Loads of Learned Lumber

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.