Loads of Learned Lumber

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
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.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Paul Beatty, _The Sellout_

FUNNY THING, THE Sellout kept  reminding me of the Martin Amis of the late 1980s--nonstop fizz and fireworks in the sentences, laugh-out-loud funny, killingly-aimed satire--but Amis himself still has not won the Booker. It's as though Beatty out-Amis'd Amis.

The novels' unnamed narrator lives in what used to be Dickens, CA, which must be not too far from South Central L.A. He maintains a kind of farm, or extensive truck patch, left him by his late father, founder of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, a kind of black consciousness group that meets at a donut shop, now led, after a fashion, by one Foy Cheshire, who seems to be the Cornel West of Dickens and who is the one who always refers to the narrator as "sellout."

The narrator seems also to be the chief support of Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving Little Rascal, who is chagrined that some of his best performances no longer get shown because they are deemed too racist. Hominy has a longing for the bad old days, to assuage which longing the narrator does what he can to recreate the boundaries and barriers of segregation, even letting Hominy designate himself as "slave" on the farm (not that he does any work).

These arrangement buck up not only Hominy's spirits, but those of everybody in the neighborhood. Why does the revival of these injustices bring a sense of well-being? Because, as the narrator puts it, "I've whispered 'Racism' is a post-racial world," or, as his lawyer puts it when the narrator is called up before the Supreme Court:

In attempting to restore his community through reintroducing precepts, namely segregation and slavery, that, given his cultural history, have come to define his community despite the supposed  unconstitutionality and nonexistence of these concepts, he's pointed out a fundamental flaw in how we as Americans claim we see equality.

That is, by conjuring up an objective correlative for the racism the narrator and his fellow Dickensians experience every day, the racism that the white population keeps announcing has been long eradicated, the narrator has saved his community from chronic cognitive dissonance, and  they all immediately start to feel a little better.

I don't know if Amis at his peak was ever this brilliantly Swiftian.

This would be a hard novel to teach to contemporary undergraduates in my part of the world, though. The riff on Clarence Thomas on pp. 19-20, for instance. For one thing, the passage does not even name Clarence Thomas. And even if my students were told who justice being described is, they might struggle to unpack a sentence like this one:

There he is, Chamaeleo africanus tokenus hidden way in the back among all the shrubbery, his slimy feet gripped tightly around the judicial branch in a cool torpor, silently gnawing on the leaves of injustice.

And that's just one sentence. There are plenty more like it on every page. It's sentences like that one that make The Sellout about the best novel of 2016, but The Underground Railroad is probably going to land on a lot more syllabuses.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Rivka Galchen, _Little Labors_

This caught my eye last August at Elliott Bay Books, in large part because it is bright orange, but more because I admired Galchen's novel Atmospheric Disturbances. Little Labors is not fiction, however; it's....


Hard to say what it is. A journal? A collection of micro-essays? It's somewhat like Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book, if that  helps, but it may not, as Galchen herself describes The Pillow Book as "difficult to characterize." Well, then, it is a book of short-to-very-short prose pieces, most but not all of them about Galchen's very young daughter, from infancy to toddlerhood and a bit beyond.

A book of short-to-very-short pieces is exactly the kind of book the caretaker of a toddler/pre-school age child has some kind of hope of completing, so the form, whatever we wish to call it, is perfect to the subject. Little Labors belongs on the top-honors shelf of the New Writing about Parenthood right next to Chris Bachelder's Abbott Awaits, a book similarly composed of short, incisive takes on what one notices and what passes through one's mind while tending to a very young child.

Even writing this sort of patchwork quilt of a book, one suspects, was far from easy. Galchen's chapter "Notes on some twentieth century writers" is mainly a list of famous women writers who had no children. Another chapter, "Lots of writers have children," notes that many memoirs by the sons and daughters of writers express resentment at the time and space their parent had to fence off for writing.

A lot of the book is funny and charming (a chapter on the ubiquity of orange in contemporary baby merchandise, which perhaps explains the book's cover), but it is not particularly sentimental (the infant daughter is referred to as "the puma), and some of it gets close to the bone:

It's true what they say, that a baby gives you a reason to live. But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.

Drier and wryer than the usual writing about motherhood, but gentler (I would say) than Sei Shonagon, Little Labors would make a great gift for anyone who has recently become a parent. You can hold it in one hand, you can read it in very short bursts, and it is spot-on true about all sorts of things. And it's orange.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Maggie Nelson, _Jane: A Murder_

READING AROUND SOMEWHAT randomly this week before classes resume, and the world of female puberty keeps coming up: not only Brenda Shaughnessy's "Is There Something I Should Know," discussed in the preceding entry, but also Zadie Smith's Swing Time (about two-thirds read), a large part of which is about a childhood-to-adolescence female friendship in working class London in the eighties, and Emma Cline's The Girls (just started, about 20% read) about a teenaged girl ending up in the orbit of a fictionalized version of the Manson Family.

The further I get from puberty, the weirder it seems. A dark, directionless forest one stumbles into about age twelve, haunted by spirits of self-alienation, humiliation, and fear, from which one emerges at 19 or 20 with, if lucky, a few intact shreds of selfhood. I lived those years in a stable, loving family without any kind of material want, and it was still the worst time of my life.

What does this have to do with Nelson's Jane: A Murder? I did not find myself thinking of puberty while I was reading it, usually a few pages at a time, back in November and December. It's a hybrid text (mainly short poems, a few prose passages, excerpts from documents) imagining/reconstructing the life of Nelson's aunt, Jane, who was killed by a serial rapist-murderer in 1969 when Jane was just completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Michigan. Nelson never met Jane face-to-face, as the murder occurred before Nelson was born, but the event naturally changed the family into which she was born in indelible ways, so an attempt at self-understanding shadows the larger quest to understand who Jane was.

I recalled Jane while reading the other books because of its documents: excerpts from a diary Jane kept when she was about eleven to twelve, and then some further journal-like writings from when she was in college. The entry years and exit years of coming-of-age, then, and the recurring impression one gets is that Jane had come through. The self-doubts, the battles with family, the befoggedness we all have to deal with--she had dealt with it, and she was going to be okay.

Except that there was one more monster in the forest, ancient, faceless sexualized violence--wish I had Shaughnessy's "Is There Something I Should Know" here and not in the office across town, because she has some terrific lines about this--and Jane was murdered.

Is that why the election of Trump seems a larger catastrophe than the election of Reagan or either Bush? That he seems to embody that kind of threat, to give it an aura of impunity?

Anyway, Jane: A Murder is back in print thanks to the success of The Argonauts, and I hope a lot of people pick it up.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Brenda Shaughnessy, _So Much Synth_

I NEED TO just accept the fact that Shaughnessy won't be writing any more books like Interior with Sudden Joy, the left-field weirdness of which I fell in love with back in 2000 or so. She looks a bit askance at the volume herself, to judge from glancing references to her younger selves in Our Andromeda, and she is doing worthwhile work, so...I need to just suck it up.

I have practice with this sort of adjustment. I was--am--in love with REM's Murmur, yet however much I kept hoping for Murmur II, they moved on to speak richly to millions with "The One I Love," "Losing My Religion," "Everybody Hurts," and so on, and it was simply churlish of me to pine for another "Moral Kiosk" or "9-9." (Pine I did, however.) If Shaughnessy, like Messieurs Berry, Buck, Mills, and Stipe, wishes to mature artistically, embrace a wider audience, and communicate in a more accessible way, well…I will just have to deal.

There is lots to enjoy in So Much Synth, even so. A poem about making mix tapes, for instance, one of the great rites of the 1980s--a lost art, I would even say, because even though people can now swap playlists on Spotify, how much time, manual dexterity, and anguished calculation go into making a playlist? Not comparable, really.

And speaking of REM, one of the poems is even a kind of eighties mix tape itself, leaning heavily on MTV hits (Duran Duran, Missing Persons, and the Eurythmics rather than Gun Club, Sonic Youth, and the Replacements).

And then there is the "Everybody Hurts" of the book: "Is There Something I Should Know," a longer poem (28 pages) in unrhymed couplets about puberty, middle school, Judy Blume, and Duran Duran (as alluded to in the title). By neither age nor gender am I at the heart of this poem's target, but I could not put it down, and while some passages are predictable, it hit home even for me. If it somehow gets out to a wider audience, it's going to become a classic.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Maggie Nelson, _Bluets_

I WAS SUFFICIENTLY tuned in to have bought this before The Argonauts was published, but not sufficiently tuned in to have actually read it (throat-clearing noise) until a couple of months ago. Well, at least I'm catching up, maybe.

I bought Bluets at the Literati bookstore in Ann Arbor, where it was on a table with a variety of volumes of poetry. Wave Books does not consider it poetry--"Essay / Literature" the back cover plainly declares--but whoever decided to display it as poetry had a point, for there is something aerodynamic about the text. It has lift, it swoops, it veers. It is not unlike The Argonauts, but The Argonauts is another essay that sometimes starts to feel like poem, because of the boldness of its leaps, the intensity of its language. Lyric essay, then?

As a lyric essay about the color blue, Bluets has a relatively famous precursor, William Gass's On Being Blue, so I wondered whether Nelson was going to give it a nod.  When she does, it's more of a brushoff (see sections 61 and 62), which seemed a little ungracious...so far as the passage she goes after, though, she does have a point, and after all, it's Nelson's readiness to dispense with deference, discretion, and politeness, her fearlessness, that keeps us turning pages. Not only is she going to say something like, "I am interested in having three orifices stuffed full of thick, veiny cock in the most unforgiving of poses and light," but she is also candid enough to say, "I have enjoyed telling people that I am writing a book about blue without actually doing it," or to write about applying for (and not getting) a grant to write the book we are reading.

The fearlessness is what makes Nelson seem kin to Kathy Acker and Eileen Myles. But there's something else, too. Craftiness? Knowing when less is more? A dazzling ability to change registers? She interests me more than Acker or Myles, seems more various, less predictable. But I am still trying to figure out exactly why that is.

Monday, January 2, 2017

J. D. Vance, _Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis_

BOOKS BY CONTRIBUTORS to National Review are decidedly not among my usual ports of call, but I picked this up as part of my campaign to read my way into understanding how Trump happened.

First of all, I have to say that Vance is an excellent writer.  Wish he was on our side, actually. Recalling that such excellent writers as Garry Wills, Joan Didion, and John Leonard also started out at the National Review, I found myself hoping that Vance, too, might find himself drifting leftward as the years go by. (The rest of them they can keep.)

Vance's book is about growing up in a family of low-to-modest means that has relocated from Kentucky to southern Ohio. His mother has a lot of problems--substance abuse, poor anger management, catastrophically bad boyfriend/husband relationships--and his father is long gone, so Vance's most sustaining relationships are with his older sister and with Mamaw, his grandmother, who gets him through high school with a blend of unconditional love and zero tolerance for backtalk or laziness. He joins the Marines, where he has to grow up fast (including time in Iraq), and on completing his service blitzes through Ohio State and gets into Yale Law School. Right now, he's doing way better than all right, but he emphasizes that he was one of the lucky ones.

The book's other main theme, as the subtitle indicates, is that his milieu, the white working class of    (roughly) the upper South, Appalachia, and the Rust Belt--that is, the people who put Trump in the White House--is generally in the same kind of trouble he was as a child and a teenager, struggling with opioids and meth, family dysfunction, educational failures, economic instability, It was principally for insight into this milieu that I picked up the book, and it has plenty.

Two things stuck out for me.

First: mistrust of national institutions such as the government, the schools, and the media. The people among whom Vance grew up, his family and his neighbors, do not feel that these national institutions understand them, are interested in them, or even see them, save intermittently (election years) and even then only condescendingly. This aligns well with Thomas Frank's thesis in Listen, Liberal, it seems to me, but even the way-right Charles Murray (Coming Apart) has lately felt free to diss this swathe of the population, and got congratulated for doing so by David Brooks.

Vance himself clearly feels that his culture needs to straighten up, but when he writes about how it feels to belong to a culture that is routinely undervalued and dismissed, he smolders with a bit of the cold fire of James Baldwin.

(I don't understand why these folks feel Trump does get them, does see them, but maybe just by virtue of not scolding them or sneering at them he seems different.)

Second: a suspicion that even while they are being told to fend for themselves, plenty of people no worse off than they are getting lots of free stuff. This comes up when the teenaged Vance, working as a checkout person in a supermarket, notices that people are using food stamps to buy pop, which they then sell on the street at a discount for cash, which cash they use to buy beer and cigarettes. "I could never understand," Vance writes, "why our lives felt like a struggle while those living off of of government largesse enjoyed trinkets that I only dreamed about."

I live in Nebraska, not Ohio or Appalachia, but I hear some variation of that complaint frequently, usually about immigrants, whom some of my fellow citizens are absolutely convinced are getting an array of freebies at taxpayer expense. Those same fellow citizens voted overwhelmingly  for Trump, and they expect he will be shutting down that gravy train, pronto.

An illuminating book.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Brian Blanchfield, _A Several World_

THE JAMES LAUGHLIN winner of 2014--so his second book, obviously. I have not read his first, but there is a lot to like about this one: ambitious, audacious, confident. Sometimes reminiscent of Ashbery in the way the diction will veer suddenly from the erudite to the colloquial, or of Mark Levine in the way the train of thought will suddenly teleport to far removed topic, but my main impression was of someone with a very large and distinctive gift that he is not at all embarrassed about drawing upon as fully as he can. I like that.

The real high-wire act of the book is the third of its four sections, "A History of Ideas, 1973-2012," a sequence that takes as epigraph the lines from Robert Herrick that provide the volume's title. The twelve poems have an elusive current of autobiography in them, seem to be reflecting the the world of private, untranslatable experience that Herrick's phrase neatly names, but have a public dimension as well in the individual poems' epigraphs, drawn from the reference work that gives the sequence its title, and their coda-graphs (I just made that up, but I mean quotations resembling epigraphs, only placed at the end of the poem) from sources as various as Antonin Scalia and Alcoholics Anonymous. The poems combine precision with mystery in a kind of Sir Thomas Browne where-are-we-now syntax:

               Where prior elders
may have swabbed with resin and covered properly as he lay
the birthday boy with falcon down
we borrow from the annals only the prior elder prayer.

I think my favorite section of the four, though, is the last, not as bravura a bit as "History of Ideas" (though "Sonnets in Diaghilev's Beard" is bravura enough), more lyrical, more tender, but still lean and muscled. This is how "Littlest Illeity"ends:

     Little unpainted people
forms, fixities in a stroll, remains
already, instrumental once in a
while of water, weird, for the tink
on glass the plastic go-round pisses.
He doesn't have to explain it.