Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Pat Barker, _The Silence of the Girls_; Margaret Atwood, _The Penelopiad_

REWORKING HOMERIC MATERIAL with the narrative devices of the modern realist novel (mobile point of view, greater interiority with the characters, more attention to the routines and habits of daily life) has almost become its own sub-genre. I might not have read either of these on my own initiative--both were selections for book clubs I belong to--but both were enjoyable and insightfuil. Both take advantage of Homer's having paid much less attention to the epics' female characters.

Atwood, as the title of her short novel suggests, is interested in what Penelope was up to during Odysseus' protracted absence, and what she made of the mysterious stranger who turned up at the palace one day and eventually revealed himself as Odysseus. Atwood's Penelope (and Homer's I think) spots Odysseus for who he is right away and has her own reasons for withholding recognition. Atwood also invents some good backstory about Penelope's and Odysseus' courtship and early marriage. Atwood's Penelope is also a little catty about Helen, but how could you not be?

The more audacious element of Atwood's novel is her giving voices to the twelve slave women of Odysseus' palace who, as punishment for getting too friendly with the squatting suitors, have to clean up the bloody mess after the massacre of the suitors and then are themselves hung from the rafters. The formal range and the tonal range of these sections are remarkable: some poems, some in dramatic form, with lots of sass, smarts, and reverse-angle revelations.

Barker's narrator is Briseis, the young woman given as a prize to Achilles, then commandeered by Agamemnon when he has to give up his own prize, Chryseis, to avert the plague sent by Apollo, Agamemnon's grab-back initiating Achilles' withdrawal from the war, which creates the plot of the Iliad.

Penelope appears often in the Odyssey, but Barker has decided to work basically from scratch: Briseis has no backstory at all, not even a scrap of dialogue. Barker decides she is of noble blood, with a talent for medicine, strong intelligence, and enough personality to intrigue first Patroclus, Achilles' bosom comrade, and then Achilles himself. Well, why not?

Barker is well-known for her trilogy on the trauma of the soldiers of the First World War, and The Silence of the Girls has a very similar focus on the catastrophic human costs of military glory.

Still, for my money, the best novel in this sub-genre is Mark Merlis's An Arrow's Flight.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Lisa Duggan, _Mean Girl: Ayn Rand and the Culture of Greed_

WE CERTAINLY NEED a short, smart book demystifying Ayn Rand...I'm not sure this is it, though. The title is extremely promising--witty and on target--but Mean Girl is somewhat less incisive (in my judgement) than the short chapters on Rand in Corey Robin's The Conservative Mind and Thomas Franks' Pity the Billionaire, while also being short on detail compared to Jennifer Burns's Goddess of the Market and Anne Heller's Ayn Rand and the World She Made. For a quick, discriminating analysis of Rand's thinking and her impact, I would recommend Robin or Frank; if you are ready for the full meal, both the Burns book and the Heller book are excellent.

As an example of what feels missing, consider pp. 80-86, on the damage done by neoliberalism. These are the book's most passionate, committed pages, but the explanation of what Rand has to do with neoliberalism feels thin. It seems to boil down to her influence on Alan Greenspan. Fair enough, but we could go further than that, surely.

I may not be the book's intended audience, though. Duggan (or her publisher?) included a "Glossary" in the back, which defines such terms as "Bolshevik Revolution" and "Fascism," and a list of "Key Figures" that explains who Friedrich Nietzsche and William Buckley are. So the book (which is part of a series, "American Studies Now") may be aimed at undergraduates. If so, that choice of title is all the better--Mean Girls is canonical for young women now in their twenties.

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.