Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Sally Rooney, _Normal People_

I WAS NOT expecting to like this as much as I liked the first one, that being how it so often goes (cf. Nell Zink, Zadie Smith, or even Thackeray, Woolf, and Forster as sophomore slumpers), but I actually liked it more.

Rooney, who came up with a strong complex first person narration in Conversations with Friends, this time goes with free indirect discourse, raising the stakes by alternating point of view between Connell and Marianne, an on-again, off-again couple who become lovers in their last year of secondary school and then are intermittently so throughout university (they both attend Trinity College in Dublin).

Marianne comes from a wealthier family than Connell does, so much so that Connell's mother cleans Marianne's family's house, and she is brilliant into the bargain, She would seem to have the edge in power within the relationship, setting us up for a peasant-wins-the-princess story. Hold on, though. Connell is a star footballer and handsome, so he runs with their school's A-listers, while Marianne is spooky and plain, and her family devotes serious effort to eroding her self-esteem. He is at the focal point of power in their school, Marianne a cold, eccentric satellite, so they keep their relationship secret to protect his reputation, and he asks another girl out for "Debs," which sounds roughly equivalent to senior prom. Marianne is still hurt, of course.

Off at university, though, the shoe is on the other foot. Wealthy, sophisticated, whip-smart, Marianne promptly becomes one of the cool kids, while Connell is just another striver from the provinces, a "culchie" (which sounds roughly equivalent to "redneck").  Nonetheless, the affair resurges. In a way.  Connell can't afford to stay in Dublin for the summer. Will wealthy Marianne offer to let him stay with her? Will he get up the gumption to ask?

No and no, so we're back on the rocks. The course of true love ne'er did run smooth, and Rooney is once again particularly good on how true love can fail to run smooth in the 21st century. "When I was in school," Connell's mother Lorraine sighs, "you were either going with someone or you weren't." Ah, those were the days. Even at novel's end, things between Connell and Marianne are a bit up in the air.  But hope hovers.

I would recommend Rooney to anyone looking for a contempoorary Jane Austen. Not so far as manners and mores go, to be sure. At a crucial moment, Connell has to decide how to respond to Marianne's sudden unveiling of a masochistoic tendency-- a problem no Austen hero ever faced (explicitly--we may wonder about Edmund Bertram). Unlikely , too, would be an Austen heroine who laments, as Marianne does, "I don't know what's wrong with me. I don't know why I can't be  like normal people." But for sheer narrative art, command of voice, and an all-encompassing novelistic eye--all the things that really make Jane Austen who she is (not the Empire dresses and tea sets of the films), Rooney has it.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Amy Fusselman, _Idiophone: An Essay_

IT SURPRISED ME to see this long-listed in The Believer as a best non-fiction book of 2018, because I was under the impression it was poetry. Granted, my recents for thinking it poetry were superficial, i.e., each sentence gets its own line. No hanging indents, true, but the lineation effect is strong, and despite the book's subtitle, the text's free associations, its leaps into fantasy, its flirting with anaphora, and its general imaginative mobility seem much more poetic than essayistic.

Classification does not matter all that much, I suppose, until is a question of awards. There is no Believer Prize, nor Pulitzer nor National Book Award, for Best Unclassifiable Text. But wouldn't it be great if there was?

Idiophone tellingly reflects on its own unclassifiability:

I have had my balls busted, I tell you.
I have had my balls busted by mice rejecting my work.
I have had my balls busted by mice who say, "This is a problem:
your writing is not short stories,
it is not a novel,
it is nonfiction but it is not the kind of nonfiction we are used to,
it doesn't sound like poetry,
Just put it in a box, would you?
Just put it in a box so w can contain it?"

An "idiophone" is "a any musical instrument that creates sound primarily by the instrument as a whole vibrating--without the use of strings or membranes" (Wikipedia), like a cymbal or a triangle or the "slit gong" carved from a breadfruit tree that Fusselman ponders throughout the book.

Idiophone itself, we might say, is idiophonic, its sound the sound made when Fusselman's sensibility is struck, so to speak, by a memory, by a fantasy, by a circumstance. It's a sound that sounds only like itself, as a gong sounds only like a gong, so Idiophone is not a book that will much remind you of any other book. It's easy to fall for, though, as compulsively readable as it is hard to classify. Whether it is considering The Nutcracker, baby bunnies as EMTs, the Talking Heads, or childrearing, the sound it returns when touched is distinctly its own.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Henry, _Words of Christ_ (2)

HENRY IS PARTIAL to the Gospel of John, for which he does some special pleading: "Whatever might be the date of its definitive and complete redaction, this Gospel comes, as the others, from a collection of early texts, without a doubt the most primitive." Without a doubt? I don't think any NT scholar thinks John represents the most primitive anything--certainly not in its opening statements, to which Henry gives particular attention. So Henry lost me a bit there, as he also did in making a very fine but elusive distinction between Parole and Verbe. Translator Christine Gschwandtner helpfully gives the original French whenever either term appears, but both translate as "Word," and it was not quite clear to me why Henry calls the Word Parole in one place but Verbe in another.

Those are my sole complaints, though. Every page, it seemed, had some startling idea that was new to me.

For instance--that much of what Jesus says just flat out contradicts common sense and best practices. The workers in the vineyard who arrived late get paid just as much as those who started at sunrise. What? Is that fair? I don't care what my mother or siblings want. That's cold. Love  your enemies. That's not going to work out, friend. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Right, sure. The last shall be first. Uh huh.

Time after time, "these words run counter to the the idea that we spontaneously form about ourselves and yet, at the same time, they kindle in us an acute awareness of the fragility of that idea." The sheer otherness of the teaching, its utter dissimilarity from what any sensible person would tell you, is for Henry an indication that it is not ultimately coming from a "person" at all.

Or Chapter 9, "The Difficulty for Humans to Hear Christ's Word," which for me seemed the perfect commentary on Milton's Satan.

Consequently, the I which constantly lives the extraordinary capacity of putting each of these powers [of being alive] into play whenever it wants, easily imagines itself to be their source. It thinks that it is itself who provides them, that it draws them in some manner from itself each time it exercises them. Source and grounding of all the powers which make up its being, it deems itself finally to be the source and the foundation of its very being.

This delusion, perfectly illustrated by Satan's recruiting speech in Book 6 of Paradise Lost, Henry goes on to call "the source of evil."

Speaking of Milton, I found myself wondering whether Henry wasn't just a bit of a Protestant. The book's finale is an analysis of the mass, so he's obviously Catholic, but when he writes, "The possibility for humans to hear the word of Christ in their hearts is precisely that of comprehending the Scriptures" (emphasis his), I had to wonder whether a little Lutheran sola scriptura had gotten into his thinking.

Finally--why the playground swing on the cover?

Monday, August 12, 2019

Michel Henry, _Words of Christ_, trans. Christina Gschwandtner (1)

NOT AT ALL sure I can do justice to this argument--not that that has stopped me before.

Henry argues that Jesus's own words, as  transmitted in the gospels, are convincing evidence that Jesus is what he says he is, i.e., the Christ, the son of God. Not because we can simply take Jesus at his word, but because, given what he talks about and how he talks about it, his claim to be divine is more plausible than other available explanations.

For a couple of reasons, I found this whole approach utterly unexpected and refreshing. First, I grew up in and am more or less still influenced by a liberal, mainline kind of post-Emersonian Protestantism that downplays (without quite dispensing with) the divinity of Jesus. Prophet, teacher, visionary, fighter for social justice, resister...Jesus is our guy, certainly, and we pray in his name, but we do not put that much emphasis on his being God, precisely. It's not so much that we deny his divinity as just prefer that it not come up.

Second, Henry is coming at the question not so much as a theologian as a phenomenologist, that being what Henry (1922-1002) was; he has a lengthy entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

So, we are talking about Being. The fundamental point about our being is that we know we are alive, we are participating and experiencing life, but we are incapable of sustaining this life we have all by ourselves. We need a continual intake of food, water, oxygen, for one thing, and then so on up Maslow's hierarchy. For another thing, the day will come to all of us when life, for all we can do, departs. We are endowed with and sustained in this astonishing thing, Being, by something not ourselves.

Another fundamental thing about our being is that there is an outside and an inside: experience involving the senses and interaction with things external to us, and another kind of experience that seems private, inaccessible to others--consciousness, reflection, thought. Here too a kind of otherness arises, as our thoughts do not simply mirror what we are presented with from outside, but seem capable adopting a configuration of their own.

Henry argues that Jesus seems perfectly cognizant of these and other aspects of Being, and has a unprecedentedly lucid account of why Being is the way it is. In fact, Jesus' intimacy with Being is so pronounced that ultimately the best explanation is that he is the author of Being. He understands it as completely as he does because he created it.

We'll have to pick this up later.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Sei Shonagon, _The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon_, trans. Ivan Morris

I READ THIS in the mid-to-late 1980s, right after I read The Tale of Genji; it hails from the same time and place, the Japanese royal court circa 1000 BCE. Though Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikubu, one reads, did not get along, the Pillow Book is the best place to go if you have finished Tale of Genji but still haven't had your fill of the subtleties of court life in Heian-kyo.

Having re-read Genji because I was curious about the new Royall Tyler translation, I found myself thinking about returning to this as well. As far as I know, there is no new translation of this--the Ivan Morris Penguin, with its extensive footnotes, is the same one I read back in the second Reagan administration--but I have had a new perspective on Sei Shonagon since encountering her in John D'Agata's anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay.

D'Agata is particularly interested in prose forms that dance with the poetic--not in having saturatedly lyrical language, which poetry rarely has these days in any case, but in having an oblique relation to representation, or by a surprising formal strategy, or in relying on the implicit...you get the idea. His anthology The Next American Essay contained an intriguing array of such pieces, all dating from recent decades. Lost Origins, his next anthology, looked for other examples of prose forms that engage the poetic, but going back to antiquity.  And there was where I re-encountered Sei Shonagon.

The Pillow Book engages poetry partly because poetry was so woven into the fabric of the court. Everyone was supposed to be able to write poems (sometimes on the spot), understand poems, quote poems, recognize allusions to famous poems...everyday was oral exam day in Heian-kyo. Sei Shonagon is always delighted to hear one of her poems landed well, that people were repeating it. She quotes poems regularly.

Beyond that, though, some of her entries might, with the right lens, be poems--not in her terms, but in ours. A good many of her entries are lists: "Things That Give a Clean Feeling," "Things That Give an Unclean Feeling" (a longer list), "Adorable Things" (a fairly long list, despite her being capable of considerable acerbity). I liked these lists the first time around, as they conjured up the court world in vivid detail, but reading them as a kind of poem (as D'Agata had persuaded me to do) made them even better. Let me quote "Things That Give a Clean Feeling" in its entirety:

An earthen cup. A new metal bowl.
A rush mat.
The play of the light on water as one pours it into a vessel.
A new wooden chest.

See what I mean? It was written just over a thousand years ago, but the imagist detail, the suppression of narrative, the juxtaposition of bare domestic items and that sudden "play of light"--if I came across this in a journal, I would check the contributors' list to see if this person had a book out. And she does--Sei Shoinagon's Pillow Book.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Steve Erickson, _Shadowbahn_

HOW DID I miss this guy? I bought this because I was fascinated by an interview Erickson gave in The Believer (February/March 2019), but he has been publishing for a long time. When the author bio on Shadowbahn noted that he had published in Conjunctions, I was even more surprised that I did  not know him. I have been reading Conjunctions faithfully since the 1990s--how did I miss him? I looked up a couple of his stories that had appeared there, and it turned out I had read them and liked them, just not followed up. My own fault.

Well, it's not too late. I'll just have to catch up.

So... Shadowbahn. It is set in 2021, and the Twin Towers materialize ghostlike in South Dakota. In one of the upper floors, a being materializes--it is Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis's stillborn older twin. (Jesse's previous most remarkable manifestation in our culture, I would say, was in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "Tupelo.") , Somehow, Jesse's materializing means that Elvis was never born.

A wide streak in the novel concerns the difference it makes that there was never an Elvis. For one thing, no Beatles--those Liverpool lads do form a rock'n'roll band, and do have a rambunctious residency in Hamburg, but the soil has not been prepared for American Beatlemania, so that never happens, and accordingly a key ingredient of the 1960s never happens. Speaking of key ingredients of the 1960s, JFK is never elected, either, as an un-Elvis-ified Democratic party decided to go with the older and more distinguished Adlai Stevenson in 1960. JFK leaves politics and winds up hanging out at Warhol's Factory, where....

...never mind, I'll save you a few surprises. Meanwhile, back in 2021, Parker and Zema, siblings but racially distinct (Zema was adopted), are on a cross-country car trip from LA to Chicago (yep, Route 66) when they revise their itinerary to include the newly-manifested Twin Towers. Crossing a landscape that has become politically fragmented--some regions have seceded as part of a movement called Disunion--they listen to their father's playlist of twinned songs. Their father is a music-obsessed novelist who, one guesses, bears a certain similarity to Steve Erickson.

The father's commentary on the playlist is--to put it simply--among the best writing I've read on rock/pop music in years. I would single out the chapter on Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" read against Bruce Springsteen's "Murder Incorporated"--had you, like me, failed to realize they were written in the same timeframe, and both alike not released until much later?--but they're all brilliant. Jesse's essay (he becomes a writer for the magazine Rolling Stone might have been had "rock" not happened) about encountering the Beatles in Hamburg is equally remarkable.

Erickson meditates throughout on what differences an event (one that happens or that does not happen) can make. It's an "alternative history" novel, in a way, but an unusually astute and self-aware one.