Loads of Learned Lumber

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:

          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, Chloƫ 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.