Loads of Learned Lumber

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--

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?