Loads of Learned Lumber

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.