Loads of Learned Lumber

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.