Loads of Learned Lumber

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.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Don DeLillo, _Zero K_ (1 of 2)

RIGHT OFF THE bat, we are told, "Everyone wants to own the end of the world," and in italics, no less. Is that simply because of the marketing possibilities, the end of the world being something that everyone alive has some kind of interest in? Something that everyone wants to know about? Something that everyone wants?

The third possibility seems the least likely, but it is the one that kept crossing my mind most frequently as I read the new DeLillo.

I remember visiting my old high school a few years after I had graduated, noticing that its activities had gone on apparently uninterruptedly in the intervening years, and feeling vaguely scandalized. Something seemed wrong, even slightly insulting, in the place having continued to operate as it had while I was there even without my being there, as if I was utterly unnecessary to its functioning...which, of course, I was. But there was a subtle effrontery in demonstrating my superfluousness right in my face, as it were.

I expect to have a comparable feeling should I revisit my workplace a few years after I retire, re-learning the lesson of my dispensability.

Is that why there is (apparently, given how common the phenomenon is) some satisfaction in contemplating the end of the world? That if the world disappears in the same instant that we do, no proof positive of our ultimate dispensability will ever be offered?

All the above is my best guess of why the elite cryogenic facility that figures in DeLillo's novel markets itself with images of apocalyptic destruction. "Zero K" is the lab where the actual freezing occurs (although DeLillo mentions that it does not actually get as cold as zero degrees Kelvin), but the outfit operating the facility calls itself The Convergence--because they are at some meeting point between religion and science in using biotech to achieve immortality of the soul? Because their clients are neither exactly alive nor exactly dead?

Ross Lockhart, the extremely wealthy father of the novel's narrator, is a "herald"; that is, he is going to be frozen not because he is close to death (to be resuscitated when the cure for his illness is available, the classic cryogenic scenario), but just because he can, giving the Grim Reaper the slip even before he comes knocking.

This refusal to die is going to mean that the worl will never know for certain whether it can manage without Ross Lockhart--but it is also going to complicate matters for the next generation, i.e., Jeffrey Lockhart, who is already sufficiently at sea in a Hamlet-like perpetual-post-grad-hood. But this kink in the ordinary father-to-son handoff has a further twist. More to follow.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Edward Mendelson, _Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth Century American Writers_

AS IT HAPPENS, I had read all eight of these essays when they appeared in the NYRB over the last few years, but I enjoyed them all so much that I figured I would enjoy reading them again, straight through, all in one place, and that is exactly what happened.

The essays work extraordinarily well together to create a short (just under 200 pages) but vivid portrait of many of the people broadly described as the Partisan Review crowd or the New York Intellectuals: Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Dwight MacDonald, Saul Bellow (all of whom Mendelson writes about), Philip Rahv, Irving Howe, R. P. Blackmur, Delmore Schwarz (whom he doesn't, directly, but they sometime flit across the background).

The first such portrait I ever read--the main reason, really, I got at all interested in them--was Poets in Their Youth by Eileen Simpson, who was at one time the wife of John Berryman. A brilliant, unforgettable book, which I am sorry to see is out of print (NYRB Classics, you should remedy this situation). Mendelson's book does not carry, as Simpson's does, the authority of a contemporary eyewitness, but it rivals hers in being both generous and clear-eyed, and it has the extraordinary scholarship, literary intuition, and graceful prose Mendelson brings to all he does.

The parallel is imperfect, but this book almost does for the literary-critical world of 1950s-60s what Murray Kempton's Part of Our Time did for the 1930s. It's not that wide-ranging, but it's that intelligent, and as Kempton's chapters can be profitably read separately but also generate thematic unity, so Mendelson's attention to the conflicts, relationships, and religious convictions of the eight figures helps us recall a time when writers often had a sense that they should be something like a teacher or a prophet, that they could clarify, name, heal...pretty far from anything taught in the average MFA program today, I imagine, and one can understand why that conception fell from favor, but I miss it sometimes.

There were small disappointments.  I wish there had been citations for the quotations, for instance. And while I am glad to read anything Mendelson writes about Auden, I wish he had done a little more  to connect him to the Partisan Review/New Yorker scene he was (in his own way) a part of in his American years. Auden's essay "The Public Vs. the Late Mr, William Butler Yeats," which gives a useful sidelight on the famous elegy, appeared in the Partisan Review, if I'm not mistaken. Great chapter even so, though, especially for bringing to light Auden's many private acts of kindness, "the best portion of a good man's life," as Wordsworth wrote.