Loads of Learned Lumber

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, CĂ©line, 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

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.