Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Andrew Sean Greer, _Less_

WITTY AND LIKEABLE, but perhaps lightweight for a Pulitzer winner...? Maybe not.

Arthur Less, our main character, is a novelist who is about to turn fifty, whose publishers are taking a pass on his most recent novel, and whose lover is about to marry someone else. Teetering on the brink of a midlife crisis, he decides it is time to go around the world in eighty or so days. He cobbles together an itinerary with a variety of conferences, short-term teaching gigs, residencies, and other such writerly pursuits, and off he goes.

We are in the same territory as Rachel Cusk's Transit trilogy, but everything is in a more farcical vein. Less is a bit like Paul Pennyfeather in Waugh's Decline and Fall, someone to whom things happen rather than someone who makes things happen, and most of the novel is him riding the buffets of circumstance. Were this a Martin Amis novel (cf. The Information), Less would be satirically flayed down to his bones, but Greer is a bit more Armistead Maupin than Amis, so there is room to hope that things will work out well for Arthur Less.

And they do. I was expecting them to, but there was nonetheless a streak of ingenuity on Greer's part. The identity of the novel's first-person narrator is revealed in the final chapter, which is part of Less's happy ending, but the more interesting bit (I thought) was that narrator's unexpectedly musing on time, memory, and change, which, in conjunction with a plausible sounding anecdote about Less reading Proust, opened the novel out in a particularly thought-provoking way. A lively romp, then, but not just a lively romp.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Sy Montgomery, _The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness_

I READ THIS because (a) several friends liked it and (b) it was tipped in the acknowledgements of Brenda Shaughnessy's recent book. It's a swift and enlightening read, but I would dissent from the reviewer (quoted on the back of the paperback) who likened it to Helen Macdonald's H Is for Hawk. Macdonald's book often speaks to loss, frustration, need, fear, but Montgomery seems content to stay in better-lit, more familiar emotional territory.

Lots of amazing information about octopuses (octopodes?) here--their intelligence, their astonishing facility at expanding and contracting, their ability to change color and create camouflage. I had not known much of this, and Montgomery lays it out deftly.

The book often gets just chatty, though, in a way I did not enjoy. Montgomery spends quite a bit of space on her interactions with the staff and volunteers at the Boston Aquarium, where most of the book is set, but we do not ever find out very much about any one of them, so I found myself wishing I either hearing more about them or a lot less.

Similarly, Montgomery tells us a lot about some difficulties she had learning to scuba dive. Something could have been done with this, á la Macdonald, but then she gets the hang of things and dives...and I'm left to wonder, what was all that bother for? Did it need three pages?

I could have used a lot more like this:

But the ocean forces you to move more slowly, more purposefully, and yet more pliantly. By entering it, you are bathed in a grace and power you don't experience in air. To dive beneath the surface feels like entering the Earth's vast, dreaming subconscious. Submitting to its depths, its currents, its pressure, is both humbling and freeing.

A brilliant passage, no? Wouldn't you like to hear more about that? No such luck. Next sentence: "A half hour later, when my friends emerge, my ears are no better." Really, that's what you want to tell us about? Your ears?

Pankaj Mishra, _Age of Anger: A History of the Present_

MISHRA'S THESIS, BRIEFLY, is that militant Asian nationalism does not have much to do with Asian culture, nor Islamic terrorism much to do with Islam. Both are echoes of western movements that flared up most brilliantly and dangerously in the 19th century. Nothing new here, folks.

Isaiah Berlin and René Girard are mentioned by name only twice apiece, but their ideas seem to lie near the core of Mishra's argument. Berlin analyzed the birth of nationalism as a reaction to the (French and British) Enlightenment's founding assumption--that human nature was everywhere and in every age largely the same--and that assumption's corollary--that eventually everyone in the world would gravitate to a common set of social principles (in effect, become French or British). The post-Napoleonic pushback against this, first in Germany, then in Italy, Russia, Poland, Ireland, and the Balkans, revolutionized European culture and politics, and eventually redrew the map.

Nationalism, then, is not some atavistic, nativist acting out on the part of Arabs, Hindus, and the Cbinese, but essentially mimetic (here Girard comes in), the performing of a pattern of desire and behavior learned from the west. For instance, Mishra tracks down some byways of influence leading from Giuseppe Mazzini, key thinker of Italian nationalism, to influential figures in Zionist and Hindu nationalist circles.

Mishra similarly finds analogues for the young men of ISIS and al-Qaeda in the desperate, intense types we meet in the pages of Dostoevsky and Conrad, fictional analogues of the children of Bakunin who created a wave of head-of-state assassinations in the late 19th and earlier 20th centuries (including our own McKinley).

A worthwhile book--Mishra is one of my favorite contemporary journalists. I kept thinking, tough, that the thesis might have been a better fit for an in-depth article in NYRB or Harper's rather than a book. Chapter 5 on the genesis of nationalism, for instance, 115 pages long (about a third of the book), goes into, much, much more detail than Mishra's argument requires.

I often had the feeling that Mishra would actually rather be writing about 19th century Europe than about Narendra Modi. But could one at this date convince Farrar Straus Giroux to publish a book on 19th century European intellectual history, by an Indian writer at that, even one as gracefully written as this one? Probably not. So Modi it is--even if Rousseau, Herzen, and Nietzsche end up getting a lot more attention.


Thursday, July 18, 2019

Thomas Campbell, _Gertrude of Wyoming: or, The Pennsylvania Cottage_

HAZLITT DEVOTED HALF of a chapter in The Spirit of the Age to the poet Thomas Campbell, whom I had never even heard of, much less read, and praised him so highly ("beauty linked to beauty, like kindred flame to flame [...], the voluptuous fancy that raises and adorns the fairy fabric of thought") that I decided I had to investigate.

Campbell is mainly famous for two long poems, The Pleasures of Hope (mainly abstract-philosophical) and Gertrude of Wyoming (narrative). Hazlitt seemed more taken with the latter ("The Pleasures oF Hope alone would not have called forth these remarks from us; but there are passages in the Gertrude of Wyoming of so rare and ripe a beauty, that they challenge, as they exceed all praise'), so that's the one I chose to read. Besides, how can you say no to a poem titled "Gertrude of Wyoming"?

Published in 1809 (Campbell was 32), Gertrude is a narrative poem in three parts, with a total of 92 Spenserian stanzas. It is set in the American colonies--not in the Rockies, though, but in the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania.  In Part I, Gertrude's widowed father adopts a boy who was orphaned by the French and Indian wars; Gertrude is nine at the time. The boy grows up and leave, but returns about fifteen years later, in Part II, and marries Gertrude. Part Iii is set a little later yet, at the time of the Revolution, and...well, it gets tragic here. You can get an idea from the Wikipedia page on the Battle of Wyoming (also known as the "Wyoming Massacre.")

Campbell had never been to North America so far as I can tell, but his father has business dealings in Virginia (which collapsed, with great financial loss, at the time of the Revolution) and two of his brothers emigrated here. It is obvious from Campbell's notes to the poem that he had read everything he could find on the native peoples of the region. The poem walks that James Fenimore Cooper line--the native peoples the English settlers encounter are at times nature's nobility, profound and eloquent, at other times brutal and bloody. This is all seventeen years before JFC published Last of the Mohicans, though--seems like it could well have been an influence.

I did not end up sharing Hazlitt's enthusiasm for. the poem, but I enjoyed reading something he enjoyed so much. And the next time I teach Faerie Queene, I can announce, "This stanza was later used for many other narrative poems--Gertrude of Wyoming, for instance."

The other half of the chapter in which Hazlitt takes up Campbell is given to George Crabbe--not famous, but a lot more famous than Campbell--and I was struck that the lengthy passage Hazlitt quotes to illustrate Crabbe's strengths is about Peter Grimes, the fisherman whose life as recounted by Crabbe became the basis for Benjamin Britten's opera.

William Hazlitt, _The Spirit of the Age_

I SPOTTED THIS on a fellow grad student's shelves in the early 1980s--it was one of those lovely, compact Oxford World Classics, bound in dark blue--and thought, "I ought to read that." This faint resolution somehow persisted over the decades, even though I never had any particular need or occasion to honor it, and even though I actually started it at the beginnings of four or five different summers, always sputtering out a fw chapters in.

Well, this was the summer I finally read it. I hit on the tactic of reading a chapter a night, usually with a baseball game burbling quietly on the television, and it worked--I have now read The Spirit of the Age. And it is good,

Written mostly in 1824, the book collects eharacter sketches of twenty-four illustrious figures of the day, mostly men of letters--poets, philosophers, one novelist (Scott)--but also a few politicians, a couple of editors, and one fashionable divine whom Hazlitt unforgettably dismantles. No actors--surprising in the light of Hazlitt's admiration for Edmund Kean.

Hazlitt knew a few of these men well and seems to have been at last acquainted with most of them, but there is very little personal reminiscence in the essays; Hazlitt focuses on their work, their reputation, to an extent their temperament, and their contribution to the climate of the time. Even without Hazlitt dwelling on his own interactions with these people, though, the book seems steeped in his personality: his politics (reformist, anti-aristocratic), his taste (Romantic), his sensibility (a lover of language, with tendencies to hyperbole).

One would not expect Hazlitt to include many women. but it is surprising that there are not any at all. William Godwin, but no Mary Wollstonecraft? Walter Scott, but no Maria Edgeworth?

I kept thinking what a delight it would be to have a similar contemporary book from someone like the late Christopher Hitchens--I don't know who but Hitchens or the late Gore Vidal would be equal to writing a book of the same range, including (let's say) Nancy Pelosi, Jorie Graham, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Richard Dawkins, Franklin Graham, and Toni Morrison. But what a treat that would have been.




Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Agamben, _The Kingdom and the Glory_ (3)

AGAMBEN TACKS ON a brace of appendices. One aims to identify when Western political theory made its regrettable alliance with theology, "an error with some of the most far-reaching consequences in the history of Western political thought." Agamben pins this on Rousseau, more precisely The Social Contract, with its idea of the general will.

The other asks when "economy" began to take on more of its contemporary meaning, pulling away from the theological one. Agamben points to the Physiocrats and the Encyclopédie, but thinks the theological shadow stayed over the term for a while even so.

Here I am slack-jawed. Figuring out either point would have been a career intellectual pinnacle for most of us. For Agamben, these are appendices. "By the way...".

I am most amazed, though, by how Agamben brings poetry into the story. Glory, you will recall, co-habits with "inoperativity" ("rest" in the KJV), a realm beyond necessity. Now consider this, an addendum to 8.26:

    A model of this operation that consists in making all human and divine works inoperative is the poem. Because poetry is precisely that linguistic operation that renders language inoperative--or, in Spinoza's terms, the point at which language, which has deactivated its communicative and informative function, rests within itself, contemplates its power of saying and in this way opens itself to a new possible use. [...]

   What the poem accomplishes for the power of saying, politics and philosophy must accomplish for the power of acting. By rendering economic and biological operations inoperative, they demonstrate what the human body can do; they open it to a new, possible use.

Ready when you are, politics and philosophy.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Agamben, _The Kingdom and the Glory_ (2)

SO, IF WE designate as Kingdom the sovereign, transcendent authority, and designate as Power the executants (angels, stewards, ministers) of the will of that authority, what of Glory? Agamben's preface indicates the "relation between oikonomia and Glory" as the book's topic--the relation, that is,  "between power as government and effective management, and power as ceremonial and liturgical reality [...]".

It isn't surprising, then, that the rituals-and-regalia side of fascism eventually enters the picture.

As usual, though, Agamben does not spend much time on such relatively obvious points. Glory gets its most thorough treatment in the last and longest chapter, "The Archaeology of Glory." A swift tour of the Hebrew (kabhod) and Greek (doxa) terms that get translated as "glory" suggests that there is a "constitutive nexus" between oikonomia and Glory, particularly evident in the Gospel of John and II Corinthians. The hymns proclaiming God's glory involve "the hidden root of all aestheticisms, the need to cover and dignify what is in itself pure force and domination." Does the presumed imperative to praise God come down to "something that theology absolutely does not want to see, a nudity that must be covered by a garment of light at any cost"?

Yep. But that's not all there is to it. Perhaps not even the most important thing. We have to deal with anapausis, "inoperativity," or, as the King James Version has it, "rest." Heaven, we might say.

Glory is all about inoperativity. Which is not exactly rest, though, but an alluring possible impossibility.

That means that the center of the governmental apparatus, the threshold at which Kingdom and Government ceaselessly communicate and ceaselessly distinguish themselves from one another is, in reality, empty; it is only the Sabbath and katapausis--and, nevertheless, this inoperativity is so essential for the machine that it must at all costs be adopted and maintained at its center in the form of glory.

For humankind has no work to do and longs not to do it. "Inoperativity" is the imaginary beyond that knows no desire, no necessity, no imperatives...no bullet items, no spreadsheets, no blank forms to fill out...it is even the messiah's promise, the turning of life into the Sabbath, the Kingdom finally come. "Here," Agamben writes, "the bios coincides with the zoe without remainder."

We'll have to pick this up later.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Giorgio Agamben, _The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government_ (trans. Lorenzo Chiesa with Matteo Mandarini)

I WAS MOST of the way through this and enjoying it tremendously but regretting that it did not really intersect with my own official research interests--then in the penultimate chapter a slight pivot takes us right into the heart of interwar authoritarian political theory. Home sweet home.

Why is Agamben so alluring? It has something to do with one's never knowing what he is going to bring to the party next--the references here to Kafka's fiction and to Kojève's commentary on Hegel both took me by surprise and seemed perfect. And I did not even know that Hugo Ball (!) had written a book on Byzantine Christianity.

But the key, I think, is the way Agamben combines conceptual audacity, an ability to come up with ideas that seem unlikely ever to have occurred to anyone else, with old-school mastery of the archive and philological scrutiny--if Eliot's Casaubon actually were what Dorothea Brooke initially thought he was, he would be Agamben.

Agamben is here working with the idea that modern political thought descended less from ancient and medieval political thought than from early and medieval Christian theology. Not an utterly new idea, but I associate it with writers who are conservative, not to say reactionary--Carl Schmitt, Erik Peterson. (Agamben often mentions these two and Ernst Kantorowicz, familiar to me only because his King's Two Bodies is cited in almost very commentary on Act IV, scene ii of Hamlet.) Agamben seems to be working a different side of the street than Schmitt and Peterson, though.

One of the book's principal tasks of the book is the unpacking of oikonomos, the Greek word from which we get the English word "economy," which originally meant something like "household management" or "administration." It occurs in the New Testament a few times, where it was translated into Latin as dispositio. The King James version went went with "steward," as in 1st Corinthians 4:1, "Let a man so account of us, as of ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God."

So--what does it mean to be a steward of the mysteries of God?

Agamben leads us through the thorny thickets of Trinitarian doctrine, especially the efforts to undermine the Gnostics' claims that the real God would not have dabbled in anything so nasty as gross matter. The question of how the stainless radiance of Heaven is somehow intimately involved with the mess of incarnation leads us into the even thornier thicket of theodicy (e.g., Boethius), but also raises a fundamental question of power, the relationship of authority to execution, the execution necessarily being handled by a network of people in-the-name-of-the-authority rather than immediately by the authority proper. So the distinction between being and praxis, between Kingdom and Government, between authority and the exercise of that authority, even between the Crown and whatever all-too-fallible little scamp who happens to be wearing it at the moment.

I can tell I will need multiple entries for this book.

By the way, Stanford University Press, no index?!? WTF?

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sally Rooney, _Conversations with Friends_

I WAS IMPRESSED by a chapter of Rooney's Normal People that appeared in Granta, so I bought this--Normal People was not yet out then (it is now)--but it took me a while to get to it because the cover...is a little...Chick Lit, I guess: pastel colors, trendy font, a kind of imitation-Alex-Katz illustration. Turns out, though, the cover is a (detail of) a real Alex Katz, and the novel is a real novel, not just vacation reading.

Our setup: narrator Frances and her ex-lover-but-still-friend Bobbi are Trinity College students who perform slam poetry (written mostly by Frances) around Dublin. They get the attention of early-30s journalist Melissa, who is married to Nick, an actor whose career is sputtering a bit after a quick start. Melissa and Bobbi seem to be getting flirty, edging towards a liaison, but surprise! It is brilliant but uncharismatic Frances and handsome but insecure Nick who launch themselves into an affair.

The plot is mainly the discovery of Nick's and Frances's affair by Bobbi, then by Melissa, and the course of true love ne'er running smooth.... Plenty to keep you turning pages if you are reading this on a vacation.

What intrigued me more, though, was Rooney's decision to narrate the whole novel in Frances's first-person voice, because Frances is (a) not very perceptive about her own feelings and (b) not very forthcoming about them. For example, from p. 207:

   I opened my eyes then. He [Nick] was frowning.
   Wait, are you okay? he said. Why are you crying?
   I'm not crying.
   Incidentally it turned out that I was crying. It was just something my eyes were doing while we were talking, He touched the side of my face where it was wet.
   I'm not crying, I said.

Rooney does a telling job here of conveying how people (even [especially?] brilliant people) can be utterly without a clue as to their own feelings, removed from their own emotional lives and the messiness of their own bodies--that "incidentally" is a perfect touch.

Beyond that, though, Frances seems to fly in the face of female bildungsroman tradition, in that from Jane Eyre on, its heroines have been nuanced observers of their own feelings and generous in sharing them with the reader. Relying on a narrator so unwilling to narrate anything revealing is a really risky choice on Rooney's part, but it pays off--as we readers gradually become invested in Frances, despite her own best efforts (as it were) to keep us at arm's length, we are all the more powerfully invested because she has done so little to encourage us.

In  the early going, it seems all too clear why Melissa is fascinated by Bobbi, but scarcely bothers with Frances. But Nick is our precursor. As we get some genealogy of Frances's personality (a father suffering from alcoholism and depression), witness a health crisis (a pregnancy scare that turns out to actually be early endometriosis), and listen in on some cards-on-the-table confrontations (especially one with Bobbi over Frances's tendency to withhold), we begin to really, truly hope Frances will prevail, and--thanks to Rooney's pulling a relatively plausible happy ending out of her hat--perhaps she does.


Monday, July 8, 2019

Tyehimba Jess, _Olio_

A LITERARY CONSTELLATION is forming around the founding period of professional African-American entertainers--one of the stories in John Keen's Counternarratives is about Bob Cole (creator of A Trip to Coontown), and then there is Amaud Jamaul Johnson's Darktown Follies, and then there is this--a big book both in its dimensions (235 8" x 10" pages, some of which fold out to be even larger) and in its ambitions.

Jess creates the voices of a panorama of professional African-American performers in the generation or two after emancipation. We hear from the sacred side (the Fisk Jubilee Singers) as well as the secular, from the relatively forgotten (conjoined twins Millie and Christine McKoy) as well as the famous (Bert Williams), from high culture (Sissieretta Jones) to broadest of the broad (Ernest Hogan). Running throughout, like a spine, are interviews conducted by one Julius Trotter with people who knew the impossible-to-categorize Scott Joplin.

(Trotter is an actual historical figure and really did conduct such interviews, but I would guess the interviews included here are largely the work of Jess, perhaps based on the actual ones.)

Keen, Johnson, and Jess may all have been drawn to the topic because performance plays so looming a role in all African-American lives, in minute-by-minute, second-by-second choices of what kind of blackness to enact in emerging circumstances. I mean--we all have to perform, really, every day, but as an older middle class white man, while I do have to "perform" when pulled over by a traffic cop, my life will likely not be at stake in how convincing my performance is.

Jess also stages the dialectics within African-American performance. If the paying audience is going to be largely white, as it seems to be for most of these artists, do you give the people what they want, exploiting their prejudices, and thereby perhaps making a lot of money, or challenge those preconceptions, possibly changing minds but probably also making less money?

What I will remember longest about the book, I expect, is Jess's formal ingenuity in staging those dialectics. The book is full of criss-crossing sonnets that read one way if you go down the left margin, another way if you go down the right margin, and yet another way if you read all the way across left-to-right and then down, in classic fashion. The sonnets about the McKoy sisters up the ante--I'm not sure I can even count the possible ways they could be read. And then there are the pages one could (though I did not) detach at a perforation and re-configure os Möbius strips....

Monday, July 1, 2019

Mohsin Hamid, _The Reluctant Fundamentalist_

CHANGEZ, THE NARRATOR of Hamid's second novel (2007) has a bit of the Ancient Mariner in him, in that he plops himself down in from of a stranger in a Lahore restaurant and, without invitation, tells the story of his life. What is going on? Does Changez just have a need to narrate at unpredictable moments, as the Mariner does? Does the stranger (male, American, prosperous) for some reason need to hear Changez's story, as perhaps the Wedding Guest does? Although the American stranger never speaks in the novel, he occasionally seems as perturbed as the Wedding Guest ("I fear thee, ancient mariner!").

Changez, we learn, is a Pakistani who won a scholarship to Princeton. After a brilliant undergraduate career, he snagged one of the very few entry jobs in a powerful Wall Street firm, and he appears to be on the fast track to success there as well. He has a girlfriend, the brilliant beautiful (and American) Erica.

But shadows loom. Erica is still mourning the untimely death of her first boyfriend, who succumbed to cancer at a young age. Her mental health deteriorates, and she breaks off the relationship. When the planes hit the towers, Changez starts getting dirty looks on the street; he responds, to the bafflement of his colleagues, by growing a beard.

His work takes Changez to Chile, to evaluate the economic viability of a publishing house. One of the old hands there, Juan-Bautista, reveals to Changez (in a kind of John the Baptist, revealing of a vocation way) what he has become: a janissary. That is--like one of the European Christian boys recruited and raised by the Ottoman empire to serve in their powerful army, Changez is a Asian Muslim who has been recruited to do the West's (or Wall Street's) dirty work. He is well-paid, provided with comforts aplenty, but he has been turned into a weapon against his own people.

Changez quits his job and returns to Pakistan, where he...well, we don't know exactly. Does he become a jihadi? Is the American to whom he is speaking a CIA agent who has been sent to capture or kill him? Does Changez know the American is a CIA agent and is the long conversation setting up the capturing or killing of the agent?

I can't spoil things by revealing the answers to those questions because (spoiler alert, in a way) the novel never answers them; just when we think all will be revealed, bang, novel ends.

Liked the technique (not since the Marlowe of Lord Jim, I think, has a speaker held the floor for so long in what purports to be a single storytelling session), intrigued by the complex tangle of loyalties. Would have liked to have learned what Changez's actual relationship to the stranger is, but one can't have everything. Maybe I missed a clue and it's all my own fault.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Richard Greenfield, _Subterranean_

I REGISTER CONTINUITY in this one, continuity of a kind--Tracer (for me) was a consciousness engaging with a landscape at a specific historical moment, and I would characterize Subterranean the same way. But it's a different landscape, a different historical moment, and even in some ways not exactly the same consciousness, continuities notwithstanding.

The landscape feels drier, emptier, more widescreen, with different flora than in Tracer. Arroyos, deserts, coyotes, cactus...less wooded, but trees are still important. More important than ever, in fact.

While Tracer was steeped in the dread of Dubya's second term, Subterranean belongs to a more recent moment. Not necessarily our present Trumpian moment--I imagine most of the poems were at least begun a while back. Instead, we have reminders of how a lot of what we loathe about the Trump era was already going on under Obama (don't get me wrong, I miss him too): tightened immigration ("The Fence"), heightened surveillance ("This Underglass Structure"), the envenomed, suffocating embrace of capital ("Occupy the Specter").

And the consciousness? Well, it's recognizably the same at several points. The sections that share the title "[Transcription]," scattered through the book, are rawer, less processed than the titled poems and often recall A Carnage in the Lovetrees, especially in their sometimes anguished invocations of the "deadfather." Recognizable, too, is the poet's skepticism about poetry:

          I should be 
primed I should mark
a melody here
                   yet I deny
 pleasure is here 
                    I'm in 
the mood for stark notation
   ("They Will Bluff Us to Influence Us")

Recognizable, too, is that the consciousness encountering a landscape in history knows it is a consciousness encountering a landscape in history:

   This is a strict inventory of the moment of place in this 
moment so as to return later, in mind, to this edge effect--this 
   overlap of the human apprehended as itself and the others it 
apprehended as their selves--incursions in which we will not reach 
   any forms of uncorrupted, deified natures, self-exiled in the 
grandness of ego. The entirety of the anthropocene--the blip of it--
the mean cottonwood copse of us for now. 
("Sun Ray")

But then there are the trees. Something feels different here. They appear frequently, but I would specifically cite those in "Pando," "The Fence," and "Subterranean." That the last provides the book with its title seems worth noticing. With trees, the poems emphasize, there is much more going on underground than you would ever suspect--were you truly to grasp what is going on underground, indeed, it would utterly overthrow most of what you think is going on aboveground. That is true of trees, of landscapes, of moments in history, of consciousness.

In a book full of killer final lines--"I owned that pish bucket, and the draught from it was drinkable"; "I had no tactic"; "I stood in line for a vaccine"--I would give the palm to the close of the final poem, the second of two titled "Edge Effect":

 no new ground was possible until now



Monday, June 24, 2019

Mohsin Hamid, _Exit West_

COINCIDENTALLY, THIS NOVEL has something in common with Anna Burns's Milkman, which  I just wrote about--both are set in cities where there is increasingly violent conflict, but neither names the city nor identifies a date.  Burns's novel seems fairly clearly to be set in Belfast in the late 1970s, but Hamid's is harder to pin down--Damascus, Aleppo, Homs? Beirut? The year: probably a quite recent one.

Nadia and Saeed meet in the increasingly dangerous city, fall in love, and start living together with Saeed's religious-but-not-that-strict parents (Nadia is estranged from her much stricter family--she wears traditional Muslim female clothes but also rides a motorbike). They decide they must leave the city. And here things get a little fantastical.

The world of the novel is full of "black doors" through which one can step instantaneously from one place to a very distant and very different place. The black doors are portkeys, we might say; moving up the literary ladder, they are like the wormholes in Richard Powers's Plowing the Dark; drawing on Hamid's earlier fiction, they are like the hypothetical technology of the hypothetical company Changez evaluates for his job interview in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Or they are just shorthand for airports--nearly identical the world over, yet each located in its own very particular and unique city.

Exit West is about migration. By means of the black doors, Nadia and Saeed get to Mykonos, then London, then Marin County, experiencing responses that range from hostility to indifference to acceptance to love. Their relationship changes; they change as individuals. They both convince, and their story does not go precisely where one might be expecting it to go.

Nestled among the episodes of their story are vignettes of other characters (to switch it up, these characters are unnamed, but their cities are identified), all tending to show what a powerful turn on the handle of chance migration is--no one, migrant or native, knows how the elements will recombine, and no one is going to be unchanged.

A bit like Colson Whitehead in The Underground Railroad, Hamid sprinkles quite a handful of fantasy into a topic that seems to call for the soberest, most straightfaced sort of naturalism, and not only gets away with it, but actually gives the narrative a different sort of moral power.


Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Thomas Frank, _Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society_

FRANK IS ONE of my go-to writers on American politics. I've read all but two of his books, I think. I like his midwestern perspective--I don't think he lives here these days, but he grew up in the Kansas City area and launched his journalism career in Madison as founder of The Baffler. I like his historical depth. I admire his prose. And, yes, it matters to me that he's leftist, and a bit old school, but I especially like that he always has something to say that no one else is saying.

This is not a "book" book, but a collection-of-pieces book, the pieces being collected mainly from Harper's and The Guardian. But I'm pleased to see he still gives his best stuff to The Baffler, where "Academy Fight Song" and "Dead End on Shakin' Street" first appeared. The former is a takedown on the cant surrounding higher ed in the USA, the latter a takedown on the cant about creating "vibrant" urban centers.

(How great is it that Frank got the first title from Mission of Burma and the second title from the MC5? This is another reason I love his stuff.)

Among other sacred cows punched are bipartisanship, presidential libraries, and Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, but the core of the book is about blocking the re-election of Trump, and Frank's urges essentially what he urged in Listen, Liberal!: stop thinking minorities + women + educated professional males will add up to the White House. Try to be honest, direct, and non-condescending to the people in the middle of the country. Don't kiss up to Wall Street. Don't apologize for talking about how government can make life livable for many. (See LLL for Nov. 23, 2016.)

Anna Burns, _Milkman_

THIS MAY SOUND odd, but Milkman put me in mind of Thomas Bernhard--or, maybe closer to home for the Irish Burns, the Beckett of Molloy--in that the narrative voice does the same dance of revealing and concealing, garrulousness and reticence. The voice has its particular tics, obsessively circles facts and feelings it does not quite wish to name, wants mainly to stay out of trouble but sometimes finds itself rising on wings of indignation or of anger or of love.

The voice here is younger than that of Bernhard's or Beckett's speakers, funnier, easier to like, and female, but as with those writers, it's the voice that hooks you, even before you have grasped the situation.

The situation is interesting, though. We are in Belfast in the late 1970s, and the narrator, a young woman of maybe eighteen, Catholic and living at home, becomes the object of the attentions of a powerful IRA figure, older and married. Most of the novel is about his stalking her and the ripples his attention sends through the narrator's family, friends, and neighborhood.

However--and here is a brilliant bit--the words "Belfast," "IRA," and "Catholic" never appear. For that matter, proper nouns as a class are resolutely banned, even names. The narrator is simply "middle sister" (of a family that includes the "wee sisters," "second brother," "first brother-in-law," and so on). The young man she is in an intermittently serious relationship with is simply "maybe-boyfriend." People in the neighborhood are "tablets girl" or "real milkman," the last-named so designated because he is actually a milkman, unlike "Milkman," the IRA chieftain stalking our narrator, so designated because of his white van. The closest we get to an actual name is minor character "Somebody McSomebody."

These identifying tags (as a reader, one adjusts to them quickly) emphasize that we are in a world where certain facts and identities have to be known and taken into account--failing to do so could literally be fatal--and yet cannot be named or discussed. Even when the book is funny, as it is often is, this minefield of taboos and unspeakable realities conjures up omnipresent dread (another link to Bernhard and Beckett).

The narrative voice's avoidance of proper nouns (the IRA are "the renouncers," England is the nation "over the water") also evokes the narrator's wish to be apart, elsewhere, even while she has to be where she is, a wish reflected behaviorally by her habit of reading 19th century novels while walking about the streets--a way of disappearing that only makes her more noticeable, unfortunately, and noticed she is, by the mysterious but powerful man in the white van.

Milkman is a tour de force of technique, but also makes the useful point that when societies are in violent conflict with themselves, that does not simply create some kind of backdrop against which ordinary life occurs--no, it bleeds (again, sometimes literally) into ordinary life, altering every family relationship, every friendship, making even such apparently universal and timeless commonplaces as that sunsets are beautiful, or that one ought to marry the person one loves, into war zones.


Monday, June 17, 2019

John Keene, _Counternarratives: Stories and Novellas_

INTERESTING COINCIDENCE THAT in 2015-16 we got a cluster of ambitious, innovative fictions by African-American writers involving the history and nature of slavery and its long-term consequences: Paul Beatty's The Sellout, Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, and this. Keene did not get a prestigious prize (or, I imagine, the sales that attend such prizes), but Counternarratives is every bit as good as the other two.

Counternarratives is a short story collection (a couple of the stories are lengthy, as the subtitle indicates), and is the best example I have come across lately that Guy Davenport did not write in vain. (If you do not know Davenport's work, you should look at Brian Blanchfield's excellent appreciation in the Oxford Americanhttps://www.oxfordamerican.org/item/1144-coming-up-with-guy-davenport.)

Keene's fictions, like Davenport's, plumb history deeply, fetching up not just famous names and celebrated conflicts but something off the past's texture, its sense of the world, its unexplored corners. The stories range in time back to the 17th century, comprehend Brazil and the Caribbean as well as North America, and imagine figures who are teal but not frequently remembered: Bob Cole, composer of A Trip to Coontown (the first musical created and owned entirely by African-American artists); Anna Olga Albertine Brown, the circus performer painted by Edgar Degas in Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. The narrator of "Rivers" is fictional rather than real, and he is certainly famous, but has anyone before Keene given Jim of Huckleberry Finn his own voice?

Keene, like Davenport, has a poet's resources when writing prose. Beatty and Whitehead are no slouches, certainly, but this is how "Rivers" ends, when Jim, now enlisted in the Union Army, again sees Huck, now a Confederate infantryman:

...and I steadied the barrel, my finger on the trigger, which is when our gazes finally met, I am going to tell the reporter, and then we can discuss the whole story of that trip down the river with that boy, his gun aimed at me now, other faces behind his now, all of them assuming the contours, the lean, determined hardness of his face, there were a hundred of that face, those faces, burnt, determined, hard and thinking only of their own disappearing universe, not ours, which was when the cry broke across the rippling grass, and the gun, the guns, went off.

The most staggering of the stories is the last, "Lions," set in post-colonial Africa, a dialogue between a powerful man and his prisoner. With no exposition save what one can glean from the dialogue, we learn they served together under the same leader in the national liberation struggle, then together overthrew that leader in a coup when he turned dictatorial. Then, in what may have been a kind of Stalin-v.-Trotsky struggle, the one referred to as Lion overthrew the one called Prophet; Lion, now in sole command, is paying a last visit to the imprisoned visit Prophet before Prophet's execution.

There is a Girardian momentum in the story--once the closest of comrades (many of the stories have a cross-current of same-sex sexuality) because they wanted the same things--liberation, justice--they became rivals likewise in wanting the same thing--power.

And then there's the story  in which George Santayana manages not to "see" W. E. B. DuBois as their paths intersect while crossing Harvard Yard.

Counternarratives is still in print. If you have any appetite for literary fiction, snap it up while you can.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

David Jaher, _The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World_

I HAD NEVER heard of this particular episode in popular cultural history, but apparently it was closely followed and passionately debated back in the 1920s.

Spiritualism (that is, the practice in which people gathered in small groups to (apparently) communicate with the dead through people called "mediums"), which had waxed and waned throughout the second half of the 19th century, enjoyed a boom in the 1920s thanks to the many people hoping to contact the hundreds of thousands of young men who had died in World War I. Arthur Conan Doyle, whom as the creator of Sherlock Holmes one would expect to be somewhat hard-headed about such claims, was actually spiritualism's most enthusiastic booster after he communicated (he thought) via a medium with his dead son; he spoke to huge crowds on both sides of the Atlantic about this new science.

So, Scientific American, then as now the nation's most respected general-interest magazine about the sciences, offered a $5000 dollar prize to anyone who could produce evidence of contact with the dead that convinced their panel of five experts. On the panel was Harry Houdini--who, it turns out, was not only the greatest magician of his time but also an established debunker of spiritualism's supposed proofs of contact with the dead. As a master magician, Houdini had an encyclopedic knowledge of how apparently impossible effects could be faked.

The first few applicants were quickly disposed of. Enter the "Witch of Lime Street," Margery Stinson Crandon. Margery not only produced genuinely amazing feats as the supposed medium for her dead brother Walter, but was not a huckster (she charged no fees), enjoyed social prominence (her husband was a wealthy Boston surgeon), and was young and attractive to boot, with a sexual charisma of no mean order.

Jaher's book tracks in extraordinary detail Margery's multiple encounters with the Scientific American panel and with Houdini in particular. He draws not only journalistic accounts, which seem to have been plentiful with the whole country following the contest, but also on Houdini's own papers and those of many of the first-hand participants. Houdini ends up as the hero, and deservedly so--Margery does not get the $5000--but Margery nonetheless makes for an unforgettable character, Jaher evoking her with a skill that would do credit to a novelist.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

William Shakespeare, _Two Gentlemen of Verona_

EVERY SUMMER I make vague plans to read the Shakespearean or partly-Shakespearean plays I have never read--King John, King Henry VIII, Two Noble Kinsmen, and this one--and every summer I fail to do so. This year, though, our local Shakespeare company is doing Two Gentlemen, so I have knocked that one, at least, off the list.

It did not seem all that remarkable upon reading it--it dates from early in his career and seems like apprentice work in spots. It does have a famous song--"Who is Silvia, what is she / that all our swains commend her?"--and some devices that he drew heavily on later (a young woman cross-dressing in order to accomplish her ends). The production was brisk and fun, though, a good night out.

Key to the plot is a love rivalry between two young men, Valentine and Proteus, best friends since childhood and both in love with Silvia, a circumstance made more painful by Proteus' having thrown over his former beloved, Julia (the cross-dressing one), once he saw Silvia.

Two men pursuing the same woman is so familiar a plot engine that it surprised me to realize that Shakespeare did not use it much after Two Gentlemen. Demetrius and Lysander are (for a while) both in love with Hermia, and Troilus and Diomedes are both hot for Cressida, but other examples do not occur to me. Shakespeare actually does a lot more with male characters who think that another man is pursuing their erotic object (Othello, Leontes in Winter's Tale, Claudio in Much Ado), but turn out to be woefully mistaken. (There's a lot of love rivalry in the sonnets, but that's another matter.)

René Girard has a great chapter on this play in A Theater of Envy (which I am in the middle of), touching on this very situation.

If you know anything about Girard, you likely know about his theory of mimetic desire--that the main way we discern what we desire is not by consulting our own intuitions, but by seeing what is desired by other people, especially those we respect or admire. We want to want what they want.

Mimetic desire readily serves as basis for friendship. Two people who both like to bowl, say, or to fix cars, or have the same favorite team or favorite band, have a sturdy, enduring platform for enacting their friendship. Indeed, if I am your friend, I may begin to like Scooby Doo, or Kurt Vonnegut, or the Pixies just because you do, and you may by the same token start wearing Vans because I do.

There is an important no-go zone, however. If I follow your example in liking your girlfriend or wife, we are on course for tragedy.

As Girard puts it:

We can always trace all symptoms back to the traumatic experience of the mimetic double bind, the simultaneous discovery by Valentine and Proteus that, in addition two the usual imperative of friendship--imitate me--another imperative has mysteriously appeared: do not imitate me. All "pathological symptoms" are reactions to the friends' inability to free themselves from the double bind or even to perceive it clearly.

Interesting, no? Furthermore, Girard sees Two Gentlemen as inaugurating mimetic desire as the core idea in Shakespeare's work. If I finish the Girard this summer, we will be looking further at this. I may even get around to King John.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Brenda Shaughnessy, _The Octopus Museum_

SURPRISINGLY REMINISCENT OF a certain vein of literary fiction imagining apocalyptical upheaval in a contemporary suburban setting--Donald Antrim's Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World and Ben Marcus's The Flame Alphabet came to mind, since Shaughnessy represents things coming apart and the center not holding with a sly satirical humor.

Take, for example, "The Home Team," where a parent is taking comfort in the skill of local girl Jane at "winterball':

Our hearts were in Jane's feet, her hands. All the bills we couldn't pay, the wishing for electricity and lit-up screens of pleasure, the food gone rotten because no one could bring themselves to eat it--Jane gave us so many more chances to do it right this time.

James Wright's "Autumn Begins to Martins Ferry, Ohio" meets Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but this time it's the mom who is trying hard to keep hold of some notion of who we are and what we care about...even if what we care about may be only the home team's staying above .500.

The book's larger conceit is that human beings have wrought their own extinction, but octopuses (Shaughnessy uses the plural "octopodes," which I like, but is it kosher?) have survived, and have assembled artifacts of the earth's formerly dominant species, of which exhibit the book's poems form a part. Witty, but Shaughnessy being Shaughnessy, she is never simply witty--she's also fiercely angry, subtly knowing, and tender, this last especially towards the end of the book when a few names familiar from earlier volumes start cropping up: Craig and Cal, now joined by Simone.

So...witty, fierce, knowing, tender...have I mentioned the sheer virtuosity? A lot of the book is prose poems, but as usual Shaughnessy handles a variety of forms deftly.

Let's close with this:

My children seem to subsist on music and frosting.
Where there's frosting, there's cake.

Where there's music, someone chose to make a song
over all other things on this earth.




Saturday, June 8, 2019

Natalie Scenters-Zapico, _The Verging Cities_

I WAS TIPPED to this about a year ago by Matthias Svalina, and just recently Scenters-Zapico's new book got noticed in the New Yorker blog. Further evidence, were any required, that Matthias is one great source of poetry tips.

The cities of the title are Scenters-Zapico's hometown(s), El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. The cities "Con/verge," as one section title puts it, in that they are sibling cities, their identity in many ways shared; but they also "Di/verge," as another section title has it, in that a crucial border separates them, landing them in different legal and political domains, with entailed potential for fear, suspicion, hostility, persecution, and even violence.

Juarez's problems with criminal violence, especially against women, are well-known, as is the violence the U.S. government and some of its citizens are willing to inflict on Mexicans crossing the border, and Scenters-Zapico does not spare us repeated glimpses of it, fresh, vivid, and stinging. At the same time, she can be satirical about people who appropriate the violence of her hometowns in order to lend their art a bit of edginess (see "Placements").

The frequent violence of the book serves also to raise the power of its love poems, however. The beloved in the book, Ángel, apparently comes from the city that is the twin of the city the speaker comes from, and love's famous paradox, the twoness that is a oneness, is multiply reflected in the geographical and geopolitical situations of the lovers.

The braiding of the love poetry with the poetry-of-witness, often in the very same poem, is both startling and moving. The settings of love stories is often what we know least about them, and care about the least, but here the setting is crucial.

This is all good--but what matters most is that Scenters-Zapico's poetry stays original and striking line after line: "You forgot to weed your eyes, so brush / has grown wild in your stare."

Friday, June 7, 2019

Lindy West, _Shrill_

SOMEWHAT UNUSUAL CIRCUMSTANCES led to my picking this one up. I was listening to one of those NPR shows with essay-like spoken word contributions--This American Life or Moth or Radiolab--and the essayist (monologuist?), a woman, was describing her success, some years previously, in losing quite a bit of weight. She very shortly after experienced the benefits that are expected to accompany impressive weight losses: better health, more interest from opposite sex, more professional opportunities, and so on. Then, some years later, she read Shrill, and the effect, surprisingly, was  to make her feel almost bad about losing the weight--about caving to social expectations, accepting stereotyped judgements about the fat, not sticking up for herself as West had.

A book that can make you think twice about the rightness of having lost lots of pounds--an accomplishment admired across all sorts of lines, by virtually everybody, and not at all easy to do--must be a heck of a book. So I decided to read it.

It is a heck of a book, actually. I had never read anything by West--her fame as a journalist has a lot to do with social media fora that I am too elderly to frequent--but she is a very effective writer, outrageously funny, but also passionate, intelligent, and original.

She gives herself credit, near the end of the book, for having moved the needle on three particular topics--fat shaming, jokes about rape, and the confronting of internet trolls--and her engagements on those fronts structure the book, lending it a nice momentum independent of the energy provided by the punchlines (which are frequent). It's a swift read, but nonetheless thought-provoking, as the monologuist who inspired me to read the book can attest.

Six years ago, I lost fifty pounds myself, and I'm still glad I did, but West has opened my eyes a bit. Or maybe kept them from rolling. On my first plane trip since reading Shrill, I went down the aisle to find my seat and found that I would be traveling beside a guy who looked to be a bit over three hundred pounds. Thinking of West's book, I did my best to suppress any sign of exasperation, smiled, and told myself everything was going to be fine. And it was.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Layli Long Soldier, _Whereas_

JUST A COINCIDENCE that I read this at roughly the same time as Tommy Orange's There There--Orange was the May selection in our book club, and Whereas was just the next book in my poetry queue--but they certainly worked together well, alike involved in matters of Native American identity and alike wielding some serious technique. It turns out both writers have degrees from the Institute for American Indian Arts, Orange an MFA and Long Soldier a BFA (she got her MFA at Bard).

Long Soldier's poems reminded me at times of Gertrude Stein (e.g., "Irony") and at other times of Jorie Graham (e.g., "Left"), but the most helpful comparison may be to Cole Swenson. Like Swenson, Long Soldier is a large-canvas poet; most of the poems are longer than a page, and the book is distinctly a book, a complex structure with interdependent parts, not simply a collection. (And Swenson, too, often gives her books one-word titles.)

The title poem occupies about half of the book's hundred pages. As the title hints, it borrows its structure and occasionally its language from legislative resolutions, the particular resolution in question here being the Resolution of Apology to Native Americans passed by the 111th Congress in 2009-10. Not even Claudia Rankine, I think,  could dismantle this particular piece of public hypocritical piety quite so thoroughly as Long Soldier does.

On first reading the book's opening lines, I thought Whitman might be in the mix, too--

Now 
make room in the mouth
for grassesgrassesgrasses

--but that particular ship capsized when I re-encountered the image in "38," the final poem of the book's first section, which retells as plainly as it can the story of Wounded Knee:

When the Dakota people were starving, as you may remember, government traders would not extend store credit to "Indians."

One trader named Andrew Myrick is famous for his refusal to provide credit to Dakota people by saying, "if they are hungry, let them eat grass."

[...]

When Myrick's body was found,

                      his mouth was stuffed with grass.

Made you suck in your breath, no? Not exactly "look for me under your boot soles."

Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, and Cornel West, _The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere_

THE PAPERS HEREIN were presented at a symposium sponsored by New York University, the School for Social Research, and Stony Brook University about ten years ago, in October of 2009. The question addressed, to use the formulation from R. J. Neuhaus that Craig Calhoun quotes in his afterword, is whether religion has a role in the public sphere if "public decisions must be made by arguments that are public in character." If religion draws its arguments from revelation, or tradition, or a specific kind of communal practice, do those arguments have a place at the table in our public square, so to speak?

This is a question, I think, mainly for those coming from the political left and assuming that progress aligns with modernization, and modernization in turn aligns with secularization. If one is coming from the political right, the question may not even arise. Should we do what God requires? Absolutely! Do we know what God requires? It's right there in Scripture! And so on. The conveners of the symposium seem to be looking for ways to include religion in the conversation while still holding on to assumptions about progress, justice, equality, freedom and other such goals of liberalism.

Habermas is ready to include religious perspectives on public questions, provided they can be translated into our shared discourse; Taylor is even more welcoming, and seems to think our public discourse would be impoverished by excluding religious perspectives. Butler thinks pulling in more currents from Jewish history and teaching (the prophetic tradition, perhaps, or wisdom gained as a dispersed people) would improve the discourse surrounding Palestine and the Palestinians. West just flat out prophesies.

A thought-provoking book. Seems of its moment, in a way--those early Obama days, when one could be more hopeful that religion (or spirituality, let's say) and social progress could be partners. Right at this particular 2019 moment, when "religious freedom" has become the catch-cry of those seeking to drive the LGBTQ folks back into the closet or worse and Netanyahu has been re-elected, all four seem optimistic. But it's a welcome reminder that things do not always look the way they do at the moment.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Alice Oswald, _Memorial: A Version of Homer's Iliad_

PERHAPS OSWALD'S VERSION of the Iliad from 2011 anticipates the recent wavelet of Homer from a female perspective (novels by Madeline Miller and Pat Barker, Emily Wilson's translation of the Odyssey). Not that women have a larger role in this version than in Homer's--they almost disappear. But Oswald's version does turn the Iliad into its own critique: in effect, a critique of what men get up to.

OSWALD'S Memorial is a translation, but also a kind of erasure poem, for Oswald includes only (a) the poem's famous similes and (b) the passages in which men are killed.

The poem begins, in fact, with a list of everyone who dies in the poem--eight pages of names, ending with that of Hector. You will likely recognize only a few of the names--most of them are introduced in the poem only a few lines before they are killed. (Like the unlucky anonymous crewman who beamed down to the strange planet with Kirk and Spock, their sole role in the poem is to die.) Most of the poem's most famous characters--Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon, Priam. Ajax, Andromache, Helen--survive to the poem's end. But Oswald's version is about the larger number who do not.

When I was an undergraduate, the professor who taught me the Iliad explained (as I have to many undergraduates since--thank you, Peter Connolly) that the similes, often several lines long, introduce the images and activities of routine civilized life--meals, weaving, herding sheep, wine, weather--and so create a startling contrast to the limb-shredding havoc going on at the walls of Troy,  conjuring an image of what the society looks like when it is not at war, letting us see this world the fighting has bloodily interrupted.

Oswald's trimming the poem to simply its similes and its deaths makes the contrast that much more startling. As a good erasure poem should, it finds the poem that was already inside the poem and makes it leap into visibility. Whether one should call this "feminist" or just "anti-war," I don't know, but the sheer senselessness of the continual slaughter, with the climax of Hector's death, overwhelms.

One of Oswald's tactics made me wonder what the poem would be like read aloud. She gives every simile twice--writes it out, then repeats it verbatim. As a reader, I found myself glancingly skimming the second set of lines, unless I really made myself slow down and read them. As an auditor, I would not be able to do this--I would have to attend every word of the related simile--and somehow I think that would make a difference, make me imagine in more detail the imagined scene of ordinary life juxtaposed with the killing.

The lists, too, would be different if you heard them, had to take in every name, one at a time--in print, they too are susceptible to being skipped. But every name is a world, and hearing the name would help us remember that.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Shirley Jackson , _We Have Always Lived in the Castle_

MY MOTHER respected, even reverenced, canonical literature. For Christmases and birthdays, once it turned out I liked to read, I routinely got King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes, Kipling, Poe, Twain, and so on. Her favorite sort of thing to read, though, was spooky suspense, contemporary gothic, like Rebecca and this--and by "this" I mean not just We Have Always Lived in the Castle but this very copy beside me, the Popular Library paperback, costing sixty cents, with its dark blue background and a raven-tressed young woman peering through a hole in a fencepost.

The novel is narrated by Mary Katherine Blackwood, "Merricat," an 18-year-old who lives with her slightly older sister, Constance, and a decrepit uncle in an old house in a small New England town. Their relations with their neighbors are distant, not to say fraught, because the sisters' parents died suddenly and mysteriously six years ago; Constance is suspected, but Merricat soon strikes the reader as the likelier culprit. People tend to leave them alone, which is just the way Merricat likes it.

Crisis arrives with Cousin Julian, who is looking to help out the sisters, or perhaps just locate the tidy sum of cash rumored to have been left on the premises by the deceased parents. Merricat is equal to the occasion, though, and finds a means to drive him off--a means that unfortunately also allows the neighbors to vandalize and plunder the house--and Constance and Merricat are left just with each other at story's end, to the apparent satisfaction of both, even though the house is a giant step closer to being the gingerbread Victorian ruin you suspect it always wanted to be.

Jackson is a canonical figure herself, these days--reprinted in the Library of America and a run of Penguins. When genre fiction becomes canonical, how does that happen? Does the greatness of We Have Always Lived in the Castle--I'm willing to grant, by the way, that great it is--lie in its transcendence of its genre or in its unusually skillful fulfillment of its genre? Is it great despite being a gothic horror novel, or because it so quintessentially is a gothic horror novel?

May have to think this through a bit more.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Arundhati Roy, _The Ministry of Utmost Happiness_

NOT ENTIRELY LIKE The God of Small Things, but let's get to the subject of how it differs from its predecessor in a moment and focus for now on likenesses, the chief of which is that in both of Roy's novels she has a narrative voice that, like those of (say) Fielding or Sterne, one is willing to follow wherever it leads, even when it seems to be leading nowhere in particular. Like Fielding, and even more like Sterne, Roy would rather not tell her story flat out, but by means of indirect approaches and self-interruptions, with leaps ahead and detours around. A story that seems to be heading this way will likely turn out to be heading that way, its destination a good distance from where you thought you were going.

And why do you, the reader, put up with this? Because you trust her, for one thing, and for another, because she is such good company, funny, humane, insightful, honest, passionate for justice. One would rather go for miles in what seems a mistaken direction with Roy than stick to the main road with anyone else, both because you know she, without quite letting you in on everything, is headed somewhere illuminating and astonishing--somewhere where terrors may live but where joy and hope are not altogether extinct--and also because you know everything you hear along the circuitous journey to somewhere will be worth hearing.

But, as I began by mentioning, there are differences too. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness feels like a broader, more encompassing book, not just because it is longer than God of Small Things (which it is, but not by a lot, about a hundred pages), but also because it feels more public. God of Small Things wandered around some, true, it provided plenty of context, but it ultimately zoomed in on one province, one town, one family, one dreadful night. Ministry of Utmost Happiness zooms out. The hijra community of New Delhi. Hindu nationalism. Kashmir. Islamic fundamentalism. Free-market fundamentalism. It covers a lot of territory, and just when you are thinking, "wait, is that all we are going to get about Anjum?" you realize all is well, because Tilo is every bit as fascinating. And yes, we are going ti get back to Anjum.

Coincidence (?) Department: Among the settings Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an old movie theater that the state has converted into an interrogation/torture center. Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, if I remember right, also included an interrogation/torture center located in an old movie theater. Is this an international pattern? Or just a bit of symbolism that occurred to more than one novelist?

Friday, May 24, 2019

Tommy Orange, _There There_

THE TITLE WORKS three different ways--an old-fashioned thing to say to comfort someone, part of a famous remark by Gertrude Stein about Oakland (where the novel is set), and a Radiohead song--and all three figure in the book, so readers may consider themselves notified that this is not an old-school straightforwardly naturalistic novel about Native American identity. (If the title does not do the trick, the epigraphs from Marias, Baldwin, and Genet should.)

The novel's point of view circulates: twelve different characters serve as focal point (sometimes in first person, sometimes in close third). This is a familiar device--A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Overstory are recent prize-winning examples--but we should probably note another predecessor, Louise Erdrich, name-checked in There There. As in most Erdrich novels, the narrators/focal characters in There There are all from among the continent's indigenous peoples; in Orange's novel, though, their relationships to the native community range from profound to barely existent. Furthermore, all live in Oakland, surrounded by the hum of contemporary urban America, far from reservation life or anything at all like their traditional cultures.

The novel, too, is a hybrid, not only for its multiplying of points of view but also for the inclusion of a couple of essayistic sections, "Prologue" at the beginning and "Interlude" midway, surveying the Native American situation from early encounters with European colonizers to the present. Not fictionalized at all and in a distinctly different voice, these sections inhabit a plane apart from that of the rest of the novel, yet even so entangled in it.

At the center of the plot is an Oakland pow-wow. Some of the characters are deeply involved in planning it, some just want to attend, a few see it as an opportunity to stage a robbery. If the pow-wow is somehow meant to be read as a synecdoche for the urban Native American communal identity (a collective effort to recognize itself, affirm itself, honor its cultural inheritance, forge solidarity for its future), one wonders why Orange turns it into such a violent disaster, and a disaster with so many dangling loose ends. Is Tony dead? Is Orvil alive? (Eight door swings--good?) Do Blue and Edwin ever find out they have the same father?

However--I don't mind being left at sixes and sevens by a novel's conclusion. I'm all about the ride.  There There was good one, and Orange is a find.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Catherine Barnett, _Human Hours_

THE YOUNG SON we read of in Game of Boxes is now grown up and on his own? How did that happen? It hasn't been that long, has it? Maybe it has.

Human Hours (poetry book of the year for The Believer) is, I would say, noticeably more bruised and melancholy than Game of Boxes, but still free of self-pity. Beckett is a tutelary presence here, the mood often "I can't go on, I'll go on."

Barnett is as crafty as ever:

Time is an anemone, says the new hire.
Enemy. Amenity. Profanity. Dire.

"Calamity ends with amity," she notes elsewhere.

Four sections titled "Accursed Questions" structure the book. The questions do seem the kind that lurk in dark corners--"Why did I so rarely mention love when we were holding each other?"--but they also contain a dry, gingery Beckett humor--"Without much hope I opened my first small bottle of 3-in-One oil and applied it to the hinges of my front door that apparently keep my neighbor up at night."

Any number of things seem to have gone off the rails in these poems ("Doctors agree I need to get laser holes made in my eyes"), but that may be okay ("Failure is hot right now"). We have Beckett on the Jumbotron (What? Oh...Josh, not Samuel). And we have Nietzsche, with poems near volume's end titled "Eternal Recurrence" ("I am mortality, I can still hear him say / between kisses I remember to this day," that one ends) and "Amor Fati":

We slid the dictionaries from the shelves
And opened them to apocalypse,

The word on everyone's lips.
O lips!--

As if we could ever bid these joys farewell.


Friday, May 17, 2019

Fintan O'Toole, _Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain_

I THOUGHT THIS might blend in well with my having just read Michael Lewis and Ben Fountain on Trump's rise to power, a variation on a theme as it were, based on an assumption of loose correspondence between British politics and our own: they had Thatcher, we had Reagan; we had Clinton, they had Tony Blair; Bernie, Jeremy Corbyn, Trump, Brexit.

If O'Toole is right (and he sure sounds right), the parallel is not so close as all that.

O'Toole (who is Irish) sees England as a Goliath that likes to imagine itself a David: the plucky, slightly cheeky underdog (we happy few, etc.) who prevails over larger, seemingly stronger opponents who wish to impose their will. He notes, for instance, a fashion for alternative-history fiction in which the Nazis conquered England but were bedeviled by resistance groups, and a somewhat perverse preference for the old empire to indulge in fantasies about being national liberation guerrillas.

The master move of the Brexiteers, then, was to cast the EU as Goliath (on various fronts, from immigration to regulating junk food), and that put Brexit over the top. This, despite the shared nativist ressentiment, does not sound all that much like the delusions that put Trump in the White House.

Nor did Trump have, as Brexit did, a core of upper-class, highly literate, rhetorically adept and shamelessly dishonest propagandists--O'Toole frequently invokes the terrifying Melroses of Edward St. Aubyn's novels. All we had was Sean Hannity.

Even so, O'Toole's conclusion hits notes that ring true for the U.S. He writes:

Brexit is part of a much larger phenomenon and it speaks to two much wider truths. One is that is not possible simultaneously to ask people to trust the state and to tell them that the state has no business in any part of their lives in which the market wants free rein. [Please heed, o Clinton wing of the Democratic party.] The other is that the gross inequality produced by neoliberalism is increasingly incompatible with democracy and therefore, in liberal democracies, with political stability. [Please heed, everybody]  If there is to be a world beyond pain and self-pity, it is necessary to fix the umbrella.

The umbrella, by the way, is the welfare state--tattered by neoliberalism, by market-worship, by capital's insistence that everything that anyone needs ought to be making a profit for somebody--and we can't take the continued existence of ours for granted any more than the British can.


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Michael Gorra, _Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece_

THE WORD "MASTERPIECE" in the subtitle turns out to mean not (as it usually does these days when used colloquially) "the best thing X ever did" (for Gorra, that would be James's final novels, The Wings of the Dove, The Golden Bowl, and The Ambassadors), but something closer to what the term originally meant: the work that elevated you past the status of journeyman, that proved you were ready to take on apprentices of your own, that showed you could do whatever someone in your calling was supposed to be able to do.

Thus, The Portrait of a Lady is the novel that announces James's arrival as a master, the first work that reveals the full extent of his armory as an artist. Hard to argue with, fan of Roderick Hudson though I am. I admired Portrait when I first read it back in graduate school, and the few chances I have had to teach it have only deepened my admiration. Gorra's book deepened it further.

Portrait of a Novel alternates between two tracks: first, a close (and largely theory-free) reading of the novel, from beginning to end; second, a biography of James. This works out better than I had expected. An account of James's perpetually-in-transit childhood turns out to run well alongside an analysis of Isabel Archer's arrival in England, for instance, and a chapter on James's unsuccessful attempt to reinvent himself as a playwright seems a fitting partner for the chapters in which Isabel's illusions are exploded as she learns the truth of Osmond's relationship to Madame Merle.

Portrait of a Novel was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in biography, which raised a couple of questions for me. First, is this really biography? I mean, yes, half of it is. But, as the title suggests, it is largely a book about a novel, so why wasn't it nominated for the Pulitzer in criticism? But it turns out the Pulitzer Prize for criticism typically goes to someone who writes newspaper or magazine reviews, not to someone mainly known for his or her books, and virtually never to an academic (Gorra teaches at Smith).

So, why isn't there a Pulitzer or National Book Award for literary criticism? Because hardly anyone outside the academy gives a hoot about anything except reviews, maybe. Is there such a thing these days as literary criticism aimed at an intelligent general readership? A Stephen Jay Gould, a Brian Greene, an Elaine Pagels, a Jill Lepore of literary criticism? It's hard to think of anyone who fits that bill, well and truly, since Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling passed back in the 1970s. I can think of people who wrote books of lit-crit for the intelligent but non-specialist reader that somehow caught on--Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia, Stephen Greenblatt. We don't have anyone as popular as Stephen Ambrose, though; I don't think we even have anyone as popular as Jill Lepore. Why not?

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Michael Lewis, _The Fifth Risk_

IT SEEMED ALTOGETHER fitting to read this right after Ben Fountain's book on the election that landed Trump in the White House, and doing so allowed me to spot an interesting coincidence. Hunter S. Thompson seemed to hover as tutelary spirit over Beautiful Country Burn Again, and The Fifth Risk is dedicated to the recently deceased Tom Wolfe.

It was a novel thing for me to hold Thompson and Wolfe in a single thought, but maybe it should not have been; I bet everyone of my generation who read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas also read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and the two writers were often cited together as leading lights of the New Journalism back when that was a thing.

They must have crossed paths, perhaps often. What happened when they did? (Puts me in mind of that story of the one time Joyce met Proust.) Thompson in leather jacket and aviator shades, Wolfe in a white bespoke suit with cufflinks and...spats, possibly. What would they have talked about? Maybe the Hell's Angels?

Everything I've  read by Lewis has been excellent, and this is no exception. In contrast to Wolfe (and to Thompson, for that matter), he is utterly self-effacing. He must be an amazing interviewer--whoever he talks to, the reader feels that person is right there in the room with you, explaining with perfect lucidity some phenomenon you did not previously even know existed, but now seems fascinating.

The gist of the book is that many, perhaps most, of Trump's appointees found themselves running departments whose work they did previously know even existed. They tended to come in with the idea that most federal operations were cumbersome, intrusive, overfunded trespasses upon the swift efficiencies of the free market. Turns out the National Weather Service, the USDA, DARPA, et al., do all sorts of invaluable work that the free market would not go near because the work is difficult to render profitable. The exact nature of that work--its complexity, the unusual expertise it requires, the commitment  to public service it demands of those who do it--is what we learn about from Lewis's interview subjects.

The title? The "fifth risk" is "the risk a society runs when it falls into the habit of responding to long-term risks with short-term solutions." Short-term solutions are what you are likely to get when those in the government making decisions are ideologically committed to dismantling government. I only hope the federal government's work is not plummeting to hell in a handbasket quite so rapidly as this book suggests it is likely to be.


Monday, April 22, 2019

Ben Fountain, _Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution_

AS FAR AS I knew, Ben Fountain was a fiction writer, and an extremely good one (see LLL, April 26, 2014), but someone at the Guardian apparently figured out he had some wicked journalist chops as well, and he got the gig of covering the 2016 U.S. presidential election for one of England's premier newspapers. This book collects nine of them and adds three more essay/articles, as well as a series of passages called "Book of Days," one for each month of 2016, compiling what was in the news at the time.  

Occasionally helpful though they are, and yielding the odd juicy juxtaposition, the "Book of Days" sections began to wear on me. The Guardian articles, however, still pack a punch, and remarkably all the more so for our knowing the grisly conclusion coming up ahead.

Just on the strength of the writing, I would say Beautiful Country Burn Again is the best campaign writing I have come across since Hunter S. Thompson's 1972 dispatches for Rolling Stone, later published as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Thompson gets a nice shout-out in the piece titled "Cheerleaders of the Star-Spangled Apocalypse," and justly so, but I would go so far as to say that I found Fountain's work a bit better suited to my current sensibilities. Much as I enjoyed, at the age of eighteen, the hallucinatory passages Thompson wove into his reportage, I did not much miss them at age sixty-four, and Fountain's general political outlook is (thankfully) a bit less anarcho-libertarian, a bit more principled social-democratic, than Thompson's.

If you have already read the Guardian pieces, the book is still worth picking up for a couple of a long pieces: the ninety-page "Iowa 2016: Riding the Roadkill Express," on the ever-lengthier, ever-more-intense, ever-more-dubious first stage of our presidential politics, and the fifty-page "Hillary Doesn't Live Here Anymore," a disquieting analysis of the depth of Senator Clinton's connections to Wall Street.

(I wonder if the Hillary piece did not appear in the Guardian out of some sense that the fall of 2016 was the wrong time to be jumping on Clinton--if that is the case, one can be grateful to Fountain for his tact, damning though the piece is.)

The book's final piece, "A Familiar Spirit," about the persistence of militant white supremacy in our politics, is also new and also worth having.


Sunday, April 21, 2019

Michael Ondaatje, _Warlight_


I WAS ABOUT to begin by noting that I had not read any of Ondaatje's novels, but on looking at the list of books beside the title page of Warlight, I see Coming Through Slaughter is listed under "Prose," along with The English Patient, Anil's Ghost, and so on, so perhaps it counts as a novel. At the time, I thought it was a lot like The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (the other Ondaatje book I have read), that is, a fantasia in lyrical prose about a historical figure, but that volume is listed under "Poetry." So--

--let's just say I have not read the novel that made Ondaatje famous nor any of its successors. Way back when, I thought about picking up The English Patient, but unfortunately I saw the movie first and thought, enhh. I must have scratched Ondaatje off my list at that point. When our book club picked this one, I was not at all keen.

Turns out it's excellent, which makes me wonder if I should go back to English Patient and the others after all.

It's a first-person novel; soon after the close of World War II, our narrator, a London teenager named Nathaniel, and his sister are inexplicably abandoned by their parents and looked after by an odd but fascinating collection of folks (including "The Moth" and "The Darter"), who eventually begin including Nathaniel and sister in nocturnal activities of obscure purpose, until near-catastrophe strikes and the siblings have to be rescued from the deadly attentions of special agents from somewhere.

Pretty cool, eh? That's just the first part. Nathaniel's sister, Rachel, harbors a long-lasting grudge against their parents, especially their mother, for the abandonment, but Nathaniel recalls it as dazzling, mysterious initiation into adulthood, including his introduction to sex, with a young woman on a moonlit night in an old house full of dogs.

About a decade on, Nathaniel gets a job in the British intelligence service and takes advantage of his access to secret files to find out exactly what his mother was up to. His father, it turns out, was just plain skipping out, a bit of a ne'er-do-well, but his mother was actually a hero, performing not only extremely valuable service in the war but also extremely dangerous service in the early days of the cold war, and doing everything possible at the same time (appearances notwithstanding) for her children, even while under constant threat of assassination (a threat eventually fulfilled).

The narration in the second half of the book thus gradually unfolds the story that was within and underneath the story of the first half of the book; while Nathaniel's emancipatory adolescent adventure was going on, his mother was in a life-and-death, Balkans version of the Great Game.

An unstated moral seems to be wafting through the final pages, something about how unrealizable, how unknowable the lives of those who fought the Second World War had to be for their children, growing up in the prosperity and opportunities of the 1950s and 1960s. The moral is subtly introduced, but it's there, and it bears pondering.

Terrance Hayes, _American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin_

DOES DU BOIS'S CONCEPT of "double consciousness" apply to the relationship of African-American poets to the poetic traditions of the European continent, as digested by English poets and U. S. poets of European descent? Or--to narrow the question--is an African-American poet in a position to simply write a sonnet, without bearing in my mind that the form has for centuries been elaborated within a culture that regards him/her as other? Or does that African-American poet need to maintain some critical, even subversive distance from the form even while practicing it, even while drawing some strength from engaging in a tradition that can serve as a wily and infinitely resourceful collaborator?

The single-consciousness strategy we might associate with Phyllis Wheatley, from whom Hayes distances himself in the book's very first poem--

The black poet would love to say his century began
With Hughes, or God forbid, Wheatley, but actually
It began with all the poetry weirdos & worriers, warriors,
Poetry whiners & winos falling from ship bows, sunset
bridges & windows.

--so Hughes and Wheatley are in there, but so (it sounds like) are fellow sonneteers Hart Crane and John Berryman, not to mention Plath, Dickinson, Rilke, and the late great Wanda Coleman, who gets a lovely shout-out in the acknowledgements. Hayes's is a double-consciousness engagement with the sonnet tradition.

Well and truly married to the tradition though Hayes's book is, he also wants to show it a few new metrical tricks, to be as topical as he wants to be (Trump pops up, of course, as do Maxine Waters, Dylann Roof, and other names in the news), and even to be as geeky as he wants to be (Dr. Who is often invoked). It manages to be in the library and in the street at virtually the same time, with occasional visits to whatever basement or bedroom was Hayes's geek lair.

I vaguely intended to get around to Lighthead when it won the National Book Award, but never did--I think I definitely will now.




Saturday, April 20, 2019

Alex Dimitrov, _Begging for It_

The book's cover bears a photograph from David Wojnarowicz's "Rimbaud in New York"--someone at a table in a diner, next to the desserts display case, wearing a t-shirt, a sleeveless denim shirt, and a Rimbaud mask. It's a good choice, alluding simultaneously to the poète maudit tradition--risky behavior, contempt for conventional acclaim, linguistic fireworks--and to an awareness that the role is well-established, a trope of its own, a mask one can put on.

Dimitrov can bring the risky behavior ("His jaw clenches because your blood mixes sweetly / with the flower under his tongue"), he can bring the contempt for conventional acclaim ("Would you sleep with the poet who wrote this poem? / Would you buy his book? Click here"), and again and again he brings the linguistic fireworks.

Self-Portrait Without the Self

On the edges of the body is where I stood,
trying to feel my way to the center.

For years, it was all I wanted.
Clawing at the small cells,

kicking in the bones to make room
for something more permanent.

And this morning, tired of my lips,
the way my hair will sometimes tilt

to one side, a lover of extremes,
every part of me, slanted

as if towards another body--
I no longer want the center:

this heart, or what's in it.
I want what isn't mine

and what will not last.
And yes, your heart will not last.

The wonderful thing is that he also brings a self-consciousness about his own enterprise, a knowingness that though his is a road less taken, quite a few even so have taken it.  It's a self-consciousness one detects in the names cited (Sontag, Barthes, Judith Butler) and a certain in-jokiness ("This Is Not a Personal Poem"). The self-consciousness was far from a problem, I should emphasize, for me--it was more of a saving grace than anything. I don't think I would have trusted the poems without it. It's the posing poets who don't even know they are posing that you want to steer clear of.


Sunday, March 17, 2019

Chelsey Minnis, _Poemland_

WHAT HAVE WE here? Possibly: a book-length poem, titled Poemland, in eleven untitled sections, each section consisting of 7-11 sub-sections, each with its own page, generally four to six lines long. Or: a volume titled Poemland, consisting of eleven poems, each poem with 7-11 "stanzas" with  its own page, generally four to six lines long. Or: Poemland, a collection of 99 poems arranged in eleven groups, each poem four to six lines long.

Ninety-nine by my count, anyway. Why not an even one hundred? I wonder whether I missed one.

The ninety-nine poems, or stanzas, or sub-sections are alike enough, consistent enough stylistically, to be all part of one work, so one certainly has elbow room to read Poemland as a long poem. At the same time, they are as separable as Legos, perfectly capable of being considered individually.

The poems--that is, the text on any particular page, usually 4-6 lines--are brief, colloquial, personal, stippled with ellipses...in fact, they are an awful lot like Instagram poetry, as here:

You have to love and not justify it any.

If anything can't be justified, you can't be justified...

You are just an ex-wonderboy...

You can try to do something...ex-wonderboy!

At first glance, dismissible. But--not so fast. For one thing, the cover--a UPC box on a background of  pink fake fur, courtesy of Jeff Clark--suggests tongues are firmly in cheeks. For another, one does not expect Ange Mlinko, who respectfully reviewed Minnis in the NYRB, of all places, to fall for Instagram poetry. Finally, and crucially, the poems/pages often get strange in decidedly un-Rupi-Kaur-like ways--

This is the warm vanilla satin necktie...

And a white gloved hand that reaches between the legs...

This is a seeping crystal...

You have to apply a blowtorch to a lollipop...

--and then trip lightly with dilated eyes into the downright disturbing--

This is like someone who pawns your minks...

And it is like a squandered money-gift...

This is the magic syphilis!...

There is no need for the truth...

Like scythes that cut through prom gowns...

So what have here, to repeat my initial question. "With this book I have made a very expensive joke," Minnis tells us (77), a statement that is one respect false ($14 from Wave Books) but may be true in others, e.g., that $14 is pricey for an elaborate spoof, if that's what this is. It may not be. But is there any need for the truth? The jury is out, I guess. At any rate, I think I will read Minnis's new one.


Thursday, March 14, 2019

Michael Kazin, _A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan_

THE UNITED STATES' lack of a robust, electorally competitive socialist party has inspired analysis and commentary for over a hundred years now. Kazin does not explicitly address that question, but his biography of Bryan even so provides parts of the answer.

Bryan, the Democratic nominee for President three times (1896, 1900, and 1908) and a crucial supporter when Democrat Woodrow Wilson finally did win in 1912, was in many respects exactly what a forward-looking politician of the left should have been: advocate for the working class, for women's suffrage, for a progressive income tax, for popular election of U. S. senators, bulldog ready to wrestle with corporate and financial power, compelling orator, charisma out to here.

At the same time, he was willing to tolerate segregation in the south in the interests of maintaining Democratic party unity, was not above emitting anti-Semitic dog-whistles in his attacks on financiers, and took his final public stand at the Scopes trial, defending the right to teach religious obscurantism in the public schools.

As to the last item, I'm willing to go along with Garry Wills's argument in Under God that what truly got Bryan riled was social Darwinism, but even so, Bryan only works as a progressive historical icon if you close one eye. And it was Bryan--not Eugene Debs, not Emma Goldman, not (decidedly not) Earl Browder--who sufficiently galvanized the public to have a shot at getting elected.

Populism's god-awful potential to backfire--grimly redivivus in our day--is a recurring note in Kazin's biography of Bryan, even though Kazin finds a lot to admire in the man.

I might not have read this had not our book club decided we should know more about the man who (it could plausibly be argued) had a larger impact on national politics than any other Nebraskan, but I'm glad I did. Nice and compact (306 pages of text, 60 of notes) but not superficial, briskly paced, intelligently written, it's both a memorable portrait of a key American political figure and a key to the gnarly enigma of the American left.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Ryszard Kapuscinski, _The Soccer War_

Does anyone remember the Readers' Subscription? Google does not, it seems. It was a books-by-mail service like Book of the Month Club, with a more selective, intellectual bent. The original version was founded in the 1950s--Auden was involved--and petered out in the early 1970s. It was revived in the 1980s, which is when I joined, but it did long survive the advent of Amazon.

Anyway...I picked this book up via Readers' Subscription, over twenty-five years ago (it appeared in 1991, so I presumably ordered it in 1991 or 1992), and it has simply sat on a shelf ever since. I buy books always intending to read them, but sometimes that crucial trigger that gets it off the shelf and into my hands is wanting.

The book went undisturbed even when Kapuscinski died in 2007 (writers' deaths often spur me to at long last read them).

Then, a few years after he died, there was a blizzard of controversy: debates over whether Kapuscinski's journalism contained some admixture of of "improvement," or outright invention, or just plain fiction. Had he been lucky, this development might have cemented his literary reputation (apparently, he was shortlisted for the Nobel at least once), but it seems it has instead lowered his stock considerably. It's been a while since I've encountered his name, I know. I came close to giving up on the idea that I would ever read the book--almost sold it to used book store once or twice.

So why did I finally read it? I will spare you the full details, but as part of a post-op therapy, I find myself sitting immobilized for fifteen minutes every morning. I could just read the paper, I suppose, but instead I have resorted to a designated therapy book that I read in 15-minute installments, every blessed day. For this purpose, books I have always been curious about, but have no urgent reason to read, and can read without feeling obliged to pay close attention to, are just the thing. So my Kapuscinski moment finally arrived.

And he is as amazing as everyone said. His ability to summon up a scene from an unfamiliar part of the world is like that of Conrad but without the heavy hand of the symbolism, or that of Naipaul, but without the condescension. Many of the pieces were written in Africa during the struggles over decolonization (including a quick, vivid portrait of Lumumba), but there are also several from Latin America (including the title piece, which ought to be a film). Kapuscinski always conveys intelligence, humanity, a kind of dogged, Sam Spade style hope.

That not every scene nor every quoted speech may have been exactly what went down did not, I found, much bother me.

By the way, you'd be surprised how much you can get read in fifteen quiet morning minutes a day, every day. I'm already a third of the way through Ben Fountain's Beautiful Country, Burn Again.


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Elif Batuman, _The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them_

I HAD READ a few of these essays about life as a graduate student in Slavic languages when they appeared in periodicals, so I was expecting to enjoy the book, but I enjoyed it even more than I was expecting to...in fact, I may have enjoyed even just the tiniest bit more than I enjoyed Batuman's brilliant debut novel, The Idiot (see January 6, 2018).

The Possessed almost feels like a peculiarly episodic novel, in fact, the three installments of "Summer in Samarkand" creating a spine of narrative for Batuman's excursions in and around Babel, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the 18th century figures who make cameos in "The House of Ice."

For that matter, The Possessed almost seems the sequel to its successor The Idiot, in that the adventures of Elif Batuman, graduate student at Stanford in Slavic languages and kinda-sorta innocent abroad in central Asia, seem to match magically what we would expect to be the later career of the undergraduate Selin Karadag, who took her first classes in Russian at Harvard and spent a summer as a sorta-kinda innocent abroad in eastern Europe. They even both wound up as judges in a leg contest.

I was hoping The Possessed would include "Down with Creative Writing," Batuman's dazzling and hilarious LRB review essay on Mark McGurl's The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing. It does not, but the introduction's salty remarks on how Batuman wound up in a doctoral program in Russian literature rather than in an MFA program concisely address some of the same points.