses, too" (76). Given the frequency with which someone or other routinely gets a few thousand words in Harpers or The Atlantic or The [late] New Republic to lament that American poetry is moribund (even when, as Lerner points out, the someone or other betrays a near-perfect ignorance of contemporary poetry), I am glad to have Lerner's essay. The dislike--okay, the hatred--of poetry is, he shows us, the cradle of poetry, a kind of enabling circumstance, that helps bring forth the kind of work that at least some of us prize, even find indispensable.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Rick Perlstein, _Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America_

THE SECOND VOLUME in Perlstein's superb trilogy on the electoral success of the mainstream right in the second half of the 20th century. The first volume, mainly on Goldwater, is excellent, the third, mainly on Reagan, I have not yet read, but this one, mainly on Nixon, is the key one for the summer of 2016, when Trump seems to be borrowing handfuls of pages from Nixon's playbook: fear of the other, jacked-up pride in an imaginary national past, anxiety about losing status, anger at disregard for traditional values, and big cracking barrels of white ressentiment.

Nixon parlayed this hand into one narrow and one overwhelming presidential election victory--tsk, if he had only been confident enough to know he could beat McGovern without resorting to cheating and breaking the law, he might have served out all of that second term.

That lack of confidence--that feeling that the cool kids are going deny him his due, that people have it in for him, that he will only prevail if he uses every trick in the book and invents a few more--is Perlstein's leading theme in analyzing Nixon. His shorthand for it is based on the names of two clubs from Nixon's alma mater, Whittier College: the Franklins, the classic student leader types, relatively well-born and beloved of faculty and administration, and the we-try-harder Orthogonians, the beta males.  Guess which one Nixon was in.  Right. But with him on their team, the Orthogonians took over most of student government by his senior year.

This is why Nixon played the ressentiment tactic so well.  He got it. He knew it.  He felt it. It was in his bones.

Trump, however, is obviously faking it. He knows it's powerful, he know the words and a bit of the tune, he knows how to perform it, but he doesn't feel it. The man radiates entitlement. He exudes privilege. You, sir, are no Orthogonian. You have to be Nixon to make Nixon work.  Or Ted Cruz. Cruz has got the Nixon thing, in spades.

For my money, the great Nixon book will always be Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes, a blend of on-the-spot and in-the-moment reporting, research, historical and philosophical acumen, psychological insight, and brilliant style--and throw in the drama of the Wills's own evolution, in the mid-1960s, from National Review wunderkind to liberal stalwart. But Perlstein has the advantage of knowing how the story turned out, so you should read them both, and there's room for at least three great books on Nixon, so let's throw in as well Robert Coover's The Public Burning.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Friedrich Schlegel, _Lucinde_, trans. Peter Firchow

I MAY BE among the every first to read this mainly in order to be up to speed for reading John Beer's new book.

I came to it out of obscure duty, then, but what a delight it turned out to be. Brief--only about ninety pages in this edition--but a wild ride. Published in 1799, Lucinde is "about" Julian and his…wife? lover?…Lucinde, and ignores all good principles of sound novelistic construction, past, present, and yet to come, with a thoroughness that is so complete as to be gleeful.

Like a good many of the novels that might broadly be called the progeny of Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther--Constant's Adolphe, Senancour's Obermann, Balzac's Louis Lambert, on up to Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and Teju Cole's Open City--Lucinde is less about narrative, plot, character, or setting than it is about the contours of a particular sensibility as it matures.

A case can be made for its structural coherence, I suppose, and translator Firchow, who wrote the introduction for this \volume, tries his best to make it, but the great delight of the book for me lay in its willingness to veer anywhere it wanted whenever it wanted, to take up lines of thought and abruptly drop them, to mix genres, to explain nothing save what it spontaneously felt like explaining.

Someone really ought to get the English translation of this back into print.  Used copies are going for forty and fifty dollars a shot, I noticed.

I think it was Morse Peckham who argued that Enlightenment thinkers were persuaded that human beings were best understood by analyzing them in some neutral, ordinary condition, but that Romantic thinkers were convinced that extremity--madness, criminality--or some other kind of marginalization from the normal--childhood, exile, poverty--revealed more authentically what the human was. Julian is a man in love, and the novel is largely about that peculiar exaltation, a deeply unusual state that may reveal more about us than our usual, customary condition does.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Lucy Ives, _The Worldkillers_

ELUSIVE, INTRIGUING, IVESIAN. Do the three texts of The Worldkillers constitute a triptych? Or are they best approached independently? The energy circulating in the book is not going to lay all its cards on the table, so you will have to make your bet and take your chances.

"My Thousand Novel" is a series of poems that feels like a sequence--they did appear as a chapbook (Cosa Nostra Editions), they do all center on a distinctively configured first person speaker, and there is a gathering intensity that flickers through jokiness, anger, and exhaustion until in the final poem ("To Find the Particular Place Then to Hold onto It") it gets to some new and terribly clear space:

Have you ever thought it is strange how you have to talk to so many people each day who don't need           your existence
Who don't need your weird existence, like
I don't need yours, reader
O push the clouds away, O push away the thick silk mat of me coming towards you
Push now the barrier in your mouth
A whole hill of tissue a whole room
We either say no words or weep into

Still...there is an aleatory quality, or an anarchic streak, or perhaps even some Rousselian composition strategy ticking away here, well muffled, that makes one wonder whether just how sequential the sequence is. What is going on?

"The Worldkillers," middle panel in our triptych, is a novel--a short one (fifty-some pages) whose chapters sometimes seem like prose poems, but a novel, perhaps a Balzacian one with its interest in furniture, perhaps a David Mitchell one with its hints of an elaborate mathematical puzzle, perhaps a Victorian thriller with its demanding, imperious ghost, perhaps a country-house-weekend murder mystery with its spectrum of eccentric guests. Or..is it not so much a novel as a quick, weird tour of the novelistic?

Last section--"On Description," subtitled "An Essay," but here too some sections could readily be taken for prose poems ("The eye remains fixed within the face and yet certain entities entice it, the anticipation of skin, something sinks in cloudy liquid"). The essay is on literary description, exactly as advertised...yet in a book that elsewhere seems to have only an attenuated, fifth-cousin relationship to mimesis, representation, and vraisemblance, why are we getting such careful, searching, earnest statements about description? Why, after the poems flowering out of their own verbal chain reactions, after the surreal tale of the archetypal mad scientist's dim assistant, do we have this essay's precisions about the mimetic, standing perfectly perpendicular to everything else in the book?

Obviously, I was left with questions. Which, truth to tell, is how I most like to be left.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Nikos Kazantzakis, _The Last Temptation of Christ_, trans. P. A. Bien

HAD TO READ this for reasons it would take too long to explain. I won't say I disliked it, but I will say I was happy to finish.

As you may recall from the controversy that greeted Scorsese's film adaptation, Kazantzakis does not give us the Christ of Christianity; that divine scapegoat, he thinks, is mainly the work of Paul. Kazantzakis's Jesus is a visionary and mystic, animated by a vision of universal love, who is goaded into a confrontation with Jewish and Roman authorities by supposed allies (principally Judas), with famously terrible consequences. His mother keeps wishing he would settle down and giver her some grandchildren.

The title refers to what became the most notorious segment of the film: the Adversary gives Jesus, dying on the cross, the opportunity to just disappear into a normal life as carpenter, husband (to both Mary and Martha), and father. Jesus feels the pull of domesticity but nonetheless elects to die on the cross, and, thanks to Paul, becomes the Christ of Christianity.

This is interesting...the novel just seems long (487 pages in my paperback edition), too many descriptions of the village streets, too many lengthy arguments with Judas. Say what you like about the gospels, they are at least lean.

I wonder what Scorsese saw in this. The film comes from a stretch when he was taking a lot of swings at pitches outside his wheelhouse (Edith Wharton, Kundun), and his film of this novel seems to me another such. At least he cast Harvey Keitel as Judas...now, if only he had cast DeNiro as Jesus and Joe Pesci as Pilate, we might have had something.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Noelle Kocot, _Soul in Space_

ANOTHER GOOD ONE from Kocot. Four sections. The first has a lot of short poems with short lines, often with phrases rather than complete sentences, clipped, not giving a whole lot away but even so with stray lines of direct address: "That's all I got," "My mind is not right" (or is that just citing Lowell?), "It will all be okay, I promise."

Part two: a nine-page poem, most of it statements about "it," but the pronoun has no antecedent until the second page: "I will be mad. / / I will be mad because it is my mother."  So, in some ways, a familiar kind of poem about an aging parent ("It liked looking at pictures of cats / On the computer"), but the simple alienation-effect of the pronoun brings out a very particular aspect of this experience (I can attest), one's intimate involvement in a difficult process that one can do little to alleviate, that one can sometimes only watch.

That's the thing with Kocot (for me). She creates a charged intersection of the confessional and the surreal. I wish we could revive that grand old term "expressionist," but we're probably too far down the road for that.

Part three: perhaps my favorite, actually, all sonnets (nineteen), exuberant in their verbal invention yet also strictly containbed by the form--another good example of two divergent things happening at once, pulling aginst each other, yet also strengthening each other.

The wolf howled at the flock, linguistics
Didn't matter. I spout tubes today from
My head, the trees, leaves, all over the place.
Another blue valley in a starboard eye-socket,

A paper touch of something else.

The language is in flower, but the kenosis is ongoing: "I am not finished emptying myself, even though / I thought I was." Nonetheless (unlike James Wright?), "I have not wasted my life."

Part four: harder to characterize. Seems connected to part one, but more expansive, perhaps more ambitious, still streaked with pain, but with a weary sort of spirituality;

          Is this a 
message? A message to whom? Is it
To you, who polishes me like a pearl?

The acknowledgements page indicates that the book's title is the translation of a Jarrell poem, "Seele in Raum," which has a couple of lines that might account for this book's hybrid of mystery and candor:

            This is senseless?
Shall I make sense or shall I tell the truth?
Choose either--I cannot do both.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ashbery and Radiohead?

JUST A COINCIDENCE, probably, but when I noticed that the track sequence on the new Radiohead album (which is quite good, I think) was based on alphabetical order, I wondered if they were following the example set by the tables of contents in Ashbery's Can You Hear, Bird and Planisphere.

Radiohead may be about the only band out there I would suspect of nicking an idea from Ashbery.

Interestingly, this random principle, as in the case of the books of Mr. A. himself, turns out to generate a persuasive, even moving sequence, from "Burn the Witch" to the at-long-last studio version of "True Love Waits."

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

John Seabrook, _The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory_

THIS SUMMER I read two books by New Yorker staff writers concerning small, narrowly-focused bands of like-minded individuals who were exercising a disproportionate and not very happy influence over the hearts and minds of the United States.  This was one of them; Jane Mayer's Dark Money was the other.

Max Martin and Dr. Luke are doing less damage to the culture of our dear republic than the Koch brothers are, to be sure.  Seabrook himself, despite having grown up with the same rock and roll classics that I did, finds the whole Britney-Backstreet-Ke$ha-Katy Perry spectrum embraceable. Daily drives with his son led to a kind of Damascus moment during Flo Rida's "Right Round," and  he discusses Kelly Clarkson's "Since U Been Gone" and Rihanna's "Umbrella" with the relish of an enthusiast.

He's not alone. Joshua Clover's occasional Nation column takes contemporary pop as seriously as Dylan was ever taken, and a recent issue of n+1 had a long piece on Drake.  Carl Wilson's book on Celine Dion takes for granted that the art/commerce distinction, as it affects pop music, deconstructed itself ages ago.

It's just never going to work for me, though.  Having started listening to the radio when "Like a Rolling Stone" and "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" were normal fare, having signed on for the Velvets, Bowie, the Stooges, and punk in my twenties, having claimed the Smiths and the Replacements in  my thirties, I was just plain immune to the strains of Britney and Spice Girls that seeped out of the kids' rooms during my forties.

Nonetheless, I devoured The Song Machine, a gracefully-written triumph of reporting that gets behind the scenes and explains lucidly and unjudgmentally just how the current purveyors of pop go about their business. For me, the real sonic landscape of our time is elsewhere than in Katy Perry and Taylor Swift (an elsewhere populated by Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper, P. J. Harvey, Johnny Marr, Courtney Barnett, and Anton Newcomb, among others), but I was grateful for the tour offered in Seabrook's book of the sonic landscape that most of the country inhabits.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Jonathan Franzen, _Purity_

ALMOST PASSED ON this one. I picked up Freedom with some anticipation, having enjoyed The Corrections and having duly noted the advance acclaim for the successor cropping up everywhere from n+1 to Time, but it was a dud, I thought--the central triangle not that persuasive, the initially promising kulturkampf confrontation with the neighbors two-dimensional.

Purity was much more cooly received, so I'm not altogether sure why I decided to read it anyway, but I did it, and I think it a much stronger novel.

Purity is the name of the central character, but she goes by Pip, and she has a lot in common with her Dickensian namesake: self-centered, prone to misjudgment, object of mysteriously-motivated benefactions, but good-hearted and capable of learning from her mistakes.

A very large part of the novel, though, is devoted to Pip's parents and their pre-Pip loves and entanglements, including one with an eccentric East German dissident who goes on to found an organization very reminiscent of WikiLeaks. This clay-footed figure generates most of what we might call the plot, but let's skip that. The looming question for him, for Pip's father and mother, and for other characters in their orbit is finding an indubitably noble end that can be pursued with uncorrupted means--hence another dimension of the novel's title.

Finding a noble end achievable by uncorrupted means sounds like a first-world problem, and it is, but it is the classic first-world problem, since first-worlders are always already complicit in crime simply by being first-worlders, so this particular conundrum seems worthy of a long novel. A similar conflict was discernible in Freedom, but it tended to shade into idealism-vs.-pragmatism, and Purity takes on the question with both more irony and more gravity. Not to mention more intelligence.

Franzen does a lot of things well here. In Freedom, the transitions from Franzen-esque narration to style indirect libre were bumpy, the timing of the revelations stagy, but both matters are adroitly managed here, the latter worthy even of Dickens.

Biggest surprise was the fifth and longest of the book's seven sections, which keep calling Philip Roth to mind. It's in the first person, which Roth uses (used?) often but Franzen rarely does, but the main similarity lies in Franzen's character Anabel Laird, who repeatedly evokes the many fictional avatars of Margaret Martinson, Roth's first wife (see Letting Go, When She Was Good, Portnoy's Complaint, My Life as a Man (best place to start), and The Facts). Franzen cannot quite match the histrionic high notes that Roth can hit in in the mad scenes, but Anabel walks away with the book, really.

Actually, factor in that Anabel is also Penelope Tyler, Purity's devoted, vulnerable mother, and she begins to look like the most interesting character Franzen has ever conjured up. I wouldn't want to be married to her, but she's really marvelous.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Jana Prikryl, _The After Party_

SORRY TO KEEP pulling this dodge, but I hope to write about this one elsewhere, too. I've been waiting to get this book for a while.

 It must have been a year or so ago I started noticing poems by Prikryl in places that do not publish a lot of poems, and seem to prefer poems by well-established poets at that: New York Review of Books, The Nation, New Yorker, London Review of Books. I liked the poems a lot, so I went looking around to see what books were available, but to my surprise, she had not published a book yet.

So who was this newcomer who had cracked the lineup in publications given to publishing Ashbery, Graham, Pulitzer prize winners, and such?

There turned out to be a book forthcoming in 2016. I pre-ordered it, it duly arrived early this summer, and it's very good. Given how visible her periodical publications were, though, I was surprised again in seeing that her book came out with a publisher I had never heard of, Tim Duggan Books, which sounded like the smallest-of-the-small presses.

Wrong! Tim Duggan Books "was founded in 2014 and is committed to the highest standard of storytelling across a range of genres," according to its website, and is part of the Crown Publishing  Group, which in turn is part of Penguin. As near as I can tell, Tim Duggan Books does not concentrate on poetry, or even on the particularly literary.

So, how did The After Party wind up with Tim Duggan Books? I find myself wanting to know.

Robyn Schiff, _A Woman of Property_, again

SO...I DID, in fact, do a blog-post review of this for a classier blog, and it will likely appear in due course, so I will not pre-empt myself here, but I'm wondering about the reference to Ramon Fernandez, whom the speaker seems to be addressing at one point in the book's final poem, "The Houselights."

Is this the French critic Ramon Fernandez (1894-1944), onetime communist a collaborator with the Nazis in the final phase of his career, invoked by Wallace Stevens in "The Idea of Order at Key West"?

Or the Philippino basketball player that Wikipedia assumes must be the one you want to know more about if you search for "Ramon Fernandez"?

Not at all sure how good my chances of getting an answer to this question are.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Christian Caryl, _Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century_

ONE OF THIS summer's projects is to finish as many as possible of the books I started last summer, and the summer before that.  (I think I can fairly claim to be one of the leading starters of books in Lancaster County.) I started this in the summer of 2014, being something of a fan of Caryl's pieces in the NYRB and also intrigued by the thesis.

We often hear of 1968, and of 1989, but Caryl decided to look at a counter-revolutionary moment, and 1979 was the year Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, the Ayatollah Khomeini, and Deng Xiaoping came to power. Much of the 1960s and early 1970s were about cracking things open, shaking things up, letting one's freak flag fly, etc., and these four ushered in a period of rolling back, cracking down, cleaning up: Thatcher taking on the welfare state, John Paul II taking on Vatican II, Khomeini taking on westernizing secularization, Deng...

...okay, so here is one rough patch in the thesis.  Wasn't Deng about liberalizing, opening up, rather than restoring something?

Caryl does, however, make explicit that being an effective counter-revolutionary is not just being a reactionary, not just vainly trying to restore some status quo ante. An effective counter-revolutionary learns the revolution's tricks, figures out what it got right, then exploits its blind spots, complacencies, inefficiencies, hypocrisies...so Deng may be a counter-revolutionary in that he undid a lot of what Mao created without bringing back the emperor? Well, maybe.

Generally, Caryl's arguments tend not to work equally well for all four figures. He thinks that reclaiming religion was important--obviously that was crucial for the Pope and the Ayatollah, in a way for the Iron Lady, but for Deng? Similarly, when he says that the counter-revolution was about the renaissance of the free market and the invisible hand, you can see that working for Thatcher, certainly, and Deng, and the Pope if we see him as a campaigner against Communism... but the Ayatollah? Was Khomeini an Adam Smith kind of guy?

The main part of the book, though, is more historical than grand-theoretical, narrating the advent, accomplishments, and long-term impact of the four figures, vividly and energetically. I finished the book persuaded that there had been a spirit of '79, and that it had done a lot to create the world we live in now.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Robyn Schiff, _A Woman of Property_, interim report

I HAVE HOPES of writing about this volume in a more-frequented corner of the internet than my little (though beloved, of me) anonymous blog, but I feel compelled to note here an especially striking sentence, from "A Hearing":

            Every time I descend the stairs I
trespass what I already own.

The statement seems to be about going into a basement, as there's a reference to changing a filter on a boiler, and in my part of the world, such operations occur only in basements. It has, I expect, metaphorical extension in several dimensions and is about "more" than going down into basements, but the unnerving thing for me is that is exactly how I have felt, since childhood, about going into basements, and I have never seen it expressed so compactly and accurately.

Basements, even the basements of the houses I live in, have always seemed to be the domain of some Other--ghosts, trolls, basement beings--who need to be acknowledged, placated, flattered (like the Eumenides) before they will permit your presence in their world to go undisturbed. However much time you spend there, whatever favorite toys are kept there, whatever activities routinely occur there, whatever necessary chores (e.g., laundry) occur there, you are never on your own ground in a basement; you are trespassing.  The basement belongs to them. You are there on sufferance only, under surveillance, even if you have paid off your mortgage (as I have) and own that basement free and clear, your basement is not yours.

I have not the least idea whether this is what Schiff actually had in mind--but it coincides so perfectly with an intuition I have had since I was a pre-schooler that I am grateful for its articulation, whatever she actually had in mind.

I haven't finished the book, but it is the spookiest thing I have read since There Is No Year. 

Thursday, July 7, 2016

John Beer, _The Waste Land and Other Poems_

HARD TO BEAT the book's title for sheer chutzpah--the cover is even a facsimile of the back cover of the 1923 Hogarth Press edition of Eliot's poem.

Smart-assery (to give chutzpah another name) is discernible in Beer's re-make of Eliot's most famous poem, but the smart-assery is, one has to admit, smart--Eliot's dedication to Pound, "il miglior fabbro" ("the better craftsman"), becomes a dedication to Jack Spicer, "the fabber craftsman"--and Beer knows his source poem deeply enough that his "Waste Land" seems less parody than what the 18th century called an "imitation," a re-imagining of the poem into new circumstances, as Pope did with Horace and Johnson with Juvenal. Some of it is easy pickings--"hurry up please it's time" becomes "Borders will be closing in fifteen minutes"--but Beer is more alert than most commentaries to the ways that Eliot's poem is self-deflating, a joke at its own expense (for instance, Beer opens with a take on the "Water-dripping song" that Eliot later said was the best part of the poem).

Other poems in the book seem to be looking sidewise at Four Quartets ("The Perfumed Crypt") or at Marx ("Theses on Failure") or Rilke ("Sonnets to Morpheus"), but I wonder whether these overtly acknowledged precursors are not the crucial ones. The poet who most haunts the volume, to my ear, is Ashbery:

What was I trying to get at? Once posed in that condition,
the question seemed slightly insane, a septet of cardinals
lunching at the Rainforest Café. The old skin issues
kept reasserting themselves, a wayward boomerang
lurching hither and yon, over hills and dales and hibernating
     ("Bob Hope Is Not a Plan")

Similarly, "Sonnets to Morpheus" actually seems to owe less to Rilke than to the shaggy-dog narrative poems of Paul Muldoon in his earlier days--"The More a Man Has, the More a Man Wants," for instance. The book's deftness in Advanced-Class Leg-Pulling, all by itself, could be seen as following the example of Muldoon (cf. Madoc) or Ashbery (cf. everything he ever published).

Beer has a touch all his own, though, elusive of definition but discernible enough to leave me wanting to read the next one.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Marianne Moore, _Observations_

MY THANKS TO Linda Leavell, whose idea I am guessing it was to reissue this 1924/1925 volume as a separate publication. I read the Selected Poems and the Complete Poems back in grad school and enjoyed them, but it was H.D. I could not get enough of. The volume edited by Grace Schulman some years ago helped considerably, but reading Observations as a stand-alone gave me a Moore I could love as well as respect. This is the poet that one can understand Pound dedicating Personae to, or Eliot praising, or (looking at the back cover) drawing blurbs from John Ashbery and Jorie Graham.

The exacting metrical experiments, the precise syntax, the suspicion that animals might be more admirable than people, the Jamesian needle of irony it takes several seconds to detect, the balance of extravagance and restraint--

Sun, you shall stay
With us. Holiday
     And day of wrath shall be as one, wound in a device
           Of Moorish gorgeousness, round glasses spun
           To flame as hemispheres of one
               Great hourglass dwindling a stem. Consume hostility;
               Employ your weapons in this meeting place of surging enmity.

--this is what Edith Sitwell was going for, I think, except that she never managed to get there, and Moore does almost every time. (The stanza is from "Fear Is Hope," which did not make the cut in the 1935 Selected or the later Complete).

And then there is what I can only call the wisdom of "The Labors of Hercules." Even Wallace Stevens never quite managed to get there. (To say nothing of Pound and Eliot.)

Interesting to read "Marriage," that none-more-dry dismantling, now that we are on the other historical side of Obergefell v. Hodges, not to mention Maggie Nelson's Argonauts.

We're just a few years from the centenary of this volume, and it couldn't sound more contemporary.

What an amazing photograph on the cover, too--no white hair, no tricorne, but the cool gaze of someone who has seen through all of it, including you.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Novels in Verse

DAVID MASON'S LUDLOW has me thinking about novels in verse. Not the same thing as a book-length narrative poem, it seems fair to say--distinguishable from epic, obviously (my students often refer to the Odyssey as a novel, but I don't think that counts, as they also refer to HamletThe Future of an Illusion, and the Koran as novels), and from Jerusalem Delivered, Orlando Furioso, and so on .

Blake's Jerusalem? Book-length, yes, a narrative, I would say so, but not a novel, perhaps. To adopt a Rancièrean lens, the shift from epic to novel involved looking at events not because they were arguably more important and significant than most events (e.g., Paradise Lost, epics in general), but precisely because they were on an ordinary human scale, because they belonged to quotidian reality. Similarly, the personages need not be movers and shakers, heroes, leaders--better if they were not, actually, apart from the odd cameo, Napoleon in Balzac's Une Ténébreuse Affaire.

Accordingly, Mason's Ludlow seems like a novel because the characters are not John D. Rockefeller nor (except briefly) UMW leader John Lawson, nor governors nor presidents, but people at ground level, as it were. The attention to setting, to period detail, to the ordinary fabric of a day. is that of a novel.

Mason's afterword mounts a defense for writing novels in verse rather than prose, and it's a good one, but the undertaking seems nonetheless quixotic to me because, as far as I can tell, there is no built-in readership for novels in verse. None at all. I know people who gobbled up Vikram Seth's 1000+-page A Suitable Boy but would not even go near his novel-in-sonnets, Golden Gate.

For that matter, novels-in-verse have next to no profile in the history of literature. Not that people haven't written them, or haven't written good ones, but even the good ones haven't had much impact, so to speak.

Is there even one novel-in-verse that those who feel a commitment to literature (writers, traders, teachers) feel they really ought to read? I have read several worthwhile examples, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh, her husband's The Ring and the Book, Brad Leithauser's Darlington Falls--I would even put in a good word for Stephen Vincent Benét's John Brown's Body. But I can't recall ever hearing someone say, "I have always wanted to get around to reading The Ring and the Book," as they might of The Divine Comedy or the Aeneid.

In sum: novels-in-verse have no canonical presence to speak of.

Why is that? It seems wrong, somehow.

I was able to think of a novel-in-verse that really ought to be canonical, though: Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. The depth of field and psychological acuity of a novel, the die-cut concision and verbal agility of a poem, and available in not one but two highly readable English translations. Eugene Onegin ought to be the novel-in-verse that everyone thinks they ought to read.

Monday, July 4, 2016

David Mason, _Ludlow_

I CANNOT REMEMBER exactly why I bought this. When I come across a poem that I particularly like in a periodical, I often go online to get a recent volume by that poet, and I assume something like that happened in this case.  I must have really liked whatever poem by Mason I read, because I would  certainly not otherwise have picked up a "verse-novel" about one of the grimmest episodes in the already grim enough history of American capitalism.

I do remember opening the package when the book came and thinking, "you idiot, when do you think you are going to have time to read this?" But as luck would have it, I was reading an issue of The Baffler focusing on violence in American politics, and there were some references to the massacre of the striking coalworkers at Ludlow, and I remembered I had a verse-novel on the subject right here in the house somewhere, so... I sat down and actually read Mason's book.

It's good. A brisk read, strong sense of the place and the time, situated mainly from the point of the view of the miners, a couple of memorable characters--Louis Zikas, who was historical, a Greek immigrant and one of the strike organizers, and Luisa Mole, fictional, orphaned daughter of a miner killed in an accident, taken in as maid-of-all-work by the Reeds, who operate a company store.

The language is plain and modern, verse relatively traditional, blank-verse pentameter in eight-line stanzas, although Mason uses rhyme in a few spots (and very effectively, too, it adds a discernible intensification) and shifts to hexameters (if I'm scanning it aright) for the story's violent climax, perhaps recalling western narrative poetry's blood-spattered origins in Homer and Virgil.

The eight-line stanzas seem to me a counter-intuitive choice for a long narrative poems, as the stanza form would tend to lock you into a set narrative pace, a challenge not even Spenser consistently overcame. Mason makes the pace work to his story's advantage, though; that the narrative never seems to speed up noticeably or slow down noticeably lends gravitas to the story, a seriousness reinforced by Mason's rhetorical restraint. There is plenty to say here about the desperation of the miners' lives, plenty to say about the ruthlessness of the institutional forces brought to bear on them, but Mason's keeps his tone subdued and lets the specifics do the talking.

Mason's book has done well: my copy is from a second edition, published by Red Hen Press, and it won a couple of awards. Still, undertaking the writing of a novel-in-verse seems peculiarly quixotic to me...but this post is already lengthy, so that may be a subject for later.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Binyavanga Wainaina, _One Day I Will Write about This Place_

WAINAINA IS FAMOUS for his short, ferocious satire "How To Write About Africa." At times this book gets off comparable flamethrower bursts ("In 1983, while I read novels, [Kenyan president Daniel] Moi is building his Big Dick Building in secret. Every dictator has to have one'), but it is in the main funny, tender, lyrical, observant, candid.

One Day I Will Write about This Place is a memoir, running from Wainaina's childhood to 2010, when he is just shy of forty, but is not a continuous narrative; it skips around quite a bit in time as well as place. Wainaina is Kenyan, but his mother is from Uganda (a Tutsi, she has relatives in Rwanda who had to hide during the killings), he attends university in South Africa, and his life as a working writer takes him to Nigeria, Ghana, Togo, and other countries. The book is pan-Africanist, as is Wainaina himself, appreciative of differences but unwilling to fetishize them. Similarly, he is often sarcastic about trhe tribaliosm that emerged in Kenya after Moi's fall.

Since almost all of the African literature I have read is from the early post-imperial period--the classic novels of Achebe, Ngugi, Emecheta, Laye--I tend to think of African literature as set in villages, or, when set in cities, as focused on characters just recently arrived from villages. Wainaina's book gives us the Africa of a wholly different generation .The 1980s he grew up include Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Dallas, and stacks of pulpy sci fi. The excesses and anxieties of his undegraduate years have a very recognizable shape. The Internet, the World Cup, neo-liberalism...it's an African text for the globalization era.

As a portrait of a time, a continent, and a sensibility, One Day I Will Write about This Place is more a mosaic or collage than a unified line drawing, the pieces tending to make a stronger impression than the movement of the whole does. Many of the pieces are brilliant, though, and the prose a continual delight, fresh, effervescent, intelligent.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Geoff Dyer, _Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It_

JUST CHECKED, AND yes, Dyer did attend Oxford University, which I suspected he had given his perfection of the Oxford manner, by which I mean such habits as saying one has never studied Topic X closely but then displaying unusually detailed knowledge about Topic X, or claiming to be a lazy sod who cannot finish anything, a mere wastrel, even while one is producing a lengthening bibliography. The late Christopher Hitchens was a contemporary master of the Oxford manner, but Dyer is no slouch.

The chapter titled "Leptis Magna" has some good examples. "Sitting on the plane, I wondered if there was any limit to my unpreparedness," he muses, only having been able to read a few pages on Leptis Magna, the archaeological site to which he is on route.  Modesty becomes a writer in such circumstances, I suppose, but I had never even heard of Leptis Magna before reading Dyer, and you likely have not either, and it turns out Spellcheck keeps assuming I must mean something else. While you or I might congratulate ourselves on even knowing what Leptis Magna, to say nothing of having the gumption to travel to Libya (!) to see it, Dyer heavily underscores his failure to do his homework

I would go to Leptis not knowing anything about it. [...] I was intending to go further still and put my faith in the power of not guessing but of ignorance as an investigative tool.

Similarly, in the same chapter, Dyer mentions that he has "never had the slightest interest in the physics of the stars, or the myths suggested by the constellations," and that furthermore he visited the Rothko Chapel in Houston and "I felt...nothing."

Dyer has been all over the world and seen a great many wonders that most folks have never even heard the names of, yet his general tone is that of someone who has sedulously avoided anything that looks at all like effort or study.  He not only does he carry his learning lightly, but he would just as soon you assumed him to possess no learning whatsoever.

As I mentioned, Hitchens could do this too, but it goes back at least as far as Cyril Connolly/Harold Acton/Brian Howard, or back to Max Beerbohm, or Oscar Wilde, but I suspect it really starts with Beau Brummell and the dandies, or the dandy as imagined by Charles Baudelaire and Barbey d'Aurevilly, and the need to establish that one was simply born with whatever fine-tuned knowledge and/or sensibility one has and never, ever had to do anything that even resembled work.

The title of Dyer's book encapsulates the whole attitude with beautiful precision.

Someone should bring Ellen Moers's The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm back into print. One cannot understand modern civilization without it.

I hope this does not sound as though I did not enjoy Dyer's book.  Actually, I am a fool for this sort of thing. I own eleven books by Beerbohm. And even a few by Harold Acton. And had Brian Howard ever managed to publish a book, I would have grabbed that, too.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Maggie Nelson, _The Argonauts_

A LOOSELY ASSOCIATIVE flock of micro-essays, this book has as its center of gravity Nelson's having a baby with her partner Harry Dodge, the genderqueer artist. Since Dodge is chromosomally female, and the conception occurred in some technology-assisted, non-levitical way, the mere existence of their family would strike quite a few of my fellow citizens (even some people on my street, I suspect) as the Abomination of Desolation and a sure sign that the end times were nigh.

At the same time, were you to see Maggie, Harry, Iggy, and Iggy's seven-years-senior half brother (not named in the text, unless I just missed it) at your local sandwich shop, they would look just like any other breeder clan out there. As a friend of Nelson's puts it, seeing their family photo on a coffee mug,  "I've never seen anything so heteronormative in my life."

(What do you suppose the tone of that utterance was, by the way?  The reviewer of the book in n+1 sounds confident that it was offered amicably, but I wonder.)

Hence my guess at the meaning of the title: the ship Argo, from Greek mythology, gradually had all its component parts replaced over the course of a voyage--was it still the Argo once nothing of the original Argo remained? Is the grand old patriarchal institution of marriage+kids still patriarchal when its component parts are replaced? Are Maggie and Harry reproducing a repressive institution or transforming it in an emancipatory way? "Afterward we debated: assimilation vs. revolution"--this debate actually occurs while they are watching X-Men: First Class while Harry is recovering from his top surgery, but the question seems germane to their domestic situation as well.

Things are still fairly edgy, even with the family-photo coffee mug around; the book opens with Nelson deeply relishing a session of anal sex (a topic that will come up a few times in the book).  Nelson obviously means to keep faith with her transgressive commitments as a theorist/artist, but she's willing to own up that she is really into her marriage and really into her kid. So there we are.

It's good book: brisk, provocative, sometimes provoking, moving. Nelson is one of a growing crowd of really interesting young (-ish, at least, i.e., younger than I) women prose writers--Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Karen Hays--but the book hers most often called to mind for me was Greenberg & Zucker's Home/Birth. Mainly because of the subject of childbirth, I suppose, but also something in the non-linear freedom of the structure, the poetic sensibility of both books, and also the willingness to write from an angle oblique to that of the American mainstream about the oldest, most elemental of human events.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

John Ashbery, _Breezeway_

IN 1985, THE year Ashbery's first Selected Poems appeared, I had an office next to someone who edited a fairly prestigious literary journal housed at a fairly prestigious university.  One day, passing my office on the way to his, he asked if I had read James Fenton's condescendingly dismissive review of Ashbery in the Sunday NYTBR. I had. "I think Ashbery's about done," the editor said. "People are on to him."

So, thirty-one years later, can you think of a living American poet more influential than, more honored than, or with better prospects for future regard than John Ashbery?

(And when was the last time you heard anything of James Fenton, who in 1985 was sometimes mentioned as his generation's successor to Auden and Larkin?)

Breezeway is, for me, hard to distinguish from Planisphere or Quick Question, but at this point Ashbery hardly needs to have any late-career surprises up his sleeve. One largely knows what to expect, and Ashbery delivers, and that suffices: "Was it this you were expecting, / and if not, why not?" he reasonably asks.  He can apparently keep this up for as long as he wishes to--"No problem / that I can see, unless it's running out of raw material."  His material being the flotsam and jetsam of spoken and written English, he can't run out.

I wonder whether the best way to read late Ashbery is to take in about twelve poems at a time, then put the book down for a few days, then read another twelve. He does tend to repeat his devices (the sudden unexpected question, a proper name brought in for the first and only time about three-fourths through the poem, a direct but unfulfillable imperative), so breaks might be helpful, but even once you notice the recurring tricks, his powers of invention seem never to flag, and tthe old delight keeps blooming.

Jacques Rancière, _Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art_ (tr. Zakir Paul)

MODELLED ON AUERBACH's Mimesis, a daunting predecessor if there ever was one, Aisthesis is fourteen essays unpacking a historical range of passages of (mainly) art criticism, from Winckelmann to James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, as Auerbach unpacked passages from a historical range of fictional narratives from Homer to Virginia Woolf. As Auerbach's unifying idea was the unfolding development of the ways fiction represents experience, so Rancière's in the unfolding development of what he has called, in a series of texts, the "aesthetic regime"in art.

The aesthetic regime kicks in during the mid-to-late 18th century and continues today, Rancière argues. Its two leading traits are (a) that the objects represented in art or literature are no longer deemed worth representing because they are distinctively noble, or deserving of admiration or reverence, or peculiarly important, but for quite other reasons, and (b) that the representation of the object is no longer valued according to the artist's skill in elevating or or idealizing the object.

So, over the last 250 years, we have an ever-expanding universe of what artists may decide to represent, and diminishing expectations as to what level or what kinds of skill/craft/dexterity/mastery of technique need be demonstrated.

As I have already noted quite a few times in this blog, I find this completely and utterly persuasive. I am, shall we say, totally on board the good ship Rancière, and the idea of "the aesthetic regime" has become my default lens for a few years now.

I would not hesitate to recommend Aisthesis to anyone interested in getting acquainted with Rancière. Grounded as it is particulars and structured as it is in a series of well-turned essays, it would make a relatively manageable entry point. For anyone mainly interested in the broader concept of the aesthetic regime, though, I would probably recommend the swifter and pithier Le Partage du Sensible.

Aisthesis has a fine essay on Whitman, but I found myself wishing Rancière or someone with his chops would take a closer look at my man Yeats. What Rancière says here about Gordon Craig and Meyerhold, Maeterlinck, and Mallarmé suggests that he has ahold of one of the great keys to how 19th century art became 20th century art, and I think his ideas would immensely clarify how the reed-throated whisperer became the author of The Tower. For that matter, insofar as anglo-american poetic modernity (Pound, Eliot, Moore, Williams) had a lot to do with discovering what poetry did not have to do and did not have to represent in order to be poetry, a Rancière-inspired survey of Imagism et al. would tell us a great deal.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Sam Tanenhaus, _The Death of Conservatism_

READING THE MAYER book led me to look at this again.

The expanded version of a New Republic article that appeared in the first few weeks of the first Obama administration, it may have been ill-served by its title.  By the time the book appeared, the Tea Party was all over the news, and a year later the 2010 mid-term elections brought in a surly bunch of new Congressfolk who called themselves conservatives and were ready for a scrap. Conservatism seemed alive and kicking.

But if you read just a little way into the book, you will see that Tanenhaus is not talking just about those who brand themselves as conservatives, but what "conservatism" once meant. Once upon a time, it was about conserving, more what we mean by a "conservative" investment strategy: sober, prudent, avoiding unnecessary risks...and, by extension, skeptical of innovation, keeping faith with tradition, conscious of our fallibility as a species even when our intentions are noble...maybe especially then.

Tannenhaus mentions Burke, Disraeli, the J. S. Mill of On Liberty, Michael Oakeshott...he doesn't mention Samuel Johnson, but that's the sensibility.

Now recall the incendiary, burn-it-down, blow-it-up attitude of the Tea Party faction in Congress. Conservative? Hardly.

Ayn Rand and the Randians are another case in point. She is fons et origo of an important strain of contemporary American right-wing thinking, but she was not, strictly speaking, about conserving anything. Tanenhaus quotes from Whittaker Chambers's spot-on review of Atlas Shrugged: "this mind finds, precisely in extravagance, some exalting merit; feels a surging release of power and passion precisely in smashing up the house."

The Death of Conservatism offers a useful vantage on the Republican nomination process of 2016, I'd say. The Tea Partiers, the free marketeers, the evangelicals, and the "Reagan Democrats" who (I suspect) make up the bulk of Trump's supporters would probably all have said they wanted a conservative, but there was obviously no consensus at all about what that meant. Tanenhaus helps us understand how that could happen.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Colum McCann, _TranAtlantic_

I MEANT TO read but never got around to reading McCann's prize-winning Let the Great World Spin, so this, the July selection in our book club, is the first of his novels I've read.

I'm of two minds.

I did not enjoy McCann's style. The sentences are short, clipped. Often present tense. Sometimes only fragments.  A lot like this. Page after page. Drove me crazy.

Structurally, though, the novel was intriguing. It begins with three widely-separated historical vignettes, the first non-stop airplane flight across the Atlantic, Frederick Douglass's lecture to Ireland, and George Mitchell's successful negotiation of the Good Friday Accords. Threaded through these episodes and developed more extensively in the middle section of the novel is the story of four generations of Irish women, starting with Lily, a servant who is inspired by her encounter with Douglass to emigrate to the United States, and ending with Hannah, whose son was murdered in the Troubles.  In between, we have Emily, a journalist living in Canada, and Lottie, who returns to the old sod via marriage with (neat twist) an Orangeman.

Thematically, too, the novel had some appeal, with the criss-crossing of fortunes between Ireland and North America, and the long shots that come through against all expectation--Alcock and Brown land their plane, slavery is abolished, Mitchell succeeds where so many had failed for so long. The same spirit of possibility and willingness to persist in the face of likely defeat animates the stories of the four women.

The historical pieces worked--especially the flight, very vividly narrated, and the Douglass section, which made him affectingly human. The Mitchell section was maybe a bit off, weirdly intimate at times (he mulls when to take his shoes off during a transatlantic flight, ponders his son's loaded diaper) without conveying much idea of how he strategized his thorny and seemingly impossible task.

All in all, I think there was enough to like here that I should still give Let the Great World Spin a... spin. I hope it is not written in that same stop-and-start fashion, though. Because I could not stand it.  Not at all. It would annoy me. It would.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Garth Greenwell, _What Belongs to You_

REDUCED TO its briefest description, this novel might almost be Caleb Crain's Necessary Errors. Young American gay man with literary ambitions teaches English in a former Soviet bloc country and develops a relationship with a local man who is basically a hustler. Being inexperienced (strike one), middle class (strike two), and American (strike three), the protagonist never quite sorts out what the relationship is, never quite hits an authentic note, but comes to understand himself and his own upbringing in a way that creates (maybe) hope for his future.

For all that, though, the two novels are deeply different, both excellent, but in  diverging ways. Crain's novel (see LLL for July 8, 2014) has the detail and texture of a 19th century bildungsroman: the careful description, the large cast of supporting characters, the sense of passing time, a narrative arc from callowness to maturity.

What Belongs to You, however, is all pared-down modernist concision and modernist ambiguity. It is set in Bulgaria.  More or less all I knew of Bulgaria as I started the novel is that it produces an unearthly kind of women's choral music and that it somehow managed to protect most its Jews from the worst of the Holocaust, and, having finished the novel, that is still more or less all I know.  The narrator mentions in passing students, fellow teachers, medical officers, but we do not even learn their names; the only character in the novel who actually is named is the hustler, Mitko. (A current lover ["R."] and a friend from adolescence ["K."] get initials.) We are in a landscape swept clean of almost everything but a relationship with a man the narrator can never be confident he understands.

The novel could be described as, on the one hand,  a novella with two main parts, the first beginning the narrator's first encounter with Mitko in a public men's room and ending with a stormily concluded holiday visit to Mitko's seaside home town, the second beginning two years later with Mitko's turning up unexpectedly at the narrator's doorstep with the news that he has syphilis and that the narrator may have it too, and ending with a final plea for a little more food at a little more money at that same doorstep. These sections are what Isherwood's Berlin Stories might have been had he been as candid there as he was in his later autobiographical volumes.

In between the two parts, on the other hand, we have a paragraph of some forty pages that recreates the narrator getting the news that his father back in the United States is dying--a long-breathed Proustian swirl of time, memory, introspection, and slow analytic narrative.

The extraordinary thing is how well these quite different narrative strands braid together. The bonding element we might call abjection--the narrator's sense that his powerful desire for Mitko has enmeshed him with a bit of rough trade who could turn out to be violent, exploitative, or both, the condemnation of his sexuality he felt from his father as though he were the bearer of some unholy pollution, his visits to the clinic for his venereal infection--but I should immediately point out, too, that this is not a matter of gay self-hatred at all, more an understanding of our shared fallen nature, our helplessness before our own appetites, our doubts about our capacity for love, our conflicts, our guilt.

What would it mean to do enough, I wondered, as I had wondered before about that obligation to others that sometimes seems so clear and sometimes disappears altogether, so that now we owe nothing, anything we give is too much, and now our debt is beyond all counting.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Martin Amis, _Success_

ABOUT MID-CAREER, say the era of Brideshead Revisited and the WW II trilogy, Evelyn Waugh seemed to his contemporaries to have matured a bit, learned some manners, softened his style and acquired some gravitas. He became a best-seller, got some honors, became  a respectable ornament of English letters. As time went on, though, it was the early satiric novels--Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust--that really seemed to represent his essential achievement, his distinctive contribution.

I wonder whether something similar will happen with Martin Amis. About mid-career--I'm going to say London Fields--he became someone to take seriously, someone Booker-able. But perhaps the wilder, less disciplined, more carbonated novels of his enfant terrible years will in time be the ones that matter.

This one from 1978 is a case in point. It's a yob-vs.-snob tale, narrated alternately by the yob, Terry Service (red-headed, pug-faced, humble, charmless office grunt) and the snob, Gregory Riding (well-born, well-educated, arrogant, handsome scenester). The twist: they are brothers, Gregory's impulsively good-doing father having adopted Terry after a fire destroyed the rest of his family, and flatmates, circumstances that sharpen Terry's envy and Gregory's condescension. A further twist: in a kind of variation on the old logic-problem riddle, Terry always tells the truth, and Gregory always lies. And one more: power inexplicably shifts, A Star Is Born fashion, over the course of the year in which which the narration occurs, Terry ascendant and terrible, Gregory defeated and cringing.

Both characters are interesting, Terry appealingly candid about his own initial haplessness and then darkly compelling as the turning worm, Gregory a kind of Van Veen living in an Antiterra of his own until brutally brought to earth.

What really makes the book unforgettable, though, is the sheer exuberance of the style, a proliferation of verbal effects that (as in early Wyndham Lewis) does not know how to shut itself off, every sentence  a string of firecrackers.

Mature? No. Delightful?  Yes, and distinctively so.

Happy Bloomsday, everyone.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Jane Mayer, _Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right_

MAYER'S 2010 New Yorker article on the Koch brothers, "Covert Operations," has been the principal touchstone for any discussion I've had with anyone about the fraternal duo who apparently bankroll everything from the Cato Institute to the Club for Growth to the Tea Party to ALEC to anti-Obamacare campaigns to climate change denial campaigns to the takeover of Congress by growly, no-compromise right-wingers.

This book is much larger and includes a wider cast of characters--Richard Mellon Scaife, John Olin, the Bradleys, an array of wealth-drunk American eccentrics who deserve an American Balzac--but the Kochs remain centerstage. As Mayer sees it, the central agon of domestic American politics for the last eight years has been between Obama and the Kochs, the latter represented by an army of proxies in Congress, in right-wing think tanks, and in a host of Citizens United-enabled funding operations that have plausible-sounding names but turn out to be just a post office box in Georgetown.

{By the way, I agree with Tom Wolfe that an American Balzac would be a great thing to have, but I don't think Wolfe himself qualifies for the title, however much he would like to.)

A terrific book, an example of everything great journalism can be, making one hope that journalism does not all degenerate into "content" designed to snag eyeballs.

I can understand someone being skeptical about Mayer's broader claims--after all, the Kochs (et alia) could not get Mitt Romney into the White House, nor even keep Scott Walker's candidacy alive past the vernal equinox. It's hard to imagine them being pleased about the ascendancy of Trump. But the White House is just one front in the battle--the Kochs weigh heavily in state politics all over the place (North Carolina, Wisconsin, their native Kansas obviously, and even right here in my state, Nebraska), are partly responsible for fewer people believing humans cause climate change than did a decade ago, and have everything to do with the psychotic breakdown of our national legislative branch. Mayer's book will be indispensable for any future historian of our tines, I daresay.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Jenny Erpenbeck, _The End of Days_ (tr. Susan Bernofsky)

LET'S BEGIN WITH a shout-out to the back of the book at The Nation, which is so often the first place I hear about a translated novelist worth a look: Bolaño, Ferrante, Zambra, Evelio Rosero, Zakes Mda, and a few others, including Jenny Erpenbeck. Given how under-the-radar translated fiction is in U.S. publishing, I'm grateful that someone is on the lookout for these all-too-easily missed finds.

I was struck by the similarity of The End of Days to Kate Atkinson's best-selling Life after Life, both using the conceit of imagining a series of do-overs for someone who died in childhood, the alteration of one or another circumstance enabling her to live into adolescence, then into adulthood, and so on, finally living to a ripe old age.

Erpenbeck's novel appeared first (2012 vs. 2013), but she and Atkinson must have been working on them at roughly the same time, and Atkinson may well have never been aware of Erpenbeck's somewhat similar project--the English translation appeared in 2014.

I liked Erpenbeck's novel more, though, for whatever that's worth--it is drier, subtler, more austere, although that could just be the difference between English literary fiction and continental literary fiction generally. Then, too, the circumstances Erpenbeck's serially-reborn character has to navigate feel starker, graver. Atkinson's character has to deal with the influenza epidemic of 1919 and the Battle of Britain, which are terrible enough, but Erpenbeck's encounters pogroms, Nazism, Stalinist purges, the collapse of communism…as Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands shows us, eastern Europe in the middle of the 20th century is the Job of modern history.

Nor (I would say) is there anything in Atkinson's novel to equal the poignance of a complete set of Goethe's works that we glimpse a few times in the early chapters and then once again, once we have been given time to forget about it, near the end.

The End of Days makes all the more salient what impressed me most about Life after Life, the sheer contingency of our lives, the astonishing fact that anyone survives in our precarious circumstances, our incurable vulnerability.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Don DeLillo, _Zero K_ (2 of 2)

ROSS LOCKHART, WE learn, is self-named--he was born Nicholas Satterswaite. If this act suggests some degree of alienation from his father, we can find something similar in Jeffrey Lockhart, who for a time dissuades Ross from being frozen by declaring by saying he, Jeffrey, would be "reduced" by Ross's doing so, but who later declines an offer to join Ross's firm.

We are getting ever more Hamlet-like here, not only in Jeffrey's introspective lassitude, but also in that Hamlet's father, being a ghost, is not exactly alive yet not exactly dead, posing insoluble conundrums about the nature of his authority, and Ross, being frozen, would similarly be not exactly alive, not exactly dead. He would be a figure ("What would your gracious figure?") that one could not simply get past…which may be exactly what he (and King Hamlet) want.

Not to mention young Stak (adoptive son of Jeff;s girlfriend Emma) dashing off, Fortinbras-like, to reclaim the land his fathers lost. Ukraine in this instance.

This failure of fathers to hand things off cleanly to the sons makes me wonder whether another idea loose in Zero K is that men have had their turn, that the baton of our civilization has passed to the women, that they will run the next leg of history's relay.

Hillary Clinton's becoming our next president (Lord help us if she does not) is part of this, but that's just the tip of the iceberg.  I have been seeing it every day in my classes for years: the women generally knowing what they are about, the men generally hardly having a clue. By the time I die, I expect, women will be minding the store.

Emma,, Jeff's girlfriend, is as focused, purposeful, and attentive as he is anomic, drifting, and obtuse. Even Jeff notices this:

   Here we are, the woman smart, determined, not detached so much as measuring every occasion, including this omen, brown hair swept back, a face that is not interested in being pretty, and this gives her a quality I can't quite name, a kind of undecidedness. We are seeing each other as never before, two sets of eyes, the meandering man, taller, bushy-haired, narrow face, slightly recessed chin, faded jeans and so on.

Women in mysteriously serene, hieratic postures appear throughout the novel, most compellingly Ross's second wife Artis, frozen as a gift to the future. But does the future need Ross?

It [the frozen Artis] was a beautiful sight. It was the human body as a model of creation. I believed this. It was body in this instance that would not age. And it was Artis, here, alone, who carried  the themes of the entire complex into some measure of respect. […] Artis belonged here. Ross did not.

Those seeking a leading male American novelist with something interesting to say about feminism should put Purity aside and look this way.