Loads of Learned Lumber

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Han Kang, _The Vegetarian_, trans. Deborah Smith

JUST ABOUT ANY Man Booker winner is worth reading, but this one may be a classic.

The vegetarian of the title is Heong-hye Kim, a young Korean woman, raised in a strict patriarchal family, married to a businessman chosen by her father. She has an older sister, who is married to a video artist; they have a young son, and she runs a small cosmetics shop. Finally, there is a younger brother (of whom we see little), cut from the same cloth as the father.

The book is about rebellion, I'd say. Imagine The Awakening, but rather than getting Edna Pontellier's point of view, we get only those of her family and friends as they try to fathom what is going on with her, try to "help" her, correct her, chastise her, take advantage of her, sympathize with her. This strategy makes Heong-hye more difficult to identify with than Edna, but also more enigmatic, eventually more formidable, ultimately more challenging. There is something of Kafka's hunger artist in her, or something of Catherine of Siena...or maybe she's a goddess. She says little, almost nothing after the first of the novel's three sections, but everything she says seems oracular, touched by fire.

The three sections were apparently published as separate novellas in Korean. In the first, we primarily  have the perspective of Heong-hye's husband, annoyed by the possibility that his wife's eccentric diet will spoil his chances of promotion; he sends her back to her family as defective merchandise. In the second, her artist brother-in-law is fascinated by her and seeks to incorporate her weird power into his art, to possess her, but as a mere mortal ends up scorched by his contact with divinity. In the the third, with Heong-hye now in a mental institution, we have the perspective of the sister, whose conformity to the ideal Korean daughter/wife/mother roles begins to shiver and crack as she contemplates her sister's life.

This should be on a thousand syllabusses in ten years' time, thanks in no small part to the translation by Deborah Smith, the fidelity of which I cannot vouch for, but which is swift, elegant, and powerful. Kang has her Rabassa, and her conquest of English-speaking readerdom is assured.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Rae Armantrout, _Versed_

TOOK ME A while to get around to this; it appeared in 2010. To tell the truth, I usually skip Pultizer Prize winners.  They tend to be worthwhile without being quite the sort of thing I most like. I was curious about this one, though, because Armantrout seems very left-field compared to most Pulitzer winners for poetry. She was in In the American Tree, after all. As far as I can determine, no one else included in that volume has won either a Pulitzer or a National Book Award--for which prize Versed was a finalist, by the way.

I find myself wondering how this sort of development occurs. I have not read a lot of Armantrout's work, but Versed does not strike me much more accessible or domesticated than her poetry from back in the 1980s and 1990s--a bit so, perhaps, but not dramatically. The poems are still elliptical, elusive, still have a measurable WTF factor:

Repeat wake measurement.

"Check to see."

"Check to see,"

Birds say,

"That enough time

Has passed."

Sometimes there is a vein of dark humor, especially in the prose poems, that could appeal broadly: "I call 911 but reach a psychic hotline." Sometimes, there is a recognizble allusion to popular culture: e.g., Anna Nicole Smith or reality television, as in the lines "One tells the story / of his illness / in such a way / as to make the others love him."

Sometimes there is a cosmo-theological thematic, as in the poem "Dark Matter," or a glimpse at family psychology, as in "Birth Order," but you also wonder if both poems aren't really more about writing than anything else (the latter, for instance, may be about how second stanzas have a peculiar ontological status, inevitably being seen within the contexts created by first stanzas).

So...it just seems surprising that the book got a Pulitzer. Not an unprecedented development (Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror got a Pulitzer, for instance), and certainly a welcome one, but how does this happen? Is it just who gets picked as judges? Do attitudes change? How does the unlikely become possible?

The really funny thing is that I keep thinking the poems in Versed address exactly these questions.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Jackie French, _Ophelia, Queen of Denmark_ , and Lisa Klein, _Ophelia_

PAUL GRIFFITH'S BRILLIANT Let Me Tell You got me thinking about Ophelia as a Young Adult Novel theme, and it turns out that attempts have already been made. I sampled these two--Klein's novel is from 2006, French's from 2015.

French and Klein had several of the same ideas about how to make Ophelia's story YA-friendly. First person narration, for one thing. More crucially, no madness and no drowning/suicide. Ophelia only pretends to be insane in both novels, then fakes her own drowning, to enable her escape from the infected snakebite that is Elsinore.

Gertrude is fascinating and enigmatic in both--we are for a while kept guessing at how much she knows about Claudius and how sincere her interest in Ophelia's well-being is. Hamlet is likewise fascinating and enigmatic, and his and Ophelia's love is key to both plots, but in both novels he is revealed to be Mr. Seems-Right-but-Not-Quite, a Frank Churchill/Henry Crawford/William Elliott figure, too wrapped up in his obsession with avenging his father to sustain his relationship with Ophelia (in Klein, they are even secretly married, à la Romeo and Juliet).

The true Mr. Right turns out in both novels to be someone else that Ophelia settles down with once all the drama has blown over--Fortinbras in French's novel, Horatio in Klein's.

Both Ophelias have an episode or two in male drag; both are plucky, passionate, perceptive, and possessed of enviable survival skills.

French's Ophelia is an expert on cheese (is this a Danish thing?). French seems to have set herself the challenge of mentioning cheese in every chapter, sometimes to odd effect. On hearing of Polonius' death, Ophelia tells us, "My first thought was of cheese."

Klein's Ophelia (more plausibly) is an herbalist (Klein is a scholar of early modern lit). Klein's Ophelia escapes Elsinore and winds up in...a nunnery. Which is witty, I admit. The novel's Part 3, though, set in the nunnery (where Horatio finds her), gets a bit talky, a bit like a YA Magic Mountain (God, authority, nature).

Both novels had some good passages--getting Ophelia's version of the "nunnery" scene and the "play-within-the-play" scene definitely worked. Klein's is the better-written of the two.

If the mad scene is just a charade, though, and if there is no drowning, is this still the Ophelia we love? One misses the dark, doomy subtext, the black undercurrent. These are Ophelias for the Katniss era, I guess.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Jonathon Sturgeon, "Divine Indigestion"

YET ANOTHER COINCIDENCE (as in immediately preceding post): I finished Nell Zink's Mislaid on the plane, proceeded to a year-old issue of The Baffler that I had not yet gotten around to, and lo and behold, I found an article with a smart, interesting point about Mislaid.

To an extent, Sturgeon's article is an effort to revive interest in Quentin Anderson's The Imperial Self (1971), "largely forgotten," Sturgeon accurately notes, but worth renewed attention: "A closer look at The Imperial Self reveals a critique of a literary intellectualism that holds up because it is imaginative, yes, but also because the condition of the novel has not changed that much." Anderson, he writes, "examined the 'imaginative desocialization' of American literature at the hands of a radical individualism" and sought to "ground literature in social context."

Mislaid and Paul Beatty's The Sellout are Sturgeon's examples of strong contemporary novels that pull against the tide of this all-devouring Emersonian individualism.

The selves is Mislaid are fluid, but they don't absorb other selves, nature, matter, or information. They exist instead in a near-Spinozistic web of pressured relationships. [...] Karen, who is open to being affected by others rather than guzzling them down, is what Quentin Anderson would have called "the transitive person," one "whose world is constituted by [her] ties to other people."

That's a spot-on observation about the book and about its most appealing character. And I need to find Anderson's book.

I wish, though, that in arraigning his "bad" exemplar (Jonathan Franzen), Sturgeon had not resorted to  the lazy argument of taking one of a novelist's characters to represent the situation of the novelist. Sturgeon says of Andreas Wolf from Purity, "Well, Wolf is just Franzen after the divorce, but before he learned to subsume birds." Urk. I don't think so. I have reservations about Franzen's novels myself, but that point won't hold.

Wolf is someone whom the world takes to be a selfless, even saintly apostle of honesty and transparency, but who actually has a terrible secret he will go to almost any lengths to protect, and who eventually succumbs to the tragic contradiction of his own life. That does not seem like even the loosest kind of analogue to Franzen's circumstances.

Reminds me of Amy Hungerford's basing part of her argument in "On Not Reading DFW" on the claim that anything that comes from Mark Nechtr's mouth ("Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way") as good as comes from Wallace's.

Come on, now. We can do better than that.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Brad Gregory, _The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society_ via Mark Lilla

I ORDINARILY DO not write an entry on a book until I have finished it, but since it may be years before I finish Gregory's fairly dense study, I feel an urge to note right now the odd coincidence that I was in the middle of its second chapter when I read the review of it ("From Luther to Walmart") included in Lilla's The Shipwrecked Mind.

(In fact, this was the only chapter of The Shipwrecked Mind that I had not read before; the other pieces had appeared in New York Review of Books, but "From Luther to Walmart" had been published in the New Republic--not one of my usual stops.)

Lilla is none too complimentary. He sees Gregory's book as typical of the nostalgia he diagnoses as central to conservative thought. Conservative intellectuals, Lilla argues, posit a Golden Age that preceded a fall into modernity (and our present bloody-minded anxieties) and then attribute that fall to some thinker or idea, such as the gnosticism and "immanentizing the eschaton" (Voegelin) or Machiavelli (Strauss).

For Gregory, according to Lilla, "before the Reformation the harmony of the heavens was mirrored in Christian life and thought." Reformation theology, which sought only to correct some problems with the church, had unintended philosophical consequences that led to the secularization of the natural sciences, education, and political economy--and their attendant alienation and anomie.

The thing is---since I had just started Gregory's book not long before I read Lilla's review, I happened to know that Gregory explicitly denies having written the kind of book Lilla is describing. In his introduction, he states, "This is neither a study of decline from a Golden Age nor a narrative of progress toward an ever brighter future, but rather an analysis of  unintended consequences that derived from transformative responses to major, perceived human problems" (20-21; emphasis mine).

So.

Still, even though Gregory, in his own estimation, is not writing out of philosophical nostalgia, and even though he is obviously a thorough and careful scholar and writer, I'm not sure Lilla's characterization is unfair. Gregory is meticulous about drawing connections between Reformation thinking and secularizing social trends, but something in his tone suggests not just that the secularization of the west was contingent upon certain philosophical developments within Protestant thinking, not just that it was avoidable, but that it was also undesirable, and may even be reversible.

As Jeremiahs go, Gregory is subdued. But is there a little Jeremiah in there? Lilla has a point, I think. I plan to carry on with the book, though--Gregory may be no Franz Rosenzweig, but he's an intellectual mensch nonetheless.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Nell Zink, _Mislaid_

SOMEWHAT TO MY surprise, Zink's second novel is a bit more grounded, "normal," and domesticated than her first; family conflicts in Virginia circa 1960-1980, set alternately in a small college town and in the backwoods, easily tracked plot, interesting minor characters, plenty of humorous asides…realism of a familiar sort, then, but nonetheless with a bit of an edge, like A. M. Homes, say.

And as with Homes's May We Be Forgiven, and a good many of the stories in the Ludmilla Petrushevskaya collection I read last month, we have (what I would count as) a happy ending, despite plenty of ingredients for a disastrous, traumatic, scarred-for-life blow-up.

The happy ending of Mislaid is not all the plausible, indeed flies in the face of what would most likely happen in the circumstances created by the plot, but its very implausibility is what redeems it, makes it a wondrous thing. While Mislaid certainly unfolds in the voice and pace of of the realist novel, it ends up seeming akin to Shakespeare's late romances, in which similar potentially traumatic accidents, mistakes, and decisions turn out, years later, to have prepared the ground for forgiveness, reconciliation, and content.

How likely is it that Prospero's betraying brother would fall into his hands years later? That the blindly jealous Leontes would have a chance to be reconciled with the wife whom his suspiciousness had killed sixteen years previously?  That after long separations and thinking the other dead, Posthumus would recover Imogen, or Pericles Marina? Not at all likely. Flat out incredible, really. Yet Shakespeare is able to make us see that the world is always more than the likely, more than the plausible.  And a good thing it is, too.

Zink manages something like that. And as with Miranda, Marina, Perdita, and Imogen, a young girl shall lead them. Karen Brown, a.k.a. Mireille "Mickey" Fleming, is a Perdita for our times. She's a minor miracle.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mark Lilla, _The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction_

LILLA IS A particular favorite of mine. The Stillborn God is brilliant intellectual history of the old kind (A. O. Lovejoy, Erich Auerbach, above all Isaiah Berlin), and his essays on the careers of various thinkers have the swiftness, assurance, and clarity of the Edmund Wilson of To the Finland Station and Patriotric Gore. His being skeptical about Marxism and respectful of certain conservative thinkers may explain, I'm guessing, why he does not have the cachet of, say, George Scialabba, the same way Berlin does not have the cachet of, say, Raymond Williams. I have to confess, though, that that skepticism and that willingness to entertain other perspectives are exactly what I appreciatre about him.

Superficially, this book has a lot in common with the Corey Robin book I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. It consists mainly of republished pieces, aims to create a kind of collage map of the intellectual right by examining the careers of crucial figures, and uses its introduction and conclusion to sketch an argument that unifies the book's various individual pieces.

Lilla finds (in spots) a greater integrity and coherence on the right than Robin does, though. Robin sees the right's arguments as inescapably founded on making cases for threatened or vanished privileges. Lilla sees them as founded on nostalgia. "Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody's nostalgia," he writes (xiv); each right-wing thinker he examines "believes that a discrete Golden Age existed and that he possesses the esoteric knowledge of why it ended" and thus of how it might possibly be restored (xx-xxi).

I wonder, though, whether the Robin and Lilla summations of reaction do not so much oppose as complement each other, as in the old vase-or-two-profiles optical lllusion, in which you could see one or the other but not both at once. May one describe Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign as nostalgic? Yes--hazily articulated, not necessarily even sincere on his part, but probably authentic  enough as regards many who voted for him. Was Trump also appealing to a sense that male privilege and white privilege and straight privilege were crumbling? Well, yes. But do we have to choose which analysis is more true? Is there a way to think about both of these ideas at once?

A wide stream in my 2017 reading has been trying to understand the advent of Trump, and both Lilla and Robin helped. Next stop--Arlie Hochschild?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Nell Zink, _The Wallcreeper_

RECENT NOVELS BY American novelists that set American characters in eastern or central Europe typically take on the seriousness of eastern and central European novels. They can still be witty or farcical at moments, but (thinking of Caleb Crain or Garth Greenwell, say) they do curve towards the moral gravity and earnestness of Mann, Musil, Broch, Bernhard (who can all be funny--don't get me wrong--but the somber is never far away).

So, a distinctive thing about Zink's The Wallcreeper is that it is set mainly in Switzerland and Germany and has mainly American characters, but it relies on the deadpan, unfazed, somewhat flattened tone of a lot of American fiction (in my personal shorthand, the "Didion-effect") that does not show much elation over fortunate events nor much dismay over unfortunate ones.

The novel opens:

I [the narrator, Tiffany] was looking at the map when Stephen [her husband] swerved, hit the rock and occasioned the miscarriage.

Stephen swerved because he saw a rare bird--the wallcreeper of the title--and he stops to retrieve it. Oddly enough, even though a miscarriage is a serious life event, it hardly gets mentioned again. We are left to wonder how much it mattered to Tiffany.

The bird, however, gets a lot of attention in the following pages, getting a name (Rudi) and even some celebrity, due to its rarity. But on p. 55, Rudi (even though he is the title character) gets an abrupt Janet-Leigh-in-Psycho early exit:

I got my binoculars focused on Rudi in time to see the tiny hawk raise his head wet to the nostrils with Rudi's blood and plunge it again into Rudi's chest. Rudi's beautiful red and black wings with their absurd white polka dots twitched, twitched again, and died. The hawk ate his heart and flew away.

This event too is met with a certain flatness of affect. Stephen is temporarily upset, but Tiffany does not give much away, either at the moment or later.

Situations of genuine gravity keep occurring--betrayal, adultery, drug addiction, the fate of the planet [both Tiffany and Stephen are enviro-activists), and death--but the classic Mitteleuropa earnest reflection (the main ingredient of Nádas's A Book of Memories, which I had just finished) stays far away. Tiffany has frequent recourse to the wry & dry, candidly owns up to her own lapses and misperceptions, but does not give away much about her inner weather. Her emotional life is pretty much under seal.

So why did I end up enjoying this novel as much as I did? I admit, I almost gave up after Rudi met his end. (Zink's epigraph is from Ted Hughes: "I kill where I please because it is all mine.")

Partly, I think, because Zink somehow conveys that Tiffany is feeling a great deal more than she is letting on. Late in the novel, as she and Stephen are roaming the woods, they see a terrible sight:

One day we got to a dead ewe in time to catch the goose-stepping of the griffon vultures arriving to deliver its breech birth along with everything else except its rumen, bones, and pelt. Before I closed my eyes, it skyrocketed to first place on the  list of the most repellent spectacles I had ever witnessed, lending a vivid symbolic figuration to events I had hitherto refused to name.

The miscarriage, I'm guessing--unmentioned, intentionally and fiercely unmentioned, but unforgotten.
And maybe the repression makes sense. After all, in an eat-and-be-eaten world, how much brain-space can one spare for sentimentality?

Partly, too, Tiffany just becomes good company. She is smart, she's funny, and she spreads a lovely constellation of allusions: Horace Andy and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Prince Kropotkin and Slavoj Zizek. She even mentions Robert Walser and Thomas DeQuincey in the same sentence. So she's all right in my book.








Sunday, June 11, 2017

Sarah Manguso, _300 Arguments_

I WOULD SUGGEST 300 Conclusions as an alternate title, for while the maxims, aperçus, and one-liners in this book do seem to have under or behind them full arguments and lengthier expositions, what the reader gets its just the succinctly wrapped-up end point of the argument. "Bad art is from no one to no one," for instance, conjures up a whole essay. We get the hard sparkle, intuit the invisible underwater iceberg.

"Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book's quotable passages," Manguso writes.  Imagine a long book like, say, Jennifer Moxley's The Middle Room, a mid-life memoir about writing as an art and as a career, about love, sex, and friendship, about mistakes made and lessons learned. Then imagine the book having 300 sentences or short passages you would tick in the margin or underline. Imagine those 300 marked sentences or short passages in a book all by themselves. That is what we have in 300 Arguments.

Maxims and aperçus that have become famous run to the inspirational, affirmative, and consolatory: "Be the change you want to see in the world," or "The arc of history is long, but it bends  towards justice," or "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all." Manguso tends to swing from the other side of the plate: "Inner beauty can fade, too," or "The most likable person you know just might be a sociopath."

So, Manguso may be our Rochefoucauld. As Swift wrote,

As Rochefoucauld his maxims drew 
From Nature, I believe 'em true: 
They argue no corrupted mind 
In him; the fault is in mankind.

As with Rochefoucauld, the outlook is generally dark, but hard to disagree with, especially given how witty Manguso normally is: "Dying young can really help an art career along. It's the careerist's ultimate paradox."

But when the tone slips into the confessional--

The most fervent kiss of my life was less than five seconds long more than ten years ago with someone else's husband. It still hasn't quite worn off.

Or pays tribute--

Picture a locked storeroom strewn with all the old sheet music I had to give back to music teachers and choral directors, paper lying unused for decades, fading yellow, annotated in sharp pencil, the page containers of such joy that it sometimes choked me silent. No one who picks it up could know how it saved my life, over and over.

Or, as it often does in the final pages, sounds almost valedictory--

I want to shed my fears one by one until there is nothing left of me.

--when we get more than the hard sparkle of the illusionless, and we have something we never get from Rochefoucauld.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Péter Nádas, _A Book of Memories_ (1), trans. Ivan Sanders

HAVING FINISHED SZABO'S The Door a couple of weeks ago I was hankering for another Hungarian novel, so I went ahead and read this... ha! Just kidding.

No, I actually started this about four years ago. It's a 706-page Mittel-European cinderblock of a novel, and it was a bit of a climb. I would read 100 pages or so, take a break for a few months, read another 100-150 pages, take another lengthy break, and so on.

Not the ideal way to read "the greatest novel written in our time" (Susan Sontag), but it actually worked, I think. The prose takes a lot of attention--hence the comparisons to Proust, I suppose, but it reminded me a bit more of something like Broch's The Death of Virgil. You just had to surrender to it--you needed to set aside hours, not just twenty minutes here and twenty there.  After a few days with the novel, I always needed to come up for air.

An interesting thing, though, was that I could come back to A Book of Memories after months away and be able to re-connect. Its world and its voice are so distinctive and rich that when I picked the book up again, the characters and circumstances would pop back into existence within a few pages, as if I had been reading it only a couple of days ago. It's that vivid and that complete.

It braids three strands of narrative.

The first, to quote the jacket copy, "takes place in East Berlin in the 1970s and features an unnamed Hungarian writer ensnared in a love triangle with a young German and a famous aging actress." Intriguingly, though, this is a real triangle, in that not only are both the Hungarian writer and the young (male) German sexually involved with the actress, but they are sexually involved with each other as well.

The second strand is "composed by the writer"--that is, represents the work of the Hungarian writer involved in the triangle--and "is the story of a late-nineteenth-century German aesthete whose experiences mirror his own." I'm not sure how long it would have taken me to figure that out, left to my own devices. My initial thought was, well, this is about a Romantic Werther-Schlegel-Novalis figure (passionate and introspective, full sail into his sturm-und-drang period) and set many years before the relatively modern setting of the triangle story; I would have started looking for ways it connected to or counterpointed the Hungarian writer's story, but the jacket copy headed me off at the pass. It would have been more fun, I think, not to have known it was the Hungarian writer's work until the novel revealed that circumstance. So what is one to do? Not read jacket copy?

The jacket copy continues, "The third voice is that of a friend from the writer's childhood, who brings his own unexpected bearing to the story." Well... kinda. The third strand, set in the 1950s in the writer's home town or village, is mainly narrated by the Hungarian writer, and so is all about the person who went on to have the complicated affair in Berlin--but only the final chapter in this strand, the book's penultimate chapter, is narrated by the friend referred to in the jacket copy, for reasons that would require a spoiler alert. Almost all the third strand is in the voice of the main narrator, the Hungarian writer, so the jacket copy is actually a bit misleading. Jacket copy writers of the world, why do you fuck with our heads this way? Don't we people willing to take a chance on an enormous Hungarian novel deserve a little better?

Friday, June 2, 2017

Susan Howe, _My Emily Dickinson_

HERE'S THE QUESTION: should I shelve this with my Emily Dickinson books or with my Susan Howe books?

As a general rule, a book by a poet about another poet tells you much more about the written-by poet than it does about the written-of poet. As an extreme case, take Yeats. His essays on Blake and Shelley (and going beyond poetry, his essays on Synge and Balzac) provide abundant insight into Yeats's own poetics, but will leave you little the wiser about Blake and Shelley. Eliot aimed at a more objective, scholarly tone, as befitted someone writing for the Times Literary Supplement, but his essays on Milton, Tennyson, and the metaphysical poets tell you a lot more about Eliot's poetics than they do about those of his putative subjects. Even the generous, self-effacing Seamus Heaney--Heaney on Robert Lowell turns out to be really about Heaney.

Possible exceptions: Randall Jarrell and Stephen Burt. Pound, once in a while.

Generally, though…would anyone except a library put Ted Hughes's Shakespeare book in the Shakespeare section?

So, might as well take the personal pronoun in Howe's title seriously and put My Emily Dickinson with my other Susan Howe books.

But--

Howe explicitly posits her book as being in dialogue with Dickinson criticism circa 1985; she sees it filling an obvious gap: "The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson by Jay Leyda, and Richard Sewell's meticulously researched Life of Emily Dickinson, are invaluable sources of information about her living, but the way to understand her writing is through her reading. This sort of study, standard for most male poets of her stature, is only recently beginning." Ruth Miller, Joanne Feit Diehl, and Albert Gelpi have gotten this work going, Howe writes, and she is taking it further.

In short--My Emily Dickinson does for "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun" what John Livingston Lowes's Road to Xanadu did for Rime of the Ancient Mariner and "Kublai Khan." (Do people still read Lowes? I notice the book is out of print. It is available on Kindle, though.) Howe situates the tone and imagery of Dickinson's poem in the imaginative context created by Browning's "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," Shakespeare's King Lear and the first English history tetralogy, and Cooper's The Deerslayer, to list only those that come up most often.

This is illuminating. While it makes sense to read the text of a writer in more immediate kinds of context--what were the theological conversations in Amherst about in 1862? what was the latest news of the war? what was going on in her family?--it is also true that some important part of a writer lives in the world of writing, not so confined by space or time or circumstances. The poet who rarely left her house, whose life seemed so circumscribed, could even so be in a momentous conversation with great writers long dead.

So, there's a case for placing My Emily Dickinson with Sewell, Cristanne Miller, Helen Vender, et al. on the Dickinson shelf.

Except--

Was Lowes--or any critic--ever so quicksilver in mapping the terrain as this?-- "During the first two Removes of Emily Killdoe's Captivity Narrative of Discovery; the unmentioned sun, blazing its mythopoeic kinship with Sovreign and shooting its rhyme,--flash of sympathy with Gun, has been steadily declining."

Among the plates Howe keeps spinning here (discussing lines 5-6 of "My Life had stood--") are not only Shakespeare and Cooper but also Mary Rowlandson and even a little bit of Lewis and Clark. Don't blink while reading My Emily Dickinson, in other words; its un-skimmable. Rather like a poem, in fact.

Then there are the lightning flashes of Howe's poetics:

A lyric poet hunts after some still unmotivated musical wild of the Mind's world.

Connections between unconnected things are the unreal reality of poetry.

I think My Emily Dickinson needs to be with The Europe of Trusts, The Birth-mark and Singularities after all.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

James Baldwin, _No Name in the Street_

THERE HAS BEEN a lot of indirection in my reading of Baldwin. This book came out when I was a senior in high school--so why am I reading it only now?

My parents had copies of some of the early books, Another Country and The Fire Next Time, around the house while I was growing up, and I remember having had a sense that they were important, but I never more than glanced at them. Then, in high school, I read Eldridge Cleaver's Soul On Ice, as one did in those days, and Cleaver's sneering dismissal of Baldwin was enough to persuade me that I needn't bother to start with Baldwin now. The revolution was coming any day now, after all.

The revolution was still behind schedule and I still hadn't read Baldwin when I got to graduate school. My catch-up reading in those days was more along the lines of Piers Plowman and Of Grammatology. But one semester, I had a section of Freshman Comp to teach.  The essay anthology I adopted included Baldwin's "Notes of a Native Son," so that's when I first read him...and I was a convert before I finished the first page. I still think it's one of the greatest American essays. The other selections on the anthology were very nearly as strong--"Equal in Paris," "Stranger in the Village."

So, over the next few years, I got around to the essay collections Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows my Name as well as the early novels Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni's Room. And then I considered myself done. I'm not sure why.  I suspect it had a lot to do with the relatively chilly reviews the later work received as it appeared, which usually conveyed the idea that Baldwin was a writer whose moment had passed.

It took I Am Not Your Negro to get me back on track. I decided to try the later work I had skipped in the 1980s.

No Name in the Street appeared in 1972. It was a sequel, in a way, to The Fire Next Time, but never became the touchstone that book did. Easy to see why--in early 1963, a writer as gifted as Baldwin was could still just about able to hold the disparate elements of the civil rights movement in a single focus, still maintain a belief that the right words at the right time could make the difference. By 1972, we had seen the March on Washington and the Civil Rights and Voting Acts, but also black power, the urban riots, the Panthers, the assassinations, Viet Nam, the election of Nixon, the depredations of COINTELPRO...a plague of plagues, in short, and no one writer was going to be able to make sense of it all.

But that sense of being overwhelmed is what makes No Name in the Street powerful. That feeling that a surge of energy too vast to handle has passed through the culture, and thereby through an individual sensibility, left it scorched, brittle, wobbling, but still standing, still articulate--the feeling that one gets from Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On or Joan Didion's The White Album or Renata Adler's Speedboat--that's what haunts No Name in the Street and makes it memorable.

Baldwin attempts a  few times to scale the rhetorical heights again, as he did in The Fire Next Time, but it's the more idiosyncratic, more personal passages that stand out. Baldwin, not recognized as a VIP, is lost in the crowd surrounding the church at MLK's funeral. Baldwin tells the media that he will never again wear the suit he wore to that funeral, and so is contacted by an old neighborhood friend who says, hey, can I have the suit, then?--and Baldwin delivers the suit. Hanging out in Hollywood, working on a screenplay about Malcolm. Discussions with the non-too-scrupulous lawyer Baldwin has fired for his friend Tony Maynard, framed for murder.

It's a diffuse book, a strange book, but a great book. We even find out what Baldwin thought of Soul On Ice--and it turns out that Baldwin is kinder and more insightful about Eldridge Cleaver than Cleaver ever was about Baldwin.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Paul Griffiths, _Let Me Tell You_

I HAVE BEEN thinking that Ophelia might make a good subject for a historical-setting Young Adult novel. In every new crop of English majors these days, there are a few Elizabeth Bennet-ites, a few Jane Eyrians, and a few Ophelia-philes. There was even one young woman with an Ophelia tattoo--at least one, I should say.

That Ophelia's story has a foreordained grim ending need not dissuade authors from adapting her as a YAF heroine--YAF is getting fairly dark these days. And indeed, a World Cat search reveals there are already a few examples out there--Lisa Klein, Jeremy Trafford, Jackie French--which I have not read, but I am curious about.

My thoughts were turned in this direction by Paul Griffiths's Let Me Tell You, which I only knew about because it has been turned into a vocal piece by Hans Abrahamsen, sung by Barbara Hannigan. The musical piece was interesting enough that I decided to pick up the source material (Griffiths adapted his own novel for the libretto).

The trick of the novel, and the feature that would make it hard to market as YAF, is that Griffiths set himself the constraint of composing a first-person narrative that uses only words that Ophelia speaks in the play. That one can write even a short novel with such a constraint is impressive; that Griffiths finds way to make the novel illuminating and moving as well is downright astonishing.

The constraint ceases some serious challenges. For instance, in a novel, Ophelia is almost obliged to mention her mother, but Ophelia in the play never uses the word "mother." Griffiths has to resort to phrases like "my father and the other one." Griffiths then redeems the awkwardness of this circumlocution by spinning its implicit sense of alienation to create the plot development of Polonius's wife having had to leave the court due to infidelity.

Similarly, Ophelia never says "Hamlet," but her not mentioning her lover's name in chapter 12, a sustained lyric prose poem, actually heightens the euphoria that passage wishes to represent.

Griffiths even manages to compose a few sonnets (in the novel, they are the work of Laertes' mistress) with his Ophelia-set of words. Good ones, in fact.

Successful though the book is, the constraint does mean that the prose has an odd, filtered atmosphere due to the inevitable lack of certain lexical items, and the references often need puzzling out. Unlikely to crossover to the YAF market, in short. But who knows? Stranger things have happened. It might in time lead to even more Ophelia tattoos.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Amy Hungerford, "On Not Reading DFW" (3)

What, still not done? I guess not. Something about this piece really bothered me. But I think I will be able to confine myself to three further points.

1. Among the things Hungerford dislikes about Wallace is that he was arrogant. Yet she feels entitled to disparage Wallace's character without having known him and to dismiss his work without having read it. Isn't that somewhat...arrogant?

2. Hungerford mentions that Leslie Jamison is one of her doctoral students, and that Jamison is doing a dissertation on "the American recovery culture that grew up in the 20th century after the founding of AA." The dissertation naturally includes consideration of Wallace's writing, by which Jamison is "both moved and inspired." Now, I am merely a fan of Leslie Jamison's work, unlikely ever to have a conversation with her, but if she were to write that she was moved and inspired by a writer I had deliberately chosen not to read, I for one would reconsider. Just saying.

3. I am now facing a refuse-to-read decision of my own. "On Not Reading DFW" is the final chapter of Hungerford's recent book Making Literature Now, but I read it first. Now I have to decide whether I want to read the rest of the book. Even though Hungerford, as she says of Wallace, "would qualify, by many measures, as 'smart'," and even though she, as she says of him, "has "sensed where an interesting question lay," I'm not sure I want to read the rest of Making Literature Now. She has endorsements from a lot of people whose opinion I respect--Mark Greif, Cynthia Zarin, Juliana Spahr, William Deresiewicz--but I find her reasoning in this chapter specious and her tone uncongenial. The book is not due back in the library for three weeks, though, so I have time to think about it.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Amy Hungerford, "On Not Reading DFW" (2)

Hungerford has read, she acknowledges, a few things by Wallace--not a whole book, but several sections from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and the long short story "Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way." The latter provides a linchpin for her argument in the character Mark Nechtr's statement that "a story, just maybe, should treat the readers like it wants to...well, fuck him." Hungerford takes Nechtr to be a stand-in for Wallace himself, and she connects the writerly aesthetic outlined in Nechtr's statement to Wallace's relentless exploitation of the sexual opportunities afforded him in his days as a young celebrity author, described in D. T. Max's biography (which Hungerford did read).

As a young male celebrity author of far from repellent aspect, Wallace did have an array of temptations that only the merest handful of men have to deal with--not on a scale with JFK, Mick Jagger, or Tiger Woods, I imagine, but wide nonetheless--and one could argue he did not pass the test with flying colors. But, practically speaking, responsible sexual behavior will not make a very good criterion for deciding who we should read. Among the writers who had dodgy records as boyfriends/partners/fiancés/husbands we could list Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Kafka, Tolstoy, Mann, Eliot, Pound, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Dickens...on back to Milton and Shakespeare.

Hungerford realizes, I think, that this will not work as a reading program, which is why the line from Nechtr is important. It indicates that the same oppressive impulse that drove Wallace's sexual career (in his younger days, at least) was driving his work as a fiction writer.

But I don't think it was. Is there a bro-ishness in Wallace? Yes. Is the bro-ishness celebrated, exalted, held above critique? I would say no. Just by depicting it with fidelity--in Brief Interviews, in the sections of Infinite Jest about the Enfield Tennis Academy--Wallace made the contradictions and liabilities of contemporary American masculinity inescapably visible, from the inside, as it were. (Eschaton, anyone?) This is one of his signal services to American letters, I would say. But not even the most important one.

At the end of her chapter, Hungerford tells of how, after long avoidance, she was persuaded finally to read Middlemarch, and how much she enjoyed it. She quotes Eliot's famous sentence about how having a feeling "of all ordinary human life" would be like "hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat." If we were to know all there is to know about our fellow beings, "we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence."

The big irony in Hungerford's piece, for me, is that I think Wallace understood Eliot's insight into fiction better than any other contemporary American writer. The sections of Infinite Jest about Ennet House and most of what we have of The Pale King are powerful precisely because they make us feel the un-ordinariness--the unique anguish, striving, nobility--of ordinary people. Wallace heard that roar on the other side of silence, and he could make us hear it, too.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Amy Hungerford, "On Not Reading DFW" (1)

THOUGHT-PROVOKING, CERTAINLY. Candid, audacious, a little perverse.

Hungerford is the first person I know of to write about a particular dilemma faced by people who have intellectual credentials of some sort to maintain.

The self-perception of such people (including me, since I'm a teacher) is in part defined by What One Has Read and What One Has Not Read But Ought To. (I pass over for now the What One Does Not Have to Worry About Not Having Read category, mercifully large.)

There are further important sub-divisions in the What One Has Not Read But Ought To category: As Soon as Possible, Next Summer, One of These Days, Maybe Before I Die, and so on.

The dilemma occurs when around those items in What One Has Not Read But Ought To that one realizes, or chooses, to just write off. For instance, I know I ought to read Dos Passos's U.S.A. trilogy, and I have a copy, and may actually get around to it, but Dreiser's Trilogy of Desire? No way. I got through Sister Carrie and about two-thirds of An American Tragedy, and I'm going to call it good. Thomas Wolfe's Of Time and the River? No.

This decision, for me, always comes with a bit of defensiveness and embarrassment. I am in a way making a bet that Dreiser's Trilogy of Desire just would not be worth my while, but I could lose that bet. What if next year Fredric Jameson puts out a book on Dreiser and the Trilogy of Desire is suddenly a big topic? So I am not actually going to make any public declaration about my Dreiser-avoidance. That's where Hungerford is different.

Hungerford, a scholar of contemporary American literature, does not want to read David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest in particular. She probably has plenty of company there; what makes her essay candid and audacious is that she wants to tell the world that she will not be reading any David Foster Wallace and, furthermore, her reasons for not reading him.Her explaining the decision, rather than passing over it in silence, seems to come from a wish to apply the brakes to the process of Wallace's canonization before the train has completely left the station.

That brings us to what makes the essay a little perverse.  Usually, criticism that makes the case for why such-and-such a writer does not merit serious attention involves reading that writer (as, Hungerford notes, the editor of the LA Review of Books pointed out to her). But that is exactly what she refuses to do. Nonetheless, she wants to take on Wallace's reputation anyway--a bit like the famous instance of Joan Acocella reviewing the Bill T. Jones dance performance that she refused to see.

I wonder if this could kick off a trend of you-can't-make-me-read-it essays: "On Not Reading The Cantos," "On Not Reading The Making of Americans," "On Not Reading Finnegans Wake." Moby-Dick. Middlemarch. Proust.

This could catch on; there is probably a lot of pent-up resentment out there.

(more tomorrow)

Friday, May 26, 2017

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, _There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself_ (tr. Anna Summers)

AS FAR AS I can find out, this collection of Petrushevskaya's short stories does not correspond to any Russian language collection of hers. The selection and arrangement are those of the translator--as is, I think, the somewhat tarted-up title. In the story to which the title seems to refer, we read:

3. there were two sisters: one was married, the other was just fifteen, and she got pregnant by her brother-in-law, who hanged himself while she gave birth to a daughter she hated.

So, how did the word "seduced" get in there? The story, it turns out, is not even really about the sisters or the husband/brother-in-law; that sentence is about the only appearance they make in it, and it has none of the femme-fatale-ish flavor hinted at in the volume's title. The story is really about the "hated" daughter (Elena), and that daughter's daughter (Alla), and the daughter's daughter's daughter (Nadya), and how (to vary Larkin's phrase) woman hands on misery to woman, deepening like a coral shelf.

The stories, are short, dry, crisp, brilliant, and they do tend to be about misery.  Not precisely the misery readers of Soviet lit will remember from Nadya Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope or Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, although Petrushevskaya's family was apparently often on the regime's shitlist, but more the routine miseries of dispiriting work, cramped quarters, and disappointed expectations.

Not much goes right for Petrushevskaya's characters, but she does not pity or condescend to them, and she is not at all given to melodrama or any kind of overstatement. An odd thing, though--often the stories end with a just-slightly-upbeat note. Not any kind of last-minute redemption or reprieve, nothing Hollywood-like, just a hint that even with all that has gone wrong for them, the characters have a capacity for survival.

For example, the last sentence of "Like Penelope":

Mama Nina observed her daughter and wondered where this new slow grace in her movements had come from, the twinkles in her laughing black eyes, the wave in her hair, the gorgeous dress.... Of course: she made it herself.

Or of "Milgrom":

The black dress [of Milgrom's daughter Sasha] shimmies down Little Bronnaya [Street], which is filled with light, underneath the setting sun, and that's it now, the day is burning its last, and Milgrom, eternal Milgrom, sits in her little pensioner's room like a guard at the museum of her own life, where there is nothing at all but a timid love.

Both these moments are hedged with irony, and the overall outlook is still bleak, but these people seem able to keep going.

Wouldn't you know, the ending of the story titled "Happy Ending" is the one that seems unrelievedly bleak. A tragically under appreciated wife finally gets away from her husband at last, but just when you think she is in the clear, she returns just for a last look and is snared again for keeps.

Petrushevskaya deserves a wide audience--which is probably what they were hoping for with that tarted-up title. Well, I hope it works.





Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Corey Robin, _The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin_

COREY ROBIN'S TITLE might lead one to expect a historical survey of conservative thought, but in fact The Conservative Mind is a collection of articles and reviews; everything except the introduction and the conclusion were first published elsewhere. Which is fine, in this instance--the three or four I had read already (in The Nation or LRB) I enjoyed re-reading, especially the piece on Ayn Rand, "Garbage and Gravitas," which I would call the sharpest piece on that utterly unique phenomenon that I have ever read--even counting Thomas Frank's chapter in Pity the Billionaire and Whittaker Chambers's review of Atlas Shrugged.

And besides, a collection of articles and reviews can turn out to be a very satisfying, coherent book. Trilling's Liberal Imagination, say, or Jarrell's Poetry and the Age, or, more recently, Stephen Burt's Close Calls with Nonsense and Edward Mendelson's Moral Agents. The Reactionary Mind holds together in that way, even though composed of occasional pieces.

Some reviewer--Mark Lilla, I think?--criticized The Reactionary Mind when it appeared (2011) on the grounds that Robin tends not to concede that conservative ideas are ideas, exactly.  They are more reaction formations; they respond to intellectual formations constructed by the left, the responses being provoked by those formations beginning to make headway in society. As Robin puts it in the introduction, "For that is what conservatism is: a meditation on--and theoretical rendition of--the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back."

I can see Lilla's point; that's not all conservatism is. Reading Robin's book would not give you much sense of the genuine intellectual power that one can experience in, say, Joseph de Maistre or Carl Schmitt or Chambers. Robin's tone is a bit that of a diagnostician analyzing a particularly unpleasant disease.

Even so, I think he has an important point. There is something reactive in a lot of conservative thought, as he explains most lucidly in the introduction and in the first chapter, "Conservatism and Counterrevolution."

Conservatism, he explains, tends to make arguments for institutions that are being or have been challenged or even overthrown. As with the well-known principle of not missing one's water until the well has run dry, these institutions were taken for granted, assumed to be simply part of the natural order of things, and as such needed apologia no more than trees did. But once monarchy, or aristocracy, or capitalism, or white supremacy, or patriarchy are challenged and start to topple, the arguments that would prop them have to be rapidly formulated.

As Robin mentions, the founding thinkers of political conservatism, writers like Hobbes, Burke, and  Maistre, come along in the wake of formerly unquestionable institutions being questioned in ways to which they found no persuasive answers. "Here are the answers to those questions!" they cry, a day late.

Same thing with Hayek and Milton Friedman coming along after the New Deal and the advent of the welfare state. There's another good example in Rod Dreher's Benedict Option, the chapter titled "Eros and the New Christian Counterculture," containing an elaborate defense of marriage having to be between one man and one woman. As the prefix "counter" in Dreher's title implies, a lot of conservative thought is making arguments one never expected to have to make, in response to witnessing changes one never expected to see.

The Reactionary Mind thus may not be exactly what its title suggests, but it's smart, brilliantly written, and makes a very valuable point.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Marlon James, _A Brief History of Seven Killings_

BOOKER WINNER FOR 2015. The title is a puzzler, though.

Puzzle number one: At 686 pages, the novel is not what most would call brief. However--given its task of exploring the paths that led up to and the paths that led away from the failed assassination attempt on Bob Marley in December 1976, paths that wind around not only Marley himself, but also Cold War politics, Jamaican politics, Kingston gang lords, and the Jamaican diaspora--one could say that the book is shorter than it could have been. So maybe "brief" works.

Puzzle number two: There are way more than seven killings here. I think the title refers to how the men involved in the assassination attempt--for the most part, bit players in the Jamaican underworld, organized by an ambitious gang enforcer in liaison with the CIA--come to their own violent ends. But the novel's title is also the title of can article that one of the characters, an American journalist, is working on near the novel's end, an investigation of a 1985 massacre at a NYC crack house.  (The  massacre was the bloody work of that same ambitious gang enforcer, now a don and a drug kingpin,  described shot-by-shot for us a few pages before.) So it might be these seven, or those seven. Or some other seven. A lot of people get killed in this novel.

Puzzlement over the title aside, though, this is a fine book. I will have to follow suit with most of the reviewers and trot out the word "epic." The book's focus is on one particular dramatic moment, but the recreation of that moment is so dense, the contributing causes and succeeding effects so various, that I did feel that I was getting a full history of a time and place.  But after all, the Iliad is only about those few weeks Achilles was sulking in his tent; it's Homer's astonishing powers that make us feel we are getting the whole history.

James's great power is in his command of voices--most of them but not all Jamaican, most of them but not all male, some literate and educated but many not. The novel is woven out of this spectrum of testimonies, without any master-narrative to guide us (only a handy cast list at the front), so James has to make each voice count as well as make each convincing, and he succeeds.

Given that the novel involves a crucial episode in Marley's life, I was expecting it to be a bit more about him than it is--always referred to as "the Singer," he is glimpsed only briefly in the book.

I thought too there would be more about reggae in general than there is; a few of the characters (especially the American journalist) are devotees of the music, but none is a musician, and we do not even have cameo  appearances by the likes of, say, Lee Perry.

In compensation, I read A Brief History oF Seven Killings alongside a playlist consisting of (of course) Marley and the Wailers, Burning Spear, Culture's Two Sevens Clash, Max Romeo's War Ina Babylon, and the Arkology box set. That musical infusion deepened the novel for me, but I found the novel was also deepening the music for me, starkly lighting the social and political chaos that had created the apocalyptic mood that so eerily counterpoints the bouncy rhythms of late seventies reggae.

So--my humble suggestion: include a download code with future copies of the novel.

By the way, if you have the 12-inch mix of Culture's "Natty Dread Taking Over," at 4:38-39 it sounds like the singer is saying "Marlon James." No kidding.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Cynthia Zarin, _Orbit_ and _The Watercourse_

I HAD LAZILY been thinking of Cynthia Zarin, without having read any of her books, as someone who wrote the kind of elegant, well-behaved poems you would find plenty of in the New Yorker back in the Alice Quinn days, so I was surprised when I encountered a couple of startling, somewhat audacious poems she had in The Nation a few months back.  Okay, I thought, I'll bite, and I got her new book, Orbit.

And you know what? It's really good. An unusually cohesive volume, for one thing, and still elegant, but also sometimes weird, obsessive, unfathomable--just up my street, in other words.

I felt sufficiently inspired to attempt an actual review, which if my fortunes flourish will actually appear somewhere else on the web, so I'll say no more about Orbit here.

But I will say a bit about The Watercourse, which I acquired under the momentum of my enthusiasm for Orbit.  From 2002, won a prize from the L. A. Times, inspired Wayne Koestenbaum to write, "Cynthia Zarin's poems are as beautiful as anything being written today." And they are beautiful, just not all that interesting... the well-behaved thing again, hand-painted porcelain in a display case, all too, too Alice Quinn. Which can be a good thing--just not the sort of thing I seek out.

By the way, I don't approve of people praising anybody's hand-painted-porcelain-in-a-display-case poems by comparing them to the work of Elizabeth Bishop.  This is selling Bishop drastically short, I think. If a poem is not at least a little bit scary, it is not like a poem by Elizabeth Bishop.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Magda Szabo, _The Door_ (tr. Len Rix)

THIS PUT ME in mind of Marilynne Robinson. Is it a Calvin connection? Szabo was and Robinson is Christian in the Reformed tradition, and I wonder if that commonality grounds the thematic similarities that struck me.

So--you know what this book is about, yes? Got a lot of attention in the last couple of years. Autobiographical to a large extent, apparently--Hungarian writer (Magda), target of Stalinist scrutiny and sorely stressed, hires a housekeeper (Emerence). The employer-employee relationship soon outgrows its normal boundaries over a (I would guess) ten-year period, the writer becoming involved in the life of Emerence and thereby with her neighbors' lives in unexpected ways. Finally, the writer's long-delayed recognition (with end of Stalinist freeze out) arrives at the very same moment as a mortal crisis for Emerence.

One Robinsonian resonance: the assumptions Magda makes about Emerence always turn out to be wrong--shallow, stereotyped, ungenerous. Magda, like you and me, over-presumes. People are always more than we are likely to guess, their histories, families, sufferings, and hopes a more complicated, probably more terrible compound than our weak imaginations can conjure for them. There is more to any passerby on the street than you will ever comprehend. This is the lesson John Ames learns about Jack Boughton in Gilead, but you can see other versions of it all over Robinson's work.

A second Robinsonian resonance: kingdoms not of this world. Can anyone blame Magda for abandoning Emerence, in a dire hour, to a handful of competent neighbors and professional helpers,  so that she, Magda, can dash to Parliament to accept a literary prize, be interviewed on television, and so on? Well, no--no one of this world would blame her, at least. But from the perspective of the Absolute? That's different. As in every Robinson novel from Housekeeping on, we are shown the contest between the way things seem to good sensible people like ourselves, and the way they stand in the implacable but invisible Real. You had best be on the side of the Real, prizes or no prizes.

So--how Christian is all that? Not that Szabo or Robinson either one runs much risk of winding up in the "Christian fiction" shelves with the Amish romance novels.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Colton Whitehead, _The Intuitionist_

HIS FIRST, FROM 1999--I picked this up years ago, but you know how it goes. For whatever reason, I only started reading this after reading Underground Railroad. My instincts were sound in picking it up, though, because it's brilliant.

As with Railroad, we seem be in an alternate, similar-but-not-identical United States, in a city a lot like New York, roughly about the time integration is beginning to happen. The atmosphere is basic noir, but instead of a murder, we have an elevator accident, and instead of a detective, we have an elevator inspector.

Clever--even more clever, though, is the Pynchonesque world of elevator inspection that Whitehead creates, with its own history, institutions, terms of art, factions, publications (Lift magazine), and rival philosophies (the Empiricists and the Intuitionists), and sought-after lost manuscripts. The novel's McGuffin is a notebook containing drafts for the never-published third volume of Fulton's Theoretical Elevators, which might contain designs for the astonishing "black box," the next elevator. The samples Whitehead provides of Fulton's texts amaze: a hybrid of quantum physics, the pre-Socratics, and Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle.

Even more impressive than that, though, is the way Whitehead incorporates the thematics of race. It's as simple as taking the metaphor of "lifting up the race" or "still I rise" and making it literal, which then gives him room to make it metaphorical again in a fresh, invigorating way.

All that and a terrific protagonist, the grounded-yet-soaring Lila Mae Watson, whose conversations with Fulton's housekeeper enable The Intuitionist to pass the Bechdel test. Classic noirish revelations and betrayals keep the plot percolating, and the novel's style dazzles--more so than did that of Railroad, actually, I would say. Maybe as a first-time novelist, Whitehead gave himself more room to show off as a writer.  I didn't mind a bit.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Rod Dreher, _The Benedict Option_

A VOLUME FAR from the beaten path for me, but the New Yorker profile on Dreher called it a good book for the "ideologically bi-curious," so off I went to the local Catholic book store.

The book's subtitle is "A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation," which neatly sums up the book's purpose. For Dreher, the secularization of the United States has advanced to the point that Christians who want to live as Christians will have to be deliberate and tactical about it, for our society's default tone is at best indifferent to Christianity when it is not hostile.

Conservative Christians (he seems to have in mind conservative Roman Catholics, most Orthodox communities, and evangelicals--mainline Protestants, not so much), he writes, thought that they could stem the tide by campaigning and voting for Republicans. As we readers of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? know, this did not work out. Rather like African-Americans and the Democratic Party, conservative Christians got plenty o' lip service around election time but not much else.

We are in a time of Flood, Dreher says in his first chapter, and Christians need an Ark.

The "Benedict Option" is his proposal for that ark--so named for St. Benedict, founder of the Benedictines, a monastical community that kept the Church alive in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire and the ascendancy of the barbarians.

Dreher does not envision a new cloistered, celibate community (although he respects such efforts) so much as a "parallel polis," a society that in-but-not-of the larger one. Not isolation, not a siege mentality exactly, but a restricted engagement, more inward- than outward-focused.

The politics of the Benedict Option are less about laws and elections than developing an alternative community, more centered on families and congregations. Churches will focus more on liturgy and the sacraments than on getting people to rallies. Liturgy will be more traditional--fewer drums, guitars, and PowerPoints, maybe. Christians will definitely need their own schools, and some will have to sacrifice fast-track professional careers if those careers involve unhealthy compromise with secular values. Gay Christians are welcome provided they neither have actually have sex nor wish to be married.

Wait, what? Right. Turns out that the Obergefell decision and the subsequent persecution of "bakers, florists, and photograhers" is Dreher's Exhibit # 1 that the United States is inhospitable to Christianity.

Well, I don't know. I know a lot of Christians and Jews for whom the profounder meaning of their faith does not depend so utterly on a few verses in Leviticus and a few strictures from Paul.

One of those Christians is someone I know Dreher respects, Dreher being the author of How Dante Can Save Your Life.  In Canto 26 of Purgatorio, a great crowd of homosexuals and another great crowd of heterosexuals are running through fire to purge themselves of lust. Purgatory is just a way station, really, so they are all alike headed for Paradise, gay and straight both. Who knows whether Dante, if he lived now, would support gay marriage, but it's clear that even back in 1312 he did not see that there was any important difference between homo- and hetero-.






Saturday, May 13, 2017

Emma Cline, _The Girls_

FINISHED THIS, AS fortune would have it., the same day that the new Granta arrived, in which Cline is tipped as a Best Young American Novelist. She was already on the radar, one would have to say--blurbs from Jennifer Egan, Richard Ford, and Lena Dunham (!), reviewed all over the place, lots of best-of-the-year lists.

And the book is good. Premise: teenage girl caught up in periphery of a Manson-ish cult, but not in on the murders, tells her story some forty years on. Each of the novel's four sections begins with a brief account of the narrator Evie's present circumstances, house-sitting in a friend's vacation place, then rewinds back to 1969 and the story of how Evie fell in with the crew surrounding Russell and his experiment in intentional community.

The brilliant thing about the novel is Evie's being attracted to the group not by Russell's seedy charisma or past-its-sell-date hippie palaver, but by Suzanne, one of several young women orbiting Russell, but for Evie a star all her own. Fourteen or fifteen when the novel opens, Evie is looking hard for clues of how to be in the world. Her self-absorbed, thwarted parents are not providing any useful ones, nor are her pettily jealous schoolfriends, nor her suburban neighborhood. The long-haired, beautifully stoned, don't-give-a-fuck girls she sees in the park one day, however...especially Suzanne...seem to be angels from a freer, more exciting world.

Suzanne is a genuinely memorable fictional creation. I was myself fifteen in 1969, and I remember seeing such creatures passing by in the park, and Cline seems to have a preternatural sense of what it would feel like to be drawn into their force field, and what it might cost.

Mild reservations: some anachronistic touches in the accounts of the music, and in the presence of tattoos--as I recall 1969, only bikers and Navy guys had tattoos. Also, the 50-some-year-old Evie does not sound much like a 50-some-year-old.

The 15-year-old Evie, though, has an utterly convincing voice, even when it lifts into its lyrical upper register, which it does gratifyingly often, even in so unlikely a moment as visiting a neighbor boy's room:
Teddy led me to his room, expectant as I glanced around at his boyish novelties. They seemed arranged for viewing, although it was all junk: a captain's clock whose hands were dead, a long-forgotten ant farm, warped and molding. The glassy stipple of a partial arrowhead, a jar of pennies, green and scuzzy as sunken treasure. Usually I'd make some crack to Teddy. Ask him where he got the arrowhead or tell him about the whole one I'd found, the obsidian point sharp enough to draw blood. But I sensed a pressure to preserve a haughty coolness, like Suzanne that day in the park.

Friday, May 12, 2017

George Saunders, _Lincoln in the Bardo_

I LIKE IT a great deal, but speaking as a longtime fan, Saunders's first novel is not at all what I was expecting. Our laureate of the alienation of labor in late capitalism, Saunders's short fiction tends to be set in a world recognizably our own, given a bit of satirical exaggeration--that is, even though we have no theme parks where employees have to pretend to be Neanderthals, nor teenagers raised to be marketing focus groups, nor immigrants used as lawn decorations, such things seem all-too-possible extrapolations of the world we live in.

The setting of Lincoln in the Bardo, however, is quite literally other-worldly. As the title tips off to anyone with a cursory knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism, we are in the afterlife. What's more, we are in a peculiarly American afterlife, contemplating Lincoln, that most American of presidents, in the midst of the Civil War, that most American of historical traumas, as he grieves for the death of his young son, Willie.

The novel's most prominent characters, though, are neither Lincoln nor Willie, but the... souls, I guess we have to say, of several folks buried in the same cemetery Willie has been buried in. Unconvinced that they are indeed dead, confident that their loved ones are making every effort to revive them, they are hanging around in increasingly attenuated and bizarre forms, refusing to "move on." Hans Vollmer, Roger Bevins III, and the Rev. Everly Thomas are the ones we hear from most often, but there are quite a few more, including some slaves from a different section of the cemetery.

The plot turns on their recognition that Willie really ought to "move on," and that for the sake of the nation Lincoln has to "move on" as well--to which ends they bend their efforts, compromised though they are by their incorporeality.

These characters, for all their delusions, are great fictional company. It's as though they stepped out of some wild evening's collaborative composition by Melville, Hawthorne, and Stowe during the heyday of Matthiessen's American Renaissance. The afterlife conjured here evokes the same moment in the history of American spirituality: a little Emerson, a bit of borrowing from the Mysterious East, a good bit of home-made Christian cosmology á la the Millerites, the Mormons, the Shakers, and the whole burned-over district crew.

Lincoln in the Bardo is like one of those great mid-19th-century American one-offs, say The Confidence Man or The Blithedale Romance; the surprise is that within all the pastiche it turns out to be emotionally affecting as well, in a way that my fellow Saunders-fans will recognize.




Monday, April 17, 2017

Brian Blanchfield, _Proxies: Essays Near Knowing: a reckoning_

VERY MUCH LOOKING forward to the poetry collection that will be the sequel to A Several World, but glad to have this.

The twenty-four essays in Proxies were written, a prefatory note tells us, with two compositional principles in mind: one, they are based only on what Blanchfield could call to mind, without recourse to the internet or "other authoritative sources," and two, they "stay with the subject until it gives onto an area of personal uneasiness, a site of vulnerability, and keep unpacking from there."

The first principle means that the essays contain their share of misstatements, but Blanchfield provides a useful appendix, "Correction," in which the record is set straight and we learn (for instance) that Sylvia, not Juice Newton, recorded the hit version of "Tumbleweed." (I flipped back to "Correction" on finishing each essay, but I noticed that it would also work well read straight through from beginning to end, so perhaps it could be seen as the 25th essay.)

The second principle means that this is one amazing, delightful, continually surprising, and deeply worthwhile book. A brave book--not in a showy way, but convincingly brave nonetheless--and a beautiful one.

Presiding presences here include Montaigne, recalled in the titles (e.g., "On Owls," "On Sardines," and so on) and in the essays' "que sais-je?" premise; Roland Barthes, especially the Barthes of Mythologies, in the book's willingness to put under the microscope such routine and seemingly (but not really) inane phenomena as minute-taking and academic dossiers; Maggie Nelson, for the unsensationalized honesty of pieces like "On Man Roulette" and "On Frottage"; and the great Guy Davenport, for the whole book's boundary-hopping intelligence, lucidity of style, and clarity of perception.

(By the way, Blanchfield has a wonderful essay on Davenport in the Spring 2017 issue of Oxford American, and you should go read it right now.)

I read the book one or two essays at a time over about several weeks, which worked nicely, but the book has a gathering momentum, becoming as it proceeds more personal, virtually a memoir, so by the time you get to "On Reset," "On the Understory," and "On the Near Term," it actually becomes rather difficult to put down.

Is the rumor true that he has been hired by a university in Idaho? If so, smart move, Idaho.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Mary Hickman, _Rayfish_

VERY NICE AND all that the Academy of American Poets has decided to jump on our bandwagon by awarding Mary Hickman the 2016 James Laughlin Award, but we'll have you know that LLL was on board as long ago as May 30, 2015.  You can look it up.

Rayfish is an undiluted delight to read but daunting to describe.

At first glance, we seem to have fourteen essays, subdivided into six sections, on works of art, largely but not exclusively contemporary, often but not exclusively paintings (Jenny Saville, Eva Hesse, Chaim Soutine, but also Chu Yun, Sally Mann, Merce Cunningham, Kazuo Ohno). So, in one respect, Rayfish is the wild-eyed, somewhat hipper younger sister of Jacques Ranciére's Aisthesis.

However, the book is also streaked with autobiographical episodes--childhood in China, boarding school in Taiwan, near-death experiences--that in an eyeblink resolve into reflections on aesthetics, the ends and means of art. So, in another respect, it is as though we are meeting the scarved-and-hatted transpacific cousin of Dave Hickey's Air Guitar.

Then again--the essays are not essays at all, really. They are poems in prose, quicksilver and agile. They teleport--from one moment to the next, one can suddenly be in a wholly different place from where one thought one was, plucked from the backyard garden chatting with a neighbor and dropped at the Palaz of Hoon. So, in yet another respect, it is as though Ranciére and Hickey magically had offspring that were in turn possessed by the spirit of James Tate.

And then there are the moments that do not sound like anything else one knows, as when the examination of Artemisia Gentilleschi's Danaë and Judith Slaying Holofernes gives way to this:

She dreams. She falls backward. Cloth fills my vision. And I think I'd like to bring, out of the abyss of her figure, all the illumination of arrival. The skin is teeming.  The skin has such great spirit. An entire world of light is at play just under the skin. Your calves become Danaë's calves at leisure, pressed against the grey felt in pleasure, and your bare shoulders could be Judith's shoulders, broad and reflective under skylights. But as my eyes travel up, I realize you wear the wrinkled, gutted cheek of Holofernes's half-severed head. Or you wear the same dropped countenance as the one who watched you. This image denies me body in motion, your buoyant bulk; instead, it offers me a still life of skin, a cap of flesh traversed by color and revealing the threshold of my own body.

The boundary between art and life is soft in Rayfish, sometimes the merest membrane, sometimes not even there.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Bill Clegg, _Did You Ever Have a Family_

ANOTHER BOOK CLUB selection, this one for March. Our main character is June Reid, professional class, late middle age, nice old house in Connecticut. The night before her daughter's wedding, June's house burns down. Her daughter, her daughter's fiancé, and June's lover (quite a bit younger, of mixed race) perish in the fire.

June heads for the Pacific Northwest; quite a bit of the novel tracks her journey and arrival in close third-person. Other sections (some first-person, some close third) fill in the perspective of (for instance) June's lover's mother, her daughter's fiancé's parents, the owner of the motel where June lands, and other affected people. The overall course of the novel involves piecing together What Actually Happened in the fire, backstory on June's relationships with her daughter and with her lover, and her psychological recovery from the trauma.

The novel was tolerable, but all the time I was reading it I kept thinking of another novel of a woman on a journey in the aftermath of a catastrophe--David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress--and of how much better Markson's novel was, more deeply imagined, more authentically realized. Anyone thinking of reading Did You Ever Have a Family should read Wittgenstein's Mistress instead, methinks. Clegg's novel is easier to read but relatively shallow.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Angela Flournoy, _The Turner House_

OUR BOOK CLUB'S selection for February.  It has taken me a while to get around to writing about it, but I enjoyed it. 

One is always a little anxious picking up a novel that opens with a family tree, but Flournoy keeps the narrative trim and efficient by focusing on five weeks in the lives of the oldest and the youngest of Francis and Viola Turner's thirteen children. 

The eldest, trucker Charles (a.k.a "Cha-Cha") Turner, saw a ghost ("haint") in adolescence and again at various intervals as an adult. Sidelined by an accident brought on by one such untimely appearance, he goes through a kind of senior crisis, including a bit-too-intimate course of counseling that threatens his marriage, but achieves resolution by novel's end.

The youngest, Lelah, now in her early forties, has been undone by a gambling addiction that seems about to sink her once and for all, but she too seems to emerge by novel's end--there are hints that the enchantment of the chips has been broken.

Threaded throughout the novel are short glimpses from the family's Origin Story, set in the1940s. Francis has moved to Detroit, leaving his recently-wed young wife Viola and newborn Cha-Cha behind in Arkansas until he can get things settled and send for them. Even knowing, as we do, that he did get things settled and did send for them, the story of their time apart is a bit of a nail-biter, heavy with temptations, uncertainties, contingencies. Nothing about keeping a family intact is easy, one gathers.

Nothing about anything is easy for the Turners, really, living as they do in Detroit during the city's inexorable deceleration of recent decades. A few things work out, a lot don't. They do stick together, though.

The style is swift, sometimes lyrical, Iowa-honed. Good book.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Richard Kreitner & Joshua Cohen

HERE'S AN INTERESTING coincidence. On the same day I read the March 13 issue of The Nation, which contains Richard Kreitner's excellent essay on Paterson, New Jersey--a gracefully-written blend of history, memoir, and reflection on our difficult present moment--I also finally get around to the Winter 2017 issue of n+1, which contains Joshua Cohen's excellent essay on Atlantic City, New Jersey--likewise a gracefully-written blend of history, memoir, and reflection on our difficult present moment. If I had been at home (and not an airplane) I probably would have pulled Roth's American Pastoral off the shelf, or put The  River on the turntable, because it was obviously the right day for me to consider  the Garden State.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Cate Dicharry, _The Fine Art of Fucking Up_

CAMPUS NOVELS ARE actually getting better, I think. Consider Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution, Mary McCarthy's Groves of Academe, May Sarton's Small Room--all worthy efforts, but they were by tourists, basically.

Modern novelists, for better or worse, often spend a serious chunk of their careers on campuses, and thus bring to the genre an intimacy,  a grasp of nuance, a breaking with cliché that one misses in their predecessors. I am thinking of Jane Smiley's Moo, Richard Russo's Straight Man, Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members, Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys--the satire remains, as do the Feydeau-like crank-it-up-til-it-explodes plots, but the characters feel more realistic, less caricatured. More of the resources of the novel as a form come into play.

As its title suggests, Dicharry's campus novel features one of those plots (cf. Russo, Schumacher, Chabon, and Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim) in which all the wheels seem to come off at once. Our narrator, Nina Lanning, has become the key staff person at the art school where she earned her MFA. Her boss, the school's director, has suddenly become obsessed with a male model who poses for the covers of romance novels. One of the faculty members, whom a court order has banned from entering the building save when his classes are held, keeps sneaking in and cooking bacon all over the place as a kind off transgressive, performance-art sort of gesture. A 500-year flood threatens to swamp the modernist architectural masterpiece that houses the school and all its contents, including an extremely valuable Pollock. On the home front, her husband wants kids, now, and to prove the point that they would make good parents has asked a Chinese graduate student to move in with them.

There's more, but you get the idea.

Does Nina handle all of this with the cool aplomb and quiet adeptness of the ideal university staff assistant? Well...no. Which makes for great comedy--I laughed out loud quite a few times.

But funny as  the novel is--spoiler coming--it becomes moving as well. Dicharry seems to be setting up a comedy-of-remarriage story. The maelstrom through which Nina is passing ("This could the crucial juncture of your psychoemotional journey," one of her faculty friends helpfully points out as several species of shit approach a variety of fans), we begin to assume, will be the crucible through which she rediscovers her creativity, reaffirms her marriage, reclaims her selfhood. But this turns out to be one of those very unusual (in my experience) comedies in which the happy ending involves the couple deciding that no, they should not try to save  their marriage, but let it go. It's surprises like these that make me think Dicharry is someone to watch.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Mary Szybist, _Incarnadine_

I DID NOT know a thing about Mary Szybist when I picked this off the shelf at the Tattered Cover in Denver last Labor Day weekend. Nice cover (Botticelli). National Book Award, hmm. Intriguing title. Graywolf Press. Okay, what the heck.

It turned out to be excellent. The annunciation to Mary is the book's main motif, handled in a cerebral-mandarin-feminist vein reminiscent (for me) of Lucie Brock-Broido, but a little warmer, more accessible, more poignant than that sounds (see "To Gabriela at the Donkey Sanctuary" or "Entrances and Exits" or "Girls Overheard While Assembling a Puzzle").

It's a complicated moment, and Szybist sees it from a number of angles--the power of being acknowledged, singled out, chosen for a world-historical role, but also the sense that one is being commandeered, turned into a means rather than an end, not given a choice--think of "My Life had Stood--a Loaded Gun" seen through the iconography of Mary and Gabriel.

Remarkable formal ingenuity and variety--an erasure poem, a sonnet, a concrete poem, a poem that is a diagrammed sentence--and hardly any move happens twice.

What really hooked me, though--"On a Spring Day in Baltimore, the Art Teacher Asks the Class to Draw Flowers." I would not have thought, going in, that a poem looking at a teacher's sexual misconduct through the lens of Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" could possibly work, but this one was subtly devastating...if that even makes sense. Can devastation be subtle? Having read this poem, I would say yes.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Amor Towles, _A Gentleman in Moscow_

OUR BOOK CLUB read Towles's Rules of Civility last year; I did not like it, but the rest of the club did, so his Gentleman in Moscow wound up on our list for this year, and I did  not like this one, either, but the rest of the club did, so I am probably on a collision course with whatever his next novel turns out to be. Same thing happened to me with John Irving a few years ago.

What exactly did I not like about A Gentleman in Moscow? The premise is not all that plausible--a Russian aristocrat at the time of the Revolution gets a sentence of house arrest in a luxury hotel (rather than the gulag) because he wrote a protest poem at the time of the 1905 uprising. But the plot of Calvino's historical novel The Baron in the Trees is even more implausible--the son of a noble Italian family climbs a tree to escape parental punishment and spends the  rest of his life up there--and I absolutely loved The Baron in the Trees.

Calvino's novel, however, bizarre as its premise is, is startlingly insightful about the era in which it is set, the late 18th century, the era of the French Revolution, Lyrical Ballads, Goethe, Beethoven. Towles's novel...not so much. Russian noblemen, apparently, were gentle souls with refined tastes and exquisite senses of honor, the Bolsheviks puritanical, philistine, and brutal...as far as insight into the time and place where it is set, A Gentleman in Moscow is right in there with The Scarlet Pimpernel or The Klansman.

The Walter Scottiness of Pimpernel or Klansman persists as well in the unrelievedly arch tone of the narrative. Chosen at random: "When we first encountered Miss Urbanova in the Metropol's lobby in 1923, the haughtiness the Count noted in her bearing was not without foundation, for it was a by-product of her unambiguous celebrity." It's like that from beginning to end.

Then there's some cloak-and-dagger stuff in the last hundred pages or so as our hero sets up an opportunity for his adopted daughter, a world-class pianist, to defect while in Paris for a concert, while he himself...oh, never mind.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Zadie Smith, _Swing Time_ (4)

ALMOST DONE, BUT I could not say farewell to this novel without gushing a bit about the structure as well. Not as audacious as that of NW, a bit of a retreat in that respect perhaps, but the way Smith toggles between the narrator's childhood story and her adult-life story demonstrates its own kind of mastery.

The novel opens with "It was the first  day of my humiliation"--the narrator has burned her bridges with Aimee, but we do not know how or why, and so one thread of the story begins, with our wondering how the day of humiliation came to arrive.

The prologue ends with the narrator receiving an accusatory text message, "Now everyone knows who you really are," which the narrator calls the "kind of note you might get from a spiteful seven-year-old girl with a firm idea of justice," then tells us, "And of course that--if you can ignore the passage of time--is exactly what it was." And so chapter one launches on the day the narrator met Tracey.

The braiding of the stories somehow raises the stakes for both of them, the switching  between them always carrying the effect of a heightening or an illumination, even though they do not intersect until almost the very end of the book.

Just getting better, that Zadie Smith.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Zadie Smith, _Swing Time_ (3)

THAT'S NOT ALL. The reviews of Swing Time I saw did not place it alongside Citizen, The New Jim Crow, The Sellout, The Underground Railroad, or Between the World and Me, but I think one could so place it.

The books mentioned above look directly at slavery, the most brutal dimension of the African-European encounter; in Swing Time, slavery hovers just out of the range of the novel's peripheral vision, but you feel it there. At one point the narrator refers to the "triangular trade" that drove the growth of slavery in the Americas, and the novel itself has a triangle of locations: London, where the narrator grew up, New York City, where Aimee lives, and the Gambia-like country in west Africa where Aimee wants to create a school. As in the old sugar-rum-slaves triangle, the circulation of capital and people involves assumptions and calculations about race that can't be articulated, because articulating them would instantly reveal their moral shoddiness.

Any number of deft touches--the narrator's Caribbean-born mother's academic and political careers, the narrator's discovery of the films of Jeni LeGon, the narrator's developing friendship with Hawa, a young woman in the African village--turn into miniature revelations of the infinite ironies surrounding the general moral catastrophe of the African-European encounter.

And that encounter is in the marrow of the novel: Tracey and the narrator become friends because of the near-match of their skin tones, and Aimee's fame and fortune presumably rest, as do Madonna's, Elvis Presley's, the Rolling Stones', and just about every other world-famous Caucasian pop musician, on a canny appropriation of the legacy of African music.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Zadie Smith, _Swing Time_ (2)

WAIT, THERE'S MORE. A second deeply appealing aspect of Swing Time is that we meet Archie and Clara Bowden Jones again, in a new guise, as the parents of the narrator. (Irie Jones is mentioned in passing as a neighborhood contemporary of the narrator and Tracey.)

The narrator's father is a bit of a pothead, which I don't recall Archie being, and her mother has a drive and ferocity (she attains a degree, becomes an activist and eventually an M.P.) that I don't recall Clara having, but the differences in the parents' ages, ethnicities, and stance towards the universe seem recognizably parallel to those of Archie and Clara, so you just have to wonder...

...are Smith's parents going to wind up having as many fictional avatars as Bess Finkel Roth and Herman Roth?

One certainly hopes so.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Zadie Smith, _Swing Time_ (1)

IT OFTEN HAPPENS (as occurred to me reading Brenda Shaughnessy's So Much Synth a few weeks back) that when you fall in love with the first book your read by an author unfamiliar to you, or the first album your hear by an unfamiliar artist, subsequent work by that author or that artist somehow never delivers that same buzz.

For me, Zadie Smith may be the exception. I fell in love with White Teeth back in 2001--its exuberant humor, its carbonated style, its portraiture of multicultural London--and have read every novel that followed with delight. The subsequent novels did not deliver the very same buzz, true, but they all delivered a buzz of their own, more than enough to keep me coming back for more.

I loved Swing Time.  Let me count the ways.

The twists on the "my brilliant friend" theme. Smith gave us a relatively straightforward version  of the theme in the relationship of Keisha/Natalie and Leah in NW, and here she ups the ante. The unnamed narrator of Swing Time gives us a braided narrative concerning her two brilliant friends--but one is not exactly brilliant, the other not exactly a friend.

About half the chapters are about the narrator's girlhood friendship with Tracey, whom the narrator meets in a dance class. Both girls have one white parent and one black parent, and both are fascinated by dance, and a close friendship forms; for a while, they are inseparable. As they get a little older, and Tracey gets on track to become a professional dancer while the narrator is university-bound, the relationship is strained and eventually broken. But reunions sometimes occur, and the intensity of the girlhood friendship makes every later reunion, whatever the interval in time, feels charged.

Tracey's talent as a dancer makes her a brilliant friend, but her brilliance lacks enduring wattage. She does become a professional dancer, but not a particularly successful one, and not for very long. Somehow, though, the gift she once had remains the fact around which the friendship orbits whenever they meet.

The other chapters are about the narrator's employment as Number One personal assistant to Aimee, an international pop diva with a career somewhat reminiscent of Madonna's--Tracey and the narrator idolized her as girls. Aimee wants to start a school for girls in an unnamed country in west Africa (Gambia, perhaps, judging from the characterization of its president), and the narrator is assigned a variety of responsibilities to that end. (Smith's satire of this classic celebrity-led Africa project is note-perfect, by the way.) Complications ensue, and eventually the narrator is persona non grata in Aimee-world, though her whistle-blowing temporarily makes her a kind of 15-minute celebrity herself.

Aimee is brilliant, but not really a friend. Smith unfolds the peculiar role of the personal assistant skillfully. The narrator is an employee of Aimee, not a friend, but the relationship takes place at a level of intimacy that is a simulacrum of friendship. She is chosen for the job by Aimee on the basis of a kind of affinity, like Jesus choosing disciples. She is so busy minding things for Aimee that she has no time to make actual friends, and is often the object of Aimee's solicitude (abundant dating advice, so Aimee becomes the closest thing she has to a friend. But a friend--it becomes painfully clear--Aimee is not.

The nuances of the narrator's consuming but also critically flawed relationships with these two women--that's one reason I loved Swing Time.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Lucy Ives, _Anamnesis_

HER FIRST FULL-LENGTH book, from 2009, but the writing-aware-of-itself theme seen later in Orange Roses and even more recently in The Hermit is very much to the fore:

Write, "Bright sun came through in a pink stream"
Write, ""It was just like living in the country"
Cross this out
Crickets
Sorority girls falling down
Cross this out
In the cold seasons I only want to do want I want, what I want to do
Cross this out

The (self-addressed?) imperative "Write" occurs on most of the pages of the book, hitting a kind of crescendo at the end. It kept making me think, probably inappropriately, of the "Recite!" that recurs through the Quran, but perhaps not utterly inappropriately, because the text seems to come from a powerful sense of needing to say something and an immediately triggered response that the statement one has just now come up with fails to get it said--the imperative "cross it out" comes up quite as regularly as "write."

Anamnesis could be usefully read alongside Ben Lerner's Hatred of Poetry, I think, in that embodies the idea that part of what makes poetry poetry is bearing up under the burden of its own inadequacy. It also stands in an interesting relation to the old Beat maxim "First thought, best thought" in that the first thought is so often rejected, but in a way left to stand--that is, despite all the injunctions to "cross it out," nothing is crossed out, the gesture of the rature imagined rather than made.

What does the title mean? "Remembering," in effect, or perhaps "Not-forgetting" or even "Not-not-having in mind." The world has a specific meaning in Platonic doctrine, the Christian liturgy, and medicine, but I'm guessing it serves to emphasize that what gets written has always a complex relationship to what is recalled, and what is recalled has a complex relationship to what was experienced.

Reading Lucy Ives is like having a conversation with someone about 11% smarter than you are.

How is all this self-awareness going to play out in the forthcoming novel, a "witty, urbane, and sometimes shocking debut novel, set in a hallowed New York museum, in which a co-worker's disappearance and a mysterious map change a life forever"? I will just have to wait until August, I guess.