Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Esi Edugyan, _Washington Black_

OUR BOOK CLUB selection for November, and one about which I had no particular expectations. I had never heard of the author. The novel had made NYT Best Books of the Year list, but many a book has made that list without necessarily being my cup of tea. So...no expectations. Then I was hooked by the first chapter. This book is a gem.

Washington Black, the narrator, is an 11-year-old slave on Barbados; Titch Wilde, his owner's brother, a gentleman scientist and aspiring hot-air balloonist, takes Wash along with him as he heads to the United States, and then to the Arctic, where he hopes to find his rumored-dead father, also a gentleman scientist. The father, it turns out, is alive, but Titch inexplicably abandons Wash, leaving him with Titch's father while vanishing into a snowstorm.

On his own, Wash lands first in Canada, then goes to England, becoming an amateur scientist himself, but continually fearing capture and re-enslavement. He falls in love; he and his beloved, Tanna, follow a trail of clues to Morocco, where Titch is rumored to have wound up. Sure enough, there he is.

Edugyan skillfully and convincingly evokes the worlds of 19th century fiction. As a boy in  the care of a feckless, kind but unreliable adult, Wash is in an utterly Dickensian situation. The picaresque plot takes him all over the world, as in a Jules Verne novel. The description of the Arctic reminded me of Shelley's Frankenstein, and Titch and Wash seemed for the first half of the novel an ingenious re-imagining of Huck and Jim, with ethnicities switched.

The prose is beautiful--and I don't mean it is some oily, overstuffed Victorian pastiche, either, but really beautiful, as when Wash gets to the Arctic:

   I had been warned by Mister Ibel that snow was white, and cold. But it was not white: it held all the colors of the spectrum. It was blue and green and yellow and teal; there were delicate pink tintings in some of the cliffs as we passed. As the light shifted in the sky, so too did the snow around us deepen, find new hues, the way an ocean is never blue but some constantly changing color.

Or when he dives to seek aquatic specimens:

   How luminous the world was, in the shallows. I could see all the golden light of the dying morning, I could see the debris in it stirring, coming alive. Blue, purple, gold cilia turned in the watery yellow shafts of light slicing down. In the gilded blur I caught the flashing eyes of shrimp, alien and sinewy.

The novel's ending is stunning, a sudden Moroccan sandstorm matching the snowstorm into which Titch disappeared, a parallel realization that what children feel for the adults in their lives and what those adults feel for them is not necessarily reciprocal, and Wash suddenly understanding he is at the crossroads of his life.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

David Shields and Shane Salerno, _Salinger_

I bought this about the time it came out, back in 2013, and even as I carried it to to the checkout counter at Barnes and Noble I was wondering why I was buying it. There was the David Shields factor--I had read and enjoyed three of his books--and I liked the jacket design, too, an evocation of the cover of the paperback Catcher cover that had been ubiquitous in my salad days.

But I wouldn't have thought I would be curious enough about Salinger's life to pick up a hefty (just under 700 pages, all told) oral biography of him. I had read his books, thought well of them, but he was never, for me, a particular favorite. I was reasonably certain I was never going to teach any off this books. Yet there I was, leaving the store with it, duly paid for.

So, I have been reading it desultorily over the last six years, I guess, and just finished. As oral biographies go, it's no Edie, but not bad. What have we learned?

I did not how horrible his WW II experience was--"For Esmé" should have been clue enough, but Shields & Salerno make the case for PTSD as the core of the oeuvre, and they have a point.

They have a long appendix describing the work Salinger completed (maybe) before this death, with the statement, "These works will be published in irregular installments between 2015 and 2020." Hmm, maybe not. I wonder what the hangup is. I would certainly be among the few hundred million curious to see what he was up to during the lengthy no-publications period.

My big takeaway, though, is that striking a massive chord with the youth of America is a mixed blessing...maybe not even that, maybe more of a very peculiar damnation. I'm thinking not only of Salinger, but of Harper Lee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain. Does any American writer ever get off scot-free after re-wiring a generation's circuits? Dylan, maybe. Motorcycle accident and re-invention as escape hatch.

Still, having not only bought this brick of a book but also read it, I have to ask...why? Why am I curious about the life of J. D. Salinger?

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Ben Marcus, _Notes from the Fog_

NUMBER THREE IN my campaign to read more short story collections, but I certainly would have read this one in any case--Marcus has been among my very favorite writers since his first book, Age of Wire and String.

I tend to think of him as having an "earlier manner"--that of Age of Wire and String and of Notable American Women--and a "later manner," that of The Flame Alphabet and of his previous book, Leaving the Sea, also a story collection. The earlier manner, in my head, is stranger, wilder, scarier, more original; the narration often seemed too be coming from someone with only a nodding acquaintance with humanity, baffling and exhilarating at once. The later manner is more that ofd Marcus's New Yorker stories, a bit more domesticated, a bit more within familiar lit-fic boundaries.

(That sounds like the classic lament of the old fan, I realize. My favorite REM album remains Murmur.)

Almost all of the previously-published stories in Notes from the Fog (that is, ten of the thirteen) were published since Leaving the Sea came out in early 2014, but one dates all the way back to 2008. "A Suicide of Trees," which appeared as "A Failure of Concern" in Harpers, is a mainline shot of everything about Marcus's writing that I fell in love with: the missing father, the mysterious agents Rogerson and Mattingly, the sentences like "My father's living body on the property was a caution to me: like a crystal ball smeared with the blood of a neighbor's pet."

Not that Marcus's later manner lacks its own eddies of disquiet. As in Flame Alphabet and Leaving the Sea, we have inexplicable forced evacuations, family estrangements, and Thompson himself louring on the horizon, performing unthinkable experiments. "Cold Little Bird"does a neat reversal on a classic Marcus motif in giving us a son who becomes chillingly remote from his father, the son's aloofness seeming to strike everyone except our narrator, the mystified father, as perfectly normal.

What most struck me, though, was that the three stories that had not previously appeared anywhere--"Precious Precious," "The Boys," and "Notes from the Fog"--seem to be leaning into a whole new strange. Do they date back to the aughts, or do they signal a new manner with some dollops of starter culture from the earlier manner, the weirdly detached, ostranenie-flavored language of the earlier manner blended with adult pain? In "Precious Precious" we have an aging parent in an institution with startlingly frosty nurses and a pill that will not stay swallowed. "The Boys" is a bit Hawthorne-like, with a woman drifting into her sister's abandoned identity. "Notes from the Fog" particularly recalls the old Marcus discombobulation ("I had a made-up language, with words that mostly sounded like breath gone wrong, the last breaths of an old man, and I could recite that for someone if they paid me"), but at the same time it revolves around all too familiar domestic disasters: being fired, a spouse with cancer.

The last of our money was spent on the hole we put her in. A coffins and some flowers and some food for the few people that came by. [...] That was what a family was now, just this one body that had a lot of parts, and several heads, and it had children's voices and a man's voice, and it was a force to be reckoned with. So until we learned how to do that, until we could glide  through the world as fast as a cat, them hanging from me and me carrying them along, we'd have to be apart. Just for a little while.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Lauren Haldeman, _Instead of Dying_

SELECTED BY SUSAN Howe for the Colorado Prize for Poetry, which is recommendation enough for me and, I imagine, for you.

The volume has a kind of...I'm not sure this is the best word, but I'm going to go with "spatial" arrangement. It is arranged in seven sections, with the twist that the first and seventh sections are formally alike--so much so, in fact, that they could be considered two halves of one long poem. The second and fifth sections are similarly alike, as are the third and sixth. The fourth, right at the midpoint of the book, is a kind of stand-alone pivot piece, the focal point of a not-quite chiasmus.

The poems in second and fifth sections themselves seem chiasmus-inspired. There are five poems in each section, unless we want to say ten, because they come in pairs; Haldeman (I got to hear her read recently) calls them "mirror poems." The first line of the poem on the verso of two facing pages will be flipped, as it were, in the first line of the poem on the recto page. For example, the opening line "Yes. Alien life-forms exist" in one poem becomes "Existing forms of life are alien; yes &" in the first line of the poem on the facing page. It's a simple enough trick, but the results are fascinating, as the paired poems, even though the key words are unchanged, often proceed down surprisingly different paths. Two roads diverge in a yellow wood, and Haldeman takes both.

The third and the sixth sections sound like transmissions that somehow drifted in on the ether from a dada-verse. The larger part of them, it turns out, are things Haldeman's daughter said: "My skin smells like the sun / after I've been in the sun," or "Did the bubble run out of batteries?" The lingering impression is of charm, although a charm not without occasional disquiet: "Kitty is climbing that great ladder of shadows."

The central section of the book, its Ptolemaic Earth or Copernican sun, is a history of western astronomy in seven short biographical poems (Ptolemy, Aristotle, Copernicus, et al.) and a finale, "Eighth Heaven." Spookily informative. I particularly recommend "Tycho Brahe."

The real weight of the book, though, is in outer shell, so to speak, its first and its final sections, each consisting of seven poems, each inspired by a life that might have been lived by Haldeman's late brother, murdered on the streets of Denver. It's a different approach--memories are our usual resource in commemorating our dead--but dreaming up futures for the lost loved one, as Haldeman does, has an emotional power of its own.