Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Ta-Nehesi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze, _Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, Book 1_

HARD TO IMAGINE Edmund Wilson, Reinhold Niebuhr, or Hannah Arendt scripting a comic book, but we are in a whole new era of the public intellectual as well as a whole new era of the comic book. This one, for instance, cost fifteen dollars; when I started buying them, they cost twelve cents. It is a sumptuous production, though (it even includes a reprint of the Black Panther's first appearance, from 1961), so I won't complain about the price.

And it actually made sense that Coates would get a commission like this. Having read his first book, The Beautiful Struggle, I knew that he was a bit of a fantasy nerd growing up, and he is obviously comfortable with the form. So comfortable, indeed, that he begins very much in media res, with a whole lot of storylines already in full-tilt motion before we get much exposition.

A member of the Dora Milaje, Wakanda's all-female Praetorian Guard, is being held prisoner, but we don't know why; her lover, also I think from the Dora Milaje, busts her out, and they connect up with a resistance movement, but we don't know what/who/why they are resisting. There is enormous civil unrest in Wakanda, and the workers are angry at the monarchy of T'Challa (i.e, the Black Panther), but we don't know what caused the rift. Tutu, leader of the resistance faction known as The People, is meeting up with some white guy, but we don't know who the white guy is. And what is going on with T'Challa's sister? How does the lecturer whose grey dreadlocks are pulled back into a ponytail fit into this?

Coates has given himself a lot of story to untangle right from Book One. I found it bewildering, but still intriguing enough to take a chance on Book 2, where I hope some answers start taking shape.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Roxane Gay, _Bad Feminist_ and Annette Murrell, _I Wanna Be a Bad Woman_

EVERYONE OUT THERE who enjoys Gay's essays, about which there is much to enjoy, would find it worthwhile to seek out Murrell's book of poems. This may take some doing, as I do not think it circulated much outside Nebraska, but it has a lot of the same power.

Like Gay, Murrell wrong foots the reader in illuminating ways, sassy when you expect her to be serious, serious when expect her to be sassy. Her tone similarly swoops from academic seminar to hair salon to street to editorial page like that (imagine snap of fingers). She is tartly wise on the vicissitudes of the teaching life as an African-American woman, but keeps far, far away from familiar pieties about identity. She is frank, scarily frank, but she is telling you things you need to know. "Elegy for the Fat Nerdy Black Girl," for instance, gets to places no one else had gotten got to before--now Gay has gotten there as well.

In the opening pages of "The Spectacle of Broken Men," Gay mentions having lived in Nebraska, so I kept wondering whether she and Murrell had crossed paths; Murrell did a lot of performances/readings around here. Maybe not. They do seem to be kindred spirits, though.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Lisa Halliday, _Asymmetry_

FROM ONE ANGLE, we have two interesting, well-written novellas, either of which would have made a  respectable debut. By presenting them as an ensemble, Halliday creates something not just interesting, but unique and worth close attention.

Part 1, "Folly" (the first novella), is narrated by Alice, a bright, literary-minded 25-year-old woman working for a New York publisher. Alice meets and has a fairly lengthy affair with Ezra Blazer, a famous novelist about forty years her senior. It's about the time of the Iraq war, but Alice does not seem to be paying it much attention--not as much as she pays to the possibility that the Red Sox are at long last going to win a World Series. Blazer is a dead ringer for Philip Roth, with whom Halliday did, she has said, have an affair. Saturated with Manhattan detail and an engaging portrait of the Roth-like novelist, who is kind, generous, and wise, "Folly" is a brisk read.

Part 2, "Madness," toggles between two narratives. In one, we track a difficult encounter between airport security officials and Amar Jaafari (an economist, born in USA to Iraqi parents). In the other, Amar recounts his history, his brother Sami's decision to return to live in Iraq, and the family's efforts to re-connect with Sami after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"Folly" is a worthy example of might-as-well-be-autobigraphy fiction, female coming of age division. "Madness" is a more audacious jump, inhabiting a narrator of another gender and another culture, with the added high stakes of addressing the question of the American empire throwing its weight around. Here, too, Halliday succeeds.

The brilliant stroke, though, is her finding a way to make the two fictions speak to each other. Halliday does this in the novel's short (< 30 pages) final section, presented as a transcript of Blazer's appearance on Desert Island Discs, in which he notes that a brilliant young friend of his has just written a fine work of fiction about the Iraq war. "Madness," we thus learn, was also written by Alice, and so represents the opposite pole of fiction-writing from that of "Folly," which is that of her mentor, Blazer, who, Roth-like, wrote fiction by mining every last bit of ore from his own memory and experience (including Halliday, maybe, in Exit Ghost?). The Alice of "Madness" is the kind of writer who imagines her way out of her own circumstances...except that "Folly" shows adeptness at, precisely, mining the ore of your own memory and experience, so she is both Roth-like and not at all Roth-like.

But even more interesting than that is unpacking the suggestion of the title: in both fictions, we are looking at asymmetries of power. Amar is brilliant, accomplished, and I daresay assimilated, but even so he is going to get hung up at the airport. Power is going to show him who's boss. Blazer is generous, kind, and wise, but he also wants the affair strictly on his terms and under his control, and so it is. Alice is inside the American literary elite, kinda-sorta, except that when you come right down to it, she's not.

Amar's and Alice's rhyming situations give one a lot to ponder--this seems to me a great classroom novel. Highly readable, but also formally innovative, and furthermore insightful about identity and power.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Mark Greif, _Against Everything: Essays_

MOST OF THESE appeared in n + 1--"Against Exercise," Greif's best-known piece and I imagine the inspiration for the book's title, appeared in the every first issue--and Greif might be the inventor of the distinctive tone of n + 1: erudite but not formally academic, well-versed in popular culture while maintaining some skeptical distance, well to the left but noticeably less militant than (say) Jacobin.

Greif occasionally swings for the fences, as in "The Concept of Experience (The Meaning of Life, Part I)," a title that unwisely invites comparisons to Emerson that will not go in Greif's favor. For that matter, three of the four essays subtitled "The Meaning of Life" strike me as trying too hard. The fourth, though, "Thoreau Trailer Park," may be the book's best.

However, Greif does gadfly well; the essays twitting fitness aficionados ("Against Exercise") and foodies ("On Food") are smart and entertaining. The more ambitious pieces, e.g. those on "Octomom," YouTube, and the police, work well, too. He usually has an interesting new take on something we have already heard a lot about, like the figure of the hipster or the Kardashians; he knows his way around a sentence, and as a youth he was a fan of Minor Threat. All that makes you okay in my book.

Not sure he's an Emerson, though...not yet, anyway. But "Thoreau Trailer Park," a persuasive look at the Occupy Wall Street moment through the lens of Walden and "On Civil Disobedience," suggests he could get there.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

David Lodge, _Nice Work_

LODGE'S AUTHOR, AUTHOR! was sufficiently pleasing for me to try this, a sequel to the Lodge novels I had already read many years ago, Changing Places and Small World. Philip Swallow has only a relatively small role in this one, though, and Morris Zapp, disappointingly, a mere cameo, but new center-stage protagonist Robyn Penrose is a worthy addition to the cast.

The plot has mainly to do with a "shadow scheme" wherein Robyn, a scholar of the Victorian industrial novel, will observe local factory manager Vic Wilcox at his work, and he observe her at hers. Lodge is very good at rendering both milieus, and the gradual entangling of Robyn's and Vic's lives, though predictable as a plot element, is nonetheless wittily and persuasively handled.

The peculiar thing for me was that Robyn and I have a lot in common. The novel, published in 1988, is set in (I think) 1986. Robyn is 33 and in the second year of a three-year temporary appointment at the University of Rummidge (where Swallow is now department chair). She has a book out and another she needs to finish, but is anxious about her prospects. In 1986, I was 32 and in the first year of a temporary three-year appointment, also with a book in the works. Was I anxious? Lord, yes.

There are differences in our situations, too. Robyn is single; I was married and had a one-year-old daughter. Robyn is thoroughly enchanted with continental theory; I could take it or leave it. But that terrible sense of having invested years in a career that could all too suddenly vanish from under one's feet...that was 1986 for me, no doubt about it.

Things worked out for me, somehow; Robyn's prospects have bloomed nicely by novel's end. Is there another novel about her, I wonder?

Henry James, _The Other House_

MY MAJOR JAMES phase was roughly 1981-84; I read most of the novels and a lot of the tales while working through Leon Edel's five-volume biography. I did not read this one, though. At this remove in time, I'm no longer sure whether I skipped it because it wasn't in print at the time (thank you again, NYRB Classics) or because Edel had a low opinion of it ("one of his most unpleasant novels," "an outburst of primitive rage").

This was James's return to the novel after his switch to writing plays foundered so badly with Guy Domville. Having just reacquainted myself with that crucial episode thanks to David Lodge's Author, Author!  and having purchased The Other House a few years ago thinking I would have time for it eventually, the moment seemed propitious.

Edel had a point; things get unpleasant here. I can think of other fictions by James in which a child dies in a way for which some adult may be indirectly responsible ("The Turn of the Screw," "The Pupil"), and I can think of many examples in which characters perform actions that are selfish, cruel, unethical, or immoral, but this is the first one I've read in which someone is actually murdered.

More interesting (to me) than that, though, was how plainly the novel revealed its origins as a scenario for a play. I'm not sure how receptive the London stage circa 1896 would have been to a play in which a child is murdered, but James is obviously following his plan for a play closely. The novel is organized into three "books" that would work just as well as three acts; each "book" represents a continuous action in a single setting, as if trying to conform to the Aristotelian unities.

Almost all the action, furthermore, is dialogue. No character's point of view organizes the presentation, and all the characters get around to saying more or less exactly what is on their minds--enough by itself to cast the novel as utterly un-Jamesian.  An unfortunate effect of this approach is that the famous James interiority--precisely what made him so key a precursor for the 20th century novel--is all but entirely absent. There isn't a whiff here of What Maisie Knew, which lay only a couple of years ahead.

There are spots in "Book Third"--especially its final chapter--where James hints at what one character is trying to convey wordlessly to another. One can imagine how hard a time he would have had explaining to an actor (or a director) what had to be conveyed, and one can imagine the actor or director telling others how mistaken a conception of the theater Mr. James had. But in these spots we feel fiction writing is reclaiming James, that he is about to take fuller advantage of his mastery of its form than he ever did before.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Murasaki Shikibu, _The Tale of Genji_, translated by Royall Tyler

I READ THIS in the Edward Seidensticker translation back in 1987, in a kind of headlong rush; the school year had just ended, my grades were in, and I decided I was going to read Genji and nothing but Genji until I finished. I read about a hundred pages a day and finished in less than two weeks--a very satisfactory way to read this book; some books work well in short dips, but others call for immersion, and this is one of the latter.

Much as I loved the novel, I never expected to re-read it. As it happened, though, a student wanted to do an independent study around the novel, which I agreed to supervise. I had expected to get by without re-reading the novel, but that expectation quickly revealed itself as fallacious, what with my not having looked at the book for thirty years. Once I had started in with my second pass through Seidensticker, though, I learned there was a newer and (many thought) better translation--this one. So, I went with this one.

I'm in no position to say whether it is more accurate; I did notice that Tyler tends to be more faithful than Seidensticker to Murasaki's practice of referring to characters by designations or offices rather than by what we would consider a name. This fidelity could potentially create problems for the reader, since a character who gets a promotion to a new title will have a different "name" in (say) chapter 22 than he had in chapter 21.  Tyler has provided an unusually helpful apparatus, though, not only providing an index but also introducing each chapter with a who's-who prefatory note.  So, even when "the Counselor" begins being referred to without warning as "the Right Commander," one can stay on track.

My impression, though, was that the Seidensticker made for a smoother, more transparent read. This may have a lot to do, though, with the immersion factor I mentioned above,

As any great book should when read at an interval of thirty years, Genji was a different experience this time. I was less able at 33 than I am now to appreciate Murasaki's handling of the life cycle, to give us a subtly changing Genji, to show, without ever being explicit, how his experiences are changing him. My being older also probably had a lot to do with my being much more attuned to the autumnal tone of the final chapters, which are about young men--Genji has passed on--but young as they are, Kaoru and Niou somehow seem to carrying the weight of years.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Frank Bidart, _Metaphysical Dog_

FROM 2013, AND his best yet, I think, which makes it all the more frustrating that I cannot get Bidart's most recent poems in book form unless I pony tip for the new collected poems and (in effect) re-purchase some six or seven books I already own. Which I would rather not do, even in the car elf a poet I admire.

Back in the day, I got annoyed at bands who included on a "greatest hits" album a track or two that had never before appeared on an album, thus gouging their most loyal fans.

(For example, the Rolling Stones' Through the Past Darkly was, when it appeared, the only album on which one would find "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Honky Tonk Women," which were obviously must-haves, but to have them you had to buy "Let's Spend the Nigh Together" and "Ruby Tuesday" for the third time, if you had already purchased [as I had] Between the Buttons and Flowers.)

(Or Dylan. The only way you could get "Positively 4th Street" was to buy the first greatest hits, but of course you already had all the other hits.)

I could check the new Bidart collected poems out from the library, I suppose. Itch scratched. But I would rather support the poets I'm interested in by an actual purchase. It's just that...

...well, rant rant rant. Sigh.

"Writing 'Ellen West'" is like a 21st century "Circus Animals' Desertion," and the whole volume has a late-Yeats aura for me, the shedding of disguises, the directness, the relative spareness without sacrificing lyrical essence, the honesty, the owning-up. Harriet Smithson is back, and we also have a poem on Obama's first inauguration that still works and a poem ("Queer") that should go up on a wall in every counselor's office in every middle and high school in the United States right now.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Viet Thanh Nguyen, _The Refugees_

THE NARRATOR'S CIRCUMSTANCES in The Sympathizer are so peculiar that one hesitates to classify it as an immigrant novel. True, a lot of it is set in the United States, and there is a brilliant wedding banquet scene, but it seems more a novel about the war than one about learning to live in a new country.

This collection of short stories (mainly written before the novel, apparently), is about more typical examples of the people who came to the USA, by choice or by necessity, after the war. The trauma of getting here (especially in the first story, "Black-Eyed Women"), the conflict between needing to remember and needing to forget (especially in "War Years"), inter-generational struggles, the church, the ironies of making it, the difficult relationship to the homeland--all the classic themes come up.

Somewhat short of the intellectual punch of The Sympathiser, but more affecting and more tender, certainly. There are glimpses of forgiveness and renewal here, and there is little of either in The Sympathizer.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Viet Thanh Nguyen, _The Sympathizer_ (3): PMLA

THE NOVEL GOT a platform-full of prizes, including the Pulitzer, but what tipped me over into finally picking it up was the ten (10!) essays on it (and on Nguyen's other fiction and non-fiction) in the March 2018 issue of PMLA (Publications of the Modern Languages Association). I can't remember PMLA ever before giving this kind of endorsement to any contemporary literary work.

I cannot remember any novel getting so swift an elevation to the canon since Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987). Not even Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior (1976) was picked up this fast.

What's going on?

Let's begin by conceding that The Sympathizer and Beloved are excellent novels. But a great many excellent contemporary novels do not get fifty pages in PMLA, so we have reason to look at other factors.

Beloved was squarely in the center of a very hot intersection in academic literary studies (feminism, race, magic realism, re-casting the historical novel) and made a great classroom read (pace Stanley Crouch). It matched its moment, and there we were, instant classic. I taught it several times in the late 80s and early 90s, and it always profoundly affected the students.

It may have made a difference that Morrison was an academic insider and knew exactly where the maximum intellectual energy was circulating in the mid-eighties; given the strength of the book, we'd have to admit that she directed that energy as well as detecting it, had a lot to do with where that energy went.

Is this also true of The Sympathizer? Like Invisible Man, it's an extremely sophisticated take on identity; it is also sophisticated on boundaries, on cultural imperialism, on power, on degrees of complicity. Another hot intersection. That it is a powerful match for its moment is the theme that subtends the whole section in PMLA, though the authors there engage different aspects of the novel and the pieces are...well...not of equal interest.

It all depends, I'd say, on how many syllabuses The Sympathizer lands on. It's a bit longer then Beloved, but at the same time a bit easier to read. There are no leading female characters and relatively little about gender, which diminishes its chances, but there is quite a bit about rape (real and represented) as an instrument of terror and power, which would enhance its classroom impact. There is also, undeniably, a certain beach-read juiciness (guys getting whacked)--higher score on that front than Beloved has, actually--and that can't hurt.

At the same time, the moral ambivalence á la Conrad, Nabokov, and Ellison may be a problem. We like a Strong Clear Message these days.

It will be interesting to see what happens.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Viet Thanh Nguyen, _The Sympathizer_ (2)

ANOTHER LIKENESS TO Ellison's Invisible Man is the unmappability of the novel's take on the historical topic it addresses. On the question of the African-American in the U.S., the novel suggests, everyone--the Communist Party, the "race men," Tuskegee, obviously the whites--is wrong. (Petey Wheatstraw perhaps excepted.) So with the war in Viet Nam in The Sympathizer.

The French, whose main representative in the novel is the multiply-transgressing priest who is the narrator's father, were wrong.

The Americans, especially the intellectuals concocting the ideology behind the intervention, are wrong, as are their efforts to understand or represent the war, such as the film for which the narrator serves as a consultant, The Hamlet (which, by the way, does not seem all that much like Apocalypse Now, to me).  

The South Vietnamese, especially the corrupt general to whose staff the narrator is attached, seem obviously wrong, wrong in their loyalty to the French and then to the Americans, wrong in the corruption by which they enriched themselves, wrong in their brutality towards their own citizens, wrong in their clinging to fantasies of resuming power.

But the victorious Communist Vietnamese--it seems to me--also seem wrong. Do they have the right to subject the narrator to the interrogation and humiliation he undergoes in the novel's closing episodes? I don't know. Call me a liberal wuss unaware of how omelets are made by breaking eggs, but these pages were too reminiscent of Koestler-Solzhenitsyn-Kundera et al. for the new Viet Nam to seem like a victory for the people (cf. Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong and The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh).

The authorities that break down the narrator are the same authorities, after all, whom Nguyen's parents felt they had to get away from, and presumably he grew up in a community for whom the Communists were the despised enemy. In "War Years," one of the most intriguing stories in The Refugees, we meet Mrs. Hoa, who seems at first to be a bullying, opportunistic scam artist, but by story's end seems a genuine, though obsessed, patriotic loyalist, for whom the cause is still not yet lost. She's wrong, too, but more sympathetic than the interrogators who grill The Sympathizer's narrator.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Viet Thanh Nguyen, _The Sympathizer_ (1)

THIS BEING A novel about Viet Nam and spies, Graham Greene's The Quiet American and Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke are the inevitable comparisons, but I found myself thinking of Jennifer Egan's Look at Me, because that novel too managed to present itself convincingly  as literary fiction while delivering some of the juiciness of genre fiction. Look at Me juggled a variety of points of view   and raised sophisticated questions about identity, but it also had a terrorist, a glimpse of the high fashion world, and mystery and suspense elements. The Sympathizer incorporates a wealth of allusions to American lit (Asian-American in particular) and rigorous thinking about empire and representation, but it also has assassinations, ghosts, and Chandleresque metaphorical flights. Like Look at Me, it's an intellectual ride you can take to the beach.

A similar doubleness haunts the narrator. He is a trusted insider in the South Vietnamese government, but he is really working for the North. He is American-educated, mistakable for a native speaker of English over the phone, but thought of as an alien by the Americans he lives with (the novel begins with the fall of Saigon, and for most of it the narrator is living in Southern California). But the Vietnamese exiles do not see him as Vietnamese; his mother was Vietnamese, but his father was a French priest, and the exiled general whom he serves (and spies on) berates him for his interest in the general's daughter--he's a bastard and a métis, after all. Like Ellison's Invisible Man, to whom the novel's opening alludes, the narrator both is and is not what he seems to be.

A reader might also recall Humbert Humbert, for the (unnamed) narrator's text is a confession written in captivity--but perhaps he is really more like Rubashev in Arthur Koestler's Darkness at Noon, for he is writing his confession because ordered to by his fellow-revolutionaries, who have imprisoned him. He joined (still as a double agent) a commando group of South Vietnamese veterans who have landed in Laos to launch the counter-revolution, and when they are captured after a brief interlude of nearly comic ineptitude, the narrator, rather than being feted as an undercover hero, has to submit to the rigors of re-education--hence his confession. Like Rubashev, he has to understand, or pretend to understand, how he, a revolutionary, has failed the revolution.

Here too was a doubleness. Is Nguyen depicting another case of a revolution devouring its children? Is the interrogation and discipline the new Communist government subjects the narrator to totalitarian persecution or justice?