Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Ji Xianlin, _The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution_, trans. Chenxin Jiang

THIS WAS ACTUALLY published in China, which amazed me. It came out in 1998, "a politically relaxed moment," according to the introduction (by Zha Jianying). The Cultural Revolution was such a god-awful moment--like Tiananmen Square or the famine of the late 1950s or what is happening right now with the Uighurs--that the Chinese authorities prefer to limit discussion, and a lot of the available writing about those events was published only outside China's borders. This is an exception, and it's surprisingly powerful. Slender, plain-spoken, undramatic, but powerful.

Ji Xianlin was an eminent Sanskrit and Pali scholar who taught at Peking University. He came from a peasant  family and was an early supporter of the Communist revolution, so one would think he would be immune from the kind of accusations the Red Guards trafficked in...but no. Turns out he was on the wrong side of a divide in departmental politics and made an enemy of a colleague he calls "the Dowager Empress." And that was enough.

So Ji too is hauled before a "struggle session," in which the accused stand in humiliating, awkward poses while being insulted and hit with plastic-coated chains, and he too winds up in a "cowshed," a kind of work barracks where supposed capitalist-roaders learn their lessons through starvation diets, manual labor, more insults, and more beatings with plastic-coated chains.

Zha's introduction mentions that Chinese people writing or talking about "seething anger" or "unbearable pain" will often resort to "black humor or sarcastic hyperbole." Ji certainly does, providing some of the text's more remarkable moments, as when he notes what quick studies the Red Guard students were as torturers:
In fact, my students improvised ingeniously on what they had gleaned from their studies [of Buddhist hells]. Without having to build mountains of knives or fill vats with boiling oil, without any demonic aid, the Red Guard created an atmosphere of terror that far outstripped that of Buddhist creations.
A+, Red Guards!

The book's most moving moment, though, comes when Ji, dreading the summons he feels is imminent, gathers enough pills to die by suicide. He is minutes from doing so when he is arrested and hauled before his first struggle session. And...he survives it.
I realized that being stubborn towards wicked people has its advantages; after all, I am only alive now because I was too stubborn before. It turned out that I could endure greater pain than I had realized.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Bennett Sims, _A Questionable Shape_

BENNETT SIMS HAS published a couple of short things in Conjunctions that I enjoyed so much that I decided to see whether he has a book out. He does--this one--and it is excellent.

I saw a couple of disgruntled online reviews complaining that A Questionable Shape is a failure as a zombie novel. Well, maybe. I have no idea what the genre expectations for zombie novels are, though I can easily imagine how this one might disappoint. The zombies are not much of a threat by the time the action opens, for instance. The authorities have the zombies largely under control, and only have to decide what to do with them. Not much impending-apocalypse mood in the novel, no looming threat to civilization--a lack which might disappoint.

But A Questionable Shape might be better described as literary fiction that draws on genre tropes. For instance, Paul Auster's City of Glass is literary fiction  that draws on noir tropes. I can imagine a hard-core noir fan throwing City of Glass across the room, feeling  thwarted and cheated, particularly by its ending.

Sims's title alone hints that the novel is not an ordinary zomb-ocalypse. When Hamlet first sees his father's ghost, he addresses it thus:

Be thou a spirit of health or a goblin damn'd,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com'st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee.

Hamlet wants nothing more in this life than to see and speak with his father again--an impossible desire, since his father is dead. But his father, he sees at this moment, is not utterly dead. He is a ghost. He is not exactly alive, either--but he can be seen, in a way, and heard, And, it will turn out, he has desires, things he wants. At this point, though, Hamlet cannot be entirely confident that the father has the son's best interests at heart: its intents might be wicked or charitable. But he has to interact with it, come what may--the  ghost is a shape that has to be questioned.

So with Matt Mazoch. His father is dead, but a zombie--that is, not utterly dead, but not exactly alive. Matt, like Hamlet, wants to see, possibly hear from his father one more time, even though the father might not have the son's best interests in mind, even though his father can only moan and stumble around. So, like Hamlet, he puts his life on hold to try and figure out where he can find his not-exactly-dead father.

Fortunately, Matt has an articulate Horatio, Mike Vermaelen (sometimes "Versmallen" for some reason). Mike narrates. Horatio-like, Mike is a bit in awe of Matt, has committed to helping him, and has apparently taken on the responsibility of in this harsh world drawing his breath in pain to tell Matt's story, not that Matt has asked him to. Fortunately for Mike, Matt has not only a brilliant but obsessive friend but also a smart, loyal, and wise girlfriend, Rachel, who can ask some hard questions, set some boundaries, and help him save Matt...or so it looks to me. (Is this why Horatio couldn't save Hamlet?)

There is more than enough suspense for an ordinary novel here. Will Matt find his father? Will  his father be capable of recognizing him, or will he just want to eat him? Or does Matt just want to destroy his father before the authorities do?

Sims has any number of great narrative ploys going, but I will mention only one: constant footnotes. We could read this as a David Foster Wallace homage (speaking of the illustrious dead), but it's more than that. A footnote both is and is not part of the text--a neat analogue for zombies or for ghosts, who are not exactly part of the living just as the footnote is not exactly part of the text. Yet both are present, perhaps important, impossible to ignore. (Cf. Derrida on the supplement.)

Or we might think of Agamben and Homo Sacer, a connection Sims explicitly makes for us. Both Matt and Mike are readers.

One more thing: Mike's discussion of one's relationship to one's reading (pp. 147-59) is the most spot-on treatment of that subject I have ever come across.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Stephen Klaidman, _Sydney and Violet: Their Life with T. S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce, and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis_

SYDNEY AND VIOLET are the Schiffs, prominent patrons of the arts, especially the literary ones, in England during the High Modernist days after World War I. Sydney was also a translator, finishing the final volume of the English translation of Á la recherche de temps perdus when C. K. Scott Moncrieff died. He also, as "Stephen Hudson," wrote several autobiographical novels. As a couple, they served as model for Lionel and Isabel Kein, characters in a prominent episode of Wyndham Lewis's The Apes of God.

I picked this up mainly out of interest in that excruciatingly irascible figure. Not much in the way of tidbits for me, though, and Klaidman's attitude towards Lewis is irritating.

Of The Apes of God, Klaidman writes:

It was published in 1930 and was almost immediately forgotten because most if it is hopelessly obscure unless you are intimately familiar with the lives of the real people who were its hapless targets. It was also forgotten because it is pretentious in its display of frequently irrelevant erudition that would distract from the narrative if there were one.

But then on the following page, he writes:

    The Apes of God is the most notorious--or for the Lewis scholars, the most glorious--work in the tradition of modernist satire.

Now I ask you--can a book be both "forgotten" and "notorious"? (Let's forget about "glorious" for the time being.) Klaidman first says the book disappeared from memory from the moment dropped from the presses, then says it has a very marked reputation in the present. That's just a contradiction.

If Klaidman wanted to cut the book down to size a bit, he could have said it is never sold well (quite true) and is currently out of print (also true, although used copies can fetch a lot of money). But people who know much of anything about interwar Anglophone fiction know about The Apes of God. It isn't forgotten. It wasn't forgotten at the time, either. People were pissed off about it for years.

Then, a couple of pages further on, Klaidman refers to the novels of Ada Leverson (friend of Oscar Wilde and Violet Schiff's older sister) as "a series of six lighthearted and mildly satirical novels that are no better remembered than Stephen Hudson's or Wyndham Lewis's." Well. It's certainly true that her novels are not better remembered than Lewis's. But that phrase seems to throw them, and Schiff/Hudson, into the same box of "obscure British novelists," when in fact Lewis is a great deal better remembered than either. Any good research library has a couple of shelves of secondary studies on Lewis's fiction. Is that true of Leverson's novels, or Schiff/Hudson's? In a word: no.

(By the way, I am not going to disparage Schiff/Hudson's fiction, which I find not great, but certainly readable. But it has never had much of a critical reputation.)

Let's see. Suppose I were to say, "Jack Rothrock is no better remembered than Pepper Martin or Rogers Hornsby." Makes sense if none of the three are familiar to you. But a baseball historian would know not only that all three played major league baseball in the 1920s, but also that Rothrock was a journeyman, Martin a player with a few moments of glory, and Hornsby a Hall of Famer. They are equally obscure to people who care nothing for baseball in the 1920s, but represent very different levels of accomplishment.

I can understand why Klaidman would be annoyed by the way the Schiffs are portrayed in The Apes of God. It isn't fair. But is fiction supposed to be fair? Was Joyce fair to Oliver St. John Gogarty? No. Does that matter?

Then we have the circumstance that Klaidman is willing to talk about Lewis's book being forgotten and then pops Lewis's name into his subtitle. Come on, man. Give the man his due.


Saturday, March 21, 2020

Robert Glück, _Margery Kempe_

THE WEIRD TRAIL of circumstance, installment #716. I read a great interview with Glück in Believer magazine about six or seven years ago (conducted by Miranda Mellis, whose The Spokes I admire very much), and I immediately went online looking for copies of his books, purchasing three: Jack the Modernist, Elements of a Coffee Service, and this one, which I picked up for just a dollar.

Life being what it is, I did not read even one of them.

Then, last month, I saw an ad for what I took to be the NYRB Classic edition of The Book of Margery Kempe, but which on closer examination turned out to be their new edition of Glück's novel. I thought...don't I own that? After a short search, I found it. Now is the time to read it, the cosmos seemed  to be telling me.

Having once upon a time read The Book of Margery Kempe--perhaps the first autobiography in English, the story of a woman who gave up a thriving business and her marriage to follow what seemed to her a vocation of sainthood--I felt more or less prepared.

Still, the book was quite a curveball. Glück goes over the same ground as Kempe's own autobiography--her trying to explain to her husband what is going on, the difficult meetings with church authorities, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the many people who think she is insane--but he gives her relationship to Jesus a startling twist, making it graphically erotic: "Jesus the athlete moved with her easily. Her aroused her with his long burrowing tongue. He pulled hair aside and drew her clit into his mouth." That sort of thing.

But who said mystical experience is necessarily decorous and well-behaved? Might it not just as likely be shocking, disturbing, transgressive, even a little gross? As Teresa of Avila said in The Interior Castle, there will be things going on between you and Jesus that only you and Jesus know about.

Also unexpected, audacious, and ultimately richly rewarding is Glück's decision to braid Margery's story with a recounting of one of his own affairs, with a man here called L. Glück gets methodologically explicit about midpoint in the book: "This novel records my breakdown; conventional narrative is preserved but the interest lies elsewhere. Like L., Jesus must be real but must also represent a crisis" (p. 78 in my edition, from High Risk Books).

Makes sense, no? The beloved is like a god; any contact with him is fulfilling as nothing else is. When he smiles, the universe is redeemed. But his attention is divided, somehow. He sometimes abruptly withdraws. He gets to set all the terms. He has fabulous outfits. We like to think God is not as flakey and unpredictable as a human beloved, but honestly, how many has he left in the lurch?

Fascinating as all that is, what really kept me going was the sheer pleasure of Glück's sentences.

   Arundel invited Margery to sit in his garden. He had chalky skin and a red nose, the patrician bearing and tight gray ringlets of a schoolmarm.
   A bee backed out of a lily trumpet. A turtle walked resolutely across the path, shifting attitudes of attention. Margery started small. She asked Arundel for permission to receive communion every Sunday--unusual at that time but not exceptional. He consented with a nod. His gray eyes drifted, diluted in thick lenses. Thus established, Margery asked him for authority to wear white clothes--to confirm her affair with Jesus. Her voice was a clear bell that broke at the highs with a scratch of emphasis. He approved.

My favorite touch: the turtle.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

_The Childermass_: Lewis's best?

LAST MONTH I was re-reading Wyndham Lewis's The Childermass for I think the fourth time, inspiring a series of thoughts that I will record here because...well, because what else is this blog for?

(1) This being the fourth time through, my copy--a paperback from the 1960s--is coming apart. Why, of why, I implore deaf heaven, did the Black Sparrow reprint series run out of gas before they got to The Childermass? They must have been planning one; someone must have been working on it. Will it ever see the light of day? What a thing it would be to have, say, a nice hefty Black Sparrow, edited by Peter Caracciolo, of The Childermass...of all the ones they did not get to, it's the missed opportunity I regret most keenly. (Number two on that list: Blasting and Bombardiering.)

(2) Is this the best book by Wyndham Lewis? I'm leaning that way. The Revenge for Love and Self-Condemned  would get more votes, I imagine, as they deliver more recognizably narrative goods than The Childermass does; Tarr and Snooty Baronet  would probably get more votes, too. But we know Lewis himself held The Childermass in particularly high regard ("my principal work in fiction I suppose," he told one correspondent).

I also recall my late friend Dennis McGucken, who died quite a few years ago. Our first conversation occurred at a party at his apartment in the late 1980s, when we both slogging in the post-doc/ABD/non-tenure track trenches, and I saw he had a shelf of Lewis novels. Do you like Lewis? I asked. He did, and we were off to the races, the first of many conversations about a wide number of things. Dennis was probably the mlost brilliant person I ever regularly talked to. And his favorite Lewis novel was The Childermass.

For him, and for me, it was the continuous high energy of the prose. In some respects little happens in the novel; Pulley and Satters wander around in a landscape where none of the rules of physics or stable personal identity apply, and then we settle into a debate over relatively obscure matters. But in the sentences, there is always something happening. The prose positively crackles.

And the Bailiff! He's the bad guy...but he is so entertaining, so unpredictable, so wily, that even when the book veers into polemics it never loses steam, never stops being supremely comic.

(3) And at the same time--here is the irony--I would never assign it. It's out of print, for one thing. I only teach undergraduates, for another--the sheer amount of background information one would have to go into...whew. How explain Bergson, or why Lewis had such a beef with him? Then there are the frequent passages that smack of racism, or anti-semitism, or homophobia. Then there is the fact that there are no female characters at all, that Lewis's afterlife is all-male for reasons that are never specified. Finally, while with Ulysses or The Waves or The Sound and the Fury one has a fighting chance of finding a theme or event or character or situation that might distantly resonate with a 21st century undergraduate, is there one in a hundred, one in a thousand undergraduates who would get a kick out of Hyperides dressing down the Bailiff about the Child-cult, or the Time-cult, or any of Lewis's bêtes noires?

(4) I'm not sure I would even recommend it to anyone who has not already read a few other Lewis books. I've been asked (maybe ten times, if I happen to get into a conversation about why I am so interested in this writer), "So, what would you say I should read by him?" I usually say Tarr  or The Revenge for Love. Can't go wrong there. The Wild Body  would be a good one too. But you have to be a Lewis obsessive to get anything out of The Childermass...

...but if you in fact are a Lewis obsessive, it's the mother lode.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Hilary Mantel, _The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories_

I STARTED THIS one while waiting for the new Thomas Cromwell installment to hit the shelves...and now we have it! This was a nice way to fill the interim, in any case.

All of the stories except the last (the title story, as it happens) were published before the book came out, mainly in the Guardian or in the London Review of Books.

It seems to me that English/British short story writing does not have a biggest dog in the yard like the New Yorker, a publication whose prestige and ability to pay are such that it actually functions as part of the gravitational field for short story writers, pulling the form in a certain direction.  On the other hand, I'm having a hard time thinking of contemporary English/British fiction writers who are famous mainly for their short stories. I know Julian Barnes has published a couple of collections...but is there a Lydia Davis/Diane Williams/Deborah Eisenberg/Raymond Carver/Gary Lutz writer, someone whose short fictions are their best known?

Maybe they need a New Yorker. Not that the New Yorker is going to publish Diane Williams or Gary Lutz, probably. Well, who knows.

Mantel's stories have a few old-school moves, like the cold-water-in-the-face shock ending ("Winter Break," "How Shall I Know You," "The Heart Fails Without Warning"). Here is the U.S.A., we go more for the enigmatic-trailing-off ending that does not seem like an ending at all. I found these crack-of-thunder endings refreshing and enjoyable.

The stories are relatively recent (a 2004 story is the earliest), but they hark back in some ways to Mantel's earlier novels. "Sorry to Disturb" has the same setting, in effect, as Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, and the narrator of "Comma" sounds a lot like the narrator of An Experiment in Love. "Terminus" is a ghost story, in the neighborhood of Beyond Black.

The main event, though, is the final and title story, in which a woman whose house (semi-detached?) overlooks the hospital from which Margaret Thatcher is leaving after an eye surgery lets in a repairman who turns out to be an IRA sharpshooter, intent on killing Thatcher. The surprise is that the woman turns out to be not unsympoathetic to the undertaking, even willing to get a little complicit. This must have touched off controversy of the sort Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint inspired, but her reputation is probably secure nonetheless.


Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Hisham Matar, _A Month in Siena_

A FRIEND RECOMMENDED this recently. Since I had never read anything by Matar,  and knew little about him other than that he is a well-regarded writer, I had not much beyond the recommendation to go on. Usually, that's not quite enough, given the sheer number of recommendations I get. But it was a short book, I had some time, so why not?

The title gives you the basic premise. Matar had long admired Sienese painting and wanted to see it first hand, so he set aside the time, made the arrangements, got to Siena, started looking at paintings. The early chapters take a decidedly art-historical turn, but lightly carried.

By the  middle of the book, Matar spends less time on the paintings, more on what he sees around the town, the people he meets. He makes some friends, and the unfolding of those friendships becomes an interesting story in itself.

By the end, we realize there has been an invisible elephant in the room the whole time. Matar went to Siena, it turns out, right after he completed writing his previous book, The Return, also non-fiction, about returning to Libya and looking for traces of what happened to his father. I have not read The Return, and Matar does not say much about here (understandably, since he had written a whole book about it already), but that experience slowly begins to loom as an important element of what he is seeing and doing in Siena, in ways that I sensed more than actually grasped.

It's as though the book begins in sunlight, happy and excited at the prospect of Matar's checking a big one off his bucket list, but shadows lengthen, the air gets cooler, and  melancholy starts whispering around the edges of the narrative. It's a subtle, arresting book.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Jason Lutes, _Berlin_

AN IMMENSE GRAPHIC novel--about 550 pages--and it took me months to read it, over which time its details got muddled in mind with those of Berlin Babylon. This too is set in Berlin in the years right before the Nazis came to power.

The narrative begins with Marthe Müller's arrival in Berlin in the fall of 1928. She has left her comfortable, provincial bourgeois family behind in Köln to study art and live a little--which she proceeds to do, having affairs with the somewhat older, deeply serious journalist Kurt Severing and with fellow student Anna, who is trans-masculine. There are a great many other characters: a Jewish family, assorted Communists, assorted brownshirts, a decadent-aristo ex-mistress of Kurt's, an African-American jazz group, several actually historical figures. Tensions rise, chaos looms. Hitler is being sworn in as Chancellor when Anna boards the train to go back to Köln at book's end, so it must be January 1933. Both Kurt and Anna see her off at the station.

What struck me over and over again is how painstaking Lutes is with architecture. The effect of being in an urban space is uncanny. He's less successful with people, I think; they are not as promptly distinguishable from each other as they should be. As characters, though, in the literary sense, they work well, especially Anna.

As a depiction of the era--what the heck, I was persuaded. Lutes does not go into a lot of detail about the politics of those years, using it mainly as backdrop, but still conveys that tipping-out-of-control feeling...all too reminiscent of the good old USA under our current president.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Ben Lerner, _10:04_

I ACTUALLY BOUGHT this about the time it came out, all the way back in 2014, but it took the publication of The Topeka School to get me to actually open it. I knew I wanted to read The Topeka School, having read a couple of chapters in periodicals, so I thought, well, really ought to get to this one first.

Why so reluctant? The main problem, I suspect, was that I enjoyed Leaving the Atocha Station so much that I anticipated disappointment.

I remember opening the shrink wrap on Reckoning, already feeling doomed, certain that I was never going to like it as much as Murmur. And I never did like it as much as Murmur, to tell the truth.

Reports of the plot of 10:04--that Lerner, a poet who had had unexpected and unlikely success with his first novel, had written a second novel about a poet who has unexpected and unlikely success with a first novel and is trying to figure out how to write a second--sounded like a one-way trip to a metafiction black hole. Wasn't sure I wanted to get lost in that particular funhouse again.

Well, guess what. 10:04 is delightful, a worthy successor to Atocha.

The title alludes to the hour at which lightning struck the city hall clock in Back to the Future, powering Marty McFly's return to the 1980s, and it is an appropriately off-handed, playful way of indicating the novel's most prominent theme, the mysterious likeness-but-non-identity of the future with the past.

The novel's epigraph summarizes a Hasidic tale about "the world to come" in which "everything will be as it is now, just a little different," and the concept of the same-but-subtly different returns often as the book progresses, sometimes comically, sometimes profoundly, sometimes both, and finally very movingly in its relevance to the unfolding of the narrator's relationship with Alex, his best friend at the novel's beginning and still his best friend at the end, but in a new, transformed key.

The book also inspired me to read William Bronk again, a poet I had (regrettably) not thought about much for thirty years or more now.

I started The Topeka School this afternoon. Why aren't our novelists writing novels this good?

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Cixin Liu, _The Three-Body Problem_, tr. Ken Liu

I'VE MENTIONED A few times already, I think, that I read little science fiction, but having hit a winner with Ted Chiang and getting a bit interested in recent Chinese fiction, I gave this a shot.

It has a few specifically Chinese reference points--well, one, really, the Cultural Revolution. The main idea is that a while back a Chinese astrophysicist sent out a signal to the universe to which some alien civilization responded. They are on their way. It will take them a while to get here, though.

In the meantime, someone invents a computer game that initiates the player into an understanding of what life on this alien world is like (the chapters set inside the game are especially interesting, I thought), and the relative handful of people who know the arrival of the aliens is imminent form two rival schools. The Adventists expect the aliens to destroy humanity, which the Adventists view as a good outcome, while the Redemptionists expect the aliens to save us in some god-like way.

This is the first book of a trilogy, so I imagine the alien beings arrive in the next volume, perhaps? Maybe the third. I think I'll call it good here, though.

Jillian Weise, _Cyborg Detective_

JUDGING FROM BLURBS on books about the lives and experiences of the disabled, what the ordinarily-abled reader is hoping to find is something brave, inspirational, moving, and so on. Jillian Weise ain't having it. If you're looking for swelling orchestra uplift, keep looking.

Here's what we'll do.We'll rope you
to the podium and ask
What do you have? What is it? 
If you refuse to answer then we call
your doctor. Then we get to say
You're an inspiration.

Weise is a cyborg by virtue of having a sophisticated, programmable prosthetic leg (its cost equal, she notes, to that of a BMW convertible) and a detective by virtue of her capacity to zero in on anything that smacks of presumption, condescension, or just plain bullshit in what is written about disabilities by writers both canonical and long gone (W. C. Williams, Raymond Carver) and still living (no, I'm not going to tell you, buy the book already!).

Smart, funny, enlightening, but if you are ordinarily-abled, it will probably make you cringe a few times, too, and that may be just as worthwhile as our being inspired. E.g., from "Imaginary Interview":

Q. Explain, if you will, how you came to wear a prosthetic, and why this leg differs from others.
A: Of course. The event. Everyone is always interested in the event. It is like a birthday party we all get to attend.

I wonder if Weise knows Mike Ervin? That is a conversation I would like to eavesdrop on.

Also--"Rahab" is one of the best Biblically-inspired contemporary poems I have ever come across.

And--I was kinda-sorta hoping we would get a few more poems about Big Logos (see Weise's The Book of Goodbyes). Maybe he's out of the picture?


Friday, March 6, 2020

Kate Manne, _Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny_

THIS BOOK MADE a deep impression on me. I do not read enough feminist theory to judge how original or groundbreaking it is, but a lot of it was certainly new to me.

Manne describes the book as born of a frustration arising from debates about misogyny. Discussion of even what seemed like clear-cut cases--Elliott Rodger (responsible for the Isla Vista killings), Donald Trump on the Access Hollywood tape, certain campus rape cases--all too often bogged down in quarrels over definitions, as in "he isn't a misogynist if X" or "You can't call it 'misogyny' if Y."

Manne describes herself as an "analytical feminist"--that is (I think) a philosopher more in the analytical than in what Anglo-Americans call the "continental" vein. Analytical philosophers deal more with questions of definition and logic than social or gender justice, usually, and most feminists that I know and/or have read draw a bit more from continental methods. The problem Manne addresses is a good fit for analytical methods, though, clearly. What are we going to say "misogyny" is?

One of her crucial moves is to move well away from seeing it as a matter of individual agents and actions. She is interested less in "Who shall we say is a misogynist?" than in "what does misogyny do? What end does it accomplish?" As she puts it, "misogyny's essence lies in its social function, not its psychological nature" (20). We should spend less time dissecting the individual actions that pop up above ground and more time pondering the vast underground root system that is sending up these shoots. Accordingly, Manne's argues that misogyny is whatever "functions to enforce and police women's subordination and to uphold male dominance" (19).

That won't please everyone, especially if we prefer to imagine misogyny as some personal fucked-up-ness that erupts in people we are not friends with. But it cuts to the chase, doesn't it?

Manne distinguishes misogyny from sexism: "I propose taking sexism to be the branch of patriarchal ideology that justifies and rationalizes a patriarchal social order, and misogyny as the system that polices and enforces its governing roles and expectations" (20). That is--if I understand this point--if I argue that we can't have women players in the NFL because of upper body strength, speed, or tradition, etc., I am being sexist. If I start to bully people out of even talking about the question, or get indignant or abusive or angry or violent about it, I am being a misogynist. The same person could, in different contexts, play both roles.

This makes sense, I think. There are sexist defenses of the prerogatives of patriarchy that try to stay within the bounds of rational discourse and logic. These have been losing ground since Wollstonecraft, though, and are basically intellectually bankrupt. The misogynist defenses of patriarchy, though--intimidation, insult, accusation, lies, threats, violence--remain all too available, as near to hand as one's Twitter account.

My takeaway from Down Girl: As long as large numbers of men consider themselves "tacitly deemed entitled to rely [on women] for nurturing, comfort, care, and sexual, emotional, and reproductive labor" (xv), patriarchy is alive, and as long as they are willing  to use any means available to enforce that imagined entitlement, we will have misogyny. It's not just a few bad apples, in other words. It's a set of assumptions that will probably outlive most of us. But we might as well get busy digging up that underground root system now.






Saturday, February 29, 2020

Adam Tedesco, _Mary Oliver_

I WROTE A review of this for a much more prestigious blog, and I want to avoid pre-empting myself here, but this is a good book. If you stop by this blog looking for poetry recommendations--maybe someone does, who knows--then my word is, read Adam Tedesco's Mary Oliver.

Deborah Eisenberg, _Twilight of the Superheroes_

EISENBERG WRITES WHAT I would loosely call "New Yorker stories": graceful, tasteful, mainly about family fissures (between spouses, between siblings, between generations) among the relatively prosperous and well-educated. Nothing wrong with that--it's just that there are so many of them already one has small appetite for more. Eisenberg's are in the top drawer of that category, though... in the Alice Munro class.

Like Munro's, her stories run in the 30-50 page range, room enough to get a more novelistic sense of the character's surround and history, which Eisenberg takes full advantage of. (The length would also make them far too long for the New Yorker of the post-Shawn era, I imagine; the stories in this collection mainly appeared in quarterlies.)

Another Munro-esque quality, a more important one, is that Eisenberg's stories are wise. I recently read Walter Benjamin's essay "The Storyteller," which was even richer than I remembered it, and one of his points was that we expect from "stories" a wisdom, some kind of truth about life and living it,  that we do not so much expect from novels. A few novelists count as wise--Tolstoy, George Eliot--but we rarely think of even great novelists, Woolf, Joyce, Proust, as wise, exactly, insightful and perceptive though they are. Wisdom decocts into proverbs, and novelists since Flaubert have generally avoided inserting proverbs.

Eisenberg does not include proverbs any more than Munro does, but she seems to know how people are. For instance, the prickly, easily-offended man who gives everyone, including his husband, reason to think he is an unrepentant asshole, yet strains every nerve to be gentle and thoughtful with his brilliant-but-damaged sister. Or the near-retirement teacher finally taking her Italian vacation. Or the just-out-of-college, still-having-fun friends scratching about for opportunities in New York when history dramatically ends their salad days on 9/11. Or the wife and mother who finds herself in the middle of a toxic conflict between her husband and her son, both of whom expect her full support, and is suddenly presented with a short interval in which she can leave their Oedipal mishegoss temporarily behind.

Particularly impressive for me was "Window," where Eisenberg steps a good distance away from the milieus and people she is most familiar with and writes about a young woman who ends up partnered with a survivalist gun dealer and then has to get away, taking with her the toddler from the survivalist's previous relationship. Eisenberg helps us see the appeal of the survivalist--he is capable and principled--but also the threat he poses, with his insistence that the young woman be as socially isolated as he is and his potential for violence. She also has to somehow convey the interiority of someone who has had little education and experienced little of the wider world, and she does so persuasively and without condescension.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Jonathan Littell, _Les Bienveillantes_, interim notes iii

STILL WISHING I had heeded Daniel Mendelson's suggestion to go with the English translation--what was I thinking? I feel no obligation too read Beckett in French. But having come this far....

How far, you ask? Seven years in, I am on p. 842, with 500-something pages to go. With a major push I may complete the book in a decade.

But is it worth it? Still feels like yes.

The Orestes parallel has escalated. Maximilien Aue spends a restless, feverish night in the house of his mother and her new husband, and when he wakes up, they have both been murdered. Hmm. Did our boy do something  rash? His sister is showing no interest at all, though, in resuming their adolescent explorations.

Brilliant passages on Aue's visit to Paris. Before the war, Aue became acquainted with the key fascist-leaning French writers, so we get glimpses of Maurras, Brasillach, Céline, and a long conversation with Lucien Rebatet. Littell's depiction of the atmosphere of this milieu is persuasive.

Littell also arranges things so that Aue has an interview with Himmler, who, homophobe that he was,  wants to know why Maximilien is not yet married. Max, single-mindedly gay save where his sister is concerned, says he is married to the Third Reich for the duration of the present crisis. Good answer!

Max's interview with Eichmann is even better. Littell has injected some hybridized essence of Curzio Malaparte and Hannah Arendt into these scenes--an afternoon and evening with Lucifer's office manager, complete with a couple of Brahms quartets. Eichmann finds Bach a little too chilly.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Cathleen Schine, _They May Not Mean To, But They Do_

THIS IS THE first of Schine's novels I've read, which is to say I have not read the one modeled on Sense and Sensibility, but I can tell from this one that Schine would be the right person to attempt such a thing.

Her characters, like Austen's, have been well brought up and tend to have good intentions, but have their blind spots, their flashes of selfishness, their capacities for fooling themselves. And, like Austen's, they have the capability, sometimes, to see through themselves and make a necessary course correction. (Is this the main difference, it occurs to me, between Austen and another great English writer of satirical fiction, Wyndham Lewis?)

They May Not Mean To, But They Do takes its title from the line that follows the unforgettable first line of Philip Larkin's poem "This Be the Verse." At the center of the novel is the topic of aging parents. The minds and bodies of Joy and Aaron Bergman of New York City have begun to slip, and their offspring Daniel (also of New York City, eco activist, married, two daughters) and Molly (now of California, divorced, one son, re-married to a same-sex partner) have to figure some things out. Unhappily, their parents' circumstances are changing so alarmingly that things have to be figured out anew every few months, or weeks, or days.

The brilliant thing about the book, though, is not just its portrait of how Molly and Daniel respond to this familiar problem--which, I can attest, having recently dealt with a lot of what they deal with, is a lifelike portrait indeed--but the choreography with which the novel's narration dances from one character's point of view to another's. We get the points of view of Molly and Daniel, of course, but also those of the parents, and those of the grandchildren, and those of the daughters-in-law. It's not a long book--a bit under 300 pages--but it affords a panorama, and Schine is as persuasive rendering the sensibility of a girl preparing for her bat mitzvah as she is that of a woman who can't remember what she came to the kitchen for.

A lot of the book is sad, and I mean sad, heart-breaking sad, as things fall apart. As you might guess, some of the characters die. But somehow Schine conjured up an utterly credible relatively-upbeat ending. Quite the magician.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Ocean Vuong, _Night Sky with Exit Wounds_

MY LATEST POETRY Week is over, but I still have a stack of poetry collections about the height of a four-year-old child, so I should read at least a few more of them, don't you think?

This one received some acclaim on its appearance in 2016--less attention than Vuong's new autofiction/memoir (which shares a title with one of the poems herein), but the comparison is perhaps invidious.

It's a dazzling collection, and a little disturbing, too, as the erotic and the violent are often adjacent. The Vietnam War and its effects on Vuong's parents and grandparents loom in the background; his father in particular seems traumatized and frequently absent, an experience refracted through a pattern of Odyssey allusions.

The poems do not yield meaning readily, though. "Eurydyce" begins:

It's more like the sound
     a doe makes
when the arrowhead
     replaces the day
with an answer
     to the rib's hollowed
 hum.

I'm not sure I know what sound a doe makes in those circumstances, but I worry about that arrowhead. We meet the doe again in "The Smallest Measure," when a boy on his first hunting trip ("the Winchester rattles / in a boy's early hands") spots her and is told by the "copper beard" at his ear, "Go ahead, the voice thicker / now, drive her / home."

Is our Orpheus capable of violence? Is that why "Queen Under the Hill" (Venus, wasn't it?), a poem that alludes to Duncan's "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," turns into a nightmare in which a piano morphs into a dead horse? Did some kind of violence, perhaps wholly imaginary, prompt the confessions in "Anaphora as Coping Mechanism" or "Prayer for the Newly Damned"? If the suggestion of Rilke's archaic torso of Apollo is taken up--"Suppose you do change your life," proposes "Torso of Air"--will the peace promised in "Someday I'll Love Ocean Vuong" come to pass?

I have more questions than answers.  Good book, though.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Ted Chiang, _Exhalation_

MY READING HISTORY with science fiction: vexed. As a person with an interest in literature generally, I felt under a kind of obligation to sample the masters and read at least one book apiece by Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin, Samuel Delany, and William Gibson. Nothing ever really clicked, though. I read some more books by Delany, but not his fiction, and I never connected strongly enough with any of the others to be much tempted to pick up a second book. As for Frank Herbert and Neal Stephenson, I was not able to finish even one.

This book was getting such good reviews, though, that I thought, okay, got to at least give him a fair trial (this being volume # 6 of the "read more short story collections" program here at Loads of Learned Lumber).

And it is great. 

I have already bought and am looking forward to reading Chiang's first collection of stories (Exhalation is the second).

What is different about Chiang? As in a lot--most, I guess--science fiction, he assumes some kind of now-remote possibility has become possible, and uses the resources of invented characters and settings to play out the conflicts and developments that might follow from that actualization. The possibilities employed here are not particularly novel ones, I suspect, within the sci-fi domain: artificial intelligence, the trans-human, multiple universes, speculations about free will and time travel. Chiang seems so wise, though, so humane, so interested in the minds and feelings of his characters (Sci-fi often stumbles at this, I feel), that his fiction delivers the satisfactions and insights of literary fiction while starting from different premises. Delany was good at this, too, and Delany writes extremely well, but Chiang seems to me head, shoulders, and upper torso above all the other sci-fi writers I have read, Delany aside.

Chiang also seems alert to the way institutions and culture would shape the kinds of possibilities he imagines. LeGuin had the anthropology covered, but Chiang seems additionally skillful in imagining how (for example) market forces and family dynamics would be a part of the possible futures that technological change might unlock.

I wonder if he is working on a novel.

Friday, January 31, 2020

Tyrus Miller, ed., _The Cambridge Companion to Wyndham Lewis_

FIRST OF ALL, hats off to Tyrus Miller or whoever it was that talked Cambridge into doing this. The "Cambridge Companions to Literature" series volumes, to quote from the press's website, "are lively, accessible introductions to major writers, artists, philosophers, topics and periods. All are collections of specially commissioned essays, shaped and introduced to appeal to student readers." They tend to be about canonical figures (Milton, Dante, both Eliots) or texts (Canterbury Tales) or topics that would show up on a great many syllabuses (Beats, Queer Theory, American Gothic Fiction). Lewis perhaps shows up on a good number of UK syllabuses, but I don't believe he is on many here in the USA, so I imagine Miller or someone really had to come up with a great pitch to make this happen. Well done, whoever you are. 

Getting Lewis onto more syllabuses in the USA will be hard to accomplish, though, given his reputation for unsavory political and social stances. For example, Lewis wrote the first book in English on Hitler (a couple of years before Hitler came to power) and was for some years under the impression that Hitler, problematic though he was, was the right leader for Germany. There there are his (as they might seem to some) misogyny, homophobia, racism, anti-semitism, and general disdain for democracy. People teaching literature in the United States by and large gravitate to writers of more progressive, emancipatory tendencies.

I wonder if that is why three of the book's twelve chapters--"Lewis and Fascism," "Race and Antisemitism in Lewis," and "Women, Masculinity, and Homosexuality in Lewis"--seem aimed precisely at those aspects of Lewis's careers that would lift the most eyebrows. These chapters--and some of the others, in passing--sometimes drift into apology and defense. Which I understand--but the wiser course is that of Lara Trubowitz, who is ready to roll up her sleeves, plunge into the mucky Lewisian sub-basement, and have a real look. "In this essay, I suggest that, antisemite and racist though he may be (and he is both), Lewis is also a compelling theorist of antisemitism and racism and ought to be read as such." 

Erin Carlston makes a similar canny move in looking at the actual contours of Lewis's ideas about women and gay men: "Lewis's critique of masculinity lays bare the workings of masculinist power, denaturalizes male privileged and represents manliness as an anxious, generally unsuccessful performance with ludicrous--and potentially lethal--consequences."

Trubowitz and Carlston are spot-on right. Here's hoping their perspectives prove influential.

This is a strong collection of articles/chapters, illuminating even if one is already familiar with Lewis. A lot of the heavyweights are here--Paul Edwards, Andrzej Gasiorek, Nathan Waddell, Alan Munton, David Ayers. Edwards's contribution even exceeds the brief of "appeal[ing] to student readers," I would say, and breaks some new ground in Lewis studies. A couple of chapters feel a little wobbly, in that they may have needed to be longer and in a volume written more for specialists; the arguments of Melania Terrazas (on Lewis and the traditions of satire) and Erik Bachman (on Lewis's responses to the thinking of Bergson and Whitehead) perhaps require more space than they had at their disposal here. 

Dandy book. Thank you, Tyrus Miller, and thank you, Cambridge University Press.



Thursday, January 30, 2020

Robin DiAngelo, _White Fragilty: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk about. Racism_

ROBIN DIANGELO IS a diversity educator and trainer, and much of her book concerns how resistant her audiences are to what she has to say. I have to admit, I understand that resistance. Like a colonoscopy or a root canal, a diversity workshop may be exactly what one needs, but even so one does not look forward to it.  It will do you good, but you are not going to enjoy it much, and at the diversity workshop they are not even going to provide you any drugs.

As a diversity trainer, part of DiAngelo's job is to explain that racism is baked into our society, to the universal advantage of white people and the universal disadvantage of everyone else. That is, it is not simply a matter of individual choices or intentions; it is much older, more pervasive, and more insidious than that. To be a white person, whatever one's choices or intentions, is to be consciously or unconsciously complicit in it, full stop.

White people often respond to this explanation by becoming upset or indignant or even angry--and that is white fragility. White fragility too often means the explanation of racism has to stop in its tracks, not to proceed until the upset or indignant white persons get the apology or absolution or attention they feel entitled to. That often means it does not proceed at all. That colonoscopy never happens, and the bad thing inside just keeps growing.

White fragility is a real problem, in other words, and DiAngelo, drawing on a large fund of experience, explains it well.

If you have been to a few diversity workshops, or have read (for instance) The Fire Next Time, Playing in the Dark, The New Jim Crow, Citizen, or Between the World and Me, you will probably already be familiar with the key points of the analysis of racism in chapters 1-6. To tell the truth, I almost threw in the towel at that point--but I'm glad I stuck with the book, because chapters 7-12, where DiAngelo particularly brings to bear what she learned in the trenches, are searchingly illuminating. I even recognized myself on p. 135: "Intellectualizing and distancing." Yep...that's me. Books make a difference, I do believe, but even those who read the right books still have work to do, and will for as long as we live.


Saturday, January 25, 2020

Morgan Parker, _Magical Negro_ (poetry week # 7)

WRAPPING UP POETRY week, we have Morgan Parker's most recent collection. Her third, but the first I've read.

If we follow the old Isaiah Berlin (via Tolstoy) adage and divide writers into hedgehogs and foxes, Parker is a fox. She is various, quick, willing to risk self-contradiction, contemporary. She is always a little farther ahead of you than you think.

I particularly enjoyed "The History of Black People" in five sonnets, "Ode to Fried Chicken's Guest appearance on Scandal," "Matt," and "Magical Negro #80: Brooklyn." Everything in here worked, though. Parker is particularly deft at closure (see above, "a little farther ahead of you than you think").

Three references to the gap in Angela Davis's teeth (pp. 78, 88, 90). I had never noticed this gap...and I have met Angela Davis. A Google search confirms, yes, she has a gap between the top incisors. As it happens, so do I. Is this important? Is it a Wyf of Bath thing? Why am I only now finding out?

Robert Lowell, _Day by Day_ (poetry week # 6)

I ALREADY KNEW I did not really want to read the recently-published Lowell/Hardwick correspondence, but reading the reviews made me ponder whether to give The Dolphin another shot, and on my way to pulling The Dolphin off the shelf, I noticed this. I picked it up at Magus Books in Seattle back in 2017, having then recently read Kay Redfield Jamison's Setting Fire to the River, but did not immediately read it. But, on an impulse, I decided this was the moment.

By the end of Part One, I decided I liked it as much as Lord Weary's Castle or Life Studies--that is, my favorite Lowell volumes. A little ways into Part Three, I decided I actually liked this more than Lord Weary's Castle or Life Studies. This is my favorite book by Lowell.

Why? Hmm. It seems less strenuous than a lot of Lowell, perhaps. In all his books, especially in the ones I do not much like, he seems to be bending iron all the time, even when he is just making a basket. But not so much here. The poems do not seem careless, but they do seem just a little relaxed, unfussy, in a Samson Agonistes way, perhaps--still Milton, but not with the full panoply of effects, more unforced. Lowell in Day by Day is still lyrical, still full of darting intelligence, occasionally starting into flame, but not sweating with effort quite the same way, willing to let go, to a degree. "Yet why not say what happened?"

So, why had I not read this before?


Thursday, January 23, 2020

Tommy Pico, _Feed_ (poetry week #5)

TOMMY PICO AND I diverge in many respects. He is of the Kumeyaay nation; I am WASP. He is queer; I am straight. He dwells on the coasts; I inhabit the Great Plains. He is less that half my age. And yet we both like Bell's Two-Hearted Ale (see p. 30). So you never know.

And we also have both read Ariana Reines (see p. 51).

Feed is a book-length poem, a continuously unscrolling text of some 78 print pages. A lot of it seems to be set during a book tour, with the first half mainly on the west coast, ending up home in New York City. It's somewhat reminiscent of autofiction, but with all the dross of exposition and transition filtered out. I am going to compare it, though, to Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book. 

As in that Heian court lady's masterpiece, we have some gossip, some confession, some pinpoint observation, some lyrical flights, some wisdom, and a few lists: of foods, of plants (with helpful guides to the pronunciation of their Latin names), and (naturally) a playlist, its seventeen songs (one used twice) presented over the course of the book, acting as a kind of spine.

Another unifying device is Fermi's Paradox (given how extensive the universe is, life must have developed on millions of planets, so why haven't they contacted us?), which Pico ingeniously applies to his dating life (given the billions of people in the world, there must be lots I would love to be with, so why do I never meet them?).

Feed is funny, touching, carbonated, hard to put down. The authorial voice is mercurial--smartass here, vulnerable there, sometimes prophetic. Really good book.


Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Chelsey Minnis, _Zirconia/Bad Bad_ (poetry week # 4)

WITH ALL OF the attention Chelsey Minnis's Baby I Don't Care got last year, Fence Books must have decided it was a good moment to republish her first two collections, making them available in one handy volume with an introduction by Ariana Reines (this is one of those introductions it would be a mistake to skip, by the way).

Zirconia (2001) includes several prose poems, but for the most part the poems are...hmm. Not that easy to describe. Imagine an erasure poem, the kind where the selected words remain in the place on the page where they originally occurred. Now, imagine, that the removed words have been replaced not by white space, but by rows of periods. Good? Okay, these poems, usually a few pages long, look like that. The effect is a little bit Charles Olson, a little bit like those translations of Sappho that have gaps where the papyrus is damaged, a little bit like erasure poetry, but not exactly like any of those things, so while the individual poems may not be authentic gems (which may be the point to the book's title), they do deliver un frisson nouveau, we could say.

The form recurs in Bad Bad (2007), but now the solid rows of periods are partial rows and dispersed irregularly around the page. Why that should make a difference, I do not fathom, but somehow it does. I found myself being more impressed by Bad Bad than by either Poemland or Baby I Don't Care, actually, and it had something to do with these poems. But what? Maybe the way they dance a little bit with language poetry? Maybe the way that irregularly spaced rows of periods suggested there was an erased poem underneath, not an erased page of prose? Maybe something in the urgency of "Man-Thing," "Bad Bad" (the poem of that name), or "Foxina"?

I found myself also profoundly enjoying the 68 prefaces with which Bad Bad opens, which anticipate the poems of Poemland. Here, too, Minnis's sardonic take on poetry-as-a-career combines effectively with a certain Instagram-poetry flatness that takes some abrupt plunges into the surreal.

And speaking of sardonic takes on poetry-as-a-career, Minnis's "Anti-Vitae" should be on every bulletin board in every MFA program.  A sample:

1997-2000
   
          Continue to not publish book.
          Bite cuticles.
          Manuscript rejected by Verse Press.
          Mental health questioned.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Major Jackson and David Lehman ,_Best American Poetry 2019_ (poetry week 3)

WASN'T SURE WHAT to expect here, having read only a few of Jackson's poems in journals here and  there and having no idea what his aesthetic was, so I was mightily put off by his introduction. Long-winded, for one thing (13 pages), and near the beginning Jackson goes off on "the preciousness of poetry," on "glass fortresses of language whose walls and ceilings were lined with parallel facing mirrors in which the poet's ego or aggressive wit or moral superiority or mannered experimentation gradually faded into an abyss of itself," and so on, lamenting contemporary poetry's "lack of engagement with the work beyond art," and I thought, Jesus, one of these guys is editing BAP?

What bothers me most about the writers of such complaints is that they never acknowledge that someone else made the very same complaint in the public prints a few months ago, and someone else a few months before that, and someone else shortly before that, all the way back to the age of Dryden and Pope. It's been the bedrock complaint about poetry since early modernity, if not all the way back to Plato.

So, I arrived at the poems themselves in a foul humor. The first one, by Dilruba Ahmed, a new name for me, was...really good. The second, by Rosa Alcala, was...also really good. Then a Margaret Atwood. Really good! And so on. It turned out that every poem had something that popped--a verbal effect, a metaphor, an unexpected close. Jackson is an outstanding editor, I had to admit. The 2019 BAP turned out (for me) to be the best read in the series since Terrance Hayes's turn back in 2014.

Hayes himself is in here, with another American sonnet for a past and future assassin, plus some other canny vets (Espada, Gerstler, Hass, Mlinko, Muldoon, Sanchez, Trethewey) and some folks to watch (the aforementioned Ahmed, Summit Chakraborty, Nasheen Yusuf, Didi Jackson).

It caught my attention that editor Jackson broke with tradition by including one of his own poems. Audacious move. "In Memory of Derek Alton Walcott" struck me as less an elegy to Walcott than an homage to Auden's "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," which serves Jackson as template: opening section in which, as per the elegiac tradition, nature mounts the dead poet; second section in the second person, addressing the deceased poet with misgivings about his wayward episodes (Yeats's politics, Walcott's history of sexual harassment); final section in tight closed quatrains speaking to poetry's higher mission.     It's a straight lift, I would say. I was hoping Jackson would acknowledge the debt in his note at the end, but no. Why not?

Monday, January 20, 2020

Dana Gioia and David Lehman, eds, _Best American Poetry 2018_ (poetry week 2)

SO, I WONDERED, would Dana Gioia's being editor mean a swing to a more traditional, conservative BAP? Turns out, not really. There are some poems from periodicals not typically represented in the series--First Things, New Criterion--but the overall impression is not that different from other volumes from recent years.

Natasha Trethewey's 2017 selection may have had a few more identity-engagement poems, but Gioia has several (Robin Coste Lewis's and Wang Ping's made particular impressions on me); Gioia's may have more sonnets than Trethewey's, but hers had plenty of sonnets. Terrance Hayes showed up in both, making the useful point that there is no rule saying a sonnet cannot be engaged with issues of identity. (He's in the 2019 volume too, I see).

Does the considerable overlap between Gioia's selection and Trethewey's (which for that matter had a lot of overlap with Edward Hirsch's 2016 selection) imply that some kind of consensus now reigns about what worthwhile poetry looks like, sounds like, chooses to address?

Probably not, actually.

Are they ever going to let Ron Silliman have an at bat in this series?

Probably not.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Paul Muldoon, _Frolic and Detour_ (poetry week I)

IT HAS BEEN a while, a few years even, since I attempted a poetry week--that is, writing about a poetry collection each day for seven days in a row. I'm feeling confident. Let's go.

I actually wrote about Muldoon's latest book back in November, when it was published, in a (much) more prestigious blog. I used up my keenest perceptions on that occasion, I'm afraid, and have little else  to say here except that I love Paul Muldoon's poetry and have since I first came across it, back in 1983, when I picked up Why Brownlee Left--his first American book publication, I believe, but his third in all. I haven't missed a one since.

The second item in Frolic and Detour begins with the utterly Muldoonian tour de force, "Encheiresin Naturae," not just a crown of sonnets but a heroic crown of sonnets, with a fifteenth sonnet formed of the first lines of the preceding fourteen. A few other poets could do that, I suppose, but what other could match Muldoon's carouseling imagination and combinatory powers? Technical agility, mad erudition, a playfulness that always finds some indirect, hidden route to the dead serious--it's all still there, in this sequence and in the book's long closing title poem (another Muldoon hallmark), as neat and surprising a tribute as the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair got in its fiftieth anniversary year, much as "Encheiresin Naturae" is the last word in Easter Rising centennial tributes.

Paul Muldoon. Almost seventy, but still letting his freak flag fly, and may he do so for many, many years more.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Richard Powers, _The Overstory_

POWERS IS AMONG my very favorite living novelists; this is the seventh I've read (thus, there are five I have not), and it is the best of all of them, I would say.

A recurring structure in the six I had read previously is a kind of double helix: two main plots, seemingly independent, but complementary or reciprocally illuminating in various ways. The two plots seem to run parallel for a while, then unexpectedly intersect.

The Overstory ups the ante: eight strands. Five strands are characters who end up working together as...eco-terrorists, I guess we would have to say, whose efforts to stop redwood logging eventually resort to violence.

Another is a couple whose marriage is unravelling, then arrested in its unravelling by the husband's damaging but not fatal stroke, then finally redeemed, I am going to say, when they (under the influence of the next character I will mention) let the trees reclaim their acreage.

A seventh is a maverick researcher, along Rachel Carson or Jane Goodall lines, whose initially mocked research about the intelligence and communicative abilities of trees gradually wins an audience, then becomes famous, then enacts a terrifying answer to the question posed by an environmental conference, "What is the single best thing a person can do for tomorrow's world?"

An eighth is a wheelchair-dependent computer genius, also profoundly effected by the seventh's book, who thinks, or hopes, that there is a different answer to that question than hers.

Powers' novels have always been marked by muscular yet graceful prose--check--extraordinary but lightly-carried erudition--check--structural ingenuity--emphatic check--and, increasingly, a public call to conscience. In this last category, too, The Overstory vaults over its predecessors. It seems to have gotten through to a fairly wide audience, and that's a reason to be grateful. Maybe hopeful, if that's not asking too much.


Friday, January 17, 2020

James McCourt, _Queer Street: The Rise and Fall of an American Culture, 1947-1985: Excursions in the Mind of the Life_, interim report

I HAVE NOT finished this (I am past midpoint, though, having just finished the four-act blank verse monologue McCourt wrote in the persona of an English drag queen), but I have been wondering, do Edmund White and James McCourt ever think of themselves as vying for the honor of being the Proust of Gay New York from the 1960s to the 1980s?

McCourt has some advantages, having actually been born and raised in New York while White was in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and so on. But I think McCourt will have to settle for being the Joyce of Gay New York from the 1960s to the 1980s.

There is the Irishness, for one thing. There is the Catholicism, for another. That's just for starters, though, as there is also his compulsive allusiveness. McCourt sometimes, like Henry James or Stephen Dedalus, leaves the impression that he would even prefer alluding to a phenomenon, if at all possible, to identifying it. Moments like this are fairly frequent:

The American version, redolent of Jansenism and of the even earlier Montanists and Cathars, is best summed up by a wacky title from the '50s (I don't remember what it was attached to): Embezzled Heaven. The preeminent American models were Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day (the most glamorous Magdalen, or good girl thief, of her era). The characteristic witness of adherents in my youth was feeding, clothing, and consorting with the unwashed under the banner of the cardinal virtue Charity, hoisted by the strong scrubbed arm of the gleaming Miss Day, appearing to grovel just a little, dreaming not of being Americans in Paris but barefoot pilgrims to Chartres and espousing the existential angels of Gabriel Marcel.

You have an afternoon with Wikipedia cut out for you right there. Embezzled Heaven, by the way, is the a 1939 novel by Franz Werfel; his next one was the better-known Song of Bernadette.

Then there is the conversation. The rendering of conversation is not what Joyce is most famous for, but in the final chapter of Portrait and in some episodes of Ulysses--"Telemachus," "Aeolus," "Sirens," "Cyclops," I would say--we get some excellent ones. And quite a bit of Queer Street is conversation, often only in fragments, the speakers unidentified, but fascinating, like this bit from the Everard Baths:

   "They could cut them ["our tongues"] out of our heads, and they'd still flap, in nervous miseries, like little spastic creatures of the filthy floor, born of spilled spunk, the get of unholy lust. We are not hearsed, but make our ghost home here among the soul-shrunk lost."
   "I think that is the most depressing instance of self-hatred I've heard in enormous years. Base contamination, indeed--wash it off!"
   "That's the spirit, woman--go on!"
   "I shall. I cannot be patient of such waste of shame. In the first place, it is natural for man to reach the intelligibilia through the sensibilia. That's Thomas Aquinas, darling."

This runs for pages, sometimes, and it's usually brilliant.

Finally, neither Proust nor White is much interested in parody, mixed genres, or heterogeneity of form, but Joyce is--see Ulysses, passim--and...well, I mentioned that four-act blank verse monologue in the person of an English drag queen.



Monday, January 13, 2020

Nick Drnaso, _Sabrina_

I MENTIONED AT band practice that I was interested in this, what with its having made the Man Booker longlist and so on, and one of my bandmates mentioned  that he had picked it up recently. "It's good," he said, "dark."

Dark? I would say so. The title character we see only in the opening pages, interacting with her sister. The next thing we know, she has disappeared. Her boyfriend, Ted, at a loss for what to do, departs Chicago to stay with a friend in Colorado. The friend, Calvin, is in the Air Force, with some kind of IT responsibilities, and has room for Ted because his wife and daughter have moved out--the marriage is coming apart. While at Calvin's, Ted (and the nation) get the news that Sabrina was abducted and murdered by a young, psychotic loner. In a few days' time, the story gets picked up and spun into fantastical conspiratorial shapes by internet trolls and radio talk show hosts. Ted is rendered near catatonic by this development; Calvin is not much help.

The book is good, though, as well. It reminded me in many ways of the work of Chris Ware.

Like Ware, Drnaso is ingenious with panel design. Imagine a template of a rectangular page with six equal-sized squares in three rows of two apiece. Then, imagine two, three, or four of those panels turned into four smaller equal-sized squares. Then imagine how many different permutations of those patterns you could have. Thus, even though each page remains rectilinear, the design keeps changing, transforming within its regularity, varying the pace of the narrative.

Ware-like too is the book's muted palette--lots of brown and gray, with even the reds and blues leaning towards the sombre. Even the panels that represent pages in Calvin's daughter's book, with crowd scenes reminiscent of Where's Waldo?, seem subdued, dim.

Most Ware-like of all is that the characters often seem flat, as in not quite seeming to be in three-dimensional space, mere outlines, their facial expressions often just squiggles and a couple of dots for eyes, while the backgrounds have a draughtsman's precision, rigorous vanishing-point perspective, painstaking detail. It's as if the world these characters inhabit, the objects and spaces with which they live their lives, have a definiteness, a clarity, a purposiveness, a there-ness that they, the characters, grimly lack.

In Sabrina, the American male is, at best, adrift, emotionally tone-deaf, unavailable--at worst, a psychopathic killer. So, yes...dark.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Tyler Kepner, _K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches_

WHAT ARE THEY, you will want to know. They are: slider, fastball, curveball, knuckleball, splitter (a.k.a. split finger fastball), screwball, sinker, changeup, spitball, cutter (a.k.a. cut fastball).

Why this sequence? Unfortunately, it's not clear. The word "history" in the subtitle suggests the book has a kind of narrative or at least a chronological tendency, but it does not. It makes sense to end with the cutter, which came to its flourishing relatively recently with shoo-in Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, but why begin with the slider, which did not have its heyday until after W W II? Why is the penultimate chapter about a pitch that has been illegal since the 1920s? Why does the chapter on the splitter, most associated with Bruce Sutter, who pitched in the 70s and 80s, precede that on the screwball, most associated with Carl Hubbell, who pitched in the 30s?

The individual chapters likewise seem to have no particular structure. They have similar elements: an explanation of how the pitch is thrown and what it does when it is working; discussions of the careers of some of the pitchers who were famous for the pitch; interviews with living pitchers who were particularly successful with it. However, it is hard to get a sense of why Kepner presents the elements in the sequence he does. The juxtapositions and transitions often seem random.

However--if you are not really looking for a narrative arc, and if you do not particularly mind that the chapters have a patched-together quality, this is a dandy book. Kepner does a great job of describing the pitches, a very difficult thing to do--even Roger Angell sometimes wobbled in this area--and he is a talented interviewer, getting every subject to open up about his art. Even the pitchers who are not famous for having a lot of personality, like Sutter and Rivera, take on depth and dimension as Kepner talks with them. He brings in material from the longer-ago eras knowledgeably as well.

A great book for dipping into--but not a classic, methinks.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Colson Whitehead, _The Nickel Boys_

EVEN WHEN WHITEHEAD seems to be playing it straight, he has an ace up his sleeve.

As I was getting into this short novel, it seemed a timely response to Black Lives Matter/New Jim Crow issues around policing and incarceration, as well as a fiction-as-reportage look at the revelations about Florida's Dozier School for Boys. Praiseworthy, relevant, but a bit by-the-numbers. It's the mid-1960s. Elwood Curtis, young, gifted, black, and MLK-inspired, hitchhikes to his first day of college classes; the driver he accepts a ride from gets pulled over...and has pot in the glove compartment. The next thing Elwood knows, he is off to the Nickel Academy, the novel's version of the Dozier School, an inferno of exploitation and sadism.

Whitehead depicts life at Nickel and the relationships among the boys as swiftly and skillfully as he did life on the plantation in Underground Railroad. But remember when Cora and Caesar head for the Underground Railroad station and actually board a train? Whitehead is going to pull the tablecloth out from under the dishes here, too, a move he sets up with occasional flashes forward to Elwood's life as an adult in New York City, glimpses that create the feeling that, hey, Elwood had a traumatic experience, but at least he made it out, and seems to be having a good adult life...well, I shouldn't say any more. But then the last chapter whips the tablecloth off...or whips the rug out from under you, and you're suddenly mid-air over an abyss.

Whitehead's versatility is amazing. Every novel a new sort of a thing, and each of them a gem.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Ariel Schrag, _Part of It_

I READ A couple of the high school memoir volumes (Definition and Potential) years ago, but I had, I'm sorry to say, more or less forgotten about Schrag until I saw one of her pieces in Best American Comics 2018. She's better than ever--older and wiser, I suppose, but also much more  in control of her line and her narrative pacing.

Part of It is a collection of shorter pieces, created over several years. All of them are based on episodes from her own life, some from childhood and adolescence, some from her early 20s--thus, before or after the years covered in the high school books. Each was a delight; the blend of self-deprecating humor, candor, and insight is irresistible, especially when the drawing is as deft as it is here. But the longest, "My Trouble with Glasses" and "Kids' Korner," were my favorites--perhaps Schrag is just temperamentally most comfortable as a long-form documentarian.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Patrick Radden Keefe, _Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland_

IT MAY BE just coincidence that we've recently had two excellent books about the Troubles--Anna Burns's Milkman and this one--with Brexit looming and no telling what that will mean for relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Any revival of the old hostilities, both books make clear, would be a return trip to hell.

In his "Note on Sources," Keefe emphasizes that "this is not a history book but a work of narrative nonfiction." A work of history, he suggests, would provide more background about the conflict, (starting with Dermot and Dervorgilla?), or focus as much on the loyalist terror groups as on the IRA, or devote more space to politics. His book might well qualify as micro-history, though (e.g., Great Cat Massacre, Return of Martin Guerre): a close examination of a particular episode that opens up the sensibility of an era. Keefe has clearly logged historian-like amounts of archive time, for one thing. His sketches of the big picture are quick but skillful, and though he focuses on a particular event and just a handful of people, he makes the story seem emblematic.

The "nonfiction" label matters too, not just because "no dialogue or details have been invented or imagined," as he points out, but because this story would never pass muster as a novel. One of the main characters becomes in middle age a prominent national politician? Another marries a movie star? The man in charge of torturing and killing informers was himself a long-serving informer? No conscientious  novelist would permit him- or herself such naked contrivances. Yet, in this case, they all happen to be true.

The murder in the subtitle was that of Jean McConville, 38-year-old widowed mother of ten, who in late 1972 was abducted in front of her children by a masked IRA unit and never seen again. Her children, who suffer terribly from her loss, try to keep inquiry into her disappearance alive, but decades go by with no answers.

Alongside that story, we meet Dolours Price, a young IRA recruit who helps carry out the Bloody Friday bombings in London, Brendan Hughes, a legend within the Belfast IRA, and Gerry Adams, the man they both take orders from--also a man who ever after denied he was ever in the IRA. Price and Hughes are both imprisoned and both become hunger strikers. Once released, Price marries Stephen Rea (best known in the USA for his role in The Crying Game); Hughes, also released, becomes a lonely, haunted figure, not quite able to figure out what to do with himself. Adams becomes the leader of Sinn Fein and an M.P.

However, both Price and Hughes record their recollections for a Boston College oral history project on the Troubles. The recording are supposedly to be kept secret until after their deaths...but...well, you know how things can go. Do Price and Hughes turn out to have intimate acquaintance with what happened to Jean McConville? Do they implicate Gerry Adams?

The uncoiling of all that is the substance the final third of Keefe's book. It's an amazing story, just as a story, but it also brings home what Anna Burns wrote about in No Bones, and what is suggested by the word "memory" in the subtitle: trauma isn't over when the trauma ends. There is no leaving any of it behind.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Phoebe Gloeckner and Bill Kartalopoulos, eds., _Best American Comics 2018_

I KNOW, I know...a year behind. one does ones best to keep up, but...sigh.

As Ben Katchor's 2017 volume leaned a bit towards outsider art, Phoebe Gloeckner's leans towards the underground tradition of Zap! comics and its countless epigones. Casanova Frankenstein and Max Clotfelter in their abject confessional mode, Ted Stearns with his surreal take on old-school animal character comics, Chloë Perkis in sheer outrageousness, Gary Panter in his Gary-Panter-ness, all seem direct descendants of the Crumb-,led late sixties breakout.

Which makes perfect sense. The very first guest editor of this series, Harvey Pekar, came out of that scene, and Art Spiegelman, whose Maus was crucial to the achievement of the respectability signaled by the very existence of the series, was an old undergrounder.

The respectable end of comics gets a look-in in the volume as well--Julia Jacquette, Sarah Glidden, Joe Ollmann--and that's all well and good. But it's nice to see some of the old anarchic streak as well.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Andrea Long Chu, _Females_

BRIEF--JUST UNDER one hundred 7" x 4.5" pages--but provocative, hard to put down and hard (I expect) to forget. Certainly capable of starting a discussion, or several.

"Everyone is female," states the first sentence. That is, any of us, whatever our other gendered circumstances, will at least sometimes be subject to a "psychic operation in which the self is sacrificed to make room for the desires of another" (11). Accordingly, "Everyone is female, and everyone hates it" (11), "all women are. females, but not all females are women" (12), and "To be for women, imagined as full human beings, is always to be against females. In this sense, feminism opposes misogyny precisely as much as it always expresses it" (14).

Chu is just getting started. However, Females is by no means one of those manifestoes that piles one dry assertion atop another. Much of it turns on an analysis of Up Your Ass, a play by Valerie Solanas, she who shot Andy Warhol, and Chu's feminism is of the SCUM Manifesto variety--anarchic, ribald, outrageous, hilarious--rather than that of, say, Carol Gilligan.

(Judging from Chu's notes, the original manuscript of this play is held by the Andy Warhol Museum Archives in Pittsburgh. How did that happen?)

Chu is a trans woman; does that put her in a different relationship to the feminist tradition? I don't know. It may account. for why we seem to be both within and outside that tradition as we read Females. "Sissy porn did make me trans," Chu writes, and continues--

Wanting to be a woman was something that descended upon me, like a tongue of fire, or an infection--or a mental illness, if you believe the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, where gender dysphoria can be found sandwiched between frigidity and pyromania. The implication is obvious: No one in their right mind would want to be female.
   Which, remember is all of us.



Zadie Smith, _Grand Union_

SMITH PUBLISHED HER first novel in 2001, the better part of two decades ago, yet this is her first story collection--leading me to wonder, has she been writing short stories all that time, and is only now publishing them as a book, or is short-form fiction a later development for her? Of the nineteen stories herein, eight were published in periodicals, but none before 2013--a circumstance that inclines me to think "later development." I certainly liked the book, but I would say Smith is still getting the hang of short fiction.

Some of the stories have the virtues of her essays--that voice, with its blend of knowingness and humility, that over-the-coffee candor, that amazingly observant eye. Had "The Lazy River," "Words and Music," "Blocked," "For the King," and "Grand Union" appeared in Smith's last essay collection, they would have fit right in. They draw on her own circumstances (or seem to) in much the same way that her essays do, and given that she has an expansive idea of how essays can work, the dips into novelistic narrative techniques do little to cancel the essay-like feel.

The more obviously fictional fictions have a lot of the virtues of the novels: her knack for the way-we-live-now detail, the ear, the vivid sense of character. "Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets" might even become a classic, with its utterly Smith-ian curiosity about and attention to not only Miss Adele, the drag queen (and narrator) who desperately needs to replace a busted undergarment, but also the couple in whose store Miss Adele seeks the replacement.

As in many of the essays and in novels like Autograph Man and NW, we see Smith's fascination with and fiction's form, her willingness to change things up, make the bones visible--"Parents' Morning Epiphany," "Mood," "Kelso Deconstructed."

We also have some stabs at allegorical fable ("The Canker") that might just as well have stayed on the hard drive, I think, and "Escape from New York" (in which Michael Jackson narrates how he, Elizabeth Taylor, and Marlon Brando got out of New York after 9/11) is a promising conceit from which nothing much grows.

Not the book I would recommend to someone who has never read Zadie Smith, I guess. Still, she hasn't published a bad one yet.


Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Tom McCarthy, _Men in Space_

WRITTEN, OR MOSTLY written, apparently, before Remainder--seems more like a first novel than Remainder does, to me... wild diffuseness, firecracker wit, occasional brilliant flashes, somewhat like Broom of the System.

I started this a while ago; I read the first 60 pages or so in 2017. Then, I got cancer, stuff happened, yada yada, and I only happened to pick it up again last week. Finished it quickly--it's really good--but when I resumed reading I had completely forgotten who was who and what was afoot.

As far as one strand of the novel went, my inability to pick up the thread did not matter all that much. Men in Space is one more instance of that great emerging 21st century genre: young literary-minded westerner(s) on the loose in the former Soviet bloc. (My favorite: Caleb Crain's Necessary Errors. Silver to Garth Greenwell.) Much of Men in Space is set in Prague during the weeks towards the end of 1992 and the beginning of 1993 when Slovakia and the Czech Republic split. While one can, in reading these novels, make a point of remembering which character is which, that effort is dispensable, for the main event is always that the center is not holding and everyone is doing some painful growing up in public in the midst of a historical watershed. McCarthy gets high marks on this strand.

The novel's other strand, though, is a caper plot, involving the theft and forgery of a medieval Slavic icon painting. In such cases, recalling the setup from the opening pages helps a good deal. I never did figure out where the original authentic icon wound up, or quite recall the purpose of the forgeries. I found my own confusion no obstacle at all to enjoyment, however--in the first place because McCarthy somewhere picked up an awful lot of knowledge about painting and uses it well, in the second because McCarthy's sentences are constantly a pleasure.

Narrative point of view hops among a few characters, usually in close third person, but one is in the first person: an earnest but frazzled secret policeman who anticipates somewhat the narrator of Satin Island.

The title derives from a joke passed around among the characters about a cosmonaut who was a citizen of the USSR when we went up but citizen of an entirely new state when he came down. The ground beneath us can transform utterly while we are temporarily up in the air. And you can find yourself suddenly finishing a novel you began three years ago.