Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Anne Boyer, _The Undying_

THE QUICKEST WAY to describe this book is to call it a memoir about having and being treated for breast cancer, but unfortunately that description gives you next to no idea of what the book is actually like.

 "I do not want to tell the story of cancer in the way I have been taught to tell it," Boyer declares, and she succeeds. Memoirs about illness do seem to have only a few default settings; they are going to be about resilience, persistence, holding onto hope, learning what is really important, cherishing the present moment...all excellent qualities, needless to say. Boyer simply isn't interested in any of that. No tributes to the doctors and nurses who worked with her, nor to friends and family, nothing about lessons learned or values affirmed. The book is unsentimental to the point of astringency. Unlikely to be tapped by Oprah.

If Boyer is not interested in any of the usual ingredients of an illness memoir, what is she interested in? The literary record of illness, for one thing. I had never heard of Aelius Aristides, for instance, but he sounds worth reading, and I did not know that Frances Burney, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Harriet Martineau had all written vividly of being ill. 

She is also interested in writing about the horrors of being a patient in the time of late capitalism:

You can't drive yourself home the same day you have had a double mastectomy of course, whimpering in pain, unable to use your arms, with four drainage bags hanging from your torso, delirious from anesthesia and barely able to walk. You are not supposed to be alone when you get home, either. But no one really asks how you manage it once you are forced out of the surgery center--who, if anyone, you have to care for you, what sacrifices these caretakers might have to make or the support they require.

For another thing, she is interested in letting you know exactly what is involved in her treatment, as in "the brain damage from chemotherapy is cumulative and unpredictable," or "a nurse in a hazmat suit inserts a large needle into my plastic subdermal port."

And, in her case, the treatment works: between the double mastectomy and the drugs, "the cancer is gone." You may be expecting Boyer to break out the familiar tropes at this point. Nope.

With that news, I am like a baby being born into the hands of a body made only of the grand debt of love and rage, and if I live another forty-one years to avenge what happened it still won't be enough.


Saturday, November 28, 2020

Boris Pasternak, _Doctor Zhivago_, trans. Max Hayward and Manya Harari

 MY WIFE AND I belong to a group called “The Big-Ass Book Club.” Rather than read one normal-length book a month, as most book clubs do, we pick very long books and read them at a rate of about a hundred pages a month. This not only allows us to choose books that would be impractically long for most clubs, but also gives us time to steep in them. The slower pace is helpful since the BABC inclines to novels with a lot going on—The Magic Mountain, Middlemarch, Infinite Jest

Another fun thing about the BABC is that my wife and I have an established tradition: I read them aloud while she knits. This takes a while, but probably not as long as it would for us both to read the book ourselves separately, and it’s a nice thing to do together. Also, she gets a lot of knitting done.

So, the BABC just finished Doctor Zhivago. I had not wanted to read it, since I had read it long ago, very quickly, for a class I took as an undergraduate, and did not recall much liking it. But the others preferred it to tackling Brothers Karamazov, so there we were.

My wife and I started off with the new (2010) Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, mainly just because it was newer and presumably an improvement. (We had gone with a more recent translation of The Magic Mountain, the one by John Woods, for the same reason.) Funny thing—it was awkward to read aloud. A lot of sentences just did not land right and had to be read twice. (Were P&V trying to be scrupulous about following the Russian word order?) So, I found my parents’ old copy of the first English translation, published 1958–and it was a very clear, natural-sounding read. So we just stuck with that.

And to my own surprise, I liked the novel a lot this time. 

Pasternak has a curious trick of hopping over the scenes most novelists would dwell on. We do not get the scene at the party where Lara shoots at but misses Komarovsky, for instance, even though Zhivago is at the same party. Much later in the book, the commencement of Lara’s and Zhivago’s affair is similarly slipped by without being narrated. Instead, we get minute accounts of, for example, a train journey out to the Urals. The revolution, the enormous historical upheaval during which the novel is set, occurs almost entirely offstage.

When I was 20, I would have found that narrative strategy frustrating in the extreme. But this time, it seemed brilliant. All the drama was elsewhere, in the intervals between chapters, off in the capital, and instead we saw people getting haircuts, looking for firewood, talking...and talking, talking, talking. And it struck me now, yes, that’s exactly what it would have been like. 


Friday, November 27, 2020

Farid ud-Din Attar, _The Conference of Birds, trans. Afkham Darbandi and Dick Davis

 DEEP THANKS TO Dick Davis, without whom I likely never would have read the Shahnameh nor this.

The Conference of Birds is a mystical narrative poem written in the twelfth century C.E. A gathering of birds is considering how they might contrive to see the great Simorgh, a legendary birdlike being who in the poem figures God (or divine wisdom, spiritual understanding). They pose their questions about the journey to one of their number, the hoopoe, who uses tales and parables to answer them while also sifting the inquirers a bit, determining who is really down for the rigors of the journey. 

Eventually a group sets out through seven (allegorical) valleys, each valley with its own set of tales and parables.Most of the birds fall by the wayside before the end, but eventually they do reach the Simorgh, who turns out to be....

Well! I don't want to spoil the ending for you. You can get all the details on Wikipedia, anyway. 

But my point is, The Conference of the Birds is a Persian classic whose magic would likely evaporate in translation, and evaporate all the more quickly if the translator was trying to write in English rhyming couplets--but Davis and Darbandi actually make it work. The poem reads well and the tales (most of which are traditional Persian ones, but given a Sufi dimension by Attar) emerge with glittering clarity. 

So thank you, Dick Davis and Afkham Darbandi.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Jia Tolentino, _Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion_ (and Lauren Oyler)

 JUST DAZZLING. I know it's a cliché, almost a reflex, to invoke Joan Didion when praising an emerging female master of non-fiction prose, but the comparison is just too apt to pass up in this instance. Tolentino walks the tightrope between the reporter's self-effacement and the essayist's self-exposure more nimbly than anyone save Didion herself, and her cultural radar is as keenly attuned as that which took Joan to Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love. 

Tolentino's essays about the cultural landscape (social media, MDMA, self-improvement regimens, weddings, the "difficult woman") occasionally include glimpses of a background that makes her a bit of an outlier, so far as writers go. Writers were often the kid in the back of the class, a bit alienated, contemptuous and held in contempt, dying to get away to college and once in college dying to get away to New York...but Tolentino went to a Christian high school in Texas, where she was a cheerleader, then the University of Virginia, where she was a sorority member, having been a reality TV star in between. Her parents are from the Philippines, so she no doubt knows about being marginalized, but she has had an insider's perspective in worlds the insides of which are generally under-reported in American letters.

Her style has the high sheen of New Yorker prose ("Amazon is an octopus: nimble, fluid, tentacled, brilliant, poisonous, appealing, flexible enough to squeeze enormous bulk through tiny loopholes"), but with nubbly personal detail ("I'm a repulsively fast eater in most situations"). She does journalistically precise, she does witty, she does confessional, she does lyrical.

So, I'm wondering why Lauren Oyler did such a hatchet job on this book in LRB back in January. Oyler offers Tolentino as Exhibit A in a case against "the rise of a style that I've taken to calling hysterical criticism [...]." 

These critics aren't hysterical because they have uncontrollable, misunderstood responses to social problems; they perform hysteria because they know their audience respects the existence of those problems and the chance that they may be sincere makes them difficult to criticise. Besides, what they're saying is important. If you don't believe that yourself, don't worry, they will tell you so, in terms so personal and heartfelt that you might not notice that they are doing fine.

Oyler leaves the impression that there is a lot of this sort of thing in circulation, but she does not name anyone else, leaving me not only wondering whom she had in mind--Leslie Jamison? Patricia Lockwood?--but also baffled as to what her objections were. I've decided that what she mainly objects to is that Tolentino is "doing fine." Tolentino is a little too canny, a little too on top of her game, a little too synchronized with the zeitgeist, and Oyler just has a bad feeling about the whole Jia Tolentino thing

I don't.


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Marilynne Robinson, _Jack_

 I REVIEWED THIS under my own name on a (much) more legit blog back in September, and said there essentially all I had to say about this excellent novel, but I would like to note here that not many reviewers (other than me) appreciated the extraordinary extended episode in the beginning of the novel when Jack and Della--about whom the reader who has not read Gilead and Home will know virtually nothing--find themselves locked into a cemetery and spend the night there, wandering and talking.

Dwight Garner in the NYT said it was "implausible." Jeez. Compared to what? I don't suppose people on the brink of falling in love find themselves locked into a cemetery overnight on a daily basis, but it certainly seems well within the realm of the possible. 

 Hermione Lee in NYRB: "readers may well feel they too have been locked in all night." Ouch. I, on the other hand, was hoping the episode would last for the whole book.

Only Anne Enright in LRB gets it right, I think. 

The cemetery episode gets at the real magic of the novel as a form: its ability to find the something in the almost nothing in which we pass the larger parts of our lives. Novels can be action-packed, of course, with pursuits and escapes and battles and noisy doings of all sorts, but the real genius of the novel, from Defoe to Austen to Joyce to Robinson, is in its scrutiny of the perfectly ordinary, the quotidian, the unremarkable, and seeing into into so deeply that it opens up and reveals the heart of the mystery. 

As Jane Eyre is truly born in that window seat when she stands up to John Reed, and so her novel begins there, so Jack and Della, both adults, are truly born when they are finally free to open up to each other, and so their novel begins there.

Jack and Della in Bellefontaine is a prolonged moment of grace, an iridescent bubble that magically holds for seventy-some pages. It's a miracle. 


Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Michael Cavanagh, _Paradise Lost: A Primer_ (ed. Scott Newstok)

I GAMELY ATTEMPTED Paradise Lost on my own the summer I was nineteen and actually made it all the way to the end, though I would not have been able to tell anyone anything coherent about it. About three years later I read it again while a student in Michael Cavanagh's course on Milton, and that did the trick. In grad school, I was willing to credit almost anything Eliot said in his criticism, but I never bought into his attempt to dethrone Milton. I had been inoculated.

Reading Michael's posthumously-published book on Paradise Lost is a bit like taking the course again but actually much better, since Michael had taught and thought about the poem a great deal more in the twenty-odd years after he had me in class, and I have had the benefit of another dozen or so times through it myself. 

As the subtitle indicates, Paradise Lost: A Primer is not a contribution to the specialist literature on the poem. It is not exactly a Dummy's Guide, either, though--Michael does not explain who William Blake is or what the English Civil War was. 

It may be the perfect book for someone in my situation, actually, as a teacher whose specialty lies well outside the early modern period yet who often teaches Paradise Lost in our small department's undergraduate survey course.

The MLA guides to teaching this or that canonical text are rarely helpful, I've found; they are usually too interested in throwing whatever the fashionable shapes of the moment are. Reading a raff of recent articles will usually leave you lost in the weeds with nothing in which an undergraduate audience's attention will find purchase. 

My fallback tactic--read everything in the back of the Norton Critical Edition--worked reasonably well. But to any non-specialist teaching the poem now, I would say: read Cavanagh. You will get a tour of the poem's most universally discussable themes and an introduction to its most influential critics in the utterly engaging voce of someone who has lived with and loved the poem for most of a lifetime. And that is exactly what will help you the most.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Jeanine Cummins, _American Dirt_

THIS FALL, I gave a talk to a local group about the controversy surrounding this novel and about cultural appropriation. As someone who aspires to being thorough and fair, I included in my preparation for the talk the actual reading of the novel I would be talking about. 

Given the widespread condemnation American Dirt has met with, it would be fun to report that it turned out to be a fine novel. Unfortunately, it didn't. Run-of-the-mill book club fodder at best. 

Heroine Lydia seems designed to appeal to US book club readers. Thirty-something, middle class (she owns a small bookstore in Acapulco), wife of a crusading journalist, devoted mother of a special-needs son. Book clubbers like a hooky opening, so in the first chapter almost all of Lydia's family is murdered at a niece's quinceañera. She and her son survive by hiding in a bathroom. They flee northward.

The murder has been ordered by a local drug cartel kingpin. enraged by the crusading journalist's exposé of his corruption. Soapy enough for you? No? Okay, let's throw in that the kingpin was a favorite customer at Lydia's bookstore without her ever suspecting what he did for a living, that he shows her his poetry and seems to have a crush on her, devoted husband and father though he is. Still not soapy enough? Okay, his daughter, away at university in Spain, is so ashamed of her family after reading the crusading journalist's exposé that she kills herself. Hence the kingpin's bloody rage. That's got to be soapy enough for anyone.

So. Northward they flee. On la Bestia, Lydia and her son become friends and traveling companions with a pair of teenaged Guatemalan sisters. They deal with corrupt officials, potential informers, possibly untrustworthy coyotes. By the end, we have a pile-up of thriller plot clichés.

The writing is not good, though occasionally entertainingly bizarre. For instance: "the prickly, unbalanced gate of the diarrhetically infirm." I'm pretty sure she meant "gait," not "gate," but even the corrected version sounds strange. Or: "Lydia funnels gratitude into the slow blink of her lashes." The funnel ensures the gratitude goes right into the lashes, I suppose, with none spilling over wasted into the eyebrows.

The resentment of any number of Latinx writers against Cummins and against Oprah's Book Club, whose anointing of the novel was guaranteed to make it the best-selling novel about immigrants and refugees this year and perhaps ever, is all too easy to understand.


Sunday, November 22, 2020

Trisha Low, _Socialist Realism_

 NOBODY'S FAULT BUT mine, but by the time I picked this up to read it, I had completely forgotten what led me to purchase it in the first place.

For one thing, it was in a poetry stack, so I had been assuming it was poetry, and that I had heard Low give a treading, or had read an enthusiastic review...but I was wrong. They book is not poetry, I had not heard her read, and I could find no review I was likely to have come across.

Well.

I started in on it anyway, and liked it well enough to finish. It is a hard book to describe, though. Very like a memoir (very like a whale) for long stretches, but includes several extended discussions of aesthetics and politics as well.

From the intersection of aesthetics and politics arises the book's interest in socialist realism, I would guess. Socialist realism was the officially approved aesthetic of the USSR in the 1930s--novels like Ostrovsky's How the Steel Was Tempered, paintings like those by Aleksandr Samokhalov of buff and attractive factory workers. I was under the impression that socialist realism had no cachet whatsoever, but perhaps it is overdue for an ironic appropriation á la Norman Rockwell.

What connects Low to socialist realism may be the utopian streak in it. Socialist realism sought to represent the Soviet Union as though its goal of socialism had already been achieved rather than being merely in process. It wished to depict in advance the brighter future that was assumed to be imminent. In other words, what looks in socialist realism like sheer dishonesty (cf. American advertising art of almost any era but particularly the 1950s) could be charitably seen as visionary.

It's a stretch, methinks. Still, finding something honorable in socialist realism is at least novel.

Low's book is also interesting on the topic of home. Her parents were from Hong Kong, but she spent her childhood in Singapore, then was educated in England and the United States. She now lives in the US, sometimes on one coast, sometimes on the other. Has she no home? Has she several? She is a poet who writes in prose, an experimentalist who feels affinity with RAPP. How does it feel to be without a home, relatively unknown, like a rolling stone? Not that bad, replies Trisha Low. 


Saturday, November 14, 2020

Audre Lorde, _The Cancer Journals_

 I HAVE READ a fair number of poems and essays by Lorde, but not a whole book, until now. I picked up The Cancer Journals at this late date (published 1980) because I recently read (and will eventually blog about) Anne Boyer's The Undying, about her own experience with breast cancer. I was considering Boyer's book for a course I am soon to teach on the literature of illness, and Boyer mentions Lorde's book in passing. I remembered that The Cancer Journals had made a great impression on a few friends and acquaintances, so I decided to check it out as well.

The Cancer Journals is short (less than eighty pages). The first and last of its three sections read not exactly like journals but more like free-standing essays (for instance, one is mainly concerned with the topic of prostheses). The middle section, the longest, quotes often from Lorde's journals but for the most part reads more like a memoir, a reflection on experience at some remove in time, rather than the immediate impressions of a journal.

I thought Boyer's the better book on the whole, I'd say, but the Lorde seems like a better bet for the undergraduate classroom. Boyer steers as clear as she can of anything that seems at all like classic patient memoir, for one thing, and I suspect a lot of students would find that perverse and frustrating. For another, she is more than willing to plunge into the brambles of high theory. Teaching it, I suspect, would be quite a bit of work.

Lorde's prose is quite a bit closer to the ground: "my brain felt like grey mush," for instance, or "there was a tremendous amount of love and support flowing into me from the women around me, and it felt like being bathed in a continuous tide of positive energies [...]". Boyer is too fastidious a writer, I think, to go in for talking about tides of positive energies, and good for her. But my students talk quite a bit like the way Lorde writes, and I think The Cancer Journals is going to meet them just about exactly where they are.

Not that The Cancer Journals lacks for challenging material. Lorde foregrounds her identity as a black lesbian feminist and is perfectly willing to call out anything in her treatment or rehab that looks like sexism, racism, or homophobia. Students tend to be receptive to that sort of critique these days, though. I'm not sure how well they would navigate sentences like this one, from Boyer: "Patients become information not merely via the quantities of whatever emerges from or passes through their discrete bodies, the bodies and sensations of entire populations become the math of likelihood (of falling ill or staying well, of living or dying, of healing or suffering) upon which treatment is based."

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Yuri Slezkine, _The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution_, 2 of 2

 SLEZKINE’S HISTORY IS founded on an elaborate conceit: that Bolshevism and the society based upon it closely resembled a religious movement. 

This parallel occurs in a great many analyses, and I know (in part from reviews of Slezkine’s book) that Marxists are tired of hearing it. As far as they are concerned, Marxism is based on the objective study of history, not on myth or revelation, and their adherence to it is based on reason, not on faith. They do have a point.

Slezkine's conceit is not a cheap shot, though, not just a snarky aside. He came to it through an immersion in the archive--the books, journals, letters, oral histories of hundreds of actual Bolsheviks--that I imagine has few parallels among the other historians of the period. He also has done a lot of homework in the study of religion, it appears. 

In sum, I would say he makes the case. Marxism may not be a religion, but Bolshevism and the early years the Soviet state so closely resemble a religious movement as to make no difference--psychologically, in any case. The hopes, the energy, the eventual compromises, the betrayals, the ultimate collapse--the scale was immense, covering a good part of the globe, but the arc not all that different from that of the Millerites.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Yuri Slezkine, _The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution_, 1 of 2

SO, HOW TO  write sensibly of a roughly 1,000 page history in a 4-5 paragraph blog post?

I can hardly do justice to the book. The time Slezkine must have spent in the archives is staggering, to say nothing of the effort he had to put into translations of most of the documents he quotes, and then the composing of the narrative itself. Miraculously, the finished product is a swift and engaging read.

The House of Government was an enormous apartment complex in Moscow, designed and built by the Soviet government, meant to embody the capabilities, virtues, and values of the new socialist society. The greater part of the inhabitants were the families of people from the higher (though not necessarily the highest) echelons of the new national administration, in the arts, engineering, agriculture, and so on.

The word “saga” in the subtitle fits in a couple of ways. For one thing, the narrative has an arc. In the ‘teens, we have the wild green hopes of the revolutionaries, seemingly deliriously out of touch with reality, but suddenly vindicated by events. In the twenties, we get the intoxication of their finding themselves in power, in history’s vanguard, creating the future, living the prophecy.   As the later twenties turn into the thirties, they are hard at work in the newly-established routines, carrying out the Five-Year Plan, making things happen, tempering the steel. The celebrations over the Five-Year Plan’s having succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations are just settling down when Kirov is assassinated and the trials begin. As the thirties wear on, most inhabitants of the House of Government are waiting for that midnight knock on the door, which inevitably, sooner or later, comes.

Also saga-like is that the book has a recurring cast. We meet people as young revolutionaries; we see them take on roles in the Soviet state, movie into the House of Government, and start families. We see them at their summer dachas, hear about what their children are doing at school, find out what they are reading and writing. Then...night descends. Imagine Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet lasting for two hundred pages. One after another, all the dedicated Communists we have seen creating the new world are taken away, some eventually to return, most not.

In some ways, Slezkine has come up with the great Russian novel about the Soviet world that never got written because Stalin was imprisoning the writers who might have written it.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Craig Brown, _Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret_

 I GOT NINETY-NINE problems but Margaret ain’t one, thank God. Sounds like she was a doozy of a problem for the House of Windsor, a standing argument for why British taxpayers should not be footing the bills for the lifestyles of the royals.

Brown cites early in his book the portrait of Margaret that appears in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope—domineering, insulting, insisting on the observance of protocols regarding her royal person while taking every liberty herself—and provides an abundance of corroborating examples. But some of the glimpses are of other sides of her, intelligent, generous, thwarted, locked in a role she never asked for but from which she could never escape. 

As its title suggests, Ninety-Nine Glimpses is not a conventional biography, but a collection of vignettes, a few fictional, the sequence roughly but not strictly chronological. Brown is a writer—he was at Private Eye for quite a while—and the vignettes lean largely towards Margaret’s acquaintances and frenemies in the literary-artistic-cultural milieu, whose many volumes of letters and memoirs testify repeatedly to Margaret’s pricklier and bitchier moments. But she had her defenders, too—Gore Vidal, for one, a man not at all inclined to flatter.

What I most appreciated about Brown’s book is that it is neither an unctuous dollop of reverence nor a sniggering scandal-fest—that is, it avoids both the Scylla and Charybdis of royal biography and so does justice to a complex person in a complex situation during an era of rapid change. When Margaret was born in 1930, many people then alive would have remembered Victoria, and the empire was intact; by the time she died in 2002, the empire was gone, and the royals’ sleazier moments were routine tabloid fodder. Her circumstances were hardly likely to bring out the best in anyone.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Hari Kunzru, _White Tears_

 STRUCTURALLY, SOMETHING OF a mystery-thriller: narrator Seth and his college buddy Carter, who comes from a fabulously wealthy family, use found recordings and studio wizardry to concoct a very-authentic-seeming sound file of a supposedly undiscovered old blues 78, Charlie Shaw's "Graveyard Blues." The fake creates internet buzz, in the wake of which Carter answers a mysterious summons  to a dangerous part of town, where he is assaulted so grievously he ends up in a coma.

Who did this? Why? What have these young enthusiasts of old sounds gotten involved in? Such questions pull in Carter's aspiring artist sister, Leonie, with whom Seth is desperately obsessed. Their search for answers leads them to...

Well, you get the idea. The questions do get answers, which I will not spoil for you, but the great thing is that Kunzru's novel lifts itself well clear of the gravitational pull of genre thanks to (1) some deft and genuinely spooky magical realism and (2) his skillful fashioning of his plot into a parable about white appropriation of black labor and black creativity.

One of my best friends had, in his twenties, a fascination with old interwar blues records--Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson, and a few score others. He never got into collecting 78s, instead building a collection of as many of the  LPs that the 78-collectors compiled as he could find and afford. I was never into it to the degree he was, but I definitely acquired a taste for it; I have a couple dozen of those albums myself. 

What does it mean when a couple of white male midwestern twenty-somethings find themselves hunched over a re-issue of a scratchy old recording, made by a black Mississippian musician about the time their parents were born, that evokes a long-vanished culture to which they have no living connection whatsoever? One could answer by talking about the power of music to transcend its circumstances--but is something vampiric also going on, some leeching of a vitality we had small hope of generating on our own? What were we looking for, and what does it tell us that we found it in Son House and Mississippi John Hurt?

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Simon Hanselmann, _Megahex_

 HERE I AM, getting tips on great comics from the New York Review of Books. A welcome new direction for them, a sad reminder of how old I am getting for me.

Megg, a witch, and Mogg, her cat familiar, share with Owl a run-down house or apartment where they sometimes entertain guests such as Werewolf Jones, who will try anything once. Hanselmann was born in Tasmania and lived in Melbourne and the time he made the comics in this volume, but the city in which Megg and Mogg live could be about anywhere in the English-speaking world. 

Megg, Mogg, and their friends are fairly committed drug and alcohol users, and the stories have an appropriate snail's-pace, zoned-out, anti-climactic feel. Hanselmann is partial to a page of twelve equal-size panels and uses a line of unvarying thickness and watercolor, all of which lend themselves to the time-stands-still world of everyone in the room being ripped out of their gourd.  

The characters do not do a heck of a lot--they mostly watch TV and play practical jokes on each other. When they do leave the house, they tend to find themselves in awkward, unpleasant scenes. Owl is the only one with a job.

What seems truest-to-life about Hanselmann's depiction of this world, and genuinely insightful, is that the other characters like Owl well enough, but consider him a dupe and a fool. Owl--who pays most of the rent, who hopes to get a promotion or a better job, who sometimes tries to quit using--is the butt of most of the jokes and pranks, the one the others regards as clueless. That is, the one character who seems to have some slight purchase on consensus social reality is, to the other characters, ridiculous.

There seems to be something profoundly accurate here--that druggies, objects of the scorn and pity of the straights, in turn feel scorn and pity for the straights. 

As far as most of the world is concerned, Megg and Mogg and most of their friends are losers, wasteoids, parasites, a disgrace--but to themselves, they are the wised-up ones, the ones who have seen through the illusions of the goals and ambitions that were offered to them, who were too intelligent to take society's bait. 



Thursday, August 13, 2020

Marilynne Robinson, _Lila_

 FUNNY THING, MY experience with this one developed along exactly the same lines as had my experience of its predecessor, Home. I was looking forward to it, but bogged down and laid it aside before hitting the 100-page mark. Then, with the news that a new Robinson novel was imminent, I picked it up, stuck with it, and ended up finding it moving and memorable.

Lila, like Home, shares its setting and characters with Gilead. Lila is the much younger wife of the Rev. John Ames, narrator of Gilead, which is cast as a long letter to his and Lila’s son, whose maturity Ames fears he will not live to see. As Home was mainly free indirect discourse from the point of view of Glory Boughton, daughter of Ames’s best friend and fellow clergyman, Lila is mainly free indirect discourse from the point of view of Lila.

Lila has had a harder time than Glory Boughton—not that being the unmarried daughter of a Presbyterian minister in small-town Iowa in the Eisenhower era was a bed of roses, by any means. Lila’s is a grim story, though. Abandoned by her family for reasons unknown, the child Lila is taken up by Doll, one of a small group of itinerant agricultural workers, a band of outsiders who have become each other’s chosen family. They get by for a while, but eventually the rigors of the Depression disintegrate the group, and Doll gets in bad trouble for attacking (maybe killing?) a member of Lila’s family of origin. 

The by-now-teenaged Lila lands in a St. Louis brothel. Relatively plain and constitutionally unable to pretend she is having a better time than she is, she does not prove a hit with the clientele. For a time she makes herself useful in other ways, then just hits the road, catching a bus for as far as her limited funds will take her, ending up in an abandoned shack on the outskirts of Gilead, Iowa.

And somehow she meets Ames. And they fall in love. Not very swoonily, or even very becomingly as far as the town of Gilead is concerned, but le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait pas, as Pascal put it. The real presiding genius here, though, may be another French Christian theologian, since Robinson is a great admirer of John Calvin. By the end, we seem to watching the mysterious operations of grace. It’s not clear whether Ames is saving Lila or Lila is saving Ames, but their marriage makes no sense at all while also being the best thing that ever happened to them.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Heather Christle, _The Crying Book_

 CHRISTLE'S BOOK-LENGTH ESSAY bears an accurate title, as it does contain a lot of information about tears and draws on technical studies of why and how people cry, but it is "about" crying in the way that William Gass's On Being Blue is "about" the color. That is, crying is the book's reliable hub, but the spokes are what keeps it turning and kept me reading.

Among the spokes: Christle's pregnancy, and the birth and infancy of her daughter; Christle's mother's experience of electro-shock therapy as a young woman, and the similar experiences of Sylvia Plath as fictionalized in The Bell Jar; a class with Deborah Digges that Christle took in college, in which Plath was one of the four poets studied; Christle's learning that the death of one friend, the poet Bill Cassidy, was a suicide through the reading of a poem by another friend, Mathias Svalina; Margery Kempe, whose loud and uncontrollable weeping was such a headache to her fellow pilgrims; crying in movies, crying at movies.

The book reminded me of Christle's poetry in all sorts of good ways--its surprising juxtapositions, their logical felt more than understood; its peculiar paradoxical levitation, seemingly walking a inch or two above the ground while carrying genuinely heavy burdens.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Jenny Offill, _Weather_

NOT A SEQUEL to Dept of Speculation, but almost feels like one.The narrator, Lizzie, is a young(ish) married woman, one child, living in New York City, well-educated (ABD), who is piecing together a career in the literary-cultural sphere (university librarian, plus part-time work handling the e-mail correspondence of her former dissertation direction, a sort of female Bill-McKibben). The child in Weather is a son rather than a daughter, but in many ways we seem to be once again seeing the world through the eyes of "the wife" of Offill's previous novel.

Which is fine by me. What I loved about Dept of Speculation was the Wife's voice, and Lizzie's voice in Weather is its twin: vulnerable, sensitized, compassionate, having some tendencies to obsession, loving her child while also being somewhat in awe of her, drily funny, smart, observant. As in Dept of Speculation, the voice comes in small packets, "short swallow-flights" as Tennyson put it, dipping in and out, many sections not even a page long--as such, exactly the sort of polaroid flash-essay someone juggling the responsibilities of the Wife/Lizzie might just barely have enough time to write.

Weather has a little less plot than the Husband's infidelity created in Dept of Speculation, but it does have some. Will Lizzie have an affair with the charismatic war correspondent she met while her husband and son are on an extended visit to the west coast, a trip Lizzie did not make because she is looking after her brother, whose wife kicked him out after he lapsed from his recovery program? So there's all that.

But Weather is mainly about the voice, and what an addictive one it is.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Cathy Park Hong, _Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning_

THIS IS MY ninety-third post of the year, seven over my previous annual high. And it’s only July. What’s going on? More time to read, no doubt, what with never going out.

Hong’s book is not the typical childhood-to-maturity memoir. It has a subtle kind of chronological progression to it, but the chapters tend to center less on an era of her life than on a topic, a focus for analysis: the situation of Koreans and Korean-Americans in the US; the standup comedy of Richard Pryor as an inspiration in Hong’s artistic practice; whiteness in our culture; Hong’s relationship to the English language; the work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and the way discussions of that work have tended to occlude the terrible way she died; a meditation on indebtedness and its supposedly obligatory attendant moral phenomenon, gratitude. 

Hong’s take on gratitude reminded me of what I once heard Jamaica Kincaid say in a commencement speech: “Bite the hand that fed you.” That is, yes, you may owe things to various people, but that does not mean they get to make your important decisions for you, so don’t let them.

If you have read any of Hong’s poetry, you would probably expect her to give a quick boot to any talk of Asians being a “model minority” (hard-working, self-denying, education-focused, family-oriented, quick to assimilate) and an even quicker boot to stereotypes of Asian women as demure and docile. You won’t be disappointed.

My favorite chapter may be the one closest to conventional memoir—“An Education,” about her time at Oberlin and her friendships there with a couple of other young Asian women artists. There’s a great screenplay in here, I suspect, a Damsels in Distress with the cuteness dialed down and the angst dialed up.

But just as remarkable is “Portrait of an Artist,” about Cha. With Dictée now emerging as a contemporary classic, Hong’s chapter on Cha deserves to become a must-read.

In her chapter on Pryor and stand-up, Hong mentions occasionally trying out a standup routine on people who came to her poetry readings, which I imagine met with as much puzzlement as (but probably less heckling than) a comedian reading poetry at a comedy club. (I kept thinking this chapter was going to mention Margaret Cho, who like Hong is ready to blow up the demure-and-docile Asian woman stereotype, but it does not.) 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Prageeta Sharma, _Grief Sequence_

MEMOIRS WRITTEN AROUND the loss of a husband has become a richly developed genre in the last decade or so--Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, Joyce Carol Oates's A Widow's Story, Gjertrud Schnackenberg's Heavenly Questions. Since women tend to live longer than men, and since more women are publishing writers now than in eras past, the genre will probably keep growing.

Grief Sequence is largely linked prose poems about the death of Sharma's husband, the composer Dale Edwin Sherrard, of a cancer that came on abruptly and took him much sooner than his doctors had been expecting. 

Given the subject matter, it seems churlish to complain, but the book did not make a very deep impression on me, I have to say. Grief is hard--perhaps impossible--to be original about, as one of humanity's oldest experiences. Even so, some writers--Didion, in my opinion--do find a way to make its peculiar estrangements vivid and clear. That never quite happens here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

William Shakespeare, _King John_

I RECENTLY READ an excellent new book of poetry titled Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition, and a microsecond of internet search yielded the information that the phrase in the title comes from King John...which I had never read. It seemed like a hint to get around to it.

King John falls between the two great history tetralogies and is relatively infrequently performed and discussed--it is not mentioned in Stephen Greenblatt's recent Tyrant, for instance, even though John would qualify on some counts. 

Like the other history plays, the gears of the plot have to do with legitimacy and succession, but in King John there is not much mystification about One True Heir--it's all about who gets the drop on whom, who gets the elbow in fastest and hardest, as the Bastard points out in the speech that begins with the line "Mad world, mad kings, mad composition!"

The Bastard (as the text typically designates him) is Philip (later Richard) Faulconbridge, illegitimate son of John's older brother, the late King Richard the Lionhearted, and the play's most interesting character. Like Richard III, Iago in Othello, and Edmund in King Lear, he is utterly candid with us, the readers/audience, about what he is up to and how self-deluded the other characters are, so his presence is always a little refreshing, ambitious and unscrupulous though he is. He's no hypocrite--not with us, at least; to the other characters, he's shameless. As the son of the late king, bastardy and all, does he have a shot? Well, stranger things have happened. 

The sentimental favorite, though, is Arthur, son of Geoffrey, the brother between Richard and John, hence the closest thing the play has to a One True Heir, but Arthur is a bit too good for this world. Don't put your money on him.

Marjorie Garber points out that the queens do a lot more politicking in King John than they get to do in the other histories. Fair point--let's not forget Margaret of Anjou, though.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Bhanu Kapil, _The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers_

REASONS TO BE cheerful: I had not heard of Bhanu Kapil until about a year ago, when a poet who often has good recommendations mentioned her to me. I bought this online. It's from a small press--Kelsey St Press--and is very sparely presented; it bears no blurbs, no descriptions, not even an author photo. As I do, I checked to see what year it was published (2001), and then noticed that my copy was the seventh printing, from 2018.

Seven printings!

Not too shabby.

And the book is astonishing. In the 1990s, Kapil undertook a project to interview as many Indian women as possible all over the world, asking them all the same twelve questions (e.g., "How will you begin?", "Who was responsible for the suffering of your mother?", "Describe a morning you woke without fear"--the whole list is on page 9). This book contains her own answers to the questions, ninety-eight prose poems in all (each question gets several answers), all but one contained on a single page.

Reading the book, one accumulates a rich sense of Kapil's parents, work, and love life, but not so much by straight exposition as by a mosaic method, each poem dazzling in its discontinuities, clear and often independent images, startling juxtapositions. For a short example, here is number 46, an answer to "Describe a morning you woke without fear':
I've followed you as far as I can. To this ribbon of silver plastic, fluttering from a tree: innards of a tape you gave me: madrigals, etc. I threw it out the window last winter, at night, when the bone stars were rising in the trees.
So we have an ending--"I've followed you as far as I can"--then the precise but inexplicable image of the plastic ribbon in the tree. Tinsel? No, a heaved cassette, suggesting anger, displaced violence, but when the bone stars (bone stars) enter the scene, a serenity gathers, and we have a sense of why this was a morning without fear.

Each poem is in a kind of membrane like that, its own city-cell, but the membranes are permeable, so as one reads the book, recurring elements combine and recombine, making a world.

What a great book.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Heather June Gibbons, _Her Mouth as Souvenir_

THE TERMS OF the Agha Shahid Ali Prize probably do not include the submission's being one Ali himself would have enjoyed, but I suspect he (whom I know only through his work) would have enjoyed this one. It's a brilliant debut.

Part I includes a lot of first-person statements and seems to have a layer of personal history, both family ("My people walked over mountains and buried children on the trail / for a prophet who led them to a lake of salt") and individual ("When the acupuncturist examines / the film on my tongue, I'm afraid / she'll see I'm prone to night sweats //and sobbing at the dolphin show"). It's witty, caffeinated, headlong, fizzy with wit and invention.

Part II is about love and music. Several of the poems are titled "Sore Song," which I am guessing has to do with getting "eros" backward, and they beautifully capture that feeling of coming unglued:

Meet me at the secret airport. You'll know me
by the spinner lure in my hair and it will feel like

the first time I saw you on the cover of a magazine
lying next to an empty bottle in some other

woman's kitchen.

Gibbons may yet one day write the screenplay for the world's first surrealistic romantic comedy, which I hope she will title The Secret Airport.

Part III also has its own atmosphere, Ashberyean, I would say, juxtaposing specialized language with colloquialism, veering off suddenly at oblique angles.

Evidently metaphors arouse the sensory cortex.
Sexy. Some days, my yard becomes a metaphor
for everything I do wrong: moldy dog shit,
stray butts, a shrub's yellowed leaves.
They say if you're sad, you haven't been
smiling enough. Want to make better decisions?
Eat more cheese.

And I would like to mention that the book's final poem invokes Nebraska's own Weldon Kees, which all by itself would make me a fan--but the whole book is excellent.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Liao Yiwu, _The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up_, trans. Wen Huang

EXTRAORDINARY BOOK. IMAGINE a Chinese Studs Terkel compiling an oral history of China since the 1949 revolution, along the lines of Hard Times or The "Good" War, and you will have a rough idea. 

The straight translation of the title of the book from which most of these interviews are drawn is "Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society," and a reader soon gathers that there are many ways to end up on the bottom rung in China. We hear from a few actual criminals, such as "The Human Trafficker" and "The Safecracker." A larger number are outcasts thanks to their ties to traditional beliefs and practices that the state wishes to discourage, such as ""The Abbot," "The Falun Gong Practitioner," and the corpse walkers of the title, who carry on a tradition of accompanying a dead body to its birthplace for burial (the state prefers that the dead simply be cremated where they happen to have died). 

The largest group on the bottom rung are people who have managed to offend the state in some way, intentionally or inadvertently. We have the brilliant composer Wang Xilin, who mainly wants just to write music but offends by his occasional candor; a man who found some old gold coins buried on his property and was accused of robbing graves; the father of one of the students killed at Tiananmen square; and of course people who got targeted and suffered during the Anti-Rightist Campaign, or the Great Leap Forward, or the Cultural Revolution, etc.

Liao Yiwu, like Terkel, is an astute interviewer, skillful at inspiring trust and then getting out of the way to let people tell their stories. As far as I can tell, he and his interview subjects have been well served by their translator, for the book is a brisk and engaging read. We get an extraordinary chorus of very individualized voices, a ground-level history of one of the world's oldest and largest societies during a half-century of astonishing and often tragic transformation.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Valeria Luiselli, _Lost Children Archive_

HER THIRD NOVEL, her first written in English, and it is excellent. Three textual planes, we might say.

We have a married couple, two kids, on a Great American Car Trip from NYC to Arizona. We do not learn their names, apart from the native-inspired ones they give themselves during the trip: Pa Cochise, Lucky Arrow (the mother), Swift Feather (boy, ten, the father's son from a previous relationship), and Memphis (girl, five, the mother's daughter from a previous relationship). Both parents are sound documentarians (or documentarists, as one insists), the mother intent on getting to the southwest because she has become passionately invested in the plight of the refugee children entering the US from Mexico. The father, not native but an avid student of that history, wants to see where Geronimo lived. 

First textual plane: the mother's narration, in the foreground for the first two-thirds of the novel, focused sometimes on the kids, sometimes on the refugee children, and increasingly on her fracturing relationship with her husband. The mom is a reader, and her narration is aware of itself as a participant in  the Literary Road Trip tradition of Huck and Jim, Sal and Dean, Humbert and Lolita, but from the new perspective of wife and mother.

Second textual plane: a book the mother is reading, Elegies for Lost Children, by Elena Camposanto (but actually by Luiselli herself). The elegies are short texts that use phrases from Rilke, Pound, Eliot, et al. to depict with just a few highly lit details--a kind of chiaroscuro--a group of refugee children making their way north. These start popping up into the narrative about halfway through.

Third textual plane: When the family reaches Arizona, the ten-year-old boy and five-year-old girl light out on their own to make their way to a particular Apache site, Echo Canyon. Swift Feather, the boy, narrates these episodes, recording them into one of their mother's devices.

Why do the kids go off on their own? Luiselli very astutely leaves this open. Do they hope, by becoming refugees themselves, to become as interesting to their parents as the refugee children are? Do they feel like testing themselves the way the refugee children are being tested? do they see this as the only way they will be able to stay together since, if their parents separate, they will be separated too?

Luiselli keeps all these plates spinning skillfully, not only building up bestseller-style suspense (will the parents find the kids before they die in the desert as so many kids have?) but also, in the section titled "Echo Canyon," having the planes intersect in a way I never saw coming but that was transcendently moving.


Thursday, July 16, 2020

Molly Worthen, _Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism_

EVERY ONCE IN a while I wander into an evangelical Christian bookstore, mainly because I have a hard time staying out of bookstores, and it is always a slightly eerie experience, like entering a parallel world. They tend to be organized like most bookstores—a biography section, current events over here, sexuality and relationships over there, self-help, classics, romances—but the shelves of those sections hold none of the titles and authors so ubiquitous elsewhere, and are instead loaded with titles and authors you will never find anywhere else. 

American Evangelical Christian culture is a world unto itself, one that borders on the USA the rest of us live in, but rarely overlaps with it. As a world unto itself, it has its own intellectual class, and Worthen’s book is a history of that class during the 20th century.

The idea of an evangelical intellectual may seem paradoxical, since intellectuals are supposed to be willing to re-examine periodically their assumptions, revise their conclusions when appropriate, and be open to new knowledge, while evangelicals famously regard certain questions as settled and eternally closed. For exactly that reason, as Worthen recounts, evangelical colleges and universities had to go a few rounds with accreditation agencies back in the day, and dialogue between secular intellectuals and evangelical intellectuals simply does not take place.

Evangelicals have their own explanations for this lack of communication, though. Worthen notes the seminal influence of Cornelius van Til and his idea of “presuppositionalism,” according to which secular intellectuals are much less objective, open-minded, and clear-headed than they think themselves, operating under assumptions they have so long ceased to examine that they are no longer cognizant of them, self-deluded in ways they can no longer see. It’s the secular intellectuals who have the blinders on, according to this view.

Worthen cleared out a good many other unexamined, cobwebbed spots in my conceptions about the evangelicals. They are not all right-wing, for one thing, although that is the preponderance lately. They have had some fruitful dialogue with Catholics, not just about abortion, but also about spiritual disciplines and practices. 

Worthen acknowledges that some extremely popular evangelical intellectuals, like Francis Schaeffer and Hal Lindsey (both of whom would have topped the NYT bestseller lists in the 1970s and 1980s had religious books been eligible), are under-informed and shallow compared to secular historians and mainstream scholars of religion. But she also wants us to know that Schaeffer and Lindsey (and LaHaye and Robertson and Falwell) are not the whole story. I don’t know whether Worthen is an evangelical herself—the final chapter has a certain exhortatory vertical lift that makes me think she may be—but she definitely left me thinking that this intellectual tradition is under-studied and probably under-valued by the rest of us.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Chris Nealon, _The Shore_ (2 of 2): The NWTI

A LINE ON p. 69 of Nealon's book of poems set me thinking.

But I know a dozen teenagers with better politics than Auden

Has Nealon hit upon a simple, linear way to describe the politics of canonical poets? We can simply judge how many teenagers within the range of acquaintance of, say, a college professor would have better politics than Poet X, or Poet Y, or Poet Z.

W. H. Auden would have a Nealon Woke Teenager Index, or NWTI, of 12. Robert Lowell would probably not do as well, perhaps in the forties or fifties--good on Vietnam, but that homophobic stanza in "Skunk Hour" is going to hurt him. 

Elizabeth Bishop might not do even as well as Lowell, given her somewhat scoffing attitude about the women's movement and her support for the 1960s military coup in Brazil. The minstrelsy/blackface imagery in Dream Songs could put John Berryman in the low one-hundreds.

Ezra Pound or W. B. Yeats would be in the high three figures, perhaps, eight hundred, nine hundred. We might have to establish an upper limit for those cases in which the poet has worse politics than any teenager one is likely to meet in the 2020s, like Pound or Yeats. Or Alexander Pope: "Whatever is, is right"? Okay, boomer.

Speaking of Pope, going deeper into the past could raise some interesting discussions. Shelley's revolutionary principles could get him down to eight or nine, even, lower than Auden, but his gender politics could ratchet him up to the thirties or forties. Charlotte Brontë's gender politics could bring her down to the teens, but Shirley's take on organized labor might put her in the nineties. Jane Austen might demonstrate a similar mobility. William Blake may be the only zero in the canon. 

Perhaps we need not even confine ourselves to literary figures. How many teenagers  does one know with better politics than Napoleon? Or Alexander Hamilton? What would Lincoln's NWTI be?




Chris Nealon, _The Shore_ (1/2)

SOME YEARS AGO, I read Christopher Nealon's Foundlings, a brilliant study of some instances of the LGBTQ sensibility breaking (or almost breaking) the surface of public culture in the decades before Stonewall. I only found out recently that Nealon is also a poet--he was one of the readers at a Zoom poetry reading I caught this spring. And a really good one, at that.

The Shore contains five poems, all of them a bit longer than average--ten to twenty pages. Part of the length is accounted for by Nealon's use of "one-line stanzas" (as I think he calls them in one of the poems), single lines standing all by themselves as a sort of moment of their own in a thought process--"Down into matter, flux, the green world" or "The whole taut net of the social order." This generates a fair amount of white space--some pages may have only ten or twelve lines--even allowing for that, though, the poems do feel like "long poems," taking their time, unfolding a thought, crossing it with another, then wait-a-minute-what-about-this, then touching on something from a lifetime of reading, then connecting an old memory.

The effect reminded me of the soliloquies of Henry VI or Richard II in Shakespeare's history plays. Nealon's poems have the same process of opening up of a thought, but are also similarly erudite (helps to know who Ascanius and Hocquenghem are, for example), lyrical ("a hint of lemon in the eucalyptus"), self-aware, willing to probe old wounds, also willing to test out new ideas--"branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain," as Keats says. 

When Henry and Richard give their major statements, they are both insiders and outsiders--royal, but deposed--abject and commanding the heights at the very same time. Nealon's exploration of queerness (throughout, but especially in "You Surround Me"), whiteness ("White Meadows") and the perils of our late capitalist moment (throughout, but especially "The Shore" and "Last Glimpse") have that self-aware clarity that Henry and Richard have when things have gone completely to hell, and might even persuade one that the insight gained is worth the cost of things having gone to hell.

Nealon also offers up a line I feel like commenting on at greater length--but that can gets its own post.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Sophia Rosenfeld, _Democracy and Truth: A Short History_

ROSENFELD PRESCIENTLY ADDRESSES a problem that has only grown more acute in the year-plus since this book appeared.

Democracy works best with an informed citizenry. When decisions depend on a majority vote, we hope that as many people as possible have as much of the relevant knowledge as they possibly can. That is why free speech, freedom of the press, and universal public education are democracy's indispensable  corollaries. 

However, many kinds of knowledge are such that relatively few people can master them. Particle physics, say. How hedge funds work. The philosophy of Wittgenstein. In these areas, we usually have to rely on experts  for what knowledge we have.

But can we trust experts? What if a majority of us think, no, we cannot trust experts, they are trying to manipulate us? 

Or--what if information is pouring out in such an unceasing, prolific fashion, 24/7, that we hardly know which expert to trust?

Thus, our ability to distinguish real knowledge from its deceitful simulacra, our ability to discern and then act in accordance with the truth, lies near the core of democracy, and that ability is always under a lot of stress. 

Rosenfeld is in one respects picking up on what Richard Hofstadter was addressing in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life and The Paranoid Style in American Politics, though a bit less polemically and with more contemporary examples. And contemporary examples abound all over the world these days, from Brazil to India to Hungary to right here in the good old USA. Climate change, COVID-19, and publicly-funded health care are all topics on which the experts can say one thing while Trump and his epigones say, "nah, that's all bullshit," and too often just enough people will prefer the blusterer to the experts.

Have to say, my very favorite part of Democracy and Truth is Rosenfeld's answer (pp. 140-46) to the many pundits who found in Trump's post-truth tactics a reverberation of various post-structuralist critiques of knowledge. With Derrida having died in 2004 and Foucault in 1984, you would think that these two would no longer be to blame for everything op-ed writers found to dislike in academia, but no...they remain popular targets for a certain kind of grouch who misses the  days of Lionel Trilling. Rosenfeld very convincingly points instead to the dropping of the FCC's Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and the subsequent rise of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News as the turning points, rather than Of Grammatology and Les mots and les choses.


Cathy Park Hong, _Dance Dance Revolution_

WITH MINOR FEELINGS making a splash, there is reason to hope that readers will be inspired to check out Hong's poetry. This one would certainly be worth your while.

Dance Dance Revolution is a poetry collection, but it has a novel-like premise. One of the book's voices is a historian (Korean father, American mother) who grew up in Africa (their father was with Doctors Without Borders). In the course of their research into the Kwangju massacre (a bloody government crackdown on a student protest that occurred in South Korea in 1980, comparable to Tlateleolco in Mexico or Tiananmen Square in China), the historian tracks down a woman was one of the inspirational figures in the protest, its La Pasionaria. This woman is now working as a tourist guide at some deluxe resort town, located in a desert and filled with replicas of world historical sites, something Las Vegas or Dubai.

Good so far? Okay. Dance Dance Revolution includes some passages from the historian's journal and his/her/their notes to some of the guide's discourses (the poems in Part V might be from the historian...I'm not sure), but the greater part of the book consists of poems in the voice of the guide. Some of these are about her present circumstances, some about her memories of Korea, of Kwangju, and of the Ginseng Colony, which seems to be a short-lived experiment in community that started up after Kwangju.

The guide's poems are in an extraordinary hybrid language that draws on the vocabulary and syntax of several different languages at once, sometimes even on different historical eras of the same language. Finnegans Wake is the only handy analogue, but Hong's language is quite distinct from Joyce's--fizzier, saltier, more staccato. Its music is its own.

Within this polyglot nova is a meditation on dissent and resistance. The book was published in 2007, but is set in 2016--presciently, I'm thinking, given that was the year so many folks had to start thinking hard again about dissent and resistance. With so many thousands pouring out in the streets again, this would be a great time for people to pick up Dance Dance Revolution.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Wesley Yang, _The Souls of Yellow Folk: Essays_

YANG’S TITLE MISLEADS slightly, I would say. The deliberate echo of the title of W. E. B. DuBois's famous analysis of the African American situation led me to think that Yang's book would be about the Asian American situation. Some of it is, but most of it is not.

The first three essays are, and they are very striking, especially the first, "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho," Yang's unforgettable response to the devastating school shooting at Virginia Tech. I read this piece in n+1 when it appeared, and it its the main reason I took a chance on the book. The essay takes you inside the experience of being an American minority as only a handful of essays do, and in this case it is an American minority that has gotten only sporadic attention and even today is still largely obscured by clichés and stereotypes. "The Face of Seung-Hui Cho" leads off the volume, and the two essays that follow it in Part One, "Paper Tigers" and "Eddie Huang Against the World," are only a subtle shade less intense. As a group, they are revelatory.

That's about it, though. The final three essays in  the book, which constitute Part Four, are about whiteness, Yang engaging somewhat skeptically with critical race theory but not touching much upon the issues raised in Part One. Parts Two and Three are simply general journalistic pieces. Part Two is four personality profiles (the one on Tony Judt I especially appreciated), and the three pieces in Part Three are about being an under-40 male sexual subject in the 21st century. Interesting stuff, well-reported and skillfully written, but not about the souls of yellow folk, really.

I may be missing a connection in Part Three--being a male Asian American in the 21st century may entail a certain anxiousness over one's sexual charisma, as presented in Adrian Tomine's graphic novel Shortcomings. That topic does not really come up explicitly in Part Three, though.

The Souls of Yellow Folk definitely works as an essay collection--don't get me wrong. But had the book been called The Face of Seung-Hui Cho and Other Essays I still would have purchased it, but would not have had that lingering aftertaste of disappointed expectations.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Joshua Cohen, _Moving Kings_

I AM A great admirer of Joshua Cohen's fiction, and have been for a while--I got in on the ground floor, so to speak, with Cadenzas for the Schneiderman Violin Concerto. I bought Moving Kings about the time it came out, but until two weeks ago it was just sitting undisturbed on the shelf. I've been wondering why it took me three years to read it. 

The cover, in part. This is the first Cohen book with a boring cover. I know books are not to be judged by their covers, but come on, Random House! You can do better than this! 

And in part because it seemed to be the closest Cohen had yet come to a conventional novel. Not fair of me, I know. But there is a moment when a favorite writer decides to tack towards the mainstream (cf. Ben Marcus, or Sonic Youth signing with Geffen, that sort of thing). You fully understand that it is the right thing for them to do, but that understanding has a melancholy edge.

Well, I shouldn't have worried. Moving Kings is less innovative, formally, than Cohen's previous work, but the sentences still reconcile strength and grace, the novelistic eye still lands again and again on the most revealing detail, and the ambition to plumb the depths of Jewish experience remains at the core of the enterprise. 

The first part of the novel is about David King, who is King David to a small empire, a moving business in New York City and environs. His father was a Holocaust survivor who came to the USA; his father's brother emigrated instead to Israel, where he started his own family. So right there we have an interesting contrast between different paths out of the Shoah taken by members of the same family. 

David's family life takes on familiar kinds of American (and King David-esque) complications, marriage, adultery, divorce, kids who are just a bit contemptuous. On the other side of the world, his uncle has a daughter, who has a son, which son is fresh out of the Israeli army (which has its own empire-building complications). The Israeli cousin calls David up--could he find Yoav a job? Send him over, says David.

Trailing Yoav comes Uri, from Yoav's old unit. Both are suffering from PTSD, but Yoav seems to be making the stronger effort to get clear of it--Uri verges on the sociopathic.

As it happens, David's moving business has recently picking up a new kind of work: evictions. Yoav and Uri find themselves assigned to a team doing exactly this--which rhymes, hauntingly, chillingly, with what they had been doing in Judea/West Bank/Occupied Territories. In Israel, the idea was simply to smash; in New York City, they are to salvage what they think can be sold: "Otherwise, the work they were doing wasn't too different."

That was a sentence I had to stop and stare at for a minute or two. Like plenty of folks, I think what the Israeli government is doing is wrong. But is what's going on when someone gets evicted a few blocks away any less wrong? Am I a hypocrite, a coward, to object to the one but not the other?

Are we headed to a big blazing climax? Yes.

So far, Cohen's tacking to the mainstream is working out just fine.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Emily Berry, _Dear Boy_

READING EXCERPTS THAT have appeared here and there from a longer poem called "Unexhausted Time" got me sufficiently interested to buy Berry's first book (she has three out, it looks like). 

Her poetry seems English to me--by which I only mean that I can't think of any Americans who sound much like this. American poetry gravitates to the confrontational rather than the clever, the earnest rather than the fey. You would have to look for a while, I think, to find a recent American poem that opens in any way reminiscent of the opening of "The Tea-party Cats":

We're suspicious of the tea-party cats;
we don't know why. They all turned out so well
today and aired their charming characters;
they were so smart they frightened us to death.

It is easy to imagine a recent American poem that, like "Some Fears," catalogues fears, but not one that includes "fear of colour leaking from vegetables" or "fear of ill-conceived typography." Similarly, it's had to imagine any American poet since Millay writing a poem like "When Will You Carry Me to the Fair," even with tongue in cheek, and even if it ends on the lines, "Lover when will you pull a root from the earth / and show me its straggly ends?"

The hypotenuse that runs between "clever" and "fey" we might call "whimsy," but I would rather not use that word. It would just give you the wrong idea. Whimsy would work on Instagram, but Berry is too dry and scary for Instagram. Too intelligent, for that matter.  Whimsy might well be the word one initially reaches for first in talking about "Hermann's Traveling Heart," a poem about a tortoise in love, but "whimsy" is too close to "cute" to apply. Even Berry's humorous moments, which are frequent, wouldn't pass any cuteness test.

Judging from the excerpts from "Unexhausted Time" that I read, Berry's new work is as many strides beyond her early work as North was beyond Death of a Naturalist, but I certainly enjoyed it, and very much want a look at the second collection.


Monday, June 29, 2020

Yan Lianke, _The Four Books_, trans. Carlos Rojas

EXTRAORDINARY NOVEL--UNIQUE, even. Officially unavailable in China, I understand. It is set at the time of Mao's Great Leap Forward, in a re-education camp for intellectuals sent out to the countryside to learn about the revolution by growing wheat and smelting steel. (One of the more peculiar aspects of the Great Leap Forward was the expectation that the population at large start smelting steel on a village-by-village basis.) 

All of the characters are designated by their former occupation rather than by name--Scholar, Author, Musician, Theologian, Technician, and so on. Their camp is directed by the Child, that is, Heaven's Child, a designation I am guessing reflects the traditional Chinese idea that whoever is sovereign at a given moment has the mandate of heaven. 

The Four Books provides a lot of vivid daily detail about life in the camp, of the sort you expect from a realist novel, but Yan departs from the straightforwardly novelistic in a couple of ways. 

First, the novel purports to be excerpts from four different texts. "Criminal Records" is a text written by the Author for the Child, recording occasions when the camp's internees (that is, its "criminals") deviate from the rules. "Old Course" is also by the Author, recording his own experiences and less-official observations of the camp. "Heaven's Child" is--I think--by the Scholar, and focuses on the camp's director. Finally, "A New Myth of Sisyphus," also by the Scholar and which Yan holds back until the novel's end, turns the story of Sisyphus into a kind of parable about being an internee in the camp, or possibly about being Chinese under the Communist dispensation.

Second, and fittingly for someone who won the Franz Kafka Prize, Yan sometimes resorts to a kind of imaginatively heightened, just-this-side-of magical-realism narration--which is a good fit, since the Great Leap Forward involved a certain amount of magical thinking, with production goals seemingly set entirely by whim, without the least regard for what was physically or naturally possible.

While a more straightforward novel about the Great Leap Forward would also be interesting, the multiple perspectives gives the reader a finer-grained idea of how the internees gradually--a bit like Josef K--come to accept and co-operate with the assumptions of the authority that has coerced them. The absurdities that begin to creep in, again like those that Josef K faces in the Court and the Castle, make  that acceptance and co-operation all the more unsettling. The final parable too seems a Kafkaesque touch, and rivals Kafka pieces like "Before the Law."

The most impressive aspect of the novel, though, is how Yan characterizes the official, the Child. One expects him to be a bully, a petty tyrant, some kind of amoral monster, any of the  familiar camp commandant stereotypes, but he's a kid, really: idealistic, hopeful, often generous, ambitious but in a boyish, big-eyed way  that almost breaks your heart. He is, of course, complicit with the system, but he is a continual surprise, with the biggest surprise of all at the end.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Edmund Berrigan, _Can It!_

I HAVE NOTICED among publishers of poetry a predilection for "project" books, collections that have some blurb-able preoccupation or recurring form. Well, that's fine. The most enjoyable thing about some collections, though, is that they have no unifying focus at all. Can It! feels like a very motley assembly, and amiably so. Then again, Berrigan's foreword notes his own fondness for books "in which seemingly disparate events unite into a wonderful, though not particularly intentional, whole." Can It! may qualify.

The book contains pieces written over a goodly span of time, and in a good many different forms: poems, of course, but also journal entries, experimental fiction, stoned-sounding interviews, a play, and "The Ball-Hallelujah Connection," which--I think--was originally a text about Andy Warhol and William Burroughs that Berrigan systematically re-wrote by substituting (for example) the word "melt" wherever the word "and" occurred, the phrase "exonerate politically and physically" whenever the word "see" occurred, and so on. 

But Can It! may have a core of sorts, after all, since the texts towards the beginnings often involve Berrigan's memories of his father, Ted, and many of the texts towards the end involve memories of the final illness and the death of his stepfather, Douglas Oliver. The text titled "Can It!" turns out to be a notecard written by Ted Berrigan, dated August 1982 (about a year before he died; Edmund would have been eight, I think). The card has what looks like a title, "Song for the Unborn Second Baby," and the simple two-word text of the title, "CAN IT!" 

I would not say Can It! is about fatherhood (or sonhood), exactly. A lot of it is a bit goofy ("The Ball-Hallelujah Connection," "Cloud Interview 2003") or opaque ("Did His Eye Melt?"). Somehow, though, the peculiar energy of absent older male authorities circulates in the book (sometimes malevolently, as in "The Blood Barn") and gives it a strange gravitas, even at its floatiest. For instance, in "Texas Road Trip," Berrigan travels to Houston to see the Rothko Chapel, only to learn it is "closed six months for renovation." The possibly crucial communication from a forebear that does not quite reach you, that does not quite crystallize into clarity.... Such moments give the book an eerie poignancy.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Ted Genoways, _This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm_

SALES PROSPECTS FOR poetry being what they are (Rupi Kaur apart), it makes sense that poets like Paul Auster (back in the day) or Ben Lerner or Lucy Ives (more recently) take a swing or three at writing a novel. A whole host of poets have produced memoirs of various kinds. But here's a question for all unsalaried poets: how about journalism?

Might sound crazy--a good many poets are introverts, and journalism requires going out and talking to lots of people, for one thing; for another, poets rely on figuration and imagination, and journalists are supposed to adhere to the literal and the actual. 

But consider Ted Genoways. After two poetry collections and a variety of editorial work, he turned to journalism focusing on food production, with not only more-than-respectable sales but also some book awards.

Granted, the move makes more sense for Genoways than it may for other poets. He is a relatively traditional poet who relies on precise observation and economy of phrase. He is not given to what is often called "poetic prose," even though it is not all that poetic nor very effective as prose. His writing is not at all vague or impressionistic or over-decorated; rather, it is poetic in the best sense, taut, focused, graceful. The lyric touches do not float about freely, but instead highlight vividly precise statements:

The Miller Nitro Sprayer, a cherry-red colossus on 6-foot-tall all-terrain tires, rolled up to the edge of the freshly-planted field of corn. The twin booms of the spray-rig were spread out in either direction, like a pair of enormous dragonfly wings, unfolded and lowered by a system of hydraulics.

Genoways is likewise skillful in blending his frequent forays into contextual information--the history of irrigation in Nebraska, the development of seed corn hybrids, the Ogalalla aquifer, the rigors of farm markets and farm financing--into an up-close, intimate portrait of one farming family. The Hammonds would have made a good book all by themselves, and the context Genoways provides on contemporary family farming would have made a good book all by itself. He has managed to make an excellent book by doing both at the same time--a remarkable accomplishment.

Around here This Blessed Earth is getting compared to Agee's and Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I'm not ready to  go that far--we'll have to wait and see what posterity says--but the comparison is not outlandish, and that's saying a lot.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Anselm Berrigan, _Something for Everybody_

I CAN THINK of a good many examples of both parties in a couple being published poets--contemporary examples are many--but I have not been able to think of another example of both parties in a marriage being published poets and their offspring also being published poets. A couple of poems in this collection were co-authored by Sylvie Berrigan, who was in elementary school at the time, so the next generation is already being groomed for succession.

Reading Anselm Berrigan's book right after reading his mother's latest, I found myself wondering about apples and trees and distances. Berrigan's poetry is easily distinguished from Alice Notley's (and from his father's and his brother's), but they all seem somehow New York School, certainly within hailing distance of each other and of Koch, Schuyler, O'Hara, no one of them likely to be spotted in anthologies like Garrison Keillor's, for instance. I found myself wondering about the tradition of being at a healthy remove from tradition. 

I thought of this especially in reading the collection's final poem, written to be read at the St. Mark's Poetry Project and also about the St. Mark's Poetry Project and for that matter a reasonably good instance of the kind of work furthered by the St. Mark's Poetry Project. And since Anselm Berrigan grew up in the shadow of the St. Mark's Poetry Project, one starts to think that the anti-tradition represented by the St. Mark's Poetry Project eventually becomes its own tradition--noticeable also in Berrigan's invocations of writers like Joe Brainard and Jim Brodey, not to mention his parents.

Would the genuinely transgressive move, were one Anselm Berrigan, have been to turn into...I don't know...William Logan? Adam Kirsch? 

Then again, one Adam Kirsch is plenty. Even one William Logan may be surplus to requirements, actually.

The kind of continuity Berrigan exemplifies may even be heartening, come to think of it.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

W. Somerset Maugham, _Cakes and Ale_

THE BUBBLE REPUTATION...when I was in middle school and high school, I repeatedly got the impression that Maugham was a serious and respected novelist. While I was in college, though, my teachers never mentioned him, and none of my fellow students seemed to have read him (we had all read Kerouac, Salinger, Hesse, Plath, Vonnegut, Catch-22, and they came up a lot).

When I was in graduate school in Chicago, I could find copies of The Razor's Edge, The Moon and Sixpence, and Of Human Bondage in practically any used book store I entered, but none of my fellow students dropped his name, and my teachers ignored him or even chuckled a little dismissively if he came up.

He seems to have fallen off the map as a topic of scholarship. The research library nearest me holds only two books about him published this century, both biographies. The list of scholarly articles looks similarly lean.

And that, briefly, is why I never bothered to read a single thing by W. Somerset Maugham, until this month.

I picked up Cakes and Ale because I had read that Hugh Walpole (a British novelist who was a contemporary of Maugham, very successful during his lifetime, but now even more neglected than Maugham) was so mortified by his all-too-recognizable likeness in a character in Cakes and Ale that he thought he could never show his face in public again. He recovered enough from his embarrassment to resume his social life, but some say Walpole felt himself in the shadow of Maugham's caricature for the rest of his life.

I have to admit--I was curious. What kind of caricature could be that devastating?

So I read Cakes and Ale. And enjoyed it, actually. Maugham was a pro.

Cakes and Ale is narrated by a novelist named Ashenden, who has accepted a lunch invitation from another novelist, Alroy Kear. Kear is the Walpole character, depicted as having a modest-to-negligible talent for writing, but a preternatural genius for schmoozing and networking. Kear has landed an appointment as official biographer of another novelist, the late and well-respected Edward Driffield, through his careful cultivation of Driffield's widow and second wife, who has high hopes that the biography will secure her late husband's status as a major British novelist. Kear knows that Ashenden, as a young man, was acquainted with Driffield, and is hoping to pump him for his memories of the great writer.

Well, this is interesting, yes? The novel goes on to alternate between Ashenden's memories of Driffield and the first Mrs. Driffield, Rosie, a former barmaid and someone who like a good time, and his fencing with Kear and the second Mrs. Driffield over who Driffield was and who Rosie was. Moving back and forth like this between two time-frames, between the story's past and its present, takes skill, and Maugham does it masterfully. He also does a great job of bringing out Rosie as a character--she turns out to be a much more central figure in the novel than her husband.

Maugham explores some interesting ideas about the relation of fiction to experience, and (like Henry James in "The Aspern Papers") scholarly readers' somewhat vampiric relationship to the secrets of a dead writer.

I can also see why Walpole would have been mortified.

Not sure when I will have the time to look at another novel by Maugham, but this one made a favorable impression.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Ma Jian, _Beijing Coma_, trans. Flora Drew

BEIJING COMA SHUTTLES between two time frames. In one, Dai Wei is a student caught up in the ferment that leads to the mass demonstration of May 1989 in Tiananmen Square. In the other, set seven to ten years later, he is in a coma in his mother's apartment, unable to move or speak but still able to hear everything said around him. We learn early on that Dai Wei took a bullet to the head in the final hours of the demonstration, when the People's Liberation Army moved in, and he has been in the coma ever since.

The Tiananmen Square passages, which usually run 8-10 pages, follow Dai Wei as he interacts with his friends and fellow demonstrators, rushes off to get some sleep, checks in on his hunger-striking girlfriend Tian Yi, gets appointed head of security, and so on. These sections, more dialogue than description, succeed in conveying the buzz, the chaos, the excitement of the early days of the demonstration, when triumph seemed imminent, and the gradual, then accelerating darkening when the troops are gathering, demonstrators are drifting away, and the shooting commences.

Ma Jian was an actual eyewitness at Tiananmen, though he was not present at the bitter end, and these scenes have a peculiarly realistic flavor, mainly because people are only occasionally talking about politics and goals. They wonder about when the food will arrive, or scrounge cigarettes, or quarrel with each other, or indulge in utterly ungrounded (it turns out) speculation that Deng Xioaping will ultimately have to give way. Couples form, couples break up. A community forms, with all the the mess and contingency of a community, even while the feeling grows of being at a turning point in history. It's almost like Woodstock--had Nixon sent in the National Guard on the final day to mow everyone down.

The passages set in Dai Wei's mother's apartment provide a glimpse of how China changed after Tiananmen through what he overhears. Hong Kong is handed over. Some of his old associates go to the USA, or get rich, or lose their minds. Falun Gong and other traditional practices gain popularity. Hong Kong developers arrive. Hutongs are cleared out to make way for the Olympics.

At novel's end, Dai Wei may be on the point of waking up. If he does, he will be a kind of Rip Van Winkle, emerging into a society that will have become alll but unrecognizably different--though not at all in the ways the demonstrators envisioned.

It's a long book--586 pages in the edition I read--and I would say it could probably lose about a quarter of its length without any grievous sacrifice. The Tiananmen Square scenes, in particular, sometimes seem to be repetitions without variation. Even so, if you are interested in an up-close, on-the-ground view (as opposed to a bird's-eye, big picture one) of one of the hinge moments of recent decades, Beijing Coma provides that.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Alice Notley, _For the Ride_

I DID NOT understand quite a bit of this, but I did not understand quite a bit of Blake's Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion either, and I suspect they are kindred poems, both compelling even when, maybe especially when mysterious.

For the Ride could be taken for, and may well be, an addition to the post-apocalyptic fantasy tradition, in that we have a character, One, who is sole survivor of some unexplained catastrophe. One is surrounded by a screen or ring of screens, the Glyph, which contains events other characters with which and with whom One interacts.

What the Glyph presents is shifting and unstable, so we have references to One contending with chaos--and that was a big trigger for me. I immediately (and, yes, perhaps mistakenly) associated these with Satan's journey through Chaos in Book II of Paradise Lost. This fit, I  thought--the post-apocalyptic genre, being about re-creation, is necessarily also about creation, pure and simple, every re-creation being its own creation, in a way. And Paradise Lost is about creation, of course, both God's and Satan's rivaling of it, which is exactly what Blake was picking up on in Milton and then on larger scale in Four Zoas and Jerusalem, with his own mythology of creation, fall, and renewal.

Notley's writing a lot of the book in a sixteen-syllable line also put me in mind of Blake and his good English fourteener, and the shaped poems that occur in most of the poem's eighteen "books," if I may call them that, seem analogous to Blake's illuminations, the images that accompany the poems.

(There's also the slightly antique feel Notley imparts by such elisions as "fore'er," or "suff'ring," or indicating that some past tense forms need to have their endings pronounced, as in "scarèd".)

I was even ready to see Notley's Shaker as Blake's Urizen, Notley's One as Blake's Albion, as all the poem's other characters may be his emanations ("phantom amoebic splits off one"). The Many are the One, the One is the Many...that sort of idea.

And Blake's mythology also being psychology, a theory of being--that too may be blowing through the transoms here, with a carom off of Ronald Johnson's Ark...for I have persuaded myself that the ark Notley repeatedly refers to is not Noah's (familiar though it is) but Johnson's poem, his own analysis of the sensorium of the human and  the grounds of being. Johnson of course has his own rich history with Milton (Radi Os).

What brings it all home is Notley's contemplation of language, language as author of our being--can we become authors of our own language and so authors of our own being? (Milton's Satan again, refusing to be cast as a creation.) Something important, I suspect, happens in Book XIV, "Absorbs Them," leading to the whirling linguistic dismantling of Book XV, "I Have Been Let Out of Prison."

For, as she says near the beginning of the poem:

                     Build an ark of words.
One's supposed to be inventing new language, definitely
tearing down the old of gender, tensal submission, whatall,
pomposities to enslave one...Tear it down as ones save ones--
Ark of salvation and destruction of the old at same time.
Wake up! Tear it down! and save one. One is the species, words are.

And then near the end:

   I'm tryin to change the langue
so no social struct
   Just hummin tween the chaons
Yep. Just hummin tween the chaons.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Jonathan Littell, _The Fata Morgana Books_, trans. Charlotte Mandell

I STILL HAVE not finished Les Bienveillantes, though (clears throat) I fully intend to, but I thought I could give this a try in the meantime--seven short stories (or six and a novella, perhaps) originally published a four separate volumes by a French publisher, Fata Morgana.

Most striking to me, coming to this after having read 860 pages of Les Bienveillantes, is the near-perfect absence of the kind of contextual framing historical fiction provides.  Les Bienveillantes is painstaking about names, places, dates; in these fictions, while the details of a scene are usually vibrantly precise, we have no orientating information about where we are, or what year it might be, or even very many personal names.

This difference made it all the more remarkable that the two books definitely seem to be the work of the same author (even though I read this in translation and am reading Les Bienveillantes in French). The novel's narrator, Maximilien Aue, has the same eye for the same kind of detail, the same cool equanimity even while describing shocking events, the same willingness to let a sentence unwind to its end, however long it needs, that the narrators of these fictions have.

The back cover copy mentions Kafka and Blanchot, which sounds about right, both in the suppression of precise localizing detail and in the tone of eerie calm in the face of irrational events that teeter between comic and horrific.  We might mention Lispector and Beckett as well. "Fait Accompli" could almost be the Beckett version of Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants."

"An Old Story" made the strongest impression on me. The book's longest story at just under eighty pages, it makes a loop: its ending capable of being seamlessly joined to its beginning. It could, theoretically, become an infinite repetition (which may be what makes the story "old."). The events are dreamlike, swift and shifty and arbitrary, yet the narrator accepts whatever happens and steps into whatever role circumstances offer with scarcely a hesitation or demur. Episodes include an encounter with a Joseph Kony-like child army, a troupe of marauding Cossacks, a luxurious party, and a sex club; they dissolve rather than end, the narrator finding himself at the conclusion of each in a track suit, running down a corridor, until the next door opens on yet another scene in which he will play yet another role.

The story begins and ends at a swimming pool, which makes me wonder whether "An Old Story" is an elaborate homage to John Cheever's "The Swimmer."

The story's import? I know not, but I would say it is altogether safe from Oprah's blessing, and that's something these days.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

R. F. Foster, _Vivid Faces: The Revolutionary Generation in Ireland, 1890-1923_

THIS WAS PUBLISHED five years ago, to coincide (I assume) with the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916, so it has something in common with Revolution, the mini-series based on the Rising. Rather like the television series, it takes as primary focus the personalities of and the relationships among participants in the Rising--not in a soap opera way (although Chapter 4, "Loving," has its gossipy passages), but through a deep dive into the archive of the people who hoped for, imagined, planned, and finally brought about the event.

Foster is the leading Irish historian of this period in his generation, most would say, so hardly anyone is better situated to write a book on the rising. It's not (another) day-by-day, hour-by-hour account, though, nor an assessment of its aims, failures, and  ultimate impact. Rather, it is a look at the generation and the culture that produced its principal players, both those onstage and those backstage and those in the alley behind the theater.

From that angle, Vivid Faces puts me less in mind of Revolution than it dioes of another book I am slowly grinding through, Yuri Slezkine's massive House of Government, about the people who brought about the Bolshevik revolution and then tried to create the world's first socialist state. Slezkine, like Foster, looks at what the people read, what they wrote, the clubs they organized, their love lives. And it turns out--keeping in mind all the differences there are between being Irish and being Russian--that the two revolutionary generations had some shared traits, not least a vision of a new, unprecedented world and a willingness to put their lives on the line to bring that world into being.  They share a certain ferocity, a certain idealism, a certain refusal to let the past dictate the bounds of possibility to them.

Foster notes that the comparison already occurred to Irish poet/painter/ visionary George Russell (a.k.a. AE), who published an essay on the topic, "Lessons of Revolution," way back in 1923.

The most grievous of the similarities: both revolutions evolved with startling speed into grim new societies that the revolutionaries would never have sought nor have considered desirable: In Ireland, the cautious, business-friendly, church-friendly Irish Free State of Cosgrave and de Valera; in Russia, Stalinism. All the ardor, argument, and blood sacrifice produce a victory, but the inheritors of the revolution's mantle soon find themselves reconstructing the iron box the revolutionary generation was trying to break apart.